why tech companies aren’t building our new machine overlords

Pundits are charging that not only are tech billionaires taking advantage of their employees and automating them out of a job, they’re actually on a mission to make humans obsolete.
robot sentries in countryside
Illustration by Simon Stålenhag

When the world is rapidly changing by abstract forces many people are seldom given the tools to understand, fear and scapegoating sell extremely well. This is in part why we’re seeing the rise of authoritarians and ultranationalists as people flock to seemingly strong leaders who offer simplistic solutions to complex problems they refuse to even try to grasp. And a slightly different, but still related phenomenon is happening on the left, as those who rightfully refuse to blame minorities and immigrants for uncertainty and stagnation target tech companies and large multinationals. It makes intuitive sense. Powerful corporations do have a lot more sway in the global economy and political frameworks than refugees and minority populations.

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has made a business of that latter approach with his podcast and upcoming book Team Human, and lately he’s been out to educate his listeners about yet another instance of powerful Americans colluding with the Russians. In the case he has in mind, politicians weren’t trying to cheat elections, Silicon Valley luminaries were learning how to hate humans and make them obsolete after encountering Russian cosmists. Modern transhumanists, he argues, were taught to see us as expendable cogs in their machine-driven world, and it’s this Russian meddling that’s responsible for people barely scraping by in the gig economy, which is an ironic twist when we consider that is happened during the heyday of the Soviet Union.

did transhumanism turn against humanity?

Now, to be fair, Rushkoff does realize that cosmists were utopians who believed that humans could become immortal cyborgs roaming the galaxy in ever bigger and better spacecraft while machines did all the grunt work in the background, and his ire falls squarely on libertarians who mutated their ideas into a malignant disdain for the lesser peons surrounding them. But while there’s an argument to be made about the cruel misantropic coldness and carelessness of so-called “late stage capitalism,” Rushkoff’s analysis quickly veers from merely grim towards downright hysterical.

As a result, we have Facebook using algorithms to program people’s emotions and actions. We have Uber using machine learning to replace people’s employment. We have Google developing artificial intelligence to replace human consciousness. And we have Amazon extracting the life’s blood of the human marketplace to deliver returns to the abstracted economy of stocks and derivatives.

Setting aside the problems with large tech companies trying to manipulate their users to spend more time on their apps and sites, and hiding the cost of human misery behind the scenes, as well as the fact that AI can’t replace human consciousness and never will, none of this has any relationship to transhumanism. It’s still very much a cosmist-inspired utopian philosophy that sees immortality and machine-aided creativity as the pinnacles of human achievement. You’re not achieving self-actualization through computer algorithms, you’re achieving it by making computers and robotics empower you to be better in the transhumanists’ minds. Rushkoff is confusing disregard for employees now common in boardrooms with a positive outlook on the power of technology.

So, if transhumanists are very much on Team Human and should, if anything, be called Team Human Plus, what went wrong? Well, the problem is that modern technology met another 19th century philosophy summed up in Dickensian novels. A number of Western nations believe that only a few select people are destined to make history and be rewarded with wealth and power, and the rest are merely expendable peons who need to either keep up or be justifiably crushed by the all-knowing and all-righteous market. If you’ve been paying attention, this is the exact opposite of what transhumanists and cosmists preach.

slipping into the realm of conspiracy

Again, Rushkoff does seem to realize that robots and computers are not the problem and that humans will only become obsolete if we allow them to by neglect bordering on criminal and flagrant irresponsibility. But he’s so dedicated to portraying a conspiracy in which ongoing and rapidly accelerating automation isn’t just a major facet of the global economy with which world leaders are failing to catch up but the end goal of sinister forces, that he bottom lines his thesis with the following call to action that would sound at home in a QAnon forum…

We are not being beaten by machines, but by a league of tech billionaires who have been taught to believe that human beings are the problem and technology is the solution. We must become aware of their agenda and fight it if we are going to survive.

No, tech billionaires don’t think that humans are the problem, or at least far from all of them ascribe to this belief. The truth is much simpler and moder prosaic. They just don’t care. In their minds, the Dickensian villains are right on and they shouldn’t bother themselves with the strange problems of those lesser workers unable to cope with change and whose salaries are better spent on automating necessary tasks. It might seem like nitpicky, pedantic criticism, but it’s an extremely important distinction, especially when we consider that the call to action is to “fight their agenda” and it’s important to fight the right thing if you want a positive real world result.

In Rushkoff’s world, tech magnates working alongside each other to drive humanity into irrelevance and elevating machines as their right hand generals in a war on their employees. In reality, they’re detached workaholics with little to no empathy for those around them. It’s always tempting to go the conspiracy theory-like route because it gives you easy villains to resist and your job is to bring them down, versus the more realistic route of having to either teach those billionaires how to have empathy for people they probably seldom, if ever, think about, and if not, trying to elect politicians who understand the problem at hand and would either curtail their power, or provide ways to work around their indifference.

A political revolution is always more fun to see and advocate for, but when we implement one we end up with blind populism furiously attacking problems that don’t exist with tools not made for the job and plans that won’t work. And if we follow through on these agendas, not only are we’re going to end up in a place worse than we would have if we simply twiddled our thumbs, we’ll have to spend significant time and effort solving problems of our own creation before we can even tackle the issues that drove us to populism in the first place. The cosmists and their transhumanist ideological heirs would surely disapprove.

# tech // automation / computer science / conspiracy / future of work


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