Can != Should, Is != Ought

Maybe I’m getting too old for my own good. Or maybe studying philosophy is making me older. Here in the US, though, it is Memorial Day, a day where people normally grill burgers and dogs, throw a few back, and forget to ask why. It’s just another day off, and days off are good for—well, for something.

Memorial Day, in the US, stands in memorial for those who fought—and, specifically died—for our freedom. But what is freedom? In my world, there are two types of freedom: freedom from, and freedom to. Two pieces this week made me think through this difference once again, and how we are increasingly confusing the two concepts.

But the big thing that changed this week is a Google home device is no longer a theoretical possibility. It’s here. And on a sunny day at the outdoor amphitheater, just a half mile away from the Googleplex, the audience watched as a video showed the device at work in the home of a typical American family. There was laughter when the dad broadcast his playlist into every room in the home, waking up his sleeping children — and then later remotely turned on the lights to make sure that his son was up. Text messages were sent, dinner reservations were changed, all using Google Home, and it even answered a child’s questions using YouTube video clips on the family’s widescreen TV. “That’s cool,” someone in the audience murmured, and at the end of the presentation, the audience applauded loudly. The New Stack

Now, I don’t want to beat up on Google too much. Rather, I want to turn our thoughts to the difference between can and should, is and ought, and the nature of being human. The IT world is awash in the progressive ideal—that we can (and therefore should) make life a lot easier by snooping into every corner of everyone’s life. That what is, is what ought to be be. But, on this bright Memorial Day, I see a different picture.

Let me try to inject a little reality into the image of Google Home. First, intermixed with “Dad’s play list,” and the television answering questions, will be spots for advertising. Nothing like catching you just as you wake up to image the products you need to buy that day—or even better, the things you need to believe. Second, this is only the first morning.

The second morning looks more like this: Dad wakes up to a blare of music; his oldest kid has hacked his password and reprogrammed Home to play the worst thing he can find. Dad wakes up, bleary eyed, and finds his youngest kid mad at the television. “I have homework due today, and I can’t get the television to actually answer my questions!” “Well,” Dad replies, “you shouldn’t have left your television time for the last minute.” The youngest whines back, “but Dad, the television said I would have plenty of time to Google this assignment this morning…” Dad, still bleary eyed, replies, “I don’t know how to fix the thing, and I don’t have time to fix it right now—Home has every second preprogrammed so I can just make it to work on time, including my morning commute!” Angry at the slight delay, Dad works his way into the kitchen, where Home has prepared his breakfast by examining every breakfast he’s eaten for the last ten years.

What I see is a bunch of people who are no longer making their own decisions—or using their own minds. Now, let me return to Memorial Day.

It often seems like we’ve met the last enemy, and it is us. To overcome this last enemy we must do what every war in history has entailed: we must make ourselves into objects. Somehow this all seems a bit Pyhrric. To win this last war, we must stop being, well, human.

Is this really a victory we should look forward to?

Wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing, happy Memorial Day.

1 Comment

  1. Nick Russo on 7 June 2016 at 10:25 pm

    Hopefully mankind finds the balance here. I for one am not a big fan of IoT or IoE or whatever its called nowadays. There are some critical applications where it adds clear business value but others where it becomes a nuisance, at best …