Saturday, June 18, 2016

Stealing the future


“these companies really are designing the future and they may get away with it.”
Here՚s an article that caused a minor shitstorm among the self-appointed defenders of nerd-dom. It՚s not a very good article and the reaction it got is also pretty stupid, but it touches on themes of interest so I can՚t resist wading in.

The article claims:

  • “Relatively young white males overwhelmingly run Silicon Valley firms and they are stealing the future from everyone else.”
  • The algorithms of these young white males are biased.
  • Since these algorithms are an increasingly important part of the public sphere, they should be regulated by the public.
  • SV has an “almost complete absence” of females, non-whites, and people from demographics like the aged or the low-income.
  • Many of the men who run the techno-corporate behemoth are autistic or have minds tinged with autistic thinking.
  • In that regard, they “know little and care less” about other people.
  • Autistic traits are useful technically, but “can become a hindrance if a general naiveté about human beings is translated directly into the design of the products and services used by billions of other people around the world”.
  • “We” (society, or maybe neurotypicals?) ought to take more control of the technology rather than letting the autistics impose their warped vision on “us”.
Some of these statements are just false – for instance, SV has a very large number of Asians in both engineering and money roles, and while females are underrepresented, they are hardly completely absent. Others are phrased in a ridiculously contentious fashion: “stealing the future” is a brilliantly nasty phrase.

Nonetheless, I think underneath all that stuff are a couple of worthwhile points: (1) that tech companies have too much social power (2) there՚s something vaguely autistic about their methods. The first of these points seems obviously true to me. Companies or whole industries rise on tweaks to Google՚s ranking algorithm, and Facebook has assumed the power to tell us how we are allowed to present ourselves in public life. This just can՚t be good. It՚s not that Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin are bad people, it՚s just that it՚s obviously asking for trouble to cede the fundamental architecture of collective human society to individuals and for-profit organizations. I suppose it՚s controversial to suggest that big tech companies should be regulated or reined in somehow by the rest of society, but surely we can agree that they have immense power and there՚s no particular reason to think that they, of all human organizations, shnould be immune to the corruptions that accompany power.

But that particular line of attack isn՚t what triggered the remarkably strong reaction of the critics, who went so far as to compare the article to Nazi writings on Jews. At first, that seemed ridiculously overblown to me, almost offensively so. But maybe not -- scapegoating is an inherently ugly business, and the “stealing the future” line evokes that chilling song from Cabaret, In this reading, the autistic take the place of Jews in a story of illegitimate power wielded by a somewhat inhuman and alien race of people, a race that has expropriated the legitimate heirs to the future, whoever they are. If that wasn՚t bad enough, the article also blurs autism and whiteness and privilege in general. Sure sounds like like incitement to hatred.

And then it introduces the idea of “autistic corporations”, which is an interesting idea, but what does it really mean? A corporation run by or largely staffed by autistics? Seems to me a corporations, which is a legal person, might have plenty of these alleged evil autistic traits (such as lack of empathy) even if staffed entirely with the neurotypical.

These are all tantalizing questions for me: what does it mean to be human, how do we implement ethics and empathy, and how do the loosely-autistic people in the tech community diverge from the human norm? And how do collectives like corporations manage to embody partial humanity? However, this article does a piss-poor job of raising them. I guess that is due to the degraded state of public discourse, which largely consists of outrage contests.

So the worst thing about that article is not that it is going to cause pogroms against the autistic, but that it makes it that much harder to do the kind of informed and careful critiques of technology that we desperately need. It is quite right to say that the future should not be left in the hands of a few private tech corporations; and changing that will involve some kind of political struggle. It's quite wrong to paint this struggle in terms of race or neurotype.

[Addendum: right after posting I found out that today is "Autism Pride Day"
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