As an observer of life and as a human being, I’ve been living and working through the Covid-19 pandemic as many others have. Life and work has become increasingly in thrall to technology, and algorithms know a fair amount about our desires and how to trigger them. What does this do to us, to the way we think, the way we see the world, our environment, our wallets, our expectations, or the way we order our societies?
Telling it like it is
My work in theatre engages me with communities and people up and down the UK.
Through those connections it’s increasingly clear that inequalities in our society are growing at a far faster rate than before.
As a social scientist I’m keenly aware of demographic changes. The Global Majority or Global South has younger populations, we have older and ageing ones.
As a creative, I’m very aware of the cultural tides dictating reactions to change, and especially the way that bots impersonating people use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to post comments to clickbait headlines and amplify divisive discourse.
As a human being, like you, I am increasingly the subject of inescapable AI and algorithms; yet biotech and medical science promise me an inoculation against the virus which has brought us to this point.
How on earth are these disparate elements connected?
Well, they are. And the key to understanding not just how we got here, but also what we might be able to do about it, is what we must do next.
These are the issues I discuss below, and in my podcast with Ian Douglas, Technology: Telling it like it is.
Ian has been the Editor of Digital Development at Telegraph Media Group; Head of Digital at The Spectator and The British Library. If anyone knows how digital technology can make us ill, Ian does.
Read more in Ian’s Book: Is Technology Making Us Sick?, part of the RSA’s The Big Idea series. Buy ‘Is Technology Making Us Sick?’ :
Hope springs eternal.
We tell ourselves stories. That’s what humans do. So our histories, for example, will slide over the unpleasant or inconvenient, and focus only on those aspects which make us ‘great’.
Self-deception is what has made our species successful at colonising the planet we live on.
In short, the lies we tell ourselves are what give us the ability to define and achieve our success; but they are also at the root of what ails us.
What are the fictions we tell ourselves?
We tell ourselves that having lots of money will make us happy. It might make life easier, but not necessarily happier. Because by having money you’ll be trapped in another cycle of competition, whether one of consumption or of an equally expensive denial.
To hear the thunder of stentorian headlines, you would imagine that our culture stood on a precipice; that revolutionaries from outside were here to tear down statues, burn our museums, and clap us chains to serve their evil ways. Yet what is actually happening is that a few reasonable people are politely asking reasonable questions of the story we are told – that is all.
In both cases the stories – that the ‘dream’ of having lots of money is the only legitimate aspiration and the idea that culture is immutable or fixed – are lies.
The lies we tell ourselves knit the the web which enables us to work in systems, as units.
Here’s another well-known provocation.
When you get something for free, you should know that you’re the product.
How have we become products?
Your life, my life, all our lives, are increasingly subject to algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Here’s a great explainer on what AI is and the way it works:
You might step away from social media and think that you are now inoculated against algorithms and AI, but fintech is still looking at your spending habits, what you buy, when, where and all of this is done in milliseconds with billions of bank accounts and payment terminals across the globe and in real-time.
This kicks off the ‘you bought this; so you might like this‘ recommendations which will pop up everywhere.
Investment and buy/sell decisions on stock and investments, your pension and mine, are made by AI and algorithmic learning in real time; there is no fixity, and if one element changes, the whole interconnected system changes accordingly in the blink of an eye.
The humans who ‘man’ this complex web of code and diagnostic decision making software don’t know where the off switch is … because while you can switch off a computer terminal, you can’t switch off a vast international web. Not only do we not know where the off switch is, we don’t even know how these decisions are being made, because the code which was originally written to start this off has changed as it has ‘learned’.
- And have we even considered the biases which may have been built into that original code?
- Remember MAXINE, Nvidia’s AI which distorted and manipulated conversations?
AI is learning faster, further and deeper than we ever can because it is inter-connected and has no belief system standing in its way.
This video from the RSA is a great explainer of how big tech controls and divides us:
Belief – or value – systems are how we humans make sense of the world and govern our actions. At times beliefs may be contradictory, but that tension, complexity or dissonance is what makes us human.
Our beliefs and values do not spring fully formed, they are not aligned with binary on/off, or yes/no engineering decisions. And they are tested daily, even by the minute, by the changes technology is effecting across our societies. This leads to confusion, conflict, concern.
Examining our beliefs, ethics or values – making time to think – becomes an act of hope at a time when the currency is our time and attention.
Your ethics or mine?
Whilst our ethics – yours and mine – might be different to those of a Pacific Islander or an Inuit, say, it’s likely there will be enough common ground to reach some sort of decision on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
With enough time and discussion and negotiation and assuming there is parity in the discussion and more powerful voices don’t drown out those with less power, we might even go further and define what’s causing us the problem.
But in the days, weeks or months it has taken to reach that decision, AI has raced ahead and changed the landscape yet again. And that will have changed the triggers, the desires and the responses we have, and without us having had the time to understand why.
Any why is this happening?
Because at the root of it all, someone, somewhere, or something wants to make money.
It’s you and me. Us.
We want our pension. Because we’ve been told that’s what we should have, and we paid into it, and we want something back.
We want … and there’s an algorithm feeding each and every one of those desires which we imagine that we have autonomy over.
And to get those desires met, others are enslaved or worked in conditions so terrible that we could not comprehend their hell.
Environments have been destroyed. Landscapes have been polluted. Ecosystems have disappeared.
And we remain unhappy because we are trapped in a cycle which tells us that more is always better – a bigger car, or a bigger house extension this time with bespoke tri-fold doors, a new and hard-landscaped garden with mature plants just like that, a swimming pool, a ‘smart’ home …
Because you see, the story we wrote way back when, and which we still seem determined to hold on to, demands more, and more, and more of the same.
Because it’s what we know.
The story we tell ourselves centres us and our needs first; and it removes from the story the consequences.
- Climate change is happening, and it is real.
- Modern Slavery is happening, and is real.
- We are becoming unhappier even as we get wealthier.
The inequalities we are seeing will pale against the vast inequalities to come; the inequalities between the small percentage who will be super wealthy (those investing in and owning AI/Biotech/Fintech/Cryptocurrency etc.) and those with nothing because their jobs have been automated or made code.
Money buys privilege and power, which begets more money, more privilege, more power. That is the one lesson of history we can rely on.
If we don’t build back better will we entrench today’s inequalities and build a platform for even more in the future?
Yes, almost certainly.
What will help us outrun the demons we have unleashed?
Knowing ourselves better can help.
The other side of the human story of greed and manipulated desire shares with us a powerful message; ignorance itself is not too dangerous, but when it combines with power, ignorance becomes a highly toxic mix.
If we want an honest future, we have honest about our past. And for that to happen, we need to take stock.
Put down the mobile phone or wearable device. Not a ‘digital detox’, that achieves little in real terms, but a considered, practiced and very real turning away from screens and technology for sustained and regular periods of time.
Take a long walk, the kind which takes up most of a day.
Have a picnic with a loved one.
Lay back and look at the sky.
Paint a watercolour.
Listen to real birdsong in context; skylarks in a quiet sun drenched field.
Rest your brain and your being.
Invest in you.
That’s how you can build the hope which springs eternal.