Friday, October 24, 2014

The Wearable Parasite

1. Get It On

The “next big thing in computing” isn’t big at all, and it doesn’t look a lot like computing. It looks like nerd gear - weird glasses or a calculator watch. As innocuous and friendly as “wearables” seem, something about them chafes. I worry that once on, they will quickly become difficult to take -- or turn -- off.

You hold this in your hand, then press it against your face.
In the last few years, computers have multiplied and appeared at all levels of society in the guise of smartphones. Latest estimates suggest smartphone penetration is at 66% of US mobile users.

Smartphone use grew by a staggering 25% between 2013 and 2014, with 1.76 billion people now carrying around small computers everywhere.

These numbers are even higher in developed countries, where soon more than 50% of people will have at least one smartphone.

The old, big computers were used by government or business for the most difficult and important tasks. Humans use these new tiny computers for everything: Communicating with voice and text. Looking up information and finding answers. Buying things. Recording the world around us. Entertainment. Directions.

After just a few short years, small hand-held computers have become so common they are almost invisible, ubiquitous, and indispensable.

But even these devices are still an intermediate larval stage of computing technology. Historical and current industry trends make it clear: The wondrous shiny black rectangles we all carry will soon disappear. They will undergo a kind of metamorphosis, and move onto us in the form of “wearables”.

The Apple Watch
Several factors are driving the evolution of computing to wearable form. The simplest is market forces: Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung, and all the other technology titans need to keep selling things to survive.

The 18-month smartphone turnover doesn’t drive enough growth. With smartphones reaching saturation points in many markets and tablets not far behind, something new is needed.

Enter wearables: Initially extensions of computers, and soon full computers themselves, that you don’t go to or sit in front of or hold. Instead, you put them on your body. You wear them.

Google has Google Glass (for your face) and Android Wear (for your far). Apple has the “Apple Watch”. Companies like Oculus and Sony are developing virtual reality headsets for your head, eyes, and ears. Fitbit and Jawbone have crude “fitness trackers” that sit on your wrist or in your pocket, with Apple building similar functions directly into their mobile operating system (and Google sure to follow).
By re-framing technology not as a tool, but as a fashion item, these companies open the door to selling multiple devices to people. You may not need 5 different hammers, but how many pairs of shoes do you have? How many pairs of glasses?
Google Glass with fashion frames

If you’re reading this article, odds are you already have at least one smartphone and at least one laptop or desktop...and you probably have a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop for work, and another computer at home.

That’s 4 computers right there, and “whether or not it goes with your outfit” hasn’t entered the picture. Yet.

Another reason is convenience: People like having their hands free. Smartphones are great, but they require the use of one or both hands, and typically full visual attention. This is distracting for the user, and makes use of the device obvious. It’s hard to use a smartphone discreetly, or without gazing directly at it, and that imposes social costs.

More convenience: Even though mobile phones are the last thing people see at night and the first thing they reach for in the morning, people still forget them because the phones are literally not tied to them. Once you are wearing your computer on your body somehow, as a watch, eyeglasses, or underwear, you are less likely to forget it somewhere. You want your computer -- which is your contacts, your calendar, your memory, your camera, your work, your entertainment -- with you all the time.

The companies making the computers want it with you all the time, too. Finally, this evolution is being driven by a collective industry and consumer desire for more computing and network access - more frequency, more depth, more intimacy.

These new platforms will offer new ways for computers to “help” us - to tell us what we want, to tell us what to do, to literally hold our hands.

 I have a latest generation smartphone. I wear a fitness tracker. I work in the technology industry. And yet, I find these wearables increasingly uncomfortable.

2. What Is A Parasite?

A parasite is an organism that lives in or on a host organism and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense. You can immediately think of examples that gross you out a bit: Ticks. Lice. Tapeworms. Fleas. Leeches. Nearly all inherently repulsive. There are even creepier, worse examples. Many parasites actually redirect the behavior of the host to do things the host would not normally do. It might make the host engage in very dangerous behavior, or expend resources in finding ways to feed the parasite. This is some serious nightmare fuel. I look down at the tracker encircling my wrist. It resembles a large black worm.
The Jawbone UP fitness tracker
I think about the woman I saw driving on the freeway last week, with her offspring in the back seat. At 60 mph, in rush hour traffic, she was staring at her phone. Or the parents at the park, now staring at their smartphones more than their children, who merit only the occasional glance. People who drive off the road because Maps told them to, even when those directions were obviously wrong. Dangerous behavior.

I think of the businessmen and women I see in airports, sitting on cold dirty floors, with a power tendril extended from their device into the outlets previously used by cleaning staff. Prior to smartphones, nobody would ever do something so undignified.

At restaurants, I look around and see people staring at screens, not other people. Even in movie theaters -- when you’ve literally paid a premium to stare at one screen -- people are staring at their phones instead. Things they would not normally do.

The analogy extends in more disturbing ways. The parasite’s favorite strategy is known as “parasitic castration”. This lovely phrase means the parasite destroys or damages its host’s reproductive abilities in order to divert resources from the host’s reproduction and funnel them to the parasite and its offspring.

You strap the Oculus Rift to your face, over your eyes
Maybe the Apple Watch isn’t there yet, but tech companies including Apple will now pay women to freeze their eggs -- to put a woman’s own reproduction on ice in favor of the company’s growth . This is positioned as (and “intended” as) a benefit to the woman and her family.

Some parasites redirect their host’s sexual behavior. Aside from how the latest wearable technology becomes a status symbol, used by humans to evaluate a mate’s desirability, there’s a direct imposition of this technology as mediator of sex in the form of apps like Tinder and Down.

At least that's still sex with another human. The virtual reality headset crew has been discussing "teledildonics" for decades. Having sex with machines is still in crude stages, and still a kink, but it’s easy to see it evolving rapidly to being equivalent to masturbation in every respect, and eventually preferable to dealing with messy humans, in much the same way we’d rather go to an ATM than deal with a bank teller.

“Wearable” begins to take on a new meaning.

I think about the massive redirection of resources to reproduction of these computers. There were nearly 2 billion smartphones sold in 2013. Smartphones barely existed 6 years ago. When you factor in all the smartphones made, humans have already produced more computers in the last 5 years than there are humans alive today. Our time, resources, and energy, all going to help these “creatures” reproduce and evolve. The addition of (or shift to) wearables only accelerates this growth.

If you’re not working in or with tech, you’re not a part of the growing, lively, evolving economy. Even jobs that don’t seem directly related are either becoming mediated by, or replaced by, wearable technology. Your personal trainer becomes a black band around your wrist, and it’s always reminding you to work out. Your car driver is now guided by a mobile device or headset, and dispatched by algorithm. Your hotelier, your food delivery, your grocery store -- technology is already in the middle, and reaching further out.

These wearables are parasites. We’re not wearing them, they’re wearing us.

3. Hard To Swallow

This external parasitism is only the beginning.

The Epidermal Electronic System (EES)
These computers will also move inside us in various ways - we’ll swallow them, embed them under our skin, and attach them to our bodies in ways only imagined in science fiction. Early implementations already exist. We’ve already started.

Not only will computers be inside of us, we’ll soon be inside of them in a reprise of computing’s earliest building-sized days.

Our skies will be filled with swarms of autonomous drones, ranging from microscopic to bird-sized, all networked and equipped with visual and auditory sensors.

Our homes, offices, and vehicles will become one big network.

 We already wander through a web of near-constant wireless connectivity. As the “internet of things” propagates and expands, the world becomes our computer hive, and us the insects within it.

For the moment, we still have a choice. We can put the phone down, take off the glasses, unshackle ourselves from the watch.

But soon, once the computers are deep inside of us, or we become more fundamentally attached to them, we will no longer have the option to remove them, and perhaps not even the option to turn them off.

The worm on my wrist rattles. That means its battery is low. I open my bag, find the custom adaptor I carry for it, and plug it into a nearby outlet. A green light slowly pulses, as though it is sleeping softly while sucking electricity from the grid. It will rattle again when it’s full, and I am supposed to put it back on.

I wait patiently.

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