Keeping the human in the machine

Tech innovation is the stuff of magic when it presents us with the devices we never knew we couldn’t live without, or when it fulfills our collective geek dreams to see Star Trek become reality. (Now that we have the iPad mini with FaceTime, here’s hoping teleportation is next.) And then there are times when perfectly useful and good technology morphs into something hideous and terrifying. In the case of The Terminator (or, more accurately, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which gave me many a nightmare), machines were positioned to take over the world because of one scientist’s desire to see his research through to its full potential. (If Joe Morton’s character couldn’t have foreseen the consequences in 1991, fair enough, but this wipe-humans-off-the-earth scenario has apparently become so much of a pressing concern that Stephen Hawking recently joined an “anti-robot apocalypse think tank” called The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk.)

A much more common and seemingly benign version of this shift happens when a popular tech innovation is stretched just a little too far. Take high-definition television (or the floundering 3-D fad, for that matter). In contrast to the charming pixelation that we were willing to tolerate for decades, HD has felt nothing short of amazing as a way to make pictures clearer and experiences closer. But the time has come when companies are attempting to make that experience so close that it’s no longer comfortable. Instead of interacting with a story through a filter that leaves something of its world to the imagination, instead of looking at a news anchor through a lens that kindly leaves his or her pores out of the picture, we’re confronted with an in-your-face, never-before-so-intense degree of the hyperreal.

This morning, I came across news that one of the products being showcased at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show is a horrifying ultrahigh-definition television set. New content will have to be created specifically for this device because   it contains four times more pixels than current-generation HD TVs (a difference that would allow viewers to see the veins on a leaf, for example...or on Lady Grantham’s hands, should she go without gloves). According to NPR, only about 50 films have been shot using an ultra-HD camera since 2004.

I can imagine the reasoning behind the decision to introduce this 110-inch monstrosity relied on the idea that people love HD, so extreme HD must be the ticket to even greater success. More is more! That logic certainly applies to some things in the world, and not everyone despises the ultrareal experience as much as I do, but tech innovators are at risk of missing an important trend: the reintroduction of the human.

As a counterpoint to all things glitz, glam, corporate, and mass-produced, many of us have been gravitating for some time toward objects and experiences that are handmade, flawed, underground, and singular (hello, Etsy! hello, letterpressed and microbrewed everything!). The point isn’t necessarily to displace perfect objects completely, but neither is it to only fill our homes with handcrafted goods from Brooklyn. It’s more so to strike a balance, taking advantage of tech advancements while making sure we don’t lose touch with the human condition in the process.

In a December New Yorkerpiece, Trent Reznor discussed a nascent project--a collaboration with Beats Electronics that will launch a new kind of streaming music service as a follow-up to the likes of Spotify and Pandora. The idea behind the project (known informally as Daisy for now) is to offer suggestions to the listener through a combination of algorithms AND expert curation. According to Reznor, there was a need for this type of service because the first generation’s model “has begun to feel synthetic.” In another article, Reznor was quoted as saying Daisy would be a platform “in which the machine and the human would collide more intimately.”

In this new year, I’m looking forward to seeing more projects pushing in that same direction, more thinking that doesn’t thumb its nose completely at technology but that helps us reclaim some humanity in our digital lives.

Meanwhile, Daisy is set to come out in early 2013, and I will be watching The Graduate in glorious, romantic Technicolor on my regular old high-def TV tonight.

Gwen McCarter, Strategist

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