|For years science fiction writers have dreamed up worlds where man becomes subordinate to machine. But while the dramaturgic presentations make box office hits, the understated reality of human subordination continues to draw closer. Indeed it can be argued that we are already subordinate to machines as I will attempt to explain here.|
For this to make any sense, we need to dispose of the classic sci-fi notion of machines “wanting” to control man. Machines don’t “want” anything; they lack the natural desires of man, at least hitherto. If the machines of the 20th and early 21st centuries overthrow man, it will be the doing of man himself. So we have to ask ourselves, why would we willingly submit ourselves to our machines?
To further understand this perspective it’s necessary to distinguish a difference between the natural state of man, which motivates us and the technical state of machine which enables us. If we view these states as transient links in an evolutionary chain, we would have to recognize that while natural evolution progresses very slowly in increments of generations, technological evolution progresses very rapidly in leaps and bounds. Between these states is the interaction of natural motive and technical capacity that we often refer to as culture. The entire evolution of our cultures from fire pits and caves to laptops and coffee shops is made possible by the rapid advances in technology while the slower natural state of mankind remains almost constant. The reason for our self-inflicted submission is that while our technology races ahead to enable us to submit ourselves, our unchanging motives to do so are inescapable.
Addiction to Technology
The most obvious signs that this is happening are in systems where money takes motivational priority. From a collective viewpoint, such a priority would be established by our unchanging natural motive to acquire things that we need to secure our lives; today, that means wealth. In the meantime, the accelerating evolution of our technology pushes the dynamics such as the ever increasing difference between the size of production and means of production.
For example, the printing press increased the output of written material while decreasing the required resources such as a team of scribes and a great deal of time. In the last century alone, technology has enabled the mass production of almost everything consumable. Single corporate entities can now create products and services in quantities never before imagined. The economic perspective on this is generally positive, increasing the size of production while down-sizing the means of production widens the profit margin. Wider profit margins can make it easier to pass cost savings down the supply chain probably causing an increased demand. Ever increasing production and ever increasing profit margins. It would seem that everyone wins. But I detect a consequence that seems to go mostly unnoticed. That the ever increasing output has already far exceeded human capacity to process, we are in fact, dependents of our own technology. If all the computers in the banking industry broke, none of the banks could possibly hire enough accountants to process the millions of customer accounts gathered through computer-enabled mass service. Of course the odds of that happening are very slim. Information systems are designed with back-ups and redundancy in mind, in fact individual computers go down all the time without causing network-wide problems so to worry about computer malfunctions interrupting our mass production is like worrying about broken printing presses interrupting the world of publishing. It hasn’t happened since the 15th century, why would it happen now? So from the capital perspective, our reliance, indeed our addiction, to technology seems to pose no threat, only glorious advantages. But once again, it’s a matter of perspective. Like any other addiction, the danger doesn’t come from interruption, it comes from continuation.
So far I’ve explained that our dependence on machines comes from our own addiction to them and how we arrive at this addition through the bi-directional influence of culture and technology and how the economic “high” makes this addiction appealing to our inescapable nature. Now let’s consider the consequences.
Today many of us have to allocate significant time at the gym every day if we want the kind of bodies our ancestors had, but what’s important to realize is that our ancestors had no option, their physique was a by-product of cultural demands and limited technology, they also had shorter lives. Today our technology is more capable but our cultural demands have only changed, they have not diminished. Simply put – you don’t have to be strong to survive in our culture anymore, but you still have to secure your means of survival. This is cultural selection. It’s not uncommon to find business people engaged in the type of competition that taxes their time leaving none or very little for options such as the gym. After all for many of these people a fine body doesn’t pay his bills, an impressive sales pitch, or a better product than the competition does. So it’s not just the technology-enabled “easy life” of sit-down jobs in air-conditioned offices and the abundance of food served to us on plastic trays that has developed a generation of fat weaklings, it’s also the technology-influenced cultural demands. People literally have to fend off their demanding schedules to eat right and to exercise. Again, much of this depends on the difference in cultural priority between capital and social structure, which explains why the capital-centric societies such as the USA have the most stressed out lard-asses in the world.
The invention of language, printing and mathematics has extended our intellectual capacity, enabling us to store massive quantities of knowledge and influence massive quantities of minds. It’s the written language and the printing press that evolved small cults of oral tradition into religions of global scale. In the last 60 years of technical evolution came the computer, which extends this intellectual capacity even more and adds a whole new dimension, no longer is technology limited to static recordings of information but now it can dynamically process information. If we follow the pattern that we have explored so far, this would add our mental capacity to think to the endangered list of human traits.
Can this really happen? Why not? All the requirements are there just like they are for our physical compromise. Businesses can streamline their means of production with computers, using robots and automation to replace workers entirely. Most of the jobs taken over by computers are those that involve simple tasks. The reason for this is that computers are incredibly stupid. Essentially, everything comes down to a one or a zero. What gives computers the edge over humans is speed, with which these machines can achieve the illusion of being smart. On the other hand despite all the fuss over artificial intelligence, these machines lack certain things that the human mind possesses, such as intuition. Although scientists and engineers are working on ways to develop artificial intelligence, there is good reason to believe that machines will never possess such capacity. The so-called artificial intelligence we find on the market today are only the by-products of AI research, but to this day there is no machine that can actually pass the test of intelligence. Roger Penrose, a professor of Mathematics at Oxford, provides an extensive explanation as to why in his book, The Emperor’s New Mind. Still, once again, we don’t have to rely on machines to degrade ourselves, we can do that ourselves just fine. Once again, we can turn to economics to do the job for us. Already we can see how computers and robots are taking over the simple jobs, but what is more alarming than that is the economic pressure to modify the tasks that are too complex for computers into simple operations that computers can handle. Despite the worthy recommendation to customize the computer to fit the business process, companies are realizing the cost advantage of modifying the business process to fit the computers. We can see this at any retail outlet that sells software for handling personal finance. People buy Quicken or Microsoft Money, go home and re-engineer their financial process to fit the templates that come with the software. This is happening on all levels.
For example, about a month ago, my wife and I needed a car towed. When we took the car to the shop, they told us the tow truck caused about $2000 of damage. When we called the insurance company we got an agent that was obviously following the dot-to-dot of a computer program. According to the program, the truck could only have damaged the car if it collided with it. Despite my wife’s detailed description of the event, the agent continued to ask irrelevant questions… “What color was the tow truck?”… Did the tow truck have a car seat in it? We didn’t get the impression that the agent was capable of judgment but I would guess it far more likely that this agent simply wasn’t allowed to think outside the box. The process had to fit the computer’s template, this was probably the most cost effective way to manage the situation. It’s a numbers game, if 90% of the calls can be handled by FAQ’s and simple computer programs then the frustration of the other 10% is sacrificed to lower the cost of operations.
It could be said that one of the greatest assets of the human mind, judgment, is at risk because of the simple fact that it’s too expensive to maintain in a competitive market. The only thing standing in the way of healthcare systems with automated physicians that would amount to nothing more than algorithmic pill dispensers that are willing to trade a 10% or even 25% negligence margin for a wider profit margin is a sense of morals… perhaps the last hold out for the human race.
In the end we can easily see that our struggle to preserve our attributes is not a struggle against machines, although it may look like that on the surface. Indeed, the real struggle is against our own self-inflicted and inescapable slavery to money.