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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Op-Ed: The Perils of Perfection

The Perils of Perfection

“WHEN your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting” is the reassuring slogan greeting visitors at the Web site for LivesOn, a soon-to-launch service that promises to tweet on your behalf even after you die. By analyzing your earlier tweets, the service would learn “about your likes, tastes, syntax” and add a personal touch to all those automatically composed scribblings from the world beyond.

LivesOn may yet prove to be a parody, or it may fizzle for any number of reasons, but as an idea it highlights the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley today: what could be disrupted should be disrupted â€" even death.

Barriers and constraints â€" anything that imposes artificial limits on the human condition â€" are being destroyed with particular gusto. Superhuman, another mysterious start-up that could enliven any comedy show, promises to offer, as its co-founder recently put it, an unspecified service that “helps people be superhuman.” Well, at least they had the decency not to call it The Ãœbermensch.

Recent debates about Twitter revolutions or the Internet’s impact on cognition have mostly glossed over the fact that Silicon Valley’s technophilic gurus and futurists have embarked on a quest to develop the ultimate patch to the nasty bugs of humanity. If they have their way, no individual foibles would go unpunished â€" ideally, technology would even make such foibles obsolete.

Even boredom seems to be in its last throes: designers in Japan have found a way to make our train trips perpetually fun-filled. With the help of an iPhone, a projector, a GPS module and Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor, their contrivance allows riders to add new objects to what they see “outside,” thus enlivening the bleak landscape in their train windows. This could be a big hit in North Korea â€" and not just on trains.

Or, if you tend to forget things, Silicon Valley wants to give you an app to remember everything. If you occasionally prevaricate in order to meet your clashing obligations as a parent, friend or colleague, another app might spot inconsistencies in your behavior and inform your interlocutors if you are telling the truth. If you experience discomfort because you encounter people and things that you do not like, another app or gadget might spare you the pain by rendering them invisible.

Sunny, smooth, clean: with Silicon Valley at the helm, our life will become one long California highway.

LAST month Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s former marketing director, enthused about a trendy app to “crowdsource absolutely every decision in your life.” Called Seesaw, the app lets you run instant polls of your friends and ask for advice on anything: what wedding dress to buy, what latte drink to order and soon, perhaps, what political candidate to support.

Seesaw offers an interesting twist on how we think about feedback and failure. It used to be that we bought things to impress our friends, fully aware that they might not like our purchases. Now this logic is inverted: if something impresses our friends, we buy it. The risks of rejection have been minimized; we know well in advance how many Facebook “likes” our every decision would accumulate.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who celebrated the anguish of decision as a hallmark of responsibility, has no place in Silicon Valley. Whatever their contribution to our maturity as human beings, decisions also bring out pain and, faced with a choice between maturity and pain-minimization, Silicon Valley has chosen the latter â€" perhaps as a result of yet another instant poll.

The only exception to the pain-minimization rule is when pain â€" or at least discomfort â€" must be induced to ensure that we behave honestly and consistently.

Take Google Glass, the company’s overhyped “smart glasses,” which can automatically snap photos of everything we see and store them for posterity. To some, this can finally solve the problem of forgetting, a longtime ambition of many geeks, who have also been developing stamp-size cameras that can be worn on the lapel of a jacket and snap a picture â€" at set intervals of time â€" of things around us.

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

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 3, 2013, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Perils of Perfection.