Sep 28, 2014

The Internet of Things: New Fields for The Sartrian "Gaze"?

This month, the session in the Glimpses of Existence lectures series focused on Jean-Paul Sartre.  His works span decades, and even confining the discussion to just a few of his writings -- the early novel Nausea, his early master-work, Being and Nothingness, with some brief mentions of his novel, The Age of Reason, the play, No Exit, and his popular lecture, Existentialism Is a Humanism -- many important ideas and insights of Sartre had to be set aside.  This was particularly the case when it comes to the lengthy and detailed phenomenological analyses of Being and Nothingness.   One of Sartre's most memorable contributions coalesces deep in that work, when he is discussing "the existence of other."  The French term under which it is subsumed is "le regard," typically translated into English as either "the look" or "the gaze".

I'm not going to scrutinize the Sartrian "gaze" (there are many other versions as well, it should be pointed out)  in any depth here -- I'll just say a few words intended to convey the gist of his analysis in a bit -- because where I want to place the focus is actually on what its implications might be within what has come to be called "the internet of things."  Consider this one-panel comic from The Joy of Tech:



Sartre views the gaze as an primordial but also everyday experience of otherness -- of another person as person, as a subject, rather than as as just an object, looking at oneself, subjecting the one who is looked at to the gaze, to scrutiny, to judgement, even just to wide-eyed watching.  There are, of course, all sorts of modalities possible to this visibility -- a hostile, suspicious, or supercilious gaze is not the same as the one looking for signs of interest or flirtation, or one which scans to see whether one has gone too far in one's actions or remarks. . . .

What's particularly interesting about Sartre's analysis -- and what's particularly relevant here -- is that early on, he emphasizes that the experience of the gaze, in its instances, is not dependent on the physicality of another human being as present.  It is not, he says, in the eyes of the looker.  It can be in a sound, say that of a footstep as I'm spying through a keyhole.  It can emerge from a building overseeing a square I must cross. Anything that manifests the human, and the range of relationships between human and human, can produce this effect.

Now, think about this contemporary idea (at least in its burgeoning realization -- you can read a depiction of an apartment filled with appliances that talk, actually demanding that the occupant, Joe Chip, pay them, in his story Ubik) of the "Internet of Things."  The basic idea is that devices can all be made "smart" and "smarter" -- we can build into the technology that has long since been standard features of our daily existence, i.e. our tangible devices, identifiable as objects environing us, new networks of technology, just as real of course, but less object-like, more diffused, having to do with their functions, new functions, enhanced functions, integrated functions. . . .

One of the common points of view you see represented when people discuss this idea is that by creating an "internet of things" (assuming that the sorts of concerns about standards and security discussed pessimistically here can be addressed) what we'll essentially be doing is making things that currently are not so into "smart" or smarter variations.  Devices will be more aware of what is going on around them -- both in terms of what the humans are doing, experiencing, needing, etc. and in terms of what other devices are doing, registering, getting ready to do, and so on.

So, to take a relatively trivial example -- your coffee-maker (which draws upon your water supply, and grinds its own beans, stored within it) -- registers that you're awake.  Or rather, it gets this information from a monitor within your bedroom that recognizes that your eyes are open, even though you've not yet gotten up.  It grinds and starts brewing your coffee, and when you arrive, bleary eyed and expectant, in the kitchen, a cup of hot coffee is waiting there for you.  It even, as it learns that you're moving towards the kitchen, recognizes that the fresh-brewed coffee is a bit too hot to drink right away, and it cools it 10 degrees Fahrenheit for you.

Now imagine further that the coffee-maker is aware that you've got longstanding tendencies to drink far too much coffee -- I typically go through two pots per day myself -- and after you've had a pot, it cuts you off for the rest of the day.  How did it know?  It could just be set to only make one pot per day, but have some sort of override protocol (I've got company. . .  I spilled a cup, and need it replaced. . .  ).  But why stop there?  Why shouldn't the coffee pot communicate with everything else in the apartment?  The cup the coffee is poured into?  The sink down which some old coffee might be poured?  Devices measuring your various vitals?  The refrigerator and other food storage equipment?  your exercise machines?

Why not let it kibitz with them about you, your needs, what's good for you, what would make your life easier or harder, more or less enjoyable?  I think that if we do, particularly as the integration becomes more sophisticated, and as the hardware becomes more and more interactive with us, something like the Sartrian gaze would arise.  One -- the person -- would realize that one is being watched, is under scrutiny.  It seems to me that for this to happen, one would have to experience something like an other, an alien interest and agency.

The concerns about security would be one way this could arise.  What if you have apparatus set up all over your house, monitoring everything from air currents to internet wifi usage to drink consumption. . .  and someone else was able to tap into that, control the feeds, gather the information he or she wanted?  You would never know when you were being watched, at least potentially -- but the worry there is about being watched, ultimately, by another human, mediated through technology.

But what about the judgmental appliances in the cartoon?  Would we be merely anthropomorphizing in entertaining this humorous possibility?  Where would such judgements ultimately arise from -- that's the question to ask?  From machines attaining a self-awareness that is at the same time other-awareness?  We needn't look so far as that, perhaps.  Technology is not only a set of ever-more-sophisticated means for productive, enhanced, purposive interaction between the human being and the non-human, but also just as much between human and human (and sometimes it can even be productive to the human-human relationship to farm a portion of the interaction out to machines).

There is already a world of values and judgements -- not an entirely consistent or complete one, but then again neither is the more human one of culture -- built into technology.  It's not implausible that a souped-up, supersmart version of my fitbit might come to "think" of me as "that lazy fat-ass who doesn't make the time for the exercise that I know he tries to give people the impression he engages in through his social media!" -- or at least that I might worry that it is saying that to itself (and to some other humans?) but biting its non-existent tongue, for the moment. . .

What would it be like to be constantly in the Sartrian gaze?  We needn't go off to a Benthamite or Foucauldian panopticon to answer that, since Sartre did address it himself in his play, No Exit.  Perhaps we don't want technology or equipment becoming quite so smart, quite so intuitive.  Will we humans eventually inhabit -- and be born into the horizons of a world -- in which inert, opaque, dull objects of the sorts we experience are rarities, where its members can barely understand a literature in which such inert, objects, Sartre's being-in-itself are the norm? 

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