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Evan Selinger

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Impatience as Digital Virtue

Posted: 09/06/2012 12:12 pm

Apple's Siri commercials promise a perfectly anthropomorphized digital assistant; a virtual, voice recognition secretary programmed to serve every scheduling and questioning whim by celebrity and average citizen alike.

But what -- beyond a willingness to endure gentle caricature -- does Siri ask us from us in return? The superficial answer is little but consumption: purchasing iPhones and data plans. But Michael Schrage, Research Fellow with the MIT Sloan School's Center for Digital Business, argues the superficial answer misses something important. Siri -- as well as other increasingly popular -- and pervasive -- technologies asks us to participate in a fundamental re-design of our social sensibilities.

If Siri gets her way, Schrage argues in his Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?, our new digital impulses treat impatience as virtue.

Before reading this book, I thought Siri's secret commercial sauce was the slick presentation of old utopian fantasies of machines capably serving humans with zero adverse or unintended consequences. In real life, of course, Apple's supply chain system has been a PR nightmare. In the Zooey Deschanel's commercial, however, we get a cyber Shangri-La: The user trusts the machine more than her own senses ("Is that rain?"), turns to Siri to have her basic needs provided for ("Let's get tomato soup delivered"), asks her smartphone to compensate for imperfect mental abilities ("Remind me to clean up tomorrow"), and looks to her for boon companionship ("Today, we're dancing"). (For a great parody of the vast knowledge Siri can bestow upon Zooey, check out the awesome Twitter feed "Zooey Asks Siri.")

In reality, says Schrage, Siri stoops to conquer. Apple isn't selling a fantasy but instead asks us to literally change -- intellectually and emotionally -- our default relationship with information. Siri's users should become the type of people who "wouldn't think think twice about talking" to phones, treating them as "sentient" servants, and taking the dispensed advice. He writes:

Ask yourself: How would you be different if you regularly had seven or eight conversations a day with your smartphone? As your upgraded smartphone became 'smarter' and more fluent, would you chat even more frequently, seeking the information and advice? Can you see yourself as someone who would rather ask Siri for a restaurant recommendation for dinner instead of calling -- or texting -- a human friend?

Although the scenario is peppered with questions, the reader gets the distinctive sense that he'd answer each one with a resounding 'yes.' He believes Siri "asks her users to become the kind of people who want to engage with her." Quite simply, Siri wants us to want her. This means our sensibilities must be wired accordingly.

Apple is hardly the only company aspiring to cultivate instinctive desires for effortless digital gratification. Google's genius, Schrage says, in part comes from its stress free and forgiving search interface. Searching on Google doesn't require perfect spelling or punctuation. Typos don't matter. Powerful autocomplete and "showing results for" functions enable users to pose queries without fear of negative feedback. Sloppy searches carry no stigma. Google aims to please.

This logic equally applies to Farhad Manjoo's prediction ("The Kindle Wants to Be Free") that Amazon will inevitably start giving away the "Kindle as an inducement to join Prime" delivery service.

Manjoo notes that the widespread use of e-readers not only changes people's reading and book purchasing habits but their expectations around immediate textual gratification, as well. Instantaneous access coupled with lower prices and zero 'shipping and handling' costs turns "casual" readers into "impulsive obsessives." Ease of use assures pervasive usage. The Kindle thus appears to be asking us to become the type of people who impulsively turn to it whenever we feel literary or documentation itches. Scratching becomes -- dare I say? -- mindless. Perhaps "Kindling" becomes as popular as "Googling" -- albeit in this case serving as shorthand expression for immediately accessing long-form texts.

If this transformation insight proves accurate, we need to give far greater thought to the prices we pay for getting what we want the instant we decide we want it. Economists talk a lot about the importance of financial capital and social capital a when they discuss value creation. In environments where Google creates new kinds of searchers, Amazon creates new kinds of readers and Apple create new kinds of digital companionship, just what kinds of human capital do these innovations create?

 

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