fredag 6 juni 2014

Thank you, Garmin & Siri

I'm on a sabbatical at UC Irvine for six months. When you live abroad you naturally see the society/culture you're visting from the outside. You can also at times glimpse your own culture from the outside. New experiences and exposure to new points of view lead to new thoughts. This blog post is based on certain aspects of my life as a visitor/guest in the US and it most closely relates to a blog post some months ago about my eldest son's use of messenger/social networking app and how it mediated his relationship to his friends back home in Sweden while at the same time being very far away from them ("Communication technologies as an umbilical cord").

I have noticed how much easier things are this time around compared to 6 1/2 years ago when I was a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research (MSR) in Seattle/Redmond. There are for sure several reasons, but one important reason is in fact the sophisticated geographical/map services that two of our devices supply us with. The first device is our Garmin GPS car navigator. We call her "Ingrid" because that's the name of the Swedish voice we are using. The second is Apple's Siri in my first-ever smartphone (an iPhone 5c).

In our everyday life, these two services have, when I look back, been supremely empowering for us. The obvious "use case" is us having an address, then getting into the car with little idea of even the direction we are going in, and with Ingrid leading us to the right place. I bought maps of southern California for Ingrid already back in Sweden as part of the preparations for going here, but, we have also been in Arizona (spring break) and San Francisco (memorial day extended weekend) and then had to rely on Apple's Siri. Sometimes, without even cell phone coverage, it can become a bit tricky. You need to download the map/route when you have access, and then not stray from the path too much (since you can't download a new map in the middle of a cell coverage-free Death Valley). Entering an addresses into Ingrid/Sire and getting the directions is great as the alternative would be to do it on the laptop at home and then print out or write the instructions down.

The next level of services is Siri's ability to find stuff nearby. The typical "use case" is that we are somewhere away from home. We then ask Siri if there is a restaurant/café/bakery/gas station/ATM/Target store, or, a sushi, Thai or Indian restaurant nearby. Siri will then find the 15 closest, and we choose to walk or drive to one of them depending on our preferences and how close they are.

It sounds pretty simple but these services have allowed us to not always have to plan a lot of stuff in advance (when will we be hungry, and where will we be at that time?) and, to stray from the beaten track. It's been very convenient and I don't think I'm hyping these services when I say that for us, here and now, these services have increased our quality of life on our sabbatical here in California and allowed us to do stuff we would not have done otherwise. On the other hand, during my time in the US, I have learned less about the city I'm in, but more about how to talk to Siri - she doesn't always understand my Swedish accent and since I can't train her, she trains me to pronounce words so that she can understand me (through the process of trial and error). Thank you, Siri, ...or (?). And I by the way still don't know if Siri can understand Swedish or not...

I also realize I would/will have less use of these services back in Stockholm. I know the city and I already know where many of the things we need in our daily lives are located and I don't need a smartphone to tell me where I can buy X or get Y fixed. These services are thus best, or at least most useful, for people who move around a lot (in a big city, a region, a country or who moves between countries and continents). These technologies and services consequently ought to be most useful for a global elite of people who travel to a lot of new places in their jobs, i.e. primarily businessmen or other (very) qualified professionals. They are also really useful for people who can afford to travel to (new) places every year when they go on vacation. They are by all means also useful for researchers who go to some (or many) conferences in different places every year.

I would imagine that these services are less useful for the poor who for the most part are "stuck" where they live and who move between a limited number of places over the course of a day, a week, a month or a year. At a minimum, you "should" own a car in order to have maximum use of these services. Or, perhaps my imagination is limited? I realize that even the homeless, the poor or those who are looking for a couch to crash on (Couchsurfing) can find great use of these services. But, I still believe it doesn't come naturally and their use and enjoyment of these gadgets and services are surely "accidental" rather than "essential" (Brooks 1975) in the minds of the (privileged) software developers and corporations that both develop these products and services and also use them...

Here's a recent example from my own life. Two other visiting researchers with families (French philosopher + wife + two daughters, and, French computer vision researcher + Spanish wife + toddler) are going to Lake Arrowhead this coming weekend. We decided to tag along with short notice. We looked for a house to rent for the weekend through Airbnb and found a big house that we booked. It's a little pricy, but I guess that's what can you expect in Lake Arrowhead...? We booked the house yesterday (Thursday) and got a confirmation the very same evening. Today is Friday and we go tomorrow. Thanks to Ingrid and Siri I don't need to know where Lake Arrowhead actually is or care about exactly where in Lake Arrowhead we are going, the only thing I actually do need to know beforehand is that it takes 90 minutes to go there from our house. This is the kind of convenience you can buy if you have enough money (which we apparently have). This is where Ingrid and Siri shine. We even don't need to plan for buying food or finding a restaurant - Siri can find them for us when we arrive. We actually don't have a single worry in the world. The house we rent (of course) has wifi (as do cafés on the way), so if we bring a computer, we can use the bigger screen to look for things to do, again without having had to plan anything in advance. Supreme convenience...

Another aspect of these services is that they work best for places that are mapped, measured, counted and tagged - i.e. for affluent places (cities/countries) in the world, where there are many people who have these devices and who use these services. So on the one hand, being a visitor for six months in an environment that is new to me, I am personally thankful for these services. I can at the same time see that they don't necessarily spread their graces evenly among the population.

A great book that does a great job of unpicking such built-in structural unfairness is Alf Hornborg's book "The power of the machine" (2001) - published in Swedish as "Myten om maskinen" (2012) [The myth of the machine]. Hornborg points out that when a railroad has been built, many people can save a lot of time compared to alternative pre-railroad ways of travelling. It might however be the case that the very people who actually built the and the railroad tracks and cars, to say nothing of those working the ironworks smelters or the mines - could not afford to buy a ticket for the train. The railroad is not really built for them. A railroad can be many things at the same time but one of the things it represents is a way to reorganise time between differently privileged groups in society; some groups spend their (underpaid) time building railroads while other people are first in line to harvest the benefits of that railroad (e.g. affluent people who can afford to buy the tickets and travel faster than they would have done in the pre-railroad era).

The same kind of reasoning can be applied to cell phones and smartphones; first only the (very) rich can afford them, later they are within reach also to the sales clerks who sell them. Perhaps even the factory workers who assemble the telephones in China can afford to buy the smartphones they assemble? But the people who mine conflict minerals (like Cobalt) in Congo will most certainly never be able to afford a smartphone. Their time has a very low value and we, the rich, harvest all (or most) of the benefits of their hard labor. The give away their time on the cheap and we save time by using the resulting devices in our everyday lives.

Another book that I found useful in its analysis of the relationship between time, movement, power and wealth is Boltanski & Chiapello's "The spirit of the new capitalism" (published in French in 1999 and in English in 2005). The book was a heavy read, but some parts were absolutely brilliant and could very fruitfully be used to analyse the effects (on power) when different entities (individuals, corporations as well as governments) move at different speeds in relation to each other.

This blog post started out as an idolatory thank you letter to Garmin/Ingrid and Siri. Having reached the end of the line, perhaps it is possible to draw the conclusion that Ingrid and Siri actually represent the benevolent, smiley face of oppressive capitalism in the early 21st century???

PS. Another provocative thought: The presence of air conditioning and entertainment systems in our cars (radio, musik, podcasts, audiobooks etc.) make a long trip more bearable. They help people more easily endure long daily commutes. The increased convenience they afford thus encourage us to stay in our cars and to drive longer distances - which is bad for the environment. I assume Garmin & Siri has the same effect. More in-car convenience makes us take more and longer trips in our cars (which is bad for the environment), right?    

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