Living an automated life

Automated Life

There is something pretty neat and also a little disconcerting that I want to discuss and that is the rise of automation or more so in my case “micro automation”. Sure I could discuss the big picture automation that’s coming but that’s been done to death and I think it’s kind of boring. What I want to look at is some of the “micro automation” that I’ve started to notice creep into my life.

So what do I mean when I say “micro automation”? Well that’s a bit hard to define but it’s the little things that our phones and increasingly computers and tablets do as the various algorithms learn our behaviors and patterns more and more. A basic example would be how you can set your phone to not require a password to unlock it when you’re home. This used to be something you would have to manually change in the settings every time you got home (and that was a pain so it was just not done), now it’s automated.

Why is stuff this small important? These “micro automation’s” aren’t going to be taking jobs away from people and seem to just make life more convenient. They make it easier to just go through life on cruise control and give you less to worry about. I actually think they are pretty neat, but they are important to examine because they illustrate a bigger trend that is unfolding.

That trend is the endless logging of everything you do by the devices you carry. The example that made me want to look at this is a google app. I use google play music at work (and home) to listen to some good tunes in order to distract from the drudgery of the day. When I’m at my desk listening to music I have it at low volume and then when I go to the lunch room I turn up the volume. What I noticed is after a few times of doing this manually the app started doing it on its own.

I would be at my desk and the volume would automatically be lowered for me. Then when I stopped the music and went to the lunch room to restart it the volume would be back to a higher level. Google has patterned my preferences based on my location and automated the process for me. So now I don’t have to manually change the volume. Pretty handy and actually something that shows a high degree of machine learning going on in the back end.

What started to concern me was when I was home sick and google had a suggested playlist called “home sick”. It knew that I would normally be at work but wasn’t and I think it actually took a bit more into consideration before assuming I was sick. Either it had been listening to me (coughing, or talking about being sick) or had read the email I sent through gmail to my boss letting her know I was not feeling well. It didn’t just do the simple assumption that “Craig was not at work on a Monday therefore he must be sick”. It had to have gathered more information from its other sources.

While I can appreciate the ingenuity in this machine learning it is also an illustration of how much information we hand over to these companies on a daily basis. This is just one example, there are plenty of others, like a setting to turn my phone on silent at work, or to silence notifications when I’m sleeping. Things my device and the servers in the back end have learned about me over the years I’ve been using these services.

There is a trade off when it comes to privacy and the level of service we want from devices and our various daily programs. I wonder how far this will go as data is the new oil and more and more companies are looking to collect as much of it as they can. I also wonder how much I will be willing to trade off for convenience. I used to have location settings off, I didn’t use Facebook messenger, didn’t allow google any more data than absolutely necessary and do have to admit that it was much less convenient. I also felt much less connected to my device.

That’s the other thing I noticed as I started allowing more data to be collected and started embracing the “micro automation’s”, I’ve started to anthropomorphize my device and services more. Toss in a few digital assistants and it feels like I have a little helpful friend in my phone. I feel like it is a lot more part of my life and I’m not sure if I like that. I feel like my device is looking out for me, trying to work with me and help me. I don’t think that’s healthy.

Now I’m not the most balanced person, and I wonder if other people have noticed this as well. I also wonder what the impact of growing up connected to devices that have this ability is doing to the younger folks out there. We are entering a strange new world and rushing into it faster than we ever have before. It’s going to be interesting to look back on this turning point in fifty years and try to map the impact it had.

If you have any thoughts I would be happy to hear them. I just wanted to share something I found myself thinking about a lot these past few days.

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