The Illusion of a Ready-Made Future – Manifesto for Courage

During his nine-month travel through the New World, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) analyzed not just prisons but also the fabric of American life. Impressed by an apparently vital and courageous society, how would he have reacted to the reports of today about the fading American dream and the underlying reasons? Perhaps stating that “when the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness“?[1] The American dream[2] including the aspiration that children have a better life than their parents is not just fading in the United States. Many have doubts about the future and the unspoken promise of steady progress.

A number of recent studies support these concerns. Against the background of so-called disruptive technologies such as predictive intelligence, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, nanotechnology, automation, robotics and digitalization, it has been assessed[3] that in the US about 47% of the jobs are at risk. While this assessment is not undisputed, others, based on the same research methodology come to similar conclusions for other parts of the world[4]. It is particularly noteworthy, that 40% of young people around the world are concerned about their jobs being possibly automated in the next decade[5].

Despite the legitimate focus on work, the overall question appears to be whether in the future humans will be better off or not with such new technologies.

Despite the legitimate focus on work, the overall question appears to be whether in the future humans will be better off or not with such new technologies.

The related discussion is most often determined by extreme voices: on the one hand tech-aficionados, and on the other hand Luddites, nota bene with the vast majority of the impacted staging as a silent audience. Subliminally, but unmistakably their discussion portrays these new technologies as continuously unfolding at an unstoppable momentum – a momentum that seems to be best represented by a quarter of the world population using Facebook.

The past sufficiently offers examples where humans saw the future through similar prisms. In the past humans tended to project the future based on experience, eventually the future hardly met the predictions. Quite to the contrary, unforeseen and unimaginable things happened, mostly impacting everybody but with few understanding at least the circumstances. While new technologies were always characterized by the release of forces with unknown and unforeseen impacts, there are a couple of differences to the past.

Firstly, as they are already almost ubiquitous – from medical diagnosis, architectural design, smart homes to stock market transactions, perhaps with body enhancement has reached a dubious high, the result could be a situation of no choice. At least unless the individual is willing to forfeit its opportunities for participation.

From medical diagnosis, architectural design, smart homes to stock market transactions the result could be a situation of no choice.

Certainly this could not be portrayed as meeting the hopes for a better life. Therefore, it will be important – and that transcends the topic of new technologies – how individuals believing in choice as an element of freedom can be motivated to take or at least contribute to decisions causing an alternate effect. One step in this direction is to clarify matters: for example; few developments such as the climate change are self-propelled and out of humans’ control. Things are not determined by fate to occur and it is always humans, and not machines, who bear the responsibility for shaping and controlling the future.

This includes the relationship between humans and machines and between people. The principle holds that the course of all matters is stoppable – especially in the beginning. Thus the notion about an inevitability and linearity needs to be disputed. Things are not determined by fate to occur and it is always humans, and not machines, who bear the responsibility for shaping and controlling the future. This includes the relationship between humans and machines and between people. Because it is humans creating the conditions for other humans to adapt to the future, and perhaps either belonging to a winning avant garde or a group of losing stragglers. It follows that humans, not machines, are responsible for technological changes.

Shaping the future and containing potential impacts cannot be left in the hands of a few cognoscenti of the machine world. Anything else would be in sharp contrast to what societies have fought for: involvement of the public in general and the individual in particular.

Thirdly, the impact of new technologies could happen on a much larger scale. This is also because new technologies are very much about extremely large data quantities and from that a new and qualitative dangerous dimension could emerge. Finally, aforementioned omnipresence, non-linearity, principal in-determinism (avoidability), and unprecedented scale necessitate the following: shaping the future and containing potential impacts cannot be left in the hands of a few cognoscenti of the machine world. Anything else would be in sharp contrast to what societies – not least because of the Enlightenment – have fought for: involvement of the public in general and the individual in particular.

Solutions based on Courageous Engagement and Iterative and Repetitive Steps

While fortunately new technologies allow the public to make their views known, even determined individuals may feel small in face of influential stakeholders such as the Big Five in internet business, along with hackers and intelligent services,  in possession of all the power and knowledge. But also here: nihil novum sub sole. Life’s playing field has never been equal for everybody.

Not just in America but everywhere public-spirited individuals may be inspired by Tocqueville’s following remark: “Life is to be entered upon with courage“.

It is both true that algorithms are the air that internet enterprises breathe and that they increasingly represent the language in which decisions in the machine world are taken. However, individuals have at their disposal necessary cross-cutting knowledge based on experience and intuition transcending the realm of algorithms.

For its engagement the individual is well-advised neither to trust in top-down master plans and to meekly accept – along with an explosion of available knowledge – a society led by dominance of rationality. And nor should one misinterpret one of Plato’s warnings: yes, if we do not understand our tools, we face a risk of becoming our tools’ tools. And this does not implore full necessity to familiarize oneself with the language of algorithms.

It is both true that algorithms are the air that internet enterprises breathe and that they increasingly represent the language in which decisions in the machine world are taken.

However, individuals have at their disposal necessary cross-cutting knowledge based on experience and intuition transcending the realm of algorithms. The lives of individuals represent a series of countless multi-track experiments, with trial and error, within and with the world, performed in parallel, and of complementary nature to monitor and assess the effects. And from this arises the necessary flexibility to handle future situations where new and old problems will be co-existing, overlapping, complementing and contradicting each other in parallel.

Ancient cultures and their presumed-dead mythical thinking already knew that there is more than what meets the eye and that everything is connected to and therefore needs to be in harmony with each other. It was Aristotle bringing it to the point: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Any concept of causality needs to reflect that one part of the system – technology and its properties for instance – does not allow for conclusion about the behavior of the whole system because new properties and structures may emerge. In this context it is worth mentioning how downright grotesque it is that in these times dominated by rationality data worshipping – based on access to big data – is on the rise. As if it was justified to still believe in a demon allowing to calculate all past statuses and predict all future ones or more recently a technology-based trustworthiness’ scoring mechanism able to verify a facts’ true truth. Here, it would help to recall aforementioned distinguished old-hands rightly asking “how do we know that we know?”, and wondering how could we know that the truth is true. And it is still disturbing that back in 2005 former Google CEO Schmidt strived for any Google inquiry to obtain merely one search result, complemented in 2013 by thoughts of futurist Kurzweil that eventually answers should be predicted before questions have even been thought of to asked.

By the same token, the individual is well advised not to leave control of political processes into politicians’ hands alone. Politics is the art of the possible and one must be aware that the pressure for consensus is a means of exclusion of deviating positions and thus potentially hampers the emerging of required innovative solutions. While it is legitimate for politicians to seek advice from policy advisers and academia, the latter have unfortunately a reputation for hedge hogging in their ivory towers. It can therefore only be welcomed that nowadays citizen science – often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions – enjoys increasing popularity and appreciation, also when undertaking scientific work is not limited to the fields of ecology and biology.

A future in which new technologies – perceived as disruptive or not – impinge on all aspects of life needs to benefit from truly enhanced holistic thinking. A pronounced culture of debate, dismantling ready-made thoughts and opening the eyes for situations assumingly devoid of alternatives is needed. Public-spirited non-expert individuals believing in the freedom of choice should change role from silent bystander to player, perhaps under the umbrella of civil society groups and with the support of media as knowledge multiplier.

 

Birgit Hütten works in Brussels for an inter-governmental organization. Her fields of interest are those relations and factors whose alleged insignificance for the overall developments needs to be questioned. She has a Magister Artium (University Bonn) degree in Japanology and Comparative Religion and a Master in European Administrative Management (University of the Applied Sciences Berlin) for which she presented defense related thesis.

[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

[2] The fading American Dream: Trends in absolute income mobility since 1940. (Ray Chetty, David Grusky, Maximilian Hell, Nathan Hendren, Robert Manduca, Jimmy Narang and others, in Science 24 April 2017)

[3] Frey and Osborne (2013)

[4] The International Labour Office (Jae-Hee Chang and Phu Huynh Working Paper ASEAN-5 in Transformation The Future of Jobs at Risk of Automation, July 2016)

[5] Infosys: Amplifying human potential: Education and skills for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Bangalore, 2016, p. 23.)

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