14 January 2016

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Interfacing with technology

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Interfacing with technology.

When I proposed the subject I had just spent the large part of the day
trying to set up a new IT gadget. And it was precisely when I was
setting up one of the apps and needed my mobile, pc and notebook to
achieve the installation that I thought of it. This was the first time I
need to synchronise all these technologies just to get a small app to work.

In my short essay, although I accept that technology is becoming more
difficult to use, there is nothing new about this. Indeed we've all been
there before!

Interfacing with technology

For practical purposes those of us who live in "Western countries" are
surrounded by technology and moreover, we depend on technology for our
very survival. We need technology to bring water to our homes,
electricity for our domestic and communications gadgets and of course,
we need a good fridge to keep our ice cream safe after Christmas.

But first let me redefine "Western countries". Not so long ago this term
meant west Europe (today it includes central Europe), the USA and
Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, sometimes South Korea, and
give or take a few Islands that still have a strong colonial culture.
But I would argue that technology is changing the practical meaning of
this term. Today, anyone who has a powerful Smartphone, a versatile PC,
access to eBay or Amazon.com, access to cheap flights and eats
hamburgers is for practical purposes a westerner. Thus, today the "West"
is no longer limited to geographical regions but rather by technological
colonization and access to technology. As an example, and apart from
Israel, the Middle East has never been considered as part of the West,
and yet the iPhone and Ferrari cars have made this region a strong
partner of the traditional western countries.

A historical background and modern issues about philosophy and
technology can be found in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but
what is relevant for my essay is how Henryk Skolimowski paraphrased (in
1966) the difference between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of
Technology, "..... he phrased it, science concerns itself with what is,
whereas technology concerns itself with what is to be." (Philosophy of
Technology in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/technology/). Today, technology only
exists to satisfy our whims, desires, wishes and foibles and, hopefully,
to make some people seriously rich.

Interfacing with technology can be interpreted in a number of ways, but
for us we can use two meanings: a) our ability to make technology work
for us and use it as we intend to use it, and b) using technology to
further our interests. The first is using technology to meet our needs
and the second meaning is using technology to further our interest in
society, maybe even at a cost to others.

Except, of course, that there is nothing neither new nor modern with
these two meanings. Indeed these two criteria can be seen in the most
ancient of technology we still use today: natural language. Language
qualifies as technology because it is artificial and an augmentation of
existing biological skills. We mustn't mistake language with the ability
to communicate, all biological entities can communicate, but none have
developed language to the heights of human ingenuity and applied beyond
the immediate need to survive. Before we can go to our local fast food
restaurant to order a hamburger we can easily spend some time reading
poetry about the beauty of human ingenuity.

Thus, language satisfies our personal needs in the survival game, but it
is also efficient at furthering our interests. As it happens, language
is also very useful and effective tool to further the interests of the
collective group. Some members of the group might be weak or strong,
smart or dumb but all share a minimum threshold of efficient language
skills. But language has also the inherent characteristic of
discriminating against others; precisely those people who don't speak
our language. And because a natural language is inevitably linked with a
specific racial group it is also a tool that can easily be employed for
racial discrimination.

Indeed, nothing conveys this discrimination in modern times than digital
technology in general and the Internet in particular. The abundance of
digital technology means that it is available to all language speakers,
in probably all countries, but this does not mean that the interface of
this technology with humans, especially feedback or instructions, are
given in the user's language. It is, however, the opposite scenario that
we are interested in, when a non native speaker of a language tries to
buy equipment in a different country. For example, buying a Windows PC
say in Spain or Germany with an English interface. Some programs might
be made to run in English (or some other language) but the hardware
might not always be compatible; despite the fact that deep error
feedback messages are practically always in English!

The set up of the internet is inherently discriminates against users
because most website are set up to use the ISP location to present the
site language interface and content rather than the user's preferences;
assuming the user knows how to or can set these language preferences.
Thus, language can be used to include as much as to exclude others and
the internet implements this "racial" discrimination at the speed of
light or at least makes it difficult for users at the speed of light!
All this over and above the fact that translated programs usually have a
language price premium.

A few thousand years after the development of language, today we also
use technology not only to satisfy our needs, but also to further our
interests. We use a Smartphone to keep in touch with our friends and
loved ones but also with our boss and colleagues; we use a PC to further
our knowledge and skills to further our career at work, but most of all
we use technology to exclude others. We can use a Smartphone from a
certain brand as an image of status and belonging which other brands do
not offer; or we may use technology, such as medicine, to have a
biological advantage over those who do not have the money to buy or
develop this technology.

For a substantial period during medieval times in Europe the most
powerful weapon was the English or Welsh longbow (see Wikipedia) however
it was so difficult to use that the kings at the time encouraged the
"rich or poor" to practice and learn how to use the longbow. And because
of the skills English archers developed they were able to dominate the
battlefield in times of war. Maybe the equivalent today would be
everyone having to learn how to fly the EuroFighter! An ability to
master and effectively use technology means that we not only achieve
what we want, but equally important we project technology to meet our
interests over others. Our intimate interfacing with technology pays
back in abundance and handsomely with the results we achieve.

One thing for sure is that technology requires our cognitive skills to
evolve with it and welcome new technologies to come. But this means that
we must have had some sort of educational and training in our life to
know how to deal with this cognitive bridge between our experiences and
using new technology for the first time. Technology impacts directly on
the moral and political fibre of a society, for example by providing the
necessary skills to know about technology and how to learn. Once again
the complexity of technology means that those without the necessary
minimum skills cannot even how to turn on the machine. Indeed, this
complex cognitive requirement to manage technology is reflected in our
modern language with that most distressing and upsetting term "human
error" (also medical error, pilot error, driver error etc). But this is
an affront to our belief that human beings are superior to machines; no
doubt the modern term is very well reflected in the demise of the Titanic.

Today, nobody seriously believes that we are created in the "image of
God" but this concept is not without philosophical use. The irony is
that each human being is a unique entity, something we have in common
with god. We not only have unique fingerprints or DNA, but the language
we use is unique to us (see linguistic forensics) or things we make.
Artists have their style (I am not interested in copycats or forgers),
poets have their style, even how we work is unique to us; this might
explain and confirm why our mother's food tastes different for other
people's food we only have one mother. I would, therefore, argue that
even technology is a reflection of its "creators". Now, I don't know
whether modern engineers are philosopher kings, but by any reckoning
they are certainly the gods of modern society. And like our ancestors
who had massive problems understanding God, the average human being
today has real problems coping with technology.

If technology is about "...what is to be" it therefore be how we want it
and we don't like bad news. Hence, we demand a lot of responsibility
from our engineers; we don't want that airplane to stop functioning in
mid air, nor bridges to collapse when we cross them with our car and
most important of all we want our personal computer to work at all
times. This demand by society on engineers means that they have to
balance making technology to be human idiot proof but at the same time
have some useful function with customisation. Indeed, talking about
personal computers, the first real computer worthy of this name was the
Apple Macintosh, and this machine was very much analogous to the Garden
of Eden; the Mac was perfect and worked perfectly taking care of all our
computing needs, but any attempt to break the word of Steve Jobs and
look into the BIOS of the Mac resulted in the destruction of the
machine. I think God was first to create a Windows operating system; he
gave us a world with an accessible BIOS where we could freely explore or
thinker with our environment, but when we mess up things really bad he
gave us the skill of prayer to fix them. The only difference with modern
engineers is that although they still charge us a packet to fix our
mess, sometimes they can make things better or even have a replacement
for us without first having to die.



tel: 606081813
philomadrid@gmail.com <mailto:philomadrid@gmail.com>
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Interfacing with

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