HARDBARNED! The Blog

Nanobots, Xbones, The Singularity and iPhones

Following in the fallible footsteps of those fickle flakes at Microsoft, I have reversed course on two previous decisions related to my choice interactions with two preeminent technologies of the day and have taken tenuous steps into a larger world of high-tech gadgetry. A guy can change his mind, can't he? We're all just people. We, the people, and the corporations, who are people too, I guess.

In an epic 1978 Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Cott released last year in hardback, Susan Sontag said that writing allowed her to "get rid of ideas" so that she could "move on to some other view of things." Maybe it's obvious, but Sontag meant that as a writer, she believed in what she wrote at the time it was written.

She also meant that she was always allowing herself room to grow and space to evolve as a reader and as a thinker, constantly consuming and processing information, absorbing new knowledge, asking relevant questions and adjusting her views accordingly. Writing was her chance to get the ideas out when they were ready, but it could only represent a fixed moment in time, while her thinking remained in perpetual motion. This is evident in anyone with a healthy intellectual curiosity, but the idea that a writer may well soon disagree with her own writing is somewhat...unsettling. Or is it?

With few exceptions, I'm a late upgrader. Even my mom has had a smartphone, a Kindle and even a Fitbit for a while. I resisted cell-phone ownership until 2002 and didn't send my first text message until 2007. More than four years ago, I wrote here about my simple, "dumb" phone and why I was sticking with it instead of following just about everyone I knew into smartphoneland.

Then, 15 months ago, I wrote at length here about, among other video game-related subjects, why I would not be switching anytime soon from my trusty old Xbox 360 to the forthcoming fancypants, next-generation Xbox One (Xbone) game console/media sponge/living room overlord. And finally, nearly a year ago, I wrote here about my stalwart resistance to social media and continued general aversion to smartphones.

Today, though I remain an outlier from social media, I have reversed course on the console and the smartphone, and September has become a sort of Banish the Luddite/Consolidate the Devices month for me, as I reluctantly dragged myself into a higher level of technology on two key fronts: my pocket and the living room.

Was my relationship with technology evolving? Was I surrendering to its regimented, unsentimental march? Had I been seduced by the power of the dark side and its shiny devices? Or was there a significant element of practicality involved? Yes.

It took me almost a year to power through the thing, as I kept setting it aside to read fiction, something a bit more fun...like Joe Haldeman's excellent The Forever War, a 1970s space marine tale about a tough time-traveling soldier...but I finally finished computer scientist/inventor/futurist/top Google engineer Ray Kurzweil's 2005 doorstop/book on the evolution of technology, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

I may be almost a decade late to his party, but Kurzweil argues that The Singularity (the point at which technological advancement will be beyond humanity's ability to comprehend it) won't happen until 2045, so I think I got the jump on him. That means those of you who suck at math (like me) but haven't read it yet have 31 years left to read this book before the entirety of its content will already be totally obvious because you'll already have the sum of all human knowledge (and more) turkey-basted into your machine-encrusted, post-biological, computer-enhanced, technology-infused brain. That doesn't sound so bad. Maybe I should have just waited and read comic books instead.

And yet, I've already been transcended, as far as my ability to understand certain considerable chunks of this dense book is concerned.

Reading it was often fascinating and revelatory while at other times utterly impenetrable. Major mathy, graphy parts, where Kurzweil details the exponential equations for his predictions on grand temporal scales, were tough to power through, but I made it. What do I remember most? The nanobots. The microscopic robots that Kurzweil is convinced will enter our bloodstreams (by the billions) to do everything from scrub our arteries to augment our brains, merging with our organic parts and gradually replacing them.

Though he does address skeptics and dangerous tech-related threats, I wish Kurzweil would have written in more depth about possible Terminator-style apocalyptic scenarios of Skynet proportions, which, for this sci-fi fan at least, loomed large over his joyous proclamations of the wonders of tech yet to come. I asked the always responsive and amiable Adrian McKinty what he thought of the book, because he's read everything already, and he said that he thought Kurzweil was right but perhaps 200 years off with his timeline. Maybe you all have a LOT more time to read Kurzweil's books than I thought. While you're at it, read Adrian's. They're awesome. 

So early September arrived, I finally conquered The Singularity, and I guess Ray Kurzweil left me in a technological mood because I soon noticed that Microsoft, having already backtracked on nearly all of its boneheaded Xbox One launch decisions of a year ago, had not only reversed most of them (no 24-hour internet "check-in" required, no game licensing crap--you can buy/own/rent/sell your own games, etc.), they had finally made the obvious and key decision to sell a version of the new console without the Kinect spycam and all of its uber-creepy HAL 9000isms...and...they dropped the price by a hundred bucks.

They also threw in a new Madden football game (that I could sell because I don't play football video games) and offered yet other free game of MY choice...all during the week that Bungie's stellar new FPS/MMORPG, Destiny, debuted.

I couldn't argue with all of these favorable new developments, so I sold ye olde 360 and my Blu-ray player while they still held some value, which took a sizable chunk out of the cost of the Xbone, and enacted a singular device setup for the living room, which I must admit (even without using the Xbone's television or music features) saves space and is awfully convenient. One living room device to rule them all.

Consolidation of devices was also the main instigator for my concurrent decision to finally surrender to smartphoneland as well, seven years after the first iPhone made its debut. I've used a Mac since 1998, but it took me nine years to get an iPod, so perhaps my Luddite tendencies are deteriorating at an ever-so slightly faster rate. After many consecutive dumb and dumber phones, I was tired of filling my pockets with stuff. A typical weekend trip involved hefting a wallet, a cell phone, a computer, a camera, a GPS device, an iPod and a snarl of various cords and adapters.

Keeping the dumb phone was no longer keeping my life simple and streamlined. The new iPhone, for the first time, had enough space to accommodate my entire music collection. And it happened to debut the day before my dumb phone would charge me for another month of dumb service, so the decision was made.

I sold my iPod and GPS, ditched the dumb phone and even got a case from a friend that holds cards with the smartyphone, so no more wallet, either. And maybe when the whole near-field communication Apple Pay thing takes hold, I can even ditch the cards, too. This Swiss Army knife of phones even has a built-in flashlight and pedometer, to help me feel worse about my too-sedentary lifestyle.

The irony of an exponentially more complex device simplifying my life is not lost on me. I'm not swooning. It's still just a thing I use to do stuff. Like a stapler. I just want it to work well and do the things I need done, both reliably and simply. One pocketed device to rule them all.

As far as I know, I don't have any nanobots messing about in my bloodstream, but I've invited the Internet into my pocket and consolidated my living room devices. Am I being assimilated into the Borg? Everyone seems to think I will be devoured by my new devices, particularly by the phone, but things feel about the same so far.

The Xbone plays our HD and SD movie discs like a charm, will stream whenever we get around to adding that feature to our Netflix plan and runs the occasional video game when I'm up for it. But I'll have access to the best new games when they come along, and the Xbone is quieter, sleeker, and more versatile. 

Eleven days into smart phone ownership, I don't feel much different there either. I still make eye contact in person and don't feel the impulse to let a device dominate social interactions. I don't reach for it unless I actually need it for something and am not otherwise engaged in real-world conversation, which thus far has been for a phone call or a text message, primarily. How antiquated of me.

Perhaps I'll soon be consumed and assimilated, a slave to the gadget. We'll see how things look a year or two from now, but maybe by then the Innerwebs will be installed subcutaneously in our wrists, as a recent TIME magazine cover suggests. I know that I will likely utilize tiny fractions of what these advanced machines in my pocket and living room are capable of, but it's nice have options when you need them and even nicer to have them take up a lot less space. Yes, I love technology. Always and forever.