Pros and Cons of Future Perfect

To help better manage water in the western United States, water users are increasingly relying on real-time monitoring and control.  This involves providing more timely information to decision-support models and eliminating much of the human element.  Similar, but much more sophisticated, activities are occurring in the energy field.  According to Bryan Walsh writing for Time magazine (8 Apr 2013):

Cutting energy waste is first and foremost a data challenge.  You can’t cut waste until you know what you’re wasting, and most of us have only the slightest idea.  Standard electricity meters take one reading for an entire month.  Image trying to diet if all you knew was the total amount of food you ate every four weeks.  Says Bennett Fisher, CEO of the building efficiency start-up Retroficiency:  “You need data to make energy saving work.”

We’ve got the data, thanks to the growth of smart Internet-enabled sensors that can read and relay energy use almost in real time.  A host of new big-data companies are figuring out how to crunch that information so energy users from huge factories to individual households can track and reduce waste.  This combination of energy technology with the Internet–the industry calls it the Enernet–is the hottest sector in clean tech, in part because it relies on relatively cheap, easily scalable software rather than expensive factories needed for, say, making solar panels.

So new hardware and software developments in both water and energy are leading toward a much more managed future for our natural resources and our energy production and consumption.

Now everybody is real thrilled with this future.  Technology critic Evgeny Morozov, sees a different side of the story as outlined in his new book To Save Everything, Click Here:  The Folly of Technological Solutionism.  Again according to Bryan Walsh, writing in a separate article in the same issue of Time:

Morozov’s skepticism might seem surprising.  After all, what’s wrong with Internet companies’ tapping new technologies to help us live healthier and safer?. . .   His concerns are philosophical.  He questions Silicon Valley’s assumption that the quantified self is the truest self, that we can find a deeper verity in empirically accurate, supported data than we can in the stories about ourself.  Morozov fears Silicon Valley’s “imperialistic streak of quantification,” the tendency to value only what we can count and to ignore what doesn’t add up so easily.  What the self-confident tech elites fail to realize is that our counting will always miss something.  To Morozov, imperial quantification is a threat to human freedom, including our basic freedom to make mistakes.

As Morozov writes, “Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing:  all of these are constitutive of human freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out human freedom as well. . . .”  It’s far from clear that digital perfection is worth the price.

While the two issues discussed by Walsh don’t perfectly overlap (one is more group oriented and the other more personal), there is enough overlap that it should initiate an important discussion.


This entry was posted in Books, Philosophy, real-time monitoring, Technology, transhumanism. Bookmark the permalink.

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