Smart Machines

Dear Readers

Here’s a troubling book title: Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans, written by Simon Head. In a way his argument is hardly new. Most science fiction was based on this fear. But in the last fifty years we have been bombarded with the opposite message: the 2lst century needs better minds, smarter workers, etc. I’ve been a skeptic, but reading the review by Richard Skidelsky in the NY Review of Books (April 3, 2014) brought me up sharply against these conflicting visions of the future.

I have always contended that we would always have been better off if we had used our minds better—and that it was well within our human potential. 2lst century minds were needed in the 18th and 19th century. Maybe we would not have had WW I!. if we had so-called 2lst century skills. Perhaps because I was more focused on democracy than the workplace I have been less enamored with the idea that these are newly needed skills. I figured that a more democratic workplace would also need more thoughtful workers whose experiences were better used in making worldly decisions.

Head and Skidelsky note that 70-80% of the employees in modern economies are in the service sector. But that does not mean, as we thoughtlessly assumed, that such “white collar” work requires more mental acuity than the old “blue collar.” Head “analyzes the methods used by Walmart and Amazon to squeeze ever more production out of their workers”—white or blue—“through pervasive control of the human conveyor belt. Speed-up and all—since the faster the speed the lower the per unit cost.” Head describes “Computer Business Systems”—who “have colonized much of the service sector” to “manage the affairs of giant global corporations and micromanage the work of their single employees or teams of employees.” We have for long assumed that if you had to work with your hands, you needed fewer brains. We seem to be entering an age whether neither is required?

For example, collaboration is all the buzzword these days.. But “as machines get better and better at mimicking the intelligence integral to personal service” less and less thinking goes into this collaboration. Of course, we all know that at times these computerized human beings don’t work at all, when the voice at the other end of the phone is not programmed to answer our irregular question. But it still saves money, and even a smart human might not have all the answers, and “smartness” comes at a fiscal cost.

Head bemoans the loss of the kind of “academics,” who were “paid to think” rather than paid “to produce useful papers to meet Key Performance Indicators.”

But for the wealthy—who own these new tools—service is still personal. They don’t call the ordinary scripted bank clerks to ask questions, but have their private advisers and lackeys. They don’t send their kids to scripted schools, but to schools where their future peers join them in genuine “critical” thinking tasks. How can we old-fashioned school reformers honestly urge all our students to have “high” expectations (re money and status) if the future only holds promise to a few at the top? And what makes me believe I can convince them that even those few slots are not already reserved for the children and children’s children of those already at the top? Perhaps we should be teaching resistance, not collaboration?

Head points to some of the ways German industry is governed as an example of better ways. I ponder the lessons his book raises, and wonder. Maybe we can pay enough to everyone so that everyone works fewer hours and weeks and years. Thus producing a citizenry that has the leisure and incentive to attend to creating a smarter democracy with wiser views about the public use of space and resources—citizens paid for the leisure needed to think about and act on behalf of the future of our planet.

2 Responses

  1. Hey Deb – I’ve been thinking about this very question — does our society (or the world) really need people educated in what is being labeled “21st C skills” now more than we ever did? These skills seem pretty basic and necessary to almost any time/place/profession: creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, collaborative problem solving skills, etc. I agree with you that–looking back over our history–as a nation, as humans–it’s clear that these skills have always been in great demand, and perhaps somewhat lacking!

  2. […] By debmeier […]

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