I don’t usually post book reviews, but I just finished reading Enchanted Objects, by David Rose, which I undertook as research for my speculative fiction work-in-progress.
The book jacket copy describes Rose as “an award-winning entrepreneur and instructor at the MIT Media Lab, specializing in how digital information interfaces with the physical environment.” My brain began whirring the moment I heard about the book and I was excited to hear him speak at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park in July as part of his book tour.
His talk both enchanted and disturbed me, as did the book itself. A few things I found enchanting:
- that the book begins with the question “What makes something magical?”;
- that smart people like David Rose are asking what relationship we want to have with technology;
- that “the most promising and pleasing future is one where technology infuses ordinary things with a bit of magic to create a more satisfying interaction and evoke an emotional response”—and that this enchantment should be based on fundamental human drives that have their earliest expression in myths and storytelling;
- that optimists like Rose see technology evolving beyond the “black-slab” so ubiquitous now in the form of our ever-proliferating screens.
I have a harder time articulating what disturbed me. Partly it was the obvious fact that any technology can be applied for good or ill. For example, cloud-connected objects open the door to hacking, government surveillance, and further erosion of the membrane between public and private life. (Just look at the potential problems inherent in unsecured devices like Fitbit or “smart” homes controlled by not-so-in-control software.)
A bigger and less specific discomfort arises from one of the questions that is sparking the research and writing of my current novel:
What is our relationship, as a culture, with the ideas and artifacts of progress?
Rose is an unapologetic technological optimist—as well he should be, given his work at MIT’s media lab and the many tech companies he has been involved with starting. To his credit, Enchanted Objects doesn’t ignore the potentially darker side of an Internet of Things. But—optimistically—he believes that humans’ desire for good will check and balance any Big Brother scenarios.
I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s my pessimistic nature, or my fear of unintended consequences, or the creep-factor inherent in a world of inanimate objects that respond to you as if they were aware. Some of the worst problems in the world have arisen not from the actions of dedicated evil-doers or nefarious anti-heroes but from millions of small and seemingly inconsequential decisions by individuals. Each decision, on its own, seems benign and even positive, but the sum total of these decisions end up leading us down a garden path toward a future much darker than the one we envisioned.
Whether you are an optimist or pessimist, I recommend Enchanted Objects as a chronicle of the important work currently being done by leading technology researchers and thinkers. It’s written accessibly, without jargon, and holds together as a summation of the arc of Rose’s career to date.
We may wish to slow or even reverse humanity’s relentless pursuit of technology, but given the impossibility of that wish, I suppose we could do worse than to end up in the world Rose describes in Enchanted Objects.
What do you think? Would you be charmed or disturbed by an umbrella that tells you when it’s going to rain?