Talking to the Future Humans is a column in which we speak to the people who have shaped, are shaping, or are trying to shape the future—or at least ideas about the future. It is the mindchild of Kevin Holmes, Managing Editor for The Creators Project.
Amber Case is like the Socrates of digital natives. She calls herself a cyborg anthropologist, which in human talk means she studies the relationship between man and machine.
Most of us walk around with small computers in our pockets. We’re able to access emails, talk to friends, and make with the mega-lulz whenever we wish. Because of this, Case considers us low-tech cyborgs, emotionally tied to our technology and digital networks whether we like to think so or not.
Our modern lives take place interacting with the human and non-human, using one as an interface to connect with the other. We're able to instantly access entertainment or friends via our smartphones and other devices. Just try spending a day not looking at Twitter or Facebook or going online. It's bloody hard. Case calls this phenomenon the “technosocial womb.” Her work concerns understanding this relationship, its evolution, and how it defines us and our culture.
To help us understand all this complexity Case has a new book out called An Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropolgy, so idiots like myself can look at the pretty pictures and try to grapple with the concepts she peers into the future and brings back for us to comprehend.
Here’s what she had to say about where we’re heading, augmented reality bullying, looking after your dead parents’ avatars, funerals for tape recorders, and her favorite fictional cyborg.
VICE: What would be the worst-case scenario if our digital tools consume our lives and we lose our ability to self-reflect—or, at least, sit in a room for 10 minutes without checking Facebook on our phones?
Amber Case: No matter what era of history we live in, there are always going to be people who don’t take time to self-reflect or build things. Some people like to consume, and a very small percentage like to create. I think the worst-case scenario is when the people who are intent on creating, and are naturally prone to create, get addicted to endless consumption, because consumption has been made so much easier than creation. I find myself falling into this trap easily.
Most of my day is now consuming. I’m addicted to interfaces and no longer look at a computer as a tool, but a source of fulfilling addictions. Repeatedly clicking the email button to check mail. Repeatedly checking Hacker News and Reddit and Twitter to see if any replies have come in. And if new items have come in, not replying but just clicking again and again.
Yeah, the clicking thing is worrying.
The psychology of persistently checking email again and again is called "intermittent reinforcement." It came out of Skinnerian experiments that found that rats that got irregular rewards from food-bar-pushing were far more driven to compulsively push the bar.
That's BF Skinner who studied behavioral patterns in living things, right? And you’re right, the clicking thing is a bit like food-bar-pushing. We’re essentially human rats hungry for digital snacks.
If all our email arrived in your mailbox once a day, we’d revolve around checking for mail once a day. Instead, email can appear at anytime, day or night. This intermittent reinforcement causes an increase in information addiction as people check their mail and social network inboxes more frequently.
We’ve created a monster.
Games can also contain compulsion loops revolving around virtual characters with intermittent actions and effects. The structure and obligations of Farmville are very similar to those of the Tamagotchi. Many mechanics involve caring for needy animals, crops, and plots of land.
We’ve become slack with what we consume, happy to chow down on figurative Big Macs (Bit Macs?) only to be hungry moments later.
The promise of fast food is that it requires minimal effort and time to order, receive, and consume. Instead of getting to grips with the info, we just take it. Humans have stomachs that tell them when they are full, but the human brain did not evolve with that feeling. One must be mindful of intake and the effect it has on one's mental processes. We evolved to have stomachs that told us when we were full, but we don’t have a good way for our brains to warn us that we’ve overloaded on information.
It’s like Christmas, but every day, and with information. And now our electronic devices are larger on the inside than they are on the outside.
Like Mary Poppin’s bag. Digital artifacts do not take up any physical space. This allows one to add more and more information to a hard drive, server, or device without it getting heavier. It takes less time to capture a piece of information and store it than it does to take that piece of information out, whether by printing, exchanging, reviewing, etc. This makes digital hoarding an increasingly common phenomenon.
I came across the term “affective computing” in your new book (the online version), which featured an idea about storing hugs in pillows. Is this the future we’ve got to look forward to?
What we're really seeing is that everything is a button away. We are mobile, and we need just-in-time information. In our mothers' wombs, all things came to us without us having to go anywhere. It is the same with the smartphone. Even though we move around in time and space, we can increasingly access social and entertainment sentience via a single device.
Technology is smothering us with its ubiquity.
Our devices and surroundings have become a sort of technosocial womb. Facebook's algorithm strives to keep information displayed relevant, and, if not relevant, interesting enough to browse through and click on. Twitter basically sets new users as default "socially opted out" until they gather content to follow. When they encounter something they don't like, they're free to drop them.
Do you think we can have emotional bonds with technology that rival, say, pets?
I know of people who are completely attached to their Roombas and treat them like their own pets. Professor Sherry Turkle put together a great collection of essays about this called the The Inner History of Devices. It talks about cell phones as representatives of long-distance relationships.
How about your own bonds with technology?
When I was six my tape recorder broke, so I gave it a funeral in the backyard. I learned about the death of an electronic device before I understood that organic life forms die as well. I had gerbils and they died, but I was more upset about the tape recorder. I had that thing with me every day. It was my personal time machine to save memories from my past self to my future self. When it died, I didn’t have that superpower anymore. My time machine was broken. Part of myself was missing. I still have the tapes.
What about the idea of the extended self that you talk about: Our online profiles and how technology affects our physiology whether we actively think it does or not? If someone makes a cruel remark on this blog post, I will cry salt tears.
When one enters a vehicle, their perception and sense of self automatically extends to the edges of the vehicle. The vehicle's edges are an extension of the self, and the vehicle itself is an extension of the foot.
In the same way that one’s ability to perceive the edges of a vehicle as the edges of one’s self, the online self extends one’s perception of the self. Commenting or “Liking” a post on someone’s Facebook wall likely stimulates the nerve endings for joy.
What are your thoughts on transhumanism and the idea that we’ll become completely digitized entities?
There’s a great podcast about this 40-year-old woman whose mom and dad move in with her and bug her all the time. It wouldn’t be so bad, normally, except her parents are divorced and dead, and they both downloaded their consciousness into an avatar bot that can move around. This bot does nothing except goes out at night and parties with all the other dead 80-year-olds.
But both her mom and dad can’t live in the avatar bot at the same time. They have a “timeshare” situation, where they struck a deal where the mother has the bot for 14 hours a day, and the father has the bot for 10 hours a day. In the middle of the day, they switch. So instead of their 40-year-old daughter living with parents that go to sleep at night, she has 24 hours of parents endlessly living, partying, and bickering about each other. It’s a great show.
Photo by Mark Colman
What are your thoughts on how augmented reality (the virtual extending into the physical) will mature over the next few years?
When you think of new technologies, it is always useful to think how it will be when you grow up with them. For instance, it will be interesting to see the new forms of bullying that come out of augmented reality. Imagine all the cruel jokes kids will play on each other through virtual “kick me” notes on each other’s back that only a certain group of friends can see?
I’d never really thought of it that way. AR bullying, that’s pretty grim.
Already there’s a lot of augmented reality bullying on Foursquare. A lot of teenage girls use it to leave mean notes as tips on venues they know their friends or enemies go to. When the target of their attack checks into the venue, they get the mean message. Instead of getting bullied only at school, the terror is able to float in context and invisibly attack the target, often without parents even understanding, having access, or knowing how it works.
Oh, the humanity.
As for augmented reality, I’m very interested in non-visual augmented reality, or the diminished reality. The augmented reality we see today is really a piece of shit. It’s tacky as hell and full of distracting colorful polygons that take forever to load. In some cases it may be interesting, like holding up a box of Legos to a webcam and seeing the model in 3D at a Lego store. Otherwise, most augmented reality interrupts and obscures reality instead of adding meaningful value to it. It gets in the way instead of informing. This pisses me off. And we’re going to have to get through this shitty augmented reality era before we can get to the good stuff. The invisible helpful information that can add interest and context to life.
Steve Mann's EyePhone
It is kind of gimmicky.
30 years ago wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann started minimizing television screens so that he could attach them to glasses and augment reality with them.
Mann proved that you don’t need a 3D world to get contextual usefulness and useful information. If you’re going to build some augmented reality app, you’d do well to read Mann’s work. It’s not about building some shitty flavor of the month pop-up concert augmented reality ad campaign—it’s about a person wearing a heads-up display that recognized advertisements around him and cancelled them out.
It’s about him wearing that display for years on end and the design of those systems that it takes to make them a comfortable part of your everyday life. It’s not about a parlor trick made of cheap polygons and some round-table pressure cooker agency buying into some QR-code robot vomit because they read about it in the margin of some industry magazine.
What’s your favorite fictional cyborg?
The Borg collective from Star Trek. When you first see them on the screen, they’re so fucking epic! They’re probably the best cyborgs in fiction. There’s the Terminator, too, of course. And Robocop. But the Borg really take the cake. The funny thing is that the Borg all look very inspired by Steve Mann’s Borg Group at MIT’s Media Lab (it’s what they called students and the research group there). For all intents and purposes, Mann’s technology came before Star Trek, meaning the Borg aren’t really so fictional after all.