I’ve been thinking about transparency, partially due to the First Amendment end-run around some product labeling laws that I discussed in my previous post.
Transparency is on-the-face-of-it great. It’d be wonderful if we all could be perfectly informed about every element of our lives. But information overload gets bad, very quickly. I’m willing to bet that you don’t read all of the nutrition information on the foodstuff that you buy, much less where it was grown or what environmental practices the process of creating it was, or whatever else you care about. Heck, if you’re like me, you probably don’t even do all that much comparison shopping for most things, even just on price.
It’s not because you don’t care about the environment or fair trade or nutrition or price. It’s that it’s a lot of work. If we tried to force everyone to be transparent about everything, we’d just get yet more information to not read.
But this is something that computers really could help us with. We should be able to say, “Hey computer, when I want to buy some coffee, I want you to help me find coffee that fits my goals for the world.” The classic science fiction vision of this is augmented reality, where you wear something like an nth generation Google Glass, and when you look at the coffee can, it pops up a heads up display that tells you, whatever, that company got high marks for their trade practices.
If you’ve read this blog a bit, you’ll know I’m somewhat skeptical of that vision. But more importantly, it’s not really necessary. You can buy most things online (Amazon is trying to sell groceries online, guys! Who knows, maybe this time it’ll work!), where the technical challenges of giving you a personal assistant who can help you deal with information overload are significantly less challenging than in the wilds of the real world. Indeed, for many items — maybe not coffee, but perhaps things like laundry detergent — I don’t see a really strong reason why we should even have humans deciding precisely what item to buy. Why don’t I just say, “Computer, here is the set of priorities that I personally have. Find me the product that best fits my ideals”?
That kind of pervasive computing doesn’t have the glitter and the glamour of the latest gadgets, but I think it can genuinely change the world, in much the same way that gps-enabled online mapping is perhaps not incredibly flashy, but I couldn’t imagine going back to a life without it.