That’s the question ANDY HEDGECOCK asks as he surveys the literature on the advantages – and otherwise – offered to us by IT, the web and artificial intelligence
IN THE mid-1980s, along with double-breasted power suits, big hair and leg warmers, there was a fashion for the information society jeremiad — publications making fire and brimstone declarations about the dangers of unleashing computer power in therapy, political planning, education and the workplace.
Two of the most principled and well-argued works were Theodore Roszak’s The Cult of Information and Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason.
Both books were published before Tim Berners-Lee’s development of hypertext led to the mass-marketing of the internet as the world wide web and before the Japanese government’s declaration that the $400 million — a vast sum at the time — fifth generation computing programme had failed to develop artificial intelligence (AI).
Unsurprisingly, both works have become quaintly dated, particularly in those chapters in which the authors dabble in futurology.
Roszak saw the nascent internet as a flash-in-the-pan fad, along the lines of citizens’ band radio. Weizenbaum didn’t mention it at all.
Both were extraordinarily complacent about the limits of workplace automation. “Skilled work requires far more adaptability, experienced judgement and intuition than anyone has yet been able to program, Roszak asserted. “The hour-to-hour reality of the shop floor is simply not a chess board.”
The assumption that computers and robots need to emulate human performance and problem solving, shared with the Japanese fifth generation initiative, has been swept away by exponential improvements in memory capacity and processing speeds.
Who needs strategic thinking and intuition if you’ve got the capacity for an exhaustive comparison of thousands of actions and outcomes? Shareholders and CEOs tend to be less interested in adaptability, judgement and intuition than getting work done as quickly and cheaply as possible.
With the gift of hindsight, it’s easy to ridicule Roszak and Weizenbaum. But aspects of their commentary on the excessive application of IT have gained in relevance over the years.
Weizenbaum is bang on the money in suggesting that the corporate allocation of funding to technological development means it cannot be politically neutral.
IT, he says, is “an instrument pressed into the service of rationalising, supporting and sustaining the most conservative, indeed, reactionary, ideological components of the current zeitgeist.”
And Roszak identified an enduring problem with the internet when he asserted that its “gems of thought are scattered through a dense thicket of trivia.” Fast forward 30 years. Anyone who has followed the Facebook and Twitter campaigns against Jeremy Corbyn will also be aware that the thicket is also likely to contain disinformation and smear.
If the lack of editorial and peer-reviewing processes democratises social media, it also presents problems in terms of verifying information and checking attributions. We may treat leader columns in the mainstream press with the utmost suspicion but at least we know who is lying to us and why.
Today, degrees are part-delivered via web-based virtual learning environments (VLEs) and sales of newspapers have halved as an increasing number of people, particularly the young, rely on social media for information.
The government is considering co-financing research into driverless lorries and the M6 in Cumbria has already been identified as the initial test site.
Relatively well-paid workers — lecturers, journalists and lorry drivers — may not be joining the precariat in the next couple of years but it is apparent that workers in roles once seen as skilled and secure from automation are beginning to experience a degree of technological threat to their employment.
The possibilities are endless. This is the era of swarm robotics, complex pattern recognition and retail delivery drones.
Robin Yassin-Kassab’s story Swarm is set in 2070, when groups of insect-like nanobots have “revolutionised intelligence work on an international scale.” This is near-future sci-fi. But scientists at the University of Manchester are already working on swarm robots to decommission nuclear waste safely and a team in Thrace, Greece, has developed a team of bots that can recover stranded vehicles.
Not all applications are likely to be so benign. In her afterword to Swarm, robotics researcher Lenka Pitonakova poses an obvious but unsettling question: “One might ask what is to stop developing countries, or countries where democracy and the right laws aren’t in place, from creating potentially dangerous robots?
“What stops a terrorist organisation or a ruthless dictatorship from weaponising technology or artificial intelligence?”
Like Joseph Weizenbaum before her, Pitonakova highlights the political and moral dimensions to the development of cutting-edge technologies.
If anything, her warning is too mild. Recent events have demonstrated all too starkly that a wealthy nation, with all the trappings of democracy, is capable of using robotics for quasi-military purposes.
Dallas police used a lethal ground drone, packed with explosives, to kill Micah Johnson, who had ambushed and fatally shot five officers. This tactic has raised fears about identification, accountability, the risk of hacking and the psychological distance the use of remote devices places between officers and the communities they are meant to serve.
Meanwhile, writing on the Truthdig website, Thor Benson reports that the state of North Dakota has recently passed a law allowing aerial police drones to be armed with tasers and tear gas.
Other tools that sustain the reactionary tendencies of corporations and governments include the US National Security Agency’s Prism mass surveillance programme — exposed by former CIA employee Edward Snowden — which collects user information and internet communications from major internet service provider companies.
But before we decide that we’re sleepwalking into a technological dystopia, it’s worth considering the possibilities that new technologies offer for liberation as well as oppression.
In his most recent book Postcapitalism, Paul Mason sets out the idea that the latest technological revolution is destroying capitalism’s ability to adapt to new conditions and generate new markets.
For Mason, IT is the elephant in the room of economic and political debate, because it has become a technology incompatible with capitalism and it has become unstoppable.
An example of this is the informal and co-operative interactions between researchers and programmers, which are threatening the link between work and wages.
So do the notions of virtual currencies, time banks and “commons peer production,” in which ideas of creative work and ownership are separated.
And so does the increasing automation of work, including skilled “professional” work and the ability to reproduce information without limit which is driving costs — and profit margins — towards zero.
“Technologically, we are headed for zero-price goods, unmeasurable work, an exponential take-off in productivity and the extensive automation of physical processes,” Mason asserts.
“Socially, we are trapped in a world of monopolies, inefficiency, the ruins of a finance-dominated free market and a proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’.”
Mason’s provocative book is a clarion call to develop new forms of social and economic interaction, taking advantage of the increasingly blurred lines between work and leisure.
In the short term, however, there’s a risk that things could deteriorate before they improve.
Automation drives wages down and profits up, so we can expect the gap between rich and poor to increase Only when there is an insufficiently large middle class to buy consumer goods will the current system come under any real pressure.
We are gambling that the technologies capitalism has helped fashion will bring about its destruction, in the manner of Frankenstein’s monster. On the other hand, many more people may be cast into the precariat by the time that happens.
It all seems a bit of a lottery.
In the meantime, let’s ask difficult questions about the extent to which we surrender our judgement to IT.
My 1984 edition of the late Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason has all but fallen apart — what made it such an important and unique book for me was the author’s ability to leaven the exciting possibilities of computer science with serious moral considerations about its application.
“Computers can make judicial decisions,” said Weizenbaum, “computers can make psychiatric judgments.
“The point is that they ought not be given such tasks.”
In other words, it’s important to remember there’s sometimes a difference between what can be done and what ought to be done.
Robin Yassin-Kassab’s story Swarm is published in Beta Life, price £12.99.