Brave new tech world:
To live is to be photographed – life in a smart world
How smart will the smart home of the future be? Will the walls of our houses soon be screens? And what is the personal price we will pay when this turns us into transparent citizens? Read More
The continuing technicalisation of our daily lives raises a lot of questions: How will our daily routines change? How smart will the smart homes of the future be? And what can we expect when the walls of our homes become screens? What is the personal price we will pay in the near future when our lives primarily take place in the net and we become truly transparent citizens?
To adequately satisfy our curiosity, we asked an expert: Sarah Kember is Professor of New Technologies of Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she deals on a daily basis with all the things that occupy our thoughts.
There’s been a lot of talk about artificial intelligence recently, especially after Stephen Hawking's warnings about the future of A.I. What's your opinion regarding A.I.? Could robots or smart machines in future pose a threat to human mankind?
I think the debate about AI is incredibly circular and rather paranoid. One way that we can deal with the circularity is to look at the history of this sort of futurism and speculation. The ‘one day’ scenarios have been around before and they’re always premised on the fantasy of autonomous machines – the fantasy of machines that are like us, or that might even be better than us (smarter, more efficient, more productive) and this is what makes us paranoid.
How on earth we might build truly intelligent machines when there is still no consensus about what truly intelligent means?
While we bounce between our desire for Robbie the friendly robot and our fear of some kind of terminator machine, something actually more insidious is happening, namely the steady progression of technocapitalism: the value that trumps all others and benefits the very few at the expense of others and particularly of those who are most easily exploited. It bothers me that this happens in the name of technological progress. And it is not enough to point out that machines are still too rigid to pass the Turing Test – however expert they might become – and to ask how on earth we might build truly intelligent machines when there is still no consensus about what truly intelligent means.
One of the huge technological developments to come in the near future is the Internet of Things (IoT), and especially the smart home. What might our lives in the smart home look like in 10 years?
Well I’m writing about this now, in a book called iMedia: The gendering of objects, environments and smart materials. One thing to point out is that in as far as the smart home is about the Internet of Things as well as ubiquitous computing and ambient intelligence (this is a development of AI) it may very well look more like a house from the past, at least at first glance. All the futuristic technology will be hidden, out of sight, embedded in ordinary things like chairs and tables and walls and fridges. These things will be networked together and responsive to voices and gestures. Sensors in the doors and floors will know what kind of mood we’re in because they’ll know if we shut the door or slammed it and will measure our gait. But we won’t see this and even the media boxes we’re used to – the TV, the computer – will be gone, absorbed into the domestic environment which is almost reassuringly old fashioned.
Well that’s the idea anyway, that’s the claim. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the promotional videos for smart homes and the materials – natural seeming materials like wood and glass, only the glass is networked now – they’re built from and tend to draw on gender roles and family relations that are also strikingly traditional.
In what sense?
Microsoft’s original video for its prototype future home had Janet in the kitchen baking bread on her smart kitchen worktop while the camera in her ceiling read the tag on her medicine bottle and reminded her when to take her pills. Meanwhile her husband is in the front room listening to music with his feet up while the teenager throws stuff at virtual wallpaper in her bedroom.
I don’t think this is just the result of lack of imagination, although that’s part of it. I think there is some kind of regression here, some symbolic return to values of the 50s and to the containment of change, especially for women. The containment happens through the reiteration of the housewife and mother role even while ‘she’ might also be a professional woman with a hectic schedule. Of course, the hectic schedule now includes programming the home AI system and is another form of control – through enablement, through productivity as well as domesticity.
Would you consider these new technologies more of a gift or a curse?
I try not to look at technology as either a gift or a curse, even though that is difficult sometimes. Two things are important here and the first is that technology never acts alone but in conjunction with other forces, probably more powerful ones like capitalization and marketization. It is not immune to human intervention either. The other thing is that if we go on thinking that technology is a route to salvation or damnation we never really take responsibility for it – or should I say take our share of responsibility for it as I don’t believe we’re fully in control of technology any more than it is fully in control of us.
I don’t believe we’re fully in control of technology any more than it is fully in control of us.
You mentioned one of the characteristics of intelligent machines: that they detect and anticipate our desires, wishes and needs for information. In order to do so, they need a lot of personal information about us. What is the price we pay for their intelligent service? And: is it worth it?
Some might say that privacy is the price we’re paying for intelligent service and while I can certainly see their point, I don’t think the line between public and private has ever been fixed. I think it’s being redrawn by us and for us. There’s a deal being done that goes beyond individual transactions, broad social changes around the way that we share and exchange information and even legal challenges and transgressions. Those are significant, of course, but without going down the Faustian-pact route, we have to recognize that when we talk about the extension of markets we’re also talking about how they extend to life itself – biological, cultural, ordinary, everyday life. We’re data packets for markets. This is a transformation we don’t even know how to talk about yet and the concept of privacy doesn’t really touch it. Worth it? I don’t even know where to begin answering that question. But how much we’re worth as highly differentiated, globally disparate commodities – I think we’re getting a sense of that.
In an interview you stated that the next invention to come could be a smart screen. Why a screen and what functionality would it have?
I said that? Ok. Screens still work in the era of smart technology because they can be networked and interactive and because glass technology is evolving. Glass screens are going to scale up and down, giving us transparent handheld devices, large display surfaces in homes and cities, and augmented reality car windscreens and wearables. Networked screens can also combine traditional visual media with advances in haptics, speech recognition, face recognition and gesture recognition. They are an essential element in making new technologies seem more natural, more embedded and incorporated in the environment. In that sense they help to realise the goals of ubiquitous computing that have a lot to do with developing technologies that are more pervasive and invisible. The idea is that we’ll just get used to walls that happen to be screens – and that pitch us a personalised ad or tell us where the nearest Starbucks is or do a quick ID check when we walk past.
While technological development is advancing, more and more sci-fi films and books present future visions of artificial life. Is sci-fi preparing us for what is to come?
Sci-fi has always been preparing us for what is to come. Think about Phillip K Dick’s UBIK. This was written in the late 1960s but is effectively about ubiquitous computing. There’s a talking door that demands cash for opening and closing and threatens to sue when it isn’t paid. I’m tempted to say well there you are; that tells us everything we need to know (especially when combined with Douglas Adams’ obsequious lift and depressed robot). But I think there is more to sci-fi than its prescience. Sometimes predictions are right and sometimes they’re not.
There is no real dividing line between science and fiction.
What’s interesting about UBIK or 2001: A Space Odyssey – or even The War of the Worlds – is just how integrated they are with scientific movements and technological developments. H.G. Wells shared a theory of planetary evolution with Percival Lowell, the astronomer who thought he saw canals on Mars. Other writers were either scientists themselves or they were very well informed. When I wrote my book on artificial life, I learned that computer scientists were so afraid that they might actually build Hal 9000 – as you know, he was smart and could fly spacecraft, talk and play chess all at the same time, though he did go off the rails a bit – that they completely changed their methods, moving in effect from the top-down principles of AI to the more bottom-up principles of ALife. So there is no real dividing line between science and fiction even if the sci-fi author Brian Aldiss might wish that the film AI from his story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” had never been made!
In your recent book you wrote about "life after new media": what does this mean for our daily lives?
That’s a great question. There is this wonderful phrase by Susan Sontag who says that ‘to live is to be photographed.’ Life after new media is life that is inseparable from being photographed, filmed, tagged, texted, scanned and otherwise mediated. People have thought along these lines before, but the consequences are pretty mind blowing when you think that everyday events, identities and activities are always already mediated. As we wrote in the book: We have always been mediated. Media and technologies are more than tools that we use. They’re also things we are evolving with.
You publish novels, too. What do you like more - writing fiction or non-fictional texts? And which one is more labour intensive?
Generally I’d say I have a love/hate relationship to writing and that this gets amplified when I’m writing fiction. Writing fiction is infinitely more rewarding and difficult and it is astonishingly time consuming.
Are you currently working on a new novel?
So of course, yes, I’m writing another novel! The novel is about gender and smart media and is provisionally entitled A Day in the Life of Janet Smart. It’s a satire of smart technologies that are not very smart at all, mishearing voice recognition software, opinionated cars, home AI systems that malfunction, and that require women in particular to become still more productive and efficient labourers. Janet’s day is quite a day. I’m also going to try and integrate the novel with a new academic book on the same subject. One of my bugbears when it comes to writing is the false distinction between what is academic and what is not.
Have we awakened your curiosity about what the future may bring? You will soon have an opportunity to experience Sarah Kember live! At the re:publica in Berlin (May 5-7) she will be talking about living in the cities of the future: about futurism, smartness, transparency, autonomy, sustainability and sexiness.