From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 26, 2016*: What will we do with all that "spare" time?

One of the somewhat paradoxical by-products of the ubiquity of information that the internet affords us is the relatively small window of opportunity that exists between being the first to know something and it becoming common knowledge. Yes, with so much information available there's no guarantee that any of us will actually encounter any specific item, but it seems that news spreads quickly, and rather evenly, throughout cyberspace. And that means that sometimes even a couple of micro-seconds can offer a significant advantage. There's nothing new about this. A Boidem column from almost eight years ago attempted to examine our lust for being among the first to know something, and that column opened with a recollection from eight years earlier.

That story is already ancient history. When the U.S. Presidential elections of 2000 were deadlocked with the need to carefully count the Florida votes, the CNN web site offered its readers the opportunity to be the first to know the ultimate outcome. As soon as either Bush or Gore would be announced as the winner, CNN promised to send email with that important information to whoever had signed up to receive it. This was fifteen years ago, when the internet wasn't quite as "instant" as it is now, meaning, I guess, that we viewed email as among the swiftest means of disseminating information. I'm pretty sure that I signed on for that announcement ... and never received it. And of course even then I well understood that I'd probably get the news via radio or television before I'd check my very frequently checked mail. I trust that CNN also realized that despite their desire to offer an advantage to the always connected early adopters among us, the (in this case considerably less than) earth-shattering news would reach us via other media first. That was 15 years ago. Since then it would seem that the window of opportunity between being the first to know and getting the news like everyone else has continued to contract. Because of that, however, it would seem that the desire to be the first to know has increased.

Today we have numerous more effective means of getting the news on earth-shattering events than our email. Our smartphones have newspaper apps that push breaking events to our attention, and if we're really addicted numerous Twitter feeds will keep us in the know. Perhaps because it's so easy to get new information, being the first to know the breaking news (and being in a position to let others know we know by passing it on) isn't quite the status symbol that it once was. On the other hand, being among the first to know what's going to be talked about among the cognoscenti garners true status. Writing in Medium about a month ago, Steven Levy points to participation in TED as a sign of the desire of people with money to get a head start on what later rather than sooner all of us will know:

To those shelling out $8,500 and up for a ticket (“donors” pay $17,000), it’s a must-attend, even though they know the hoi polloi will eventually get to see the talks free online. Nothing will get in their way.
Is having this head start on what others will eventually know really worth the cost? When seen as a status symbol I suppose that it is, though as with most status symbols it's probably less a case of actually knowing what's about to make waves, than of being seen as knowing. In the case of TED that desired status is actually a bit precarious. We're inundated with so many TED spinoffs seeking to cash in on the brand that it ultimately gets watered down. Though a page on the official TED site tells us that:
TEDx was created in the spirit of TED's mission, "ideas worth spreading." It supports independent organizers who want to create a TED-like event in their own community.
rather than being a sign of a developing community, that small "x" after the three big capital letters lets the true connoisseur know that this isn't "the real thing" but instead a minor league spinoff. Buying into the official brand remains expensive, and for that reason it's important that it remain clearly identifiable.

Back in the day of the 2000 Presidential elections we still viewed the internet as a great equalizer. True, not everyone was connected to the internet, and modems and accounts were still somewhat expensive, but anyone who could afford these could get on board. Being rich was nice, but in the race for new information it wasn't that much of an advantage. The in-the-knowness that CNN offered was solely technological, and being an early-adopter garnered a different sort of status than being rich. Today's TED advantage that Levy writes about is no longer related, or connected, to technology. Even though a certain degree of status still derives from being in-the-know technology-wise, what counts is having money, not being a technological early adopter. And it's when money and technology combine that things really start to become interesting.

Money doesn't only permit us to flaunt our status. It can also save us time. Historically, of course, this has always been the case. Rich people can hire other people to attend to their needs, thus permitting them to focus on their leisure. But today "there's an app for that". When everyone (and anyone) can afford a personal assistant app, and be attended to almost like royalty, there's only very limited status to be gained from being rich. In a Medium piece from the same time as Levy's Lauren Smiley examines some of the ways that apps can both save us time, and also give expression to our status. At the beginning of her piece Smiley tells us that in Levi's Stadium, the site of Super Bowl 50:
even people paying $3,000 a ticket sometimes have to stand in line
For someone with lots of money, I suppose that that's a rather depressing fact to acknowledge. But it turns out that apps can apparently help us overcome that demeaning activity. She reports:
Press a button on your phone and a stadium runner will bring a 49ers sweatshirt to your seat for a $5 delivery fee (poof goes the gift shop line). Push another button for in-seat delivery of a beer and hotdog. If you insist on visiting the concessions, the same app will estimate how many minutes you’ll spend in line (same for the bathroom). To keep your line-cutting smartphone in order, stations of power-charging cords dangle around the concourse like digital drip IVs.
Chances are good that this really is the future. Computers in our pockets (and everywhere else) with apps that attend to just about all of our needs suggest that it's not only those who can hire people to wait in line for them who can be relieved from performing menial tasks. Our digital technologies are "freeing" us from more and more tasks that, frankly, I wasn't aware were all that bothersome. In his New York Times Technology column from almost two years ago Farhad Manjoo quoted Sundar Pichai, presently CEO of Google, who described a bit of the future that Google could offer us:
“Today, computing mainly automates things for you, but when we connect all these things, you can truly start assisting people in a more meaningful way,” Mr. Pichai said. He suggested a way for Android on people’s smartphones to interact with Android in their cars. “If I go and pick up my kids, it would be good for my car to be aware that my kids have entered the car and change the music to something that’s appropriate for them,” Mr. Pichai said.
Since first reading Manjoo's column, more or less when it was first published, I've scratched my head over that quote. And it turns out that I wasn't the only one. Nicholas Carr also wondered about it, and (not unexpectedly) zoomed in on its problematics better than I could:
What’s illuminating is not the triviality of Pichai’s scenario — that billions of dollars might be invested in developing a system that senses when your kids get in your car and then seamlessly cues up “Baby Beluga” — but what the urge to automate small, human interactions reveals about Pichai and his colleagues. With this offhand example, Pichai gives voice to Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption, which can be boiled down to this: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be “freed up” to do something “more valuable.” Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being. Pichai doesn’t seem able to comprehend that the essence, and the joy, of parenting may actually lie in all the small, trivial gestures that parents make on behalf of or in concert with their kids — like picking out a song to play in the car. Intimacy is redefined as inefficiency.
And this, finally, brings me to the central focus of this particular column, to the question in the title. When, with the aid of my apps and other technologies, I'll have lots of "freed up" time, what am I going to do with it? If my kids are in the car listening to their favorite CD I won't have to talk with them, and of course if I'm in a self-driving car I won't have to focus on the road. I'll no doubt have lots of time. Apparently I won't have to do much reading, and since apps, and now bots, will be attending to most of my needs, I guess I'll be able to devote that time to tweeting or Facebook. But it's my guess that as we succeed in automating more and more of the simple tasks that make up our day we'll begin to realize that it's precisely those tasks which define us. Perhaps I shouldn't go so far as to claim that they give us "meaning", but they're far more than simply menial activities which via the wonders of technology we can look forward to not having to attend to. There's a good chance that once we "overcome" the need to attend to those activities we'll discover that we're incredibly bored. If Silicon Valley truly wants to assist me in "a more meaningful way", perhaps a good way for it to start would be by leaving me to deal with some of those humble, and even humdrum, tasks that today it wants to liberate me from.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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