questioning technology

Automation plus the current version of corporate capitalism is creating the perfect storm for those of us commonly known as labour. Most companies and labour laws are structured around an industrial model of capital and labour. The innovation that will save human work will be new business and operating models. Common wisdom is that we need to divide the owners of financial capital from the creators of knowledge capital. Such artificial hierarchies are not needed, though many say that hierarchies exist in nature and therefore are a part of the human condition as well. At least one piece of recent research shows that this is wrong. Early herders produced significant communal works without hierarchies.

“Work by a team of US-based experts on a remote site near Lake Turkana in Kenya contradicts longstanding beliefs about the origins of the first civilisations. It suggests that early communities did not inevitably develop powerful elites or compete violently for scarce resources, but may have worked together to overcome challenges instead.”

“Researchers studying the early history of agricultural societies believe large groups of people built permanent monuments to reinforce identities based on a sense of shared history, ideals and culture.”

“When agrarian societies started to develop, hierarchies started to develop too. Some people became more powerful and disparities in wealth and health and social circumstances emerged. So the big question is: Did the same thing happen in pastoral societies?” said Hildebrand.

“Lothagam North pillar site is the earliest known monumental site in eastern Africa … built by the region’s first herders … and gives us solid evidence that these pastoralists did indeed follow a different trajectory of social change. People came together in large numbers, probably expending blood, sweat and tears to build these large structures, but we have no evidence for hierarchy or social difference.” —The Guardian 2018-08-20

Perhaps hierarchies are a ‘technology‘ we no longer need to organize as a society. Evolution does not require ruthless competition. We need to learn how to cooperate — share without expectations of direct reciprocity — with each other better.

“But Jeff Bezos and others who equate ‘Darwinism’ with ‘ruthless competition’ have it wrong. Charles Darwin, a British naturalist who was the father of evolution, never said that nature sanctioned a dog eat dog mentality. Instead he regarded sympathy as the most important and distinctive human adaptation.

While Darwin launched a brilliant idea, many aspects of evolution were worked out in future centuries. One of those is what nature teaches us about how groups work best. Contrary to Amazon endorsed practices, it is not through dog eat dog actions but cooperation.” —Evonomics

As more of our work is being automated, we also need to understand how the machines work and the biases of those who program them. When the CEO of Twitter says that the platform is not biased, he is showing his own bias. All programs reflect the biases of their human programmers.

Dr. Howard says roboticists and programmers need a data set that mirrors the US Census Report. Meaning if 22.8 percent of the population is below 18 and the data set doesn’t reflect that, it’s a problem. What happens, for example, if a self-driving car isn’t programmed to identify children?

Even in not-so-smart-machines, like the original crash test dummies, which were modeled for fifty years after a 6-foot, 180-pound man, unintended biases can be detrimental. The lack of crash test dummies modeled after woman led to women being under-protected during accidents. Now, asks Dr. Howard, if robots are programmed with bias, could these machines act in unpredictable ways?

“You design out of your own experience—it’s what makes us human,” Dr. Howard says. Therefore, it’s crucial to have diversity in robotics. “Diversity is all of the parameters that make your experience different,” she says. “And a lot of these systems are biased because the [engineering] teams are fairly homogeneous.” —Vanity Fair 2018-04

We should take a lesson from the Luddites, who were not anti-technology but understood that certain groups were trying to monopolize the new technology. There is still time to counter the platform monopolists. Let’s speak up and take control of ‘our’ technologies.

“We are in the midst of a moment in time when many people are emphasizing how important it is for people to think seriously about history. So let us think about the history of technology. And let us think about the Luddites not as caricatures, but as real people.

The Luddites were not ‘anti-technology’. They were skilled craft workers who believed that the new machinery being deployed by factory owners would impoverish, disempower, and immiserate them. They were right. They didn’t want ‘zero technology’, they wanted to feed their families. If they had their way we wouldn’t be living in a world with ‘no technology’, we’d be living in a world where communities have a say in the technological decisions that will impact them.” —New York Times 2018-08-18

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