Smart Things in a Not-Smart World

As the "convenience economy" conquers ever more of our lives, a call to remember what technology can't do

Quiet. As a city dweller, this word does not mean what I think it means. There's noise everywhere. The thrum of electric motors, power lines, cars, refrigerators, cable boxes. It's other people taking out the trash and listening to their music and starting their cars. I can close my eyes and know that the human-made world and the humans who made it are all around.

It turns out that almost no matter where you go in America, this is true. We are a noisy species. Hillel Schwartz's insane(ly good) book, Making Noise, points out the central role that noise plays in most creation myths. To make humanity is to make noise.

Add modern technology to extend the human empire to the ends of the Earth, and noise goes everywhere. Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, has traveled the world recording soundscapes, and he can say, pretty definitively, that there are only 12 places in the United States where you can go more than 15 minutes without hearing any human noise. He only discloses three of them: The Hoh Rainforest in Washington, Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, and Haleakala National Park in Hawaii. The others he keeps confidential.

Of course, his rules are strict. Hempton only counts areas of about 1,200 square miles or larger, "enough to create a sound buffer around a central point of absolute quiet," BBC Future's Rachel Nuwer wrote.

These rules are certainly stricter than mine would be. For me, it was enough to run a few miles up a trail along Little River in Mendocino's Van Damme State Park. The redwoods grew taller as I climbed the gentle slope at a good pace. And when I got to a fork in the road, I stopped and looked around me.

Even out there, without a human around, I could see how precisely humans had constructed this place. It wasn't wild. Most of these areas have been logged in the past. Trails are cut and maintained alongside the river. This place was made for you and me.

But if I closed my eyes, I couldn't hear a person or a car or a plane or anything. I heard my blood. I heard the river right ahead of me. At this time scale, it was steady and calm, identical one moment to the next. Birds sang at different distances and angles. In the quiet, with all my attention focused on my aural experience, I could almost imagine the feats of echolocation that you hear about from time to time, people who navigate their environments by sound alone.

Visually, we are bound to live in the technological world we can see. But if we want to escape that world momentarily—maybe not even for 15 minutes, maybe just for a few seconds—all we have to do is close our eyes sufficiently far away from other humans and infrastructure and listen.

It maybe not be the perfect quiet that Hempton desires, but it is something deeply calming and also nothing special. It is just the world going on, the bones of your ears another point in space, vibrating like all the rest.

And for me, that intersects with a most important thread in technology recently: We're creating a world that seamlessly, effortlessly shapes itself to human desire. It's no longer cutting through a mountain to prove we dominate nature; now, it's satisfying each impulse in the physical world with the ease and speed of digital tools. The shortest way to explain what Uber means: hit a button and something happens in the world (that makes life easier for you).

The CEO of the cloud storage provider Box and technology wit, Aaron Levie, calls it the "convenience economy."

This is not an entirely new situation. Lancaster University's Elizabeth Shove, for example, has tracked how changing notions of convenience and comfort are directly linked to (and radically increase) energy usage. "What assumptions of human ‘need’ are constructed and embedded in the built environment and with what consequences for conventions of ‘normality’ and associated patterns of resource intensity?" Shove and collaborator Heather Chappells ask.

But what should be stunning about the integration of digital technologies into the physical world, especially the wave of artificial intelligence coming to "smart" objects, is that these little conveniences will be normalized. Humans will come to expect the world to conform to their desires.

And it will.

And most people will probably enjoy this new situation because Uber is so convenient that most people can't think too hard about it. Lord knows that I cringe every time I open the Uber app, but I do it anyway. Paraphrasing Sinclair, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his ride depends on not understanding it.

So, as a consumer, fine.

As a human, though, someone who will die one day, a consciousness riding in a body that will get sick or be struck by lightning, it pays to develop a sense that the non-human world doesn't give a shit about your smartphone. It doesn't give shits at all, about anything. It is the opposite of smart.

People who live in the comfortable temperature range of California get cold when it gets down to 60 degrees. Imagine that sense of normalization about every inconvenience or imperfection in life. Once infected with the idea that literally everything should be shaped to one's desires, who won't just retreat into the eminently responsive world of Oculus Rift virtual reality?

My approach—the listening to the not-us—is not a collective negotiation of the problems and delights of the convenience economy. But it is one way to remember (if just for a few moments, if just in the space between your ears) the primacy of the Earth and all the millions of years and trillions of miles of galaxy that feel nothing about whether you can hire a car within three minutes: one day, in the short-term, cosmically, every part of you will return to the eternity of the non-human.

Anyway, then I ran home, and my baby was still asleep on the bed of the room we'd rented on Airbnb, and he was beautiful, but my wife was worried I might wake him with my noise, so I had to sit outside, where I was going to write or admire the landscape, but instead I stared at my phone, which kept doing exactly what I wanted.