Tools, substitutes or companions: three metaphors for thinking about technology

This reposted from the Cyberselves blog, which has died. Original date: 2018-02-05

Here are three metaphors for how we think about digital and robotic technologies:

File:Centaur (PSF).jpgFirst, as tools. Passive instruments which extend our own power. Hammers enhance your hitting, video calling extends your presence, algorithmic trading merely implements the rules you designed for trading. Tools seem like passive objects, without their own desires, but a moment’s thought will tell you that even passive objects have psychological effects (that’s why we say ‘to a man with a hammer every thing looks like a nail’).

A second metaphor is to think of technologies as substitutes. This is the metaphor which dominates robotics – and the ever repeated image of the humanoid robot, whether doing human labour (and potentially putting them out of work), or rising up and a waging a war against humans to replace them. Here’s an interesting post from Marginal Revolution, which pours cold water on self-driving trucks, explicitly because it rejects the idea that all the functions of a truck driver can be replaced by technology:

truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever. [and on]

But there is another metaphor for technology, that of working companions. This is a metaphor where technology complements human abilities, rather than merely extending them (like tools), or replacing them (like substitutes). Ironically, the quote above is a comment on an article which takes the companion metaphor as its premise, not the replacement metaphor (“Could Self-Driving Trucks Be Good for Truckers?“). Clive Thompson, in the compelling first chapter of his Smarter Than You Think labels human-technology teams ‘centaurs’. For Thompson the question “Who is better at chess – humans or computers?”- is simply the wrong question. The best chess, the most interesting chess, can be played by computer-human teams which fluidly interact and can draw on the strengths of both:

In essence, a new form of chess intelligence was emerging. You could rank the teams like this: (1) a chess grand master was good; (2) a chess grand master playing with a laptop was better. But even that laptop-equipped grand master could be beaten by (3) relative newbies, if the amateurs were extremely skilled at integrating machine assistance. “Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer,” Kasparov concluded, “was overwhelming.”

Better yet, it turned out these smart amateurs could even outplay a supercomputer on the level of Deep Blue… They did it using their own talents and regular Dell and Hewlett-Packard computers, of the type you probably had sitting on your desk in 2005, with software you could buy for sixty dollars

Read an excerpt here.

The technologies of the future will be more exciting, more dangerous, more mind-altering than either tools or substitutes. How we relate do our new companions will require an exercise of the imagination, as much as anything else. Letting our thinking be captured by restricted metaphors for these new technologies will only hold us back.

Related: How To Become A Centaur at 2018-02-07

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