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Technology and its discontents

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Tom Meadowcroft

"For most of human history, however, technology was mostly seen as a force for good."
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My jaw dropped so far that I may have a muscle strain. Technology, and change in general, has always been regarded as a disruption of social norms, and frequently has been regarded as downright evil. Have all of the new weapons that technology has brought been regarded as good or evil at the time? Evil, of course, particularly if your enemies have them first, but often by soldiers who use them as well. Were steam power, steam boats and railroads, electricity, automobiles, and early computers all regarded as terrifying and evil when first introduced? Absolutely. When you read Frankenstein did you notice how technology was a force for good? Neither did I.
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Somebody terribly young and naïve must have written that line; I'm surprised an editor did not catch it. Technology has always been recognized as a force driving social change and has uniformly been despised by the governing social elite (the old and the powerful). You have to really search for a technology advance that was truly welcomed with open arms. I'll say the polio vaccine, but the list isn't long after that.

guest-aanlwiew

Noting is really new in the world. In the mid-20 century, technology caused a common worry that industrial pollution eventually makes human life on Earth impossible. Newspapers, books, even children cartoons were full of grim warnings of future polluted, lifeless world. This problem was solved. Factories were forced to relocate away from cities and forced to install anti-pollution filters, water cleaning plants etc.
Ultimately, the debate is what laws and other moves of governments most efficiently stop problems caused by new technologies today? How the society can best force business and governments to change? How to overcome a certain feeling of powerlessness againts big corporations and technology? Should we be very worried that lobbyist connections in the USA, compared to e.g. bolder attitude towards privacy in Europe, will unltimately harm the strength of the country? As one example, proposing that internet companies should regulate themselves is nonsense. It is as unlikely as waiting for polluting factories to voluntarily stop polluting.

In what world was pollution "solved"? If we count carbon dioxide as pollution (which it is) those dire warnings about the effects of pollution on humanity are very much coming true.

What forced factories away from cities and to limit their pollution output was extensive government regulation and environmental law. Before that happened, air and water quality were abysmal. Just look at environmentally unregulated countries like China for how well the free market solves that problem.

guest-aanljjao

As somebody who works in IT, I am surprised how people appear unable to visualize that a technology can be modified to fix its flaws. Actually, not even a technology, but the business or legal framework.
Social networks - fine. But why the society must cope with Facebook taking and losing personal data? It is easy to visualize a distributed social network which does not suck out personal data, and which operates as a diffuse net, paid by anybody who connects to it, without any central evil overlord like Facebook's headquaters. That is how email operates.
AI replacing human labor - great news! Only pass the law that the said AI is easily bought by people who filled these jobs, not squandered by a single corporation. People would love to buy an AI which does their work, leaving them to enjoy the free time, or maybe thinking how to make said AI even more productive. No need to have one big corporation holding all the rights, and everybody else reduced to paupers. It is not part of technology at all. Technology operated like this for centuries - cars, washing machines, vacuum cleaners - and enterpreurs found it profitable to invent new technologies.

Peace Love and Understanding

"A more immediate threat is that the algos and bots may replace human labour, creating a jobs apocalypse. Economists are divided on this. Optimists point out that technology always displaces labour, but that new jobs are created around the new methods. Pessimists counter that never before have so many jobs been threatened at once."

What is the method by which new jobs are created around new methods?

In the past this has been caused by forcing people adapt their behavior to the new realities of the marketplace. When one can no longer make a living in a given field of work because there is no demand for human labor in that area anymore, they are forced to pursue a different line of work or else die. They tend to turn to other areas in which human labor has been in high demand which emerged in the areas where humans could still outcompete automated processes, such as in higher-order thinking or other tasks.

The problem here is what happens when humans can't outcompete automated processes in ANYTHING? Or at least the vast majority of the population. Where can they adapt in order to meet their needs? They can't.

And I have yet to see an optimist in this area address this relatively straight-forward observation....

In the past human beings were able to adapt to displacement by automation because there was still something else for them to do as part of the productive process. What if there is nothing left for them to do? What if they are just a consumer because the entire productive process is automated start to finish and machines really can do it better? Why wouldn't machines be able to do it better if the brightest minds in the entire world can automate their own intelligence processing?

We have evidence of what happens: That evidence is in the historical experience of older people who are less able to adapt to displacement from careers they have invested the most into and who are too old to go back and learn new skills.

Historically speaking, those people have died. It is the new entrants to the market who adapted to the new reality of the labor market. Without meaningful work the older displaced workers have traditionally found no reason to exist. Even if the government employs them in some less than useful job or provides a universal basic income, the fundamental problem is a lack of usefulness that is not really resolved by either.

Uselessness kills the strong and weak alike.

CA-Oxonian

Actually we humans have always been highly suspicious of new technologies. Remember the fear when Stevenson's Rocket appeared? Everyone in the coach would die as the air was sucked away due to its incredible speed (around 40km/hr). Electricity would give us Frankenstein's monster. The telephone would ruin family life. As for radio and television... tools of Satan, one and all.
The current tech backlash is merely the standard human reaction to anything large and new. Yet that does not mean we should not be concerned. Our inventions generally surprise us with novel outcomes that were unintended by their progenitors. Rutherford definitely did not have Hiroshima in mind when he was conducting his experiments, and those involved with understanding the double-helix were not thinking about US insurance companies denying coverage to certain individuals on the basis of genetic abnormalities inherent in their DNA.
What we need to remember, however, is that the social good must outweigh the individual fear. Thus we need to assess trends and possibilities and legislate appropriately. In the early phase of technological adoption many of the costs are unclear; over time we understand these costs better and attempt to mitigate them. Who, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, could have imagined climate change? But today some nations are making attempts to mitigate the effects of a carbon economy. Thus we are inevitably always in catch-up mode. Yet we should not ignore the benefits: the Industrial Revolution took billions out of grinding poverty and sickness and early death.
In our attention-deficit world it's easy to jump from one scare story to the next, rendering ourselves incapable of coherent thought and appropriate action. This problem is exacerbated by media hungry for "eyeballs" and thus eager to make every story a sensation, every event a catastrophe. Yet catastrophes are, fortunately, quite rare. People do stupid things and then over time try to do things that are less stupid. This is how society evolves. AI will be no different.
To take a concrete example: many companies decided to use text parsing to "improve" candidate selection. Feed each incoming resume/CV into the parser and only review manually those that pass the criteria. But what this meant was that many ideal candidates never got even a cursory screening by a real human being, while people who "resume stuffed" with lots of acronyms ended up being interviewed by HR personnel utterly incapable of understanding who was a fit candidate and who was not. Companies are still adjusting - many continue to make this basic error, but better-run organizations have already understood that there are no "magic shortcuts" to the screening and hiring process.
So it will be with AI. Today the errors are amusing: for two weeks Facebook's algorithms kept presenting me with feminine hygiene aids, female-oriented pleasure toys, and other female-oriented products (I'm a man). I can easily imagine more harmful AI mistakes but Facebook corrected its algorithms and doubtless other organizations will do likewise as errors come to light.
We seem to live in a world in which we want all the benefits with zero risk. This is infeasible. All innovation entails the unknown. Perhaps what we need, instead of hysterical headlines and panic-inducing articles, is a little patience and the understanding that nothing is ever 100% risk-free, and that all benefits come with costs. It is then up to the individual to determine what balance of benefit and cost they wish to incur. For myself, the massive intrusion into my privacy represented by so-called "smart" appliances is not worth the meager benefits. For others, the reverse is true. But legislating on the basis of "never risk any potential downside in any way" is to legislate for the end of innovation.
In summary, what we all need is a better sense of perspective and a lot less media hysteria designed only to attract eyeballs and thus boost the value of ad slots.

Rockford the 1st in reply to CA-Oxonian

Well written comment and argument. I respectfully agree and disagree on a few points. First off,your comparison of today's technology to that of the distant past is misleading. Why not choose the wheel? Today's technology is much more powerful, ubiquitous and intrusive than the telephone. A smartphone monitors and reports on your exact location, routes,preferences, sleeping and reading habits, health, diet, and so forth and so on. It's an enormous amount of data.

This inappropriate comparison then leads to a false overgeneralized truth in that "The current tech backlash is merely the standard human reaction to anything large and new. Yet that does not mean we should not be concerned. " Let me address both parts of this statement. First No, it's not the standard reaction. People have reacted to large and new things with awe and gratitude as well. Landing on the moon. The Blackberry and the Smartphone have been very well received and still are. The internet was embraced wholeheartedly, and still is albeit with rational concerns about the abuse of personal information. Overgeneralized statements don't help. Second, "Yet that does not mean we should not be concerned." So we should be concerned? Double negative is confusing grammar.

"Our inventions generally surprise us with novel outcomes that were unintended by their progenitors."
Yes but some surprises are not worth having. It's good to heat your home with fire, it is not good to have it burn your house down.

I agree with you that the social good must outweigh individual fears, but what social good is being provided by much of this new technology? I mean really? Certainly massive corporate profit is being generated, but not much job creation, not much income growth nor distribution, not much tax revenue, and not a much happier and healthier society. Don't believe the hype look at the facts. This has been happening for over two decades.
Not all the concerns expressed about technology is media manipulation and looking for ads. This should not be dismissed. There are massive amounts of people who are losing their jobs to automation and digitization on steroids. There are far fewer people who are gaining or creating jobs because of automation. This trend is increasing and accelerating at an alarming rate. This is not an accidental or incidental side effect. This is a purposeful consequence by managerial design. A concrete example is in the car manufacturing industry. How many workers do you need to make a car anymore when line robots do more and more of the work ? It makes money which is all that matters in a broken capitalist system divorced from social good. That's the main point. If technology and the capital system are NOT serving the social good, then what is the point in investing and taking the risks? Some risks are worth taking and others are not. You don't take all the risks and just cross your fingers and hope for the best, and expect government or someone else to deal with your lack of maturity and foresight.
Your example of the Industrial revolution is apt, except global pollution is still very much with us and getting worse despite the warnings of climate scientists for decades! The very weather is changing ! We didn't listen then so why don't we learn and pay attention now and think through the risks and costs before "innovating "? The polluters must pay, but even now they move to China or somewhere else and put nastiness into the air and oceans. Hardly a problem solved!
It is not inevitable that humans must always play catch up or be in catch up mode. We can learn and rationally reflect from past mistakes and take steps not to repeat them. Real thinking progress, not random trial and error social evolution although I admit part of that will always be with us...

AI is a game changer and not necessarily for the better or larger social good. Self driving vehicles and its attendant AI will eliminate millions of jobs. So will financial technology. Where is the social good in this? What are supposed to do with that many unemployed people in OECD countries ? How hard it will be for developing countries? If we don't have any expectations about how technology should work for us, and questions to ask about how to mitigate its costs IN ADVANCE then we will work for technology which is completely backwards. If we don't we start thinking of technology differently we cannot progress.
Ask not what you can do for technology, but what technology can do for you.

Duckdodger

Part of the techlash is the post-Facebook "discovery" that "you are the product". That by agreeing to the benefits of social media, you have somehow become a cog in a global conspiracy that uses and manipulates you through your online presence. The fact is that you have always been the product of marketing, advertising and attempts to manipulate you. It's just that now the process has become much more sophisticated, individualized and potentially intrusive into your life. However, those same data mining and instantaneous communications abilities have enormous benefits in the areas of being able to make much more informed decisions both at the personal level as well as the corporate and societal levels. The example of Salesforce.com comes to mind as broadcast on April 15th's 60 Minutes. While endeavoring to ensure gender equality in pay, opportunity and rights at their company Salesforce.com uses its vast computing powers to assess at all levels where disparities exist and then to take action swiftly and on a continuing basis ... an ability we could only dream about less than a decade ago.
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Concerning the influence and/or manipulative powers of new technology and social media, it is only as effective as we let it be. Every individual needs to be aware of and potentially on guard against manipulative persuasion and needs to hold to their values and beliefs in the face of what appears to be an accelerating bombardment of messaging that is personally designed to powerfully influence you emotionally or spiritually. That is the Hobbesian bargain we have always had with progress and it is no different today, only maybe a little more intense!

Oznayim in reply to Duckdodger

And there is also the matter of PERSONAL discretion. Do you really need to tell your 587 Facebook "friends" that you overspent your credit card and last Saturday were at a totally wild party where you imbibed immoderately with intoxicants and behaved most inappropriately? Of course you had best hope no one else took pictures.

Rockford the 1st in reply to Duckdodger

We are letting it be very effective. I think individuals are currently ill equipped to deal with this information bombardment. I think there is less choice to what you let affect you and others that you might think. Detoxing from Facebook and other social media is a great experiment. I think we need more than just "Beware".

Angus Cunningham in reply to Duckdodger

"... only maybe a little more intense!" -- what an understatement! An accelerating bombardment of messaging is severely disrupting all our capacities to communicate, especially as the meanings of the words 'messaging' and 'communicating' are only very rarely distinguished!!

JustBeGood

"The role of technology is under attack"

Yes, but that is a distraction. It is impossible to stop scientific development, and it is impossible to stop to role of technology. In short, if we don't do it, China will.

The issue is not at all about technology, it is about trust in governance. Large business is so entangled in government, that we have seen it take over the US White House, putting government and politics under direct corporate management. Before that, we see Big Pharma manipulating governments and taking full control of science. We see NRA manipulating media and taking full control of politics. We see Facebook making fun of Congress. The government was even unable to break up Microsoft, after proving that it operates an illegal monopoly.

If we, as citizens, cannot trust the government to rein in corporations, and science because just a religion of commercial benefits, with scientists as purchased priests, we cannot accept new drugs, GMO, robots, AI etc. as we have no confidence that due diligence has occurred, no confidence that government oversight is happening. Lack of trust is forcing every thinking person into a stance of resistance, as progress turns into a weapon of control.

So, we need to deal with the issue of trust and the independence of institutions in order to take advantage of emerging new technologies. This is a political issue, not a tech issue, a science issue or a philosophical issue.

Rockford the 1st in reply to JustBeGood

Excellent point. Governance and trust in institutions is in crisis particularly in the US and the UK. I see the political and philosophical as one issue. The Liberal Western consensus on capitalism and democracy is under serious attack. The technology was bought, given or stolen by Western companies to China. I imagine that this is why the Economist is having these discussions.

JustBeGood in reply to Rockford the 1st

I believe that the transfer of knowledge to China was intentional. Western IT was shipping to China under US government supervision long before it even became legal to ship it. I assume that the thinking was that high technology would help break the monopoly of the Communist Party and stear China in the direction of democratic capitalism.

This did not happen and China is lurching in the direction of a dystopian state that we only know from Science Fiction books and movies. We worst imaginable abuses of human freedom and dignity will probably be implemented in China with total governmental control.

Maybe seeing this happen in China and tracking the abuse will help the rest of us maintain our basic civilisational achievements and hang to to freedom, democracy, justice and human right. Hopefully.

neilglenn

Everyone is now upset with Facebook for doing exactly what they said they would do. Use your data to target you.

Rockford the 1st in reply to neilglenn

Really ? They said that ? I think that's a lie. Please provide the concrete evidence of that. If they said that publicly I think there would be no controversy. Furthermore, even if they said that (and I do seriously doubt that) does that make it alright? If a pedophile says he will rape your kid and then does it, do you blame yourself?