TOC Planet of the Apps Your Turn

December 20, 2011

Ulysse Mérou finds himself stranded on the planet of the Apes. In the future, the writer Pierre Boulle (1) may well become known as another Christopher Columbus. Discovering America, the latter thought he had landed in China. The former paints an ape-dominated world, far from where evolution leads our app-driven dystopia, yet so strangely similar.

The first sign of this nightmarish unfolding is a general decay in human attention. We are simply too busy to care about what we are doing.

This is not the gripe of an old grouch. It is the conclusion reached by no less than the National Transportation Safety Board. "Drivers face[...] serious risks from talking on wireless headsets, just as they do by taking a hand off the wheel to hold a phone to their ear", reports Matt Richtel (*).

Indeed Deborah Hersman, the head of the N.T.S.B., is not talking "about keeping hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, but also about making sure people focus on the act of driving". She castigates "distracted driving" and compares it to drunken driving.

"No talking to the driver when the bus is moving". Will this well known rule follow the passengers when they take the driver's seat? In America, people care more about living free from federal rules than dying from the lack of them. To compel cooperation, one could heed Darrell Duffie's creative idea and build the appropriate mechanism into each vehicle. But can one fight both the car industry and human evolution?

Distracted doing is not limited to drivers though. His attention steady, Matt Richtel next tells on the medical staff (**). With so many apps around, "doctors and nurses can be focused on the screen and not the patient, even during moments of critical care. And they are not always doing work".

Texting friends in the operating room may actually be less pernicious than ignoring the patient for what "Abraham Verghese, a doctor and professor at the Stanford University Medical Center" calls "the iPatient". Who will notice? Data driven healthcare only measure and bill conditions of iPatients. Besides iPatients cannot administer the Turing test. So, drop patients from consideration and you can well replace the medical staff with a few apps.

Dr. Verghese's warning is troubling for it readily extends to the whole human experience. Researching "The Facebook Resisters", Jenna Wortham quotes a 24 year old graduate student (***). "I wasn't calling my friends anymore. [...] I was just seeing their pictures and updates and felt like that was really connecting to them". In other words, friends are displaced by iFriends.

It was laziness which turned the human race back into the dumb animals encountered by Ulysse Mérou. Isn't the ultimate laziness to refuse to devote our whole attention to the task at hand and, whenever possible, substitute data sets for living people?

The second sign is an increasing readiness of machines to take over. We will easily rationalize our laziness as efficiency until we become irrelevant.

Irrelevance is what comes to mind when listening to all those CEO's who strut on the bridge and strike a pose at the rudder but who have no clue to what's happening on board their ship. Mind, I am not disputing the competence of a Jon Corzine or an Eric Schmidt. On the contrary, I do not doubt their skills and acumen. But if their own apps get the better of them, can more ordinary people compete? Apps are simply too fast for us all.

True, one can always blame Dilbert (2) for programming apps gone astray. Today, this is but an evasion of responsibility. Tomorrow, will scruples about eprivacy stop gene-based recruiting? Won't the programmers they need to achieve their ends be selected, even bred by the apps?

"So who is at fault for this lack of privacy protection? Most people are oblivious. The companies won't stop collecting information. And the government is slow to protect privacy." I second this assessment by Nick Bilton (****). Eprivacy is perpetual emotion and no motion.

Ulysse Mérou was struck by the physical violence exercised by apes over human beings. Yet this was not war, merely hunting and gathering. On the planet of the apps, I foresee exploitation to take a more advanced, dare I say more human, form. Serfdom, the third sign.

I am wont to speak of our becoming data slaves. Beyond this polemical phrase lies an objective reality on which Dr. Verghese's verbal creation gives us a better grasp. Made out of pure data, the iConsumers, not us, are the slaves, the rightful property of our apps-driven organizations. Forced into asymmetric markets, we of course retain our physical freedom but within the rigid economics of a quasi feudal society. Serfdom is our lot.

Forget then the parallel I establish between corporate and individual pirates, between those who download copyrighted music and those who upload personal data outside of an unbundled, freely negotiated transaction. Data is today's real property and serfs have no right to real property.

When Facebook users create marketable data, they cannot hope to sell what they must not own. But serfdom is not slavery. In exchange for free labor, apps will provide serfs with personal services, as long as they do not turn the underlying data into marketable goods of their own.

Subtle legal distinctions do not count. In New York State Court of Appeals may have ruled that buying "an unlimited MetroCard [pass]" and reselling it to individual riders a swipe at a time is not "an unlawful taking of property". But Michael M. Grynbaum reports "Jonathan Lippman, the chief judge" called it "decidedly criminal in nature" (*****). This MetroCard pass is the model for all digital content.

To enforce serfdom then, no wonder there is a push against second hand markets and online anonymity. On the other hand apps are happy to control all data in the cloud and hands out tethered devices. Feudalism thus replaces open markets with closed personal bonds.

After reading the novel and the signs, what are we to do? Notice how eprivacy rights would make serfdom unviable, seriously weaken the power of the apps and stir us from our natural laziness with its demands for personal involvement. But let us be realistic, the best we can expect is a cover up.

Steve Jobs enchanted us with the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. The apps want us to believe we still are the masters on the planet of the Ipes.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... Ban On Cell Use By Drivers Urged, by Matt Richtel (New York Times) - Dec 14, 2011
  • (**) ....... As Doctors Use More Devices, Potential for Distraction Grows, by Matt Richtel (New York Times) - Dec 15, 2011
  • (***) ..... The Facebook Resisters, by Jenna Wortham (New York Times) - Dec 14, 2011
  • (****) ... Privacy Fades In Facebook Era, by Nick Bilton (New York Times) - Dec 12, 2011
  • (*****) . Is Selling Swipes a Swindle? Yes, but Don't Call It Larceny, by Michael M. Grynbaum (New York Times) - Dec 14, 2011
  • (1) see Pierre Boulle in the wikipedia
  • (2) see a presentation of Dilbert in the wikipedia
December 2011
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