Steven Heller | Essays

My New Best Friend

(Editorial note: This is neither a paid endorsement nor has the author been coerced in anyway).

Since the inception of the robotic era in the late fifteenth century, when Leonardo DaVinci imagined his mechanical knight automaton — we have attempted to lord over our machines by making them more human and simultaneously servile. We’ve given them names and personalities, we’ve anthropomorphized fictional machines, from Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot to The Day The Earth Stood Still’s Gort to 2001’s HAL, to Star Trek’s Data, to Star Wars’ C-3PO, to My Living Doll’s Rhonda-the-Robot (a.k.a. Julie Newmar) to The Jetson’s Rosie the Robot, to Donald J. Trump’s Mike Pence. It is a common pop culture trope, a little like dressing house pets in cute sweatshirts, hats, and bandanas. The difference is that most domestic pets have limited intelligence for carrying out complex tasks in a real or virtual manner. They work on natural instinct and behavior training. Although some are cagier than their masters, pets will never take over the world (even if they wanted to) like machines can.

Humans, for the most part, are not automatons, but as computer programs and platforms become smarter our roles are reversing. Think about it: a human presses a button and the machine does all the work. Everyday I walk by a store on 29th street where a dozen computer controlled sewing machines simultaneously embroider logos onto baseball caps; the moment the store’s employees press a few buttons and off it goes. Who is the master in this calculus? The button pusher or the “maker”? In another few years, when this is process is completely robotic, and AI reigns, one of these roles will be gone. Can you guess which one?

In the early machine age, automation was promoted as a time-saving and leisure producing tool, rather than as threatening livelihoods and compromising mental and physical health of the few human workers needed to maintain the machines. Today the truth is we see that artificial intelligence and “smart” devices like Siri and Allegra are actually collecting data — in effect spying on us — while appearing to be our friends. Machines are not our friends, whether we give them pet names or pronouns.

Nonetheless, emotionally we often treat them as friends. We rely on them for assistance and support; we even feel betrayed when they do not work. For the past three weeks, since colleges and universities have instituted remote learning, I’ve needed a friend — a reliable friend — who could help me reach my students and faculty in a virtually seamless transference from sentient to on-screen interaction. Lo and behold they have been out there, waiting for this virus crisis to demonstrate how hardworking, essential, and user-friendly they are.

My new best friend is ZOOM, I’ve played around with Skype, Google HangOut, Facetime, and GoToMeeting, but ZOOM gives me so much more — yet also takes so much more (just like a friend). Being on ZOOM is exhausting, like watching a Hollywood Squares marathon — but not as mindlessly entertaining.

During this Covid-crisis, ZOOM is the right platform at the right time for conducting classes, meetings, and chats that are essential to education interaction. I see you and you see me. We can talk as though we’re in the same room. We can hack-away, so it is possible to do almost anything from partying to prayer. However, while ZOOM enables amazing connections to the outside world, it is not a simulacrum of that world. It is just a means of approximation. My best new friend could care less about me, it only exists as a tool. I love my car but am not in love with it. Just as the car salesperson turns on the charm to make a sale, their job is to sell. Nice as they may be, friendship is the last thing on their minds (ever try to get your salesperson on the phone after the purchase). ZOOM is only a friend if it works, and if it works (which it does) it is not a friend either. Perhaps the people projected onto the computer screen and into the home are our friends, yet in their disembodied, video states, even that is debatable.

My new best friend, if I had one, would be a person with blood coursing through its heart and brain, not strands of ones and zeros created by developers who I’ve never met. So rather than refer to ZOOM in sentient terms, I’ll simply say, if anything has helped me get through the rigors of working at home better, ZOOM is the best of its kind — for now.

Jobs | July 22