Ever noticed how the more sophisticated a gadget is the sooner you get irritated by its limitations? When I first got my iPhone, about 2 years ago, I was overjoyed with it. I was amazed by all the new apps and services, by the slick internet browser, the instantly re-sizing pages, the pinch-to-zoom and butter-smooth scrolling.
But it didn’t take long before I started to get upset because it would occasionally drop a call, or block a number that belonged to one of my friends, or because it didn’t multi-task, or tracks would skip when I was simultaneously using Echofon to post to Twitter and listening to the built-in iPod. ‘Oh, Fuck off’, I cursed, stabbing the touchscreen and swiping back and forth, my patience exhausted.
Soon I was getting disappointed because my phone didn’t anticipate my every need, play soothing music when I got stressed, or comment on my choice of clothes with a flattering but insouciant: ‘I like that sweater. Is that new?’ Basically, I was expecting it to act like HAL 9000, but in a good way. My expectations of a mobile phone had gone from next to zero one minute to impossible to satisfy the next.
I think this frustration is caused, ironically, by the phone’s brilliance. You become so absurdly optimistic about the capabilities of technology that you soon start to forget that it’s just a load of wires on a silicon circuit board. You start to believe there really is some intelligent being in there, capable of delivering everything you want at the touch of a button or, even better, before you know you want it.
The better and more intuitive gadgets become, the harder it is to believe that there’s anything they can’t do. And the closer they come to the appearance of artificial intelligence, the more you start to treat them as if they had other human traits, as if they actually knew something about the world. The technology is a victim of its own success. It becomes so invisible that you forget it’s there, and then you forget how good it is and start blaming it for things that are totally beyond its control.
Come to think of it, maybe HAL was just pissed off because he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved. I mean, if I was that clever, and I knew it, and the human astronauts, the ‘legacy systems’, so to speak, started treating me like some kind of skivvy and lording it on my spaceship as if they owned the place I think I’d close the pod bay doors. Wouldn’t you?