I, Robot

I love gadgets. As a filmmaker and technology user I am always trying out new tools, or learning to do new things with old ones. The tech-review site, Engadget, is a source source of information and entertainment for me (and also a place to read book reviews). Yet, while I live a gadget-filled life, I have always been able to define where the gadget stopped and the person began. That is, until, Jaron Lanier blurred it.

In his manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, of which I have only read the first chapter (but will most definitely read the rest of them) he argues the importance of end-user/developer interaction throughout the entire evolution of a technology. He says this is key to preventing “lock-in”, or permanence, in a design. This dependency on locked-in systems mechanizes us (humans) and stifles innovation. It breeds obsolescence, fabricates creativity en-masse and has pre-destined future generations to an existence as button-pushing cogs in the machine.

Lanier issues a warning. He gives us advice in convenient bullet points for our Twitter-brains to ingest 140 characters at a time. And while I like to think that if we heed his warning it might not be too late for us, the fact that he needed to come up with a set of guidelines to preserve our human nature is disconcerting.

If our ancestors were to look upon us, how would we appear to them? As I sit here, forming strings of code with minimal physical effort, aided by a machine that can provide me no nutrient, comfort, safety, shelter or other bare necessity, I wonder if I am now more gadget than human. When I talk to myself in public, I put a piece of plastic to my ear to prove my sanity. When a giant, wheeled monster consumes me, it spits me out in a new location so that our relationship is mutual. Our eating, sleeping, and procreating have all been invaded by gadgetry to the point where it feels unnatural to be without it.

I am reminded of a story, called The Bicentennial Man (or just Bicentennial Man for those who prefer the movie to the book), where a machine becomes a person because it has obtained all the necessary physical human qualities. However, Lanier says there is no formula for making a human. The machine needed something more than just the physical pieces. It needed life. Not blood or oxygen or other life-giving substance, but a real life. A life story, with learned memories and experiences and emotions, things that gadgets can induce but never feel themselves.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe what separates the human from the inanimate, the living from the non, is our story. The story that we have been writing and telling since birth, since the dawn of man, since the beginning of time. Since intelligence, in whatever for it has existed, first became conscious, this story has been told with the purpose of continuing it. What better outlet, or creation, to perpetuate this story than man?

I say use gadgets. Use them to document our story, to create new things to remind us that we have not forgotten our original purpose. As long as the story of life continues to hold meaning humanity will prevail over gadgetry as the dominant creative expression of the universe, and there’s no App for that.

Dang, spoke to soon.

Artificial Intelligence is on the iPhone: http://www.future-apps.net/Amy_A.I./Amy_A.I..html

A good review of Lanier’s book: http://www.engadget.com/2010/07/13/book-review-you-are-not-a-gadget/

The movie, Bicentennial Man: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0182789/