Do you really need a phone to remind you to say happy anniversary to your wife?


A screenshot from the new ad for Microsoft’s Cortana. (Windows Phone/YouTube)

In the not-so-distant future, we will outsource our memory to machines.

Your phone will remind you to wish your mom a happy birthday when she calls. A chirping, digitized voice will tell you when to leave work to get your kid from school. Your device will even remind you to buy flowers for your anniversary — but only passively, when you’re near a florist, thereby eliminating the need to think about the date, at all.

If these scenarios sound at all familiar, they should: They all appear, in some form or another, in Microsoft’s new ad campaign for its Siri-like “personal assistant,” Cortana. But where Siri has frequently been billed as a convenient way to, say, Google a pizza place or make a hands-free phone call, Cortana is another animal entirely.

“Cortana is the only personal smartphone assistant with people based reminders,” promise marketing materials for the phone. “That means she can remind you to congratulate a friend on his promotion when he calls, or to send your mom a birthday card. Thoughtfulness is just a voice command away.”

Thoughtfulness is just a voice command away. What a convenient, and totally disturbing, idea. After all, thoughtfulness — literally the concern for other people’s happiness — is possibly the most fundamental social and emotional function humans have. And Cortana promises to outsource that most human of functions … to a machine.

In suggesting that alternative, Microsoft — probably without realizing it! — just stepped into the middle of a long-standing philosophical debate over the impact of smartphones and their relationship to our lives. We simply don’t know, or can’t decide, whether tools like Cortana are crutches we use because we’re becoming less capable, ourselves … or whether tools like Cortana are actually making us far better than we could be otherwise: smarter, more punctual, more organized. More thoughtful.

Put another way, are we the sum of our brains + our phones, since those phones are with us all the time? If a person is so forgetful and self-involved that she neglects to say even a quick “happy birthday” to her mother — but then her phone reminds her — is she still forgetful and self-involved? Or has the phone fundamentally changed her character?

“With our machines, we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods, though we’re remarkably blasé about that fact, like anything we’re used to,” Tim Wu wrote in the New Yorker in January. “Take away our tools, the argument goes, and we’re likely stupider than [an average person] from the early twentieth century, who has a longer attention span, may read and write Latin, and does arithmetic faster.”

(And remembers birthdays! That part goes without saying.)

There are not, unfortunately, any clear answers to these questions — but it’s a provocative debate, and one worth considering as smartphones become more advanced and more embedded in our lives.

Microsoft, for its part, seems to think that the modern consumer is very comfortable with this idea of smartphone-as-“auxiliary brain.” We’ll have to wait for time — and Windows phone sales! — to tell.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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