Mr. Twain’s Complaint: the Technological Scrapheap

Well, the 19th century made progress—the first progress after “ages and ages”—colossal progress. In what? Materialities. Prodigious acquisitions were made in things which add to the comfort of many and make life harder for as many more. But the addition to righteousness? Is that discoverable? I think not. The materialities were not invented in the interest of righteousness; that there is more righteousness in the world because of them than there, was before, is hardly demonstrable, I think. In Europe and America, there is a vast change (due to them) in ideals—do you admire it? All Europe and all America, are feverishly scrambling for money. Money is the supreme ideal—all others take tenth place with the great bulk of the nations named. Money-lust has always existed, but not in the history of the world was it ever a craze, a madness, until your time and mine. This lust has rotted these nations; it has made them hard, sordid, ungentle, dishonest, oppressive.

~ Mark Twain, Letter to Rev. J. H. Twichell, Hartford, March 14, 1905

What in Mark Twain’s day they hailed as “progress” we now worship as “innovation.” We are taught we can’t have too much of it too soon, that it’s our salvation. I’m no more convinced than he was.

Last Friday the AP reported “Toyota is investing $50 million with Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in hopes of gaining an edge in an accelerating race to phase out human drivers.”

One giant leap for robots, another plodding step in humanity’s march toward total redundancy.

A recent Harris consumer survey of 14,000 U.S. new car buyers reveals that few of them use much of the high-tech gadgetry their cars contain. So I guess the proper response for industry is to find ways to force them to use it. Kelley Blue Book analyst Zach Vlasuk elucidates the industry view (via The Street): “the fundamental essence of in-car technology boils down to improving the quality of life while behind the wheel.” Won’t the driving experience be so much nicer when the annoyance of having to do it is finally vanquished?

Over at CNet, Wayne Cunningham opined “When a car costs $100,000, you expect a cabin filled with the latest gadgets.” Bu wait. That $100K vehicle would have cost $70K not too long ago. How much of its inflated price pays for high-tech features that few car buyers have clamored for? After all, were you to instead spend that $100k on a studio condo, would you expect it to have a fridge that tells you what you should eat and a microwave oven that tells you how to cook it?

Mark-Twain-Public-domain

Even a low-end new car may contain 50-100 microprocessors controlled by 100 million lines of code. Beyond the added cost of designing, building, and testing those elaborate systems, there is a 100% chance that they contain latent bugs. This isn’t hypothetical. Both BMW and Tesla cars were shown to contain vulnerabilities that could let hackers unlock their doors via cell phone commands. In fact, researchers have demoed carjacking over the Internet. So, as more cars get connected, opportunities for mischief and mayhem will multiply.

Forget “consumer choice.” Most innovations aren’t about meeting our needs. Who needs a black box recording their car’s movements, 24 kinds of messaging apps, or 10 formulations of fabric softener? They are about creating needs, market differentiation, and geek chic.

So here’s what I don’t quite get, and what nobody likes to talk about: What’s up with all the innovation worship? The motto of one software company whose products are used to design microprocessors for vehicles is “accelerating the pace of change in science and engineering.” It is clear that the pace is accelerating, but to what end? What would be so terrible about having a leisurely pace of innovation that people and institutions might be able to direct and absorb, rather than having new things perpetually shoved at us, faster and faster? What drives this headlong rush to put us at the complete mercy of machines?

Not that we haven’t been at their mercy for some time, at least since the dawn of industrialization of manufacturing and agriculture. But pity the poor farmer who pays a quarter million for a combine that needs GPS to navigate and can’t find the signal. He can’t just take it back to the barn and fix it. You may have gotten trapped in an elevator during a blackout for hours, only to arrive at home to find your food spoiling in your sweltering apartment. And now, everything you do online is recorded, indexed, profiled, and exploited by corporations, spy agencies and assorted hackers. You never learn about the downsides of innovation until it’s too late to back off.

Some of the forces driving the tech explosion are the same old stratagems that capital deployed to make toasters and fabric softener household items. Soon your toaster will sense what you put inside and who put it there to provide optimum convenience, and your clothes will come with chips that tell your washing machine how to clean them. Never mind that smart appliances will cost more, have new failure modes, and contain flawed code that hackers will exploit to access your home network and rummage through it.

But don’t get too upset. You can always find a company to provide you with home network security solutions for as little as $9.95 a month, and for $24.95 a month they will also monitor your car’s gadgets too. So what happens when those companies get hacked and all that data about your network and thousands of others is compromised? You might as well leave your door unlocked.

Late in life, Mark Twain (who was quite the technology freak himself) remarked, “Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.” (More Maxims of Mark, 1927, Merle Johnson, ed.) Engineers, who get paid to invent gadgets and then again to fix their bugs, rarely admit that. And as innovation accelerates, more and more gadgets end up in the scrapheap, as we shall when our robots decide they no longer need us.

E.M. Forster—a contemporary of Twain—wrote a novella in 1909 called The Machine Stops that everyone should read. So don’t say nobody warned you.

Geoff Dutton is a reformed geek turned columnist, novelist, and publisher hailing from Boston who writes about whatever distortions of reality strike his fancy. Turkey Shoot, his novel interrogating the lives and times of members of a cell of terrorists in Europe, recently received an award for Courage in Fiction. You can find more of his writing here and at Progressive Pilgrim Review. He welcomes correspondence at geoff-at-perfidy-dot-press.

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