The First World societies, especially in the Western World, but now many places in Asia and emerging parts of South Africa have come a long, long way since the 1920s. Many people have received a general description of what life was like in the 1920s, especially in the United States. You had a severe economic depression, harsh labor practices, and many conditions that were adverse. Over time, much of society moved past this and more in part due to technology and science.
Today, we are at a pivotal moment. Technology provides many options for how we conduct our lives. We do not have just one road we can travel down, but several possible directions.
A few weekends ago, I caught an episode of Fareed Zakaria’s GPS in which the host interviewed the CEO of IBM. The topic of discussion was artificial intelligence. The interview was excellent and the information shared was insightful. I am a proponent of artificial intelligence as can be seen on my other blog in which I’ve described a point of view in which I don’t see AI being a danger to society.
Rather, my view is that artificial intelligence will not live up to the science fiction hype. That does not mean we should abandon it, but that we should understand AI in a more realistic way. I was reminded on another web forum that technology can create jobs, but then business decisions can take them away.
An example was how technological improvements in agriculture and manufacturing created jobs. Later, those jobs disappeared due to business decisions rather than technology. In some cases, technology helped, but ultimately, it was a business decision.
On the other hand, we have large-scale information technology automation of the kind practiced in enterprise businesses for accounting, HR, and operations. That kind of technology use is for more practical purposes and my observation is that level of technology doesn’t so much as replace as it enhances. Technologies such as AI and similar are of a different class. Part of their purpose is to overcome human limitation. Automation that is explicitly designed to reduce human involvement. Augment at times, yes, but ultimately replace people.
I see that neither as a good or bad thing. You have two major divisions of technology. Those that “augment” people’s exercise of processes and those that “replace” people themselves. I generally work towards the augmentation side of things but yet avoid classifying a technology as good or bad on its own merits (although I have a more careful stance on genetic/bio engineering). Instead of the emphasis being on specific technologies, I think it is useful to look at the zeal for certain technologies and the origin of that enthusiasm.
Let’s all say it together … Star Trek. Did you know that one of the first movies I saw before the age of 5 was the first Star Trek movie? Like many, I was brought up on a conceptual diet of Star Trek, Star Wars, and many other visual and literary works of science fiction. Gene Roddenberry and others are noted as associating the success of Star Trek with the increased numbers of persons who went into science and engineering. The franchise was inspirational and contained many intriguing ideas and concepts.
Yet, Star Trek is not a model for life. It is just art. Informative on some level, but not a guide for everyday life or a legitimate roadmap for technological and social development.
As such, a vision of the future that is a utopian science fiction inspired paradise does not recognize the present realities of human nature. People, when they actually stop and think about the various visions of the future do not want to live in those worlds. Again, I said most people. I know there are exceptions.
Rightfully, we really do not want machines doing all the thinking for us. People don’t always listen to their fitness trackers that they wear on their wrists. A computer can advise you, but being human, you may still screw it up and would prefer the opportunity to get it right or mess it up. People follow authority in human hierarchical structures but loath “tight, rigid” control outside of specific circumstances whether from people or machines. Despite their increased sophistication, machines are rigid. The world of Star Trek is interesting to look at on TV, but they all wear the same uniforms and live and travel in homogeneous environments. Day-to-day Star Trek in real-life, unlike the dramatic parts we see in the artful presentation, would be so boring as to cause its own set of problems.
Rather, the 1960s and 1970s progressives had the right idea. A more harmonious relationship among people and people and nature. A better vision is a blending of technology and 1960s/70s environmental and social values aligned with a respect for nature, people, and an emphasis on the potential of people over machines. Perhaps a good artistic representation of that ideal ironically may be found in the movie, Star Trek Insurrection, in the fictional community of folks known as the Ba’ku. Regardless, technology is not the entire solution for what ails society, but can be an enormous distraction that pulls us away from more core unfinished business regarding what we believe, how we believe, and attempt to get back to higher values not dependent on what we have but who we seek to be.