2017-12-05

A Blue Valentine To Technology



Many years ago, I spent much of my time vying for the attention of a very lovely young woman. I showered her with gifts. I floated gently behind her on a cloud of euphoria the likes of which I had never experienced before. Willingly and ambitiously, I committed to remolding my weaknesses until I had transformed into a better version of myself in a daring plan to win her heart and build a perfect life together, filled with the promise of limitless possibilities. 



Young love is a language all its own, and we both proved to be multilingual. But it wasn’t just romance. I mean, she and I really were multilingual! I spoke English and Spanish, and dabbled in French. She spoke English and Bangla, and dabbled in many others. Our overlap was English, it was the language we shared, and thus became the language that defined our love affair. This didn’t seem right to me, though. In a truly epic love affair, I thought to myself, I’d speak her native tongue, too. Thus it happened that I started teaching myself Bangla.

The passion of youth is filled with optimism and hope, for despite there being no useful book or class for learning Bangla, I was certain it would be possible to master it. I searched the web deeply and uncovered a few important links. Then, with the help of my sweet paramour, I built my knowledge of Bangla from the ground up, one word at a time.

I leveraged Google’s technology for this. With their transliteration tool and their documents platform, I was able to achieve significant success in my undertaking, building language skills that would prove to be useful for a lifetime, a genuine lifetime. My heart swelled and the love between the young woman and I grew ever deeper. So, too, grew my love for the technology that made this possible.

Inevitably, however, the passion of young love fades. No, don’t worry: the young lady stuck with me. It’s my love affair with technology that soured over the years. Technology is the one that got away. She broke my heart. It’s a terrible tale.

Google swept me off my feet back then. It gave me the tools – free tools – with which to build a blossoming love affair into a lifelong romance; it helped me learn something that no teacher was available to teach me: a rare-to-North-America language that almost no one learns if they are not raised in Bangladesh. In Blogger, it gave me a platform with which to share my knowledge and perhaps acquire more through social networking. My use of Blogger soon opened doors to new opportunities in the form of occasional articles written for other websites. The future was unfolding her wings and flying me into the heart of the sun.

Then one day technology flew me to an entirely new high. My cell phone buzzed while I was driving. I glanced at the screen and saw a notification. I was headed straight for a traffic jam. That’s a useful alert, but Google took this even a step further: it automatically offered an alternative route, even though I wasn’t using the GPS system. That’s the power of technology working for me.

By god, it didn’t stop there! Soon all sorts of interesting and useful predictive technology was being used to improve my life. Google offered me reminders of things I had never expressly asked to be reminded of – and those reminders were just what I needed. I was getting updates on my package shipments. I was getting updates on, not only my own personal air flights, but also those of my friends and family members. This information was being funneled to me through my smart phone. I didn’t have to go searching for it, it was right there on my home screen.

Once I finally warmed up to this, I started taking it as far as it would go. I reveled in the sweet possibilities of what I had been offered. I voice-controlled Google into setting reminders for myself, which would translate into alarms on my phone. I created shopping lists, shared them with friends. I created a fillable online form that could track and predict my blood glucose levels. Everything was moving in the same wonderful direction. With a simple digital assistant, an artificial intelligence tucked into my smart phone, provided to me as a free feature on top of all the other things a smart phone “really” does, I was expanding my ability to live the good life. Technology and I really could build a future together.

It was beautiful.

And then it was gone.

As is so often the case for these relationships, I’m not exactly sure when it happened. The love faded gradually as all of that wonderful functionality disappeared, replaced with news stories and monetization. And boredom.

The truth is, I hadn’t really even noticed what I’d been missing until today, when I read an article about it at Computer World. “Google Now” fluttered away lethargically, like a lover who simply loses interest and grows cold. The passion of our earlier relationship had disappeared. Eventually I forgot that Google Now was even around. It took a wake-up call in the form of that Computer World article to remind me what I had lost, and what I had lost was truly wonderful.

Shuffling past the Amazon devices that now control my light bulbs, I felt a pang. Years ago, what Google and other technology firms were building was something that could have made for a genuinely epic marriage of human needs and algorithmic supplementation. Our mere acquainting ourselves with one another was enough to inspire a relationship between us that soon became something new unto itself. My relationship to technology wasn’t just that of a man and a computer in his pocket. I learned languages, improved my health, shortened my daily commute, made new friends. Every marriage should be what this was.

And now? Sure enough, I can voice-control my lightbulbs. I can set reminders and access my calendar. I can read a curated list of recent headlines. I do all this through sundry apps, none of which are powerful to offer me the future I had imagined, all of which are trying to monetize my interaction with it.

But what really hurts is the lost sense of limitless possibilities that I once had. If I had met my wife last year, I doubt I would ever have thought to leverage Google’s applications to teach myself a new language. I certainly wouldn’t have created my own blood glucose predictive analysis. Granted, I can hack together a lot of what I want to do with a combination of clunky apps. If I keep one eye occasionally dialed into my GPS system, I can watch for bad traffic; but I don’t get automatic notifications about it anymore, for example. And while I enjoy what Alexa can do for me, her user interface is slow and complicated compared to the old “Google Cards” interface.

In short, the romance is gone. I now look at the so-called Internet of Things and think to myself, why on earth do I need my refrigerator to me “smart?” A few years ago, I would have guessed that I’d one day live in a world in which a smart refrigerator could assemble my favorite ingredients before I even wake up. That really would be something. But algorithmic temperature control is definitely not worth dinner and movie, much less the hundreds of dollars extra I’d have to spend to buy the algorithm. My smart watch, a beautiful thing, has all the sensors required to predict my VO2 max. It doesn’t do it, though. Garmin reserves that particular algorithm for customers who buy one of their more expensive watches, despite the fact that this is a simple software operation. They’re withholding smart services from me that they could offer me, but don’t.

So this is the crushing weight of the end of a love affair. This is the moment, years after that sweet initial romance period, where I have discovered that my beloved was tantalizing me with gifts I would have to beg for – or pay for – later on; that every new desire in my affair with technology has become quid-pro-quo. I see in others pale and partial glimpses of the fire that engulfed me during the early years, whether it’s Alexa’s shopping lists or Android Auto’s voice-texting service; but these are only bits and pieces of what I thought I was getting. All these years later, we’re both tired of trying so damn hard. The future isn’t possibilities, it’s a few fond tools that can be called upon when we’re both willing to think about it at the same time. The eagerness to please, the dream we both once shared, is like a miasma that hangs in the periphery behind me.

Gradually and silently, I’ve admitted that, when it comes to technology, I hoped for more than I ended up with, and I dream that someone out there might come along with, if not the same functionality technology used to promise us all, at least that same sense of hope.