November 22, 2011

Say It Ain't So, Joe: A Football Machine Jumps the Rails

One of my favorite observers of current affairs is James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere and other books. Last week he posted on his blog a commentary on the Penn State football scandal that typically combined astute social and political analysis with moral jeremiad. Its opening sentence captures the flavor of his style: 

"The Penn State football sex scandal, and the depraved response of the university community at all levels, tells whatever you need to know about the spiritual condition of this floundering, rudderless, republic and its ignoble culture."

Kunstler's essay made me think more about the Penn State scandal and its relevance to the question concerning technology. I'll list here a few connections that came to mind, using as a lens the thought of Jacques Ellul.

First, I'd quibble with Kunstler's comment that American culture is "rudderless." In truth I think we have a rudder that steers us methodically in the direction of technology, or, more accurately, in the direction of what Ellul called "technique."

Technique is the word Ellul used to acknowledge that technology is more than just machines. It is a systemic phenomenon that encompasses, in addition to machines, the systems in which machines exist, the people who are enmeshed in those systems, and the modes of thought that promote the effective functioning of those systems. 

Ellul defined technique as "the translation into action of man’s concern to master things by means of reason, to account for what is subconscious, make quantitative what is qualitative, make clear and precise the outlines of nature, take hold of chaos and put order into it.” 

The relentless drive to bring all aspects of the technological society into conformity with the demands of technique is what I mean when I say that such a society is not, technically speaking, "rudderless" at all. We tend to overlook the steadiness with which we proceed on our technological course, given that it creates an infinite variety of disruptions in its wake.

Backpedaling now, Kunstler's use of the word "rudderless" was entirely accurate in the sense he intended. That is, we are rudderless because we are not in truth guided by the moral, ethical, or legal standards we profess to be guided by, or even by what might be considered common sense. 

The disjunction between our professed values and the values of technique leads to all sorts of hypocrisies. As Kunstler pointed out, college football programs are supposed to be about building character. In truth, as everyone knows, their primary purpose is to produce profit and institutional growth through various mechanisms, including TV contracts, sales of tickets and merchandise, alumni donations, student enrollments, and brand loyalty (also known as "school spirit"). 

As the owner and operator of one of the nation's most profitable sports machines, it's hardly surprising that for Penn State, keeping the machine running was more important than stopping child rape.

There's an apparent contradiction between technique's emphasis on rationality and the antithesis of rational behavior displayed by Penn State's student body in the wake of Joe Paterno's firing. In fact, as Ellul pointed out, riots and technique go hand in hand.

Mob psychology is one of the chief goals of technique in a consumerist society. Individuals are molded, with the help of journalism, entertainment media, and advertising, into a manipulable mass. The "chief requirement" of propaganda, Ellul said, is "to produce individuals especially open to suggestion who can be easily set into motion….The critical faculty has been suppressed by the creation of collective passions.”

Ellul also noted that propaganda has the power to create a "new sphere of the sacred," a sphere that is beyond criticism. Obviously, as far as Penn State was concerned, Joe Paterno had entered such a realm. 

Like many people, I was appalled by the rioting of the Penn State students, but their behavior was hardly inexplicable. They are, after all, children of the technological society, and thus products of that society. In the minds of many people extreme displays of emotion, often verging on violence, are part of the point of being a fan at sports events. College students today are also coming of age at a time when the excesses of technique have created a series of conditions that make the transition to adulthood especially challenging.

Ellul argued repeatedly that the technological society requires that human beings adapt to the conditions of technique, and that doing so creates a host of psychological insecurities. In order to allay those fears, technique provides various mechanisms of release and distraction. Sports hysteria fits that bill nicely. It makes little sense to expect rational behavior in the context of that hysteria.

One of the key reasons sports qualifies as technique is its emphasis on performance. "Technique is the instrument of performance," Ellul said. "What is important is to go higher and faster; the object of the performance means little.”

As the affirmation of performance, winning outstrips such niceties as character building, honor, or sacrifice for community. No coincidence that the emphasis on performance in sports parallels the emphasis on performance in business. Since the Industrial Revolution we've witnessed the introduction of an unbroken string of performance-enhancing techniques, from the assembly line to the human resources department. Emphasis on superior performance has been with us since ancient times, of course. The difference today is that the standard against which we measure ourselves is the machine. 

The use of performance enhancing drugs in sports is entirely consistent with those priorities. Here, too, it makes little sense to be surprised by behavior that exactly fits the context in which it appears. 

Today technology allows us to indulge our preoccupation with performance as never before. Doctors recommend a host of screening procedures that may or may not lengthen lives, while participants in the "quantified self" movement track every biological function, apparently in hopes that the constant monitoring of personal statistics will somehow provide a meaningful route to self knowledge.

Surely this was not what Socrates had in mind when he said the unexamined life is not worth living.

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 20, 2011

Cyborgology and Me

Just a note to say that yesterday the tech blog Cyborgology published a commentary of mine regarding the new ebook, Race Against the Machine. I make some of the same points there, and use some of the same material, that I used in my earlier commentary here, "Losing the Race Against the Machine," but this new version is (I admit!) more concise.

November 15, 2011

O'Reilly and Me

Just a note to say that yesterday O'Reilly Radar published my essay on Steve Jobs and Ted Kaczynski as representatives of the extreme poles of America's love/hate relationship with technology.

November 14, 2011

Technocracy, Then and Now

A number of prominent news organizations reported recently that "technocrats" have taken over the governments of Greece and Italy. Oddly, those reports failed to define what a technocrat might be. Slate magazine's Forrest Wickman stepped in with an "Explainer" column last Friday that nicely cleared up the issue.  A technocrat, he said, is:
 An expert, not a politician. Technocrats make decisions based on specialized information rather than public opinion. For this reason, they are sometimes called upon when there’s no popular or easy solution to a problem (like, for example, the European debt crisis). The word technocrat derives from the Greek tekhne, meaning skill or craft, and an expert in a field like economics can be as much a technocrat as one in a field more commonly thought to be technological (like robotics).
Technocracy is something I spend some time on in my book, and I'd like to make a few comments about it here. It's a way of thinking that inevitably gains influence as we increase our commitment to technology, especially in turbulent times. And given that an increasing commitment to technology and turbulent times tend to go together, it's a way of thinking that we'll surely be hearing more about in years to come.

To elaborate on Forrest Wickman's definition, technocracy can be described as the conviction that we will all be better off if we operate according to the rational standards of the machine. A given problem can be solved by the systematic application of a set of principles and procedures. Usually those are principles and procedures only experts can fully understand. It's a philosophy of methodology.

Lucas Papademos of Greece and Mario Monti of Italy both have advanced degrees in economics. Papademos has advanced degrees from MIT in physics and electrical engineering as well. As Wickman says, these qualifications implicitly suggest that they can be counted on to apply the necessary remedial measures without being swayed by anything so irrational as politics or popular opinion.  

In the United States we tend to associate technocracy with the Technocracy movement, which enjoyed a brief moment of national prominence in the early 1930s. In that case the connection to technology was slightly (only slightly) more direct. Americans feared that businessmen and politicians had shown themselves incapable of managing the explosive forces of industrial production, forces that were rapidly and radically reshaping the life and economy of the nation. The general feeling, says historian Henry Elsner, Jr., was that "somehow man had unleashed a monster in his midst – The Machine – which had gotten out of control and was threatening to wreck his civilization."[1]

One avenue of reform proposed was populism, which aimed to restore more control to the people. Another was technocracy, which aimed to focus control in the hands of the experts. This is an instance where we find history repeating itself today, with technocrats being asked to take charge by the established power structure in Europe even as the populists of the Occupy Wall Street movement agitate from street level for greater democratic control.

The Technocracy movement of the 1930s proposed that engineers take over as a sort of priesthood of the new industrial state. It wasn't the machine that was destroying society, they said, it was mismanagement of the machine by amateurs. Properly handled by qualified experts, technology would introduce an era of unprecedented plenty and leisure.

Here's how the Technocrats themselves described their qualifications for the job, in one of their pamphlets:
Technocracy's scientific approach to the social problem is unique, and its method is completely new…It speaks the language of science, and recognizes no authority but the facts. In Technocracy we see science banishing waste, unemployment, hunger, and insecurity of income forever…we see science replacing an economy of scarcity with an era of abundance….[And] we see functional competence displacing grotesque and wasteful incompetence, facts displacing guesswork, order displacing disorder, industrial planning displacing industrial chaos."[2]
The Technocracy movement faded quickly for lots of reasons, among them internal dissension, doubts about the credibility of its leaders, and absorption of its reforms by the New Deal. Technocracy was also hindered by a fundamental contradiction: It hoped to gain popular support for an ideology that was inherently elitist. 

Nonetheless, the temptation to rely on the expertise of the technocrat has remained, especially, as mentioned, in turbulent times. One of the more tragic examples to date was Robert S. McNamara's prosecution of the war in Vietnam.   

McNamara was a technocratic visionary whose evangelism on behalf of rationalism and efficiency took him from leadership positions in the Army Air Force's Statistical Control Office and the Ford Motor Company to the U.S. Department of Defense, which he headed under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. A passage from McNamara's 1968 book, The Essence of Security, described his philosophy:
Some critics today worry that our democratic, free societies are being overmanaged. I would argue that the opposite is true. As paradoxical as it may sound, the real threat to democracy comes, not from overmanagement, but from undermanagement. To undermanage reality is not to keep free. It is simply to let some force other than reason shape reality. That force may be unbridled emotion; it may be greed; it may be aggressiveness; it may be hatred; it may be inertia; it may be anything other than reason. But whatever it is, if it is not reason that rules man, then man falls short of his potential.[3]
Vietnam showed that, contrary to that philosophy, management by reason does not automatically eliminate the influence of emotion, greed, aggressiveness, hatred, or inertia. McNamara himself learned that lesson well. As he acknowledges in Errol Morris's documentary, The Fog of War, "Rationality will not save us."

Among the foremost advocates of technocratic principles today – in the business of technology, not in politics or in war, as far as I know – are Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google. The company's vice president of global communications and public affairs has called them "ideological technologists."

(Given that Google provides the blog space on which these words are written, my comments here may be seen as lacking the graciousness due one's host.)

Here's how Page, now Google's chief operating officer, explained his management philosophy to the journalist Ken Auletta:
There is a pattern in companies, even in technological companies, that the people who do the work – the engineers, the programmers, the foot soldiers, if you will – typically get rolled over by the management. Typically, the management isn't very technical. I think that's a very bad thing. If you're a programmer or an engineer or a computer scientist, you have someone tell you what to do who is really not very good at what you do, they tell you the wrong things. And you sort of end up building the wrong things; you end up kind of demoralized. You want a culture where the people who are doing the work, the scientists and engineers, are empowered. And that they are managed by people who deeply understand what they are doing. That's not typically the case.[4]
This, of course, reflects the classic technocratic conviction that the only person who can properly run the machine is the person who built it, or who knows how to build it. In today's technological society, that leaves a lot of us out.



[1] Henry Elsner Jr., The Technocrats: Prophets of Automation (Syracuse University Press, 1967), p. 8-9.
[2] Quoted by Howard P. Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture (U. of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 122.
[3] McNamara's book quoted by Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, originally published 1968) p. 11-12.
[4] Auletta, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It (Penguin, New York, 2010), p. 227. 

Photo credit: Artist unknown, illustration from Common Ground-Common Sense

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 9, 2011

The Battle Between Art and Science (Continued)

The New York Times ran a fascinating article a few days ago reporting that something like 40 percent of students who start college as engineering and science majors change course at some point and switch to other subjects, or drop out altogether. That's twice the rate of attrition seen in other majors, the Times said.

The article generated a far greater-than-usual number of comments from Times readers: more than a thousand at last count, virtually all of them considerably more thoughtful than the typical Huffington Post one-liner.

Reasons cited for students' departures, in comments and in the article itself, included boring introductory courses; boring teachers (including many foreign-born teachers with hard-to-understand accents); easier grading in humanities courses; lack of career opportunities in science-related fields (cutbacks in research grants were often mentioned); and the coldly abstract nature of the course work, which leaves little room for meaningful interaction with other students.

By far the most frequently-cited reason for the dropouts, however, was intellectual laziness. Both the article itself and reader comments argued that American students today lack the discipline required to endure the challenge of science and engineering courses, especially when it comes to math. Students from less privileged countries were said to excel in those courses because they're less coddled, and more dedicated. The Times headline too-cutely summarized the basic conclusion: "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)."

Since virtually every point possible to make on this subject has already been made by the Times' readers, I'll limit myself to three basic observations, all relevant to our relationships with technology (and all relevant to points addressed in my book):

1. The tension between technology and the humanities was a topic of discussion and debate among the philosophers of ancient Greece and has been a topic of discussion and debate ever since, especially since the dawn of the scientific revolution. (My earlier essay, "The Boffins and the Luvvies, reviewed some of the highpoints in the history of that debate.) 

2. The statistic in the Times article that initially seems so shocking – that 40 percent of science and engineering students drop out before graduating – is less so when you consider the flip side: 60 percent don't drop out. 

The central issue, it seems to me, isn't why so many students drop out of science and engineering programs, but why so many students drop into those programs in the first place. Jacques Ellul argued repeatedly that a culture that has been captured by technology is fundamentally interested in two things: technological efficiency and technological expansion. That such a culture would place an inordinate emphasis on educational pursuits that further those goals is hardly surprising.

Many of the comments from readers in the Times demonstrated how thoroughly those values have been assimilated in contemporary America (and elsewhere). It was taken for granted that science and engineering are the only courses of study that will produce results that matter. Many of those same readers argued that the current state of the economy made it more important than ever that students pursue economically promising ("practical") careers. Far fewer noted that the current state of our economy suggests that those economically promising careers haven't as yet earned us the security and stability we've been assured they would.

Robert Maynard Hutchins was one of the leading antagonists in what may have been twentieth century America's loudest and most sustained outbreak of the science-versus-humanities debate (often in opposition to John Dewey). In a 1953 speech he quoted the Platonic maxim, "What is honored in a country will be cultivated there." An educational system devoted to the cultivation of wisdom, Hutchins said, would look quite different than one devoted to the cultivation of power and success.

My point here is decidedly not that engineering and science can't be dedicated toward humanitarian goals that will result in the improvement of material conditions for all people on the planet. (C.P. Snow considered the need to promote such improvement the central message of his famous "Two Cultures" lecture. To his dismay, the animosity he described between the arts and sciences has been the only thing anyone ever remembered about it.) Nor am I suggesting that students disregard the need to make a living, or that those who are legitimately inspired by science and engineering shouldn't be given every opportunity to follow their dreams.

Rather my point is to note the lack of grounding and purpose that is overwhelmingly evident in American culture today. We don't have the slightest idea what to do with all the material advantages our sciences and engineering have provided. Just as troubling, in far too many ways our advances in science and technology are being used not to promote cultural stability and security, but to undermine it (For an example, see my earlier post, "Losing the Race Against the Machine.").

The Times article and many of those who responded to it suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that students who withdraw from science and engineering majors have failed in some way. Baloney. There's no shame in realizing you've made a mistake and correcting it. The problem is that too many students are starting out on science and engineering paths who don't belong there, either because they've been promised rewards that aren't, for them, forthcoming, or because they haven't been offered meaningful, viable alternatives.

3. There's considerable irony in the basic complaint voiced in the Times that American students today lack the discipline required to thrive in science and engineering programs. Perhaps the most prominent product of science and engineering in recent decades has been the revolution in digital technologies, a revolution that has produced, among countless other things, such phenomena as Facebook, texting, YouTube, computer generated special effects, and video games. If American students today lack the mental focus required to succeed as engineers and scientists, it's likely that their slovenly habits were developed at least in part by habitual exposure to mechanisms of mental distraction designed and delivered by graduates of science and engineering programs. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 6, 2011

Losing the Race Against the Machine

There's a new ebook out that's attracting attention, in part because its conclusions are so startling, in part because its conclusions come from an unexpected quarter. The title is Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Its authors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, are two professors from one of the academic epicenters of tech, MIT.

I haven't read the book, but I have read the three excerpts on The Atlantic magazine's web site (links below). I would definitely recommend them, both because they're clearly written and because they document in a dispassionate way some of most important effects of our ever-increasing social and economic commitments to technology.

(If you do read the excerpts, you might want to do so backwards, starting with the third and ending with the first, because for reasons unknown that's the order in which The Atlantic seems to have edited them. Key points alluded to in the first two excerpts don't get made until the third. The Atlantic also gets the book's title wrong.)

I'll list here a few of the points from Race Against the Machine that jumped out at me, all consistent with arguments I make in my book regarding the nature of technology.

•  The headline of The Atlantic's third excerpt, "Why Workers Are Losing the War Against Machines," is remarkable in that it appears to acknowledge that there is a war between workers and machines. This is not the story we usually get in the current era of technological enthusiasm. Nonetheless that's the essence of Brynjolfsson and McAfee's argument.

  The authors say that economists have argued almost since the days of the original Luddites that workers need not fear technology because in the long run fewer jobs will be lost to machines than will be created by them. This assumption ignores what Brynjolfsson and McAfee call "a dirty little secret": Those new jobs don't necessarily provide a sustainable income. Nor, I would add, do many of them provide decent working conditions.

"There is no economic law," Brynjolfsson and McAfee write, "that says that everyone, or even most people, automatically benefit from technological progress." This is a realization, they add, that regular people seem to understand even when economists do not. Perhaps that's because it's regular people whose jobs are eliminated or degraded thanks to various forms of mechanization.

According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, losers in the war between workers and machines could ultimately constitute a majority – perhaps more than 90 percent – of the population.

  Lest anyone discount their findings as the ravings of neo-Luddites, it should be noted that Brynjolfsson and McAfee initially set out to write a book affirming traditional economics wisdom by documenting how "the cornucopia of innovation" of the digital era would produce legions of new jobs and fresh waves of economic prosperity. (The title of their book retains traces of that initial thrust.)

According to an interview with the authors in the New York Times, they were surprised when their research led them to the opposite conclusion. "The tone of alarm in their book is a departure for the pair," the Times reports, "whose previous research has focused mainly on the benefits of advancing technology."

  In The Atlantic's second excerpt the authors say that the positive aspects of technological growth include its encouragement of "efforts toward superstardom" and "capital accumulation." When you get to excerpt #3 you see their more fundamental point: that these same two factors contribute to a radical skewing of the social balance between rich and poor.

Exploitation of modern technological systems enables the expansion of "winner-take-all markets," Brynjolfsson and McAfee write, in which economies of scale squeeze out all but the most dominant players. "Aided by digital technologies, entrepreneurs, CEOs, entertainment stars, and financial executives have been able to leverage their talents across global markets and capture reward that would have been unimaginable in earlier times."

•  Brynjolfsson and McAfee also note that exploitation of modern technological systems enables a radical shift in the balance of power between labor and capital. This is hardly news to the millions of corporate workers who for years have been doing steadily more work for stagnant pay, a ratio typically applauded by investment analysts as "increased productivity."

The authors cite studies suggesting that the wages of unskilled workers in the United States have trended downward for over 30 years. Another study they cite suggests that recent spending on equipment and software has soared by 26% while payrolls have remained essentially flat.

A few concluding remarks:

Would-be tech superstars aspiring Mark Zuckerbergs –  are fond of saying that they've come up with the next truly "disruptive" technology, one that will profitably overthrow some segment of the social or economic status quo. Race Against the Machine provides a somewhat broader understanding of what technological "disruption" means for those who don't manage to achieve superstar status.

I mentioned above that conclusions in Race Against the Machine are consistent with arguments made in my book regarding the nature of technology. I was thinking there of one point in particular: that it is in the nature of technology to expand its sphere of influence. As the philosopher of technology Langdon Winner has put it, “If there is a distinctive path that modern technological change has followed it is that technology goes where it has never been. Technological development proceeds steadily from what it has already transformed and used up toward that which is still untouched.”

Brynjolfsson and McAfee address some of the reasons this is so, but there are others. For example: their focus is on the direct replacement of human workers by machines. What they don't discuss, at least in The Atlantic excerpts, is the dehumanization of workers so that they conform more readily to the requirements of the machine. Thus transformation of the human being is an aspect of technology's inexorable drive toward (to use Jacques Ellul's word) "completion."

Given the palsied state of labor power in the United States today, it's difficult to foresee any significant resistance emerging to stop management's moves toward automation, despite warnings such as those issued by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. And of course they are far from the first to warn that workers might not emerge victorious in their "war" with technology.

Among those who preceded them was an earlier professor at MIT, Norbert Wiener (1894-1964). For those who don't recognize the name, Wiener was the inventor of cybernetics and thus a founding father of the automation technologies discussed in Race Against the Machine. He was unusual in that he spent almost as much energy worrying about the technologies he helped unleash as he did unleashing them.

Wiener talked often of the potential impact of smart machines on employment. Automation, he wrote in 1950, represents "the precise economic equivalent of slave labor." Thus workers who compete with machines will have to accept the economic conditions of slave labor. As unpleasant as this might be for the slaves, it admirably serves the needs of the slave owners. "Those who suffer from a power complex," Wiener wrote, "find the mechanization of man a simple way to realize their ambitions."

Wiener warned that our traditional attitudes toward business would have to change if catastrophe is to be avoided. Two attitudes he mentioned specifically were our worship of progress and our belief in what he called the "fifth freedom" – the freedom to exploit. Absent those changes, he said, we can expect levels of unemployment that will make the Great Depression "seem a pleasant joke."

The Wiener quotes here are from his book, The Human Use of Human Beings. The Langdon Winner quote is from The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Era of High Technology. For close-to-the-ground documentation of the sorts of economic disruptions discussed in Race Against the Machine, see Barbara Ehrenreich's, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal. Note, too, Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, a dystopian fantasy about the end of meaningful employment as the result of automation. It mentions Wiener by name.

Race Against the Machine, excerpts:


©Doug Hill, 2012