Sunday, June 7, 2015

Technology: Friend or Foe? (Ironically from a Google blog)

If you've been watching HBO's Silicone Valley, or even Veep, you've seen just how far software giants' heads are planted up their own ass holes. To put it more diplomatically, for all the useful interfaces and gadgets they provide us with, countless R&D is invested in technologies that prove just how out of touch the Silicone Valley is with the rest of the planet. So out of touch, in fact, that a Stanford lecturer on the subject, Balaji Srinivasan suggested secession from the United States.

Don't let their hip campuses, nap rooms, and socially liberal ideologies fool you. Companies like Google and Apple are every bit as Red as the Reddest, steak chomping oil company.

While advances in technology look good on paper (or in the Cloud), many of which make daily life simpler, information technology is not an altruistic industry. Try to imagine a world before the internet, before cell phones, a world not long ago. Impossible, right? We need these technologies. Silicone Valley has convinced the world that the era before the internet - let's call it "B.I." - was an archaic one akin to a time before automobiles and vaccinations. And in a way it is, because the sycophants lining up for the next iPhone can't imagine life without 4G tethered to their wrist.

I'll tell you what it was like: We made plans. Relationships didn't end via text message. And we knew how to drive with three pedals. And that's where this rant is leading me.

Google's driverless car.

There was a time when no one dared enter the American car industry without a fear of being hostilely taken over, indicted, or dead. Tesla Motors, and the Big Three's engineered incompetence, changed the face of that industry. 

Let's get the superficial out of the way first. Google's driverless car looks like a castrated Disney cartoon, which shouldn't be possible. I don't know what it is with tech-savvy car buyers and their affinity for vehicular eunuchs, but I'd be more inclined to get behind the wheel of a hybrid if every model didn't make it look like my testicles had retreated up inside my body. Don't get me wrong, I'm a tree-hugging liberal, but when it comes to my cars, I'm red meat and scotch. 

But the Google-mobile isn't just ugly, it's disconnected with its market, and even its purpose. It's one thing to relax behind the dashboard of a virtual chauffeur on Interstate 5 or the wide lanes of suburban San Francisco, but try to imagine Google maps navigating the small streets of Philadelphia, New Orleans, or London. Sure, the technology is still being perfected, and in all likelihood, will be. The bigger question is, why?

Is driving such a chore? Maybe to some, but to others it's a privilege and a thrill. When Porsche perfected the automatic transmission and did away with its manual gearbox, they learned that the world's most sought after performance machine was no longer so sought after, and quickly introduced an optional seven-speed. Automotive purists want to be engaged, and there are a lot of us. And nothing is less engaging than a car that drives itself. 

In some capacity, Google's driverless car is going to happen, that's a fact. What remains to be seen is its impact on our ability, even our right, to drive ourselves. Like the automatic transmission, will satellite GPS and remote driving become so perfected that it renders human error a liability. Technology is already encroaching on the manual driving experience through rearview cameras, alerts, and even Progressive's interface that tracks your every move to offer discounts for safe driving. I drove a car last weekend with the technology installed, and Flo screamed at me every time I hit the breaks or made a sharp Ponono turn. A noble endeavor on paper, but when will in-cabin driver surveillance be mandatory? And when will insurance companies not use that data to offer discounts, but to increase rates?

At the end of the day, the automobile is only 140 years old, and a practical one is less than 100. A shift was inevitable, and the inevitability would inevitably come from the Silicone Valley.  But the key point remains: this new technology is not about improving the quality of life, our personal enjoyment, or basic need, but rather fabricating a need that doesn't exist to make us ever more reliant on the technology coming off the Digital Coast. 

Technology - whether it's the telegraph or the internet - is intrinsically fascinating to the human mind, which puts its heads in an extremely opportunistic position. Today it's a modest, driverless car, but tomorrow it will be a visual search engine that can find every awful photograph of you that's ever ended up on the internet. Technology is our friend until it isn't. The car rendered the train useless by the 1960s and smartphones killed conversation in the early 21st Century. What fallout awaits the next great leap in technology?

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