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‘Smart Machines’ 30 Years Later

‘Dave? Dave? What are you doing?’ (Image courtesy Amazon)

 

Thirty years ago a book appeared that anticipated the automation of nearly every aspect of our lives and the world we live in, including the promise and dilemmas of computers in the workplace, social networking, privacy and the recent debacle with Facebook.

The New York Times called In the Age of the Smart Machine ‘a penetrating study of how automation is affecting the workplace.’ But the implications go much further. The author, Shoshana Zuboff, based the book on her consulting work in the 1980s with business organizations installing personal computers in the 1980s and her Ph.D. research at Harvard. The book’s full title, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, belied its uniqueness and the breadth and depth of the material covered.

When the first PCs emerged from antediluvian garages and hobbyists’ living rooms1 in the last decades of the 20th Century, early businesses were not quite sure what to do with them. Before the Internet, before email, before Facebook, texts and Twitter, large mainframe computers dominated the marketplace. Apple’s IIc and Macintosh, lurking in the evolutionary underbrush with their revolutionary graphical user interfaces, were the domain mainly of college professors, designers and artists.

Zuboff went into paper mills, insurance companies and other organizations experimenting with the new technology. She investigated how the new technology implemented at the time affected employees’ and managements’ jobs and the ways they interacted. She combined her findings with research on communication theory, cognitive psychology and labor and social history. The result is one part oral history, one part case study and two parts social history accompanied by a plethora of citations.2 Along the way Zuboff coined several terms, including informating and intellective skills. The former she defined as follows:


… [informating] technology is used to reproduce and extend the process of substituting machines for human agency… Devices that automate by translating information into action also register data about those automated activities, thus generating new streams of information. (Smart Machine, page 9)

In comparison to 1970s and 1980s prognosticators of the future such as as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt3, Zuboff’s writing is even-handed and thoughtful. Her work compares favorably to that of 90s writer Neil Postman.4 Why the book is not more widely known is somewhat of a mystery. Amidst the current hype over virtual reality, artificial intelligence and smart cars, Smart Machine still stands as the sine qua non toward thoughtful discourse on the place of computing technology in the workplace and society against the pessimism of writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov5 on one hand, and the relentless promotion of technology by business and academia on the other.

Although retired from teaching, Zuboff continues to write on the vicissitudes and dilemmas of computing.6 Nowadays the vagaries of social networking, the abstraction of labor, deskilling, and monopolies of power are becoming abundantly clear. Zuboff shows that the seeds for the unchecked flow, control and consumption of data and digitization of our lives were sown in the factory system of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including technologies such as the power-loom and Ford’s assembly lines. Contemporary dilemmas around the impact of computers on human agency, alienation and our fraught online interactions have their antecedents in the telegraph and telephone7. The radio and television brought information to the masses. The world wide web expanded the role of technology as a magnifier of thought and ideas8, for good or ill.

Advances in computing power and global networking since have led to 24/7 connectivity through our smartphones and the ubiquitous presence of applications like Facebook. Despite 1980s rhetoric promising a Third Wave of computing and mass empowerment through the free sharing of information, a digital age of Aquarius has not dawned. Unchecked social networking and social media also carry a danger of creating a more tribal, fragmented society9. We are increasingly subject in our daily lives to the Taylorization10 of our work, our thoughts, our bodies and our relationships and disconnection of our human from our virtual selves. We are sold the notion that we conduct our virtual lives through disinterested ‘bots and algorithms designed for smoothly-functioning utilitarian efficiency without messy emotion.11 In reality they reflect the predilections and character of their creators: business executives, programmers, government bureaucrats, and ‘thought leaders’ accountable to no one. Whatever opportunities they presume to offer toward enlightenment and realizing the better angels of our nature, commercial entities like Cambridge Analytics, Facebook, Uber and Google also reflect and feed off the fear, frustration, greed, anger, lust and chaos in our souls.

Zuboff is an insightful guide to the mundus novus of computing in the last century and a superb writer. She asks good questions of herself and her subjects, questions we should be asking still.

  • Is computing technology transformative, or just an extension of the automation of our lives and work that has occurred over the past 200 years?
  • What are executives’ and managers’ obligations toward workers and consumers in applying the new technology? Is it to to improve their productivity and happiness, liberating them for more creative ‘intellective’ tasks – or solely to achieve the lowest common denominator of efficiency?
  • Is technology ever merely neutral?
  • Are workers and consumers obligated to embrace possibilities of technology? Or do they have rights to obstruct and even undermine changes that may not be in their best interests?

Smart Machine offers a prescient guide toward developing a mindful, humane and sane approach to technology. However, it’s unclear who is interested in employing it thus. Corporations are driven by the same bottom line of optimizing profit that they have been since the 19th Century. Universities have become extensions of the corporate state and mere pipelines to employment. Government extols innovation for its own sake and as a spurious source of profit without regard for ethics or the public good12. The result (at least as far as computers and the web) is the expenditure of untold amounts of talent and money to develop trivial applications (think clickbait) which at best distract us from important matters and at worst separate us from our money, personal data and identity. Despite the cautionary mythology presented in films such as the Matrix, there is little relief today from an advancing tide of futurism, reductionist scientific thinking and technological determinism that sees all aspects of our existence as a nail for the same digital hammer.

The EU attempts to protect members’ privacy with it’s own bureaucracy. Writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov are shrill counterpoints to unmitigated boosterism. Small groups such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, attempt a mindful approach through The New Atlantis to ensure the appropriate use of technology, ethics, and involvement of an informed citizenry in decision-making.

Technology is more than a device or solution. It it is a way of thinking which offers benefits and limitations in navigating this world of our creation. Far from simply being a benign extension of ourselves, the tools have the power to change the nature of the user and the manner in which we live.  -CDL

1Such as the Tandy TRS-80, which could be purchased as a kit (?) through Radio Shack.
2Including semiotics, problem-solving, the abstraction of work and media studies addressed in writing by Karl Polanyi, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman
3Authors, respectively, of the Future Shock (1970) and Megatrends (1982)
4Author of books including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Technopoly (1992), Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1995)
5Authors, respectively, of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and To Save Everything Click Here.
6No escape from the Panopticon, ScienceNode, October 14th 2017
7See Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
8A machine is a magnifier of labor
9In Ill Fares the Land the late Tony Judt describes the ‘connected isolation’ that results.
10Named for Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford’s manager and promoter of ‘one best way’ for completing tasks.
11 Facilitating superficial, zipless interactions without emotional investment or accountability, to borrow a term from 1970s writer Erica Jong,
12The late Neil Postman, in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, proposed we ask of technology, What problem does it solve; what problem(s) does it create? Who benefits? Who pays?

 

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