Technology's Path From Creepy to Acceptance
This week I had a sudden flashback to a line from "Star Trek": Resistance is futile.
I was chatting with my Bloomberg Gadfly colleague Shelly Banjo about Amazon's latest Echo voice-activated home speaker. Shelly is a big fan of her Echo. But I can't imagine putting a gadget in my home that has a video camera and a microphone that is always listening.
Every time Amazon publishes "fun" facts like the number of people who propose marriage to its Alexa voice assistant, or how often people use their Echo devices for Thanksgiving cooking tips, it reminds me of how creepy this all is. Amazon is keeping a record of jokey marriage proposals you utter at home. (I should note here that Amazon says its speakers don't record or transmit voice commands until people say the trigger word, "Alexa." Amazon also has said its voice command logs are encrypted.)
I'm willing to bet that I will cave, and one day I will invite into my home an always-listening virtual butler and ersatz surveillance device. This is the path of technology history: People resist technology capabilities that at first seem creepy beyond belief, and then they forget all about it once those activities come to feel normal and welcome.
Try to remember, if you can, the year 2006. "Desperate Housewives" was a TV hit. And a social network for college kids introduced an oddity called the "News Feed." People freaked out at the prospect of computers scouring personal profiles to compile anything new -- vacation photos or a change in relationship status -- into what Bloomberg News compared to an "Associated Press newswire feed." 1
Millions of people thought the News Feed went too far. Mark Zuckerberg wrote a mea culpa. Facebook tweaked its settings to give people more control over what could be included in their posts. It's hard to imagine many of Facebook's nearly 2 billion monthly users know anything about the News Feed controversy of 2006. And most social media hangouts are modeled on the display of posts Facebook unveiled to much fury more than a decade ago.
This tech trajectory from resistance to acceptance keeps repeating. When services like the (now defunct) Sidecar and Lyft started putting regular people in the role of taxi driver four or five years ago, I remember a conversation with a stunned techie friend in San Francisco. (Uber and some of the emerging car-hailing smartphone apps were largely used then to summon drivers from professional car services.) She thought it was incomprehensibly stupid to defy a lifetime of warnings to never get into cars with strangers.
Now, of course, it seems perfectly normal to hail a ride with a stranger. I do it. My once-wary friend does, too. These services are far from mainstream; in a Pew Research Center survey published a year ago, only 15 percent of adults in the U.S. had used Uber or another ride-hailing app, though a majority of respondents said they had heard of these services.
This path to eventual acceptance doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy to embrace technologies that once seemed out of bounds. Technology can be intrusive, biased and manipulative, and technology superpowers control untold reams of digital information about us. It's also unnerving to watch savage critiques of technology in entertainment like "Black Mirror" or "The Circle" and wonder which of today's technology satires will become tomorrow's normalized reality.
A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg's Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can sign up here.
It's so fun to read technology articles from even just five or 10 years ago. It's a reminder of how quickly technology and human behavior can change. Stories about Facebook circa 2006 or fears of Google's market power in 2005 are like reading about the ancient Babylonians, except that I was actually there for the last decade of tech history.
To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Daniel Niemi at email@example.com