Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Human-Machine Boundary

I recently had this rather strange revelation: my mom is slowly turning into the Bionic Woman. About a month ago she underwent cataract surgery, a procedure that replaces the natural lenses in her eye with artificial ones. Her natural lenses had developed cataracts, essentially spots where the lens loses its transparency, which resulted in her vision becoming cloudy. The artificial lenses implanted by the surgeon not only corrected the cloudiness, they also corrected her vision for the most part. The new lenses were made with the same corrective curvature as the lenses in the glasses she had worn for most of her life. So she pretty much has bionic eyes now.

Well, OK, maybe they aren’t quite as cool as Steve Austin’s super-telescopic eyes in the Six Million Dollar Man, but they are a step in that direction. In the future, it might be possible for those artificial lenses to have additional features, like zooming, automatic shading in bright environments, or the ability to project text and graphics over the field of vision. When they do develop such things, people might not want to wait until they develop cataracts before they get their lenses replaced. Perhaps it will become just a standard corporeal upgrade, like getting braces to straighten your teeth, or plastic surgery to reshape some part of your body.

Interestingly, the ability to project text and graphics over the field of vision is already being worked on. Researchers at the University of Washington and Aalto University in Finland have developed a prototype contact lens, controlled by a wireless signal, that can project a single pixel into the eye. A single pixel might not sound terribly impressive, but it is an important proof of concept—it will likely be only a matter of time before they develop the techniques necessary to project enough pixels to fill your field of vision with relevant textual and graphical information. Imagine having a person’s name and relevant life details automatically appear next to his or her head when you meet them; or having the kind of information displayed today on your GPS navigation system’s screen merged with your view of the actual road.

Does this sound frightening to you, or at least a bit disturbing? Perhaps it should. But then again, haven’t we slowly been moving towards this sort of thing for a long time now? After all, what is the difference between wearing eye glasses, and replacing one’s natural eye lenses with artificial ones? In both cases, we are employing a bit of technology to correct someone’s eyesight. The former is worn while the latter is surgically implanted, but is that a difference of kind, or only of degree?

There are of course other kinds of bodily problems that we’ve been addressing for some time with surgically-implanted devices: artificial limbs and joints restore mobility; implants in the ear enable hearing again; stents reopen blocked arteries; pacemakers keep hearts beating at a normal rate; and in extreme cases like Dick Cheney, surgeons have implanted mechanical pumps to circulate the blood instead of relying on the patient’s beating heart muscle. In each of these cases, a bit of technology is added to the human body in order to correct a problem or flaw, blurring the boundary between human and machine.

One distinction we could try to draw here is between implanted devices that correct a problem, and those that would enhance what would be considered “normal” human ability. Today’s artificial lenses correct cataracts and myopia, but if those same lenses gained some super-human features, we could say that they enhance normal human eyesight. But even that distinction can be a bit fuzzy. If we were to acknowledge that it is “normal” for human eyesight to get worse with age, then even today’s artificial lenses could be considered an “enhancement.”

Another interesting case is that of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter who has flexible carbon-fiber blades for legs. He was initially disqualified from the 2008 Olympics because the committee felt that his springy artificial legs gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes. Although this decision was later overturned, it demonstrates the difficulty of drawing a clean distinction between “correction” and “enhancement.”

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that able-bodied sprinters will soon elect to replace their own human legs with artificial ones, but there is a distinct possibility that in the future, people will choose to receive other kinds of surgical implants that are designed solely to enhance their abilities to super-human levels. Essentially, you might get the chance to become the bionic man or woman…without the need for that tragic test flight or parachute accident.

So if researchers were able to develop these kinds of super-human bodily enhancements, would you be interested? Which kinds of things would you entertain, and which would you rule out? Or would you be opposed to anything beyond corrective devices as a matter of principle?

Better Off

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live without electricity? We’ve all had a taste of that when the power goes out temporarily, but imagine living day-to-day without electricity, as well as all those things in your life that rely on a steady supply of it: computers, televisions, game consoles, telephones, lights, refrigerators, clothes washers and dryers, fans, dishwashers, air-conditioners, thermostat-controlled furnaces, etc. What would your life be like? Would you have more or less time for leisure? And in the end, would you be happier?

This is what Eric Brende set out to discover for himself when he left his graduate school life at MIT and moved with his new wife to an agricultural community in the American heartland that even the Amish consider antiquated. The inhabitants of this community (who he dubs the “Minimites” due to their Mennonite religious tradition and minimal use of technology) practice a subsistance-farming lifestyle without the use of electricity or motors of any kind.

Brende and his wife lived with the Minimites for eighteen months, and he chronicles his experiences, as well as his more general thoughts on technology and culture, in his book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Despite the absolute-sounding subtitle, neither Brende nor the Minimites reject technology altogether; as I have argued in previous posts, that would be impossible unless you artificially limit the definition of the word ‘technology’ to some arbitrary subset of devices. Instead, Brende set out to discover just how much technology was really needed to live a healthy and happy life. Ultimately, he wanted to discover “a balance between too much machinery and too little,” and a method for finding that balance in whatever circumstances he found himself in the future.

Throughout his adolescence, Brende had become increasingly disenchanted with modern technology, noting that many devices seemed to create more work than they actually saved. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan observed in her book More Work for Mother, so called “labor-saving” domestic appliances introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries often had the opposite effect; after adopting them, consumers typically found that they had even more work and less leisure time than before. For example, cast-iron stoves required more frequent cleaning and care than open-hearth fireplace cookware, and the new possibilities afforded by their separate ovens and cooking surfaces tended to raise expectations about the complexity of meals. Automatic clothes washers and dryers promised to reduce the burden of laundry, but the easy washing of cheap and plentiful cotton textiles just encouraged people to buy more pieces of clothing and wash them more frequently. In the end, we have lots of “labor-saving” and “time-saving” devices, but we seem to have more work and less time than ever before.

Brende observed this phenomenon himself as a teenager when he calculated out how much it would cost to buy and maintain the car he felt was necessary to get him to and from his minimum-wage job located on the other side of Topeka. He discovered that most of his earnings would be quickly consumed by his mode of transportation, leading to the disturbing conclusion that he was essentially working to pay for the machine necessary to get him to work. In many ways, it seemed like he was serving the car more than the car was serving him.

Brende’s description of his experiences amongst the Minimites is surprisingly frank, and typically devoid of naive Romanticism. Although there are times when he seems to gloss over what must have been truly arduous and monotonous work, he is also careful to describe in detail just how difficult and primitive this kind of lifestyle really is. He notes that it was especially difficult for him primarily because he did not grow up in it, and thus lacked the critical “know-how” that makes many tasks far easier. He relates how the men and young boys of the community often observed his herculean efforts at farming with a smirk, later explaining to him how the application of a simple technique, or use of a cleverly-designed tool, would produce the same results with far less work.

Stories like these highlight that the Minimites are not really averse to technology in principle; they are just exceedingly careful about adopting new technologies that might affect the community in ways that would undermine their social values. They use a wide array of tools and simple machines, and they often conduct controlled experiments with new technologies they are considering adopting. In other words, they are not anti-technological; they are just extremely reflective and purposeful about the kinds of devices they choose to adopt or reject.

During his eighteen months, Brende makes a number of observations, but the one that I found most interesting had to do with time. Subsistance farming requires daily work, but Brende noticed that this work actually accomplishes three things at the same time: the chore itself; the physical exercise that resulted from it; and the building of relationships with family and neighbors who labored alongside. In the typical urban lifestyle, we go to work in an office building to earn the money we need, then go to the gym to “work out” since our office job is not physically demanding, and then come home to spend a few hours of “quality time” with our families. Because we separate these activities into a linear progression, we end up with far less time than if they were merged together, as they typically were in a pre-Industrial lifestyle.

Of course, the Minimite community is not without its flaws, and Brende does not shy away from pointing them out, though he does so in a respectful manner. Families are ruled by authoritarian patriarchs. Gender roles are strictly enforced, and children’s interactions with the opposite sex are highly controlled. They believe that their church is the only true church, but it still suffers from the same kind of politics every church does. Not everyone in the community is really happy, and some choose to leave it during Brende’s stay.

Nevertheless, Brende’s description of the Minimite community is highly compelling, and he does a fantastic job of helping the reader imagine what it would be like to live with far less technology. Although you may not agree with conclusions, nor want to attempt a similar kind of experiment, you will find that it is difficult to just ignore or dismiss what he says. The value of this book is that it sparks your imagination, and forces you to reflect upon your own relationship with the technologies in your life.

I actually assign this book in my World History course, and I’ve noticed that my students tend to react to it in one of three ways. Some find the idea of such an experiment highly compelling, and are eager to try something like it in the future. Others are not interested in taking that deep of a plunge, but find that the book helps them better reflect on their own use of technology. But the final few have a highly-visceral negative reaction to the book, and proceed to critique it by pointing out the inconsistencies of the experiment, or the supposed naiveté of the author.

I find this last reaction to be the most intriguing. I suspect that their reaction has more to do with a subconscious feeling of being judged for their enjoyment of modern technology than any real substantive critique. Brende never claims that the Minimite lifestyle is consistent, nor that it is ideal—Brende’s mission was to find balance and a method he could use to achieve it regardless of the circumstances he encountered in the future. The Brendes also left the community at the end of the experiment and now live a more technology-filled life, albeit one that utilizes far less technology than the average American. Although he can sometimes come across in the book as overly prescriptive, I don’t think he desires to judge those who have found a way to have a healthy relationship with modern technology. Instead, he desires that everyone do the hard work of determining the minimal amount of technology they need in order to live a healthy and happy life.

So does this kind of experiment sound compelling to you?