On December 13th, Ashley Halsey III and Michael Laris wrote about a sightless man for the Washington Post:
A blind man has successfully traveled around Austin — unaccompanied — in a car without a steering wheel or floor pedals, Google announced Tuesday. After years of testing by Google engineers and employees, the company’s new level of confidence in its fully autonomous technology was described as a milestone. “We’ve had almost driverless technology for a decade,” said Google engineer Nathaniel Fairfield. “It’s the hard parts of driving that really take the time and the effort to do right.”
We live in a world of increased automation, with devices which greatly affect both our lives and our politics. We adjust to these technological changes without thinking much about them. But although our tools are neutral, the development of technology is the result of choices made by the powerful.
The automobile was inevitable, but building highways instead of mass transit was a deliberate choice. Medical research is a boon for mankind, but it is built around irrational choices. A search of clinicaltrials.gov reveals 289 studies for baldness and 1059 for malaria. Malaria kills a million people a year. Baldness makes you into Captain Jean-Luc Picard. One of these should not be a fifth of the other.
Once technological decisions have been made, they help to create structures of power. These structures, in turn, encourage the accumulation of more power, more influence. Henry Ford built cars, which built a company, which built an industry, which built a highway system. With each step, it became harder for American society to back away from the investment, like a gambler who keeps losing money at a casino but can’t quit.
This accumulation of power guarantees some technologies get more funding and more attention. Four recent developments—the DNC hacks, the Yahoo hacks, driverless cars, and factory automation—demonstrate the problem.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock that’s under a rock that’s under another rock, you know all about the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computers. A comedy of errors. It’s as if the Bumpus dogs found a way to invade the opera. According to reports, the government of Russia got to work funding some truly leet hackers, just the best sixteen year olds the Kremlin could liberate from potato farms in Siberia.
These digital Batmen filched the whole depressing digital motherlode at the heart of the Democratic Party. If you’d asked me beforehand what the DNC’s precious computer treasure consisted of, I’d have guessed sixteen text files, each reading “DO WHAT WALL STREET SAYS” in full caps, repeated nine million times. Then again, I’m not a high-priced consultant.
What the hackers got were emails. Lots of them. Apparently the Russians found a way to score the passwords to shameless grey-hued hustler John Podesta’s email. This was done to steal secrets—and so the intruders could watch coastal Boomers gossip about who was hanging out at the Applebee’s in Martha’s Vineyard, and who was getting the job as Soros’ intern. Riveting stuff.
It worked, of course. The Russians released the DNC emails and other information to the public. Biggest hacking score of the year, right?
Oh, no. Just the other day, Yahoo Mail got hacked again. For the second time this year. That’s right. The undead Yahoo Corporation, which somehow has not perished since the Nineties, saw its servers hacked on September 22, 2016. This was during the pre-Trump era. My memories of that time are hazy: if I recall, the sun shone brighter and dogs danced with wild abandon in the fields of the Lord.
Then, on December 14, a month after Hillary Clinton vanished into the woods forever, the ol’ Yahoo treasure vault was burgled again. It’s been a hot mess for everyone using a Yahoo Mail account in the Chinese Year of the Monkey, 2016.
Still, people are focusing on the wrong questions. They ask, “How was Russia able to get at the DNC so easily? How was Yahoo’s security breached?” Instead, we should ask: why is it that our systems are so sensitive to this kind of hacking? Why are these technologies designed this way?
Between the two hacks, President-elect Trump supposedly rescued a bunch of Carrier factory jobs from outsourcing. This caused no end of protest. Some people objected on the grounds that Trump was a populist fraud and had knuckled under to corporate blackmail. This made sense.
The second objection, that Trump had interfered in the smooth functioning of the economy, could be easily disregarded as the self-interested blathering of the wealthy and their friends in the media.
There was a third, far more interesting objection. This group of people protested that automation was coming regardless, and that we better wise up and get used to it.
This complaint makes sense if you assume that technology is an uncontrollable law of nature: impersonal, beyond human influence, thrilling in its power, violent in its disruption. If that’s actually the case, it doesn’t matter what human beings think or do about technology. You might as well try to hold back Niagara.
But very few things in human society move with the undeniable certainty of natural laws. We can predict the movements of dumb physical objects, like billiard balls and particles of matter. Human beings, on the other hand, are maddeningly complex, and any society made out of them will be hugely unpredictable. Additionally, scientific research is not an objective, evolving, or rational force. In 2011, the Natural Institute of Health schizophrenia budget was an estimated $264 million dollars over three years. That’s a quarter of what we spend on erectile dysfunction every twelve months.
I suggest that it is this idea—that progress is somehow being thwarted—that is really at the heart of the third objection. Trump is messing around with the hallowed growth of technology. That, they couldn’t forgive. To them it was a shameful blasphemy, like rapping during a funeral or drag racing on the Sabbath. “Progress” demands truck drivers must bow down before automated vehicles, and factory workers must walk in poverty so robots can craft cars.
But this is suspicious: if this is The Way It Must Be, why does Progress always benefit one class and one group of people? Not just once, but again and again? For an implacable force of nature, Progress is particular in picking her friends.
What ties all of the above stories together? The Carrier relocation and the hacks of the DNC and Yahoo mail servers all grow out of the same system, where technological power is centered, and used as a method of control. This order is not the natural outgrowth of deep-seated rules of the cosmos, but the expression of a set of ideas, ideas about technology and its place in our world.
Automation itself is a fine thing. Escaping drudgery is a noble goal. But how we use that technology, and how we developed it, is troubling. We seem to be much more comfortable investigating the engineering of circuit boards than questioning the basic assumptions of our society.
What assumptions? Our current view of technology is similar to the Greek myth of Prometheus, where a noble Titan defied the gods and bestowed fire to dull mankind. In our modern version of this ancient story, enlightened people come out of a magical Valley to give world-society these new gifts. It doesn’t matter if we asked for them or not. The rest of us clods have to adapt to the changed order of things. Technology comes first, we come second. It doesn’t matter if you’re busy or not; Microsoft Update is going to update your laptop now.
This is why the driverless car is such a perfect metaphor for the tech industry. On the surface, the technology has a noble goal—remove human error, decrease human boredom, and lessen fatalities. But it achieves this by removing agency from individual human beings, increasing the power of the technocrats and putting millions of people out of business.
The world that technologists celebrate is a world of centralized authority. Here’s one more story from the Post, by Katie Mettler:
A New Jersey state trooper was suspended for targeting females at traffic stops – allegedly seeking out young women to pull over before deactivating his microphone and asking them out on dates. Authorities said he altered his police reports to hide the fact that he was pulling over a disparate number of females.
In a country where power was spread out more evenly between all the members of the Democratic Party, the DNC hacks wouldn’t have been so devastating. An Internet which fulfilled its vision of a decentralized public commons wouldn’t need to worry about a massive corporate email server getting hacked. If we designed our industrial research so it wasn’t built to drive out craftspeople and laborers, we might not have Trump “rescuing” Carrier, or a Trump Presidency, full stop.
Technology doesn’t have to be built this way. We will always need medicine, but we don’t have to have Big Pharma. We can have technology which benefits everyone. But we can’t do that without asking questions, and we won’t ask questions if we don’t change how we think about tech.
Although we don’t say it out loud, we all understand this, at some deep level. We just explain it through the medium of culture. In our society, scary robot stories are as common as wisdom teeth, and as deeply buried.
Are we actually afraid that the robots will overthrow us? Is that really what bothers us?
Unlikely. Still, there’s an obsession there that needs explaining. An idea that has lasted this long, with such wide resonance, must mean something. Robots are pervasive in our pop culture: trying either to become us, or to destroy us. If an image keeps showing up in a story, it means something to the storyteller. The absence of fathers in Spielberg movies tells us something about Steven Spielberg. What truth does it whisper, then, that we think robots are cool, but robots are also creepy? If vampires are sex and death, and zombies are consumerism, then what do our mechanical buddies represent?
Perhaps this: we’re uneasy about being dependent. “Technology is largely convenience in exchange for humanity,” my friend Charles Sandmann told me. He works as an app developer in the Valley. Relying on a superior power is like being a child. You’re taken care of, but you lose something. “It is so comfortable to be a minor,” wrote the philosopher Kant, “If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on—then I have no need to exert myself.” It’s easier to live in a system where everything is handled for us. We love our phones, electricity, apps, even as we fret about spending too much time online.
Becoming a Luddite is both impractical and foolish. The housewives in Texas Hill Country could tell you all about the hell of a life without electricity. But we also understand that we are deeply dependent on this fabulous technology, and with dependence there’s always the possibility for oppression. Technology, like democracy, requires more responsibility from us, not less.
It’s why most people have mixed feelings about the police: they stop us from killing each other but there’s the constant potential for abuse. Robots and automation are concentrated power, and power is exciting and power is scary. And when that power is built to favor one group or another—like automating out truck drivers—or when technological power is used to show how concentrated power in our society actually is—the DNC email hack—it unsettles us in a way we can’t quite articulate.
Technology is embedded power, and that narrative is usually shaped to benefit those who already have power. There’s nothing conspiratorial about it: it’s just what happens when the status quo is not actively challenged.
There is no law of nature that says that the nuclear bomb had to be developed before the nuclear reactor. Nuclear science is simply a set of scientific statements. It can be applied in different ways. Why, then, did we get the bomb first? Because governments have money, and governments like weapons, and so during the world war seventy years ago, they spent money on the killing hand of nuclear power and not the giving one.
Driverless cars, military drones, and security cameras are not the disinterested forces of a progressive, universal march of enlightenment and technological growth. They are selected for. They are not expressions of an apolitical force of “science” but deliberate expressions of power. This power becomes concrete through programs of research, development, and production. We can change it, if we wish.
We ought to think about the future. It does us no good to speak of the sharing economy if power is not shared. Camus said that freedom is only a chance to be better, and whatever liberty we gain from driverless cars matters little if we give up our sense of direction as well. “It’s the hard parts of driving that really take the time and the effort to do right.” In a world without drivers, knowing where to go has never mattered more. I’ve seen the future, and it’s work.