In the 21st century, the human race faces a new problem. Thanks to information technology, vast asymmetries of knowledge have opened up - creating vast asymmetries of power. Through the screens of our smart devices, both corporations and governments are becoming adept at exerting control over us via algorithms: they know what we’re doing, what we’re thinking, can predict our next moves and influence our behaviour. We, meanwhile, don’t even have the right to know that any of this is going on.
And that’s just the nightmare of the present. In the future, as artificial intelligence develops, it will become very easy for us to lose control of information machines altogether.
An algorithm is simply the instructions for solving a problem, devised by a human and written down. For example: when I present my passport, border control knows that, if my fingerprints match the ones stored on file, they should let me through; if they don’t I get detained for further questioning.
As we enter the 2020s, an alliance of ethnic nationalists, woman-haters and authoritarian political leaders are tearing the world order to shreds. What unites them is their disdain for universal human rights and their fear of freedom.
A computer programme is an algorithm running without human intervention. In one sense it is just the latest achievement in a long process of automation. For the past 200 years of our most successful strategies has been to move workers “to the side” of an industrial process; to make them observers rather than controllers, giving machines temporary and limited autonomy. What we do with computers and information networks is only an extension of what we did with windmills, cotton spinning machines and the combustion engine.
But once machines can give themselves instructions, the risk is that humanity steps “to the side” permanently, surrendering control.
Millions of people have become alert to the dangers of algorithmic control. But they assume it is a problem for an ethics committee, a tech conference, a science magazine - or for the next generation to solve. In fact, it is intimately connected to the urgent economic, political and moral crises we are living through now.
Suppose I told you there was a machine that could run the country better than the government, think more logically than any single human, and run autonomously? Suppose I asked you to hand control of all the important decisions in your life to that machine? Suppose I said you would be happier if you changed your behaviour to anticipate what the machine decides? I hope you would scorn the whole idea.
But try substituting the word “market” for the machine. For three decades, millions of people have allowed market forces to run their lives, shape their behaviour and overrule their democratic rights. There is even a religion dedicated to worshipping this machine’s power and control: it’s called economics.
By elevating the market to the status of an autonomous, super-human spirit-guide during the past 30 years we have, potentially, prepared ourselves to accept machine control sometime during the next 100 years.
During the free-market era we learned to celebrate the subjection of human beings to market forces. We treated concepts like citizenship, morality and “agency” (the power to act) as if they were irrelevant to the workings of the world, which was now run only by consumer choice and financial engineering.
But now the free-market system has imploded. The logic of selfishness, hierarchy and consumerism no longer works. As a result, the religion of the market has given way to older gods: racism, nationalism, misogyny and the idolisation of powerful thieves.
As we enter the 2020s, an alliance of ethnic nationalists, woman-haters and authoritarian political leaders are tearing the world order to shreds. What unites them is their disdain for universal human rights and their fear of freedom. They love the idea of machine control and, if we let, them they will deploy it aggressively to keep themselves rich, powerful and unaccountable
It is not too late to stem the chaos and disorder, to stop the attempt to impose new biological hierarchies based on race, gender and nationality, and to refuse machine control. But the arguments for surrendering to them are all around us.
For three decades, millions of people have allowed market forces to run their lives, shape their behaviour and overrule their democratic rights.
The idea that “humanity is already over” is deeply embedded in modern thought, from the alt-right to the academic left. No matter how much you, personally, are trying to live by “human values”, the consensus is – from Silicon Valley to the HQ of the Chinese Communist Party– that human values have no foundation; that there is no such thing as human nature, no logical basis to privilege humans over all machines, no rationale for universal human rights.
With hindsight, free-market ideology looks like the gateway drug for a more pervasive anti-humanism. And we’re about to find out just how damaging this harder drug can be.
“Compete and acquire” was the first commandment of the free-market religion. In the era of de-globalisation and right-wing nationalism it will become: compete, acquire, lie, control and kill. If we don’t place the new technology of intelligent machines under human control, and programme them to achieve human values, the values they will be designed around are those of Putin, Trump and Xi Jin Ping.
So I have written Clear Bright Future as an act of defiance. When you’ve read it, I hope you will begin to make acts of defiance yourself. They can range from bringing down dictators, to setting up human-centred projects in your neighbourhood, to simply defying machine logic in your daily life.
To resist effectively we need a theory of human nature that can survive in conflict with free-market economics, machine worship and the anti-humanism of the academic left.
We need, in short, a radical defence of the human being.
This is an extract from Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason, available now.