The jerk in the machine

by Sarah Firisen

Many years ago, my father and I were at a backyard BBQ in New Jersey hosted by someone we barely knew, I think they were somehow connected to my step-mother. At some point, the topic of flag burning came up and, before we knew it, we were engaged in an extremely heated debate on what patriotism actually means (I believe that the rights the flag stands for include the right to burn it). The debate ended up with a large group of people holding beers and hot dogs decrying the liberal anti-Americanism of the two of us. Not the best way to spend a summer afternoon. These days, it’s possible, in fact too easy, to repeat the unpleasantness of that afternoon all the time on social media. I try my best to steer away from the soul sucking void that is having debates on Facebook with friends of friends. We all have those people in our lives with whom we have a moral or political disconnect and that those people will sometimes make comments that will inflame our more simpatico friends may be inevitable, but doesn’t have to be engaged with and perpetuated. Such debates don’t change hearts and minds. Full disclosure, I admit, sometimes I don’t follow my own advice here as well as I should, but I try.

Perhaps even more pointless is having fights with utter strangers who just happen to subscribe to the same Facebook groups you do. The other day I felt unusually compelled to comment on a New York Times Modern Love posting on Facebook. The story was about a woman who listened to a tarot card reader and took her “predictions” very seriously. Now as far as I’m concerned, if you make the choice to write about your private life in a public sphere, you’re fair game for other people to comment on your choices – indeed, I open myself up for this in writing for this blog, and I get that. I’m not sure why I bothered to comment, why do people write letters to newspapers? But I certainly believe I had a right to state my opinion. A fellow reader disagreed and started a personal attack on me and my judgement of the story writer. I should have left it at that, I didn’t, I answered back.

It’s often said that technology, particularly social media, has made us more insular, has enabled us to only interact with people and information sources who confirm our beliefs and biases. And I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to that. It has also enabled us to interact more cross culturally, to open our homes, cars and maybe our minds  to all sorts of different people, The digital undercurrent, meanwhile, is steady. It leads people to make daily leaps of trust, like getting into a stranger’s car. It prizes efficient use of resources. It opens the world…Of course, we have learned that the internet can be just as good at building silos and reinforcing the algorithmic separation of people as at bringing them together. It has also opened us up to the awareness that there are lots of people who don’t share our beliefs and values when we digitally bump into people we probably would do our best to avoid interacting with in-person.

Of course, technology, including social media,  is neither good nor bad, it’s a reflection of us, of humans, magnifying the best and worst in all of us; we tend to forget that technology is only as good as the people who use it. We want it to elevate us; we tend to degrade it. “ To see both sides of this, you only have to reflect on social media campaigns that have spontaneously erupted and have righted great wrongs, or raised huge money for a worthy cause, or caused a huge positive political shift, but also the ones that have been virtual lynching mobs and incubators of lies and prejudice.

In my new automation-related job, I often hear corporate fears of “bots gone wild”. The concern is that, while it’s true that any rogue or in error an automation could do is also something a human employee could do, the bots would be able to do these unwanted tasks on so much greater and faster a scale that the results could be so much more catastrophic than one bad employee could ever be. It’s the scope, speed, efficiency of technology that enables it to amplify our best and worst impulses; I had an unpleasant interaction with those people at the BBQ 30 years ago, but it was a limited, local encounter. The same debate on social media has the potential to have a far greater blast zone.

Technology is increasingly pervasive in all its many forms; WiFi and cell service is everywhere, feeding our addiction to our screens and online connectivity. Even if on some level we want to disconnect, the lure of our screens is compelling,  “I could achieve this kind of freedom anywhere by shutting off my cellphone and observing an “internet sabbath.” But that has never worked for me — and I suspect it doesn’t for most other people either. Turn off your phone and you can almost hear it wheedling to be turned on again. To experience the deepest solitude, you need to enter the land where the internet ends.” But those places are increasingly rare. And mostly, that’s a good thing. With so many companies and public services moving to solely an online presence, to be poor and not have reliable access to the Internet can be a real issue.

But there’s also somewhat of a backlash, the luxurification of non-technology, human experiences, which is mostly a function of money and privilege, “Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.All of this has led to a curious new reality: Human contact is becoming a luxury good.As more screens appear in the lives of the poor, screens are disappearing from the lives of the rich. The richer you are, the more you spend to be offscreen”

Bill Gates famously wrote, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” And when you think back 10 years, the extraordinary pace of technological advance is clear, the iPhone came out just over a decade ago, hard to imagine now. Now we have a US President who governs via Twitter, there’s no going backwards on that one, whoever wins in 2020. Will the rich continue to switch off leaving the rest of us mired in the technological sewer? Will automation put us all out of work or will it rescue us from the mundane and boring aspects of our jobs, freeing us all to be more creative and joyful? These questions aren’t abstract, the answers are within our control, but we have to acknowledge that and choose to take the jerk out of the machine.