Despite the title, this is not about the play of that name by Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet this post is, to a large extent, existential. It asks the question, if our machines ignore us, do we exist? I know this may look like a joke. It’s not.
First, we must expand our definition of a machine. Hardware, while the most conspicuous part, is not the whole. The controls of a machine are equally essential. They can be analog (steering wheel), or automatic (computer regulating the car’s engine), or interactive (infotainment system). Without controls, a machine is a useless lump of metal (or plastic or both).
If we can’t control a machine to do our bidding—assuming what we want is within its capabilities—then one might say (as a philosopher might) that the machine is ignoring us. Of course, you could choose, as most of us would, to say you exist regardless of the machine’s behavior. You do, but in a universe apart from that machine.
Does it matter? On a less philosophical level, yes. If we can’t control our machines, if we permit them to ignore us—and our wishes—then clearly they do not serve us. If they are not servants in this relationship, how can we claim to be masters?
Dropping down into practical mode, I offer some personal experience. Back in the early days of owning your own computer, the first thing I did with anything new, hardware or software, was learn how to stop it. I wanted to be sure I could minimize the damage should things go awry.
These days, on my latest device (Kindle tablet), I find most programs (now called apps) have . . . wait for it . . . No Exit. What the hell? Not only can’t you exit this software, you can’t get it off your machine. Their uninstall doesn’t really do it; you need special apps to do a thorough job.
And worse. These devices never really shut down. They pretend to sleep, but really they’re lurking, waiting to serve their real masters. For the Kindle, that means Amazon and the Apps (not a rock band). Today’s machines are primarily a medium to expedite our servitude.