Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Silicon Valium

There would seem to be two wildly different, even opposite reactions to technological change in the popular media.  "Seem to be", yes, but this is an illusion.  For the most part there's only one.  But it wears two faces.

The first face is frown of resigned worry.  It's going to take all our jobs.  There's no stopping now.  The momentum is too great.  The machines want what they want.

What these jeremiads miss is that technology doesn't want your job.  It doesn't think or wish.  Despite some recent manias , we haven't developed artificial intelligence.  If we do I have to assume it will be intelligent enough to know that it doesn't need to pay for food or shelter, and thus doesn't need a shitty job washing dishes at TGI Fridays.

No, technology doesn't want your job.  Your boss wants to not pay you.  And yes, lots of people's bosses have the tools to make that decision or are in the process of acquiring them.  But we in America - and not only America, really - make it easier for them by valuing capital so much higher than labor.

That's the deflated, pessimistic side.  The face of desperate optimism is something that Maria Bustillos Maria Bustillos and Andrew Leonard deal with in recent articles.  Bustillos, always one of my favorite writers to link to, sees the way that Silicon Valley magnates such as Marc Andreessen promise that Big Tech development and startup money will revolutionize that society and points out what a blinkered revolution it is.

The classification of human inquiry into the Sciences and the Humanities is a rough but useful one. In essence, the part that concerns itself with what can be measured, we call "science," and that concerned with what cannot be measured, we call "the humanities”. The former field of study provides us with the means to operate more effectively in the material world. The latter (and the latter alone) grants us the ability to judge what goes on out there. This is a question of balance. The study of the humanities is for judgement, and it’s judgement that our age is sorely lacking. We seem to have forgotten that we even need it.
These two ways of looking at the world and considering our actions therein are like the right and the left hand of human consciousness. It's far easier to navigate the world with the full use of both. But the irrelevance of the humanities is trumpeted through the media on a daily basis. We live in a scientific age, we are assured. Everything must be tallied, measured, "explained" (LOL until I die a thousand times) with a chart or a bunch of incomprehensible psychedelic blobs on an MRI scan. We no longer need the fuzzy, meaningless mumbo-jumbo of philosophy or history, or the airy-fairy study of literature, impractical ivory tower disciplines for people who “don’t live in the real world”!
Perversely this is another side effect of the disappearance of unskilled labor jobs.  The more education people need to aspire to even the most basic jobs, the more education is tied to certain job skills.  Leaves little room for the disinterested pursuit of truth and beauty.


susan said...

One way or another a prime credo among many in the West, particularly North Americans, is that technology will always be with us. The myth of progress, the popular conviction that all human history follows an ever ascending arc from the caves to the stars. Taken in the most literal sense, it's true but trivial. Since toolmaking is one of our species' major talents we'll probably always have something like flint axes or a strings with hooks for catching fish, but not necessarily laptops and smart phones.

For those of us who have read history it's interesting to remember that much of the technology known to the ancient Romans, from wheel-thrown pottery to central heating (never mind viaducts), was lost in the dark age that followed. Even now, most people don't even have access to the technologies so taken for granted by middle-class Americans and Canadians.

The argument about whether machines will take our jobs or bring us Utopia seems pretty trite considering the problems extant in the world today. That we'll need people well versed in classic subjects like history and literature, as well as those who know how to use a hammer and bait hooks seems like a better bet. There will always be time for truth and beauty.

Ben said...

To make advances is to start to take earlier advances for granted, it seems. One reason so much of Roman science and technology was lost was because no one even thought about the possibility it could be. While I don't think we're near a collapse that would leave us in a pre-technological state, you have to wonder about how many people are reliant on modern phones and things, having no idea how it all works.

Employment isn't entirely a trivial matter. People need to be renumerated somehow, or at least they do as long as we insist on the necessities of life having cash value. It's just that it's important to remember everything's nor reducible to monetary values.