Tag Archives: technology

Thanks, Google


Did you know that Google now has a tasks window that opens right next to your gmail?

(You are using gmail, right? If not, fix that first.)

This is the doohickey that my productive life didn’t know it needed.

I have to keep Outlook open during the day for my work-related e-mail. And Outlook has reminders, which are all well and good — but tedious to set up. Gmail’s window (I think it may be its own separate app, too? Maybe? Haven’t investigated that far?), on the other hand, just sits there next to your inbox and allows you to jot things down as they come to you. Basically a scratchpad right there in the window.

And of course, I always have gmail open in addition to my work e-mail. Which I am always checking. And since I’m always checking my e-mail, by extension I’m also always checking my to-do list. And since it’s right there in the inbox, it doesn’t float to the bottom of a list of unclicked windows. It rises like Old Faithful to the top every time I sit down to work.

Which means it’s always there to be seen. I’m using it for my daily to-do list. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I tend to get a little scatterbrained when I’m doing lots of things at once (which, as a theatre teacher, is pretty much every minute I’m at work). So every day when I sit down to work, I start my list. Make copies. File paperwork. Enter grades from quiz. Meet with admins. And, because Google is the dark master of regulating our dopamine levels, every time I click a thing off my to-do list, I get a little spray of confetti and color, and then the task vanishes forever.

Delightful.

It’s a little thing, but holy cow, is it useful.

Thanks, Google!

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Too Much Technology: Tableside


I was at the Olive Garden today and I saw the latest incursion of technology into daily life.

Image stolen from techcrunch.com.

Each table is outfitted with a tablet on which the patrons can browse the menu, order items off-the-cuff, request drink refills, even pay the check — without the need for a server to visit the table.

And I thought, wow, that’s cool, for about five seconds, before I realized, wait, that’s actually kind of messed up.

It isn’t hard to see what’s cool about it. And the server I asked about it was quick to sell me on the fancy features of it, all the neat and nifty things the customer can use it to do. Got kids whom you want to get a plate of food in front of, like, immediately when you sit down? Use this tablet for that. Had a rough day at work, and need a refill on your glass of wine right this instant? You can place the order yourself without waiting for the server to place it, then wait on the bartender, then run it to you. Movie’s about to start, and you need to pay your ticket right now if you hope to make it in time for the previews? Swipe your card right at the table.

Convenience! Ease of use! Instant response!

But. (There’s always a but, isn’t there?)

I quickly realized that I feel about this pretty much the same way I feel about self-checkout lines at the grocery store. Which is to say that the restaurant is now forcing me to do some of the work that I take as a given will be done for me as part of the social contract of visiting a place of business that, I thought, was in the business of serving the customer.

What I mean is, I have a job. I go to work for eight hours every weekday (and often eight hours is just the beginning) to earn my paycheck so that I can buy for my family the things we need. You know: roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs and shoes on our feets, little toys with a hundred detachable bits for me to step on in my bare feet at five in the morning when I sneak downstairs for a run. When we have a little left over, we like to splurge by going out to dinner.

And a not-at-all-insignificant part of the going out to dinner experience is the fact that we do it precisely to get a break from the reality wherein my wife and I have to do everything. Who’s cooking the meal? We are. Who’s filling the sippy cups and rushing to the sink to rinse off the toddler spoon that fell on the carpet and is now sporting a hunk of cat fur and carpet schmutz? We are. Who’s cleaning up the table afterward, doing the dishes, and in short doing everything that makes living unlike a band of complete savages possible? We are. We go out to eat to avoid all that.

And now this tablet. It pretends to be there for our convenience, but it’s not. Okay, maybe it kind of is … many are the times I can recall sitting at the table for minutes (entire minutes!) on end, waiting for the server to come round again for any one of the services outlined above. (Come to think of it, I think we get avoided more now that we have kids, but maybe that’s a post for another time.) But I have a sneaking suspicion that while this tablet pretends to serve the customer, it’s really to serve the restaurant, in that it cuts out the middle man. It eliminates a link in a chain, and any time you can shorten a chain, sheer probability dictates that you have less likelihood of encountering a weak link in that chain. And the weak link in this chain is … the server!

Far be it from me to say that servers are by definition weak links. I did my time waiting tables in many a restaurant, as did my wife. It’s a difficult job. Thankless. Much more complicated than a lot of people give credit for. Believe me, I have respect for the good servers out there (and we tip accordingly … none of that “your reward is waiting in heaven!” crap from my pocket). That said, there are some really garbage servers out there, and they can ruin the experience for the customer … and a customer who has had his experience ruined is likely to take it out on the restaurant vis-a-vis not coming to the restaurant anymore. So: install a tablet to take the place of a server descending on your table like a hummingbird every couple of minutes (or, maybe more like a migrant goose, every couple of months). Drinks are low? Need to pay and skedaddle? You don’t have to wait on another person to handle these things for you; just push a few buttons. In fact, with the tablet, you could really eliminate dedicated servers altogether and just staff the front of house with food runners and busboys (or busgirls, it’s the 21st century after all, although busgirls doesn’t sound quite right). I could sit down, tap up my drinks order, tap up my appetizer, and even tap up my entree (complete with preparation instructions that I now know will definitely make it to the kitchen — so when they serve me my chicken with fargoing mushrooms on it I’ll know it was the kitchen that screwed up and not my server). Why bring another person into the mix?

Monkey, Buttler, Operation, Waiter, Control

Because, as I said before, we go out to dinner so that we don’t have to do it all. I go out to dinner so that I can have a stranger kiss my butt a little, serve me with a smile, come around and fill up my water five or six times. I want them to do these things for me so that I don’t have to do these things myself. And yeah, this tablet means just pushing a few buttons to get these things done, but sharknado, if I wanted to push buttons and have it happen that way, I’d order online and bring the food home to eat. I like the interaction with a person. I like getting to boss somebody around for a little bit. And I will gladly pay for this service in the form of the gratuity we add on to the check at meal’s end.

Of course, as I said earlier, I don’t think this service is about me, the customer, at all; I think it’s much more to the benefit of the restaurant. No longer will I be able to complain: “well, I didn’t order that.” If I put the order in myself, then yes, I bloody well did order that. No longer will I be able to leave angry reviews on Yelp that we had to wait fifteen minutes for the server to collect and process our check: if I have the option to pay right there at the table, then it’s my fault I sat there like a dunce with my card in my hand and my elbow in a puddle of orange Crush that my toddler expelled through her nose. The tablet protects the restaurant from all these complaints you could theoretically level against a server, and it gives the customer more control over their dining experience.

Thing is, though?

I don’t think I actually want that much control over my dining experience. I want it to be good, but I want it to be good because it’s orchestrated by people that care enough about other people to make it good.

I dunno, man. The robot revolution is not that far enough. I know this is a road we’re going down sooner or later. Maybe I’m turning into a curmudgeon. But this feels like yet another thing we’re removing the human element from when, maybe, it ain’t quite time to cut people out of the picture just yet.

Am I wrong? Is this the wave of the future, or does this unsettle you a little bit?

 


We Are the Grid


What if memory were a saleable commodity?

I think this idea must have been implanted in my grey matter sometime around the time I first saw Total Recall when I was, I dunno, 15 or so, but I think it’s not so far-flung an idea as it perhaps seems on the surface.  When you consider the exponential growth of technology, and the fact that you now have a device in your pocket which can measure your caloric intake, sleep cycle, physical activity or lack thereof, and sharknado, probably even your bowel movements during the day, is it so hard to imagine a future wherein memories can be added to your hard drive for a fee?  Or deleted?

Terrible childhood keeping you from living up to your potential?  Not anymore.  Erase those awful parents and replace them with the Stepford Wives version of your mom.  All aprons and chocolate cakes and hot dinners and high heels.  Dad used to smack you around?  No, he didn’t.  Your dad was the perfect, pipe-smoking, newspaper-reading, catch-playing, allowance-giving Leave-it-to-Beaver dad.  (Truth time, I never saw a single episode of Leave it to Beaver, but that’s what it was about, right?)

It feels like science fiction, but it isn’t.  In the short space of my lifetime — and I got started in the eighties — we’ve gone from the height of technology being a little black box on your belt that can receive phone calls but not place them, a hulking computer which could choke when reading a floppy disk — an actual floppy disk that was actually floppy — to almost everybody in the US owning a computer that fits in your pocket.  Oh, and that computer is connected — by fargoing magic, it would seem to our selves from twenty years ago — to a series of computers around the world which give us access to any bit of information we might want, from local movie times to the phases of the moon to the entire history of ancient Greece to entire catalogs of movies and television shows.  Oh, and this computer also makes phone calls.  AND LETS YOU TALK FACE TO FACE TO SOMEBODY ACROSS THE GLOBE.

The cover of Time magazine a few months ago featured the next step in “Smart” technology — a glowing heads-up display embedded in the forearm.  Smart Watches are all the rage at the moment; there are no fewer than dozens of models being hawked in magazines and tech websites now, and you may be getting one for Christmas.  Google Glass, much though it’s stumbling and crashing into the furniture in its infancy much like my two-year-old son, is here and refining itself and not going anywhere.  In a few years, we will hardly remember a time when the computer chips were on the outside of our heads; when conducting an internet search required interfacing with a keyboard and a digital screen rather than the automatic firing of neurons and the insides of our eyelids.wrist-cover

There will be arguments about whether real or “artificial” memories are superior, though it will hardly matter, because the artificial ones will feel so real we’ll be unable to tell the difference.  There will be debates about whether the tech should be usable in certain situations — I can foresee a scandal wherein a kid who’s never cracked a book in his life wins the National Spelling Bee over all the geniuses through the covert use of his neural implants, but nobody will be able to prove it.  The moment you meet a new person, their vitae will be displayed in searing neon text inside your brain, with the option to view a full background history for a small fee, you need only “glance right” and the money will automatically be debited from your account.

There will be no such thing as “off the grid” anymore, because we will be the grid.  You won’t be able to “unplug” anymore, because the stuff will be plugged into you.

I wrote a short story some months ago about a society wherein nobody was able to lie anymore because everybody had a device implanted into his head which blinked if they told a lie.  Make lying impossible, and the ability will disappear.  Except the world needs liars, so naturally, scientists found a way to bypass the very tech they had created to make lying impossible.  Not my best story, to be sure, but it seems relevant to the topic at hand.   At any rate, I go back to that story because it’s science fiction… except that it’s not.  We’ve had technology for years which, through a simple reading of your blood pressure, pulse rate, or even the dilation of your pupils can tell if you’re lying.  How much of a stretch is it to imagine a world where they just hook that stuff up to you at birth to cut out the middle man?

Sure, this means that we’d view everybody as an inherently deceitful and disingenuous person.  But hell, Sam’s Club checks your receipt before you walk out the door, and you pay for the privilege of shopping there.

When we can implant memories — and remove the ones we don’t want — what will happen to the idea of identity?  What will happen to the idea of being a unique person?

I’ve never climbed Everest, but I could easily implant a memory that I had.  And if I remember it — if I can smell the snow and feel the thinness of the air and see the panorama of distant mountain peaks and the world far below — is it not real?  For that matter, if something happened to me in my life and I can’t remember it — did it ever really happen?  Are we not all, at the end of the day, brains in a vat?

Believe it or not, no psychotropic substances were involved in the writing of this rambling blarg post.  Only a deep-seated paranoia about our collective cybernetic future.  I for one would like to preemptively voice my whole-hearted endorsement of our prospective robot overlords, and ask that when they plug me into the Matrix, they make me believe that I am a freaking ninja with a boat and a talking dog.  And a hoverboard.  Because yay, hoverboards.

This post is part of SoCS.  Typed with no editing at all, only spellchecking.  Which I’ve already had implanted in my brain.


Stop Upgrading and Start Improving


Why is tech moving backwards?

Okay, obviously most tech is moving forwards at astronomical speeds.  You compare technological advances over the last fifty years with technological advances over the previous several millenia and it’s not even worth starting the stopwatch.  We are making newer, better, faster gadgets faster than we can figure out what to do with the old ones.  It’s a good thing, as tech magazines and websites and tech advertisers will be the first to tell you.

But then you look at something like Google Glass.  Here’s the height of technology being developed by a giant of the industry, but the idea of strapping a computer to your face didn’t get shot down in the spitballing phase?  We’re a country where automobile accidents are one of the leading causes of death, and Google wants to enable Mikey McMerkerson to livestream the NFL draft or the latest episode of Nasty Housewives of Nashville or whatever else while he’s cruising down the freeway at ninety miles per hour?  Sure, right, they’ll say that the technology is not meant to be used while driving, and that’s fantastic and all, but their little admonition makes about as much difference as that “No U-Turn” sign in front of my neighborhood.  Sharknado, everybody and their brother knows that texting and driving is one of the most efficient ways to accordion your Corolla, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it.  I don’t even have to tell you to take a look around you at the next traffic light you come to, or to sneak a peek at the land cruiser zipping past you on the freeway.  You already know what those drivers are doing.  You put that technology out there, it’s going to be misused, and if Americans have demonstrated one thing through the outbreak of obesity and a movement that thinks eliminating vaccinations is a good idea, it’s that we need protecting from our fargoing selves.  Creating the next, newest, best bit of technology with the brightest flashing lights and the fastest clicking clickers and the longest electrical dongles is no longer worth doing for its own sake.  Comes a point when technology does not need significant improvement, and we need to stop pretending that it does.

Case in point, I had two bits of technology catastrophically fail on me today, one a fairly indispensable staple, the other a trifle, but both together have my blood boiling.  (Yeah, yeah, first world problems, whatever.)

First, the phone.  I’ll preface that about a year ago, my phone dies and it was under warranty and they replaced it.  Okay, nothing’s perfect in this world, the warranty worked, it was all good.  (For the curious, I took the phone on a long run in the summertime, and when I got back, the phone’s display didn’t want to work anymore.  Since it’s a shiny smartphone that only functions through its screen, the phone had become a sharknadoey electrical brick.)  Today, I’m using the phone to catch up on some scores from yesterday’s sporting matches and look at some facebook pictures — YOU KNOW, REALLY TAXING STUFF THAT PHONES ARE NOT DESIGNED TO HANDLE — and it just goes dark.  Total failure, identical to the one I had a year ago.  I fiddle and tinker, but it’s not coming back.  I call up the dealer and I’m informed that the product is out of warranty, but would I like to sign up for their new plan and get a new smartphone every 18 months for free today?  It will only cost an extra $20-30 per month depending on the model I choose.  Yeah, no thanks, I’d prefer it if you’d a) stand by the product that you manufacture and distribute and replace it, given that there is obviously something wrong with that model, or b) manufacture a decent goldfingered product in the first place that doesn’t crap out at, what, the nine-month mark?  But I’m getting onto the cell phone companies now, and that’s not my focus.  My focus is the phone.

I’m of that magical generation that saw the first widespread use of cellphones during my formative years.  Hell, I’m of that generation where the cool kids had pagers in high school, so the cell phones of today are nothing short of monkey-math miracles.

But are they really?  The first phone I had was one of those Nokia jobs that everybody born before 1995 recognizes, the little gray brick with a keypad and the calculator display.  It was indestructible, it could run for seven and a half days without needing a charge, it played the best game ever (MOTHERFARGOING SNAKE AM I RIGHT).  My phone today runs for about 16 hours before it needs charging — that’s if I’m not using it much during the day — and it breaks when the East wind blows, apparently.  THIS IS AN UPGRADE.  And yeah, it’ll check my e-mail and my facebook and let me take pictures and post my dinner to instagram, and that’s nice, but THAT’S NOT WHAT A PHONE IS DESIGNED TO DO.  I have been on the smartphone train for about a year and a half, and I am starting to wonder if this is the station where I get off.

The other bit of technology was my tablet, a Nexus 7 which today decided that life was too hard and pooped itself in a cloud of unintelligible technicolor dots and squiggles run across its display.  Again, I was using it to — brace yourself — browse the net at the time, which, I’m sorry, should hardly force it to break a sweat, let alone overload its tiny little robot brain, but there you have it.  The tablet crapping out isn’t the pulled hamstring that the phone is, but it’s an annoyance, and happening as it did on the same day — in fact in the same morning — it felt downright conspiratorial.  And again, it makes me wonder how much I need the tablet to do things that, in all fairness, I can do on the laptop with slightly less portability and convenience.

I love technology, I really do.  But it feels like more and more it’s designed to be disposable, and that’s a thing which just strikes me as completely backward.  We don’t need a brand new iPhone model to drop every year (and for that matter, we damn sure don’t need to be camping out overnight for days to get it — what is wrong with us [just to clarify, by us I mean people who actually do that crap, which does not and never will include me]).  What we need is technology that enriches our lives and that can be depended upon.  Like that goldfingered little gray brick of a phone.  How I miss her sometimes.


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