the unreliable sunshine of the outsourced mind


photo © Annie Queree

Outsourcing has been a big business idea – non-‘core’ activities executed for you by someone else. We bemoan the loss of skills & knowledge held in companies and have lowered expectations that employees might know much about what a company does beyond an sales script.

On a personal level we are doing much the same. Written a longhand letter lately? Every time I perform the quaint olde ritual of cheque writing, it seems to take more concentration to execute a legible word (admittedly my handwriting always looked like fallen spaghetti). With the simplest typed communication however, we are spellchecked and ‘helped’. Microsoft takes us by the hand, yet I find it hard to be grateful. Does knowing things still matter?

My attic houses a growing collection of forgotten consumer goods, possibly capable of practical function but either so poorly made, poorly designed, or poorly explained that they will never/no longer do what they were manufactured for. Each has a user interface ‘designed’ by an accountant-supervised engineer and an instruction leaflet so laughably casual that comprehension is but a dream. We do seem to accept that knowing stuff (how to use things properly, how to maintain / repair them) is not so important any more.

Homer Simpson’s “every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain” very much describes my capabilities when it comes to memory. Without photographic recall or a facility with numbers, I welcome anything that improves my unimpressive (but fairly normal) fallibility when it comes to matters of fact. Working designers need to be organised and work with data, and computing has only raised expectations in this regard. Luckily, and in the nick of time, the internet arrived to help outsource all my memory needs. Functioning without instant spell / fact-check via Google / Wikipedia is now hard to imagine.

Cloud computing now offers another level of mental contracting-out. As The Ghost of SteveJobs Present exhorts me to upload all my everything to iCloud, I can’t help wondering if Apple’s bazillion-terabyte servers in North Carolina / California are fundamentally so different from those of RIM, whose Blackberry users lost the use of their ‘pocket minds’ for several days recently.

Digital outsourcing offers perfectibility beyond our measly meatspace capabilities, but organic, analogue or digital, shit still happens. Things go wrong. Entropy keeps on coming. Technology offers handy augmentations but takes something in return. We swap writing-sticks for two-finger typing and memories for Google. Are our heads safe in the cloud?  Is unsure access to our data/culture – potential digital Alzheimer’s — avoidable?  Maybe I’m just being [check word for being unduly negative] and [look up term that means you think everyone’s out to get you and insert here]



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