The medium is the morality


In 1870, W. A. Rogers, a British bureaucrat in the Bombay Civil Service, wrote of the fortifying effect that modern transport systems were having on the character of the local populace:

Railways are opening the eyes of the people who are within reach of them in a variety of ways. They teach them that time is worth money, and induce them to economise that which they had been in the habit of slighting and wasting; they teach them that speed attained is time, and therefore money, saved or made. . . . Above all, they induce in them habits of self-dependence, causing them to act for themselves promptly and not lean on others.

The locomotive was a moral engine as well as a mechanical one. It carried people horizontally, across the land, but also vertically, up the ladder of enlightenment. As Russell Hittinger notes:

What is most striking about [Rogers’s] statement is that the machine is regarded as the proximate cause of the liberal virtues; habits of self-dependence are the effect of the application of a technology. The benighted peoples of the sub-continent are to be civilized, not by reading Cicero, not by conversion to the Church of England, not even by adopting the liberal faith, but by receiving the discipline of trains and clocks. The machine is both the exemplar and the proximate cause of individual and cultural perfection.

Tools are, whether by design or by accident, imbued with a certain moral character — they instruct us in how to act — and that in-built, artificial morality offers a readymade substitute for our own. The technology becomes an ethical guide. We embrace its morality as our own. An earlier and more dramatic example of such ethical transference came, as Hittinger suggests, in the form of the mechanical clock. Before the arrival of the time-keeping machine, life was largely “free of haste, careless of exactitude, unconcerned by productivity,” the historian Jacques Le Goff has written. With every tick, the new clock in the town square issued an indictment of such idleness and imprecision. It taught people that time was as measurable as money, something precious that could be wasted or lost. The clock became, to quote David Landes, “prod and key to personal achievement and productivity.”

Just as the clock and the railroad gave our forebears lessons in, and indeed models for, industriousness, thrift, and punctuality, so the computer today offers us its own character instruction. Its technical features are taken for ethical traits. Consider how the protocols of networking, the arcane codes that allow computers to exchange data and share resources, have become imbued with moral weight. The computer fulfills its potential, becomes a whole being, so to speak, only when it is connected to and actively communicating with other computers. An isolated computer is as bad as an idle computer. And the same goes for people. The sense of the computer network as a model for a moral society runs, with different emphases, through the work of such prominent and diverse thinkers as Yochai Benkler, David Weinberger, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, and Kevin Kelly. We, too, become whole beings only when we are connected. And if being connected is the ideal, then being disconnected becomes morally suspect. The loner, the recluse, the outsider, the solitary thinker, the romantic quester: all such individuals carry an ethical stain today that goes beyond mere unsociability — they are letting the rest of us down by not sharing, by not connecting. To be inaccessible to the network is to waste one’s social capital, a deadly sin.

But the computer goes even further than mechanical tools and systems in shaping our conception of virtue. It provides more than just a model. It offers us a means for “outsourcing” our ethical sense, as Evan Selinger and Thomas Seager put it. With the personal computer, we have an intimate machine, a technological companion and guru, that can automate the making of moral choices, that through its programming can prod us, nudge us, and otherwise lead us down the righteous path. Arianna Huffington celebrates the potential of the smartphone to provide a “GPS for the soul,” offering ethical “course corrections” as we go through the day.

In discussing the automation of moral choice, Hittinger draws a connection with the work of the historian Christopher Dawson, who in a 1960 lecture argued that modern technology, and the social order it both represents and underpins, has become “the real basis of secular culture”:

Modern technologies are not only “labor saving” devices. A labor saving device, like an automated farm implement or a piston, replaces repetitive human acts. But most distinctive of contemporary technology is the replacement of the human act; or, of what the scholastic philosophers called the actus humanus. The machine reorganizes and to some extent supplants the world of human action, in the moral sense of the term. … It is important to understand that Dawson’s criticism of technology is not aimed at the tool per se. His criticism has nothing to do with the older, and in our context, misleading notion of “labor saving” devices. Rather, it is aimed at a new cultural pattern in which tools are either deliberately designed to replace the human act, or at least have the unintended effect of making the human act unnecessary or subordinate to the machine.

Philosophy professor Joshua Hochschild goes further: “Automation makes us forget that we are moral agents.” When software code becomes moral code, moral code becomes meaningless.


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An ear for an ear

Trio 2

In Vocal Apparitions, Michal Grover-Friedlander describes the origins of our modern communication network:

In 1874 Alexander Bell invented the first model of a phone receiver using an ear membrane taken from a human corpse’s ear. The first telephone receiver was, in fact, a human ear, a machine that transmitted a living human voice by way of a dead human’s ear.

“The words of a dead man,” wrote W. H. Auden, “Are modified in the guts of the living.” The reverse, it would seem, is also true.

Image: Still from “Blue Velvet.”


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Maps, mind and memory

london map

In concert with the UK publication of The Glass Cage, Penguin Books’ Think Smarter site is running an article by me on satellite navigation. Titled “Welcome to Nowheresville,” it’s adapted from a chapter in the book called “World and Screen.” Here’s a taste of the piece:

A GPS device, by allowing us to get from point A to point B with the least possible effort and nuisance, can make our lives easier. But what it steals from us, when we turn to it too often, is the joy and satisfaction of apprehending the world around us — and of making that world a part of us. In his book Being Alive, Tim Ingold, an anthropologist at the University of Aberdeen, draws a distinction between two very different modes of travel: wayfaring and transport. Wayfaring, he explains, is “our most fundamental way of being in the world.” Immersed in the landscape, attuned to its textures and features, the wayfarer enjoys “an experience of movement in which action and perception are intimately coupled.” Wayfaring becomes “an ongoing process of growth and development, or self-renewal.” Transport, on the other hand, is “essentially destination-oriented.” It’s not so much a process of discovery “along a way of life” as a mere “carrying across, from location to location, of people and goods in such a way as to leave their basic natures unaffected.” In transport, the traveller doesn’t actually move in any meaningful way. “Rather, he is moved, becoming a passenger in his own body.”

Wayfaring is messier and less efficient than transport, which is why it has become a target for automation. “If you have a mobile phone with Google Maps,” says Michael Jones, an executive in Google’s mapping division, “you can go anywhere on the planet and have confidence that we can give you directions to get to where you want to go safely and easily.” As a result, he declares, “No human ever has to feel lost again.” That certainly sounds appealing, as if some basic problem in our existence had been solved forever. And it fits the Silicon Valley obsession with using software to rid people’s lives of “friction.” But the more you think about it, the more you realise that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are.

Read on.


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Jonathan Swift’s smartphone

Evolution has engineered us for social interaction. Our bodies are instruments exquisitely tuned for tracking and measuring the auras of others. In quantifying ourselves, therefore, we also quantify those around us. This is the insight that underpins the brilliant new iPhone app pplkpr.

Connected to a sensor-equipped smart wristband, pplkpr takes biometric readings of how interactions with your Facebook friends, in person or screen-mediated, affect your physical and emotional state. pplkpr tells you, in hard, objective numbers, whether a friend makes you happy or sad, anxious or calm, aroused or enervated. It’s a flux capacitor for the soul.


What’s really cool about the app is how it makes the biometric data socially actionable. pplkpr doesn’t just give you “a breakdown of who’s affecting you most,” its developers say; it also “acts for you — inviting people to hang out, sending messages, or blocking or unfriending negative friends.” Bottom line: “It will automatically manage your relationships, so you don’t have to.” The next step, clearly, will be to aggregate the data, so you’ll be able to tell at a glance whether a would-be friend will add something meaningful to your life or just bum you out.

From its vowel-challenged name to its clinically infantile interface, pplkpr is of course a work of satire. It was developed by a pair of artists, with backing not from Kickstarter but from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The wonderful thing about the app is that it’s being taken seriously. The early reviews at the App Store are encouraging:


Among tech sites, the buzz is building. Techcrunch gives the app a straightfaced review, seeing a lot of upside:

Don’t know how you feel about someone in your life? By pairing a heart rate monitor with the pplkpr iOS app, you could soon find out. The app pairs up with any Bluetooth-enabled heart rate monitor to track your physical response around certain people in your life. Biofeedback from those devices log reactions such as joy, anger, sadness, and then uploads what it determines to be those emotional reactions to the app. …

The overall promise is to help you spend more time with those who contribute to your well-being and avoid those who stress you out. It does this in a way that aims to excuse you from having to make that sometimes difficult decision yourself. pplkpr doesn’t tell you if someone you meet has been blocked by others or if you are actually  the one stressing everyone else out, but it does provide a nice excuse to get away from someone.

And check out this glowing report from Fox News.

Even journalists who know it’s a joke can’t help but see genuine potential in its workings. Wired‘s Liz Stinson didn’t even crack a smile in covering the app today:

pplkpr lets you quantify the value of your relationships based on a few data streams. A heart rate wrist band measures the subtle changes in your heart rate, alerting you to spikes in stress or excitement. This biometric data is correlated with information you manually input about the people you’re hanging out with. Based on patterns, algorithms will determine whether you should be spending more time with a certain person or if you should cut him out altogether. …

Framed as art, pplkpr is granted the buffer of being a provocation or even satire, but it’s not outlandish to consider a reality where people will earnestly look to algorithms to make sense of how they feel. Implemented responsibly, that could be a positive thing — an objective set of eyes can help us see that a relationship is unhealthy.

I wouldn’t be surprised at this point to see Mark Zuckerberg buy pplkpr — for, say, $1.3 billion. It would hardly be the first time that satire proved prophetic.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here. A full listing of posts can be found here.


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The alchemist’s delusion


Perhaps it was the altitude, but Eric Schmidt really outdid himself yesterday at Davos:

I say this with almost complete seriousness. Almost all of the problems we debate can be solved literally with more broadband connectivity in these countries. And the reason is, broadband is how you address the governance issues, the information issues, the education issues, the personal security issues, the human rights issues, the women’s empowerment issues.

Call it the alchemist’s delusion. Langdon Winner has described the affliction well:

To be specific: the arrival of any new technology that has significant power and practical potential always brings with it a wave of visionary enthusiasm that anticipates the rise of a utopian social order. Surely the coming of this machine, this new device, this technical novelty will revitalize democracy. Surely its properties will foster greater equality and widespread prosperity throughout the land. Surely it will distribute political power more broadly and empower citizens to act for themselves. Surely it will cause us to cultivate new and better selves, becoming larger and more magnanimous people than we have been before. And surely it will connect individuals and groups in ways that will produce greater social harmony and a relaxation of human conflict. From the coming of the steam locomotive, to the introduction of the telegraph, telephone, motion pictures, centrally generated electrical power, automobile, radio, television, nuclear power, guided missile, and the computer (to name just a few), this has been the recurring theme: celebrate! The moment of redemption is at hand. …

The very language used to convey the message insists that the wondrous blessing on the horizon is ineluctable. So great is its power and glory that any demand for negotiations about exactly which technology will be introduced, by whom, and in what form is mere impudence. Only a fool would ask to see the fine print, examine the blueprints, or check the credentials of the planners.


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From Davos Man to Davos Bot?


In an age of robotic decision-making, are CEOs necessary? It’s a question that needs to be asked, and Frank Pasquale is asking it:

When BART workers went on strike, Silicon Valley worthies threatened to replace them with robots. But one could just as easily call for the venture capitalists to be replaced with algorithms. Indeed, one venture capital firm added an algorithm to its board in 2013. Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, responded to a question on driver wage demands by bringing up the prospect of robotic drivers. But given Uber’s multiple legal and PR fails in 2014, a robot would probably would have done a better job running the company than Kalanick. …

Thiel Fellow and computer programming prodigy Vitaly Bukherin has stated that automation of the top management functions at firms like Uber and AirBnB would be “trivially easy.” Automating the automators may sound like a fantasy, but it is a natural outgrowth of mantras (e.g., “maximize shareholder value”) that are commonplaces among the corporate elite. To attract and retain the support of investors, a firm must obtain certain results, and the short-run paths to attaining them (such as cutting wages, or financial engineering) are increasingly narrow.  And in today’s investment environment of rampant short-termism, the short is often the only term there is.

Just as the killer business app for the personal computer was the spreadsheet, so the killer business app for artificial intelligence may turn out to be the algorithmic CEO. One seems to follow from the other, like an oak from an acorn. The Jetsons, you see, got it wrong: It’s not Rosie who turns into the robot; it’s Mr. Spacely.


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Does innovation arc toward decadence?


Three years ago, I posted a piece here titled “The Hierarchy of Innovation,” which argued, speculatively, that the focus of innovation has followed Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, beginning with Technologies of Survival and now concentrating on Technologies of the Self. With The Glass Cage done, I’ve decided to return to this idea with hopes of fleshing it out. I’m republishing my original post below and am soliciting your comments about it. Thanks.

“If you could choose only one of the following two inventions, indoor plumbing or the Internet, which would you choose?” -Robert J. Gordon

Justin Fox is the latest pundit to ring the “innovation ain’t what it used to be” bell. “Compared with the staggering changes in everyday life in the first half of the 20th century,” he writes, summing up the argument, “the digital age has brought relatively minor alterations to how we live.” Fox has a lot of company. He points to sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, who worries that the Internet, far from spurring a great burst of creativity, may have actually put innovation “on hold for a generation.” Fox also cites economist Tyler Cowen, who has argued that, recent techno-enthusiasm aside, we’re living in a time of innovation stagnation. He could also have mentioned tech powerbroker Peter Thiel, who believes that large-scale innovation has gone dormant and that we’ve entered a technological “desert.” Thiel blames the hippies:

Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.

The original inspiration for such grousing – about progress, not about hippies – came from Robert J. Gordon, a Northwestern University economist whose 2000 paper “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?” included a damning comparison of the flood of inventions that occurred a century ago with the seeming trickle that we see today. Consider the new products invented in just the ten years between 1876 and 1886: internal combustion engine, electric lightbulb, electric transformer, steam turbine, electric railroad, automobile, telephone, movie camera, phonograph, linotype, roll film (for cameras), dictaphone, cash register, vaccines, reinforced concrete, flush toilets. The typewriter had arrived a few years earlier and the punch-card tabulator would appear a few years later. And then, in short order, came airplanes, radio, air conditioning, the vacuum tube, jet aircraft, television, refrigerators and a raft of other home appliances, as well as revolutionary advances in manufacturing processes. (And let’s not forget The Bomb.) The conditions of life changed utterly between 1890 and 1950, observed Gordon. Between 1950 and today? Not so much.

So why is innovation less impressive today? Maybe Thiel is right, and it’s the fault of hippies, liberals, and other degenerates. Or maybe it’s crappy education. Or a lack of corporate investment in research. Or short-sighted venture capitalists. Or overaggressive lawyers. Or imagination-challenged entrepreneurs. Or maybe it’s a catastrophic loss of mojo. But none of these explanations makes much sense. The aperture of science grows ever wider, after all, even as the commercial and reputational rewards for innovation grow ever larger and the ability to share ideas grows ever stronger. Any barrier to innovation should be swept away by such forces.

Let me float an alternative explanation: There has been no decline in innovation; there has just been a shift in its focus. We’re as creative as ever, but we’ve funneled our creativity into areas that produce smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less visible breakthroughs. And we’ve done that for entirely rational reasons. We’re getting precisely the kind of innovation that we desire – and that we deserve.

My idea – and it’s a rough one – is that there’s a hierarchy of innovation that runs in parallel with Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that human needs progress through five stages, with each new stage requiring the fulfillment of lower-level, or more basic, needs. So first we need to meet our most primitive Physiological needs, and that frees us to focus on our needs for Safety, and once our needs for Safety are met, we can attend to our needs for Belongingness, and then on to our needs for personal Esteem, and finally to our needs for Self-Actualization. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy as an inflexible structure, with clear boundaries between its levels, it falls apart. Our needs are messy, and the boundaries between them are porous. A caveman probably pursued self-esteem and self-actualization, to some degree, just as we today spend effort seeking to fulfill our physical needs. But if you look at the hierarchy as a map of human focus, or of emphasis, then it makes sense – and indeed seems to be born out by history. In short: The more comfortable you are, the more time you spend thinking about yourself.

If progress is shaped by human needs, then general shifts in needs would also bring shifts in the nature of technological innovation. The tools we invent would move through the hierarchy of needs, from tools that help safeguard our bodies on up to tools that allow us to modify our internal states, from tools of survival to tools of the self. Here’s my crack at what the hierarchy of innovation looks like (click on the image to enlarge it):

hierarchy of innovation.jpg

The focus, or emphasis, of innovation moves up through five stages, propelled by shifts in the needs we seek to fulfill. In the beginning come Technologies of Survival (think fire), then Technologies of Social Organization (think cathedral), then Technologies of Prosperity (think steam engine), then technologies of leisure (think TV), and finally Technologies of the Self (think Facebook, or Prozac).

As with Maslow’s hierarchy, you shouldn’t look at my hierarchy as a rigid one. Innovation today continues at all five levels. But the rewards, both monetary and reputational, are greatest at the highest level (Technologies of the Self), which has the effect of shunting investment, attention, and activity in that direction. We’re already physically comfortable, so getting a little more physically comfortable doesn’t seem particularly pressing. We’ve become inward looking, and what we crave are more powerful tools for modifying our internal state or projecting that state outward. An entrepreneur has a greater prospect of fame and riches if he creates, say, a popular social-networking tool than if he creates a faster, more efficient system for mass transit. The arc of innovation, to put a dark spin on it, is toward decadence.

One of the consequences is that, as we move to the top level of the innovation hierarchy, the inventions have less visible, less transformative effects. We’re no longer changing the shape of the physical world or even of society, as it manifests itself in the physical world. We’re altering internal states, transforming the invisible self. Not surprisingly, when you step back and take a broad view, it looks like stagnation – it looks like nothing is changing very much. That’s particularly true when you compare what’s happening today with what happened a hundred years ago, when our focus on Technologies of Prosperity was peaking and our focus on Technologies of Leisure was also rapidly increasing, bringing a highly visible transformation of our physical circumstances.

If the current state of progress disappoints you, don’t blame innovation. Blame yourself.

Image: Anjan Chatterjee.


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