Saturday, May 21, 2011

Slaves of the Machine

I was fast walking a steep incline on the treadmill at the gym the other day and all around me are people BBMing, texting, tweeting, Facebooking, emailing, and sometimes talking on their mobile devices.  I thought, ‘this is Play Blocks With Letterscrazy, can’t people escape their devices for even an hour?’.  It occurred to me that perhaps people are becoming ‘slaves of their machines’ – they are becoming obsessed.

We often read about the decline in readership for magazines and newspapers.  People have moved over to reading on their machines.  TV viewers have become Internet viewers and participants, via their machines.  Entertainment has moved to becoming machine orchestrated through XBox, Kinect, PS3, Game Boy, World of Warcraft, and ‘apps’, etc..  We can’t travel without a Google or Bing map, a GPS, or a cell, er smart-phone (for safety of course).  We use stoves, ovens, microwave ovens, toasters, griddles, irons, washers, dryers, furnaces, freezers, drills, saws, coffee makers, computers, phones, and lawn mowers…  Wherever we go, machines are in our lives.

People invent machines to serve their/our needs.  I’ve written previously about the progression of interdependence leading to ever more useful inventions and how this has made us prosperous.  I’ve also written about the amazing complexity in our society.  Those societies that become interdependent, specialized, and complex create huge benefits for their citizens.  Machines are a very important part of these stories.  They serve our needs very well, make our lives richer, easier, more interesting, more comfortable, and more prosperous.

I wonder though if there there is a point where we start to cross some imaginary line where we slowly become slaves of our machines.  Machines appear to have an addictive power about them.  In a complex society, we honestly couldn’t live without them.  Their labors are hidden behind construction of our buildings and roads, distribution of our goods and food, distribution of our water, sewer, garbage, heating or cooling of our homes, etc.  Machines are pulling us into digital worlds – youtube, twitter, facebook, and texting.  Ask a typical middle school student who has a mobile device to not check their Facebook friends updates for a entire day and see willing they would be.

I often write about the exciting possibilities that technology creates for us.  Think about how medical science has developed and innovationimagine that happening without parallel, or in fact leading, work in information technology (IT).  IT drives lots of positive change in our society.  Imagine building a modern 50 story high-rise office tower without machines or IT – impossible.  The pyramids were created through human slave labor but our modern structures would not be possible without machine labor and IT.

As our machines become more sophisticated, more ‘intelligent’, and more essential to our lives, who will serve who?  When they become more like us, what then?

“Moreover, a recently created robot called CB2 or Child-robot with Biomimetic Body may follow moving objects with its eyes. File:HONDA ASIMO.jpgCB2 can dangle its legs, raise its shoulders and fall with rhythmic breathing.[2] CB2 may recognize the human touch, which is possible thanks to the 197 film-like pressure sensors that are placed under its rubbery skin. Asada, the team of engineers and brain specialists together with psychologists and many other specialists in the related domain created a CB2 that may record emotional expressions, memorize them and then match them with physical sensations.”, Wikipedia Japanese Robots

I think it is important to think about the future of our relationship with machines and how that will evolve.  Schools and homes are great places for conversations about the pervasiveness of machines and how to ensure we find the right balance between dependent iStock_000005861579XSmallon and being slaves of our machines.  Our education system should prepare children to think about, plan for, and shape the future.  The future is a maze through time that we have some power to predetermine the outcome of.  But we need a futuristic curriculum that anticipates the impacts and possibilities of IT accelerated changes in our world.  Hopefully in BC the ‘personalized learning’ agenda will get us there.