“You want to see the real Happiness Machine? The one they patented a couple thousand years ago. It still runs; not good all the time, no! But it runs. It's been here all along."
~ Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
I have been re-reading Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine recently. A character – Leo Auffman – invents a “Happiness Machine”. When humans interact with it, the Happiness Machine will know, and cater to all their wants, needs, desires, and pleasures – automatically. At one point, Auffman declares “Sometimes you got to build for others. I been figuring what to put in. Motion pictures? Radios? Stereoscopic viewers? All those in one place so any man can run his hand over it and smile and say, 'Yes, sir, that's Happiness.'” It ends with Auffman’s house burning to the ground.
The metaphor of the Happiness Machine got me thinking about the role of technology – specifically SMAC technologies – on the Future of Work. And the fact that – at the end of all attempts to invent a true “Happiness Machine” (like your iPhone, Netflix, X-box or Oculus for instance, dropping you down the Rabbit Hole of Web connectivity?) – the story remains resolutely about the interplay of humans and machines. The machine without the human – still – cannot manifest “happiness” on its own terms. And it also got me wondering: Is it possible that we really are on the cusp of a REAL happiness machine? Or, in fact, do we have it already (again, your iPhone, etc?), and we just didn’t know it was there? Can we use the cool new technologies we have to truly bring us happiness? Or, in metaphorical (if not real way), will the always-on, always-connected, scrambled-egg lives we’re leading end up “burning down the house”? Or, just end up burning us out?
Pivot. It also brings to mind Microsoft’s old ad campaign from 1994: “Where do you want to go today?” (yes, that’s really old in technology years – like dog years, it’s now so old if it were a person, it could walk with a cane). But given the times: consider how far we’ve come. In 1994, the zeitgeist was all about Al Gore and abstract discussions about the “information super highway”, which begat the first real interactions about the Internet and the web, which begat “dot.com”, which begat “web 2.0”, which begat SMAC, which begat the current world of Code Halos, and prepelling us ever-further to digital Artificial Intelligence, including machine learning and deep learning – and beyond (to the “really real” Happiness Machine, perhaps?) Maybe the operative question isn’t “Where do you want to go today?”, but rather: What do you want to DO today? Who do you want to BE today? How can you MAKE a difference today? Or ignite your SOUL today? Or make change? To have a voice? To make you “happy”. Or, better yet – and not meaning to go all Northern California on you -- to “find your center”.
I hear you now: “Yeah, but I gotta get back to my REAL job, and pay my mortgage – I don’t have time to indulge my happiness”. Hmmm. Maybe this is where the future of work will take us; it is something we considered previously here regarding the Future of the Job.
Pivot. Back to the technologies with us today, in the here-and-now. Consider how far we’ve come, so fast. The 22-year-old-me in 1994 would have thought the technologies of my iPhone incredible, magical, and mysterious. I’d want to understand: how could it possibly know these things about me? How could the Akinator possibly know the secretive references to some arcane character only I know about? How does it “know” me? Yes, there’s a deceptively complex web of technologies that underpin it, but how does it “know”? So, it really is quite possible that we’ve had a “Happiness Machine” staring us in the face for a number of years now, but we’re now interacting with it/them so regularly, it’s taken for granted. Passé. But is it *really* making us happy? I know that I am happy when I’ve connected with long-lost friends from school. And I need to remind myself, that without the technologies of Code Halo-stalwarts like Facebook, the connections probably never would have occurred.
Pivot. I am also a huge trivia buff, and I love “Jeopardy”. Tell the 22 year old me that a robot would beat the best-of-the-best human (now also seemingly a long time ago), I’d have said you were nuts – although the handwriting was already on the wall in the nineties when Deep Blue took apart Kasparov. But to my mind, Watson beating Ken Jennings misses the point: the whole purpose of Jeopardy is people competing against people, brains versus brains, not some apples-and-oranges context of one person against all-knowing “omniscience” (but as I saw somewhere recently, it probably spells the end of the “know-it-all”). It’s like hyper-precision robots beating the World Champion San Francisco Giants at baseball. That misses the point – a baseball game isn’t about the winning. It’s about evenly matched humans, who use their grit, teamwork, tenacity and physical strength against each other.
As a trivia buff, I am someone who – liberal arts background and all – loves knowledge. When my mind wanders/wonders about answers to questions, all I have to do is Google or Wiki, and boom: mental itch is scratched. While it may spell the end of the know-it-all – using Wikipedia is my own force-multiplier for knowledge consumption, knowledge analysis, and knowledge sharing. And – dare I say it – while some days technologies make me crazy, they also makes me very happy. And very, very glad and grateful to live in a time where it’s possible.
Pivot. In the words of Ray Bradbury: “It was the most incredible apparatus ever built. But not even the inventor knew the amazing things it could do...”