Continuing the science fiction theme from my previous entry, I recalled an interview in which Iain Banks described "the Culture", the society in which most of his science fiction novels are set, as his utopia. One of the distinguishing features of the Culture is its population of artificial "Minds" that perform tasks from waiting on the biological citizens of the Culture, to commanding mammoth spaceships, to governing the whole society.
At first I wasn't convinced — I have no desire to add any extra arms, as does the protagonist of The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), for one — but, having considered some of the alternatives over my past few entries, I'm coming around to the idea. Banks' Minds are a pretty friendly, helpful and cooperative bunch, far from the totalitarian overlords featured in the Terminator movies and the incomprehensible tools of an in-the-know aristocracy imagined by Tyler Cowen and Frank Pasquale. The human(-like) characters don't need to work, but give purpose to their lives through elaborate hobbies like games of strategy (The Player of Games, 1988), absurd musical instruments (requiring those extra arms in The Hydrogen Sonata), and carrying out the alien missions that drive most of the novels' plots. (They also take plenty of time out from their hobbies for parties, sex and drugs.)
Of course Banks doesn't describe the economic or political mechanisms by which all this comes about. The same could be said of Star Trek, in which future humans are imagined to spend their time "improving themselves" rather than working for more material wealth.
Come to think of it, I can't recall science-fiction-inspired technology pundits like Project Hieroglyph or Brian David Johnson's "Science Fiction Prototyping" column in IEEE Computer saying much about economic or political mechanisms, either. Like most people, perhaps, they're primarily interested in how particular imagined technologies might impact society. This might be a fine thing to do, but the thoughts above lead me to wonder if the world could also use some "political economy fiction" exploring something broader than adventures with a particular technology or scientific theory.
Perhaps any such fiction is destined to sound like an old-fashioned utopia, and the term "utopia" has become something of an insult to describe a narrow idealistic vision that suits the interests of its proposers while ignoring the interests of everyone else and being generally impractical. My differences with those I describe as "techno-utopians" in particular were a large part of my motivation in beginning this blog. Still, in the essay that inspired Project Hieroglyph, Neal Stephenson laments what he perceives as a failure to pursue big technological ideas like space travel and robots. But if pursuing space travel and robots is interesting and important, why not our political and economic institutions as well?
I was little surprised this week to find The Conversation's David Glance writing of the MOOC [Massive Open Online Courseware] revolution that never happened. Firstly, I've previously associated Glance with revolutionary views of MOOCs. Secondly, the term "MOOC" has only been around a short while and it seems premature to declare the whole thing over, as Alan W. Shorter's comment points out. It seems that Glance has moved from Gartner's Peak of Inflated Expectations through to the Trough of Disillusionment during the two years or so that MOOCs have existed. Radio National's Antony Funnell also reported a sobering of rhetoric from MOOC enthusiasts including Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX.
One supposes that wild-eyed enthusiasts who scale the Peak of Inflated Expectations are setting themselves up for a fall into the Trough of Disillusionment when the technology fails to deliver on those expectations, as the names suggest. More sober commentators, such as those who appeared on Radio National, strive to go straight to what Gartner calls the Slope of Enlightenment, leading to the Plateau of Productivity. Gartner's Hype Cycle doesn't seem to account for technologies for which such a plateau might not exist at all — electronic cash, flying cars and videophones come to mind — but even identifying a technology as having limited value is enlightenment of sorts. It remains to be seen what sort of Plateau of Productivity arises from MOOCs, if one arises at all.
The commentary in both the Conversation and Radio National pieces identify two key points that seem to have been well-known to sober commentators from the beginning of MOOCs, but overlooked by revolutionaries. Firstly, as Gavin Moodie frequently points out, very few university entrants have the intellectual independence required to master a topic without the guidance of a teacher. I suspect that this also contributes to findings reported on Radio National that 83% of MOOC participants are already highly educated — presumably, these people have already become the "independent learners" who Moodie argues to be the only ones likely to benefit from MOOCs. Secondly, what MOOCs provide isn't actually all that new, as experienced on-line educators like David White (on Radio National) and Sorel Reisman can tell you.
None of this is to say that MOOCs are necessarily useless, or that they'll never arrive at some Plateau of Productivity in a niche for which they are suited. I found the course that I tried interesting and informative — but, having already gained a PhD, I'm hardly the kind of fresh new-model student that MOOC enthusiasts expect to abandon universities. MOOC developers and users just need a bit more toiling on the Slope of Enlightenment instead of admiring the scenery on the Peak of Inflated Expectations.
By way of celebrating fifty years of IEEE Spectrum, the June 2014 issue investigates some technological trends that it hopes will bring us "the future we deserve". Tekla S. Perry (pp. 40-45) describes a part of this future in which computer-generated humans become indistinguishable from actors captured on film. Explaining why we need to create fake humans when we already have seven thousand million real ones — and plenty of them out-of-work actors to boot — takes some doing. Perry makes some interesting points in this direction, but I nonetheless winced on behalf of all of those already-underemployed actors who might be wondering if Tesla's future leaves them with anything to do.
Fears that we'll all be put out of work by automation go back a long way. Contemptuous dismissals of such fears, and attendant references to Luddism, probably go back nearly as far. The really interesting thing about replacing the work of actors (if it were to happen) is that we'd be replacing something that people actually enjoy doing, not just some tedious chore that they do for the money. As much as an anti-Luddite might assure me, for example, that the growing economy will find me a new job if university teaching were to be replaced by technology, would I find the new job as inspiring as the old one?
One solution for those who enjoy now-automated tasks is to simply continue to do them as a hobby, just as I and other mediaevalists hand-make costumes, beer, embroidery, and other things even though machines can make the same with much less effort. But that does seem to doom us to spending the best eight hours of every day in uninspiring work done just for the money, fitting our passions into our spare time.
By coincidence, The Drum had Alan Kohler take on automation and unemployment in the same week that I read Spectrum. According to Kohler, "automation is suppressing employment, wages and inflation and will do so for a decade or more to come", giving headaches to central bankers attempting to set policies that increase employment while controlling inflation. This is all great for the owners of said machinery, though, who can obtain all of the revenue from their output without having to pay any workers.
Kohler's argument is too sketchy, and my knowledge of economics too weak, for me to say much about his claim. But the potential for automation to create inequality is also a recurring theme in Spectrum's examination of the possible downsides of its futures: those who control technology can use that power to create even more technology and gain even more power, while the rest languish in technological powerlessness.
The threat in Kohler's and Spectrum's dystopias isn't that automation will one day throw masses of people out of work, as the archetypal Luddites might have feared. It's that automation will slowly transfer dignity and power from the broad mass of people to an elite few who control the system. I doubt that many people miss the drudgery faced by mediaeval peasants, who have now been largely replaced by machinery in developed nations. But will we be so glad to give up the passion, autonomy and self-respect that inspires artistic and professional lifestyles?
I read a couple of articles this week that, without being specifically directed at technological optimists, seemed at odds with the technology-is-advancing-faster-than-ever-before narrative that I've become accustomed to in publications like IEEE Spectrum. The Australian (18 September 2013, p. 29) had Peter Murphy contending that "big ideas in art and science seem like a thing of the past", while Radio National had Ed Finn lamenting that current science fiction typically portrays a pretty grim future.
Peter Murphy sounds like the kind of person who contributes to a narrative that I once saw described (I forget where) as "civilisation has been declining since it started". For him, the good old days were left behind somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, and we no longer have anything interesting to say. Ed Finn is not such a curmudgeon himself, but draws attention to the trend from the largely utopian science fiction of the mid-twentieth century to the dystopian sort now enjoying popularity. Finn himself proposes to encourage more inspirational science fiction through a programme known as Project Hieroglyph. I presume that neither of them have been reading IEEE publications, Ray Kurzweil, Kevin Kelly, or any of their ilk, for whom things are (mostly) quite the opposite.
I was struck by the degree to which Murphy's article used the same technique as that used by more euphoric views of technology, however much their conclusions might differ: make a set of assertions about the importance of certain artworks or technologies that are at best subjective and at worst arbitrary, then conclude with whether you liked the older ones or newer ones better. Whether things are getting better or worse thus seems to depend largely on whether you prefer Daniel Defoe or Stephen King, or whether you happen to see more ploughs or iPhones.
The most convincing analysis of this sort that I've encountered is the one in Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget (2010). Writing about music, he argues that no new genres of music have appeared since hip hop in the 1980's, and that no one could tell whether a pop song that came out in the past twenty years was released in the 1990s or the 2000s. In another section, he argues that open source software consists largely of clones of prior commercial software. I'm sure there are plenty of musicians and open source software developers who might argue otherwise, but Lanier's points are at least testable hypotheses.
Given that the importance of any particular technology or piece of art is so subjective I'm not sure it's really very meaningful at all to make sweeping statements about whether art or technology is getting better or worse, or faster or slower. The Lord of the Rings, for example, has been immensely influential for generations of fantasy writers and readers, but I don't imagine it means much to writers and readers of, say, romantic comedies. There might nonetheless be more specific statements that could be made, but they need much more robust than merely making a list of what one individual likes and doesn't like.
Apparently deciding to take a break from electronics for the month, IEEE Spectrum takes a look at agricultural technology for its June 2013 issue. Spectrum is sufficiently impressed with what it sees to predict the coming of an age of plenty with food for all, whatever food crises and starvation might be feared by less optimistic forecasters.
Keith Fuglie (pp. 20-26) leads the optimism with an article explaining his supreme confidence that agricultural technology will provide nutrition for everyone into the foreseeable future. Whether or not we're going to starve is a topic for a different blog, but I do want to comment on the technology-bound world-view apparent in Fuglie's article and many of the others that follow it.
From the standpoint of technological optimism taken by Spectrum's contributors, all problems can, must and will be solved by technology. While a technology magazine like Spectrum could be expected to focus on the technological aspects of its subject matter, technology-bound articles like Fuglie's do not even appear to imagine that solutions might also come from policy, design, economics, culture and other areas. It's technology or bust (but of course there will be no bust because technology is presumed capable of solving any problem).
One can imagine an engineer who, upon seeing a piece of litter beside the road, sees an opportunity to develop an army of rubbish-collecting robots. A city taking up this army could spend millions of dollars to free its citizens from the trivial hassle of putting their litter in a bin. Pro-robot councillors, I suppose, might argue that litterbugs will drop litter regardless of how cheap and easy the bin seems to tidier citizens, and the robots will completely solve the problem where civic virtue might only partially solve it. But that tells a pretty sad story of the cost of laziness and irresponsibility: one might say that the technology has improved, but the citizens haven't.