I, Robot: A Northfield Novelist Goes Cyborg
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Percy. Photo illustration by Jeremy Nelson.
Luddite is a strong word. So is technophobe, dinosaur, fogey. But people call me these things regularly and maybe for good reason. I have, after all, never read an e-book. I buy all of my music on CDs that I feed into a Pioneer 25-disc player that was the cutting edge of technology in 1989. Until a few years ago, I had an AOL email address, which I finally cancelled, because I got sick of people saying, “My grandma has an AOL address.”
I am 36 years old, but I may as well be 85, given the fist-shaking futility of my complaints. I gripe daily about our reliance on gizmos, our culture of distraction, everyone’s need to stay constantly connected. The other day I inadvertently repeated one of my grandfather’s favorite sayings, “I’m glad I was a kid when I was a kid,” before clapping my hand over my mouth.
This was the man who batted away my Walkman, saying that vinyl was purer and my music sounded like garbage cans falling down a staircase. This was the man who wore a colostomy bag, and for 30 years refused to update to the latest technology, so that by the end of his life, it appeared almost medieval, patched together with wire and duct tape, causing frequent infections.
I don’t want to end up like that, stubbornly lost in the past. So many years ago I rolled my eyes at him, and now my children are rolling their eyes at me, since I don’t know how to subscribe to the kiddy science channels on YouTube or build a castle with a moat on Minecraft.
This is a specifically weird moment, an in-between time when tech companies have figured out that everyone who will buy a smartphone has bought a smartphone and most of the leading apps are worthless unless you’re 23 and trying to solve 23-year-old problems, like who will drive me to brunch and who can I hook up with when I’m doing E and clubbing with my homies. Everyone is waiting for The Next Big Thing, and in the meantime, they’re betting on wearables to bridge the gap.
And I’m the guy they want. The guy who put off buying a smartphone, but finally caved (when the numbers wore off the keypad of my Nokia flip). The guy who works too much. The guy who could lose a few pounds. The guy with disposable income to burn on junk that might change my life…or might collect dust on a shelf.
So I decide, as an experiment, to be that guy, to crawl out of my cave and suppress my caveman ways. For one month, I will plug in, gear up.
The packages arrive almost daily, dumped on my porch by FedEx, soon followed by a flurry of nervous emails and chirpy phone calls from PR squads, wondering how I like their products, whether I need any help setting them up or exploring their features.
"You do understand that I’m not a tech reviewer, right?” I say, and they say, “Then what are you?” and I say, “A technophobic novelist who lives in the sticks so he can run around naked, howl at the moon, and fire arrows into hay-bale targets without complaint.” At which time they get very, very quiet.
Among the goodies I receive, there are smartphones, glasses, watches, and a comic assortment of “wearables” that you might find in the dollar bin at a Jetsons’ garage sale. Consider the Muse, a brain-sensing headband that promises to calm you down, avert stress, help you “do more with your mind and more with your life.” The online video tells me that “this is what calmness looks like,” showing the headband floating through a sky full of puffy clouds, and I would agree completely, if they replaced the word “calmness” with “ridonkulous.”
I think most sane adults would rather hit the yoga studio or take a stroll through the woods than stare at yet another screen while wearing a doohickey on their head, but who knows.
I miss watches. These days, everyone I know is bare-wristed, digging their phones from their pockets to check the time—and hey, since their phones are out, they might as well fire off a text, answer an email, and “like” some cat videos on Facebook. I figure this is a good way for me to get into the tech game—start small—with something that feels familiar, even nostalgic. But the Samsung Gear S smart watch is no silver-banded Omega.
It’s bulky and black and looks like something a leather-jacketed biker with a teardrop tattoo should be wearing around his ankle to make sure he doesn’t leave the county. It pings every time I get an email or text, records voice memos, makes calls. Essentially it’s my phone’s annoying little cousin, yet another way to pull me out of the moment. I have my share of pet peeves—people who do the double-kiss cheek thing, people who whistle in public restrooms, people who fuss endlessly over their stupid lawns, people who eat garlic-and-Limburger sandwiches on planes—but people constantly glancing at their phones is at the top of the heap as you announce to the person you’re sharing that dinner/walk/classroom with that something else is more important.
I recently traveled to L.A. on business, where phone addiction seems to be at its height. Everyone’s pockets and purses chime with the enthusiasm of a Christmas bell choir, and no one makes eye contact except glancingly because they’re so busy studying their screens as they say, “Uh huh, uh huh,” their expressions blank and lit blue, like the faces of the drowned. I’ll admit I fantasized more than once about bludgeoning a certain producer to death with my smart watch or at least dropping his iPhone into a glass of the sparkling water everyone out there seems so fond of.
Maybe no one needs a smart-anything if the gadget will only serve as another excuse to go still and put your head down. Heads up, everyone. Quit the digital daydreams. Go climb a mountain or catch a butterfly, suck some air, flood the veins, engage with a world that isn’t built from 1s and 0s before we all end up like those screen-addicted blob people in Wall-E. That’s why the exercise program strikes me as the most promising feature of the smart watch, manifested more simply in its sister product, the Samsung Gear Fit.
I abide by the most elementary approach to staying healthy: move more and put less in your mouth. I run three or four times every week, but I’m not the kind of fitness dork who checks my pulse or even my time. I’ve never monitored calories or studied graphs to better understand my splits. I just hammer my way through the miles, and if I run out of breath,
I know I’m running too fast. But I’m not a serious athlete, and the Gear Fit (or its more cutely named competitor, Fitbit) could serve those who are genuinely motivated to shave away seconds. Just as it could serve fitness slugs, who rely exclusively on pee breaks and snack attacks to get them off the couch. For them especially, “life tracking,” as the companies like to call it, could be life-changing.
We’re all at our desks too much, succumbing slowly to heart disease and ass cancer, and the Gear Fit can help you understand that plainly. As I write this, it’s nearly noon. My bpm has dropped to a corpsey 63. I’ve only walked 961 steps, the equivalent of .42 miles, and burned a whopping 44 calories. You bet I’m going to hit the trails this afternoon after logging such sluggish numbers. There’s something about the naked particulars that make you realize things you understood previously only in the abstract.
When I’m checking out at the grocery store, when I’m browsing at the bookstore, when I’m borrowing a table saw from my neighbor, I get the same comment: “Nice.” The Gear Fit looks sharp, I’ll give it that. Slim and glossy and comfortable. And I guess that’s the litmus test for a lot of this tech. People want useful, but maybe more so they want fashionable. That’s what Apple excels at beyond functionality. The iPhone exploded not only because it was so sleekly designed, but because it was an accessory. Nobody asks me how well the Gear Fit works—but everybody wants to try it on.
I’ve got big ears, like a human bat, but they’re worthless: I can’t hear worth a damn. I grew up in a family that hunted, so I spent a lot of time blasting off guns in the woods and gravel pits, not wearing plugs, so that to this day my hearing is tinged with a mosquito whine and voices on the phone often come across at an underwater mumble.
That’s why Soundhawk excited me. It comes in a little gray coffin—both its charger and carrier—that you can slip into your pocket. Hearing aids are always trying to hide, but Soundhawk looks like a Bluetooth headset and overcomes stigma by announcing itself as tech novelty. It wirelessly tethers to your phone and alters its settings as you move through different environments—driving, outdoors, indoors, dining.
I try it out at a restaurant here in Northfield called the Ole Store. Though the almond-crusted walleye is delicious, the ceiling is tin and the floors are hardwood, amplifying every sound, so that the knives screeching and babies burbling and ladies laughing and old men chatting rise into a deafening roar. Normally, when the waiter lists off the specials, he sounds like the parents in Charlie Brown: wah-waw, wah-waw-waw-wah. But tonight I can hear him perfectly—risotto this, balsamic that—and when he finishes, I put up my hands triumphantly and say, “You’ve been Soundhawked!”
Not only can you home in on a conversation across the room with a tilt of your head, Soundhawk comes with a wireless mic you could easily drop in a purse, set on a bureau, clip to a wig and get all kinds of dirt about political assassinations or neighborhood gossip. I go CIA operative on my kids—listening downstairs while they play upstairs—but the worst I get out of them is, “Stay away from my Ewok Lego Fortress, you dumb butt.”
I admire the Soundhawk. It’s useful, it’s kind of cool-looking, but most importantly, unlike the rest of this junk, it creates intimacy instead of destroying it, bringing the room into focus, enhancing conversation, music, your engagement with the here and now.
The author visits Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, for a ride in the company’s self-driving car.
When I repeated my grandpa’s favorite saying—“I’m glad I was a kid when I was a kid”—I was standing in my driveway, looking for stars I couldn’t see. My son asked me a story about Draco the Dragon, and I hustled him outside to see if we could see beyond the light pollution, find the constellation. That’s what my father used to do for me. On moonless nights, with the frogs drumming and the bats fluttering all around us, we would crawl out on the roof and stare up at the big black bowl of sky and I would follow his finger as he pointed out the constellations. Nothing makes you feel so small and awestruck as a night sky—and it’s vanishing.
You know you’ve said it before, when camping in the Boundary Waters or staying at a lodge in Rocky Mountain National Park:“I’ve forgotten about the stars.” What has this absence done to us existentially? If you’re never (or rarely) exposed to the infinite, then you believe this is it. You are the star. And we stare at our screens the way Narcissus stared at his reflection in the pool, updating, updating, updating, a cycle of constant self-appraisal.
This sort of cynicism infects me every time I strap on one of these wearables. I’m getting tired, and—aside from the Soundhawk—my experiment is not going well. If anything, I feel convinced more than ever that I need to retreat to the woods and spend the rest of my years foraging for mushrooms and building booby traps and writing stories with quills on birchbark and clothing myself in the skins of the animals I have slain.
So I decide to reach out to Google. Or, as I like to think of them, The Oracle. I consult them for every other pressing question in my life, like when is The Avengers: Age of Ultron playing at the multiplex or what’s on the sushi menu at Tokyo Grill or how much do flights to Portland cost or what was the deadliest Civil War battle or is Steve Buscemi related to Don Knotts? From bar trivia to novel research to medical queries to sexual curiosity, I ask Google everything every day. It is my most trusted and intimate guide.
They started with something simple and useful—Search—and became much more. An idea factory. Frontline innovators who want to map the world and feed you whatever information you need, all the while living up to their motto: “Don’t be evil.” If anyone can help me overcome my slack-jawed, nose-picking techno deficiencies, it’s them. They also happen to make the best known and most widely ridiculed wearable to date. Google invites me to visit—and they send me Glass as my travel companion.
Google Glass is the flashiest techno bling on the market, the digital equivalent of diamond-studded grills. Wherever I go, people stare. “You’re not recording my schlong, are you?” a guy asks me at the bank of urinals. Several strangers give me funny looks and say, “I bet that’s so distracting to wear,” and they are right only because strangers keep giving me funny looks and saying, “I bet that’s so distracting to wear.”
I expect it to be a distraction—a screen floating like a virtual moon out of the corner of my eye—but Glass doesn’t buzz to life unless I tilt my head back, which can happen unexpectedly if you’re prone to uproarious laughter or epic sneezing fits. At first I can’t think of what to do with the device. I squeeze the button at the stem and snap a few photos of strangers staring at me with puzzled expressions. I use voice commands to call up the map and guide me to the post office. “Okay, Glass,” I say, activating Search. “Google: porn.”
My phone buzzes, but I don’t need to pull it out, because the text pops up on Glass and I see it’s my wife asking me to pick up milk. “1%,” she writes, “because the kids think 2% is too creamy and skim is not creamy enough.” I read it in the blink of an eye, and I’m still here, still present, running through a park, reaching down to pet an approaching dog.
I discover an app, 94Fifty Basketball, that coaches my game as I play it, studying my shot arc, shot speed, and backspin, helping me suck a little less. And another one—Allthecooks—that allows for a hands-free cooking experience and lets me record video recipes, so that my hands and my voice and my kitchen might be passed down through the generations, an archive with a little more whiz-bang to it than Grandma’s spidery script on a mottled 3x5 card labeled “Hamburger Hot Dish.”
But Field Trip is my favorite. If you walk by something interesting, it will tell you more about it. A history lesson on the Tower of London, local lore about a Paul Bunyan statue, the Zagat rating on a BBQ joint, an art lesson about the Titian hanging in the Louvre. Wherever you’re wandering, it’s your tour guide.
But maybe it’s the voice command—also available on any Droid, powered by Search—that’s most striking of all. I can speak to Glass as I speak in conversation. Instead of moving through a series of stilted commands—maps, directions, etc.—or opening up a bunch of different apps, I can simply say, “How far is it to Chicago?” No need to specify where I am. Then, “What are the best restaurants?” No need to repeat Chicago—it remembers. Then, “Compare the Italian to Chinese.” No need to repeat restaurants—again, it remembers the thread of the conversation—and from there it will pull up price and rating comparisons.
Would I ever wear Glass outside of an experiment? Hell no. Does it invite ridicule and make you look like a giant tool? Hell yes. Does it have any real applicability? Maybe. I can imagine a surgeon, for instance, wearing Glass during a difficult procedure and patching in a specialist five states away.
But the rest of the world is not going to unplug, no matter how loudly I gripe, and I admire the way Google is trying to integrate technology into life instead of pulling us out of it. Heads up, not down: that’s their goal.
No one is driving the car, and we’re accelerating down the hill toward an intersection clogged with traffic. A truck beeps its horn. A teenager on the sidewalk snaps a photo with his smartphone. An old woman crossing the street sees us coming and puts her hand over her heart and mutters what might be a prayer. Like a miracle, the brakes depress and the car rolls to a perfect stop and we wait for the signal to flash green. If it weren’t for the people gaping all around us—from crosswalks, sidewalks, other cars—I might forget I was in a self-driving vehicle.
Because the tricked-out Lexus doesn’t poke along or turn at perfect 45-degree angles like you’d expect. It revs its engine, feathers its brakes, stutters forward when a bush blocks its view of oncoming traffic. It has a personality soaked up by its surroundings. That’s due to the monitoring system—what looks like a lunar module anchored on its roof—a combination of cameras and lasers that read stoplights and curbs and trees and traffic and even the drunk dude on the bike who wobbles across two lanes and heads straight for us before veering away and thudding onto the sidewalk.
“That’s never happened before,” says the engineer in the passenger seat. A smile cuts through his red beard and he taps his laptop, logging the encounter and the car’s response, a pulse of the brakes. On the screen, I see a digital replication of our surroundings, a glowing grid crowded with blocky, purple cars and cubist buildings that make it look like he’s streaming TRON. The engineer explains that every time a cat darts across the street or a pickup cuts us off or a rainstorm makes the pavement slick, the car’s mechanical brain gets a little bit smarter, a little more human.
I am so relaxed in the vehicle, so trusting of the technology, so far from the distrusting Luddite I was a month ago, that I forget to snap my seatbelt into place—until 10 minutes into our drive, when we nose toward a highway and a bus blasts by, throwing a gritty wind that rocks the car and ticks the window. “I can’t believe you weren’t buckled,” the engineer says and gestures at the phantom movement of the steering wheel as if to say, Don’t you realize how crazy this shit is?
It’s a moonless night, but a long way from natural dark. The Twin Cities bothers the sky with a green haze. Crickets call. Fireflies glow. Bats swoop. I call up an app called Explore the Stars, and I fit Glass over my son’s eyes so that wherever he looks, no matter how terrible the light pollution, the constellations glow and a voice tells you their name and story.
Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and with people uttering voice-commands like incantations and with information streaming through the air like spells, we all live in Hogwarts. My son turns his head one way and spies Orion, turns another way and studies the Great Bear and the Seven Stars. His face is bright with wonder. “What do you think?” I ask, and he says, “It’s like magic.”
I, Robot's Gadget Guide
Samsung Gear S
Looks like an ankle bracelet and acts like your phone’s annoying little cousin.
Samsung Gear fit
Nobody asks how well it works—but everybody wants to try it on.
The hipster’s hearing aid is especially useful for going CIA operative on your kids.
The digital equivalent of a diamond-studded grill is best at integrating tech into life.