Friday, July 25, 2008

Our New and Improved (?) Digital Washer/Dryer

Several weeks ago I left my apartment only to discover that our building had replaced our perfectly functional “analog” washer/dryers with new digital models. What sets these apart are black LCD screens with digital read-outs that show the exact length, in minutes, of the remaining wash or dry cycle.

The display also goads you into forking up an extra quarter for a “bonus” rinse cycle, but it’s optional. The only thing it doesn’t do is send a message saying, “hey– take out your clothes, another tenant needs the dryer!”, or tell you to have a nice day.

Is there a message here – besides the digital read-out? Well the old washers worked pretty well as I recall, although the lint screen on the new one is a lot nicer – but that’s because it’s new. A lint screen alone might have cost what, two bucks?

It is nice to know exactly how much time is left in a cycle, but if you’ll pardon the pun, it’s fluff.

It’s excess for its own sake. Like the SUVs and mini-vans that are now extinct, it speaks to an insatiable need, now completely programmed into our brains, to see lack where there might be satisfaction.

It also makes one think of the perfectly functional and beautiful homes that get knocked down for newer, bigger mansions, whose owners might have made do with what they had.

And it speaks to the message of the Dalai Lama, on the east coast this week and probably being largely ignored, who chastises us for always wanting more, more and more.

As you may know, his country, Tibet, is being mauled by the country that is emulating us in the more, more and more sweepstakes – China, along with also fast growing India. But both of these countries are raising extremely low standards of living a bit higher, while we are generally raising generally very high standards of living (by global comparison) higher and higher.

But the problem really isn’t us, is it? The company that built the new and improved digital washer/dryer is considered innovative, and is manned by a marketing team hell bent on convincing the world that knowing the exact length of the rinse and dry cycle is critical.

That need has flowed down the electronic synapses and dendrites of our society to the point where we need to check our email every hour, or more, and keep up with the news, while being programmed to buy more digital washer/dryers.

There may have been a lesson to be learned from the older analog washer/dryers – from that inexact interval between the end of the cycle and the time you actually remember to take out your clothes.

In that ten or fifteen extra minutes, if you aren’t checking your email or scheduling your next appointment, you might actually sit back and reflect (as the Dalai Lama might) on what the heck you’re doing anyway?

Instead of checking your email, check your reality.

In case you missed it, CNN ran a story the other day with the headline: Scientists: Humans and machines will merge in future.

No, they weren’t talking about a Yahoo-Microsoft type of merger. They were suggesting that you and I might be made new and improved with digital read-outs. Optimally, email might be downloaded directly into our brains, bypassing the laptop or iPhone entirely. According to the piece:

“Transhumanists… anticipate an era in which biotechnology, molecular nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence and other new types of cognitive tools will be used to amplify our intellectual capacity, improve our physical capabilities and even enhance our emotional well-being.”

And the proponents weren’t worried about this scenario, they seemed to welcome it as an inevitable improvement in human “efficiency” (my interpretation).

When I think about how entities like credit card companies, utilities, software manufacturers and others take advantage of new technology to pad my bill and increase my customer dissatisfaction, I have to wonder about the ultimate advantage of becoming “transhuman.”

Most of the people I see walking around shouting into their cellphones barely qualify as human.

I’d hate to reach the voicemail system of a “transcorporate customer” support center. I am sure they’d have a sensational mission statement, but the underlying reality would be far less benign.

And I’m not sure that a new and improved version of my brain or my body, complete with digital read-outs and a wireless connection to an ATM, would improve my life very much.

When I look at the other “transhuman” byproducts of a digitally improved emerging Humanity 2.0 I also have to wonder: dead birds, dying bees, beached whales and dolphins, poisoned oceans, unbreathable air at the Olympics – perhaps what we’ll be digitally replacing won’t be our brains but our lungs.

Maybe I’m making too much of the digital washer/dryer – after all, I haven’t had to wait for the dryer since they installed it. And the lint screen is impeccable. But for some reason I can’t quite fathom, I find myself checking my email more and more frequently. I think I’m becoming – transhuman.