In the next ten years we will see data-driven technologies reconfigure systems in many different sectors, from autonomous vehicles to personalized learning, predictive policing to precision medicine. While the changes that we will see will create new opportunities, they will also create new challenges — and new worries — and it behooves us to start grappling with these issues now so that we can build healthy sociotechnical systems.
Posts tagged society
“The great merit of the capitalist system, it has been said, is that it succeeds in using the nastiest motives of nasty people for the ultimate benefit of society.”
–E. A. G. Robinson (a close colleague of Keynes)
As someone who cares deeply about social change and personal transformation, that was exciting to me. Larps were said to let players experience particular emotions, to step into each other’s perspective, possibly even explore artistic and political visions for new forms of society.
The contemporary version of happiness is not something that has simply emerged as a product of popular opinion - it isn‘t that society is just giving us what we want. Instead a particular version of happiness has been promoted very consciously for a very long time.
Time is the default sacrifice. It is the measure of sacrifice that underlies our complex economic order, so it is no surprise that it also underlies our ritual order. In religions that have a Sabbath, an entire day of productivity is sacrificed to God every week. Every ceremony involves the sacrifice of the time of participants; often, ceremonies involve the sacrifice of time by high-status persons. An arraignment is a ceremony in which the legitimacy of a person’s incarceration is established; not much information is exchanged, but the ceremony requires sacrifice in the form of a grand courtroom built for the purpose, as well as the time of grand personages such as the judge and two attorneys. Ritual attendants such as court reporters and bailiffs are required as well. The sacred value of “justice” is understood to be the target of these sacrifices.
Our tools change us in fundamental ways. When we learned to cook food, our brains grew in size and made us the humans we are now. As we organized into more complex social groups and now as we’ve built tools that can act on our behalf, we have been and will continue to be changed by these tools. In the meantime, we live in a world that we haven’t completely caught up with. There are four big fractures between our bodies and our lives right now: trust, agency, tempo, and scale.
Well, we can talk about the decline of the union movement, but it runs deeper. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.
Institutional economics (old-style à la Commons; neo-institutional à la Douglass North; new institutional à la Williamson). Empirical studies of different sorts of economic institutions. Industrial organization and market structure (institutions beyond the bounds of any one formal organization). Organization theory. Theories of institutional change, formation. Difference between institutions which are products of policy and those which are products of custom. (Intermediate cases abound naturally.) Evolutionary economics. Memes. Institutional design. Centralized vs. decentralized institutions. Corruption. Distribution of power vs. formal organization. History of bureaucracy and other sorts of formal organization. (Did Europeans take civil service exams from China? How did they evolve in China?) Game-theoretic approaches. Simulations. Spontaneous formation of institutions. How, exactly, do “institutions matter” in economic development and growth?
To the problem of narrative collapse, Rushkoff suggests that young people have reacted to the loss of storytellers by realizing they have to become the storyteller. The gamer can write his own next level. We can be fragmented by allowing ourselves to operate on the (non-temporal) time scale of computers or we can program our computers to keep us in sync with our own goals and our own lives. Technology is, in fact, neutral. It doesn’t “want” things to be a certain way. But all technologies are ste up by people with certain biases, but those biases are often unclear until they play out in the real world. So civilians do have an opportunity to intervene in technologies that they dont’t fully understand because they do have the capacity to understand the impact of those technologies on their lives.
All disruptive technologies upset traditional power balances, and the Internet is no exception. The standard story is that it empowers the powerless, but that’s only half the story. The Internet empowers everyone. Powerful institutions might be slow to make use of that new power, but since they are powerful, they can use it more effectively. Governments and corporations have woken up to the fact that not only can they use the Internet, they can control it for their interests. Unless we start deliberately debating the future we want to live in, and information technology in enabling that world, we will end up with an Internet that benefits existing power structures and not society in general.
First, I’m going to tell you a bit about the war on general purpose computing. Then, we’ll talk about 19th century terrorism. Then a bit about urbanization and industrialization, before moving on to some weird ideas about languages. At the end, with any luck, it’ll all be interwoven quite nicely.
To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call “convivial.”
Seeing the world through the eyes of the Man in the Google Glasses, though, suggests a more political reason for pessimism. In his classic 1953 work, “The Quest for Community,” the sociologist Robert Nisbet argued that in eras of intense individualism and weak communal ties, the human need for belonging tends to empower central governments as never before. An atomized, rootless population is more likely to embrace authoritarian ideologies, and more likely to seek the protection of an omnicompetent state.
81 Homeless Robot.jpg (500×700) (via http://media1.break.com/dnet/media/2009/8/81 Homeless Robot.jpg)