Saturday, June 3, 2017

David Byrne Has a Theory of An Overarching Agenda In Technology (and Sartre does a driveby)

Yes, that David Byrne.
Yes that Sartre.
Here goes, first up J-P Sartre:
"So that’s hell. … I never thought You remember: the sulphur, the stake, the grill. Oh, What a joke. No need to grill: hell is other people
But no, ol' J.P. says hisL’enfer, c’est les autres” doesn't mean what I think it means.
So screw him, sometimes hell is other philosophes.
(damn fool hasn't done anything worthwhile since the cookbook anyway)

On the other hand, from Mr. Byrne's Journal, May 15, 2017:


I have a theory that much recent tech development and innovation over the last decade or so has had an unspoken overarching agenda—it has been about facilitating the need for LESS human interaction. It’s not a bug—it’s a feature. We might think Amazon was about selling us books we couldn’t find locally—and it was and what a brilliant idea—but maybe it was also just as much about eliminating human interaction. I see a pattern emerging in the innovative technology that has gotten the most attention, gets the bucks and often, no surprise, ends up getting developed and implemented. What much of this technology seems to have in common is that it removes the need to deal with humans directly. The tech doesn’t claim or acknowledge this as its primary goal, but it seems to often be the consequence. I’m sort of thinking maybe it is the primary goal. There are so many ways imagination can be manifested in the technical sphere. Many are wonderful and seem like social goods, but allow me a little conspiracy mongering here—an awful lot of them have the consequence of lessening human interaction.

I suspect that we almost don’t notice this pattern because it’s hard to imagine what an alternative focus of tech development might be. Most of the news we get barraged with is about algorithms, AI, robots and self driving cars, all of which fit this pattern, though there are indeed many technological innovations underway that have nothing to do with eliminating human interaction from our lives. CRISPR-cas9 in genetics, new films that can efficiently and cheaply cool houses and quantum computing to name a few, but what we read about most and what touches us daily is the trajectory towards less human involvement. Note: I don’t consider chat rooms and product reviews as “human interaction”; they’re mediated and filtered by a screen.

I am not saying these developments are not efficient and convenient; this is not a judgement regarding the services and technology. I am simply noticing a pattern and wondering if that pattern means there are other possible roads we could be going down, and that the way we’re going is not in fact inevitable, but is (possibly unconsciously) chosen.
Here are some examples of tech that allows for less human interaction:

Online ordering and home delivery- Online ordering is hugely convenient. Amazon, FreshDirect, Instacart, etc. have not just cut out interactions at bookstores and checkout lines, they have eliminated ALL human interaction barring the (often paid) online recommendations. New York has had home take-out delivery for decades—one simply phones the local take-out place—but New York also has never had a shortage of random human interaction.

Here’s an Amazon warehouse in Peterborough, Cambridge. Increasingly the picking is done by a combination of humans working with robots. I can see eight people in this picture.

Gig Jobs- TaskRabbit and other services—there are people who perform these tasks in the gig economy, but as a client one does not necessarily have to interact with them in a meaningful way.

Airbnb- There is no check-in desk interaction; often there is no human contact at all.

Digital music- Downloads and streaming—there is no physical store, of course, so there are no snobby, know-it-all clerks to deal with. Whew, you might say. There are algorithmic recommendations on some services so you don’t even have to discuss music with your friends to know what they like—the service knows what they like, and you can know too without actually talking to them. Is music as a kind of social glue and lubricant also being eliminated?

Car driver apps- There is minimal interaction—one doesn’t have to tell the driver the address, the preferred route or interact while paying the check.

Driverless cars- In one sense, if you’re out with your friends, not having one of you drive means more time to chat. Or drink. Very nice. But driverless tech is also very much aimed at eliminating taxi drivers, truck drivers, delivery drivers and many others. There are huge advantages to eliminating humans here—theoretically machines should drive more safely than humans—so there might be fewer accidents and fatalities. The disadvantages include massive job loss. But that’s another subject. What I’m seeing here is the consistent “eliminating the human” pattern.

Automated checkout- Eatsa is a new version of the Automat, a once popular “restaurant” with no visible staff. My local CVS has been training their staff to help us learn to use the checkout machines which will replace them. At the same time, they are training their customers to do the work of the cashiers.

Amazon has been testing stores—even grocery stores!—with automated shopping. They’re called Amazon Go. If the items are placed perfectly on the shelves, then sensors know what you’ve picked up, and you can simply walk out with your “purchases” without any human contact. But they still need to get quite a few bugs out.

At some airports, one orders and pays via tablets—that system has some bugs in it too. I watched a lot of people simply walk away in frustration, but those bugs will get sorted someday soon.

Online Art Sales- Art is increasingly being sold online, so one can avoid any possible awkward encounters with intimidating gallery staff.

eBay- “Auctions” without the human drama and excitement.

AI- AI is often (though not always) truly better at decision-making than humans. In some areas, we might expect this. For example, AI will suggest the fastest route on a map accounting for traffic and distance while we as humans wouldn’t have the time to check all that traffic data, and we’d be prone to taking our tried and true route. But some less expected areas where AI is better than humans are opening up. As Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in The New Yorker, AI is getting better at spotting melanomas than many doctors. Much routine legal work will soon be done by computer programs and financial assessments are now being done by machines....MUCH MORE
...Lastly, "Social" media- social “interaction” that isn’t really social.

While the appearance on social networks is one of connection—as Facebook and others frequently claim—the fact is a lot of social media is a simulation of real social connection. As has been in evidence recently, social media actually increases divisions amongst us by amplifying echo effects and allowing us to live in cognitive bubbles. We are fed what we already like or what our similarly inclined friends like… or more likely now what someone has payed for us to see in an ad that mimics content. In this way, we actually become less connected except to those in our group....
Same as it ever was.

Back to Sartre. I think he was an honest-to-goodness misanthrope, not the Molière kind but a real  hater of humanity.
From 2015's Existential Questions I Hadn't Considered: "Is There a Gnawing Ennui Within the Financial Industry?":
...See also:
Using's Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason for Managerial Decision-Making
This paper will offer an alternative understanding of managerial decision-making drawing from Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason rather than simply Being and Nothingness....MORE
Oh joy. 
Additionally, Cookin' with Jean-Paul:
October 3 -- Spoke with Camus today about my cookbook. Though he has never actually eaten, he gave me much encouragement. I rushed home immediately to begin work. How excited I am! I have begun my formula for a Denver omelet.

October 4 -- Still working on the omelet. There have been stumbling blocks. I keep creating omelets one after another, like soldiers marching into the sea, but each one seems empty, hollow, like stone. I want to create an omelet that expresses the meaninglessness of existence, and instead they taste like cheese. I look at them on the plate, but they do not look back. Tried eating them with the lights off. It did not help. Malraux suggested paprika.

October 6 -- I have realized that the traditional omelet form (eggs and cheese) is bourgeois. Today I tried making one out of cigarette, some coffee, and four tiny stones. I fed it to Malraux, who puked....MORE
And the Grand père Jeté:
Le Blog de Jean-Paul Sartre

He hated people.