SXSW Interactive 2017 – Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Every new technology is launched amidst cries that it will be the downfall of civilization, yet civilization keeps on keeping on. Things shift, the technology is assimilated, and in aggregate, life gets better.

I never thought I’d be the type to put a tin foil hat on my laptop and yell at the bots to get off my lawn, but I left SXSW Interactive intending to do just that.

A few years ago I had few complaints about the technology that had become part of my everyday life. My job as a designer would be tedious without computers and software and the internet. Does anyone else remember rub-on letters? Paper books full of “clip art?” Life got better and easier. I self-published my own book. I used laser cutters and 3D printers at tech shop. I navigated foreign cities with the ease of a local thanks to my phone.

I love technology. I don’t want to go back. I like all the stuff we have.

I’ve ranted quite a bit here but it was more theoretical than personal. “Privacy” in danger, but only for those poor schmucks who didn’t keep an eye the updated terms of service. Wireless devices can open garage doors, but ours is physically locked. Yahoo accounts were hacked, but I don’t have one.

I thought I could keep ahead of this. I now realize I can’t and I really don’t like that.

Granted, I picked a pretty paranoiac track of panels at SXSW. I could have gone for uplifting talks on design and entertainment but I went right for the gloom and doom. Panels like; “Intelligent Machines will eat their young and us too,” “The future of jobs is dark and full of terror,” “Bugs in the system: Mapping the vulns market,” “Dark Days: AI and the rise of fascism,” “The internet of things you don’t own,” and “Biotechnology needs a security update.”

It isn’t just that I write sci fi and need to imagine the future. If there is a bogeyman in my house I’m not the type to hide under the covers; I go through the entire place cupboard by cupboard with a steak knife, terrifying as that is. Now I find the bogeyman is in my house, all my friend’s houses, in our cars and appliances. It’s a bit overwhelming.

I saw four trends at SXSW that, especially when combined, disturbed me. One: the proliferation of AI and automation, two: the lessening of property and privacy rights, three: the lack of regulation of new technologies, and four: the distraction of virtual and augmented reality.

Prototype haptic suit combined with VR goggles

“The Future of jobs is dark and full of terror” was a lively panel. France has formed a digital council to investigate the effect of automation on employment. The head of it was on the panel, as well AI researchers and the CEO of a social media monitoring company. The fear is that, in the case of a company like Foxcon (which employs tens of thousands of Chinese workers) automation could be sudden and catastrophic. The speed at which automation can change things is frightening.

I’m optimistic about this in the long term. After all, in 1850 64% of the workforce were farmers, and this number was down to 2% in 1987.

An audience member brought up that his friend, a radiologist, might soon lose his job because AIs are better at spotting tumors than humans are. I smiled because the job of radiologist didn’t even exist in 1850. You’d be hard put to even explain this job to the farmer. We didn’t even know what germs were back then!

This robot isn’t taking my job, it is amusing and delighting us by creating portraits using Einstein’s handwriting and formulas

I posit that we can’t even imagine the jobs we will have 100 years from now but we will have jobs. That said, I’m pessimistic about the near-term if we don’t stay on top of this. Our lives are short and I don’t want to live during the mid-century riots. One thing I notice in every fiery-eyed and enthusiastic developer is an absolute lack of concern of how their invention will affect society at large. They face a technological challenge and they want to figure it out. As they should. A builder bot that can make cheap, sturdy houses in a day out of whatever is laying around would change the world for the better, especially in developing countries. However, we need to slow this down a bit if it means 1.5 million people lose their jobs – tomorrow.

Loss of privacy always concerns me and is compounded by loss of ownership…both of the data we generate and the products we thought we bought.

Cory Doctorow asks a question during the panel, “Bugs in the system: Mapping the vulns market”

At present it is open season on our personal data, and given the current political climate “Senate votes to allow ISPs to collect personal data without permission,” (which they are already doing now) privacy advocates are in for an uphill battle. I’m not sure why everyone isn’t freaking out about this. We are in our homes, in our room, typing on a computer we own, using a web service we pay for to do a search on perhaps something related to a medical condition…maybe insulin pumps…and the ISP can harvest and sell this information? Yes they can.

“The internet of things you don’t own” explored the strange new world of things we supposedly own but don’t – like books and movies and other digital assets that can be pulled from our devices if the license changes. I used to “own” a copy of Photoshop, but I’m now forced to rent it from Adobe. I literally do not own the means of production in my design business. This scares me.

There are other things we “own” but can’t legally tinker with. (I just bought one of the panelist’s books – “The end of ownership: Personal property in the digital economy.”) That we aren’t allowed to repair or alter our own property is bizarre. A multi-million dollar piece of farm equipment wasn’t distributing larger seeds properly because of software…and the company didn’t offer a fix for a year. The farmer was screwed, and couldn’t hire a third party to help him even if he wanted to. A 10-ton piece of equipment can be rendered useless because of crappy, proprietary software. Is that okay? That’s the status quo right now. Software is creeping into our hardware. Manufacturers hand us potentially dangerous or insecure products and then quietly back away, with no legal responsibility to update buggy software, or offer updates to older software. WTF?

Which leads me to my next concern. Lack of regulation. Technological development is racing ahead of regulation, and seems to be gaining a greater lead. So even though organizations like Underwriter’s Laboratories (aiming to make products safer) publishes white papers like “Cybersecurity Considerations for Connected Smart Home Systems and Devices” I’m not seeing this affect what I see on the shelves of Best Buy, which is piles of insecure crap that will probably join a bot army the moment I hook it to my wifi.

I understand that regulation is hard. But no regulation is hard on us, the consumers, who end up with physically intact devices that no longer work because a company has no obligation to keep software up to date. I also understand how hard it is to keep software up to date…so ?????? Seriously, all the people that give TED talks need to figure this out. I mean, how hard would it be to at least require all devices to prompt users to set up a password when they first turn the things on? That this hasn’t happened yet is a bad sign.

The lack of regulation gets even scarier when you consider biotech. The panel, “Biotechnology needs a security update,” really nailed the ambiguity of our situation. We can’t not innovate in this area. As one panelist rightly called out, biology is already doing its best to kill us (disease, aging), however, biotech can be used for good or evil. As one panelist, an FBI agent in the Weapons of Mass Destruction unit, noted, they can’t investigate and prosecute crimes if no one understands what happened or if it is even illegal. Ai yi yi.

Here’s where we are: uncertain about the future of our jobs. Wary of products we don’t quite own that still manage to collect and sell information about us when they aren’t being used by hackers. Dismayed that the government seems to be throwing up its hands and backing away from regulating devices that can literally explode–because they don’t want to stifle innovation.

How to deal with all this? Escape!

Is this the future of human interaction? The cute girl next to you, dating some other guy, virtually.

AR and VR was everywhere. Last year there were a few booths in one room and this year every vendor had a headset. I find the combination of complex problems we don’t fully understand and a new type of immersive entertainment that removes us from the world around us to be very worrisome. Because–AR and VR are amazing! (If a bit head-achy at the moment.) People lined up around the block to try the newest things. They laughed and carried on and threw fake rocks and zapped things with fake lasers.

Basic income is an idea being bandied about now to deal with job loss due to automation (and poverty in general) however, I don’t see how this would do anything but cement the unequal distribution of wealth and power we have now. I’m worried basic income is a 10×10 room, crappy food, and some VR goggles so you can keep quiet and live in a fantasy world someone else created.

Bruce Sterling talked about a post-work future and all the things we might do with our time, (travel, do creative things) but in real life, about half the people I know that don’t have to earn a living (teens, retirees, people with trust funds, internet millionaires) don’t do much of anything but settle into a slump, or worse.

Bruce Sterling returns from Italy to give the “closing” talk, aka throwing a few rocks then leaving the country.

My fears could just be a failure of my own imagination. I’ve been born and raised to consider my job an important part of who I am and a measure of my worth, but perhaps if I was born 100 years from now, I’d happily become the custodian of the park down the hill and learn all about plants and soil and work with the volunteer architects and builderbots to build a band shell where local bands would play and actors perform each night. Maybe it will be awesome. ??

I’m hopeful that everything will work out. That robots handle the tedious jobs and humans find meaningful new employment. That we will be able to do what we want with things we own, including our personal data. That regulations will keep us safe when the mandate to return a profit to shareholders doesn’t. That AR and VR provide opportunities for engagement as well as disengagement.

For now though, I’m keeping the tinfoil hat on my computer and kicking those bots off my lawn.

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