Latest in Column

Image credit:

This is the Modem World: The warm embrace of the machine


Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

My glasses are about 5 years old. I realized last week that it's probably high time to replace them. Besides, I needed a new contacts prescription and, for all I know, my eyes have completely changed in those short five years. It's also important to mention that my glasses look like they're about 5 years old, so yeah, it was time.

I pulled up Yelp and sought out an optometrist in the area who accepted my form of vision insurance. I made my appointment online. I received an email confirmation shortly after. The day before the appointment, I received a robo-call reminding me of the time and location.

At this point I hadn't spoken to a human. I interacted with three machines, though: Yelp, the office's website and their robo-caller. It wasn't until I stepped into the office that I saw an actual human. He gave me some paperwork to fill out. I complained that I had already entered all this information into their website, and he apologized, saying that the two systems weren't yet connected, but it'll happen soon, he assured me.

I was shortly shuffled off into an anteroom stuffed to the walls by a buffet of machines. I sat on a wheeled chair at the left end of the buffet and, as instructed by the assistant, made my way to the right, machine by machine. One checked my peripheral vision with a series of squiggly images that I had to signal to the machine I could see using a single-button remote. Another puffed air into my eyes to check for glaucoma. The next digitally checked my prescription with a series of images and shutter sounds that required no active feedback from me -- "just to get an estimate before a human checks for sure."

When I reached the end of the line, the assistant poked his head above a machine and asked, "Do you have anything you need to do this afternoon?"

"Umm..." I panicked. I was waiting for some horrible news about the health of my eyes, that I was about to be told I needed immediate surgery and did I have any emergency contacts they could call. "No?"

"The doctor is going to want to check the health of your eyes. Have you ever been dilated?"

Sure I have. "Sure I have," I replied.

"Okay. Well, your insurance covers that. Oorrr..." he gazed at a giant machine in the corner behind me. I spun around. It resembled a beige Recognizer from Tron. "For $35 you can just stick your face in that machine and it'll take detailed pictures of your eyes and you don't need to be dilated. It's not covered by insurance, but you don't need to be dilated for it."

I could handle $35 to avoid the discomfort of whatever it is they put in your eyes to dilate them. Within five minutes and a couple trials and errors, and I had my eye pictures taken and was sent back to the waiting room. In a very big way, I felt comforted that a machine would do the work accurately as opposed to a human who might make mistakes.

It wasn't until almost an hour later that I finally sat down with a real human doctor. She verified the machine's findings, asked me some lifestyle questions, helped me choose the right contact lens brand, made some jokes about cat allergies to lighten the mood and sent me on my way.

And then I realized something: We find comfort in machines. Humans check their work and make qualitative decisions, of course, but one could easily imagine a doctor visit in which all you do is stick your appendages in various machines, get a readout and take that to a doctor elsewhere to make a few decisions about treatment. In my case, by the time the doctor entered the examination room, she had already reviewed the Optomap's pictures of my eyes, had a baseline prescription from another machine and knew that I had some slight astigmatism. And I was completely fine with that.

When given the choice between a machine or human testing something when it comes to my health, I'll choose the -- seemingly -- more accurate machine every time. We've all been conditioned to think this in other arenas as well. A trip to a modern casino reveals that what were once cranky machines with idiosyncratic gears and levers are now computer-regulated robots that take the human element out of something as simple as pulling a crank arm on a slot machine. Sure, you can still pull the arm if you want, but it's just triggering an electronic mechanism -- it's no longer ratcheting up the machine. And we're all okay with that. The casino loves its no-fault accuracy, and customers feel confident that no one is trying to cheat them.

In short, we find comfort in machines' inhumanity. Let them give us the black-and-white numbers, and then we, as humans with feelings, will interpret the data as we see fit. We'll interact with machines as long as possible until that final moment when we finally call upon the services of a human expert to make things real again.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr