Wednesday, August 17, 2005

General Paranoia

Is any one else really creeped out by the whole OnStar thing? The radio commercial transcripts of "real-life OnStar conversations with people-in-need" have me coming out of my skin with paranoid heebie-jeebies, all by themselves.

The only bright spot here is that there are a number of mock-transcripts floating around that are funnier than hell.

Do we really need a service that can let us into our locked cars, tell us where the car is now, keeps track of our name, billing address, and god-only-knows-what-else, all via satellite? Oh--and they call 911 for you, if you have an accident. See, it works like this: you call OnStar, so that THEY can call for help.

Then, to carry the idea just a bit further, I've recently heard speculation about putting a GPS in cellphones so that parents can track their kids' movements through the kid's cellphone.

There does already seem to be some sort of deal between OnStar (owned by GM) and Verizon Wireless, whereby you can combine your wireless minutes for the OnStar service in your car, and your wireless phone. On the same bill. w00t!

Also, this way you can use your cellphone to contact 'em about your car. You know--if you lock yourself out and the ice-cream's melting, or you forget where you parked and you're already late, or you get carjacked and have to abandon your eighteen-month-old sleeping in his carseat in the back.

Cuz that happens really often.

Just friggin' lovely.


Lori A. Basiewicz said...

I've been listening to those commercials, too, and thinking about how interconnected people are becoming with technology.

Too bad people don't feel as interconnected with one another as they do with technology.
Maybe it's a sign of the times. We can't depend on our neighbor to show up and give us a lift home to get the spare key, so we have to pay a service to do it for us.

Jill said...

I don't know if I should be embarassed about this or not, but I know more than one person with OnStar. And I know at least one person who has admitted to me that she used it. I forget the circumstances, to be honest, but it sounded reasonable at the time.

A few years ago, I blew three tires in four months and used up my three free visits from AAA folks to help me out (no, I don't change the tire on my mommy mobile, especially when I've got kids in the car and I'm stuck in a thunderstorm).

If you want to hear freaky progress, my town, Cleveland, was just named as one of three towns that Intel is helping go completely wireless and hi-tech, allowing hundreds and eventually thousands of city workers and dwellers to live and work wireless lives.

I've never been a Trekkie, but what else comes to mind?

Mac said...

Jill, I know more than one person who has OnStar, too. Everyone I know who has it loves it, raves about it (if they've had occasion to use it) and swears never to go without it again.

Apparently, they give directions to you, if you're driving around lost. One woman I know swears that it's improved her marriage immeasurably.

Heh--just another example of Lori's comment about technology connecting people, right?


I admit it sounds eminently practical and reasonable...

But it still gives me the creeps.

Moreover, I hope they have hellacious good training and then excellent debriefing counselors for the very occasional OnStar operator who gets stuck on the phone trying to keep someone with a crushed spine awake, long enough for the rescue team to peel the car open with the jaws-of-life.

Can you imagine being one of those operators? Long shifts full of unlocking peoples cars, and giving directions to the nearest interstate ramp--then kaboom...

Kira said...

I kind of feel the same was about OnStar as I do about cell phones.

They take away a level of self-reliance.

What ever happened to making plans before you left the house and then sticking to them? And the forethought of maps and everyone having the ability (if not the inclination--I'm with you, Jill) to change a tire.

Now it's "I don't need to know. I can call someone to do it for me."

I had a job when I was 19 or 20 that required me to drive across the country once a month. I lived in Georgia. Sometimes I'd end up in Pennsylvania, sometimes Arkansas. The compnay gave me an address and said "Be there on the 28th."

I didn't have a cell phone and it wasn't a big deal. If I got lost, I backtracked.

People hear that now and wonder how the world worked without the ability to communicate instantly. People really did used to rely on themselves.

Now, I love my wireless modem, but sometimes I wish things weren't so connected. It changes people, and how they interact with the world.

Lori A. Basiewicz said...

I miss being able to really get away from it all, too, Kira. Whenever I drive somewhere these days, I have my cell phone.

A couple of years ago, I drove out to see my brother after my nephew was born (he lives in Brook Park, Jill) and I just really wanted to be alone with my thoughts and enjoy the road disappearing beneath my tires, but the dang cell phone kept ringing, so I *gasp* turned it off.

But as I crossed from Indiana into Ohio, I turned it on again briefly to check on my mothew who was doing the connecting flights thing for the first time and to give my brother an ETA. Less than 20 miles on, my car had a major meltdown. As annoyed as I'd been with the cell phone at the beginning of my trip, I was grateful for it then.

Still, without it -- I broke down next to a tollway service station (I'm going to jinx myself, but when I do have problems, I have amazing luck where they happen) -- I would've used a pay phone at the service station, etc., etc.

The thing is, Mac, as nice as technology is, as much as I like my laptop and use my cell phone, I'm not convinced it's all a good thing. As Kira said, there's the self-reliance thing disappearing. I used to love plotting trips on the atlas. These days, if I have a very specific destination in mind, mapquest does the job for me. And I don't really like that change in my habits.

Anonymous said...

I can see I'm the outlier in this conversation! I have been waiting for my transporter, psychic doors (they know that you're going to turn around and say something else before you leave so they don't open even though you've approached them)and the replicator for nearly 40 years. You all *do* know I'm a SF fan and 'moderate' Trekkie? :-)

I love having TiVo, wireless internet at home, a cell phone and I'd have gotten OnStar in a heartbeat if I could have afforded the cars they came in back when my kids were young. I don't feel the need to have it now but if it came free I'd chose a car with it over one without.

The reason isn't that I really feel I need those things or that I couldn't live without them, but that I *love* new technology.

The company I work for is advancing the technology for pushing data, voice and video over broadband and the stuff I see in demos is thrilling. True videophones -- in cell phones! I can already do email, IMs or surf the net anywhere I want and on many types of equipment, not just a computer.

The downside is that I'm working more hours a week because I'm connected more hours a week. Even on vacation in Vegas last week I was answering emails and taking care of issues. They pay me a lot more than I can earn elsewhere, I guess I feel a bit indebted.

I guess living in California gives me a bit of a different viewpoint on things like OnStar. I frequently drive on freeways and sometimes I'm on a long lonely stretch with no cell signal and if anything happened I'd be stranded quite some time before someone came along. Then I'd have to hope that they were a true Good Samaritan and not a carjacker. Also in California a lot of us aren't in communities where we've grown up and know our neighbors. I've lived in an apartment or other rental for the last 9 years. Only recently have we moved into a duplex where we sort of know our immediate neighbors (don't know their names)and others at least to wave to. Without technology connecting me to other kindred minds I'd be pretty lonely. So while I've lost connection to people in physical proximity I've gained connections to people all over the world. It works for me.

Mac said...

Ah, now see--I was going to come in on Dawno's side, here.

It isn't technology I object to. I think technology vastly improves our quality of life, more than not. I recently had a friend in the hospital with chest pains, and I got to watch the technician do her echo-cardio-gram. It was extremely cool.

I love the internet, and suspect strongly that it allows people of similar interests to connect in a meaningful way--especially when that might not be possible in your RL community. Take a gay or lesbian teen in a conservative rural area, for example.

Or just look at the avenues of education opened up by connectivity! My god, I can view excellent and detailed digital images of manuscripts housed thousands of miles away--no appointment necessary.

It's really just the tracking thing that spooks me. Why don't they just chip us all and be done with it? The technology is there, for heaven's sake--we do it with racehorses and pets, all the time.

I think it's silly to just put a bug on your kid, instead of taking the time to find out where s/he's going, and with whom. (Disclaimer: I have no children, and so really only have the fuzziest theoretical understanding of how realistic that may or may not be.)

Anonymous said...

Mac, I completely agree with you on "chipping" humans. I object to that strenuously from a privacy point of view unless one does it voluntarily -- imagine I liked wilderness hiking (and you need a really good imagination for that, lol)...then I can see it might be helpful to be chipped. How many cases of lost hikers could be avoided with some kind of tracking device?

Mac, I believe that parents do need to take responsibility for the whereabouts of their children. As they grow older and you need to give them more liberties it becomes a difficult balance between total paranoia and reasonable concern. I speak from the perspective of a parent of a 17 and 19 year old, by the way.

I do think though that there is a legitimate fear these days among parents of small children that under extreme circumstances you could lose your child and with some kind of RFID or GPS you or the authorities might be able to find them quickly enough to prevent tragedy.

Mac said...

Okay, the chipping thing was actually a bit of hyperbole. The chips we put in animals actually contain a pretty limited amount of information, and have to be scanned with specific equipment.

I think the point I'm going after, in such a roundabout way, is something Lori suggested in her first comment: is technology alienating us one from another, even as it seems to bring others together?

More than from one another, do you feel distanced from nature and self, with the technology buffer-zone?

Anonymous said...

I know more about you and those making comments than I do about my neighbors. Something's not right. Technology can't rule us unless we let it. It's not technology alienating us from each other, it's ourselves.

Mac said...

Hiya, Bugs--so what do you think lies at the root of that? Is this an inherent cultural/societal problem or flaw?

Why are we so alienated? (If, indeed, we are...and I think a case can be made for it.)

Kira said...

"More than from one another, do you feel distanced from nature and self, with the technology buffer-zone?"

YES. Absolutely yes. But--I sure wouldn't want the life on a farm, full of nature, that my great-mother had.

Bugs is right, too. And so is Dawno, and everyone else.

Technology is great. What isn't great, and never will be, is people.

We choose to not know our neighbors. Apathy is a choice.

And it's easier to be honest in anonymity than face-to-face, where you really have to own up.

As for those lonely highways, Dawno--sometimes I think that's all the midwest is made of. New England is another story altogether. Cell phones and OnStar can all make life better. It's our reliance on technology that taints it.

We build a web from within a cocoon, because it's safer that way.

And my neighbors drive those idiotic jacked-up trucks with wheels taller than my two-door Saturn, never let their dogs in and have yard sales every weekend. I don't want to know them--there's my apathy.

I'd much rather converse via modem with the likes of you guys than spend ten minutes at a barbeque with them!

Anonymous said...

I don't know what stops people from interacting with each other face to face. Obviously people want to interact, as demonstrated by the proliferation of blogs and online communities. Everyone is so anxious to be heard; to tell people about their lives and discuss the issues of the day. Why not discuss things with people they can actually see and touch? Perhaps people don't trust each other anymore, but then look at the amount of personal info posted on blogs and forums. I don't know why it's happened. It's easy to blame technology, but I'm not sure it's the culprit.

Jill said...

Dawno, Lori, Kira, Mac (did I miss any other posters?): You all make great points. I can see every one of them! I think I need to call OnStar to ask them which direction I should go in re: technology: good or technology: bad?

What I know for sure is: I want to know how to not get those Anonymous comment posts that are blogspam. What's with that!?

(Lori - you must let me know when you're around here!)

Dawno - I'll be giving you a call in about four years. My oldest enters middle school next week, with two younger ones after that.

Great conversation.

Mac said...

Jill, I just delete 'em as soon as I see 'em.


I have a feeling it's a necessary part of regular blog maintenance. It also seems to be getting a lot worse, as traffic increases, here.

Ms M said...

As Jill said, all very interesting posts...the fact that people engage in discussions such as this gives me hope that there are social responses emerging to new social arrangements which are, afterall, always technological as well as social.

I lean towards the critical side of the debate on OnStar. One of the aspects that disturbs me is the increasing level of control required to manage increasingly complex systems. A system such as OnStar is designed to "support" humans and yet in order to do this it must 'lock in' humans into the same system of control for it to perform. Afterall, humans are just as much part of the system as their non-human counterparts and they can make the system malfunction with equally spectacular results.

This has all sorts of implications, one of which is the development of new capacities paradoxically achieved through a trade off of other capacities - what some posters have described as self-reliance but which could also be described as agency (both personal and social I would argue).

Being 'locked in' (pun definitely intended!) at once increases capacity but also increases reliance on the system to perform. This particular sociotechnical relationship predicates performance on being part of the system. In this sense performance is not exactly our relationship to technology or to people but more like our relations with the world (it is metaphysical as well as instrumental state).

This relationship or contract has some identifying properties, particularly when the system becomes pervasive either through the disapperance of alternatives or simply through adoption and habit:

-it becomes the only way to navigate and perform.

-it changes our understanding of what it means to navigate and perform.

-the consequences of not participating (which can come about through resistance or simply because the system is not designed for you) results in lack of performance, which correlates with social and in many cases physical exclusion.

-the consequences of the system malfunctioning results in both of the above (in varying degrees and for varying periods).

This position is pretty strongly attributed to Martin Heidegger. Where it gets interesting is in the realisation that pervasiveness is misleading or perhaps, overstated. There is always competition and incompatibility within pervasiveness which ironically creates a certain multiplicity of purpose and design by opening up spaces between elements of the system or between sub-systems. I would call this blog one of those spaces...

Mac said...

Bugs said: Perhaps people don't trust each other anymore, but then look at the amount of personal info posted on blogs and forums. I don't know why it's happened. It's easy to blame technology, but I'm not sure it's the culprit.

Hmm--I'm pretty sure technology is not the culprit, in fact.

Ms M--hurray! I was hoping you'd weigh in on this stuff. Yeah, there's also much to be said about the increasing complexity of systems lending itself to much more complicated consequences when those systems fail.

I think that also directly addresses Bugs' point about people not trusting each other. It's difficult to trust others, and much more vulnerable to do so face-to-face.

So we've constructed these elaborate systems and artifacts to structure that contact, and provide a comfort zone for our own exhibitions of self-expression.

Ms M said...

Yes you have a good point there and self-expression is closely tied to performance - it is a social act mediated by technologies and people that structure it and make it 'work' or 'not work'. (Shakespeare really had it going I think when he commented that "All the world's a stage...").

Lori A. Basiewicz said...

Ms. M, you indicated that a lack of participation results in a lack of inclusion. This relates directly to the so-called digital divide affecting many individuals either because they lack the financial resources to invest in technology others consider vital or because they live in an area where the best technology is not readily available.

Technology is rapidly increasing the division between the haves and the have nots. Without some sort of equalizing force, I fear society will continue to polarize until we are faced with the virtual elimination of the middle class again. Individuals will either be members of the technologically elite or they will not and those that are not will have little hope of bettering themselves or their situation.

Mac said...

Have y'all seen the news item about Philadelphia's wi-fi plan?

Ms M said...

Hi Lori,

Yes it does relate directly to this issue although I'm uncomfortable with the phrase "Digital divide". I've never really expressed why but I think, as a 'term of reference' for the social programs associated with it, it doesn't really capture or address the diversity of sociotechnical arrangements and degrees of access. It also doesn't address many of the questions that posters on this thread have raised that are to do with whether and how and to what extent we want to digitise, rather than just what's involved in bridging the gap. I guess all movements need their catch phrase though and it certainly deals with that crucial issue of inclusion/exclusion.

Mac said...

Ms M said "There is always competition and incompatibility within pervasiveness which ironically creates a certain multiplicity of purpose and design by opening up spaces between elements of the system or between sub-systems. I would call this blog one of those spaces..."

Aside from feeling outrageously flattered, I'd like to examine that idea a bit more closely. :)

It seems as if you're perhaps talking about a sort of subculture within (or without) the system; I extrapolate from that idea that subculture is then a necessary part of the system as a place to "put" the otherwise disenfranchised or excluded members of the organized community.

That is, the malcontents sort of accidently enhance the complexity of the system by their own reluctant participation/dissidence...

Lori A. Basiewicz said...

But we must differentiate from those who choose not to utilize the technology and those who lack access and training in the technology.

I sometimes choose not to use my laptop in favor of writing longhand, but I know how to use a computer and have access to one, even if my computer breaks down. This differentiates me from an individual unable to apply for a modern, white collar office job because they have never had access to a computer and does not even know how to turn one on.

Jill said...

Intel just chose Cleveland (where I live) as one of three experimental sites for its Worldwide Digital Communities initiative and plans to set up wifi for all municipal, nonprofit and other services. Very big and broad.

Anonymous said...

There's a cycle that's been going on since the first proto-human came out of the trees and walked upright into the savanna on two legs.

As with all (r)evolutions there is first the upheaval, then the propagation of the new 'thing', then after much 'gold rushing'into whatever the new thing is, comes the consolidation and normalization phases. There's usually a 'golden age' and then the next 'revolution.' The digital revolution is entering a consolidation period IMO. Fewer and fewer people will be left out.

Have you noticed how ubiquitous devices like cellphones, ipods and handheld game players (ps2, etc.) are? These are either already at or just one small step away from being completely connectable to the internet via wireless tech. Seems like everyone has at least one of these devices. I've seen day laborers standing on street corners hoping to be picked up who are talking on cell phones. You don't need a PC or laptop for access to the internet.

To get to the golden age phase we have to lead people to the bridge (show them how devices they can afford can access the internet)and eliminate the tolls (access charges for ISPs and wireless connection) that keep people from crossing.

Technology is a tool and thus is neutral. It's society that does the dividing, alienating, etc. based on how they freely and liberally use or restrict the use of the tool.

Mac said...

Excellent point, Dawno--I'm old enough to remember when the only people who carried cell phones (in those little suitcase thingies) were doctors, lawyers, and drug dealers.

They were prohibitively expensive.

Another example would be a television or VCR--both widely proliferated now, and both much, much cheaper than they were, originally.

Ideally, of course, where we'd be headed with this is to go ahead and gps the car, and be able to track ourselves with an onboard navigation system, also accessible from our cell phone.

We could then just punch in a PIN to unlock the car when we locked our keys inside, too--like accessing voice-mail.

That would still require an external computerized system, with a human interface on the other end.

I wonder if what people like about OnStar has to do with those calm and seemingly omnipotent OnStar operators: "Yes, ma'am--I'm sending the signal through now, and your doors should unlock..."

Ms M said...

Yes, how ironic that such a sophisticated technological system should ultimately require a human (or at least we believe they're human) to mediate the contact the customer has with the company. Would it be accepted at all if the service did not have a human face? Large entities such as corporations or bureaucracies have traditionally relied on the human-human interface to mediate the relationship between the institution and the customer. The shift to automated voice menu systems and automated services, in challenging this model, has met with quite widespread customer resistance. The choice to use the human-human interface by OnStar suggests a strategic response to a general anxiety about issues of technological control particularly when it comes to human safety. This is alleviated through the performance of the operator who has the system at her or his fingertips...

a fairly long-winded way of saying yeah - i agree with ya.

Lori A. Basiewicz said...

Mac said:

We could then just punch in a PIN to unlock the car when we locked our keys inside, too--like accessing voice-mail.

But how many stressed individuals would remember their PIN when they need it? It is not an urban legend that some people, in stressful situations, forget the number for 9-1-1 when they need it.

In some warped way, I think having another person on the other end of the technology, lessens the likelihood of human error in the system.

Anonymous said...

Just as there are four or five (I can't recall right now) types of learners (the aural, the visual, the tactile, etc.) there are differenent types of, hmmm...dang no one word comes to mind, people that need help.

I usually do just fine if you can provide me with clear step by step written instructions. Some folks need pictures. Other folks just start tinkering and figure it out by working with their hands.

I don't mind automation, it gets me to my answer more quickly - especially if I have an easy question. *BUT* there are times when you just have to have the human interface, I agree. In help desk terms it's that tier two or tier three problem that's just too esoteric to show up in the Frequently Asked Questions list. I think that as OnStar kinds of tech becomes more common there will be a transition from all human to more automated stuff plus human as a back up. Right now it's a marketing tool as well as a premium service but someday it will be commonplace. Anyone remember when the first ATM's came out?

Yes, in emergencies I feel you must have real people on the other end of the whatever it is. But too many people demand personal attention to non-emergencies. Ask anyone who works dispatch, I bet they have a whole list of anecdotes.

I recall reading in my local paper that when 911 was new dispatchers were flooded with calls that basically went "I'm just calling to see if this really works"

I actually accidently called 911 once when I was programming my phone that had a special emergency button. The operator answers in one ring, says "what is the nature of your emergency?" and I stutter "uh, something is wrong with this phone" I was so embarassed. Fortunately the dispatcher laughed when I cleared that up instead of sending the local psychiatric restraint team out. I bet she told that story on coffee break.

Mac said...

Dawno--that's a great illustration.

It occurs to me that, while we do want the human interface, we want the people on the other end of the line to be something a little better than human, too--we want them to be a sort of fantasy-human, smarter, better-connected, calmer, and cooler-under-pressure, than are we, ourselves.

A Seattle-area 911 operator was recently reprimanded for being too much of a smart-ass, essentially--I don't remember precisely what the poor guy said.) Another area 911 guy had been pulling double shifts and actually fell asleep during a call.

(I can find links for the news stories, if y'all are curious.)

It occurred to me then that we don't want to know these things about the people we look to to bail us out of the mess we're in.