Longreads is today featuring an excerpt from The Glass Cage. It’s a piece taken from the second to last chapter, “Your Inner Drone,” which examines the ethical and political implications of the spread of automation from factory production to everyday life.
Back in the 1990s, just as the dot-com bubble was beginning to inflate, there was much excited talk about “ubiquitous computing.” Soon, pundits assured us, microchips would be everywhere — embedded in factory machinery and warehouse shelving, affixed to the walls of offices and homes, installed in consumer goods and stitched into clothing, even swimming around in our bodies. Equipped with sensors and transceivers, the tiny computers would measure every variable imaginable, from metal fatigue to soil temperature to blood sugar, and they’d send their readings, via the internet, to data-processing centers, where bigger computers would crunch the numbers and output instructions for keeping everything in spec and in sync. Computing would be pervasive. Our lives would be automated.
One of the main sources of the hype was Xerox PARC, the fabled Silicon Valley research lab where Steve Jobs found the inspiration for the Macintosh. PARC’s engineers and information scientists published a series of papers portraying a future in which computers would be so deeply woven into “the fabric of everyday life” that they’d be “indistinguishable from it.” We would no longer even notice all the computations going on around us. We’d be so saturated with data, so catered to by software, that, instead of experiencing the anxiety of information overload, we’d feel “encalmed.” It sounded idyllic.
The excitement about ubiquitous computing proved premature. The technology of the 1990s was not up to making the world machine-readable, and after the dot-com crash, investors were in no mood to bankroll the installation of expensive microchips and sensors everywhere. But much has changed in the succeeding fifteen years. …
Image: detail from John William Waterhouse’s “Consulting the Oracle.”