Matthew wrote recently about what he sees as the exciting and impending future that is the intellectual revolution. As I read the post, however, I was filled with horror at the prospect, and rather than an augmented and improved utopia, all I could see was a restrictive and inhuman dystopia.
So it got me to thinking – who is the intellectual revolution really for?
What freaked me out
Of course, not everything Matthew imagines is bad: always-on ubiquitous data sounds super handy. And recommending local coffee shops or events that would be of interest to me based on all my big data would be lovely. But knowing when I want my coffee? That’s where things get disconcerting.
There are some days (despite my well-documented addiction) that I simply don’t fancy coffee. Algorithms can’t map personal whim, and if they can, that leaves me pretty depressed about the concept of serendipity. And the future goes downhill from there:
- Research assistant on every desk. Pre-collated and pre-formatted information suggests selection. It means what I am shown has been filtered, and the world will just get gradually smaller as I sink into my self-referential bubble. We’re already seeing it with Amazon recommends and the loss of bookshop browsing.
- 70 senses. A sensor that detects the smile of a loved one? What use is that without the human emotion and relationship behind it to enjoy that smile? I’m not saying there aren’t use cases, such as for the blind. But on a day-to-day basis I’d rather gather and interpret my own input.
- The inference engine. ‘These systems will act as gatekeepers and filters on information telling you what you want and need.’ No, no and no. If I don’t know what I need, how can a machine? I want to be able to explore and make connections between disparate data that I had no idea were related in the first place.
- Digital things, physical data. No matter how much you love technology, there always needs to be a place where you can escape. The day you say, no phone, no emails, no sensors or algorithms. Otherwise the line between human and passive consumer becomes worryingly blurred.
It’s nothing to do with being a geek
Reading all that, you might assume that I’m just not a big fan of technology. Wrong. I love technology, gadgets and general geeky wizardry. But only when it’s in its place and I can choose how it helps me, not vice versa. And maybe, just maybe, that’s because I’m a woman.
This might be all about how and why we gather information. According to research in the Harvard Business Review, there is a distinct difference between how men and women approach purchasing decisions, both in a B2C environment, and B2B. The article quotes a study from 1984, entitled, ‘Gender differences in information strategies for a Christmas gift’:
It found that “females appeared to comprehensively acquire in-store information, whereas males appeared to heuristically limit their search to a smaller subset of in-store information.”
Taking this as their starting point, the authors began to examine how female buyers in large enterprises reacted to sales pitches and presentations, and concluded that,
Women tend to treat proposal presentations as opportunities for exploring possibilities, while men work to narrow down options and close in on a decision.
Now, importantly, the article was not suggesting that one method was better than another, nor were they assuming this difference was down to nature or nurture. But whatever the origin, this difference seems to exist, and that brings me back to the question of who is this intellectual revolution for?
Designing for your own desires
A lot of what Matthew saw as the amazing possibilities of the intellectual revolution were precisely about the collation, filtration and prioritisation of information. All mechanisms for narrowing down on a decision, and restricting searches to subsets of criteria.
And I wonder. It’s well documented that the IT industry is still heavily dominated by men. Are they in fact designing a future purely for themselves? I mean, take the recent story of Microsoft’s stress-busting bra.
I was angry about this concept for a number of reasons. Largely the fact that it’s based on the idea that women don’t know when they are emotionally eating and need external interference to control their own bodies. But now I wonder if it was just a general consensus that having that information analysed and controlled for you is automatically preferable to those who were behind its design?
We’ve had enough decisions made for us, thanks
The problem is, not only do women make decisions differently (if research is to believed) but there is also a vast difference in experience between the genders in who has been making the decisions up to now.
Women are still fighting to get control over their minds, bodies, lifestyles and careers. We have had centuries of people (and I mean people of both genders acting under the patriarchy) deciding what we need to know and when.
Basically, we’ve had enough decisions made for us, and to have technology step in and add another barrier to freedom of thought and expression is simply not helpful. It’s time for technologists to step out of their nerdy-boy bubble, and realise – we don’t all think alike, and we certainly aren’t all on board with being thought for.