Radio brought music into hospitals and nursing homes, it eased the profound
isolation of rural life, it let people hear directly from their elected
representatives. It brought laugher and entertainment into every parlor, saved
lives at sea, gave people weather forecasts for the first time.
But radio waves are just oscillating electromagnetic fields. They really don't
care how we use them. All they want is to go places at the speed of light.
It is hard to accept that good people, working on technology that benefits so
many, with nothing but good intentions, could end up building a powerful tool
for the wicked.
But we can't afford to re-learn this lesson every time.
Technology interacts with human nature in complicated ways, and part of human
nature is to seek power over others, and manipulate them. Technology
We have to assume the new technologies we invent will concentrate power, too.
There is always a gap between mass adoption and the first skillful political
use of a medium. With the Internet, we are crossing that gap right now.
only those who know nothing about technological history believe that technology
is entirely neutral. it has always a bias towards being used in certain ways
and not others. a great comparison to what we're facing now with the internet.
In psychology, the term “insight” is used to describe a recognition of one’s
own condition, such as when a person with mental illness is aware of their
illness. More broadly, it describes the ability to recognize patterns in one’s
own behavior. It’s an example of metacognition, or thinking about one’s own
thinking, and it’s something most humans are capable of but animals are not.
And I believe the best test of whether an AI is really engaging in human-level
cognition would be for it to demonstrate insight of this kind.
I used to find it odd that these hypothetical AIs were supposed to be smart
enough to solve problems that no human could, yet they were incapable of doing
something most every adult has done: taking a step back and asking whether
their current course of action is really a good idea. Then I realized that we
are already surrounded by machines that demonstrate a complete lack of insight,
we just call them corporations. Corporations don’t operate autonomously, of
course, and the humans in charge of them are presumably capable of insight, but
capitalism doesn’t reward them for using it. On the contrary, capitalism
actively erodes this capacity in people by demanding that they replace their
own judgment of what “good” means with “whatever the market decides.”
the problem is this: if you're never exposed to new ideas and contexts, if you
grow up only being shown one way of thinking about businesses & technology and
being told that there are no other ways to think about this, you grow up
thinking you know what we're doing.
When people try to explain the wastefulness of today's computing, they commonly
offer something I call "tradeoff hypothesis". According to this hypothesis, the
wastefulness of software would be compensated by flexibility, reliability,
maintability, and perhaps most importantly, cheap programming work.
I used to believe in the tradeoff hypothesis as well. However, during recent
years, I have become increasingly convinced that the portion of true tradeoff
is quite marginal. An ever-increasing portion of the waste comes from
abstraction clutter that serves no purpose in final runtime code. Most of this
clutter could be eliminated with more thoughtful tools and methods without any
we too often seem to adjust to the limitations of technology, instead of
creating solutions for a problem with the help of technology.
Socrates didn't charge for "education" because when you are in business, the
"customer starts to become right". Whereas in education, the customer is
generally "not right". Marketeers are catering to what people want, educators
are trying to deal with what they think people need (and this is often not at
all what they want).
Another perspective is to note that one of the human genetic "built-ins" is
"hunting and gathering" – this requires resources to "be around", and is
essentially incremental in nature. It is not too much of an exaggeration to
point out that most businesses are very like hunting-and-gathering processes,
and think of their surrounds as resources put there by god or nature for them.
Most don't think of the resources in our centuries as actually part of a
human-made garden via inventions and cooperation, and that the garden has to be
maintained and renewed.
these thoughts are a pure gold mine. a fundamental problem for most businesses
is that one cannot innovate under business objectives and one cannot accomplish
business objectives under innovation. ideally, you need both, but not at the
When we talk about technology, we tend to talk about it as this blue sky
opportunity. It could go any direction. And I want to get serious for a moment
and tell you why it's going in a very specific direction. Because it's not
evolving randomly. There's a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the
technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention. Because every
new site or app has to compete for one thing, which is our attention, and
there's only so much of it. And the best way to get people's attention is to
know how someone's mind works.
A simple example is YouTube. YouTube wants to maximize how much time you spend.
And so what do they do? They autoplay the next video. And let's say that works
really well. They're getting a little bit more of people's time. Well, if
you're Netflix, you look at that and say, well, that's shrinking my market
share, so I'm going to autoplay the next episode. But then if you're Facebook,
you say, that's shrinking all of my market share, so now I have to autoplay all
the videos in the newsfeed before waiting for you to click play. So the
internet is not evolving at random. The reason it feels like it's sucking us in
the way it is is because of this race for attention. We know where this is
going. Technology is not neutral, and it becomes this race to the bottom of the
brain stem of who can go lower to get it.
we always seem to have the notion that technology is always good. but that is
simply not the case. every technology is always both a burden and a blessing.
not either or, but this and that.
The idea, as near as I can tell, is that the ideal computer should be like a
human being, only more obedient. Anything so insidiously appealing should
immediately give pause. Why should a computer be anything like a human being?
Are airplanes like birds, typewriters like pens, alphabets like mouths, cars
like horses? Are human interactions so free of trouble, misunderstanding, and
ambiguity that they represent a desirable computer interface goal? Further, it
takes a lot of time and attention to build and maintain a smoothly running team
of people, even a pair of people. A computer I need to talk to, give commands
to, or have a relationship with (much less be intimate with), is a computer
that is too much the center of attention.
in a world where computers increasingly become human, they inevitably will
become the center of attention. the exact opposite of what they should be:
invisible and helping to focus our attention to ourselves and the people we live
Above all, be prepared for the bullshit, as AI is lazily and inaccurately
claimed by every advertising agency and app developer. Companies will make
nonsensical claims like "our unique and advanced proprietary AI system will
monitor and enhance your sleep" or "let our unique AI engine maximize the value
of your stock holdings". Yesterday they would have said "our unique and advanced
proprietary algorithms" and the day before that they would have said "our unique
and advanced proprietary code". But let's face it, they're almost always talking
about the most basic software routines. The letters A and I will become degraded
and devalued by overuse in every field in which humans work. Coffee machines,
light switches, christmas trees will be marketed as AI proficient, AI savvy or
AI enabled. But despite this inevitable opportunistic nonsense, reality will
If we thought the Pandora's jar that ruined the utopian dream of the internet
contained nasty creatures, just wait till AI has been overrun by the malicious,
the greedy, the stupid and the maniacal. We sleepwalked into the internet age
and we're now going to sleepwalk into the age of machine intelligence and
biological enhancement. How do we make sense of so much futurology screaming in
Perhaps the most urgent need might seem counterintuitive. While the specialist
bodies and institutions I've mentioned are necessary we need surely to redouble
our efforts to understand who we humans are before we can begin to grapple with
the nature of what machines may or may not be. So the arts and humanities
strike me as more important than ever. Because the more machines rise, the more
time we will have to be human and fulfill and develop to their uttermost, our
an outstanding lecture exploring the impact of technology on humanity by
looking back at human history in order to understand the present and the
We use digital platforms because they provide us with great value. I use
Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family around the world. I've
written about how crucial social media is for social movements. I have studied
how these technologies can be used to circumvent censorship around the world.
But it's not that the people who run Facebook or Google are maliciously and
deliberately trying to make the world more polarized and encourage extremism. I
read the many well-intentioned statements that these people put out. But it's
not the intent or the statements people in technology make that matter, it's
the structures and business models they're building. And that's the core of the
So what can we do? We need to restructure the whole way our digital technology
operates. Everything from the way technology is developed to the way the
incentives, economic and otherwise, are built into the system.
We have to mobilize our technology, our creativity and yes, our
politics so that we can build artificial intelligence that supports us in our
human goals but that is also constrained by our human values. And I understand
this won't be easy. We might not even easily agree on what those terms mean.
But if we take seriously how these systems that we depend on for so much
operate, I don't see how we can postpone this conversation anymore. We need a
digital economy where our data and our attention is not for sale to the
highest-bidding authoritarian or demagogue.
no new technology has only a one-sided effect. every technology is always both a burden
and a blessing. not either or, but this and that. what bothers me is that
we seem to ignore the negative impact of new technologies, justifying this
attitude with their positive aspects.
If you're never exposed to new ideas and contexts, if you grow up only being
shown one way of thinking about the computer and being told that there are no
other ways to think about this, you grow up thinking you know what we're doing.
We have already fleshed out all the details, improved and optimized everything
a computer has to offer. We celebrate alleged innovation and then delegate
picking up the broken pieces to society, because it's not our fault – we
figured it out already.
We have to tell ourselves that we haven't the faintest idea of what we're
doing. We, as a field, haven't the faintest idea of what we're doing. And we
have to tell ourselves that everything around us was made up by people that
were no smarter than us, so we can change, influence and build things that make
a small dent in the universe.
And once we understand that, only then might we be able to do what the early
fathers of computing dreamed about: To make humans better – with the help of
the sequel to my previous talk, the lost medium, on
bullet holes in world war 2 bombers, page numbering, rotating point of views
and how we can escape the present to invent the future.
with the modest success of my last year's talk
the lost medium i was
reinvited by the kind folks of
voxxed days belgrade to delve into this
topic a bit further. vdb17 was an amazing experience – again – being one of
the biggest and most inspiring technology conferences in eastern europe with
excellent speakers from all over the world and about 800+ attendees.
my previous talk focused a lot on the early days of personal computing, the
ingenious ideas we lost over time and the notion that we're not really thinking
about how we can use the medium computer to augment our human capabilities.
after delivering this talk however i had the feeling that i left out an
important question: what now? how can we improve?
this was the base for my new talk, the bullet hole misconception, in which i'm exploring
how we can escape the present to invent the future and what questions must we
ask if we are to amplify our human capabilities with computers.
feel free to share it and if you have questions, feedback or critique i'd love to hear from you!
The problem of computational analytics is not only in the semantic bias of the
data set, but also in the design of the algorithm that treats the data as
unbiased fact, and finally in the users of the computer program who believe in
its scientific objectivity.
From capturing to reading data, interpretation and hermeneutics thus creep into
all levels of analytics. Biases and discrimination are only the extreme cases
that make this mechanism most clearly visible. Interpretation thus becomes a
bug, a perceived system failure, rather than a feature or virtue. As such, it
exposes the fragility and vulnerabilities of data analytics.
The paradox of big data is that it both affirms and denies this “interpretative
nature of knowledge”. Just like the Oracle of Delphi, it is dependent on
interpretation. But unlike the oracle priests, its interpretative capability is
limited by algorithmics – so that the limitations of the tool (and, ultimately,
of using mathematics to process meaning) end up defining the limits of
we're talking a lot about the advancement of computational analytics and
artificial intelligence, but little about their shortcomings and effects on
society. one of those is that for our technology to work perfectly, society has
to dumb itself down in order to level the playing field between humans and
computers. a very long but definitely one of the best essays i read this year.
Machines have always done things for us, and they are increasingly doing things
for us and without us. Increasingly, the human element is displaced in favor of
faster, more efficient, more durable, cheaper technology. And, increasingly,
the displaced human element is the thinking, willing, judging mind. Of course,
the party of the concerned is most likely the minority party. Advocates and
enthusiasts rejoice at the marginalization or eradication of human labor in its
physical, mental, emotional, and moral manifestations. They believe that the
elimination of all of this labor will yield freedom, prosperity, and a golden
age of leisure. Critics meanwhile, and I count myself among them, struggle to
articulate a compelling and reasonable critique of this scramble to outsource
various dimensions of the human experience.
our reliance on machines to make decisions for us leads us to displace the most
important human elements in favor of cheaper and faster technology. doing that
however we outsource meaning-making, moral judgement and feeling – which is
what a human being is – to machines.
The tech industry is no longer the passion play of a bunch of geeks trying to
do cool shit in the world. It’s now the foundation of our democracy, economy,
and information landscape.
We no longer have the luxury of only thinking about the world we want to build.
We must also strategically think about how others want to manipulate our
systems to do harm and cause chaos.
we're past the point where developing fancy new technologies is a fun project
for college kids. our technologies have real implications on the world, on our
culture and society. nevertheless we seem to miss a kind of moral framework on
how technology is allowed to alter society.
Some of us might adopt technology products quickly, to be sure. Some of us
might eagerly buy every new Apple gadget that’s released. But we can’t claim
that the pace of technological change is speeding up just because we personally
go out and buy a new iPhone every time Apple tells us the old model is
obsolete. Removing the headphone jack from the latest iPhone does not mean
“technology changing faster than ever,” nor does showing how headphones have
changed since the 1970s. None of this is really a reflection of the pace of
change; it’s a reflection of our disposable income and a ideology of
Some economic historians like Robert J. Gordon actually contend that we’re not
in a period of great technological innovation at all; instead, we find
ourselves in a period of technological stagnation. The changes brought about by
the development of information technologies in the last 40 years or so pale in
comparison, Gordon argues, to those “great inventions” that powered massive
economic growth and tremendous social change in the period from 1870 to 1970 –
namely electricity, sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal
combustion engine, and mass communication. But that doesn’t jibe with “software
is eating the world,” does it?
we are making computers in all forms available, but we're far away from
generating new thoughts or breaking up thought patterns. instead of augmenting
humans with the use of computers like imagined by the fathers of early personal
computing, our computers have turned out to be mind-numbing consumption devices
rather than a bicycle for the mind that steve jobs envisioned.
I have a theory that much recent tech development and innovation over the last
decade or so has an unspoken overarching agenda. It has been about creating the
possibility of a world with less human interaction. This tendency is, I
suspect, not a bug—it’s a feature.
Human interaction is often perceived, from an engineer’s mind-set, as
complicated, inefficient, noisy, and slow. Part of making something
“frictionless” is getting the human part out of the way.
But our random accidents and odd behaviors are fun—they make life enjoyable.
I’m wondering what we’re left with when there are fewer and fewer human
interactions. “We” do not exist as isolated individuals. We, as individuals,
are inhabitants of networks; we are relationships. That is how we prosper and
the computer claims sovereignty over the whole range of human experience, and
supports its claim by showing that it “thinks” better than we can. the
fundamental metaphorical message of the computer is that we become machines.
our nature, our biology, our emotions and our spirituality become subjects of
second order. but in order for this to work perfectly, society has to dumb
itself down in order to level the playing field between humans and computers.
what is most significant about this line of thinking is the dangerous
reductionism it represents.
The printing press was the dominant force that transformed the hermeneutic
Middle Ages into our scientific society should not be taken too
lightly–especially because the main point is that the press didn’t do it just
by making books more available, it did it by changing the thought patterns of
those who learned to read.
I had always thought of the computer as a tool, perhaps a vehicle–a much
weaker conception. But if the personal computer is a truly new medium then the
very use of it would actually change the thought patterns of an entire
civilization. What kind of a thinker would you become if you grew up with an
active simulator connected, not just to one point of view, but to all the
points of view of the ages represented so they could be dynamically tried out
the tragic notion is that alan kay assumed people would be smart enough to try
out and see different point of views. but in reality, people stick rigidly to
the point of view they learned and consider all others to be only noise or
Why especially for us in the digital industry – although we are automating
away more and more and more of our work and we're becoming wealthier and
wealthier by every measure – do we feel like we're more and more short of
time, overwhelmed and overworked. Or to put the question differently: Do you
remember when email was fun?
The weird hard truth is: this is us. We, the digital industry, the people that
are working in it are the ones who make everything, everything in our
environment and work life ever more connected, fast, smooth, compelling,
addicting even. The fundamental ethical contradiction for us is that we, the
very people who suffer the most and organize the most against digital
acceleration, are the very ones who further it.
a great talk challenging us to reflect on the moral dimensions of our work,
especially in the digital product world.
“Put me out of a job.” “Put you out of a job.” “Put us all out of work.” We
hear that a lot, with varying levels of glee and callousness and concern.
“Robots are coming for your job.”
We hear it all the time. To be fair, of course, we have heard it, with varying
frequency and urgency, for about 100 years now. “Robots are coming for your
job.” And this time – this time – it’s for real.
I want to suggest that this is not entirely a technological proclamation.
Robots don’t do anything they’re not programmed to do. They don’t have autonomy
or agency or aspirations. Robots don’t just roll into the human resources
department on their own accord, ready to outperform others. Robots don’t apply
for jobs. Robots don’t “come for jobs.” Rather, business owners opt to automate
rather than employ people. In other words, this refrain that “robots are coming
for your job” is not so much a reflection of some tremendous breakthrough (or
potential breakthrough) in automation, let alone artificial intelligence.
Rather, it’s a proclamation about profits and politics. It’s a proclamation
about labor and capital.
a brilliant essay on automation, algorithms and robots, and why the ai
revolution isn't coming. not because the machines have taken over, but because
the people who built them have.
“Devices” which variously store, retrieve, or manipulate information in the
form of messages embedded in a medium have been in existence for thousands of
years. People use them to communicate ideas and feelings both to others and
back to themselves. Although thinking goes on in one’s head, external media
serve to materialize thoughts and, through feedback, to augment the actual
paths the thinking follows. Methods discovered in one medium provide metaphors
which contribute new ways to think about notions in other media. For most of
recorded history, the interactions of humans with their media have been
primarily nonconversational and passive in the sense that marks on paper, paint
on walls, even “motion” pictures and television, do not change in response to
the viewer’s wishes.
Every message is, in one sense or another, a simulation of some idea. It may be
representational or abstract. The essence of a medium is very much dependent on
the way messages are embedded, changed, and viewed. Although digital computers
were originally designed to do arithmetic computation, the ability to simulate
the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a
medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are
sufficiently well provided. Moreover, this new “metamedium” is active—it can
respond to queries and experiments—so that the messages may involve the learner
in a two-way conversation. This property has never been available before except
through the medium of an individual teacher. We think the implications are vast
this great essay from 1977 reads so much like a description of what we do these
days that it seems unexceptional – which makes it so exceptional. moreover
however it thinks so much further – which also makes it quite sad to read.