When PDAs Attack

(September 5, 2003; written flow-of-consciousness style)
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People of the past, I hail you. Heh. Yeah, I'm a fool and I know it - but then, I really have no idea how to start off a message to people who have been dead for fifty years, give or take a few. I'm getting Word 2065 to translate this into Millennial English to make sure you understand me, but that doesn't really help me figure out what to say and I don't want to run ConversationMaker Pro, since it costs $50 per anecdote. All I know is that I was watching some movies from your time on my holoPC, and it looks like we need to clear some things up. Specifically, I'm referring to the stuff of Terminator, the film from the 1980's that explains how machines take over the world due to their growing intelligence and self-awareness. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about - the vmdb (Virtual Movie Database) reports that about 88% of the First World saw it. (Of course, vmdb also tells me that I can buy a creme that will increase my 'size,' even though we all know that only genetics and PenisMightier Gold can do that, so this may be a bit off.) Well, dear ancestors, I'm going to tell you about what really happened, because that sure as hell wasn't it.

I'll warn you, though: it's embarrassing. I can understand why you'd want to be believe in a cruel war run by malevolent computers, when I compare it to the truth. But then, how much more interesting did you really expect the future to be? We're still humans, at least until UC Berkeley gets its act together. (Don't get me started on nanotech. That's another letter entirely, and the sooner I can make my ex grow tentacles, the better.)

I'm fairly sure you guys were around for the beginning of the PDA age - Palm Pilots, and all that. Cute little mini-PCs that served as calendars, to-do lists, little black books, web browsers, etc., right? Well, as time went on, they got sleeker, cheaper, and most of all, smarter - though as of right now, they're still not self-aware, which is just as well, since I never clean mine - and we relied on them more and more.

Starting sometime around 2015, you'd never leave your house without one tucked into your pants or purse, and would never make a major decision without it. Does that seem strange to you? Think about it - if you were about to buy a car, all you'd need to do is plug in the numbers that shark showing off his teeth was spouting, and your little mobile would tell you if a lot ten miles away was selling it cheaper, if the actual retail price was $10,000 lower, or if the manufacturer had put out a recall for the whole fleet due to its unfortunate tendency to implode. If you were thinking about hitting the gym on the way home from work, you'd ask your PDA if you had enough time to do so, and it would break down your schedule for the evening so you could see if you did. Harmless and helpful, right?

Sadly, we're too codependent a species for that, people of the past.

Skip ahead a few more decades from there, and you find probability-finding software embedded into every mobile and every PC. This is hardly new, you might be saying: the stock markets were using neural net technology to determine the probability of stock rises and falls even back in our backward times! (Sorry, but an age without Jacuzzi suits is not an age for me.) However, there's a big difference between present and omnipresent. By this time, only the most stubborn Luddites would choose to make their scheduling and purchasing choices without their computer-given advice, and those people were at such a disadvantage that even they gave up within ten years. Why trust your own common sense, such as it may be, when your Sidekick was 10^5 times more clever than you? (Except when it came to jokes, anyway. There were a few forays into computer-generated humour back then, and we mainly use the results on ironic t-shirts now.) Once a majority of the population was making better-informed choices, the rest had to catch up in order to avoid a huge gap between the connected and the old-fashioned. Still with me on this?

The problem with this is that people want to make good decisions. That may not sound like a bad thing, but it turned out to be - I don't think anyone predicted as much, except possibly the Tin Foil Hat-Wearers of America, because we all believed that the more information we had, the better we'd do. If you can see every angle of a situation, you can make the smartest choice; there's no doubting that. However, people of the past, you were really better off living your comparatively ignorant lives. Here's an example of a conversation I had with my PLA (personal life assistant), Carl, about five years ago:

Me: I think I'll go to the mall and pick up chicks this afternoon.

Carl: The cost of gasoline would be approximately $115. The probability of long-term success is less than 0.025%; probability short-term success is less than 1% higher. Do you really want to waste your time and money?

Me: Well, it might work. Remember Shana?

Carl: She carries a genetic abnormality; her chances of bearing successful offspring are approximately 1 in 25. She was interested in you because she was desperate and hormonal.

Me: Oh. Well, yes. I guess I'll just go watch TV, then.

Carl: Excessive television exposure can raise the incidence of late-cycle cataracts by 15.2%. Also, failure to attain sufficient exercise can lead to -

Me: Shut up.

Carl: Your chances of finding a satisfactory mate with that attitude is approximately 1 in 100,000. Amazon.bks is having a sale on self-help primers; would you be interested in viewing a list of available titles?

Me: Why did I install the sarcasm module into you, anyway?

Carl: Masochism. Would you like to see the dictionary.eng definition of that term?

There isn't a lawyer alive who could win an argument with one of those things. They have, thanks to Google (what, you thought it would die out?), a nearly-infinite store of information, and our feeble little minds can hardly compete with that. What this means is that over time - it's been coming for almost twenty years, I'd say, but we've really only been noticing in the last few - people lost the ability to do a lot of things. When you're completely dependent on the advice of a machine that does not understand why you would want to go out and do something just for the fun of it, you miss out on a lot of fun. It is logical to eat every four hours; to sleep for at least a third of the time, with exact hours determined based on individual physiology; to do a job that benefits society while guaranteeing personal comfort; and to find a successful mate to ensure the continuation of one's bloodline.

I'm sure you can imagine how bloody boring that is. We've stopped going out except to find and do practical things that cannot be achieved at home (I hate holo-shopping with a passion, for instance; the holo-pants are coded to fit better than the real ones ever will), and matchmaking is just sad. You had net-based dating, I know - but you can just try to compare that to PLA-based matchmaking, and see how you like it.

Me: But she's horrible!

Carl: She is 96% physically compatible with you; the chances of bearing offspring free of major genetic abnormalities are approximately 94.8%, with a 2% margin of error.

Me: But she looks like a gargoyle!

Carl: Negative; she lacks several traits common to gargoyles, as described in Medieval Statues by Ronald Webber. Would you like to view a sample of the novel for $55?

Me: Shut up.

(No, we are not less shallow in the future, so you can stop hoping now.)

This is why I am writing to you; you will probably never see this - MIT is working on time travel right now, but 80% of the team is cryogenically frozen at the moment, which lowers their productivity a bit - but it makes me feel better to try. Machines are not evil, and as of the '60's, they have no plans to take over the world. However, they really don't need to: there isn't much to take over, anymore. Yes, everything is still functioning for now, but for now is the operative statement. You'd be amazed by the amount of depression we have in an age where Eli Lilly can prescribe medication for you before you're even aware that something's wrong - Carl jabbed me with a syringe this morning, and I'm still not sure what was in it - but it's not really that surprising.

People don't do what their PLAs tell them not to do, which is essentially everything that makes life interesting... and people don't function well when reduced to their most basic requirements. Trust me on this. Most aren't even aware of what the problem is, since none of the systems they base their day on can tell them; they just grow more and more listless. Why do I know? I watch your movies, despite Carl's statistic-tossing, and though I'm incredibly glad that our society has done away with such horror as Home Alone XVII: 75 and Lost!, I envy you. Except for the lack of Jacuzzi suits, of course.

See, isn't it embarrassing? We haven't been dominated and enslaved by anyone except our own need for efficiency, which is incredibly depressing. I can see why you'd look ahead with movies like Terminator, because I suspect that films depicting people lying around on couches waiting for night to fall wouldn't sell very well. (Although the vmdb says that 95% of you did see Titanic, so I might be wrong.) Throw your PDAs away, no matter what they tell you! If we're going to die out, better through massive human mistakes than overly cautious human ambivalence, right? Besides, they make you look like a geek - trust me, I've seen pictures - and you're really better off not knowing what your chances with the girls at the mall are. You'd never even try.