Douglas Rushkoff, author and host of Team Human recently held a Q&A session at Quora. Here are his answers:
Will there be limits to what artificial intelligence will be able to “know” in the future?
I like Michael’s answer. It reminds me of Godel’s theorem. I have a much more pedestrian view of these things. I still think of artificial intelligence more as map than territory. So it can’t know everything without being as big as everything.
But more casually, I think you’re asking what practically won’t AI be able to know. And I think AI’s won’t know what it is like to be thinking. They’ll think or calculate, but they won’t know what it feels like to be thinking or calculating. I don’t think they’ll ever be aware. (Actually, that’s another way of saying what Michael just said.)
But that’s probably an almost religious conviction – the sort of view held by physicist Lee Smolin. I think consciousness preceded life. And I don’t think it inhabits stuff like chips in the same way it inhabits us.
I think humans are uniquely capable of embracing paradox. Of sustaining ambiguity. We even like it. We don’t need to resolve things. We can watch a David Lynch movie. AI won’t be able to know what that feels like.
How should a potential job seeker adapt oneself to deal with the rise of artificial intelligence?
Something feels a little sad to me about the idea that we should adapt ourselves to deal with AI. As if we’re optimizing humans for the digital future, instead of optimizing digital technology for the future of humanity. Screw that.
But, to your strategic point, I guess I’d suggest that we start doing what only human beings can do: empathy, compassion, nature, rapport, parenting, serving as an example. We can embody values.
We can also do what humans do, which is make nature and the world less cruel. We humans can instinctively tell right from wrong, cruel from kind. We know what pain is. We can see ourselves in someone else’s situation. We can identify.
What jobs do that?
Ultimately, I think we have to remember that jobs are not part of the human condition. Jobs are an invention of the late middle ages, when small businesses were declared illegal and replaced by chartered monopolies (porto-corporations). People were no longer allowed to be in an industry. They had to work for the king’s officially chartered friend. So instead of creating and selling value, we had to become employees of someone’s company, and sell our time. That’s when people started traveling to the cities for work, it’s when the plagues started, and it’s when the wonderful rise of the middle class was quashed by the aristocracy.
So I don’t know it’s jobs we want, anyway. We want a meaningful way to create value for one another. If AIs can do everything, fine. But they are really nowhere close. Look at how much slavery and pollution are externalized by today’s industrial processes? If we were a little bit *more* labor intensive in our soil management, we might not run out of topsoil in the next 60 years. Permaculture takes human labor. So does education – unless you’re just training people for jobs, which is never what education was supposed to be about.
How can the digital economy reward people instead of extracting their value?
The fast answer: platform cooperatives. Give workers and ownership stake.
The digital economy can distribute wealth if people own the means of production. If the drivers owned Uber, they’d be in a position to profit off their labor. Right now, they are not only driving for peanuts, but training their autonomous replacements. Their every move is recorded by machine learning programs. So they’re doing R&D for a company that will fire them.
If they owned the platform, then at least they’d continue to profit off their investment of labor.
Now, I hear a lot of folks asking, what about the investors? The people who put up the billions of dollars of investment for Uber to happen? Honestly? It didn’t cost that much. The reason why Uber has to bilk its employees (sorry, “contractors”) and hurt cities is because they need to pay back investors who are expecting much greater returns than could be delivered were Uber doing normal, appropriate business. The app is not that expensive. The lobbying of cities for legal accommodations, is, but they wouldn’t need to be paying for all that if they were good corporate citizens.
Cooperatives (read Nathan Schneider’s new book) distribute value to worker-owners, rather than extracting it from the top. And just as digital tech currently enables extraction on a scale unimaginable twenty years ago, digital tech could enable distributive enterprises on a scale unimaginable twenty years ago.
In Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, I offer “digital distributism” as the answer to our economic woes. Basically, a retrieval of medieval, p2p business practices. An economy optimized not for growth but for flow: the velocity of money through the system.
How can we best engage with people who hold opposing viewpoints?
This is a tough one, but I think we have to see them as human beings, and try to understand the fear or other emotion that is informing their position. I have a section in the book where I try to explain the emotional logic of racism – particularly of white supremacists. Or the emotional logic of former coal miners wanting to open the mines again – no matter what it means to the climate.
They’re not crazy. Or, maybe they’re a bit crazy, but they are human and coming from a recognizably human place if we try on their world view for a moment. It’s scary to do. It’s scary to realize that the American white supremacist thinks his culture – white European culture – won America. He doesn’t understand why people should be taught about ‘loser’ cultures in school – that it will only make America weaker.
Or that people really don’t see other people as human. They look at pictures of Mexican immigrants and see something less than human. But then – something unexpected happens – like when those tapes came out of the sounds of those refugee children crying – and then their impassivity is broken.
So I think the way to break through is by going deeper. It’s not logic that will arrest their intransigence. It’s human rapport. Spend time with the person. Look in their eyes. I noticed at a family holiday, that when my aunt was talking about how it’s okay to let the Syrians die, she’d always break off eye contact with me. It was as if she couldn’t be both human and inhuman at the same time. There’s a clue in there, for how to reach the “other” side. Don’t let them be the other side. Our ability to engage the other is all we really have if we want to get through.
For others, sometimes the best thing is to ignore their viewpoints. Who cares what they think? It’s what they do that matters. If we want to make “red state” people more progressive, we shouldn’t try to get them to think more progressively. Just go there, and start up some initiatives for mutual aid. Get them working again, using favor banks, credit unions, and other projects that make their own lives better by working positively for the community. Someday, they may come to realize that they are engaged in progressive, almost socialist activities.
How can we organize resistance to capitalism, technology, and fascism?
I’ve got a whole section on that in the book called Organize. I really should post highlights from it it as an excerpt, somewhere.
In short, find the others. I think it happens best locally. While resistance at scale matters, it’s really easy to fall into the same dehumanizing traps that the corporations fall into. It becomes mailing lists and website discussions ideological very quickly. Local activities – from land use and school policy to community currencies and business cooperatives – end up changing the way people think and act. Being involved directly with mutual aid or child literacy changes one’s perception of social programs and immigration.
Plus, when our activism is connected to the real world, we humans have the home field advantage. Corporations will always have the advantage in the “brand” space. Once we resort to branding for connecting to human beings, we surrender to their more propagandistic communications style and the values that go along with it.
So my main advice for organizers is to organize locally, and then network globally with other local organizers. Confront real, immediate issues. They trickle up, because the problems we’re dealing with locally are largely the results of top-down domination, laws written to protect corporations, or regulations that owe their legacies to segregation.
I’m also keen on organizing around activities, rather than ideologies. I don’t care what someone “believes in.” I care what they do. Maybe that’s some leftover Jewishness – a religion about behavior, not beliefs. But there’s some sense in this. People on the right and the left want the river clean. So let’s clean the river. I had a great talk with an in-law of mine, who is a Trump supporter but was really ticked off that the forests around his home had been clearcut. They were taken down by the landowner, because of a Virginia subsidy for renewable energy. The wood was considered renewable. Cutting down the forest was dumb and bad for the environment. My relative blamed it on the climate change enthusiasts. I’d probably blame it on corrupt or short-sighted regulation. But we agreed on the outcome, and if I lived there, we could have worked together on solutions.
Will rote jobs such as accountants and librarians be affected first by artificial intelligence?
It’s interesting, but I don’t think of accountants and librarians as having rote jobs. They may have to act like they have rote jobs. But what are accountants really for? To figure out ways to make your ledger look like it is normal and proper – but to actually find ways to hide your money from the tax man. What are librarians for? To protect the books and keep them on the shelves? No. They are there to help you figure out what you really need to know in order to accomplish a task. They are the way writers and researchers get a leg up. Make friends with a librarian, and you are almost cheating as a researcher.
So an AI accountant may not be there to create the wiggle room you need in your tax return. Especially if it’s not really yours. And an AI librarian, it may get you what you say you want, but it won’t get you what it suspects you need. It’s not on the journey with you. It’s not excited to see your eyes go wide when you see that new book for the first time.
We’ve got figure and ground reversed. None of these activities are about the pure utility value. Certainly the librarian. The librarian is there to celebrate knowledge, the dignity of learning, the passion of research. The librarian can use AI, but the AI can’t be the librarian.
So far, it’s not the rote jobs but the wealthy who are most affected by AI. They’re the ones using AIs to trade on the stock market. It’s the hedge fund guys who were first unseated by AIs, if you really want to think about it. People who are just looking for a way of gaming human systems, rather than contributing to or participating in them.
What do you think it will take for people to respect their personal privacy and human worth in the face of such seductive technology?
I often wonder that. Part of the problem is that while people are afraid to let someone else see them masturbate or eat or sleep, they don’t realize how much more dangerous it is to share seemingly meaningless meta-data. It’s not the embarrassing details of your kinks that you should be concerned about sharing. It’s the meaningless points of data that can be used by algorithms to put you in a particular statistical bucket, and then manipulate you.
Or, worse, deny your rights. In China, your social media contacts can determine your eligibility for a visa or a job. Actually, that’s becoming increasingly true in the US – whether you’re looking to be a babysitter, get a loan, or get out of prison.
As long as you’re in the majority, and don’t care about how these technologies are used against people, it may feel like none of this matters. But the minute you run afoul of the law, or lose your money to an illness, all of a sudden this data oppression starts to matter.
Right now, people are acting as if they’re in a prison camp. They accept the trinkets of their virtual keepers, in return for the souls. It’s not that they don’t value their humanity, but they’re atomized victims experiencing something like Stockholm syndrome. It may take some real tragedies for people to recognize it’s gone too far.
As for human dignity, well, capitalism did a number on that before this digital technology came around to finish the job. Marx wrote a lot about this. Technology under capitalism led us to think of ourselves in terms of our utility value. Our productive output, rather than our essential dignity.
How can we rebuild the intermediate layers of collective intelligence and avoid a hollow top and bottom-heavy social collective?
That’s interesting. I guess you mean a “momma bear” sort of right-sized collective intelligence?
My guess would be that there’s various Dunbar numbers for social organization. (Dunbar’s number is 150 – the number of stable relationships a person can maintain). There are likely various levels of social organization that function if they’re formulated properly. So maybe we individuals organize into groups of 150, and then 150 of those can network into something else.
In Team Human, I also make a strong case for cities. There’s also a piece I did about cities vs. nation states on Medium. I understand cities as the largest ‘organic’ organization of people. They form from the bottom up, but they can serve as a pretty robust and populous layer of collective intelligence. Or at least collective interest and organization.
Additionally, collective intelligence doesn’t just move through space, but through time. Works the Torah, mathematics, and cathedrals are multi-generational projects. The collective intelligences may be small at each moment, but scale up over the centuries.
But yeah, I guess my answer is that collective intelligences are somewhat fractal, with little parts coordinating into a whole. More of a federated model, with distributed autonomy. I don’t know that individuals ever really experience themselves as part of a collective intelligence. At least not at this stage of human evolution. But I do know what it’s like to see oneself as part of a collective project.
The protocols for interaction really mean a lot. I look to organizations like Loomio, which coordinate group activity, for learnings about how to think with different size groups.
Will “platform economies” benefit cooperatist movements or be appropriated to corporatism?
Well, so far most of the big platforms are monopolies, not coops. Amazon, Facebook, Google…. And in those cases, only Google’s employees seem willing to push back on the company’s policies. By their very nature, digital platforms seem biased toward non-human entities like corporations over local, flesh-and-blood entities.
It’s hard to tell, though. In the early internet days, it felt just the opposite. These platforms were so intrinsically unfriendly to business. Most businesses eschewed the net: everyone wanted everything for free. People were sharing. It seemed to herald the end of corporatism. But of course, Barlow and other well-meaning libertarians pushed government and regulation off the net, and the large corporate players walked into the vacuum.
So the net we have now is populated and dominated by these super capital-intensive projects, and they’ve gathered enough users to become entrenched monopolies.
That said, anybody could build a Facebook or Uber today, with an almost trivial effort. None of this is as hard as it was back then. They couldn’t build an Amazon, because they have a whole lot of real-world infrastructure at this point. They’re like WalMart and UPS (logistics) in one company. Plus the could services.
Platform economies tend to favor those who scale, and scale almost infinitely. But so do growth-based capitalism, an interest-bearing currency, and an investor-rewarding tax structure. So I do see ways that platform economics can favor cooperatives, but those choosing to use digital platforms should really make sure they need them to organize their collectives. Or they at least need to organize along the principles of distributism – more like an anarcho-syndicalist network than a corporation. More like Ace hardware or Associated Press.
Are we in the midst of a cultural renaissance? How is that different from a digital revolution?
Oh, a revolution is just a turn of the cycle. One set of rulers is replaced by another. Bankers get replaced by crypto hackers or something. Rockefeller replaced by Gates. Gates by Zuckerberg. The US government by Trump.
Re-naissance means rebirth. A renaissance is the rebirth of old values in a new context. So the original Renaissance brought forward the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome – citizenship, individuality, centrality of the government, Empire. Our renaissance, the digital renaissance, has retrieved what got repressed the last time out: peer-to-peer economics, women, holism. It’s part of why we’re seeing all this medievalism. That’s the moment before the renaissance.
I think a renaissance is more hopeful, because it offers us the opportunity to retrieve essential human values, and then embed them in the digital future. It’s not simply about one kind of company ‘disrupting’ another. The game doesn’t change in that case. A renaissance changes the whole playing field.
Is it necessary to have a content creation platform in 2019?
I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking. You mean, necessary for humanity or necessary for individuals?
I’m using Medium these days as my content creation platform, and I’m glad to have a “place” where people gather to read and write and share and comment and cross-references. I like it better than I liked having my own website and then being on various people’s blog rolls. As long as Evan Williams stays on the writers’ side of the equation, it seems like a good thing. He’s even experimenting with a paywall where writers share what they’ve earned based on views and “claps.” A bit like a commons. And because it’s ad-free (and will hopefully stay that way!) it’s not subject to the same problems as a GoogleAds or Facebook.
When I first read the question, though, I thought maybe you were referring to WordPress and other content management systems through which to create writing and posts. I am still a fan of the “open web” and just serving html pages to people. But thats’ probably a sign of age. The dynamic rendering you can do effortlessly on a CMS are pretty useful – so your content will work on a phone or web browser. You don’t have to test your content on every device and browser. Who really wants to do that if they’re just making videos or writing articles? We don’t each have to know how to do everything in the process.
But it does require we *trust* the people creating the layer on which we’re publishing. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t.
Finally, if you mean, does *everybody* need to be on a content creation platform of some kind? No. Not everyone needs to be a content creator. It used to be very few of us that wrote books – partly because it involved typing and a lot of work. It’s a whole lot easier to “publish” right now. But that doesn’t mean everyone should. There are many many other ways to participate meaningfully in society.
That’s part of why I’ve started thinking of Team Human as my last book. I am interested to see how else I can play – and I want get off the stage and let others get their work out there. Even the Team Human podcast is really about me using the platform I’ve developed to support the work of others.
What are the main absences in the “sociological imagination” of contemporary society?
I know people have a lot of definitions for “sociological imagination.” For me, it’s simply the way in which a person conceives of the relationship between individuals, each other, and society as a whole.
Right now, the issue I’m seeing – even from some intellectuals – is the inability to distinguish between human dignity and personal freedom. We’ve reached the zenith of individuality, and have come to imagine universal liberty as some expression of this individual liberty.
Even Constitutionally, I think it leaves out the right of assembly. That’s the First Amendment right that all these individuals have: to gather! Our current sociological imagination seems to miss that individuality and collectivism are not mutually exclusive. They’re more like yin and yang than either/or. The true expression of an individual occurs in a group. The true collective enhances the power or reach of all the individuals in it.
So I think the sociological imagination of today is confused about society itself. They’re still stuck in Maggie Thatcher’s rhetorical flourish, “there is no such thing as society.” which she didn’t even really mean that way. She was trying to adapt Hayek, and say that society is the reconciliation of a zillion bottom-up desires. More of a perfect, invisible hand, emergent market phenomenon. I don’t quite buy that, but at least she’s admitting that there’s a coordinated whole.
At my town’s meetings, I’ve heard people get up and ask, “why do we have to pay school tax if we no longer have kids in school?” Stuff like that. That’s a lack of sociological imagination. That’s part of why I wrote Team Human: to help people remember that being human is a group activity.
What is right and what is wrong for the world today?
Right and wrong? Them’s fightin’ words!
I’m reluctant to moralize, but whatever brings us together is right, whatever separates us is wrong. Yes, we’re entitled to private email and bathroom stalls, so I don’t mean to get all extreme. There’s room for both.
But when I look at right and wrong for the world today, I see people retreating from true connection with others. They do this either through strident individualism, or total conformity. It’s easy to see how individualism is a problem. And how algorithms further atomize us. We are easier targets when we’re picked off from the herd. When we have no social relationships, and look to products or ‘non-player characters’ for a feeling of satisfaction.
Totally conformist mobs – like the crowds at a fascist rally or the silent workers in a giant factory – they’re not really together, either. They’re under one banner, but each one has their own relationship to the leader or to the company. They’re not a labor union or a guild. They’re not a team working together. They’re just as atomized, afraid to speak to one another or share their doubts. They may march in lockstep, but they’re not together.
So right now, as a result of consumerism, social media, political divisiveness, and mass social programming designed to alienate us, the main “good” we can do is to help people see other people as humans. Even if they’re on the other side of some fence. Getting us to see others as “other” is an old trick. It’s what the lords and kings used to do to get peasants to fight against one another. It’s what earned them fealty.
Whenever you hear a leader telling you that the other side are rapists or cannibals, remember that it’s not really true. That’s a wrong thing for the world, today. The right thing is saying, “look at those people over there. They are just like us. These national boundaries we protect are not recognized by nature or humanity. We’re all one family. Their suffering is our suffering.”
Will Elon Musk be comfortable staying on the moon?
He will die up there if he goes. You know how hard it is to maintain a biosphere in a dome? We couldn’t even do it on earth, with two Biosphere attempts. I think a sustainable closed-terrarium for humans on inhospitable planets is a long way off – even longer than Musk’s extended life span.