Back in 1999, Google hit 1 billion searches a year. Wi-Fi began to make an impact about two years later. Thanks to the pioneers of Facebook and Twitter, the age of mass social media dawned between 2004 and 2006 — and non-stop posting, messaging and following was soon enabled by the iPhone, launched in 2007. These things have changed the world and, in hindsight, the way they became ubiquitous had a powerful sense of inevitability. But the revolution they represented is old now, and nothing comparable has come along for more than a decade.
Despite this, a regular ritual of hype and hysteria is now built into the news cycle. Every now and again, at some huge auditorium, a senior staff member at one of the big firms based in northern California — ordinarily a man — will take the stage dressed in box-fresh casualwear, and inform the gathered multitudes of some hitherto unimagined leap forward, supposedly destined to transform millions of lives. (There will be whoops and gasps in response, and a splurge of media coverage — before, in the wider world, a palpable feeling of anti-climax sets in.)
It happened again a fortnight ago, when the Google chief executive, Sundar Pichai, addressed his company’s annual developers’ conference. Among his other tasks, he was there to rhapsodise about developments in artificial intelligence, and the ever-evolving application known as Google Assistant (created, he said, to “help you get things done”), and a new innovation called Duplex. “It turns out that a big part of getting things done is making a phone call,” he said. He then mentioned getting an appointment for a haircut: “You know, we’re working hard to get users through those moments.”
The screens behind him lit up, and the sound system played a synthesised female voice, whose words were punctuated with authentic-sounding umms and aahs. The voice conversed with a human being at the other end of a phone line, who apparently had no idea she was talking to a machine, and the software seemed to quickly and seamlessly secure a 10am appointment. Pockets of the crowd went into raptures. “That was a real call you just heard,” said Pichai. “The amazing thing is, our Assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation.” Now, when was the last time you came to book a haircut or restaurant table and concluded that the task was so onerous that you would ideally delegate it to a machine? And even if you can easily think of a scenario, would there not be something ethically questionable about doing so, if the person at the other end had no idea who or what they were talking to? In fact, might Duplex be a grim portal into a future in which high-flyers get digital “assistants” to do their chores, while poorly paid people have to meekly talk to computers, in constant fear that they are about to be automated into joblessness?
Gathering digital dust
Pichai also announced the introduction of a new feature of Gmail called Smart Compose: a kind of supercharged predictive text that offers you extended phrases as you type, which then build up into whole sentences. (To quote one report, the software will “tailor its predictions to each individual user, based ... on information that Google already knows about you”.) Pichai showed an email exchange in which Smart Compose understood that the matter at hand was “Taco Tuesday”, and suggested “chips, salsa, and guacamole”. Hearing more whoops of delight from the audience, I thought about a vision of the near future in which half the human race will converse in preordained cliches.
The endless noise emanating from Silicon Valley essentially has two complementary elements. One is all about dreams so unlikely that they beggar belief: the idea that the Tesla CEO Elon Musk will one day set up a colony on Mars; or that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg can successfully marshal an attempt to “cure, prevent and manage” all diseases.
Our phones are full of apps that gather digital dust, and the same fate has befallen many supposedly groundbreaking inventions. Though the idea of internet-enabled spectacles has potentially fascinating uses in such fields as autism, education and high-end manufacturing, Google Glass was never going to be a mass-market product in the way its inventors thought.
The same applies to the concept of the “smart fridge”, which has been kicking around for almost 20 years (and, indeed, other devices, from window blinds to cookers, that will supposedly be incorporated into the overhyped internet of things). I have Apple’s Siri “assistant” on my phone, but I barely use it and neither do lots of other people: between 2016 and 2017, its use in the US is thought to have dropped by 15 per cent.
Yet some people fall in love with these things. Among the great mountain of writing at the heart of the current so-called ‘techlash’ is a great book entitled Radical Technologies, by the former tech insider Adam Greenfield. When he writes about people obsessed with the kind of internet-enabled devices that monitor sleep, heart rates and exercise levels, he nails something that applies to a whole array of allegedly cutting-edge innovations. “A not-insignificant percentage of the population has so decisively internalised the values of the market for their labour,” he writes, “that the act of resculpting themselves to better meet its needs feels like authentic expression.” What he says echoes a key passage in Guy Debord’s visionary text The Society of the Spectacle, published 50 years ago: “Just when the mass of commodities slides toward puerility, the puerile itself becomes a special commodity; this is epitomised by the gadget ... The only use which remains here is the fundamental use of submission.”
Such ornate words speak an enduring truth. Amazing and sometimes life-enhancing innovations, I dare say, are being worked on by tech geniuses across the world. In fields such as driverless transport, virtual reality and blockchain technology, new inventions may eventually transform our lives, and fulfil the cliched big-tech promise about making the world a better place. But that is the not the nature of our current phase of history, nor the absurd and often dangerous creations we are now being offered on an almost monthly basis.
Ignore all those whoops. If we do not want to live in a world in which “assistants” trick us into flimsy conversations, and human contact is a chore left to the bottom of the labour market, we do not have to. There is a basic fact about the future the figureheads of big tech too often forget: that what it will look like is actually up to us, not them.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
John Harris is a noted columnist who writes on politics, technology and popular culture.