Seven New Rules for Interacting With Technology

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April 13 2014 10:41 PM

A Survival Plan for the Wild Cyborg

Seven new rules for interacting with technology.

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4. We must be aware of who is presenting information to us, and why.

With every click or search, we donate, to the Internet service providers, information about who we are and what we do. That type of information is used to build up individual user profiles, which in turn allow the providers to continually improve their ability to persuade us to do what is in their commercial or political interest, and to tailor such persuasive power for each individual. It can also be covertly prescriptive, pushing us to make certain choices. For example, psychology experiments suggest that we are particularly open to persuasion by people who look like us. Digital images of one’s own face can now be morphed with a second face from an online advertisement in ways that are not consciously discernible but still increase one’s susceptibility to persuasion. So to protect our freedom of choice, we have to be aware of the interests at stake.

5. We must be alert to the right of every person to freely make choices about their lives and ambitions.

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Many markets thrive on a popular culture that challenges normal people to become perfect, whatever that means. As more technical means become available to enhance our outward appearance and physical and mental performance—our wrinkle-less skin, our rippling abs, our flamboyant sex life, our laser-like concentration—firms will pursue more effective ways to seduce us to strive for a perfection that they define. Are we really realizing ourselves if we strive to become “perfect” in the image created by marketers? We need to protect the right to strive for our own version of perfection and also nourish ways to accept our human imperfections.

6. We have the right not to be measured, analyzed, and coached.

The reach of the surveillance state has expanded tremendously over the past decade. At the same time, a big-data business culture has developed in which industry takes for granted, in the name of efficiency and customer convenience, that people can be treated as data resources. The state is surveying its citizens, companies are surveying their customers, citizens survey one another, and parents and schools use all the means available to survey children. Such a surveillance society is built on fear and mistrust, and treats people as objects that can and must be controlled. To safeguard our autonomy and freedom of choice we should strive for the right not to be measured, analyzed, or coached.

7. We must nurture our most precious possession, our ability to pay attention.

Economics tells us that as human attention becomes an increasingly scarce commodity, the commercial battle for our attention will continue to intensify. Many new communication media divert our attention away from everyday reality and toward a commercial environment in which each content provider attempts to optimally monopolize our focus. In the near future, smartphones, watches, eyewear, businesses, and a growing circle of digital contacts will each demand more and more of our attention during everyday activities such as shopping, cooking, or running on the beach. And since attention is a scarce resource, paying attention to one thing will come at the expense of our attention to other things. The digital age forces us to protect our freedom from continual intrusion and interruption, to guard our own unpolluted thoughts, our capacity to reflect on things in our own way, because that is what we really are.

The intimate-technological revolution will remake us by using as raw material data on our metabolism, our communications, our whereabouts, and our preferences. It will provide many wonderful opportunities for personal and social development. But the hybridization of ourselves and our technologies, and the political and economic struggle around this process, threatens to destabilize some qualities of our intimate lives that are also among the core foundations of our civil and moral society: freedom, trust, empathy, forgiveness, forgetting, attention. I offer the above seven propositions as a good starting point to further discuss and develop the wisdom that we will need to stay human by becoming wild cyborgs in the 21st century.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Issues in Science & Technology. Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University, and the New America Foundation; Issues in Science & Technology is a publication of the National Academies in partnership with Arizona State University and the University of Texas at Dallas.

Rinie van Est is coordinator of technology assessment at the Rathenau Instituut in the Netherlands.

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