Saturday, June 30, 2012

Who's The Adult Here?

Back in the early 1990s I wrote a book called Taming the Wild Tube.  The premise was simple: help parents take control of the TV set, not by banning it, but by turning it into a parenting ally.  There are, no doubt, similar books being published today about the Internet, tablet computers and smart phones. However, those authors will face an obstacle that I escaped: parental paranoia.  When I wrote my book and people said "the media" they meant TV.  Parents knew TV.  Taming the wild tube simply meant parents putting reins on a critter they understood.

That is no longer the case.  Today when we talk about "media" we often mean "new media," social media, digital media, the Internet, iPhones, iPads, Androids, Kindles.  In the early years of this millennium, the 00s, parents often felt that their children understood "the media" better than they did. The digital babies seemed more savvy in that world than their intimidated parents. The parents felt unable to tame what they believed was their children's medium.

That was, and is, an illusion.  Being able to move information around cyberspace with increasing speed and agility is not the same thing as understanding how that information can enrich the quality of life.  Knowing how to manipulate data in digital space is a technical, not an intellectual, skill. Analytics describes the nature and shape of data.  Even interpretation of that data most likely informs best guesses regarding future patterns in the data.  That is not the same thing as understanding what the data mean in a humanistic sense.  The children whose fingers dance so swiftly across their touch screens are still just finger-painting. The adults still need to teach them what defines a life well-lived.

An additional challenge facing parents today is that the people building the digital environment often seem rather uncertain regarding those characteristics of a meaningful life.  Maybe today's software engineers are the kids whose parents assumed that as long as the children were working on their computer it was a good thing.  In that era "my homework" and MySpace somehow achieved parity.  Perhaps we are seeing that heritage in the latest offering from gurus at Google: Google Now.

GN is Google's Android response to Siri, the chatty personal assistant on the latest iPhones.  If you don't have her in your pocket you have seen the commercials: Siri reminds you of your appointments, chats with you about the weather, and - as parents the world over are discovering - will keep answering your kid's inane questions long after you have grown weary.

But, thought Google, having to ask Siri a question is just so lame.  A really good digital assistant should be able to guess what you want and do it without being asked - sort of like the servants in Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey.  And that is what Google tries to give us with GN.  GN gathers everything it knows about us from all things Google, our searches, our emails, our visits to YouTube, our calendar, and uses them to predict what we will want to do next - and tells us how to do it.  That, Google seems to think, will enhance the quality of our life.  Sam Biddle takes exception to that notion in the New York Times:

"But the whole deal presumes we're comfortable being followed and memorized like that. To Google, it's a non-grievance. Who would ever care? Why would you turn down a computer that knows the details of your personal life, and can predict the next one?"

I, like Sam, find GN far more creepy than comfortable.  Don't get me wrong, I read science fiction, I like it.  I like gadgets. I also have no desire to turn the clock back to the bucolic days before Novocain and the wonders of modern medicine.  But to me a life worth living includes secrets - special private places that we choose to share with certain significant others, or not.  But I want to be the adult who chooses the doors and windows on my life. I don't want my phone to be my Jeeves.  When I want help I'll ask for it.  Until then, "Sit GN! Stay.  Good dog."