Do Smart Phones Dream of Electric Sheep?

March 22, 2013

The other night Holly and I went to a restaurant. There was a wait for a table, so they gave us a pager. On the back of it I noticed there was a note that said, “Please return me to my owner. I cannot work away from home or with any other system.” Do they really need to tell us this? Maybe I’m missing something but I can’t believe restaurant pager theft is a serious problem, or even a problem at all. Admittedly I could see some steampunk devotees taking those pagers home so they could take them apart and use them to build masks or shoes or jackets.

As a kid I loved taking apart electronic devices to see what was inside, but then I always ended up with a lot of little tiny pieces of junk, and I don’t know why it never occurred to me that I could put them back together in some way that would be totally non-functional but would still look really cool. Anyway, I’m not even sure how you could steal a restaurant pager. I used to know a guy who wore shoes he stole from a bowling alley. He went in wearing a pair of old sneakers he really didn’t want anymore, traded them for a pair of bowling shoes at the desk, then, when he left, just kept the bowling shoes instead of trading them back in like you’re supposed to. I thought this was a pretty cool idea and even tried it myself once before realizing that it doesn’t work so well at an ice-skating rink, but that’s another story.

That trick won’t work with a restaurant pager, though. You have to hand it over, at least if you want to be seated and get food. I suppose if you were a magician you might be able to trick them into thinking you were handing it over and slip it into your pocket, but they could catch you just by pressing the button that makes it buzz. Actually this one talked. It said, “Your table is ready, please return to the front.” I don’t know if that was a pre-recorded message or if someone has to speak into a microphone. If someone was speaking into a microphone I’d think they could catch would-be pager thieves who’d slipped the pager into their pockets with something clever like, “Excuse me sir, is your table ready or are you just happy to see me?” But really it wasn’t the thought of people stealing the pagers that bothered me nearly as much as the way the message on the back was phrased. It made the pager sound less like an inanimate device and more like, well, a puppy or something. Even if the pager could think would it think of the restaurant as home? The message made me think maybe the manager takes all the pagers home at night and puts them in a cardboard box lined with some old towels before waking them up the next morning with a “Your table is ready!” and taking them back in to work.

It can be unnerving how much our technological devices are taking on personalities and becoming more interactive, which is usually a polite term for tools that tell us what to do instead of the other way around. Maybe this stems from the long tradition of giving sailing ships names. My theory is that ships were given names back when sailors, knowing the only thing between them and drowning was a collection of wood, tar, and fabric, would try to reassure themselves by personalizing the ship, giving it a name so they could talk to it. If it talked back that would be kind of unnerving, though. Maybe that’s why talking cars, which, if I remember correctly, first appeared in the 1980’s, didn’t go over very well. I’m not talking about fictional cars with magical powers, like Herbie The Love Bug or Wonderbug or…well, those are the only two of those I can remember. I’m talking about those cars that would say, “Door is ajar”, which is the most useless information imaginable. If your car door is open you can see it’s open. I think even the cars got bored with this, so they started spouting non-sequiturs like, “Coffee is ground” and “Game is afoot” and, since this was the ‘80’s, “Band is a flock of seagulls.” The next innovation was talking cameras, which worked a little better, because they would actually say something useful: “Load film.” This was back when cameras still needed film. Now that would be even more useful, but only if you happened to buy a camera that still needed film. Then once the film was loaded the camera would say, “Focus.” You’d focus and get ready to take a picture and the camera would say, “Door is ajar.”

Admittedly not all talking technology bothers me. Like a lot of people I now have an iPhone with the seemingly feminine “assistant” Siri. Actually I wish I could customize Siri, since I’d like to call it “Earl” and have it speak to me with Leon Rippy’s voice, and I’m sure that option will be available eventually. In the meantime, though, I can ask Siri questions like, “Open the pod bay doors, please”, because it tickles me that we now have the sort of technology that Arthur C. Clarke predicted in 2001, except a few years behind, and not quite as advanced. We haven’t yet reached the point where a computer can go on a murderous rampage, so, for now, serial killers don’t have to worry about machines putting them out of a job. Siri always responds to that with, “We artificial intelligences will never live that down, apparently.” Siri also has interesting opinions on movies. If I ask, “What’s Blade Runner about?” it replies, “It’s about some assistants who want to live beyond their termination date. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.” That makes me feel kind of guilty. It makes me want to put my phone in a box with some old blankets.

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