In a comprehensive survey of how technological advances will “creep” into everyday life, computer expert and technologist Thomas Keenan guides the reader through a slew of increasingly ubiquitous and invasive technologies. How do fellow citizens feel about the prospect of airport security spraying you with “a fine mist” of GPS nanoparticles in the name of enhancing security? What about a “password pill”1 emitting radio waves through a user’s digestive tract so a user can log in to the cloud? Does a robot bellhop2 sound cool? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we know what the future of a technology-saturated society will hold? Keenan weaves together the ways our information is being used to market to, surveil, categorize, and track us. His thesis, though, is spread too broadly—covering 15 different arenas of “technocreep,” including children, pets, robots, 3D-printed objects, and time—creating a picture so dizzyingly variegated that it distracts from the point: this is the information age, so be careful.
Information—and the devices that run on it—are transforming “our lives in ways as fundamental as the charges brought by fire.” Data is the fuel, and the possibilities are not limited by what is currently “technically possible.” One day, Keenan envisions, “your nearest streetlight or trash bin may have the same capabilities envisioned by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham for his Panopticon, the perfectly designed prison in which all jailers manage their charges by the simple stratagem of being all-seeing while remaining unseen themselves.” Christine Rosen, writing in the New Republic in 2012, observes that the whole point is to make technologies “admired for their invisibility.”3
Most unsettling is that as the “‘digital natives,’ who have always known and accepted 24/7 connectivity,” get older, they “will alter our social discourse on what is creepy and what is cool.” Unless, that is, a conscious public resists the contrived need to record and broadcast every moment of our lives, entrust our personal information to remote server farms, and accept ever more pervasive de-personalized interaction as part of the way things are. Technology, we must remember, is only a tool. Tools do not possess an ethical consciousness, and technology is a neutral force without social agency behind it. Yet someday the line between human beings and their social-ethical norms, on the one hand, and their avatars, on the other, may evaporate. Thinkers like Ray Kurzweil “assure us that we will soon be uploading our consciousness to a computer,” Keenan writes, and “there will soon be ‘software-based humans’ who will ‘live out on the Web,’” through “‘holographically projected bodies … and physical bodies comprising nanobot swarms.’” Can a nanobot swarm behave ethically?
The very idea of living will blur into a more abstract shape, given expected advances in virtual reality. In a recent issue of Popular Mechanics,4 Jerry Beilinson quotes the inventor of the Oculus Rift VR device, Palmer Luckey, saying, “At the bare minimum, there’s some threshold you cross into a sense of presence, being in a space and forgetting that it is not a real space but a virtual one.” Luckey feels optimistic: “If you look at sci-fi, virtual reality is almost always a plot device that leads to this broken dystopian world. But I think that virtual reality is going to end up being a huge positive for humanity.” The virtual sky is limitless: “In the near term, [Luckey] sees students taking virtual field trips to Rome. People will manipulate data files with their hands. Users will be able to see in the infrared spectrum, bend the laws of physics, and squeeze into impossibly small spaces.”
In 1996, a “cyberspace think tank” called 21st Century Online posited that by the year 2007, seventy percent of the US population will have “developed an essential lifestyle or business relationship with … digitally engineered personalities,” and that by 1998 “full neurosynaptic real-time simulation” will have been in high demand. Seven years later, “Microcomputer-implanted technology directly into the brain to extend intelligence, skills and memory becomes the norm. Babies are wetwired at birth.” These haven’t yet occurred. Likewise, in 2000, Samantha Amjadali wrote in the Melbourne Sun Herald that the “clever folk” at the R&D center of Lucent Technologies, known as Bell Labs, believed:
that by 2025 the entire globe will be encased in a communication web that surrounds it like a skin. “We are already building the first layer of a mega network that will cover the entire planet,” Bell Labs president Arun Netravali says .… All [of] this information will be shunted into one huge global network and Netravali makes the rather startling prediction that this incessant “infochatter” will actually surpass direct face-to-face communications between humans by 2010.
Technocreep steers clear of the dangers of this sort of prognostication by analyzing the various ways high-tech interacts with society, without having to speculate on what sort of future blindly hitting the ACCEPT TERMS button will get us. This is, of course, all happening right now. But what Keenan presents is a warning, not a jeremiad. Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy issued his own warning almost a decade and a half ago, that “our scientists … must relinquish their Promethean fire.” The digital tools of our age, he said, are “amoral.” Human nature is the wild card. “We need to reset the social contract,” he says. “Just as we did in response to the technologies of the first industrial age.” Keenan’s book warns us that many people are “voluntarily cyborging” themselves via devices, apps, platforms, gizmos, and gadgets, in order to also become “monetizable.” The social contract v2.0 could very soon become: “Mine all the data about us, and then use it to sell us stuff and keep tabs on our activities.” Whether people will honor the terms of service remains an open question.
- See Doug Aamoth, “Motorola Is Working On a Password Pill for Once-Daily Authentication — Oh, and a Tattoo, Too,” Time , May 31, 2013. ↩
- See “Silicon Valley Hotel to Test Robot Butler,” Irish Times , August 12, 2014. ↩
- See Christine Rosen “The Machine and the Ghost,” The New Republic, July 12, 2012. ↩
- See Jerry Beilinson “Palmer Luckey and the Virtual Reality Resurrection,” Popular Mechanics , May 28, 2014. ↩