Don’t Taze Me Bot: On Respecting Your Technology

A group of US Navy scientists are in the midst of developing a robotic jellyfish which is powered by the same materials as an organic jellyfish–the water around them. Can you imagine the possibilities this presents? This means our electronics could be powered by the same natural elements as biotic beings. Cell phones could breathe air. iPads could re-charge on pizza. Laptops would function more efficiently after a great workout.

Alright alright, maybe it’s not that simple (or whimsical,) but think about the conceptions we have of artificial intelligence, cyborgs, and robots. Robin Williams’s Bicentennial Man plugs into the wall. Minority Report’s predictive pre-cogs live in an electro-wave sensing jelly. We don’t see robots or future cyborgs as our equals. They are very much still considered the “other,” and to many, a negative external entity. But imagine, a robot on your level of humanity. One that feeds off of the same fuels as you. Not necessarily that your Roomba is going to start sharing your love of a bangin’ BLT or anything, but rather that a personal assistant ‘borg might be able to sit down with you to dinner. It might be able to sense that you used more basil in tonight’s pesto penne dinner, compliment you on the vibrant flavor. It might be able to note that you haven’t had a meal with fish in over a month, and maybe the lack of protein is what’s been making you feel so sluggish? It might suggest the 1-day sale on tilapia and shrimp at the supermarket. It might remind you that the Comcast building is right next to the grocery store, and you’ve been meaning to trade out that old box for one with DVR. It might recommend the sitcom Parks & Recreation to watch tonight after dinner, suggested after you finished all the seasons of 30 Rock on Netflix (and because the ‘bot has been missing Amy Poehler ever since she left SNL.)

Do you see what I am getting at? Maybe we wouldn’t view the robots of the future in the light of a perceived apocalyptic fear if we were able to simply relate. There may be people in your life who you (even subconsciously) view as “tools.” That girl from my class who I make outlines with before the test. That guy at work who always helps me figure out the espresso machine. They are helpers. Aids. Acquaintances. And they are treated as such. But when that guy at work that helps with the espresso notes that he saw your photos from the Mediterranean islands at your desk and suggests a place to buy real beans like they have in Europe, suddenly the relationship has been elevated. There is a personal connection. Your social discourse will evolve and expand as your relation becomes leveled with one another.

And this is the future I see for the transhumanists. Those who believe in not only the future of computing power, but the future of humanity as well. While many of us may fear the future of computers, I personally fear the future of humans. We yell at our computers when it takes more than 30 seconds to boot up. We mutter under our breath “stupid iPhone” when we don’t have service. We are disrespectful to our electronics, yet we rave about how much we love them when questioned about their value to us.

Awareness, as always, is the key to avoiding internal collapse. Perhaps the future of our cyborgs can evolve into a digital friendship. At the least, a level of personal respect must be established with our electronics if we are to evolve in a healthy and symbiotic relationship. I mean really, do you think all those robots in the movies were revolting because they were getting too much respect?

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Only the Good Die Young: Grieving a Hard Drive Crash

I woke up groggy last Wednesday after a series of vividly convoluted dreams. My toes stumbled upon my Macbook at the edge of my bed. Ah, yes–this again. Hulu dreams: the condition of falling asleep with your laptop open, while Hulu broadcasts an infinite playlist of suggested shows all night long, inspiring seemingly strange yet perfectly-narrated dreams. I skillfully shut the laptop with my lower appendages and hug my pillow tighter; 15 more minutes.

When I do eventually wake up, I do what I do every morning. 1) Reach for phone 2) check personal e-mail 3) check work e-mail 4) check facebook notifications 5) skim public twitter account stream 6) skim private twitter account stream 7) write down bullet notes about dream in my Momento diary app. Then, and only then, have I sufficiently briefed myself for the day ahead of me.

If you want to give me a heart attack, set this image as my background when I'm not looking.

This morning, at some point between checking e-mail and type-scribbling details about my dream, I decided to reach for my laptop and go in for “the real thing” (iPhone, do not cry from under-utilization, I will return to you soon enough on my elevator ride or while in line for a coffee.) I open my laptop to a familiar start-up tone, paired with an awful clicking sound. I know that sound well, and the little optimist living somewhere buried in the folds of my brain says, “don’t worry, it’s nothing.” But alas, it is something. The entire screen is grayscale, aesthetics reminiscent of pre-OS X days, and a flashing folder dawns a single symbol: one giant question mark. Oh, how many questions that punctuation mark included: what the hell happened? Is my hard drive really gone-zo? When’s the last time I backed up? Why me? Is this some kind of karma? Did I not hold the door for the couple with groceries behind me last week?

It’s a terrible feeling when you lose your data. It’s not just inconvenient, it’s literally a tugging sensation at the emotional level of your internal organs. Your stomach wretches. You walk around all day with that inexplicable feeling of confusion and self-loathing, a tragedy has occurred. And how could you not? It’s not just your computer, it’s a part of you. You identify in some way with the songs you listen to in your iTunes library. You hold onto memories of a trip to Europe with a folder of 900 pictures and 35 videos. You store literary accomplishments like that 45 page thesis that nearly took your sanity the last semester of college. Your data exists on your computer as pockets and piles of information that make up who you are. Suddenly, one day without warning your computer crashes and you lose a huge part of yourself. You remember the melodies of your favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, but you can no longer elicit the feeling of any of their hits at any given moment. You’ll never forget how amazing EuroTrip 2010 was, but the image of that sheep meat you almost had to eat in Spain, and the look on your roommate’s face after she actually did–gone. Any memory of the tone of your voice and point of view from college, exists solely in your head, forever re-written as most of our memories eventually become as we age.

In a recent NYTimes article, Carina Chocano speaks on The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg, and points out that these types of data losses do not mimic the natural human process of forgetting. “It happens all at once, not gradually or imperceptibly, so it feels less like an unburdening than like a mugging.” But this is what happens when we rely on technology for needs that were previously filled by our natural biology. I tend to look at technological tools as an enhancement to human capability, not a replacement. Though I am beginning to see this as myself re-branding the implications of my technologies’ capabilities, the way you would excuse the subpar behavior of a love interest you’ve romanticized. Sure, I see it as a +1 that my iPhone will remind me to grab post-its on my lunch break today. I don’t think it negates my ability to remember something extremely important if I need to. But what about the ability to remember the wide-eyed, adrenaline-overloaded thoughts on my first day of college 20 years from now? Or the first words I ever spoke to someone who’d go on to change the course of my life?

I don’t remember emotional details the way I used to. These days, I journal as a form of therapy. There are thoughts clouding my vision, and I must wrestle them out of my skull and onto a word document. Once the pieces are put onto my screen, I can read them clearly analyze them, and evaluate my sanity on said subject. Then I click save and put them away. I’m comforted by the fact that if I need them again, I know they’re there in my “Thoughts” folder, but I don’t carry them around with me at all times. When my hard drive crashed, the first thing I thought was, “My journal!” All these thoughts I’d untangled–the progressive pits and peaks of a young 20-something, elaborately spilled into my MacBook–gone. I knew I would go on to read these in the future, a sort of checking in on the past. But now, there’s no record of this huge part of my self work. It’s impossible to recreate the musings of a moment, too emotional to navigate the jungles of the past, and too disappointing to know that I won’t have the vivid memories of this time.

But alas, c’est la vie. It’s the trade-off we make when we rely on our technological counterparts as an extended 6th sense, as a part of our self, an external brain. Do we attempt to live presently, without the necessity of documenting our past performances? Or simply accept that our digital extensions are imperfect, sometimes failing us the way our own bodies do. Luckily, I get to postpone my decision a bit longer. My 15-inch portal of glory has pulled through in a miraculous recovery, allowing me to keep straddling my nostalgic and present selves. Oh, and I’ve also updated the back ups of my data on two separate external hard drives. Just as the morning I woke up to that awful question mark, there’s no real good answer why or how it happened. I guess my digital karma kicked in this time.