David Byrne: The secret appeal of technology is that it takes away the need to talk to people

Writing in MIT Tech Review, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne points out the secret and, in retrospect, obvious driving force behind tech: it reduces the often awkward and unreliable process of dealing with people, so you can buy music without asking friends for recommendations, take a cab without talking to a dispatcher, buy your groceries without speaking with a clerk, and get your money out of the bank without seeing a teller.

Byrne describes the pros and cons of getting humans out of the loop. If you're a socially awkward person who struggles with small chat, these platforms can be a real relief; when automation replaces a human in a task that requires robotic, relentless precision with a robotic, relentless robot, it's generally positive.

(Byrne doesn't mention that automation also theoretically frees people from drudge work — but this is only a benefit if the former drudges get to share in automation's dividends, and are not discarded as economically irrelevant roadkill)

But then he gets into the downsides: polarizing filter bubbles; social isolation; and the elimination of the often useful emotional dimension from decisions made by unemotional algorithms.

I think that Byrne is missing another nuance when he talks about social isolation and filter bubbles: the companies that create social media platforms optimize them for "engagement" (which can be measured) and not by "pleasure," "satisfaction," "utility" etc. They're all designing engagement-maximizing slot machines, and there's nothing that says they couldn't be designing marketplaces of ideas, meditation chambers, or deliberative systems.

On the other hand, there was a lot of early TV talk about the power of boob-tubes to education, inform and entertain — but the major use-case remains A&E: Asses and Explosions.

Humans are capricious, erratic, emotional, irrational, and biased in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. It often seems that our quick-thinking and selfish nature will be our downfall. There are, it would seem, lots of reasons why getting humans out of the equation in many aspects of life might be a good thing.

But I'd argue that while our various irrational tendencies might seem like liabilities, many of those attributes actually work in our favor. Many of our emotional responses have evolved over millennia, and they are based on the probability that they will, more likely than not, offer the best way to deal with a situation.

Eliminating the Human

[David Byrne/MIT Technology Review]

(via Beyond the Beyond)