Button Pushers


When the machines take over, it won’t be with a bang but a whimper. Or maybe even just a glitch…

Did you ever have the feeling that every time you push a button, it pushes you back? Extrapolating from Newton’s law of “equal and opposite reaction,” we might update this to note that everything you watch watches you, and that everything you download also gets uploaded somewhere. Newsflash: free apps aren’t really free! Our on-demand world often seems totally frictionless, but that can mask its gravity.
The advent of “fake news” as a political trope shows how easy it is to contort reality. It’s the logic of how phishing expeditions can entangle even seasoned observers: people mostly consume only the headlines and subject lines, glossing over the details. This can lead to emotional reactions being stoked, even if the underlying reality is smoke with no fire (or vice versa, as real crises are buried way far down the queue).

                                                     Image: Pixabay

And repetition. Lots of repetition. And reiteration too. Plus some extra iteration just for good measure. It’s like the directions on shampoo bottles (really? directions?): Rinse. Lather. Repeat. This is most likely how bots can tip an election, or how the news algorithms (used by self-proclaimed non-news platforms) decide which items to feature at the top of your queue and to serve up to you on a platinum platter. The logic is quite elegant, really: flood the space, whip things up, and keep doing it until the profits are shiny.
Or something like that. The point is, the effect is more like “death by a thousand paper cuts” than it is a full frontal assault. In this manner, we can become habituated to the rainclouds slowly gathering to the point of being unaware that the sky is falling. Or perhaps we are aware, but find solace in conveniences and are willing to accept the tradeoffs (what Chelsea Manning called “the dystopia we signed up for”). The Faustian bargain of a seamless web of digital infinitude has woven invisible tethers into everything.
It’s in the microwave! And the toaster! And the car! And the dog! We’ve chipped things up all around us, with little regard for the vulnerabilities this creates and what sorts of havoc could ensue. Whereas Y2K was a moment of misplaced fear, perhaps in retrospect the real danger was that the machines didn’t fail. Today we’re surrounded by IoT devices that can take the reins of our lives at a moment’s notice.
Humans, we have a problem. To wit, the machines may well see us as the problem. It’s not just Skynet nuking us, but more likely your oven overnuking your lasagna. Seems innocuous enough, but have you ever tried to eat seriously overcooked pasta? Yeah, so … imagine a world saturated in burnt toast, tepid coffee, driverless cars going really slow in the left lane, unlogged payments, emails rewritten in transit, power outages before saving your work, thermostats cranked up in the night, streaming TV lag…..ging.
This is the daily dystopian dilemma, the one where the machines take over … not by force but through incessant, intrusive, and inopportune psychological machinations. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? After all, AI knows us better than we know ourselves, and Big Data has enough info to render a pretty accurate profile of everyone by now. And with every new device collecting more data all the time, the capacity for machines to learn even more refined ways to torment us is palpable. Our stressful lives already have us on edge, so having our buttons pushed in annoying ways could be the breaking point.
Scorched food, scalded drinks, interminable commutes, interrupted streams, unexecuted agreements, undelivered replies, missed connections, missing links, lost passwords, late notifications—it is so on!

NOTE: Yet another sardonic rant about tech from 2018-ish (revised a bit here), which almost feels like an innocent period compared to today, when we’re so thoroughly ensconced within myriad technologies beyond our understanding (ChatGPT, anyone?) that will remake the map of the world … and our lives.