Does anyone give a second thought to the quotidian cursor anymore? There it sits, lonely and blinking. So ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. At its essence, it functions as an omnipresent “You are here” dot for the vastness of cyberspace.
In grade school, it was a fat thing, a character's width on old green-screen computers. Then along came Steve Jobs (he of the I-took-a-calligraphy-class-on-my-way-to-genius” fame) and with the help of designer Susan Kare, it slimmed down, taking the pleasant form of an I-beam cross-section to fit in between characters. (Shout-out to The Information, I love your logo for the same reason).
Tethered to the GUIs of Apple and Microsoft, the cursor became even friendlier, eliminating once and for all the stark coldness of the “Shall-we-play-a-war-game?” ASCII experience of the early 1980s.
But fast-forward to 2019. What if the real reality was – in a through-the-looking-glass way – that YOU, in fact, were the cursor or mouse for vast algorithmic platforms to know where they are in “meat space”?
Over the last couple of years, you’re now hearing (constantly) that with social media, you’re no longer the customer, you’re the product. Therefore “the user” is not you – it’s the tech giants in whose vast platform kingdom you’re a datapoint. Or 10,000 datapoints. (A sentiment perfectly summed up by Kara Swisher in her Recode podcast last week: “I didn’t use Facebook, Facebook used me”).
Think about it… Meta data. Code Halos. Click-throughs. Tracking pixels. Accelerometers. Haptics. Cookies. Location tracking. Eyeball tracking. Facial recognition software. Blithely giving away your data by playing along with the Ten Year Challenge. Even seemingly indispensable tools of convenience like Waze and Google Maps function as the accrued info of thousands of human “cursors” crawling around meat space. (Giving new resonance to song lyrics like Dave Matthews’ “Ants Marching”.)
Even a simple act of searching for stuff on a web browser is in service of training an AI. To quote Shoshana Zuboff’s terrific new book, Surveillance Capitalism: “In the new operation, users were no longer ends in themselves, but rather became the means to others’ ends. Reinvestment in user services became the method for attracting behavioral surplus and users became the unwitting supporters of raw material for a larger cycle of revenue generation.”
One of the high ironies of life in the 21st century is you now have a robot asking you to prove you’re not a robot. (Thanks Captcha!) Perhaps this is the obverse of a hovering your mouse over a seemingly innocuous hyperlink, and it alerting you that it contains a virus-infected contagion.
These are themes we’ve previously written extensively about, especially as it relates to the future of privacy. And they’re not going away; in contrast, they’re growing in importance with each passing day as critical themes for the future of humanity’s relationship with technology, let alone the future of work.
For example, with the advent of augmented reality technologies, the potential power of capabilities like eyeball tracking conjures dystopian nightmares. Yet, if you or a loved one are handicapped and can’t speak or type, it promises amazing, game changing capabilities, like helping move an electric wheelchair, or picking up objects – powered by a gaze.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is terribly naive. But it’s a theme we cover extensively in our newest report, From/To. Specifically, the rise of robots, machine intelligence, distributed ledgers, quantum physics, “gig” labor, the unexaggerated death of privacy, a world eaten alive by software — all these trends point to a new world that’s shaping up quite differently from anything we’ve ever seen, or worked in, before. But in the future of work, we’ve got to make this symbiosis work for all of us, man and machine alike.
For all the good things like this that technology can do for us IRL, it’s critical that we remember Steve Jobs’ “bicycle for the mind” metaphor. Technology can take us places, and be a force multiplier for making smart people even smarter. Therefore, we must learn to self-regulate hubris and ego in service of the machine. Or else other people will do it for us. Or other “things”. Elon Musk nailed it when, tweeting about AI, he said, “I hope we're not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable…”
Meanwhile, billions of cursors are out there training.
Welcome to meat space. You are here. Blink… blink…