Feel the fear and call Siri anyway

RR Haywood
Opinion - Books Thursday, 24 May 2018

We embrace technology and we are frightened of it - a fertile contradiction for novelist RR Haywood to explore


I went out to dinner with my family a few days ago, and amid the chaos of children being coaxed to order foodstuffs with green things in them and adults guzzling booze to soften the realities of living, I overheard a conversation between my sister and mum.

"Now it's working it's brilliant," my sister said. "It just took so long to get set up."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Trunky want a bun?" my sister asked. "I said stop whining," she told a stray child walking past the table who may or may not have been with our party.

"We've just linked our new Sonos to our Echo," she explained. "Complete pain trying to make it talk to Siri. The boys were downloading apps all over the place. I said I didn't even want it, but you know, actually, it makes things so much easier... put that phone away! We're at the table..."

"Oh," I said, and processed what she had just told me. The Echo is the device sold by Amazon that uses voice recognition to do certain functions such as play, change and stop music, turn the lights down (if you have special lights) and, er, turn the music back on. Sonos is a speaker system that can connect to the Echo, and Siri is the software thingy that Apple uses as a slow infiltration of rogue AI bots designed to take over the planet. No, wait: that's I, Robot with Will Smith.

Anywho, so I was off and drifting into a special mind-world and thought about the episodes of Black Mirror I had Netflix-binged on. Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker, generally uses each episode to focus on near-future worlds where technology has come to dominate us. Where a person's popularity on social media, or lack of, can prevent their buying houses in certain places, and where dating apps have taken over the way people meet, marry and reproduce. It plays on our generational fear of change by expertly showcasing a world in which much of the noise and chaos of life is stripped away, so the technology within that specific episode takes centre stage.

It then struck me, in a wistful, writerly way, that we're living with a foot in either world right now. The future and the past.

Most of the people around me in that restaurant were hard-working, physical types. Builders, contractors, specialists in the world of construction. Some, like me, were police or prison officers, many were ex-military, but all of us have seen our jobs change by the onset of technology. The way a bricklayer places the brick may not change, but the processes in the way the brick is made, ordered and delivered, and the designs used, will have evolved due to technology.

A lot of the women I know are hard working mothers, managing large broods and difficult jobs. Their lives are busy, but suddenly they have gadgets popping up to make life easier. My sister can be juggling a million tasks, but she no longer has to physically find her phone or press a button to answer or make a call, meaning she can keep both hands free to throw vegetables and fruit at children running off with sugar laden snacks from the cupboard.

Yet we tut and huff when we watch those episodes of Black Mirror. We worry about how our children or grandchildren will cope in such an awful, shallow, vacuous world. Then, when the episode finishes, we say "Pause" to the ever-listening software and take our smartphone to the kitchen and scroll through Facebook to type out "aw, sending hugs x" while the kettle boils.

"Siri, call mum..." we say as we pour the water. "Mum? Hi, have you seen that Black Mirror? Oh my god, it's so scary - this one episode is about a woman who is so desperate to be popular she literally ruins her own life..."

It's a bizarre thing. On the one hand we are being influenced to view technology as a bad thing that will ruin us as a species, but technology detects diseases and will eventually stop cars from crashing into each other. It will fly our planes and deliver our goods. Technology will clean our air and take the plastics from the oceans. It will lessen our dependency on meat and help us live healthier and longer lives.

Technology enabled my mother to remain connected with her grandchildren while she was living in South Africa through free video-calling apps, and technology means my sister can hold conversations while lobbing carrots about the place. We fear it. We hate it. We worry about what it will do to us, but, in our typically messed-up way, we are embracing the thing we fear so much.

I looked around that restaurant and figured that because of technology, we'd soon be seeing people of 100-plus years of age eating out like people in their 70s and 80s do now, while being served by AI-controlled robots all looking suspiciously like Charlie Brooker.

Hey, maybe Charlie Brooker is an AI. Ooh (rushes off to write a new episode and send it to the Black Mirror people).

Extinct, the third in the bestselling Extracted series by RR Haywood, is out from 47North today (24 May).

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