Don’t look!

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

If you’ve seen the latest Netflix small-screen blockbuster “Don’t look up” you may have noticed that the overall interpretation of that film has shifted.

At first it was billed as a “dramedy” – a Dr. Strangelove-style parody of those who, in almost lampoonish obliviousness (as in the television morning show hosts) or cynical political opportunism (like the self-fawning president – and her preening and clueless followers and sycophants) were willfully ignorant and spineless when it came to addressing the multitudes of issues that threaten to destroy us all.

But no. That wasn’t the topic.

Obstructionist, recalcitrant and corrupt politicians weren’t, and perhaps still aren’t, the biggest threat to humanity and all of life on earth – Big Tech was.

Earth, meet Meta

If there is anything, like COVID, we should have seen (and many did see) coming years, even decades ago, it should have been the inherent, almost hard-wired, dehumanizing of those most unquantifiable characteristics that make each one of us human.

The icon of Big Tech, one who, by his own lights, is “in but not of the world,” is not a nebulous, zoned out prophet (as in the tech character in the film) but Mark Zuckerberg, a man so awkward in every human interaction that he is instantly memed as the nerdy, quasi-human none us would ever aspire to be.

But he, like few others (we hope) represents and embodies the blank near poker-face that is more suitable to sci-fi films than corporate boardrooms or our normal daily interactions.

That smiling face (is he smiling?) is the ideal foil for the facial recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) that seeks to monitor, control and yes, monetize our every move. And thought. And impulse. And decision.

Big Tech might be able to monitor, control or even forecast human behavior, but it thoroughly fails at understanding humans.

Technology like art is a soaring exercise of the human imagination. – Daniel Bell

For the past few years I’ve seen many blaring headlines like “Liberal arts majors are the future of the tech industry” and “Why computer science needs the humanities” in tech and business journals and online articles.

I can’t decide if I think that these approaches are essential – or laughably naive – or in some strange inverted alternate universe – both.

Can the humanities rescue us all from a soul-numbing, AI-infused, Internet of Things (IOT) that our face-less (or at least expressionless) high tech overlords seem determined to impose on all of us?

The humanities, in comparison at least, focus on and acknowledge the foibles and inherent contradictions of being a human.

But do the humanities “humanize” Big Tech – or just give it more refined tools to adjust and reprogram our humanity?

Technology should improve your life…not become your life. – Billy Cox

Scriptures from various faith traditions observe that human beings are created in God’s image.

Big Tech, in movies and in our devices, seems determined to return the favor.

I know young people who, for extended periods, would far prefer to be on their devices than eat or use a bathroom. Or sleep.

What have we become when those most basic of human needs and expressions have been preempted by flashing screens?

If anyone can save us, it would be those who dedicate their lives and careers not to money or fame or algorithms but to the unique, irreplaceable vicissitudes of humanity.

But, unfortunately, we have no reason to believe their members are inherently more or better equipped to be the arbiters of what is ethical – or human.

The “humanities” have very real and important social and cultural expertise, but their fields, experts and representatives, from Shakespeare to the Sackler family are all reckoning with their own social, historical and structural dilemmas and areas of blindness or cultural oversight.

Anthropologists, for example (85% of whom are white in the US) have their own blind spots. Why would they orient or deploy algorithms in a less biased way than, say, any nerdy, data-driven computer scientist?

Social workers would likely add some much-needed diversity to tech. Social work is overwhelmingly performed by women and is a pretty diverse profession: over 22% Black and 14% Hispanic/Latinx.

But would that make any difference?

We don’t need “colorblind”, gender-neutral or even “every stake-holder” involvement in our technology – or even on our daily lives.

The technology you use impresses no one. The experience you create with it is everything. – Sean Gerety

Even “fairness” can be a problem – many talk show hosts insist that, to be fair, they must allow materials, ideas, and values from everyone.

In other words, they often end up allowing racist, blatantly false and harmful information to stand alongside other materials by saying they must entertain “all sides” and allow people to find their way to the “best” information.

This is the exact same error social media platforms routinely make in allowing disinformation and abhorrent, even violent, content to flourish online.

Would any humanities faculty, or empath, make any difference or would they function simply to provide an ethical re-branding to policies and practices that were what tech executives planned all along.

We have long had a “digital divide”. That term used to refer to those who had access to broadband and those who did not.

But I think now that term is beginning to mean something closer to the division between those who encounter and understand the “real” world of humans, animals and natural processes as basic as the shifts in the seasons to cooking their own food and those who derive meaning and identity from a screen in their hand.

Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them. – Steve Jobs

Like any toddler’s scrawl, what we create reflects who we are. As grown-ups we just need to think about it a bit more.

Maybe a lot more.