A Proposal for a Virtual Jiminy Cricket
The Future, 8:25 AM
Imagine: it’s the near future, on a fine spring morning. Ocean levels are displacing low-lying nations and scientists say that the extinction rate is accelerating, but you have your own problems: you’ve got to get to work, but you overindulged in long, hot shower and time is running out. You’ve popped your daily French Toast Food-Replacement Capsule with Vitamins™, put in your mixed-reality contact lenses, and consider your commute choices. No matter the choice, if you leave right now, you’ll be on time. Which do you choose?
You can bike to work. It’s beautiful out. Zero emissions.
You can take a bus -- electric vehicles, and good for the life of the city.
You can call a Lyft Line, and catch a ride with 3 or 4 other people.
You can drive your own car to work. You’ve got an electric car, but your electricity comes from coal. (Wireless electricity from Elon Musk’s Martian mega-solar-grid is still a few years away.)
But let’s face it -- you know yourself, and you’ll probably drive. It’s not the best choice for the environment or for your community, but it’s nice having the freedom. So you suppress the image of those smoke-belching coal plants, put the plight of the Bocaccio Rockfish out of your mind, grab your key fob, and move to leave.
That’s when a notification pops up in your field of view (you have your notifications settings set to look like Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio holding placards a la Bob Dylan in the video for Subterranean Homesick Blues) that says: “Really? You’re going to drive on a day like this? No rain, warm and lovely. You haven’t indulged yourself enough this morning? Choose wisely, pal.”
Annoyed, you roll your eyes (which also clears the notification), but know that the app is right. You don’t even need rain pants. “Fine, I’m riding my bike. Happy?” The fob goes back in the drawer, and you head out.
Before your smart-door can automatically lock, you see another notification: “Don’t forget your helmet. Need to see pictures of head injuries?” You sigh, and run back in.
“Well done. Now, doesn’t that feel good?”
Outsourcing the Internal
For a long, long time, humans have been using technology to outsource hard-won evolutionary advantages.
Lament away. You’re in good company. In the Phaedrus, Plato’s Socrates plotzes over his fears that because of the written word, people “will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” Yeah, no.
Long before Athens, we outsourced hunting and gathering to agriculture. Then we outsourced any technical skills to industrialization. And I guarantee that at every step, the older folks shook their heads and said, “Kids today.”
Of course, this process has accelerated. For example, when I was a kid, I had to remember a bunch of phone numbers. Today, I only truly know two. But is this a loss? I consider it a net gain. I don’t have to remember how to get to the house of my friend I haven’t seen in 2 years. Just ask Google Maps. I can ask my phone to remind me every other Monday night to take out the garbage can. It’s great. Progress means that my paleolithic brain — which has not yet evolved to deal with the complexity of life in the twenty-first century — gets all the help it can get.
Life is no doubt complex today. An action as simple as throwing out a battery has global implications, because there might be hundreds of millions of people throwing batteries away today.
We don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with the collective consequences of our actions, now that there are almost 7 billion of us. And we make so many decisions every day that we can’t police them all. Or even if we try, willpower is a limited resource. So what does a well-intentioned human do? As usual, outsource.
A Moment of Reality -- Sorry!
Just a moment to acknowledge that the big technologies poised to change our lives sooner than we think are big data, artificial intelligence, and mixed reality.
There are terrifying, Black Mirror–type nightmare scenarios. The fact that that show has become the new Twilight Zone is telling. And knowing that we live in corporatocracy run by venal sociopaths, the probability is high that everything will go terribly wrong. Here, just off the top of my head, are some some chilling but almost certainly tame thoughts about what might happen just with mixed reality:
Blade Runner–type personalized advertising? Of course. Here’s the dystopian vision: https://vimeo.com/8569187
AI–powered face recognition merged with search. It’s not inconceivable that you could sit down at a coffee shop and know the names of everyone there. Not only names, but kids’ names, romantic history, pets, educational history, photos. The mind reels.
Kids playing video games while you think they’re listening to you (kids today): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=is12anYx2Qs
It could speed gentrification by giving us a heads-up display crunching tons of data to give us a sense of what houses are undervalued and how much you can make by buying and flipping one. Just stroll around and ruin neighborhoods.
We already know that when we let the technological genie out of the bottle — everything pretty much goes to shit. This is because we, as a species, are powerful but also short sighted.
We manufacture plastic shopping bags for a couple of generations, or occupy our children with those beads you have to iron, and wouldn’t you know — there’s a huge floating island of garbage in the Pacific choking wildlife.
We love our long, hot showers, and we end up warming the climate. We want cheap clothes and iPads — and bury our heads in the sand about child and forced labor and people jumping off of factory roofs. We are living in a world where everything has a cost, and we have no idea what that cost is (or we don’t want to really know). So if we think about the cost at all, we either get a spike of panic or a general queasiness as we survey our kingdom of conveniences.
As I look around me right now, I have no idea about the provenance of the bamboo surface of my desk, the metals in my sound-canceling headphones, the ink in my highlighters, the contents of my L-Theanine capsules, the clay of my mug, the trees that died for my Leuchtturm notebook, the leather of the chair next to my desk, and literally hundreds of other things within arm’s reach.
It’s too overwhelming.
Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide
Pinocchio had a problem. He wanted to be a real boy. The Blue Fairy stepped in and brought him to life but kept him a puppet. If he wanted to be a real boy, she told him, he’d have to be brave, truthful, and unselfish. To keep him honest, she assigned as his conscience an anthropomorphic, English-speaking insect named Jiminy Cricket (a minced oath for you know who).
We all want to be brave, truthful, and unselfish, but we’re easily led astray. It’s next to impossible to live in modern society and be sure that (almost) nothing you bought caused the pain or exploitation of other beings. How would we get all of the information we need?
What if technology, after getting us into this bind, was able to help us become real boys and girls?
What if big data, AI, and mixed-reality is actually harnessed to be part of the answer?
Imagine a day when you can go into a supermarket and (actually) see which products are cruelty-free to animals and exploitation-free for humans.
If we outsource our conscience, we could have information at our fingertips that helps us make good decisions all day.
Let’s call it Digital Jiminy Cricket (DJC). It would be like having one of those little Seafood Watch cards at your fingertips when you’re buying fish, but for everything. Why not? And if everyone with purchasing power had this — not just people with all the leisure time to research — and demanded the information, corporations would quickly come into line. Such an integrated database, served up in the moment to millions, would become the conscience of capitalism.
Such an application could save us from our lazy selves, as well. No need to give a little whistle to activate the DJC. This thing is automagic (opt-in, of course). Here are some ideas:
Turn on the water to brush your teeth, and you see an ongoing count for how much water you’ve used that day, week, month, year. Flush the toilet, take a shower, and the number of liters (in the future the U.S. is finally on metric) ticks up. The DJC could suggest that you let it mellow.
ETHICAL FOOD CHOICES:
The DJC could see what you’re eating and over time suggest you eat less meat because the production of meat uses more resources. Calibrate the DJC to your values: are you not moved by the painless killing of animals? Dial down that setting. But facts are facts.
The DJC could help us be more logical and realistic about our decisions. We’re afraid of sharks, which kill 1 person every 2 years. But are you afraid of cows? They kill 20 people a year. We might be adamantly opposed to drunk driving (and should be), but the government estimates that up to 6,000 fatal car crashes might be caused by tired drivers. The DJC could remind us to take a Lyft (or, better yet, the bus).
OTHER WAYS THE DJC COULD HELP:
“Do you need that second piece of cake?”
“Could you walk or bike instead of drive?”
“Are you indulging in too much time on Reddit?”
“The past few nights you’ve binged on Altered Carbon instead of sleeping. Would it kill you to read a book?”
“You haven’t gotten up in a while. Maybe go for a walk when your 3pm meeting is over?”
Such an application as the DJC would have to integrate thousands of databases and serve up relevant information seamlessly and instantly.
What I find most intriguing about this idea is that the DJC isn’t making decisions for you, but it can give you a sense of why it’s important that you make a certain decision. We’re headed into a period in which data, AI, and mixed-reality — among other technologies — are going to insinuate their ways into our lives. It’s coming, and we as designers and businesspeople have a responsibility, as we do every generation, to decide if the profit motive alone will subsume a sense of community and connectedness.
The Web hasn’t proven to be incredibly ennobling, in my opinion. Maybe when it’s paired with direct experience and deeper information, we will make the right decision this time.