The Convivial Society, No. 8
"I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a life style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume—a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies. We need a set of criteria which will permit us to recognize those institutions which support personal growth rather than addiction, as well as the will to invest our techno-logical resources preferentially in such institutions of growth."
— Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
"If an ewe gives birth to four, approach of an usurper, the country will be destroyed."
"If an ewe gives birth to five, destruction will ravage the country, the owner of the house will die ..."
As this ancient Mesopotamian text suggests, human beings have been attempting to anticipate the future for a very long time. Moreover, one could argue that the earliest iterations of the scientific enterprise are rooted in these Mesopotamian efforts to establish a science of divination. This is not surprising. As self-conscious creatures, our experience of time is such that both the past and the future impinge upon our present. We use a variety of words to describe the nature of this impingement: hope, fear, regret, trauma, anxiety. Our orientation to the past, of course, is characterized chiefly by its irrevocability, and our orientation to the future chiefly by its openness. So, naturally, we focus our efforts on what we can change or else prepare for. Ancient divination was not exactly a matter of determining what will necessarily happen within an immutable causal chain of events. The future that was being divined was often juridicial and conditional, resting as it did on the judgment of the gods. An early reminder that the work of prediction is not so much the work of reporting as it is the work of producing. To utter a prediction is, paradoxically, to alter the future. Viewed in this light prediction is production.
Does it seem odd to invoke ancient divination as a frame for modern predictive technologies? Functionally, the differences are not quite so pronounced. The determinations of both are received with a measure of incomprehension and faith. These determinations are mediated to us by a priestly class, whose authority is grounded in esoteric and specialized knowledge. What's more, both claimed to be based on rational and empirical extrapolations from data about the observable world.
It is useful, too, to think of anticipation as somehow analogous to memory. The former being to the future as the latter is to the past. Prediction, then, may be described as a subset of anticipatory activities, perhaps more refined and specialized in nature. Or, might we say, more rationalized; there is a kind of algorithmic precision to the Mesopotamian divination texts. And as with memory, we may also note that the work of prediction can be technologized. That is to say that a material apparatus arises to augment the work: from the varied accoutrements of divination to predictive algorithms. When we rationalize and instrumentalize human activity we usually do so with a view to gaining more control over it or making it serve our ends, with a view toward mastery. So it is with predictive technologies: they aim to mitigate or eliminate uncertainty, to empower our actions, to foreclose the terrifying openness of the future. There is a spectrum, then, of predictive activities with varying degrees of technological mediation. Consider the difference between folk practices of forecasting the weather and modern array of meteorological technology. It seems important to examine how the technological mediation alters our relationship to the future and the present. To ask what exactly the tools outsource? Judgment? Responsibility? What do they displace? Possibly anxiety, but also hope or some measure of agency?
It's interesting, too, to consider what kind of knowledge prediction yields. Is it really knowledge, or, because it is conditional, is it something else? We might say, as the philosophers do, that it is knowledge of a possible world. Insofar as this knowledge is generated about you and impacts the course of your present life—imagine someone who is rejected for a position because a predictive algorithm determines they will not be a good fit with the company's culture—then this knowledge can be conceptualized as a phantom of ourselves that ventures into the future, acts on our behalf, and whose actions have consequences we must bear. W. H. Auden once encouraged readers "to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to." He added that such a suggestion "seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral." It strikes us as crazy and immoral because we assume that there ought to be no limits to our knowing. When he speaks of living up to certain kinds of knowledge, I take Auden to mean that certain kinds of knowledge demand a measure of virtue that few of us posses. Especially with predictive technologies, it is worth asking whether or not we can live up to the knowledge they purportedly offer.
I hope it is obvious that I'm not laying out a case against all efforts at prognostication. Clearly it is imperative that we think about the future. It is the case, however, that we can conceive of rightly and badly ordered relationships to the future. What exactly are we trying to predict? How do we evaluate the knowledge, if we can call it such, that predictive techniques and technologies offer? In whose service and to what ends are predictions made?
I've learned a lot from Hannah Arendt. I've particularly appreciated her emphasis on both natality and the giftedness of the existence. There is a threshold, it seems to me, that predictive technologies, quite apart from their accuracy or effectiveness, threatens to push us through with regards to our fundamental experience of what is to come, of what is new and unexpected, full of both promise and peril. Our desire is, of course, to eliminate the peril, but as with all such efforts, we may find ourselves unwittingly eroding the promise as well. A final word, then, to Arendt from The Human Condition:
"The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, 'natural' ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope .... It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their 'glad tidings': 'A child has been born unto us.'"
News and Resources
On predictive technology, a sampling:
MIT's depression detecting AI
Employee emails as an early-warning system for uncovering malfeasance
UK police wants AI to stop violent crime before it happens
Forecasts of genetic fate just got a lot more accurate
The Dangerous Junk Science of Vocal Risk Assessment
Happy with a 20% chance of sadness
Facebook has a patent to calculate your future location
The Automation of Policing: Challenges and Opportunities
Predicting The Future: Fantasy Or A Good Algorithm?
Help Wanted: An Examination of Hiring Algorithms, Equity, and Bias
Indigenous peoples around the world tell myths which contain warning signs for natural disasters
Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World
Concepts and Perception of Time in Mesopotamian Divination
"A Style-Based Generator Architecture for Generative Adversarial Networks": Technical paper on NVIDIA about AI generated images.
"God is in the Machine": "Humans have given agency, genuine decisional power, to processes that are so complex they are hidden."
"What is lost when we 'watch Netflix' rather than shows and 'listen to Spotify' rather than songs?": "The replacement of serendipity with algorithmic flow affects how we discover and engage with art."
"The ‘Internet of Bodies’ Is Here. Are Courts and Regulators Ready?": As you know, the answer is almost certainly, no. Also, I recently learned of Betteridge's Law, which is apt in this case. Here's another: "Could anyone have stopped gene-edited babies experiment?"
"Data Science as Machinic Neoplatonism": "Data science strongly echoes the neoplatonism that informed the early science of Copernicus andGalileo. It appears to reveal a hidden mathematical order in the world that is superior to our direct experience."
"'The discourse is unhinged': how the media gets AI alarmingly wrong": "What Lipton finds most troubling, though, is not technical illiteracy among journalists, but how social media has allowed self-proclaimed “AI influencers” who do nothing more than paraphrase Elon Musk on their Medium blogs to cash in on this hype with low-quality, TED-style puff pieces."
Evgeny Morozov recommends five books on the philosophy of technology. It's a good list.
"The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day": "Before last week, few people had heard the name He Jiankui. But on November 25, the young Chinese researcher became the center of a global firestorm when it emerged that he had allegedly made the first crispr-edited babies, twin girls named Lulu and Nana.
Frank Pasquale in "Odd Numbers": "But the idea that such self-monitoring and data curation can be a trap, disciplining the user in ever finer-grained ways, remains less explored. Trying to make these games fairer, the research elides the possibility of rejecting them altogether."
Alan Jacobs has abandoned Twitter, a sensible choice, and has begun to write a newsletter. You should subscribe.
Søren Kierkegaard, media theorist (in "Inhuman communication: Søren Kierkegaard versus the internet"):
"Suppose someone invented an instrument, a convenient little talking tube which could be heard over the whole land ― I wonder if the police would not forbid it, fearing that the whole country would become mentally deranged if it were used."
"Attention must be directed to the disproportion in the medium of communication itself. For example, by telling in print of a young girl (giving the full name ― and this telling is, of course, the truth) that she has bought a new dress (and this is assumed to be true), and by repeating this a few times, the girl can be made miserable for her whole life. And one single person can bring this about in five minutes, and why? Because the press (the daily press) is a disproportionate medium of communication."
"I have a modest proposal: let’s cultivate our material intelligence. Let’s try to recover our literacy in the ways of the physical world, just as someone who reads English can understand this sentence, and someone good with numbers can draw up a balanced budget. If we can anchor ourselves in this way, attending closely to the objects near to us, we might just be able to regain our bearings, and take greater responsibility for our actions."
Michael Finkel, writing about sleep for National Geographic:
"Everything we’ve learned about sleep has emphasized its importance to our mental and physical health. Our sleep-wake pattern is a central feature of human biology—an adaptation to life on a spinning planet, with its endless wheel of day and night. The 2017 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to three scientists who, in the 1980s and 1990s, identified the molecular clock inside our cells that aims to keep us in sync with the sun. When this circadian rhythm breaks down, recent research has shown, we are at increased risk for illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and dementia."
My review of Siva Vidhyanathan's Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy is no longer behind a paywall. And here is a review of Robert Cardinal Sarah's The Power of Silence.
I've been a bit more active on the blog over the last few weeks. Here are some of the highlights:
A Withering Light
Digital Media and Our Experience of Time
The Political Paradoxes of Gene Editing Technology
The Allegory of the Cave for the Digital Age
AI Hype and the Fraying Social Fabric
Relations of Power, Relations of Grace
The World Will Be Our Skinner Box
Engineered for Joy
Technology After the Great War
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