Pixel Buds will alienate us from ourselves
In an early scene of the Black Mirror episode “Men Against Fire,” a squad of American soldiers arrives at a squalid forest camp of Danish people, apparently refugees from some terrible war. The squad leader is questioning a group of them, all speaking at once in Danish. (Warning: There’s a show spoiler ahead.)
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” she says, pressing a button on a small black box on her chest. “You can speak now.” And the box speaks her words in Danish.
“Det må have været roaches,” the man says. “It must have been roaches,” the machine translates.
Roaches, we learn, are actually regular people. But the soldiers, whose perception of reality is distorted by brain implants, see them as monsters. The soldiers’ objective is to kill the ‘roaches.’ In reality it’s a genocide, and everybody’s going along with it.
“Men Against Fire” is a story about how technology can be used to turn communities of people against each other. The brain implants are the focus of the narrative, but I was struck by the real-time translator. That’s a divisive tool, too. The soldiers’ contact with the refugee population was mediated through a machine rather than through a human interpreter, one who would have spent years working to understand Danish language and culture. Intensive language learning with a native speaker is one of the most cooperative human acts.
Which brings me to Pixel Buds. Google unveiled its new earphone accessory at a product launch Oct. 4. Between the Scandinavian language and the machine that quickly spits out translations, it’s eerie how closely the demo resembled the camp scene in the Black Mirror episode.
Critics, such as Gabe McCauley in VentureBeat, have rightly pointed out that Google’s translation technology is far, far from perfect.
In 2015, a local Spanish town threatened to sue Google when the local word for leafy green “rapini” was mistaken for the word “clitoris.” The mistake left local websites, including the town’s official page, with a renamed annual event: The Clitoris Festival.
Which is weird because the Spanish (and Galician) word for clitoris is clítoris.
But translation has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Last year, The New Yorker profiled the Google Translate team and its work developing “neural translation,” which uses machine learning to suss out the nuances of syntax that aren’t easily programmed. “The A.I. system had demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.”
For its obvious flaws, Google Translate is nonetheless one of the company’s most useful and popular products. It will only get better, and the gains will build upon gains until the grammatical errors are hardly noticeable. I can imagine a day, perhaps toward the end of my natural lifespan, when diplomatic interpreters are phased out and replaced with Black Mirror-style speaker boxes. And we’ll all be able to put “Full working proficiency—all Google-supported languages” on our resumes.
For anyone who’s ever tried to learn a second language, this will be super awesome. For those who succeeded after years of toil, this will be extremely annoying. And for the future of humanity, this will be a catastrophe. I’m not saying this because I hate Silicon Valley and its hubris, though I do.
Pixel Buds are part of a generation of new products that separate our physical bodies from our human essence.
You’ve probably heard the cliche about how “we’re social beings.” That’s Marx. “The fact that [a] need [like, say, bread] on the part of one can be satisfied by the product of the other, and vice versa, and that the one is capable of producing the object of the other’s need, this proves that each of them reaches beyond his own particular need etc., as a human being, and that they relate to one another as human beings; that all know their species nature to be social.”
Cooperation is built into our being. It’s one of our essential characteristics.
Marx also says, “Language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men.” In other words, the capacity for language isn’t what makes us human; language is just a tool we use to do the things that make us human.
With that in mind, Pixel Buds is (or are?) just another tool. By itself, translation technology will not alienate us from our essence. But combined with all of the other technology that now or will exist, we’re reducing the number of available ways humans can exercise their nature. Language learning is one of those ways: meeting face to face with someone and working together to obtain a mutually beneficial result. The teacher producing the object of the other’s need.
Marx also talked about “needs” and “tendencies.” Humans have a tendency toward personal development. Part of our instinct is to sharpen our innate powers. Silicon Valley’s principal objective is to provide efficiency, or convenience. The more effectively new technologies accomplish this aim, the less we’ll need to sharpen many of our innate powers, such as concentration, deduction, memorization, craftsmanship and linguistics.
Yesterday, cantlin published a clever musing here about Silicon Valley’s idea of progress. He imagines a future in which there’s a cyborg product feature called “checking out,” which frees up wasted time by automating some of our functions.
As it would be tedious to continually re-instruct the body in these routine actions, most users used a calendar to schedule their bodies’ activities. For example, wake up, take on nutrients, exercise, and so forth. Some users also preferred to “check out” for maintaining friendships, and certain family interactions.
There’s a lot of anxiety about what technological advances are doing to us, and there’s a lot of research helping to answer that question from a biological and psychological perspective. From a social and labor perspective, the answer is playing out in the headlines every day. Divisive news coverage has led to political upheaval, and industrial disruption has led to labor disputes. The paradox of new technology and media is that it connects people on a scale never before seen while at the same time physically and emotionally isolating us.
It’s not just that we don’t call to order pizza or taxis anymore. Many of us don’t go in to work anymore. I don’t. I’m sitting in my apartment right now ignoring my wife who’s sitting on the couch ignoring me. I have colleagues I work with every day whom I’ve never met. Workers whose office is an Upwork dashboard or an app are isolated from themselves and alienated from their work—they never see their product.
But we do get a new iPhone every two years. We get an endlessly increasing amount of storage in our Gmail inbox. We get engaging new social media features each quarter, and we can send anything digitally, including money, anywhere in the world cheaply or, in most cases, for free. The cost is more than just our privacy. It’s our number of options. There is no better smartphone than Apple’s. There is no better email service than Google’s. There is no better social network than Facebook’s.
I joined the waitlist for Pixel Buds. Google will notify me when I can send it my $159 because there is no better translator.
It would be irrational not to use this stuff. So we accept the terms of service without bothering to look at what they are.
So far, this has not been a very original rant. I stole half of it from Karl Marx and the other half from Charlie Brooker. But I diverge a bit on solutions. Marx’s solution was the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie. I don’t believe insurrection works anymore, if it ever has: The people have never and will never control the means of production, and someone will always be alienating us from ourselves for their own profit.
Brooker doesn’t mention any solutions in Black Mirror because his job is to tell stories. If I had to guess, I suspect he’s like me and doesn’t believe in grand solutions, either. I believe in practical, personal ones. I’ll close this thing out by listing a few:
- Join the gig economy, but join the Freelancers Union, too.
- Call Uber or Lyft, but tip your driver a little extra and never give a rating less than five.
- Use Facebook, but subscribe to news publications because Mark Zuckerberg is profiting from the rubble of journalism. And be knowledgeable about how the company uses your personal information.
- Use Gmail, but start trying to switch over to ProtonMail.
- Buy Pixel Buds, but learn a language anyway.