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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Machines of Laughter and Forgetting

Machines of Laughter and Forgetting

UNTIL very recently, technology had a clear, if boring, purpose: by taking care of the Little Things, it enabled us, its human masters, to focus on the Big Things. “Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible,” proclaimed that noted connoisseur of contemplation Oscar Wilde.

Fortunately, he added a charming clarification: “Human slavery is wrong, insecure and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”

Wilde was not alone. “Civilization,” wrote the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in 1911, “advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Whitehead was writing about mathematics, but technology, with its reliance on formula and algorithms, easily fits his dictum as well.

On this account, technology can save us a lot of cognitive effort, for “thinking” needs to happen only once, at the design stage. We’ll surround ourselves with gadgets and artifacts that will do exactly what they are meant to do â€" and they’ll do it in a frictionless, invisible way. “The ideal system so buries the technology that the user is not even aware of its presence,” announced the design guru Donald Norman in his landmark 1998 book, “The Invisible Computer.” But is that what we really want

The hidden truth about many attempts to “bury” technology is that they embody an amoral and unsustainable vision. Pick any electrical appliance in your kitchen. The odds are that you have no idea how much electricity it consumes, let alone how it compares to other appliances and households. This ignorance is neither natural nor inevitable; it stems from a conscious decision by the designer of that kitchen appliance to free up your “cognitive resources” so that you can unleash your inner Oscar Wilde on “contemplating” other things. Multiply such ignorance by a few billion, and global warming no longer looks like a mystery.

Whitehead, it seems, was either wrong or extremely selective: on many important issues, civilization only destroys itself by extending the number of important operations that we can perform without thinking about them. On many issues, we want more thinking, not less.

Take privacy. Opening browser tabs is easy, as is using our Facebook account to navigate from site to site. In fact, we often do so unthinkingly. Given that our online tools and platforms are built in a way to make our browsing experience as frictionless as possible, is it any surprise that so much of our personal information is disclosed without our ever realizing it

This, too, is not inevitable: designed differently, our digital infrastructure could provide many more opportunities for reflection. In a recent paper, a group of Cornell researchers proposed that our browsers could bombard us with strange but provocative messages to make us alert to the very information infrastructure that some designers have done their best to conceal. Imagine being told that “you visited 592 Web sites this week. That’s .5 times the number of Web pages on the whole Internet in 1994!”

The goal here is not to hit us with a piece of statistics â€" sheer numbers rarely lead to complex narratives â€" but to tell a story that can get us thinking about things we’d rather not be thinking about. So let us not give in to technophobia just yet: we should not go back to doing everything by hand just because it can lead to more thinking.

Rather, we must distribute the thinking process equally. Instead of having the designer think through all the moral and political implications of technology use before it reaches users â€" an impossible task â€" we must find a way to get users to do some of that thinking themselves.

Alas, most designers, following Wilde, think of technologies as nothing more than mechanical slaves that must maximize efficiency. But some are realizing that technologies don’t have to be just trivial problem-solvers: they can also be subversive troublemakers, making us question our habits and received ideas.

Recently, designers in Germany built devices â€" “transformational products,” they call them â€" that engage users in “conversations without words.” My favorite is a caterpillar-shaped extension cord. If any of the devices plugged into it are left in standby mode, the “caterpillar” starts twisting as if it were in pain.

Does it do what normal extension cords do Yes. But it also awakens users to the fact that the cord is simply the endpoint of a complex socio-technical system with its own politics and ethics. Before, designers have tried to conceal that system. In the future, designers will be obliged to make it visible.

While devices-as-problem-solvers seek to avoid friction, devices-as-troublemakers seek to create an “aesthetic of friction” that engages users in new ways. Will such extra seconds of thought â€" nay, contemplation â€" slow down civilization They well might. But who said that stopping to catch a breath on our way to the abyss is not a sensible strategy

Evgeny Morozov, author of “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism,” is a guest columnist.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 31, 2013, on page SR12 of the New York edition with the headline: Machines of Laughter and Forgetting.