“No sooner does man discover intelligence
than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”
~ Jacques Yves Cousteau
Over the course of my last few posts I have been groping towards some kind of meeting point between, on the one hand, the current wave of information technologies, as represented by artificial intelligence (AI), social media and robotics; and on the other, what might be termed, for the sake of brevity, the social condition. The thought experiment is hardly virtual, and is in fact unfolding before us in real time, but as I have been considering the issues at stake, there are significant blind spots that will demand elaboration by many commentators in the years and decades to come. Assuming that, as Marc Andreessen put it, software (and the physical objects in which it is increasingly becoming embodied) will continue to “eat the world“, how can we expect these technological goods to be distributed across society?
It's actually kind of difficult to envision this as even being a problem in the first place. It's true that, up until in the first years of this century, there was some discussion of the so-called ‘digital divide', where certain segments of the population would not be able to get onto the ‘Internet superhighway' (another term that has fallen into disuse, perhaps because it feels like we never get out of our cars anymore). These were the segments of society that were already disadvantaged in some respect, where circumstances of poverty and/or geography prevented the delivery of physical and therefore digital services. Less so, those on the wrong side of the divide may have also landed there because of language proficiency or age.
The digital divide hasn't really gone away, it's just been smoothed over by the fact that access has increased dramatically over the last 15 years. But according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey, the disparities still exist, and in exactly the places in which you would expect it: only 30% of Americans 65 or older have a smartphone; 58.2% of Native American households use the Internet; 68% of those who didn't graduate from high school are online; and less than half of households making less than $25,000/year are accessing the Internet. In contrast, the top two or three segments in each of these metrics has adoption rates somewhere in the mid- to upper-90th percentile.
Still, it's worth noting that in recent years, the main battle around Internet access have not been fought around primary access, but rather the notion of ‘network neutrality', or the idea that the delivery of any one type of content should be privileged over that of any other. Regardless of who is on what side, it's clear that the people with skin in this game are already wired up. Even more interestingly, following the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, the other main battle has been around the curtailing of government-sanctioned surveillance, which implies the idea that there is perhaps just a little too much connection going on. (It's true that the digital divide conversation is still quite vibrant in the developing world, but even as Internet and mobile penetration increase everywhere, I'll venture that the same sort of lumpiness will abide.)
Consider for a moment the population characteristics used by the Pew survey: education, income, age, ethnicity, geography. (Curiously, gender is not discussed.) These are time-honored sociological categories that have been used by policy-makers and scholars to come to a more finely grained understanding of what our society looks like. The whole point of the US Census asking these sorts of questions is to help the government figure out how to spread around hundreds of billions of dollars of development money. But something interesting has happened as the years have advanced and ‘digital divide' has fallen out of usage: the categories themselves are disappearing from the discourse.
Instead, what is being talked about is ‘users'. There is no one other than the user: anyone who secures access to the Internet is reincarnated into one monolithic and anodyne group. And if there is only one group, there are in fact no groups at all. We are all fish in the same water. To be fair, this usage was always hard-wired into software development, it's just that software development has had the misfortune to find itself with such enormous purchase on our lives. But as a professor of mine was fond of remarking in graduate school, there are only two professions that call their clients ‘users': drug dealers and software engineers. I mean, even madams refer to their interested parties as ‘clients'.
This gap only becomes more apparent when you start paying attention to how we are talked to about technology. The basic Silicon Valley line is something like this: Each user (or group of users) has a problem, usually with an old industry that's in need of disruption. As a result, said user is just primed for some service or product, usually in the form of an app, that will unlock the value of a currently moribund market, or establish an entirely new one. If I were genuinely careful, I would corral every noun in the preceding sentence with quotation marks, since there are enough assumptions keeping this sentence duct-taped together that I almost want to stop writing and go take a shower. But what is relevant to our current discussion is that the ‘user' is what makes Silicon Valley pay attention, whether these are people who pay in hard currency, or in the currency of their own information. On the Internet, no one cares if you're a dog, as long as you're a dog with a profile that could be of use to some marketer. And if you're a rural Native American over the age of 65 with less than a high school education, then you're not on anyone's radar to begin with.
In a sense, we shouldn't be at all surprised that this has taken place. It's merely the latest extension of our post-Enlightenment condition. Whereas the categories I mention above take it as a given that we are dealing with aspects of the social, the Enlightenment, or at least as it has been handed down to us, is about the individual. The user is merely the next logical manifestation of this, the individual. Furthermore, the ersatz grouping of users into markets accomplishes nothing whatsoever in helping us understand the social, since markets are fickle, transaction-bounded entities, which individuals enter and exit with few obligations, let alone knowledge of one another.
This suits the creators of technology just fine. I don't mean this in a malicious sense. This isn't about persuading a group of voters that they have no common cause, or breaking the institutions that were responsible for collective bargaining for much of the last century. It's a much subtler set-up. Once the discourse is revised downwards to only accommodate descriptions of individuals and markets, the conversations that describe the social conditions upon which technology comes to rest also become scarce. Soon enough, our very capacity to discuss these phenomena is diminished, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.
Actually, those categories are still with us in two senses, but in both cases they are submerged. The first is on the side of the technologies themselves: thanks to massive databases of user information and the algorithmic tools that parse them, they can slice and dice users of their services and products into ever finer and more accurate groups. In this unregulated twilight zone there is an entire industry dedicated to be always right in these matters. Thus the aspects of the social take on the narrowed importance of a means to an end. Of course, the other aspect in which these categories still abide is reality itself. As much as it compliments itself on being the great leveler, technology is just as adept in accentuating and exacerbating difference.
Let's take one of the more obvious differentiators: wealth. The wealthy are the early adopters – they are the ones who can afford the technologies as they first ascend into prominence, whether we are talking about iPhones or bicycles. There is a period of ascendancy, as the use of a technology seeps into an already extant network, and the further network effects allow that social group to internally reinforce its bonds or perhaps further enrich itself. The technology becomes vital for the overt use of a group's members, as well as a sign by which the group differentiates itself from those outside it – that is, those people who lack such access, for whatever reason.
Facebook went from an exclusive social network to something as general and inclusive as a telephone. This of course does not mean that everyone has access to Facebook, just as not everyone has access to a telephone. For its part, Facebook has had to contend with the consequences of its ubiquity, as teens and young adults flock to other platforms, such as Instagram and SnapChat, where they feel like they can preserve some of the integrity of their groups. For their part, the rich have been setting up their own social networks since at least 2007. Of course, this being Silicon Valley, even the wealthy are constantly at risk of getting disrupted. Relationship Science has built its business model on facilitating connections to the wealthy, celebrities and various and sundry movers and shakers, assuming you can fork over the $3,000 annual fee. As journalist Greg Lindsay dubs it, Rel-Sci is a LinkedIn for the 1%.
However, there is a tipping point at which a technology ceases to provide a sizable return on investment, or exclusivity. Consider what wealthy people seek out when it comes to services; that would be other people. A very specific sort of other people, who are well-trained and discreet. The doorman of a Park Avenue co-op, the hotel concierge or the maître d' of a favorite restaurant are just as capable of receiving packages and making recommendations as they are turning a blind eye when it's so desired. Drivers, cooks, au pairs – you could populate a Richard Scarry children's book with all the people who help the wealthy live their lives as frictionlessly as possible.
I think that this tendency points out one of the great misconceptions concerning the progression of software and robotics. As the cost of these innovations declines and their presence spreads, we are better off asking, who is the most likely to be enwoven into these technologies? And by ‘who' I mean ‘what groups'?
Much attention has been paid to the effects of automation on employment, and rightly so. Partly because this is something tangible – we can measure jobs lost – and partly because it speaks to our grandiose fears of apocalypse-by-automation (the current specter is the loss of 3.5 million trucking jobs to driverless cars). But there is also a flip-side. Once innovative products and services are adopted by and assimilated into the lifestyles of the wealthy, or educated, or urban, those technologies will continue to spread. After all, capitalism dictates that a firm must continue growing and capturing market share.
It's not like privileged groups have grown out of using phones. But as an example, consider what we expect when we use our phones. Voice recognition technology has progressed to the point where it's not unusual to conduct entire transactions with a software system. This is especially conducive to instances where outcomes and exceptions are rigorously definable, such as banking and airline reservations. Sometimes it is the only choice, as call center staff have been cut in favor of these automated systems. On the other hand, those in a position of privilege have this privilege reified by the fact that they can speak to a personal banker or airline agent – similar to the above examples of concierge and doorman, a well-trained human that is discreet and effective. This is what I mean by the future already seeping its way throughout our present.
So a good way to start thinking about this is to embrace those categories of the social that we already have. Which groups are the most likely to become the subjects of a particular technology, and why? This is not to say that they will simply be ignored. Rather, we should instead think about the ways in which these groups will eventually be served by technology that may keep things running smoothly, but is ultimately dehumanizing and fragmenting, à la Neil Blomkamp's 2013 dystopia Elysium. Obviously, there is a long leap between an automated phone system and the hellish endgame described in Elysium but it's a much straighter line if everyone is treated only as an individual – or a user – while actually being targeted as a member of a social group.
So who are the vulnerable? A few groups come to mind. The elderly, who are already being assigned robot nurses, because who has time or money to care for the elderly. Children, who are expensive to educate and a pain in the ass to constantly watch over, are already being stimulated (I simply cannot bring myself to write ‘educated') via toys that have a direct line to IBM's Watson AI. The mentally ill, who need to be sequestered, drugged and monitored. Other institutionalized populations, such as convicts – how great would a fully automated prison be? That way any blame could be laid at the feet of the inmates. And finally, the poor, with whom no one wants to interact anyway. These groups will be the greatest ‘beneficiaries' of technology that is only just beginning to manifest itself. You get the idea of who is left – and what a perfect reproduction of privilege it will be.
As a final thought, consider what is lost as we move deeper into a future in which we are ever more deeply entangled with technology: our collective cultural memory. As William Gibson noted in a 2011 interview in the Paris Review,
It's harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we've already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.
In a very real sense, we are co-creating our own ongoing forgetting. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a pre-Internet era. And anyone who has witnessed a child attempt to swipe or pinch a magazine page, in the mistaken belief that it is as interactive as an iPad screen, cannot but help feel discomfort at the way in which new generations expect reality to behave around them. Or perhaps they see it as a business opportunity. Difference cannot but persist. What is really at stake is what we choose to do about it.