Do the Internet and Automation Make Us More or Less Civilized as Societies?

All photos courtesy of or WikiCommons

Personal note: I generally am an optimist, however some broad trends I’ve witnessed over the last few weeks leave me wondering if the internet and automation improves or worsens how we communicate to one another.

This post was originally written on LinkedIn where it represented my 28th blog post there— over the course of writing them I’ve emphasized why positive #ChangeAgents are needed now more than ever, why investments in creativity and better design-thinking are needed, why our ‘now’ matters relative to other times in human history, and how the internet of everything is impacting Taiwan as well as both republics and democracies in general.

When real-life tragedy hit last year, I shared how it’s important to find hope and stand back up when life throws a punch. I strive to write as I live and work on a daily basis: results driven, future-focused, generally optimistic, non-partisan, and appreciative of multiple perspectives on our rapidly changing world.

This is why I think it is essential that we consider the ‘long view’ of whether the internet and automation are making us more or less civilized.

1. On Humanity and Taking the Long View

It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect that for most of our history as a species, in our entire lives we probably only ran into 80 different people in our entire lives — and these were mostly (if not all) family members. It’s only fairly recently that we started living in groups that were not just family members — and even more recently where most of us could travel to and live in a town that was not where you were born.

Most of us on an average weekday encounter 80+ different people in that day alone who are not immediate family members.

It is also worth reflecting on the fact that for most of our history as a species, especially for when we were in agrarian groupings, your elders could provide answers to just about every question you would need to know to live and thrive. When you should plant the crops and how to plant them, how to harvest them and defend them from pests, when to know bad weather was approaching, etc.

It is only in very recent human history that the rate that our world is changing — as a result of technology and globalization — has reached a point where our elders may not have all the answers for the world ahead.

The internet, globalization, and increasing inter-connectivity of the plan has created an environment that is cognitively very different from what most of our ancestors ever experienced.

This is terra incognita — unknown land. There is no textbook for where we’re going as a species.

2. On Being Civilized Societies and Newcomers

Some anthropologists and historians have posited that a society is “civilized” when you don’t automatically kill the newcomer, because you’re not afraid of what they might be bringing in terms of a desire of your lands or property or bringing in terms of new diseases or ideas.

A question worth asking then is whether the internet more or less receptive to newcomers who might have different ideas, beliefs, or views on the world different from our own?

All of the blog posts I write are in a personal, non-work capacity — so with this in mind and re-emphasized, recently a rather high profile proceeding has arisen at where I work. In that role I am explicitly a non-partisan senior executive.

That said, the amount of non-civilized, hateful comments I have received in the last two weeks leaves one wondering if we in the United States can distinguish between those individuals who are elected into political office vs. those individuals who are trying to carry out the processes of our republic form of representative democracy?

I can appreciate people’s fervor on an issue, however when it spills over into hate that seems — perplexing. Especially when this is all happening over Mother’s Day weekend and I’m having to ask my IT team members (and by extension myself) to spend time away from their families to respond to different demands. We’re here to serve and while we don’t ask that we be liked, it would be good if we weren’t exposed to hate for what we do in public service.

In addition, it seems like some folks think that the United States is a direct democracy, which is exactly not what the Founders intended. The Founders were worried about what happens when humans in large groups get stirred up — and instead wanted a representative form of government.

Cumulatively, this makes me unsure how many people understand that for the non-partisan staff, we simply are trying to make the mechanisms of the United States work given the constraints, resources, and directions provided. Again, I can appreciate people’s fervor, however if the public crosses a line an attacks non-partisan staff too much, that might discourage folks from staying and then there will be no one who is non-partisan remaining?

It is important to separate passionate opinions for or against an issue from passionate opinions for or against an individual — and in the era of the internet and 24/7 news media; I’m not sure we humans separate the two.

Can we separate politics from those who are simply trying to make the machinery of public service work?

3. Where Are We Going?

For more than 15 years, ever since I worked with the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control — and involved with responses to 9/11, the anthrax events in 2001, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003 — I have been concerned that eventually the notion of organizing by geography would become obsolete.

International trade transcends geography, the internet is global, and public health issues do not stop at national borders.

Our planet is increasingly inter-connected in ways that challenge the notion of organizing into groups based on geographical boundaries.

The question is what takes its place?

Affinity groups are one possibility however the challenges there are then we have ‘wars’ between different affinity groups. If affinity groups alone replace how we organize, political discourse then becomes winner-take all and there is no compromise, which would rip apart republics and representative democracies.

Taken to its inevitable conclusion, affinity groups unwilling to tolerate “newcomers” will become dictatorial autocracies, insisting that to be a member you must think a certain way and plurality of thought is not appreciated. Differences in opinion are to be ridiculed or expelled.

That outcome would be a troubling future indeed.

Another possibility is we organize by transnational corporations or that transnational corporations behind the scenes become the ultimate influence in our lives and what is possible. That too would be disconcerting.

I sometimes wonder if the current national interest in movies involving apocalypses and zombies is a manifestation of a desire to wonder what our lives would be like if there was no international trade anymore, no transnational corporations, and social order was disrupted?

Lastly, one other possible future is a lot of serfs doing work for a very few number of lords and ladies. Back in 2014, I raised concerns that we might revert back to a form of neo-feudalism, especially if automation replaces a lot of jobs being performed by part-time workers as part of the “sharing economy”. Bruce Sterling also raised this in his book “Distraction” too.

Perhaps we are increasingly distracted — distracted from what really matters and how the internet and automation are not necessarily always improving our communication as a species?

4. The Promise and Potential Pitfalls of Automation

In the blog posts leading up to this one, I’ve inquired about how artificial intelligence might make us less distracted and more free. I’ve also raised questions about where a combination of human crowdsourcing and other technological methods may allow us to have a better response to sudden acts of violence in crowded human spaces.

As we expand what machine learning and automated machines are able to do, it is worth recognizing that such technologies are extensions of human abilities and human nature.

Human nature includes us doing great things, mundane things, and some not-so-great things. It is how we choose to use tools and technologies that determine the morality of the outcomes.

Back in 2015 I wrote about human nature and my concern that the internet and automation might amplify human biases, including confirmation bias. At the moment unfortunately that does seem to be the general global trend, especially regarding how we humans read news and information.

For machines, neural networks rely on data to learn and mimic certain outcomes — already we’ve seen instances in the world biased data can cause a machine to incorrectly think that beauty means a skin tone or that it is acceptable to say certain rude things to an individual. Unintentional or intentional spamming of biased data can “teach” a machine to do bad things.

We will need to have mechanisms to audit the data being taught to artificial intelligence, akin perhaps to a digital ombudsman function. We also will need to find ways to overcome our own human biases, to include confirmation bias.

Optimistically, I hope that artificial intelligence might be a way to hold up a mirror to our own selves and allow us to reflect on subconscious biases we each have that impact our decision making and our choices.

5. Hopes for the Future

About a month ago I met with a compatriot Eisenhower Fellow from Sweden who was interested in possible projects that could be done to help the public adapt to a rapidly changing world of automation and artificial intelligence. I suggested three projects:

  1. Provide to everyone their own personal, open-source artificial intelligence application that could answer a majority of their questions about public services and government functions. This could include helping with educational resources to train for new jobs. Such an application would expressly not compete with the private sector and, by virtual of being open source, also have open application programming interface (API) hooks to other commercial applications which could also be an interface to the queries. The public could use the AI directly or access it via their favorite commercial AI app. In either case, by making the application open, folks could ensure the app was simply asking question and not reporting any data back to the government other than questions with unsatisfactory answers for additional data or refinement.
  2. Encourage national or international challenges to explore how AI can help reduce the cost of healthcare. This could include apps that allow you to take a photo of a rash and indicate whether it was serious or not, photos of your eye to help with monitoring blood sugar levels and potential alerts regarding high blood pressure, etc. These would be apps for the individual that would either help them save time or the cost of a doctor’s visit. The challenges of course would be ascertaining the medicine validity of such apps, and thus a rigorous review process would be needed.
  3. Enable the public to elect an AI to a government function, say trash collection or public works. For several years I’ve wondered when we might be able to elect an AI, and it still may be in the distance however even striving to achieve this will have beneficial results. We need better ways of expressing the preferences and biases of an AI. We also need better ways of sharing why it made a decision in a form that the general public can appreciate. In attempting to elect different AIs to do trash collection or public works, we humans will benefit by better understanding what the machines (and data informing it) are either doing or propose to do.

Cumulatively these three projects might result in better future societies, noting earlier concerns that the internet and automation may not always bring out the best of human nature. There is not textbook for where we’re going, which is why positive #ChangeAgents are needed now more than ever.

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