Mania for getting things for free carries a corollary that diminishes the human
Opinion: Technology must not be allowed to continue to destroy employment
A general view of the Dublin web summit, which is being held at the RDS in Dublin this week. Photograph: PA
Wish I were there, with all of you in Dublin. Was invited this year, but couldn’t make it work this time.
The tech world loves Ireland. And I hope Ireland appreciates the techies who come each year to talk about the unfolding digital era. The current generation of tech business leaders might very well be the nicest, best-intentioned elite in human history.
And yet I fear we’re all making a big mistake, however innocently. While we talk about job creation, the world as we have guided it is producing fewer jobs. While we’ve said we’re strengthening society, we’ve witnessed waves of austerity and the rise of hopelessness in the young, all over the developed world.
So the critical question before us is whether we’re doing the right stuff, but just not enough of it to make up for a heap of misfortune that descended just as we started to have our way with the world – or, is it possible that we, the tech elite, are part of the problem?
This latter dark possibility has preoccupied me lately. Here’s how I’ve come to see things: we techies love efficiency and automation. We particularly like the idea that we’re building artificial intelligence.
But the way technology actually works is a little askew from the way we like to dream about it. For instance, it’s marvellous that our online services can automatically translate documents from French to English. We like to think we have built a giant electronic brain, and have offered it free.
But that’s not the truth. Actually, the way language translation works is that millions of documents translated by real people are grabbed from the net. A statistical collage of bits of text that have been well-translated by humans is assembled to create the automatic result. So-called artificial intelligence is actually a mash-up of work done by real people who have been made anonymous and are not paid.
Getting things for free
This is the only reason that automation can threaten employment. If we were honest about where value comes from, we’d be creating new ways for people to make their livings as a matter of course, since people are still needed. Instead, we love the idea of artificial intelligence and the experience of getting things for free, so we must pretend that people are worthless. This didn’t used to be true. It used to be that new technology meant new kinds of jobs. But our current fantasy life is precluding the obvious solution.
A compounding problem is that it’s just so tempting to get rich by having a big computer that routes the big data that runs our modern world. It used to be that the richest people owned oil fields or transportation systems. Now, the top new wealth is accruing to those who own information hubs. The richest people own mobile phone networks, social networks, or some other kind of platform from which to gather everyone else’s data.
The fact that we don’t want to acknowledge that network value comes from people everywhere means that those who own the computers in the centres of networks get ultra-rich and powerful. This explains one of the glaring contradictions of our age. On the one hand, this is the age when anyone can tweet a complaint and embarrass a corporation, or even bring down a government. Yet this is also an age overwhelmed by the rise of income inequality and austerity. Power is being centralised and decentralised at the same time, it would seem.
The explanation for the apparent contradiction is simple: the new power centres are based on using data from people to run behavioural models that calculate slight advantages all the time, so that those with the biggest computers win more and more. To tweet a complaint can help someone gain a tactical win, but the strategic win always goes to the big computers in the centre, watching it all.