In one of the sharpest critiques of machine learning that I’ve come across, Harvard computer scientist James Mickens attributes many of the current disasters of the tech industry to what he calls the doctrine of “technological manifest destiny”.
The core tenets of this quasi-religious belief system are:
1. Technology is value-neutral and therefore will automatically lead to good outcomes for everyone.
2. Thus, new kinds of technology should be deployed as quickly as possible, even if we lack a general idea of how the technology works or what the societal impact will be.
3. History is generally uninteresting because the past has nothing to teach us...
The polite term for the delusions that grip the lords of Silicon Valley (and their fans elsewhere) is technological determinism: the belief that technology is what really drives history and that they are on the right side of that history. It may also explain why they have manifested such blithe indifference to the malign effects that their machines are having on society. After all, if technology is the remorseless bulldozer that flattens everything in its path, then why waste time and energy fretting about it or imagining that it might be controlled?
Determinism, in that sense, removes human agency from the picture. The role assigned to people is essentially that of passive or active consumers of whatever wonders the tech industry chooses to lay before them. It also removes politics from the frame, because politics is about how societies make collective choices and determinism holds that there are no choices to be made. One of the infuriating tragedies of our time is how so many of our ruling elites seem to have swallowed this snake oil and how long it has then taken them to wake up to what’s going on.
Read more at the GUARDIAN.