Invisibilia podcast, review: The downside of being a human computer? There isn't one...


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Is technology messing with what makes us human? This was a question posed by Steve Barkley from California one day 24 years ago while opening his post. He'd got a letter from the local police department containing a grainy black-and-white picture of him driving his car.

It was, in fact, a speeding ticket; though, this being the early Nineties, Barkley had never before encountered CCTV, or the notion that machines might be monitoring him.

"I felt violated," he said, "because no human was involved in this whole deal."

As a statement of protest, Barkley photographed two $20 bills and sent it to the police department. A police officer responded by mailing back a picture of handcuffs. Barkley laughed and paid the fine.

If his surprise at being filmed from a distance seems rather quaint today, the principle of his unease – that technology is replacing basic human interaction – is, in the age of smartphones and social media, more pertinent than ever.

His was the first of several stories told on Invisibilia, a new NPR podcast about the invisible elements of life that shape us. The show is presented by Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, alumnae of the This American Life and Radiolab respectively, and has the same curiosity and intelligence of its forebears. While it's yet to achieve their seamless delivery and quirky sound design, it's certainly getting there.

In each episode, they attempt to answer a complex philosophical or scientific questions through storytelling. This latest instalment tackled the question of how computers change us.

Thus, Spiegel and Miller's second case study was Thad Starner, a Georgia-based professor who has worn head-mounted computers since the early Nineties. His original model was called Lizzie and comprised a 7lb motorbike battery, a massive modem, a keyboard and a car phone all carried in a shoulder bag, plus a small computer screen attached to safety goggles, through which he could access information. He looked, said Spiegel, "like a 21st-century pirate with a large mechanical patch."

It's probably significant that Starner grew up in Amish country in Pennsylvania, where, he said, "cow tipping is an actual sport". He started using computers when he was 12 but it was watching the Terminator films that gave him the inspiration for integrated computer kits known as "wearables".

Even in the Nineties, when he was essentially wired to a sack of hardware, Starner noted that wearing Lizzie was "physically reassuring because it's always there. And it represents a certain amount of power in your life. It's this information security blanket."

If that sounds creepy, it's worth noting that this is how many of us feel about our smartphones.

After assorted "Lizzie" prototypes, Starner helped to create Google Glass, which many see as the end of days. Still, he remains a fervent advocate of attempts to fuse man and machine. Asked by Spiegel if "there was any downside to this merger", he paused for a second.

"I have not found one. It's like saying, 'What are the downsides of wearing eyeglasses?' Let's think about it for a second. When I take (them) off, I'm blind."

Spiegel was sceptical, though pointed out that Plato wasn't too keen on writing when it started to become popular, as it would mean less face-to-face interaction.

Like Radiolab, Invisibilia isn't in the business of finding firm answers, and nor should it be. The joy here is in the pontificating.