At this year's D.I.C.E. conference (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Carnegie Melon's Jesse Schell gave a presentation which, even as it diverged into parody towards its energetic end, presented us with an incredibly depressing view of the future. In 1984, George Orwell writes "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever." Happily, this industrial image, from an industrial era, has not come to pass, but I don't think it is because of any underestimation of the benign nature of humankind on Orwell's part. On the contrary, our negative impulses have only found more efficient means of expression, so that the idea of exploitation by a monolithic force seems quaint in a world of constant advertising, 20 page credit card contracts, and a political system so based on subverting the average citizen's rational decision making that the fate of the nation depends on who more skillfully manipulates the psychological vapors of the electorate. It is no exaggeration to say that we have entire industries devoted to rational subversion of the human will. If anyone can provide a better definition for contemporary advertising and political consulting businesses, I'd love to hear it.
Almost every aspect of post-industrial collective action is rationalized or in the process of being rationalized. Research is conducted on the best way to squeeze every ounce of efficiency out of workers for the lowest possible salaries. Google, with its vast infrastructure, is leading the way in making sure that every ad you see is targeted directly to your preferences. Modernity is swiftly devoting itself to the problem of identifying what it is you want, and offering it to you just as you want it the most. In other words, the world is learning ever more clever ways to selfishly manipulate your psychology.
Jesse Schell's talk extrapolates the primitive kind of manipulations you see in Facebook games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. He openly discusses the ways in which these games exploit the psychology of adults and children, suggesting that such exploitation is the future of game design. He imagines a world in which everything, from your reading habits, to your sleeping habits, is monitored at all times by benevolent corporations, who use that data to tug constantly on the strings of your motivation, to direct you to buy, to offer you your desires. He imagines a government which uses a vast sensor network to gently encourage prosocial behavior.
In one example, he hypothesizes that your toothbrush will be equipped with a sensor that monitors the amount of time spent brushing your teeth. Although he flirts with the possible benefits to dental hygiene, he eventually comes right out and says that the real value will come from the creation of a brushing "game" that will help drive sales for toothpaste companies. With each instance, he dangles a possible good in front of the audience, only to say, actually, there is a profit stream to be made here. If we get a little benefit out of it, all the better!
His vision of perpetual surveillance by a myriad of omnipresent sensing devices, all as a means of shaping human behavior is similar to the vision of the transhumanists, where individuals extend their awareness and capabilities with the same kind of technology in the service of their will. The transhumanist imagines that he will be at the center of a phalanx of personal information collectors, the product of which he can analyze with ever increasing computational resources made available by ever-cheapening, general purpose computer hardware. But Schell's vision is the perverse opposite of transhumanism: technology becomes the means by which external forces exert a super-human control over the individual, not with the Orwell's boot or his comparatively clunky "Ministry of Information," but with rationally constructed, constantly adjusted psychological lures. Technology does not become ever more cheap and multipurpose, used by its owner for its owner's purpose. It becomes fractured, each device a sensor only nominally controlled by the "owner", its collected data analyzed by the distributor, not the user. This philosophical universe which tolerates such a conception of the future is transdehumanism. In it, a distributed, technological storm turns the average person into a constantly manipulated purchaser of both real and psychological goods.
I find the idea very distasteful, and I believe that the vast majority of humans, if they were to lay it up against whatever measuring stick they use to tally value, would agree. Schell's talk should serve only as a roadmap of where not to go.
The last ten years have seen an incredible proliferation of technology into the hands of people ordinarily deprived of such powerful means of cultural expression. It was a common assumption that technology would inevitably cause all ships to rise, enhancing the expression of the individual will which is so crucial to the human experience. Schell's imaginary future shows a different path, one which we should avoid. While continued agitation for open computing platforms and software is a good start, we should reconfigure our society to prevent the manipulation facilitated by our ever growing understanding of human psychology. Right now if an advertiser invents a new mechanism of capturing your attention, or discovers via focus group testing a way of increasing the impulse buy rate of candy at a grocery store, we at best muster a vague sense of unease. But such advancements are an assault on our ability to exercise our wills and and we should react accordingly. The alternative is to imagine a future where a cloud of media suffocates a human face, forever.