Interaction with Technology for the Century

The dictionary defines technology as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry or machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge. So essentially, technology need not only be something that we use physically, but it still ends up as an extension of us, in our hands, over our heads, for our feet, in our rooms.  In McLuhan's theory, all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed, and any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex. Some of the principle extensions are together with some of their psychic and social consequences. [1] 

Looking at the individual level, and taking the example of the phone - we first had large phones that needed two hands to operate, and then one hand with chords, and then the  mobile phone and today we can even operate them without any hands, just with our voices. Or what about the extensions of the phones - the earphones, smartwatches - they can be operated with just the finger or again the voice.

Have a look at these elevator buttons. If today, we are in the elevator and I scream at you, suddenly, to hit the floor three - what would you hit? The black square with the bronze three or the bronze faded button? What would feel like a button to you first? The label or the button itself next to the label? In the other image, what makes you feel that you can simply press on the title of the article to open and read it further? There isn’t a button but just the label, the text.

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The early television did not have remote controls but buttons attached to the the box itself. Gradually, there came remote controls, slimmer screens, WiFi and so on. However, if you are one of those millennials who grew up during this period of the evolution of television, you should reflect on whenever you had the opportunity to have little children and toddlers interact with the TV. You will notice that all babies touch the TV and pinch the screen, irrespective of whichever form of television it was. This was even way before any tablet device was invented, and today we all interact with our media devices only by touch and pinch.

The other perspective of looking at interaction with technology would be with this example - while surfing the internet you might have encountered CAPTCHA - an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart" where we have to claim that we are not a robot, pretty much every time when we are engaged in a secure activity on the internet. [3]

How can we ignore social media when we talk of interacting with technology or even using technology to interact with each other today? Social media has become almost like a standard form of expression. Reflecting on Mcluhan’s “Medium is the Message[4] - lets take an example of wishing someone for the birthday. Earlier, would a ping over Facebook suffice to wish your close friend on their birthday? Or would you do that for just your acquaintances? People now use social media like Facebook, as a platform to validate themselves. If they receive enough likes, that directly translates into high self-esteem. Making friends in real life is just one part of the process, when the second part is to make sure you follow each other on the social media platform. This is the state of interaction with technology and within ourselves that we have got ourselves in.

Looking at the community level, social media is also a world filled with fakes news, bot comments, bot interactions among other malicious behaviour. The United States of America, for example, is reeling under the problem of Russian interference in their post-election scenario. They are indeed in the eye of a storm, but is it just the USA? [5] I come from India and it’s been more than three years for the Modi Government. He was well acclaimed, popular and won his election with a resounding majority. He had a great team, for marketing, PR, and all the required organizations to back him, the people support, and also using the ire of the media for his own benefit and then play victim about it. Having said all this, he is also known for his oratory skills and his public appearance, and soon he will travel to the USA to meet President Trump, once again. However, take a look at his twitter account. He is one of the highest followed public figures but… Are Modi’s Twitter Followers mostly Bots? [6]

So it's clear that chatbots, twitter bots, and so many other such bots have taken control of the Internet.  But is the problem that they have crept all over the Internet or have they taken control of us, of our personalities, our thoughts, and our communication? The problem of fake news is not the fake news itself, but how we consume it.  It has the potential to get within our identity and then it doesn’t matter if the news was actually fake or not. If we flag a photoshopped image as fake news after the user has already been affected by it or believes in it, will that user then change his belief or stick to whatever belief the fake image generated?

“The fact that digital images are fundamentally machine-readable regardless of a human subject has enormous implications.” [7]

 Similarly, innovation and technology itself it not the problem, but the ignorance of everything else around it and the future effects of it is the cause for long-term destruction.

“The steady march toward a world where machines taught by humans make our lives easier, smoother, and more delightful has gone largely unquestioned.” [8]

Let’s take a step back from these digital devices and platforms and focus on a more generic form of technology. Take the jeans trouser, or rather any bottom wear. Do you feel that ladies pockets are far smaller than men’s? Are their functionalities limited? Why so? Women's slacks, dresses, and blazers often have “fake” pockets that serve no utilitarian purpose besides sartorially leading the wearer on.” [9] Is it because the market that makes them, wants to hinder these pockets, so that ladies would reach out much more to hand bags, clutches and more fashion accessories to supplement and complement the ‘pockets’ on their trousers or slacks, that are merely designed only for the looks. The effect of percolation of one small design decision can have mammoth consequences and subsequent effects - that it can even fuel an industry or a business.

This multiplied on the global scale can have lasting impact on the lives of humans, our economy, our interaction with each other and our daily lives in general. We are on the brink of Blockchain making this lasting change on the world.  Nasdaq is working with Chain.com, one of many blockchain infrastructure providers, to offer technology for processing and validating financial transactions. [10] Bank of America, JPMorgan, the New York Stock Exchange, Fidelity Investments, and Standard Chartered are testing blockchain technology as a replacement for paper-based and manual transaction processing in such areas as trade finance, foreign exchange, cross-border settlement, and securities settlement. The Bank of Canada is testing a digital currency called CAD-coin for interbank transfers. Essentially, blockchain is set to replace all paper qualifications. [11]

New technology brings with itself a very powerful factor and that is new perspective. With this, humans tend to change the way they look at things around them, use them, and that magnifies into a global change. Nick Bostrom in his book SuperIntelligence says “Such changes in the rate of growth have important consequences.  ...the prospect of continuing on a steady exponential growth path pales in comparison to what would happen if the world were to experience another steep change in the rate of growth comparable in magnitude to those associated with the Industrial Revolution.” [12]

How are these interactions affecting us humans and what’s at stake?

With digital devices in plenty, our eyes are being strained all throughout the day, unquestioned, unrelaxed. Smartphones Ruin More Than Your Sleep - They May Also Be Destroying Your Vision. [13]

And along with smartphones, we have a ton of other digital devices. Our relaxation at home after a hard day’s work again is a large, flat, bright TV screen! And it's not just vision or sleep, it’s the very part of our physique. “Smartphone thumb” is becoming a major problem across America. It’s caused by the repetitive motion of typing with thumbs. Researchers think it's caused by the thumb force required when texting, and this abnormal thumb bone movement could be causing pain and eventual arthritis. [14]

Is Social Media Shortening Our Attention Span? Author Ty Kiisel reminds us that technology is intended to enhance our ability to collaborate, not replace the need for personal interaction. As valuable as these tools are, if we don't foster real and productive relationships with people it will be difficult for organizations to achieve any measurable level of success. Leadership requires making a personal connection with people. Technology can't do that and is not a substitute for real relationships. [15]

Speaking of reality, Augmented and Virtual Reality are here to stay, as a technology - surely to help us. But what I fear is the funny irony - that while they have ‘reality’ attached to their names, that's exactly what they are taking away from human beings. Would there be a time, when we would be satisfied on seeing all the wild animals in the comfort of our homes, than stepping into the zoo and enjoying and observing their natural beings?

To summarise, technology should assist humanity, but rather today, humanity is being dictated by technology and that’s the meta-narrative here.

“Technology seems to be leading humanity by the nose.” - Stafford Beer [16]

Also, every new technology today is somewhere and somehow connected to the Internet which in turn is monitored, our data stored and tracked, with a possibility of hacking, security flaws among the rest. Not only we might be unaware about how the technology itself is affecting us, but also how our use and interaction with it is affecting our lives directly, indirectly and over time. However, bigger problem is we are not aware of what’s at stake.

Exercising thought for solutions

“We’re a problem to be fixed and if we resist it, we will become a problem to be fixed” - Sandra Perry [17] quoted this in context of AI’s near future dominance of technology throughout the world.

In my view, solutions are not created, but found. We just need to look in the right direction - what I call diversity of perspective.

Remember the Walkman, Panorama, iPod ,  iPhone, Fitbits, Pokemon Go were not necessarily brand new inventions but a new way of looking at the technology that was already available. For that matter, AI is not something fancy, but it’s just code, that learns. So it’s this diversity of perspective and the constant necessity of looking at the big picture that is required of us.

“The human brain tries to identify patterns” - Melanie Crean [18]

And that might just be a problem in this context that restricts our diversity of perspective.

Let’s try turing the problem right on its head.

While these large technology companies ‘invent’ solutions for us, are they actually the best solutions? Is the iPhone X truly the most advanced iPhone they could build today or are they saving up for the upgraded version after a few months once they gather enough revenue? I know this is business, but then, in the larger picture, are we at the mercy of these large tech companies for innovation and ideas? Steve Jobs once famously said, “...people don't know what they want until you show it to them.”

That is exactly what we need to worry about - knowing what we want, choosing what should percolate and monitoring them, than the other way round.

Here are two examples of how companies are “requesting” us to look away from the growing Global Catastrophic Risks [19] in the most “dignified” way possible. “We are not setting the price. The market is setting the price. We have algorithms to determine what that market is. ” - Uber CEO. Who makes these ‘do not blame us please’ algorithms? “All standards, assumptions and bias end up in code.” - Nora Khan. [20]

"I don’t believe the big issue are ads from foreign governments. I believe that’s like 0.1% of the issue, the bigger issue is that some of these tools are used to divide people, to manipulate people, to get fake news to people in broad numbers so as to influence their thinking. This to me is the No. 1 through 10 issue. ” - Apple CEO, when asked about the ethics of social media ads and transparency, even though while Apple claims to be a supporter of no ads and a closed system. So why these definitions? Is it because they will butter each other’s bread for coexistence?

“There’s always an agenda behind a definition” - Mattie Brice [21]

And if Google influences the world, as it has pretty much, with many of its products, than the future of the world is indeed AI. Important part of all this boom is the machine learning that is linked with AI and without it, there isn’t an ‘intelligence’ factor for a machine. That brings me to my point that, it’s not just about AI or Machine Learning that are new technologies that are driving the world, but it’s a new perspective that is pushing boundaries… in this case for Technology.

“The future of Google is AI” – Sundar Pichai [22]

If we are turning the problem upside down, then we need agencies like the Government or private recognised firms to monitor these “innovation” hubs. Why? Why do we have an entire system that monitors the food industry, climate change, sustainability, albeit, there are issues there too. Not only so, there are monitors applied to anything that finally reaches the human being, and so should technology. By monitor, I do not mean godfather like surveillance but, a cautious eye for the present and the future.

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“We need to think about how we think, if we need to think differently”  - Melanie Crean [24]

Governments and similar agencies must hire critical designers as part of bureaucracy  to help check flow of thought, vision of cities and to look from a non-human perspective too, to benefit human beings in the near future. Can we think non-humanely at all? We can try by changing perspectives to non-human.

“It is an attempt to give the physical world itself a voice so that rather than us asking what reality is, reality itself can tell us. … It is the recovery of the natural in our understanding of the natural… the art of choosing the one with the most human face.” [25]

Douglas C. Engelbart (inventor of the mouse, the graphical user interface, hypertext) wrote a landmark paper called “Augmenting Human Intellect.[26] In it, he argued that because computers can represent ideas symbolically in the same way that our brains do, they are the first machines capable of truly enhancing human intelligence, and maybe even taking on a life of their own.

The era of human-centered design is coming to an end. That’s because the next user you design for won’t be human at all. [27] It will be a human-machine hybrid built to do more than any person or computer could accomplish alone.


[1] Bobbitt, David. Wesleyan College. "Teaching McLuhan: Understanding Understanding Media". enculturation.net. December 30, 2011

[2] Image: fthmb.tqn.com http://bit.ly/2o3HNXP 

[3] Braton, Benjamin. "Outing A.I.: Beyond the Turing Test". opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com. February 23, 2015

[4] Dcunha, Mario. "Reflection: The Medium Is The Message". mariodcunha.com. September 23, 2017

[5] Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey. "The Algorithmic Democracy". fastcodesign.com. November 14th 2016

[6] Raghunathan, Anu. "Are Modi's Twitter Follower Numbers 'Boosted'?". forbes.com. May 7, 2015

[7] Paglen, Trevor. "Invisible Images". thenewinquiry.com. December 8, 2016

[8] Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey. "The Algorithmic Democracy". fastcodesign.com. November 14th 2016

[9] Basu, Tanya. "The Gender Politics of Pockets". The Atlantic. September 30, 2014

[10]Iansiti, Marco; Lakhani, Karim. "The Truth About Blockchain". Harvard Business Review. January 2017

[11] Kastelein, Richard. "Digital Assess Wants to Use Blockchain Technology...". the-blockchain.com. May 18, 2017

[12] Bostrom, Nick. "Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies". Oxford University Press. May 1, 2016

[13] Loria, Kevin. "Smartphones Ruin More Than Your Sleep". businessinsider.com. Sep 9, 2014

[14] Borkhataria, Cecile. "Smartphone Thumb". dailymail.co.uk. 29 May, 2017

[15] Kiisel, Ty. "Is Social Media Shortening Our Attention Span?". Forbes.com. Jan 25, 2012

[16] Morozov, Evgeny. "The Planning Machine". The NewYorker. October 13, 2014

[17] Khan, Nora. Lecture: “Force Change: Engineering the Sublime”. Nov 2, 2017

[18] Crean, Melanie. Lecture: "Surveillance, borders, the global other". Nov 9, 2017

[19] Bostrom, Nick; Cirkovic, Milan. "Global Catastrophic Risks". Oxford University Press. 2008

[20] Khan, Nora. Lecture: “Force Change: Engineering the Sublime”. Nov 2, 2017

[21] Brice, Mattie. Lecture: "Designing Power Dynamics". October 19, 2017

[22] Bohn, Dieter. "The future of Google is AI". The Verge. Oct 4, 2017

[23] http://bit.ly/2o5U3ab

[24] Crean, Melanie. Lecture: "Vision, Representation and Power". Sep 14, 2017

[25] Schroeder, Karl. "Thalience". kschroeder.com. 2016

[26] Engelbart, D. C. "Augmenting Human Intellect". 1962paper.org. 1962

[27] Milan, Matthew. "The Next User You Design For Won’t Be A Human". fastcodesign.com. Nov 20, 2017