The biggest lie tech people tell themselves — and the rest of us
October 8, 2019 6:56 PM   Subscribe

They see facial recognition, smart diapers, and surveillance devices as inevitable evolutions. They’re not. Evolution is a terrible metaphor for technology. Technologists’ desire to make a parallel to evolution is flawed at its very foundation. Evolution is driven by random mutation — mistakes, not plans. (And while some inventions may indeed be the result of mishaps, the decision of a company to patent, produce, and market those inventions is not.) Evolution doesn’t have meetings about the market, the environment, the customer base. Evolution doesn’t patent things or do focus groups. Evolution doesn’t spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress to ensure that its plans go unfettered. posted by Homo neanderthalensis (34 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is such an excellent piece. Working with technologists every day, I am always struck by how much they claim to be data-driven and yet, when it comes to massive knowledge and expertise blind spots on topics like bias, racism, and public health, all they have are...feelings instead of facts.

I do wish there was more exploration into how capitalism and neoliberalism have played such a massive role in shaping the attitudes and outcomes described in the piece.
posted by Ouverture at 7:09 PM on October 8 [26 favorites]


I mean, if anything, it is making us lose opportunities to evolve more. We are adapting to environments that cater to us and do it all for us.
posted by Catbunny at 7:13 PM on October 8 [8 favorites]


Wir müssen wissen — wir werden wissen.
posted by aramaic at 7:17 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]


Everything seems predicated on a profound lack of bothering to understand what scientists even mean when they talk about evolution.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:21 PM on October 8 [29 favorites]


Heh. As it turns out, evolution is also a terrible metaphor for biology.
posted by No Robots at 7:22 PM on October 8 [9 favorites]


The article captures this fairly well, but one thing I wish people would keep in mind regarding technology is that an idea and its implementation are separable. There are alternate ways to arrive at the same destination.

Something else I've been mulling is how tech seems to be driven to fulfill cultural fantasies without really interrogating them. Like, after many attempts Dick Tracy's watch is basically reality now, but its origins are as an article of power in stories about a cop from nearly 90 years ago. There's something very lagged about it.
posted by wordless reply at 8:57 PM on October 8 [9 favorites]


Surveillance tech spreads because when it gets cheap enough, you can be sued when something bad happened on your property and you didn't use it to protect, prevent or identify the miscreant.
posted by zaixfeep at 9:22 PM on October 8 [2 favorites]


BTW. I get to post here because I provided a real name and a credit card. I accept the reasons and I trust the proprietor, but I still get a bit of a chill down my spine anyway.
posted by zaixfeep at 9:27 PM on October 8 [7 favorites]


This article seems to confirm how I think most new technology is accepted by modern society. It goes in 3 stages:

Stage 1 - It's a cute toy.
Stage 2 - It's convenient.
Stage 3 - It's indispensable.
posted by e-man at 10:13 PM on October 8 [3 favorites]


Tech is an evolutionary process, but people are supplying both the variation and the selection.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 11:43 PM on October 8 [5 favorites]


zaixfeep: I just mailed a $5 bill to the appropriate person. No name/credit card required if you go out of your way a bit.
posted by aleph at 12:58 AM on October 9 [15 favorites]


Technology is not evolution.

Tech companies, and people like Ray Kurzweil, love to tell us that technological evolution is similar to biological evolution, or just a continuation of biological evolution at higher speed. By using this rethoric they want to persuade us that their products, and the future they have decided for us, are natural and inevitable. Any attempt to protest is just as futile as protesting against biological evolution. We should not believe them.
posted by Termite at 1:06 AM on October 9 [9 favorites]


protesting against biological evolution

Stop mating you two!
posted by fairmettle at 1:19 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


This reminds me strongly of arguing with people in my country about whether we should adopt online voting. Many people have said to me "well, it's inevitable" which really means "I support this but I want to pretend I have no agency and neither do you."
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:23 AM on October 9 [15 favorites]


Alternatively, teleology is a hell of a drug.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:24 AM on October 9 [8 favorites]


It's the cult that we don't know we're in. It's an organizing principle for a society that sadly has no other organizing principles.

I've been looking for the attribution of a quote that goes something like "the most powerful thing around you is the thing you can't even identify". Science and technology are now those things and it scares me because the propaganda surrounding it all is immense. A review of theorists from Gramsci to Baudrillard on this stuff is more important than ever. I honestly feel that I'm putting a mark on myself saying it even anonymously, and so I don't say it on MetaFilter, or anywhere else, except right now. I hope there comes a time when what we tell our children is worth doing is something other than "fiddle with computers".

It's worth remembering that all of IT is a means, not an end, to some other ostensibly productive enterprise, and we're gonna need those other enterprises a lot more going forward. Lastly: "automation is going to change everything and put you out of a job" is not a concept that arose from Concerned Citizens. Futurism has completely invaded politics and the elite are planting these seeds now in case they're needed. (Andrew Yang's platform is a complete capitulation to all this, and by that capitulation makes the propaganda even more powerful. Voting for him would be like kneeling and saying "I accept my fate capitalist masters".) /hides forever
posted by sylvanshine at 2:19 AM on October 9 [19 favorites]


Thank you for this, sylvanshine! We should strive to recognize this thing/these things which we can't identify.


I've been looking for the attribution of a quote that goes something like "the most powerful thing around you is the thing you can't even identify".

posted by Termite at 3:17 AM on October 9


It's worth remembering that all of IT is a means, not an end, to some other ostensibly productive enterprise

A poster on the wall in the college terminal room that caught my eye as a larval computer programmer in the early 1980s:

THE TECHNOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE:
CAN = MUST

This sentiment, which I have been consciously and deliberately pushing back against my own personal tendency toward uncritical acceptance of ever since, explains so much about where we are right now. Old, still neo-Luddite, and proud of it.
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 AM on October 9 [11 favorites]


The bit of the article that made my skin crawl was the Accenture guy : "only the hyper-privileged are saying 'I'm not on social media'."

Why can't he just call me a 'freak' like everyone else?
posted by Cardinal Fang at 4:56 AM on October 9 [7 favorites]


'Evolution' is used in both literal and figurative senses. Merriam-Webster has Darwin-free definitions of evolution:
- a process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance
- the process of working out or developing

As does Oxford:
- The gradual development of something.
posted by Homer42 at 5:03 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure the author starts from a very strong place with the quote from the guy trying to sell the classroom face recognition system. While being a Prof he seems to be more of a marketing guy in terms of his expertise, rather than a tech or innovation theoretician. Certainly his claim on evolution seems to owe more to flogging his face reading tech, than making a meaningful comment on innovation theory.

In terms of whether evolution is a useful term regarding tech development. As Homer42 says, the term 'evolution' is often applied for non-biological processes but even given that I think there are some useful parallels. While its a given that bio-evolution doesn't have the design committee, any emergent tech has to survive 'in the wild', and surviving iterations impact on future design and innovation. Clearly there are ways to interfere in the tech innovation process, such as interfering in regulation to enable oneself or block one's competitors, but that's really only a function of the environment in which innovation occurs.
posted by biffa at 5:11 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]




CAN = MUST

I think a slightly more charitable and far more accurate read is that people have an idea or see an opportunity, they assume (correctly) that somebody’s going to go and make a killing with it, so it might as well be somebody as ethical as themselves. Surprise surprise they get money and turn corrupt, a process which appears to be fundamental to the human condition.
posted by Ryvar at 5:52 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]




BTW. I get to post here because I provided a real name and a credit card. I accept the reasons and I trust the proprietor, but I still get a bit of a chill down my spine anyway.


Me too. Of course "A real name" could always be different from "My real name". The proprietor doesn't really have the means of verifying that beyond checking if the money came thru or not.
posted by some loser at 6:20 AM on October 9


The bit of the article that made my skin crawl was the Accenture guy

To be fair, crawling skin has been an appropriate response to anything out of Accenture since they used to call themselves Andersen Consulting. If anybody in the world is getting paid to whisper sweet bedtime stories in all our ears about the wonders of technology, you can be pretty sure that crowd has a finger somewhere in the pie.
posted by flabdablet at 6:47 AM on October 9 [7 favorites]


people have an idea or see an opportunity, they assume (correctly) that somebody’s going to go and make a killing with it, so it might as well be somebody as ethical as themselves.

That's not so much the Technological Imperative as the Walter White Excuse.
posted by flabdablet at 6:51 AM on October 9 [8 favorites]


The bit of the article that made my skin crawl was the Accenture guy : "only the hyper-privileged are saying 'I'm not on social media'."

Why can't he just call me a 'freak' like everyone else?


Quick note that Rumman Chowdhury is a woman of color. As mentioned in the last (disastrous) Facebook Thread, people often need to use social media to stay in touch with their family and friends, especially when in different countries, different time zones, and with different levels of technology adoption. That might be the angle she's coming from when she's saying that it's hard to opt out of social media without privilege.

Though I'm sorry that you feel like a freak for not using social media. I think ultimately it's the healthier choice, but the solution to the problem of social media isn't just to say "everyone get off."
posted by devrim at 7:39 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


Terrible to conflate tech with evolution, completely not the same. Evolution doesn't have a marketing team.
posted by agregoli at 8:43 AM on October 9


CAN = MUST

While I recognize your larger point, just as a pedantic aside for the sake of interest:

...this poster was almost certainly a joke about standards-writing. Documents being punted about during the OSI era (for example, things being handed down from SNA development) would occasionally include a header block that literally said things like "any instance of 'can' shall be interpreted as 'must' and any instance of 'may' shall be interpreted as 'absolutely must not' "

Similar header blocks have been used in standards writing for what seem to be eons (I encountered again them back when I did W3C work), and people have been joking about them for a similar length of time.

It may seem weird but there are actually many situations during standards development when those sorts of phrases are exceedingly useful (as you are cutting and pasting blocks of text from dozens of sources in a desperate effort to get something down on paper before the committee votes on it next week). Including a header block like that simplifies the committee process; it would normally be removed in subsequent editing (once you have personally gone through and corrected all of the relevant sentences), but I could envisage cases where it would not have been removed (in many ANSI organizations the chair of the committee has to personally do the editing him/herself, and often they are an emeritus-type person who no longer has any staff support and they're doing all of this on their own time for no pay during retirement since they feel they "owe" their industry, and us the public).
posted by aramaic at 8:53 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


The problem is that if it can be done, someone will do it eventually if extraordinary means are not used in a concerted effort by a majority of societies, viz., destruction of the earth by atomic weapons.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:17 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


Futurism has completely invaded politics

Not in the sense of politicians being largely concerned about the future. Most are massively short-sighted.

And not in the sense of what futurists think and do today.
posted by doctornemo at 11:15 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


If it's banned it'll just happen in secret. Evolution may not be the correct model, but once power recognizes that something is technically possible it will be done.

The **ONLY** real choice we have is whether or not we pass futile laws "banning" the technology thus assuring that all uses and abuses of it happen in total secrecy but giving us the comforting illusion of pretending it isn't happening at all, or admitting that the genie is out of the bottle and mandating radical transparency in the application of the technology.

History, sadly, shows that we'll almost certainly take the former approach stoppering our ears and shouting "LALALALALALICAN'THEARYOU" at anyone who points out that all the ostensible bans will do is guarantee total secrecy in how the powerful use the technology in question.
posted by sotonohito at 11:40 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


"Evolution doesn't have a marketing team."

Tell that to the hard-working people who thought up and designed this.
posted by el io at 1:52 PM on October 9


Education =/= Marketing

That they're equivalent might be a tenet of the whole techno-innovation ethos though...
posted by sneebler at 12:38 PM on October 12


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