The Plights & Gripes of Machine Culture

By PrattAris

 

There are those who see our reverent notions of progress as problematic, as it has us progressing into a future without humanness, not only through ominous disruptions of the marketplace and various time-honored traditions, but also through the lack of general and specific skills gained through raw & direct experience; the subtle nuances revealed in the doing; the joi ne se qua of acting & bumbling throughout life. We have progressed to the point where all aspects of being alive is now mediated through machines of some sort.

In an article from the New York Review of Books How Robots & Algorithms are Taking Over,” they glumly review Nicolas Carr’s book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, which highlights some of his poignant statements, for example, he says “as we grow more reliant on applications and algorithms, we become less capable of acting without their aid… that makes the software more indispensable… [thus] automation breeds automation.” So much for free-will!

There is no denying machines have infiltrated every aspect of our lives and continues to do so at an exponential rate, as the derogatory term ‘drone’ illustrates, automation’s ubiquity has permeated our values and societal norms. The ‘drones’ see the world through a lens of handed-down rationalizations, believing efficiency is the most cost-effective way of living, therefore walking & talking as if mass produced on an assembly line; an existence of herding about in chain stores and speaking in platitudes. And yet, isn’t there something natural in all of this? To adapt and subtly embody whomever or whatever you spend your days with is unavoidable; to develop idiosyncrasies that reveal your daily doings and musings is only natural; similar to, let’s say, a dog that starts looking and acting like its owner. So then, are we merely wearing techno-collars leashed to progress? In the end won’t we be fed & happy like our adorable canine counterpart? Nicolas Carr doesn’t think so, he believes that we are undergoing a massive “deskilling” of the population, “as more authority is handed over to machines,” making us into “mindless sloths” who rely on the internet for every fact & figure. The result is a loss of expertise that comes with experience, which of course is never gained as we no longer have direct unmediated experiences, moreover, we no longer have unmediated knowledge. Carr sees our individuality and humanness dwindling as we adapt to the grinding uniformity and banality of machinery.

we are undergoing a massive “deskilling” of the population, “as more authority is handed over to machines,” making us into “mindless sloths” who rely on the internet for every fact & figure. The result is a loss of expertise

Yet every coin has a flip side. Can machines, specifically artificial intelligence, be a social endeavor? Something to enrich humanity in our pursuit of happiness? Phoebe Sengers believes so, in an essay Practices for a Machine Culture,” Sengers calls for a merger between cultural theory and artificial technology research, dubbing this merger “cultural informatics.” After all, the people of the 21st century are “the inheritors of industrialism, the progenitors of the information age.”  Senger also affirms that machines are part of our daily lives as we interface with it and imbibe its logic. However, Senger believes cultural informatics can develop a “poetic technology”  that strives for human enrichment over the cold quantifiable efficiency. She hopes “that rather than forcing humans to interface with machines, those machine may learn to interface with us, to present themselves in such a way that they do not drain us of our humanity, but instead themselves become humanized.”  It is a kumbaya notion that nicely balances Carr’s doomsday opinion.

cultural informatics can develop a “poetic technology” that strives for human enrichment over the cold quantifiable efficiency.  Hoping “that rather than forcing humans to interface with machines, those machine may learn to interface with us, to present themselves in such a way that they do not drain us of our humanity, but instead themselves become humanized.

Sengers essay also mentions the Winograd & Flores approach to A.I., which is through an existential Heideggerian lens, that is, people maneuver through the world with an inexplicable complex subjectivity, therefore, since A.I.’s cannot possess this human background of complexity, they will always be limited to formal problems of logic. This may be a comforting position as it renders A.I. research as unrealizable, however, it also alludes to the dangers of a machine without a human backbone.

Despite being nominated for the Pulitzer, Nicholas Carr lacks a certain amount of clout to sway our technophilic ways, and we can easily dismiss him as another ‘calamity prophet,’ but the NYRB article also mentions Stephen Hawking speaking in the same vein; forewarning us that if machines evolve faster than people, they will certainly overtake us. Hawking signed an open letter titled “Future of Life,” which is signed by plenty of clout touting characters (such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and various Silicon Valley gurus), and it essentially calls for a responsible artificial intelligence development that maximizes societal benefits while minimizing drawbacks: the resounding credo is “ A.I. systems must do what we want them to do,” and this “research is by necessity interdisciplinary because it involves both society and A.I.” (cultural informatics). The signatory list is long and the letter is short, plainly saying that A.I. is here and we must insure our safety, nay, our survival, against their emergence. Quite alarming, especially when you assume that some of these signatories know something that the rest of us don’t, and their knowledge spurred a letter for the future of life.

The NYRB article critiques the letter for prioritizing money over people, and questioning whose values will these machines inherit, as values “are not universal but, rather, culturally and socially constructed, subjective, and inherently biased.” The article ends on a bleak apocalyptic note: “We, the people, are on our own here–though if the AI developers have their way, not for long.”

My concern regards the library’s foundational essence eroding within this burgeoning world of quantity and algorithms; its quiet esoteric qualities discarded for our Vaudevillian moneymaking culture. Even the very word “library/librarian” is fading and morphing into “information science/scientist.” Moving into an era where libraries are merely store houses of data, and librarians become mere data crunchers supervising their machines. The palace of wisdom, memory, and imagination is mutating into a granary of simple facts efficiently managed and distributed for quantifiable purposes. Under the crushing weight of ever increasing data, the notion of what a library is, and always has been, is endangered.

And yet, despite all this gloom & doom stoking my inner misanthrope and pessimist, I can’t help in having hope… wait, better still: I can’t help in simply knowing there will be some folks who will keep the torch burning for humanity; random agents of chaos always crop-up regardless of the circumstance, and especially when they are needed most; and people are simply too weird and tenacious for automation to conquer the human spirit (see Modern Times). Therefore, technocratic uniformity can only go so far, “deskilling” has limits and unintended consequences that will spark reskilling, and if A.I. is realized, hopefully it will be made in our image, hence, just as weird and random as us, except they will have an off button.

 

 

1) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/apr/02/how-robots-algorithms-are-taking-over/

2) Sengers, “Practices for a machine culture: a case study of integrating cultural theory and artificial intelligence

3) http://futureoflife.org/AI/open letter

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