watched the film, ‘Ex Machina’ the other day. Brilliant film – highly recommended. The story revolves around artificial intelligence and it got me thinking about how much my own life is dominated by pieces of machinery that are entirely convinced that they know better than I do. I would not rule out the possibility that they are right – but I would like to know (a) what they base their conclusions on, and (b) who “they” are. And whether we could discuss changes before they implement them.
Take my mobile phone for example. It’s a good phone; it does all the things that phones are supposed to do, and lots of things that I suppose phones were never predicted to do when they were invented, but it has a secret life of its own, and I wish I knew what it was up to. It randomly calls people. I swear, my fingers go nowhere near it, but I will suddenly notice that it is busy dialling away to someone that it would be entirely inappropriate to call at that precise moment. I seem to spend a lot of time trying to explain to people that it wasn’t me who rang them, it was my phone. They don’t understand. My phone also refuses to send certain texts. A censoring service based on its own unique criteria that I have not yet worked out. And it has two emails that it won’t give me. Just two. I don’t know what they say, or who they are from. I can’t open them – I can’t even find them.
I have a lot of emails every day, as you might imagine, and, because I am always too busy to delete anything, and because I am paranoid that the one email I delete, ( even if it is from Vistaprint or AbleLabel), might be the very one that life depends upon ten minutes later, then that list grows ever longer. Fortunately, our server guillotines emails after a certain period of time, and although this causes me a certain amount of existential angst, that after a paltry two years they are forever lost to me, and I will never be able to read again that my online phone bill from April 2014 is ready for viewing, or that the hotel that I stayed in in November 2012 is definitely booked, deep down I know that the purging is good, and I am glad. However, this means that I am entirely able to see the full complement of live and extant emails in my inbox, and I have checked them one by one until I am blue in the face, and I have definitely, definitely opened them all. Except that my phone ( only my phone) records that there are two unopened emails in my inbox. Still. Always. Secret and elusive. I am dying to know what they say. I am convinced that they will be from an unknown Great Aunt in Botswana, who is writing to tell me that my unknown Great Uncle has died and left me his vintage Aston Martin in his will. ( I don’t know why she would write to me twice – particularly when she had never written before, but I would be very polite about it). The intrigue distracts me.
Then there is my computer. My computer is a whole world of mystery. M upgraded it for me the other day – a whole new desktop. Which promptly changed everything that I had ever known, and lost everything I ever cared about. The templates for my fonts. The ruler from the top of my documents. My email signature. Other stuff I probably haven’t even found out about yet. Just a unilateral: “We won’t be needing that anymore!” from a stranger that took up residence in my office without being introduced. Had it been human, I might have hurt it very much. It changed defaults, and sizes, and dramatically altered the viewing pane for my emails. It very patronisingly suggests that I might have forgotten to add an attachment to my emails, when I had no intention of doing any such thing. Just for good measure, it swapped the “”” and the “@” on my keyboard. I think it is American, which explains much. I frothed and smote and gnashed a great deal. So M dropped everything to come and sort things out. He sat down at my desk in my office at home, and went to type, and then flung his arms out in a gesture of bewilderment and disgust upon seeing my keyboard.
“What is THIS?” he spluttered.
“Eh? What? It’s a keyboard! You use it to type words and stuff – you must have seen them.” I replied, absently scrolling through my phone’s inbox just one more time.
“This isn’t a keyboard!” he scoffed, “This is a molten piece of plastic! Where are the letters??!”
I looked over in irritation – “They’re there! Little squares – all lined up – can’t miss ‘em. When’s your eye test?”
He confronted me sternly. “Those aren’t letters,” he said. “Those are blank keys. The letters have been wiped off – you can’t SEE anything! How on earth do you type??”
“Oh, that,” I said carelessly. “Yes, well – there is that, I suppose. But I touch type, so I know where they are. I don’t need to look. They don’t change, you know; they’re always in the same place.”
“You might be able to type on it, but the rest of humanity won’t be able to – this is useless!” he expostulated indignantly.
“The rest of humanity has very little business coming into my office, fiddling with my keyboard, and would get more than they bargained for if I caught them at it.” I growled. “It took you the length of time that it has taken me to rub those letters off to notice – me and my keyboard have been perfectly happy together thank you.”
“Well, it doesn’t look very happy. What have you done to it?” He looked innocent. “Is it the acid dripping from the tips of your fingers?”
I contemplated doing some more serious damage to the keyboard on his head, but thought better of it, at least until he had finished mending my computer.