Sue Halpern describes a “creepy new wave” of Internet activity for The New York Review of Books. She believes we are entering a new era of an Internet of Things—or an “Internet of Everything”—that runs human activity and replaces all classical forms of work and activity:
So here comes the Internet’s Third Wave. In its wake jobs will disappear, work will morph, and a lot of money will be made by the companies, consultants, and investment banks that saw it coming. Privacy will disappear, too, and our intimate spaces will become advertising platforms—last December Google sent a letter to the SEC explaining how it might run ads on home appliances—and we may be too busy trying to get our toaster to communicate with our bathroom scale to notice. Technology, which allows us to augment and extend our native capabilities, tends to evolve haphazardly, and the future that is imagined for it—good or bad—is almost always historical, which is to say, naive.
I have a hard time believing that computers and robots will replace all human activity and work. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but it seems improbable that the entire human population will acquiesce mental and physical activity to machines. Yes, we enjoy the added leisure time that machines have provided us. It’s nice not to have to walk and ride horses everywhere. Refrigerators are the best. But this vision of a world in which humans are “making music and self-publishing novels once they are freed from work, while machines do the heavy lifting” leaves several things unconsidered.
First, there are too many people in the world who are smart and rebellious. The former attribute means that they won’t abandon the important work of analytical thinking and problem-solving to machines. They like it, and know it’s good for them.
The latter attribute means that people won’t merely march in step to the status quo: they don’t embrace fads at a whim. They are likely to weigh the consequences of a machine-run world before embracing it wholeheartedly. There are too many Luddites, and quasi-Luddites, for this vision to be completely possible. As Halpern herself notes, people are aware of the privacy trade-offs implicit in using services like Facebook, “as demonstrated by both Jim Dwyer’s painstaking book More Awesome Than Money, about the failed race to build a noncommercial social media site called Diaspora in 2010, as well as the overwhelming response—as many as 31,000 requests an hour for invitations—to the recent announcement that there soon will be a Facebook alternative, Ello, that does not collect or sell users’ data.”
Will the Internet force us into its innovations, by becoming too powerful a force to resist? Perhaps this could happen. It’s becoming more and more difficult to function in modern America without a smart phone. But resistance isn’t impossible: and even in embracing technology, we can dictate the way it interacts with us. It just takes willpower and initiative.
It is true that Americans have a tendency of letting bad habits creep up on us. We often don’t see vices until they’re so ingrained in our society, they’re difficult to let uproot. And this is why stories like Halpern’s should wake us up, and remind us to pay attention. It’s true: we’re increasingly reliant on technology. And the more connected things become, the more we rely on the connecting system for survival; as Halpern writes, “After the ‘things’ are connected to the Internet, they need to communicate with one another: your smart TV to your smart light bulbs to your smart door locks to your smart socks (yes, they exist).”
This doesn’t mean rejecting “smart” things entirely; but perhaps we ought to consider how connected we want everything to be. If your smartphone crashed or was stolen today, what would you lose? Just one form of communication? Or your entire wallet, social calendar, contact list, etc.?
Whether considering smartphones, Facebook, or robots, we ought to remember that humans are at their best when they are required to work—mentally, physically, and socially. Exercise and mental activity increase our life spans. Strong social relationships add to our wellbeing and flourishing. The human life was meant to be an active life: one of vocation and consideration, not technological passivity.