The “other side” of technology

I’ve never done a book review on my Medium feed and this piece today is hopefully not going to read like a review. But it is about a book I finished reading yesterday and which many people have called “not sci-fi”, and I would call “near future sci-fi” for reasons which will become apparent in this short post.

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“Little Eyes” by Samanta Schweblin, a Spanish-language Argentinian author, tells the story of a world taken over by small, man-made toy pets called kentukis. Kentukis are operated remotely by a person who chooses to connect to the kentuki and see the world through the toy’s eyes. These people are called Dwellers and they have purchased a “connection” from the company that manufactures kentukis. The people who buy the toy itself are called Keepers and they simply enjoy having the toy around and interacting with it without really knowing who is operating the kentuki. That’s the basic story.

“Little Eyes” is a collection of individual stories of people either dwelling within or keeping a kentuki, and it begins with the arrival of the first kentukis, in sleek, Apple-like packaging, and chronicles the spread of the toy pets throughout the world. Samanta Schweblin has previously written similar stories and her style is to focus on the human aspect of the narrative and overlook any technological considerations. In “Little Eyes” we never hear who the company making kentukis is, there is no explanation of the technology and how it works and there is zero commentary on the policies, politics or ownership of the kentuki creators.

Which is why this is an incredible read for anyone who’s been involved in the current technology narrative. The parallels with some of the more current tech developments are pretty obvious: kentukis sound a lot like IOT Furby toys, small, colorful and apparently harmless pastimes upgraded with an internet connection and some basic translation software. They do inconspicuous things like move around on small wheels, can close and open their eyes and be guided to move forward and back. It soon becomes apparent that they have a microphone which allows them to not only hear what the keeper is saying but also record everything they hear, and because the imagery gets streamed to your phone or laptop if you’re a dweller, most of it can also be recorded or photographed for keeping.

The similarities with current tech are unmissable. Kentukis track their keepers’ homes much like many of the current Internet-powered security doorbells and cameras do. Lots of kentukis are purchased to “patrol” their environments or interact with/supervise children, and since they can point at things and express basic emotions like approval and disapproval, the kentukis can also direct people’s choices and decisions much like our phone assistants do. In several secondary kentuki story lines, kentukis, albeit unable to speak, help people choose among items, select outfits and foods. And, of course, kentukis are also fundamentally like games which become addictive for a lot of the kentuki owners. Finally, because of the keeper/dweller relationship, the kentukis are smaller allegories of messaging apps, dating apps and even live porn cams. The multiple roles that kentukis play in the story clearly make them a larger metaphor for the Internet and digital technologies today.

But what makes “Little Eyes” compelling to me is not that part. It’s the fact that throughout the story, the technology behind the kentukis is just adjacent to the motivations of the main, human characters. Samanta Schweblin chooses to tell stories where the idiosyncrasies of the human condition play as much a role in how technologies are adopted and used as the technology itself. People who lose loved ones become obsessed with nurturing their kentukis, deeply disturbed or mentally ill people abuse kentukis, lonely people find connections in the unknown keeper they serve, addicts pursue their addition through the eyes of the kentuki they control, good people use kentukis for good, bad people for bad, good people accidentally misuse their kentukis and apparently bad people turn out to be heroes through the work their kentuki is able to do.

We are so used to being told that we are victims of the technology around us that reading a book like “Little Eyes” may appear counter-intuitive. The fact that so many people in the book seem to be unaware of the negative potential of such an application of technology seems unlikely. Why would you allow someone you don’t know to spy on you in your own house (indeed the book opens with a ransom scene)? But kentukis become the most sold and traded item in the world. Why would you engage with someone who could be anyone (turns out lots of kentukis are operated by pedophiles)? People buy them without considering the consequences and even people who start out thinking they have strong boundaries with the technology end up abusing that relationship and failing to control their addiction to the bond they have with the kentuki.

I think we’d be well served to be asking ourselves similar questions when we talk about the addictive and negative impact of new technologies. We cannot go on exclusively divesting responsibility to the companies that make our social networks, dating apps, and even more innocuous things like our running and maps apps. Why do we spend so much time using our phones while we continue to believe they are there to enslave us and regularly listen to our conversations? Why do we buy home assistants, use Alexa and do our shopping with Amazon? I tried to answer some of these using the idea of “convenience bias”, but if you read Samanta Schweblin’s book as an allegory for modern life, she seems to be saying that we’re doing all these things because we’re fundamentally deprived of connection, love, self-respect and opportunity. Not just because some tech overlords are here to use us as “product” for advertisers.

Among the more “directional” stories told in “Little Eyes”, the book also chronicles a silent takeover. By the last chapters, kentukis are everywhere, there is a small black market in second-hand connections and people take their kentukis everywhere they go. There is a generalised sense of inevitability and inertia. Some of the main characters have agency in relationship to their kentuki, but most of the people around them don’t. They have jumped on the bandwagon and globalised the kentuki craze without considering the consequences, they adopt the new trend because people around them do, they incorporate the new way of life and don’t attempt to learn more, to get educated or to reflect on what they gained and lost in the transaction.

Do we not do the same? How many of us have adopted new social networks, new ways to connect, new devices and gadgets even in the face of clear alarm bells about safety, security or with no information on the long term effects of use. The term “early adopter” is a net positive in today’s technophile world but it can just as easily be seen as a negative. Early adopters drive penetration through sheer enthusiasm, but the source of that enthusiasm is never altruistic. There is something to be gained so early adopters don’t ask too many questions. Late adopters, by contrast, don’t care about the answers and that’s what Samanta’s book does well: it implies the answers while making it clear that most people won’t be interested in them.

There is a lot of negativity about how we use technology today. And it’s largely directed at the people making the technology. Or, more confusingly, at the technology itself. But if we stopped and considered our motives for adopting new technologies, beyond the need for convenience and comfort, we might find that technology is just a conduit for our own unaddressed emotions and needs. And while that most definitely doesn’t make it okay for platforms and apps to attempt to misuse our data and our brains, we somehow also need to agree that we play a role in this. It’s not just the algorithms.

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Having reread this, I also feel the need to justify my piece slightly because I am aware writing about personal responsibility in an age where most individual action is unlikely to have major consequences is highly unpopular. I am not suggesting that we are to blame for the negative consequences of wide-spread digital technology adoption, nor am I suggesting that we can fix these if we fix ourselves. I believe in balance and that governments and the platforms cannot be expected to solve everything. I think concerted action by governments should be combined with an effort to educate ourselves more and try to escape the “convenience bias”.

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