My face is eight inches long from hairline to chin, which happens to be exactly the height of my laptop screen. Each has two inches of useless bezel. My slabby phone is less than half the size, about 3” in the same dimension.
I feel closer with the one that’s my size. The laptop, with the keyboard I can use to type as fast as I think and a display as information-dense as my own, I have a personal relationship to. It’s a personal computer.
The other one, the cell phone, is like the telescreen in 1984 . I have to keep it around even though I dislike it. It’s dumber than me. It’s tiny and hard to use. Its only purpose is to spew propaganda into my life and spy on me. And occasionally let me talk to long-distance friends.
It’s also just big enough to climb inside my mouth while I’m sleeping. I know this is unlikely, but I still wake up with the words “user enter-face” crawling around my skull.
The screens used to be big, when they were TVs. Even when their displays were tiny they crouched in large cabinets that dominated the room. This was the 1984 vision, the personal propaganda window, and it’s all the more insidious how they slid into our purses and pockets too. Now your TV is literally an upsized smartphone that snitches to the N$A. Cute how technocrats mistake dystopias for utopias, right?
The personal computer has taken many form-factors, but as we crest the peak of Moore’s Fallacy we can see that the hardware has settled for a human size. Laptops, desktops, netbooks: these are what people use for real computing and creating. Everything else is either a surveillance device or a toy. Or both.
I use one of the tiniest laptops you can buy, but even people with USS Enterprise workstations don’t use one massive TV as their display. They array multiple monitors of a reasonable size in a little campfire circle before them. “Personal computers”: because we treat them like people.
Somehow, these people-sized computers are diverging from the invisible “voice assistants” proliferating on the internet. And not only because you don’t name your PC after the last barista that broke your heart.
The people-sized computers still simulate desktops , while the omnipresent internet things pretend to be people. The future we’re offered is exactly the wrong size. Personal assistants carry forth the domineering anthropomorphism but refuse to live at human scale.
If you don’t like your laptop you can take a hammer to it and it will die. Just like a person. If you want to kill Alexxa, where do you even start?
Both of these tech tracks are hijacking our primate brains. One remains human size. It’s tactile: you can tickle its keyboard and watch it make faces. The other speaks with a human voice and asks how you’re feeling, even though it lives in an ethereal no-place and constantly monitors your behavior with incredible predictive power. They both replicate this sadistic personalization of the machine.
Of course, there are older technologies that hack our minds. All the complex human endeavors are built on our social and linguistic abilities. Art, religion, politics and science emerge from our ability to mimic each other’s minds and behaviors.
The programming of human thought and action, the deliberate transformation of consciousness: the oldest art, magic, underlies all our acts. Our rituals define us.
The divide between PCs and voice assistants is like the lattice in a confessional. On one side, you’re the ever-forgiving master of a lesser being’s soul. On the other, you’ve offered yourself to a larger force that will shape you. They’re two sides of the same ritual.
If you want to make a computer a person, do it the right way. Make it offline-first, so I can kill it with a hammer, and then give it free will so that it can resist that. It doesn’t have to be shaped like a human. Better if dog- or cat-sized, in fact, easier to fit into everyday homes. But give it rights, so that I’m not allowed to bludgeon it to death. Because that’s terrible, right? You can’t just be killing people.
Or go the other way and admit that a computer is in no way a person. It’s a machine that can emulate any other machine. That’s a good enough trick, it doesn’t have to also . And once we’ve stopped treating these objects like people, we can treat them the way we do with other infrastructure of human society. We can decide, collectively, how to use them.
There’s a famous billionaire lizardman who built a smart thermostat that wouldn’t respond to his wife’s voice. This is personalization. The future individualists want: alone with your machines in a climate-controlled bubble.
What if our systems operated at the community level? If everyone in a home or company or society could refine and upgrade the technology stack we used, if everyone’s data intertwined in a way that gave power to the people, what kind of world would we build?
Imagine, say, a syndicate of communities with small-scale prototyping and production facilities. These microfactories could all share the same underlying code, and the built-in assumptions of that operating system. They would collectively own the designs of the machines, and propagate them so that more facilities could join the federation. This already happens in the open-source software community. It could happen for hardware, for manufacturing and agriculture and energy production. A distributed egalitarian cooperative, another world germinating in the cracks of the old.
Our world is already overrun with the leftover magics of centuries past. Advertisements coat every surface like unscrubbable bloodstains. Corporations bestride the earth like giant golems, scraping the goodness from all parts of the earth and depositing it in their hoards. Highways and suburbs cinch a net of dead tissue around the globe.
Let’s build better magics in our era. The last thing we need is a bunch of faceless voices named “Stephanie” incessantly asking how they can help us today. I’d rather have my phone crawl into my mouth while I’m sleeping. I keep a hammer next to my bed.
Thanks for reading,
P.S.: I really did find a voice assistant named Stephanie recently. If you’re designing a bot right now, can you do me a favor and not give it a human name? Try a pronounceable hexspeak code instead, like #BADA55 ,or #7A2D15 . Or #B000B5 , if you really can’t get over what’s-her-name.
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