16 March 2012

...asking Siri the whereabouts of my nearest Homeless Hotspot

In this late curve of human evolution, we've harnessed technology to provide a way of dealing with most tricky or problematic situations. I have this orange; how on earth am I going to automatically get the sweet juice out? With TECHNOLOGY. I have the latest feature film hidden away on a cigar box size cassette; how am i going to watch it tonight? With TECHNOLOGY. My heart has just failed; how will somebody pull my lifeless body away from my exquisite subconscious dying thoughts? With TECHNOLOGY.

Anyone unfortunate enough to lose their keys back in the 80s can testify technology is great. If you needed to pop out in the Sierra to buy a packet of Raisin Splits and a can of Tab Clear, but couldn't remember where you put the damn keys, the wife could literally tell you to whistle for them - the attached keyring would then respond by playing a tune to alert you of their whereabouts. Technology, you see, provided a handy way to always return keys back to their rightful owner, like a trusty metallic homing pigeon. And when I say trusty, I mean drunk. Because the homing pigeon didn't always return. A caveat of the technology was that you had to 'just put your lips together and blow' in the *correct key*. A trip to the shops would often start with what sounded like a sloppy budgie execution. Expectant Labradors would leap from baskets as the misconstrued sounds from their owners suddenly imbued new meaning. No longer did a whistle signify 'come on Nettles, walkies!' but instead 'I'm slowly surrendering my brain to a fob that hates me'. If you couldn't whistle in tune, FUCK YOU! Now of course, keys are being replaced with cards, retina scans, gestures and voice control. Voice control! Now there's an excellent idea. Despite its foibles I miss the subservient whistling-for-keys of yesteryear, we need something like that for the teenies. Who can we, the humble masses, rely upon for envelope-pushing technology that makes life so easy we leave common sense at the door with our keys?

Apple's latest UK TV advert for Siri, iPhone 4s' terrifying voice butler, is an incredible piece of work for an incredible piece of technology which makes human beings look incredibly dull. Having played with Siri, I'm suitably impressed with the panoply of technology involved and my mind, should I allow it to wander into such incendiary territory as wondering how it works, gets blown to bits. But the way in which it's being advertised is both hilarious and creepy in equal measures. In the latest UK television  advert we see a nice lady talking to her iPhone, asking Siri - our middleman - if her mum has emailed her that recipe. Is not everybody shouting at the telly 'check your email?!'

Or in another scene a friendly chap sitting lonely at a football match asks Siri Is my brother here yet? 

Again, look left and right. Is your brother there? No. Maybe call him? You are holding a phone, not the portable backup drive of Hal-9000. I understand that Apple have a technology and lifestyle proposition to sell in 30 seconds flat but according to California's favourite technology giant, it appears that human beings have, in a lax moment of common sense, let the once friendly blob of technology into our building, shake hands and then absorb common sense itself. Like the Body Snatchers just got real. It's maybe no coincidence the software to which we ask these daft questions is, basically, called 'Sir I', a nod to how subservient our smartphones are making us.

Another wonderful piece of life-affirming technology usage appeared in a news item from Wired whereby a homeless person can - for a suggested donation of $2 - be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot at 2012's SXSW. Like The Day Today never existed, It's actually not a joke at all but a way in which to utilise people as assets rather than human beings. Apparently, anyone who's having trouble with their bandwidth can use their £400 smart phone to hook up to a hobo (sorry, if we're reducing people to objects then I may as well just call them by a nasty, derogative term - nobody cares!) and, in exchange for money and precious human interaction, check yourself in at the local tramp (again, tramp, who cares!). Just like the fantastically successful Big Society campaign which David Cameron trumpeted from his featureless visage a couple of years back, it will be a great success. Except the Big Society idea was a load of rightwing bunkum used to slice benefits from people more needy than the restofus, and was very much as far from a success as you could get without losing the gravitational pull of the original idea. So herein lies the problem. Very few people, except those wiring up the homeless, will benefit from the whole peculiar exercise. I find it hard to imagine anything other than a few people milling around in khaki carrot top trousers sending tweets after a few dollars and cents have exchanged hands. I can see how the idea came about, that somehow technology would be able to free those living in poverty from their situation, but its enrobed in a misguided idealistic fog of love for technology that's skewed the idea of helping people.

I'm not saying we shouldn't help those in more need than ourselves, or, heaven forbid, stop buying iPhones. I'm just saying it's important we don't make technology into some sort of panacea for not only every problem we face - such as socioeconomic ills - but also problems that don't even exist; like trying to locate a member of your family instead of just having patience. Like Kip in Napoleon Dynamite, I love technology. But it can only solve some of the problems some of the time, and the sooner we accept this the better.

I asked Siri if he thought people were stupid and he answered 'I respect you'. If the technology we create has an inbuilt self-respect mechanism which reflects our opinions of ourselves - that we're actually not a bunch of nugatory idiots - then there's hope for us all yet.

Read about the iffy origins of the Homeless Hotspot project here.
A massive thank you to Judge Nutmeg on TheAnswerBank who located the Apple Siri advert on YouTube. Damn I wasted a long time trying to dig that out.