Beam Me Up, Siri - App Week

At BTR Staff meetings, a frequent theme of article suggestions usually comes in the following form “Oh man, what if we write about how close are we to [fill in the futuristic technology Hollywood has advertised to us since childhood of your choice here]?” Usually, the suggestion has something do with Back To the Future Part II, but not one staff writer can pretend to be above the “Where the hell is my flying skateboard?” crowd.

Where the hell are my Borg?
Photo courtesy of gundampilotzpaz

We’ve interviewed authors on the subject, and become generally elated any time that the all-too promised future of ’90s science fiction television and film seems that much closer to our hungry, consumerist fingertips. Yet in preparing for App Week, a thought occurred to me: We’ve been going about this all wrong.

We’ve been waiting for singular products (like flying skateboards, for instance) to arise for years. We believe with minds so oriented to ’90s toy marketing and the mythology of dot com boom entrepreneurial heroism that when the future arrives, it will have a single brand name, logo, and website. While I don’t mean to dismiss the suggestion that a single copyrighted idea can still revolutionize the landscape, I’ve begun to wonder if the future will mean the integration of a multi-faceted lifestyle experience, especially since acquainting myself with the wide world of smartphone apps.

Now, I’ve only owned a smartphone (low and behold, the coveted loser of a patent suit against Apple – the original Samsung Galaxy S) for a few months. I hesitated for so long because, in working for a website, I worried that my entire life would be consumed by every online function that I need to pay my rent. Also, that my physical form would be stripped of relevance by the breathless avatar consummated by my overall social media presence. So far neither has happened, or else I’m in denial.

What has happened, however, is a conversion. I’ve seen the light! You’re damn right there is a God, Alan Moore and as predicted, he is (or was) American, and his name rhymed with Peeve Blobs. Where I once scoffed at a cowardly new world of digital age peons ingratiating themselves in inches-wide rectangular screens emanating every fleeting interest, I’ve now grown to rather enjoy this doping flavor of kool-aid. Immanent mid-life personality disorder with a side of eye cancer the day after I retire? Don’t mind if I do! Any and all technology-induced ailments leading into my golden years will all be worth it if I am to achieve the 21st Century version of the white house and picket fence I see in complete app-immersion, specifically, that of home appliance apps.

For an example of this space age lifestyle for which I now yearn, let’s take Star Trek: The Next Generation – a television show that is as ubiquitous a cultural experience for a Millennial as Power Rangers or the Clinton administration, even if not as popular. By which I mean that neither I nor anyone else needs to attend a Trek convention in costume to be familiar with how the crew of the Enterprise maintains an open relationship with their environment just by calling out, “Compyutah.”

Theirs is the kind of ideal symbiotic camaraderie we’d like to share with a voice that 1. represents the artificial consciousness of every home-based good or service in our possession 2. speaks our language, yet 3. has no heart or pulse and 4. will obey our every command without question. In essence, the ideal is 2001: A Space Odyssey minus the consequence; though Hal may scare the bejesus out of anyone with a modem, it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t appreciate not having to get up to change the thermostat.

This is a significant deviation from the relationship between human characters and the technology of the original Star Trek series from the ’60s. Regrettably, following this tangent gets into particulars about the fictionalized history of a show I honestly don’t care or know enough about to stray any farther from my central point: Even in our most utopian popular fiction, we did not anticipate developing this technology until the 24th Century, and in retrospect, the absence of which made the 23rd Century significantly more inconvenient to live in by comparison. Yes, in the year the Higgs Boson is being robbed of a Nobel Prize, we may not have warp drive, Geordi LaForge’s glasses, phasers, teleporting, zombie-like cyborgs, or spaceships the size of cruise ships – but we possess the means to become friends with our surroundings, or at least with our form of shelter.

The “Compyutahh” effect is one we’ve all seen replicated in Apple iPhone commercials with the development of Siri. Yet in personifying a series of services through an electronic device that’s not in the shape of a Sesame Street character, I see yet another moral precipice between myself and acquiescing to the latest technology. See Samuel L. Jackson below:

Through the affable secretarial appeal of Siri, it’s easy to (falsely) assume that the fully-realized capabilities of an interactive living arrangement has arrived – subjects in these commercials maintain a connection to the more tedious facets of the outside world through the automated voice of a machine, and one with a proper name no less.

It’s disappointing that, in reality, there are gross charges from across the first world tech bourgeoisie that Siri’s advertised omnipotence is, in fact, exaggerated. She may be able to tell you the meaning of life (either “the number 42” or “chocolate” depending how much she wants me to return her to her rightful owner) and she can tell you how to do just about anything that can be explained by the best Wikipedia contributors; but there’s very little Siri can actually do as compared to a muscular patsy, obedient butler, or other indentured human servant.

Alas, she can tell you how to remodel your bathroom, or find contractors who will do it for you, but she cannot do the job without necessary human intervention.

In watching these commercials with friends in possession of Siri-enabled iPhones, it has been brought to my attention that, with even a 12-year-old’s ability to jerry-rig a house intercom system from their bedroom to their tree house, Siri can be fashioned into a liaison for just about any everyday household function, despite her shortcomings.

Just download enough home appliance apps onto your iPhone, like say, this one that lets you control the temperature of your fridge remotely, and voila! As easily as Captain Picard might want a cold glass of water, you can at least make sure the Brita-filtered water bottle you’ve been saving for that early morning workout routine you’re never actually going to start will be at the desired temperature within 20 minutes. I should also mention that this helpful app also lets me know if and when I’m running out of filtered water. Thanks, Siri!

Not one of said friends has attempted this sort of total lifestyle integration offered by the latest iPhones, mostly because, like me, it sort of freaks them out. As with all stages of human progression, the things that freak us out define the social frontiers of our children (see Baby Boomers and gay marriage). Though even in our lifetime, such a vision is, indisputably, ours for the taking.

Well, theirs. At my income, T-Mobile should acquire the iPhone or an equivalent knock-off by Mitt Romney’s third term.

Though the technology may not be perfected just yet, the inherent development is significant – much like the first time you ride a bike with no hands. But what’s truly troubling is that, absent the instantaneous fruition of our desires, what is left is only a horrifying side effect and one we haven’t seen in practice since before the Emancipation Proclamation: people referring to things they’ve purchased on a first name basis.

Which (again) repulses me from a base level of my humanity. I in no way mean to rationalize slavery when I say this but I could only see humanizing an automaton if it would not only tell me how many days it’s been since I’ve mopped my kitchen floor but also do it for me! Christ, I’m not even much of a pet person but, yes, then and only then could I understand paying compliments to a series of ones and zeroes. I mean, at least then they’re sparing you manual labor, which makes the whole practice akin to having a conversation with a glass of whiskey after a terrible day of work.

Until that day, what kind of deranged sociopath would invest emotional energy into a service that slaps a godlike voice onto an obedient serf?

Up until now, I’ve tossed off the alarmist words of Jonathan Franzen in regards to technology. To him (or at least as far as what he thinks would make a thought provoking commencement speech), the progression of commercial technology represents the capitalistic aspiration to develop the ultimate erotic object; or rather, one in which “the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer,” opines Franzen.

Given that technology can now no longer be limited to singular products, let me float a question here: If this so called ‘sexier object’ becomes a completely integrated and sexier environment, is it more or less dangerous in terms of developing relationships with other singular sentient beings? If one day my football buddies refuse to get me a beer because they think I should quit being lazy and just ask Siri to do it, is that reason enough for me to love her more than them?

I would like to think I’d say no but there was a time I could lecture indefinitely on why iPod-based album cover art would always be inferior to another physical musical product. Before then, I considered even owning a cell phone akin to buying one’s self “an electronic leash” and just a year ago, it was not wanting a smartphone for fear of having my email alerts at my hip during my precious off-the-clock hours.

Heck! Six months ago, Twitter was a soulless stratosphere of insignificant celebrities recording their daily mental excrement. And just look at me now: an 8G iPod Touch in one pocket and a Galaxy S in the other – free with a two year contract – preparing to live tweet the Vice Presidential Debate in as intoxicated a state as this drinking game will allow. Resistance, as the Borg said, is futile.