Living with digital

Taken from Beleg van Poitiers by Frans Hogenberg (1569)
Taken from Beleg van Poitiers by Frans Hogenberg (1569)

Some technological inventions can slip easily into our lives. Others, either immediately or eventually, become hard to live with. Given our contemporary and future constraints, how well will the current crop of digital-era technologies fare?

The microwave oven has low life-integration requirements. You don’t need to remodel your kitchen to accommodate one; you can just place it on the side and it’s at the right height to use. Although what it does is mysterious, it lights up like a regular oven and shows you what’s going on inside. You can be reassured that you can just spring open the door if need be. This level of reassurance from an appliance should not be underestimated.

By contrast, the motor vehicle totally changed the built environment, and not for the better. Cars and trucks don’t mix well with cyclists and pedestrians. Many cities have lines, fences and walls to keep them apart. While some places are made car-free for the betterment of others, far more places are car-only. Cars have changed not only how we travel but how and where we build homes. And cars need to be placed out of the way for the 96% of the time they’re not being used. Worst of all, if we wanted to stop using them, we likely couldn’t.

There are two observable patterns. One concerns the extent to which a particular technology remains coexistable over time. The other is our own awareness of factors that make those technologies more or less coexistable. We are now generally more alert to the fact that things that emit high amounts of carbon—concrete, steel, hamburgers, golf-courses, holidays, signals of wealth—are not as easy to live with as we might have assumed.

When considering new technologies, I can’t help but have coexistence in mind. For example, technological replacements for cash may have security and portability benefits, but come at a significant carbon cost as well as excluding a proportion of the population. A society going cashless is not a microwave oven, since microwaves didn’t need everyone in your neighbourhood to own them before yours worked.

The digital era has developed a taste for technologies that thrive on the network effect; where a large user-base is beneficial to each user or, more poignantly, a small user-base is detrimental. Social media—the productisation of interpersonal relationships—made a fantastic amount of money for its key founders, and this must be a strong incentive for others also to develop products with network effects.

But, many internet-era technologies can also be identified by how hard it is to coexist with them. Their manufacturing costs, in human and planetary terms, are too high. Their operation, in social, political, economic and environmental terms, is too expensive. Their disposal, in any terms you like, is too wasteful. A microwave oven is all these things too, but our standard of coexistence was lower at the point of its invention.

Cobots—collaborative robots—represent the pinnacle of robotic achievement. Humanoid machines that can work along side us without breaking our limbs have been depicted in art and fiction for centuries. Technologies do exist, but cobots are not commonplace even though, one might imagine, they would revolutionise the home and working environment. The reason is because coexistence is fantastically complex, and robotics people keep learning this the hard way.

Sergey Smagin, vice-president of the Russian Chess Federation, told Baza the robot appeared to pounce after it took one of the boy’s pieces. Rather than waiting for the machine to complete its move, the boy opted for a quick riposte, he said.

“There are certain safety rules and the child, apparently, violated them. When he made his move, he did not realise he first had to wait,” Smagin said. “This is an extremely rare case, the first I can recall,” he added.

Lazarev had a different account, saying the child had “made a move, and after that we need to give time for the robot to answer, but the boy hurried and the robot grabbed him”. Either way, he said, the robot’s suppliers were “going to have to think again”.

There’s a lag between our standards of coexistence increasing, and technologies raising their bar. Autonomous vehicles are even more hostile pedestrians and cyclists, while also carrying over the high carbon-cost of that which went before. No matter how you fuel them, motor vehicles are high emitters because of how they’re made and how long they last: autonomy does nothing to ease this.

By extension, any technology that compounds previous oversights of long-term coexistence—cryptobullshit being a prime example—will inevitably fail. If we can’t live with it, we can live without.

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