The less we understand about our personal technology, the easier it is to sign away our rights and, ultimately, control. We are delegating our responsibilities to algorithms and at the same time accepting what they give us in return as “magic”, up to the point where it becomes uncanny. The designer Tobias Revell and researcher Natalie Kane get critical about complacency with our Helsinki correspondent Crystal Bennes.
“Your average piece-of-shit Windows desktop is so complex that no one person on Earth really knows what all of it is doing, or how,” wrote journalist Quinn Norton in 2014. Coupled with Apple’s well-known slogan – “it just works” – these two expressions rest at the heart of conversations on magic, myth and technology which have long taken place within the design and technology industries, and are now emerging onto a wider stage.
In early 2015 the designer Tobias Revell and researcher Natalie Kane curated a strand of the Future Everything conference in Manchester, England, questioning the use of metaphors of magic and haunting in design and technology. “Magic was being used as an analogy to describe, for example, the way algorithmic systems work”, Kane says during a three-way video conversation. “Why do we keep thinking that Amazon recommendation systems are magic? There’s a lot to do with narratives of power, intent and agency – the conference was a starting point for a wider conversation over where we lose control over our own technology.”
Much of the technology industry remains visibly wedded to the Marquis de Condorcet’s idea of the “perfectibility of man”, as expressed in his 1794 book Sketch for a Historical Picture of the progress of the Human Mind with the argument that continuous progress in the past must lead to indefinite progress in the future. In part, it’s the devotion to this myth of progress that has made it so easy for magic to find a comfortable home in technology. “We’re seeing new types of origin myths and future myths around things like survivalism and seasteading,” says Revell. “All of these systems of belief have a myth about using technology to surpass ourselves into the next plane of humanity.
They’re all invested in a certain magical technology. For example, the ability to put a bunch of rich libertarians on a boat in the middle of the sea does not suddenly give you the magical ability to avoid tax law. Or not to have service staff and maintenance crew. But the image of the boat at sea has a magical romanticism to these people, which then builds into a future myth. And that myth attracts investment.”
With regard to personal technology, individuals are beginning to understand that the magic invoked in slogans like “you are more powerful than you think” (Apple again) is not merely magic that makes life easier, but represents a sleight-of-hand to disguise the fact that the company holds all the power.
“[Hacker, writer and artist] Eleanor Saitta outlines this idea of the ‘mage’s circle’, where the knowledge of how these systems work is kept within a small group of people,” Revell says. “You’re not allowed to know how to fix your iMac, for example. You’re not even allowed to know how to open it. I’d put ‘terms and conditions’ in the same category – you’re signing away your legal rights for the future and you don’t even know what it means.”
»you choose to use the technology in exchange for not understanding 100 percent how it works«
Kane chimes in: “Those are your terms of access. It’s a trade off; you choose to use the technology in exchange for not understanding 100 percent how it works. It isn’t always mean and malicious, as often they think they’re just making it simpler for you.”
Herein lies one of the most pressing problems in the broader conversation relating to the ease of so-called magical technology: responsibility. If our “terms of access” have now become such that we effectively sign away our rights to data, software and hardware ownership, as well as accessibility, is the magic still worth it? “It’s difficult in many cases”, Kane says, “because when something goes wrong our impulse is to look for a central responsibility, but the layers of accountability are distributed widely. To keep to the magical metaphor, should we blame the person who casts the spell or the culture of magic?”
“For me, it’s the responsibility of the person who invokes the spell in the first place”, Revell adds. “My problem with something like Nest [a programmable thermostat and energy meter which can be accessed remotely - the company was bought by Google for $3.2 billion in 2014] is that you the consumer are making a decision not to be responsible for your impact on the climate. You’ve delegated that responsibility to a machine or an algorithm, which has been created by people you’ve never met but you assume share similar values. But it is your problem. You should think about it. You’re the human.”
Within the framework of the uncanny valley, products like Nest and other Internet of Things [a phrase coined by British tech entrepreneur Kevin Ashton in 1999 to refer to the new networks being created by the linking of physical objects to the internet] objects can offer a potentially fruitful analysis of the domestic space. “Everyone thinks of the uncanny as the robot that looks too much like a human”, Kane says, “but what if the uncanny valley is a home that pretends to be a home, but is actually much more terrifying than that. If your fridge is ‘magic’, do you not have the illusion of a home? Or more an anti-home?”
“It’s linked to the idea of haunting”, Revell says. “We’re installing devices in our homes which aren’t entirely under our control and we don’t understand how they work or how to fix them. That becomes deeply uncanny, because you’re then deeply suspicious of your own home. The security of understanding it as a home is swept away from under you. Looking at places like London, we now know our generation will forever be renters and things like Nest then have completely different implications. We’re already treating our homes as transient, small spaces. Once those are laced with devices and absent landlords, I imagine home will be a vastly different concept.”