When Roombas kill


Jenny Shank interviews me about The Glass Cage over at MediaShift. The conversation gets into some topics that haven’t been covered much elsewhere, including my suggestion that Roomba, the automated vacuum cleaner, provides an early and ever so slightly ominous example of robot morality (or lack thereof). “Roomba makes no distinction between a dust bunny and an insect,” I write in the book. “It gobbles both, indiscriminately. If a cricket crosses its path, the cricket gets sucked to its death. A lot of people, when vacuuming, will also run over the cricket. They place no value on a bug’s life, at least not when the bug is an intruder in their home. But other people will stop what they’re doing, pick up the cricket, carry it to the door, and set it loose. … When we set Roomba loose on a carpet, we cede to it the power to make moral choices on our behalf.”

Here’s the relevant bit from the interview:

Shank: “The Glass Cage” made explicit for me a number of problems with automation that I had been vaguely worried about. But one thing that I had never worried about until reading “The Glass Cage” was the morality of the Roomba. You write, “Roomba makes no distinction between a dust bunny and an insect.” Why is it so easy to overlook the fact, as I did, that when a Roomba vacuums indiscriminately, it’s following a moral code?

Carr: It’s easier not to think about it, frankly. The workings of automated machines often raise tricky moral questions. We tend to ignore those gray areas in order to enjoy the conveniences the machines provide without suffering any guilt. But I don’t think we’re going to be able to remain blind to the moral complexities raised by robots and other autonomous machines much longer. As soon as you allow robots, or software programs, to act freely in the world, they’re going to run up against ethically fraught situations and face hard choices that can’t be resolved through statistical models. That will be true of self-driving cars, self-flying drones, and battlefield robots, just as it’s already true, on a lesser scale, with automated vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers. We’re going to have to figure out how to give machines moral codes even if it’s not something we want to think about.


Image: Juliette Culver.


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Thinking, straight and crooked


Computers think straight. People think crookedly. Despite all the frustrations that come with thinking crookedly, we have it much better than our calculating kin. Thinking crookedly is more interesting, more rewarding, flat-out more fun than thinking straight. Emotion, pleasure, art, ingenuity, daring, wit, funkiness, love: pretty much everything good is a byproduct of crooked thinking. To think crookedly — to be conscious and self-aware and kind of fucked-up — is a harder feat by far than to think straight. That’s why it’s been fairly easy for us to get machines to think straight, while we still have no idea how to get them to think crookedly.

“Certainly if you had … an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off,” Sergey Brin once said. Certainly Sergey Brin was wrong. He was thinking too straight. The conscious human mind is buggy, impurely smart, and that’s its greatest feature.

Still, thinking straight, really straight, is a useful skill. After all, it provides a perfect complement to our own way of thinking. That’s why we made computers, and it’s why computers are so valuable in so many situations. For a crooked thinker, there’s nothing like being able to call on a straight thinker from time to time.

In an essay about artificial intelligence in Wired, Kevin Kelly makes an incisive point: for computers, consciousness would be a disaster — a bug-as-bug, not a bug-as-feature. What we want our AI aides to be, writes Kelly, are “nerdily autistic, supersmart specialists”:

In fact, this won’t really be intelligence, at least not as we’ve come to think of it. Indeed, intelligence may be a liability — especially if by “intelligence” we mean our peculiar self-awareness, all our frantic loops of introspection and messy currents of self-consciousness. We want our self-driving car to be inhumanly focused on the road, not obsessing over an argument it had with the garage. The synthetic Dr. Watson at our hospital should be maniacal in its work, never wondering whether it should have majored in English instead. As AIs develop, we might have to engineer ways to prevent consciousness in them.

All along, our all-too-human AI boffins have been pursuing the wrong goal. If the value of our computers lies in the complementary nature of their intelligence, the last thing we’d want to do is turn them into crooked thinkers like ourselves. Who wants a fucked-up computer?

Image: TempusVolat.


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Desperate scrapbookers


“In 1881, when Monte Grover, a Wyoming prostitute, pasted published poetry into her scrapbook, she followed a common practice of using clippings to construct an idealized life by isolating a set of values that she found around her. She preserved marks of her inner identity and her best self within a scrapbook. People today, more than a hundred years later, find their identities recorded and inscribed in bureaucratic files and data banks; their official human identities are found in X rays, birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and DNA samples. But a scrapbook represents a construction of identity outside these formalized and authoritative records. It is the self that guides the scissors and assembles the scraps.” —Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott and Patricia P. Buckler, The Scrapbook in American Life, 2006

It struck me, as I was scrolling through some guy’s Tumblr today, that the scrapbook has become our essential cultural form, the artifact that defines the time. Watching TV shows and films, reading books and articles, listening to songs: they all still have their places in our lives, sure. But it’s scrapbooking, particularly of the unbound, online variety, that consumes us. If we’re not arranging our own scraps, we’re rummaging through the scraps of others.

“Cut-and-paste”: the scrapbooking metaphor has long suffused our experience of computers. Now, the scrapbook is the interface. The cloud is our great shared scrapbook.

Pinterest makes its scrapbooky nature most explicit, but, really, all social networking platforms are scrapbooks: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Ello, YouTube, LinkedIn. Even the more basic communications media — email, texting, etc. — feel more and more scrappy, now that we don’t bother to delete the messages. (“It deepens like a coastal shelf,” wrote Philip Larkin, and indeed it does.) Blogs are scrapbooks. Medium’s a scrapbook. A tap of a Like button is nothing if not a quick scissoring.

Scrapbooking and data-mining are the yang and the yin of the web: light and dark, aboveground and underground, exposed and hidden. Today’s scrapbooks serve both as a counterweight to the bureaucratic file and as part of the file’s contents. The Eloi’s pastime is fodder for the Morlocks.

Inherently retrospective — a means of preemptively packaging the present as memory — the scrapbook is a melancholy form. Pressed insistently forward, we spend our time arranging the bits and pieces of our lives into something we think looks something like us. If the material scrapbook of old was familial and semiprivate, the new scrapbook is social and altogether public. It’s still a melancholy form, but now it’s an anxious one, too. It’s one thing to construct an idealized life, a “best self,” for your own consumption; it’s another thing to construct one for all to see.

“It appears, then, that scrapbook-making as a ritualized, order-inducing gesture is both an acknowledgement of and a response to the heightened sense of fragmentation which has attended the experience of modernity,” wrote Tamar Katriel and Thomas Farrell in their 1991 article “Scrapbooks as Cultural Texts.” They may be right. And maybe the appeal of the digital form of scrapbooking is that it’s all-encompassing and never-ending: as long as you’re arranging your fragments, you don’t have time to realize that they’re fragments. The lack of coherence just means that a piece is still missing.

Image: Wendi Dunlap.


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Smartphones are hot


The lightbulb, Marshall McLuhan wrote at the start of his 1964 book Understanding Media, is an example of a medium without content. Walk into a dark room and hit the light switch, and the bulb generates a new environment for you even though the bulb transmits no information. The idea of a medium without content is hard to grasp — it doesn’t make sense in the context of our assumptions about media — but it’s fundamental to understanding McLuhan’s contention that the medium is the message, i.e., that the medium creates an environment independent of the content or information it transmits.

So what are we to make of the smartphone, the medium of the moment, our portable environment? If, as McLuhan argued, the content of any new medium is an old medium, the content of the smartphone would seem to be all media: telephone, television, radio, cinema, printed book, electronic book, comic book, record, MP3, newspaper, magazine, letter, newsletter, email, telegraph, conversation, peep show, library, school, lecture, ATM, desktop, laptop, love note, medical record, rap sheet. Contentwise, the smartphone is Whitmanesque: it contains multitudes. The smartphone is what happens when the architecture of media collapses. It’s a black hole full of light: information supercompressed but radiant. In its singularity, it might be described as the first post-media medium. Its circuitry dissolves plurality; the media becomes the medium.

Bursting with information, the smartphone is, in McLuhan’s terms, a hot medium, maybe the hottest imaginable. It invades the sensorium of its user with an absolute imperialist zeal. Flooding the visual sense, it allows no signal but its own. To look into the screen of a smartphone is to be lost to the world. Like every hot medium, the smartphone isolates and fragments the self. It individualizes, alienates. Not only does it reverse what McLuhan described as the coolness of the aural phone, turning it into a superheated visual medium, but it reverses the entire re-tribalization pattern that McLuhan saw emerging from electric media. The smartphone out-de-tribalizes even the printed book. The smartphone’s “interactivity” is a ruse, for the only activity it allows is the activity it mediates. Its dominance precludes involvement and participation.

But that can’t be right. What does one do with a smartphone but participate — interact, converse, communicate, shop, create, get involved? Here we find the conundrum of the smartphone, the conundrum of our new artificial environment — and the conundrum that wraps around McLuhan’s hot/cool media dialectic.

In a 1967 essay, the critic Richard Kostelanetz wrote that McLuhan’s books “offer a cool experience in a hot medium.” The lo-def ambiguity of the writing fights against the hi-def clarity of the printed word; the information demands the reader’s involvement while the medium forbids it. It may be that the smartphone is of a similar nature, hot and cool at once (but never lukewarm). At the very least, one could say that the smartphone creates an environment that encourages participation at a distance: participation as performance. The smartphone re-tribalizes by putting us always on display, by eating away at our sense of the private self, but it de-tribalizes by isolating us in an abstract world, a world of our own. You hit the light switch, and the bulb comes on and you find yourself in an empty room full of people. To put it another way: participation is the content of the smartphone, and the content, as McLuhan wrote, is “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” The illusion of involvement conceals its absence. Here comes Walt Whitman, alone and isolated, dreaming dreams of connection, turning a barbaric yawp into silent words on a flat page.

Image: Erik Drost.


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