Technology Takes Over; Reflections On I, Robot

The Human Condition series

Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole

It's the microwave's fault, of course. That hunk of steel and technology that warms my food every day just couldn't keep its mouth shut about it. I probably would have been content to allow the insidious creep of technology, which I help on its way, to slowly place me unwittingly into a subservient role, but for the piercing, unstoppable, "peep, peep, peep," of the microwave oven.

"Look out! The microwave is backing up again," I often exclaim as the microwave cries out, in a voice imitating a truck back-up warning, that it is done, done, done. You would think it had just prepared a 5-course gourmet meal.

My wife hates me. Any other person would just open the microwave, but no, I have to make an issue of it - usually plying some corny joke.

The joke soon bordered on compulsive behavior. It began as an attempt not to wake the babies - the grandchildren for whom we acquired the privilege of care assistance. Even though small children aren't that easy to awaken, there are times when you would prefer they remain horizontal and quiet.

The piercing, "Peep, peep, peep," runs counter to horizontal and quiet. It proclaims, "food and people," which are certain to rouse a half-sleeping child. So soon the game became, "stand by the microwave and jerk the door open at the instant it reached '0,' to stifle the scream.

I tried everything to get the peep turned off, but the obstinate microwave would not have it any other way. It was its privilege to proudly caterwaul that it had done its job. Drat!

It is interesting - threatening actually - how our lives get ordered by technology. Take baby monitors for example. When we raised our children, we (my wife) used her ears to listen for distress signals, while I slept obliviously. SIDs (sudden infant death syndrome) impressed people with the need for a heartbeat monitor. Happily, technology rose to the task... with a Trojan horse.

The monitor soon becomes a fixed part of the baby world. Two small children, two small monitors keep you alert to baby's every move... and that of every other baby on the North American continent on the same frequency, all night long. I soon learned we were living in a hive of baby producing families. I soon became oblivious to the noise. I usually do that.

Babies typically awaken, play, fuss, and then go back to sleep. If they really need attention, their siren cry can be heard throughout the house. I don't need to hear every little nuance. But baby monitors shape what we hear, and sometimes how we react.

On one hand, technology is a wonderful tool that keeps families more connected. We have a daughter that lives far away. We communicate frequently by phone and e-mail. It isn't as if distance separates us for years as it did in previous centuries. We stay close.

Technology also makes it possible for people who travel in their daily lives to coordinate with others to make activities and other things happen, that would be difficult or impossible if not for communications. It's wonderful. Technology also makes it possible to monitor young adults, and keep at hand an emergency channel of communications.

On the other hand, technology also enables such close monitoring that children and employees cease to evaluate situations and make their own decisions, so fail to grow.

I promote the use of technology, and have worked in many parts of the communications field, from technical to communicator, as well as using communications in various ways in various other fields. I enjoy this blend of technology and communications. For example, when cell phones first arrived - remember those heavy bricks? - I was one of the first managers to equip employees with them.

The days of traveling and being unable to find a working phone booth for endless miles were fresh on my mind. The days of having to talk to an angry customer in front of another customer (on their phone) were fresh on my mind. The days of having to spend hours or days to make contact with a manager or engineering to resolve a problem were fresh on my mind. The days when important emergency calls were not passed to me by customers, were fresh on my mind. The days of paying long distance charges for every call between suburbs were fresh on my mind. The days of freezing to death in an open phone kiosk were fresh on my mind. The cell phone was must have technology for my people.

As their leader, I neither had a cell phone nor made myself that easy to reach. For those who had not reached the point in their experience that they could make good decisions, I could be found easily enough - the office could reach me. For the rest, as they grew in experience they were given increasing latitude and opportunity to make their own decisions. They didn't always make the best decisions, but they learned to think for themselves and grew into good decision makers. They also couldn't use them while driving.

Upper management frowned down from their lofty perch at my actions, having no clue what hurdles peopled faced to do business, while demanding 20% annual increases. I was shot at sunrise for being efficient and practical. After all, other divisions were jealous of the "perk" and lusted after the devices, saying that, "We should have them first, and you shouldn't have them at all." The sound of office politics is, "Waaa." But once again I was oblivious to the baby noise going on around me.

There is great value in technology, but it seems to always carry a trap with it. When I see gabbing on cell phones by people in a car, I wonder if they are so "connected" to others that no separation between people is allowed. Technology gives us both good things and traps.

Dreams and stories are often projections of our hopes and fears. As a society, while we embrace the helping hand of technology, we also fear technological progress. It may get out of control and threaten humanity. Cloning, robots, computers - all things that we both love and fear.

I didn't have time to write a review on the excellent movie, I, Robot. The story was from a screenplay by Jeff Vintar, and contains strains of an old (relatively) Isaac Asimov tale which poses questions about the kinds of hazards technology might bring.*1 It is as if we fear that "perfection" in thought might consist of clear, logical decisions, unclouded by the morass of human emotions and experiences. Humans might become obsolete. The story insists that a human factor in decision-making is essential.

We already have examples of thinking machines taking over, and the picture isn't pretty. The takeover has not been through insurrection by the machines, but by their administrators - those people who delegate work and authority to them. When someone says to me, "The computer won't let us do that," I simply reply, "People make up the rules for computers." Computers become an excuse for not evaluating and deciding. Computers can be programmed to remove the human factor from decisions.

Is technology superior? In space exploration science fiction stories, when characters confront any supposedly ancient and advanced civilization, the story always finds these "superior" beings somehow deficient in some way in which humanity excels. Humans make decisions with "feeling" and on "moral and ethical" grounds.

Imperfection and values are always endorsed in science fiction stories as very important attributes, which are more valuable than other advanced technological attributes. Technology and advanced civilizations are not things to which humanity can become subservient.

Human beings, unlike technology, continually gain experience, assess it, and integrate it with previous experiences and values, continuously improving their responses to others.

Alas, the microwave oven: subtle, insidious, never changing, but changing the way we live, changing the way we respond, "Peep, peep, peep," serving us while making us a slave to technology. The incessant peeping of the lowly microwave seems never to materialize in any sci-fi movie.

I recognized the trend of technology forcing us to adapt, early on in telephone communication. Years before, I would call and let the phone ring eight times. Some people are simply slow to respond - their joints are stiff, they are watching TV or talking... The telephone is an uninvited intrusion into their lives. It presents a request to interrupt your life.

What if you are busy and don't want to be interrupted? Perhaps you are having a private moment, a family time, a meeting, a moment requiring intense concentration, a needed moment of recreation and relaxation. The telephone asserts a "right" to interrupt you. Someone who wants information, or wants to sell you something... barges into your life through the telephone.

We are a polite society. Somehow it seems rude not to answer the phone. To some, a ringing phone is a compulsion, a commandment, a prime directive. Rule number one: answer the phone. In this way, we become subservient to technology. Not subservient to each other - the call may be a wrong number - but subservient to the demands of technology.

The answering machine became a second step in the creep of technology toward dominance. For most of us it is wonderful that important messages can get through when we are indisposed. Unfortunately for some, it is simply a device to make it possible never to talk to anyone.

When calling business people, I try to follow an etiquette. Many in offices are busy first thing in the morning responding to the many needs of coworkers who are just arriving, and are putting their day together. Between 8 and 10 is a bad time to call unless you enjoy an endless game of telephone tag.

In the morning, calls are prioritized, and less important calls (or all calls) go to the answering machine. Less important calls get left in the dark recesses of the machine. Unless the never-ending list of "things to do" runs out, you never get a return call. I leave messages on answering machines less than a third of the time - I refuse to become a low priority by default. Years ago, secretaries prioritized calls, or they were simply answered. The answering machine changed how we respond to phone calls.

Answering machines also changed our response in another important way. They have a setting on them to answer after 3 to 5 rings. This affects two things. People who used to get to their phone on the eighth ring, now have to race to the phone or fight with the answering machine for voice rights. Second, those who are calling hang up after ring 4, or get confronted by an answering machine. Each time you call an answering machine, it is a long distance charge. Kaching! Kaching! Kaching! I have never yet asked an answering machine a question and gotten an answer - but I get charged.

We have become subservient to the demands of technology. Not of others - but of the limits of the setting selections on the answering machine. No matter how trivial or unwarranted the need, technology asserts the right to interject itself into our lives.

The cell phone presented another way for technology to encroach in our lives. We are now available to everyone, 24 hours a day, anywhere we go. Thankfully technology has also given us caller ID and voice mail to enable us to screen calls... that is if we don't mind paying more for them. For some reason each technological encroachment into our lives has a price tag attached for controlling it, or for not controlling it.

If you don't think technology encroaches in our lives, just try to turn off the peeper on your microwave. It will continue to loudly proclaim, "My rights, not yours." Superior we may be, but subservient we become, to the whims of technology designers. The fear is justified.

- Scott


1. I, Robot was developed by Twentieth Century Fox, with Alex Proyas, based on the screenplay Hardwired by Jeff Vintar, and using elements of an Isaac Asimov story, I, Robot. For more information, visit the I, Robot movie Web site.

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