One of the paradoxes of a consumer society is that we replace our tech faster than ever before, yet the difference between this year’s device and the one you’re trying to flog on Facebook is only getting smaller with each passing year. Displays get sharper, and the chips that drive them become more powerful, but when I weigh the incremental improvements in my £1200 smartphone against the mushrooming interest on my credit card I’m eventually going to reach the point where I can’t justify an upgrade.
There is, however, a new frontier for technology, which looks less to upgrade my device than to enhance the feeble human body that uses it. As a fan of science fiction I cannot wait for our friendly corporations to do this, and can’t possibly imagine how it could go wrong. I look forward to a future in which I am upgraded into a stronger, more profitable form.
GIVE ME YOUR CLOTHES, YOUR BOOTS AND YOUR MOTORCYCLE
If you’re going to become a cyborg it won’t be with science-fiction laser eyes or enhanced strength, but through products that offer to help run your body more efficiently than it currently runs itself. Health data is one of the fast growing areas in tech, and like the rest of our valuable data we happily trade it with corporations for help with weight loss or predicting whether we’ll go bald. Consumers seldom question why those mail-order DNA tests are so cheap, and surrender sensitive personal data to companies like 23andMe in exchange for a report that may as well be a horoscope in terms of its scientific rigour. The ancestry reports are a sideshow, because the real value in that data is when it’s anonymised and sold on to medical researchers and insurance companies. This creates a powerful economic incentive for consumer implants that will offer to monitor, and eventually enhance, the natural functions of the human body. Imagine a FitBit, but it tells you how quickly your metabolism is running. Given enough data and some artificial hormones the eventual upgrade offers to nudge your endocrine system so you’re motivated to exercise in the mornings, or simply not hungry enough to eat that cake. This sounds creepy, and dangerous, but in a world of extreme weight loss and impotence treatments you can imagine people signing up for it. Within a decade or so we could find ourselves living in a world where this kind of data exchange is so common that it underpins cheaper insurance and bespoke healthcare treatment. The catch is that for some people it leads to more expensive insurance, or no insurance at all, and then maybe certain employers demand access to your internal data – which will tell them whether you are sick, tired, pregnant, drunk or even how much you sleep. Scoff if you want but this isn’t far off from things that already happen, like US companies routinely testing employees for drug use, or Amazon monitoring its warehouse workers’ toilet breaks.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION
If the idea that corporations would try and upgrade your body sounds far-off, remember that doctors have already modified people around you by replacing their limbs, manipulating their hormones and chemically adjusting their minds in the name of better health. The profit motive is just attempting to smuggle that technology out of the hospital and into a less-regulated consumer market. For some people this is already a problem they’ve met head on – a group of American diabetics worked out they could buy up older insulin pumps and hack the software to reduce the spiralling costs of interacting with their private healthcare providers. Corporations have proved that they’re happy to copyright seeds to control the ways that poor farmers grow their crops, so why assume they will act nice with any hardware that happens to run inside you? I “rent” the software I use from Adobe, which is fine for me but less fine for users in Venezuela, who logged in last week and were prevented from accessing their Photoshop files after the US government made it illegal to sell software services in their country. Imagine a similar situation, but instead of trying to make cat memes you’re trying to run the system upgrade on your artificial kidney.
YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED, OR BE DESTROYED
Although the technology is already here, you might not personally relate to my theories about medical implants or biometric data, perhaps because I sound like somebody who thinks Wi-fi makes your balls shrivel up. That’s fine, although don’t expect to shelter in my bunker when the FitBit terminator comes for you because you skipped your Spinning class. A more relatable example of the excessive presence of technology in our lives might be communications technology, because it’s more obvious how willingly we’ve surrendered formerly private areas of our lives to social media. We are surrounded by people who broadcast moments that used to be reserved for a small circle of friends and family, and the new celebrities in society are people who’ve become rich by taking this to an absurd extreme. However, a livefeed of Kardashians at the gynaecologist stills feels different to tech-like medical implants because you ultimately have the choice to post selfies or to start up a broadcast, and they are still based on how you externally choose to present yourself to the world. When I started work on this article it was a humorous piece, and I was imagining technology like implanted selfie sticks and 24/7 YouTube surveillance drones, yet the more I think about it, I suspect that people would line up for those products if they existed.
HE’S MORE MACHINE THAN MAN NOW, TWISTED AND EVIL
Many anti-technology scolds pointed to the failure of Google Glass, the tech giant’s wearable camera system, to prove that having people who permanently record everything they see was a red line that society would never cross. I’m now convinced that the setbacks for that project are better explained by the fact that the only people who could afford them were boring, and that the glasses themselves made you look like a dick. The next generation of Google Glass will probably be a cheap contact lens, and eventually an enhancement to your eyeball, which allows you to entertain the world (and generate value for Google’s shareholders) by transmitting everything you see. Combined with medical implants which monitor your hormones and could also share how you’re feeling, I suspect we aren’t that far from media stars who entertain us by broadcasting their internal thoughts. Again, what starts off as a consumer entertainment product will prove to have less friendly uses as soon as the data becomes valuable enough to sell. For years, facial recognition technology was unreliable because of the limits to processing power, but also because the computer algorithms didn’t have enough data to practice on. Thanks in part to social media the machines now have billions of selfies to look at, and the technology has become scarily efficient for enthusiastic users like the Chinese government. I would like to say that I’ll consider all this the next time I go smartphone shopping, but the only thing I can say for sure is that I’m not ready to buy any device that expects me to swallow the bluetooth receiver or enhance my user experience by peeing in a cup.