Under the Microscope, Invisible

There’s lies, damned lies and statistics behavourial tracking data.

I watched Marjorie Prime last night. It’s about a family that use AI holograms of departed loved ones for … therapeutic services, I guess? It’s a strange one. I like it. To me it seemed to be about memory, how subjective and imperfect it is, and how what we project of ourselves to others and what they interpret from our interactions or what they see of our lives is also – very subjective and imperfect. And it made me think about the technology our species is creating right now has the potential to disturb our relationship to and understanding of a shared reality with other people.

I really liked that because it struck me as one of genuinely concerning aspects of AI and virtual reality. Especially since most programmes or films about AI or VR often seem more about our (justified) fears about how unequal our world is. It’s not that I in any way mind watching programmes that highlight (however subtly) how unequal things are. I just often think that while using self-aware robots in dramas to explore what it means to be human, and to be human in this world, is interesting, it’s good for exploring what it means to be human more so than exploring how being human might be affected by this technology.

I’m not saying that *hands stretched out in ghoulish pose* “ooh the machines are coming for us!!!”. I actually am very excited by the potential these technologies hold. But how it could make it more difficult to distinguish what is real from what is artificial is worrying. And the fact that a small group of people could hold the power to decide how to paint our reality in the way that suits them best. That’s scary. Although I guess these themes are usually present in these kinds of sci-fi movies.

What made this a little different was watching the AIs browse through and muse on their recollections of life. They had all the stories, whether or not they were true wasn’t so sure, but they had gathered all the data before them and they had reactions to it. But their reactions were hollow. There wasn’t any conflict or violence in them recollecting things. Their reactions were artificial.

Their stated goal is to learn. To learn what it means to be fully human. And I like how this made you question our own need to categorise, rationalise and understand our experiences. But thinking about machines gathering up all this data, data that they can’t really do much with other than use it to better mimic being human, while living in a world where we may feel monitored, analysed, under a microscope just makes you think – well, what’s the point of all this? All this watching and listening and noting and learning. When it’s clear that you can’t really understand people by observing them. So then what’s the good of it?

I think intimacy, that feeling of really knowing someone, has very little to do with knowing all the ins an outs of their life experiences and their reactions to them. It’s about accepting them. Not on some intellectual level. Just feeling acceptance from them and for them.

Not that monitoring and recording the behaviour of others is about wanting to be close to them. It’s about control, isn’t it? About maintaining your position. About trying to ensure things run in a way that doesn’t affect you or your group’s special status.

When I titled this post Under the Microscope, Invisible, I’m not saying people feel invisible. I certainly don’t. And I find it hard to believe that anyone in the more technologically developed parts of the world do. We’re constantly been told how much our actions – online or otherwise – are open to scrutiny. But we also feel the lack of consequence of that scrutiny. So what if some bureaucrat or technocrat or just some machine somewhere knows your twitter profile. Or even if they’ve read personal emails? What are they going to do with that information? What’s the point of it?

Not invisible. Just misunderstood. Or perhaps no attempt is even made at understanding. How could the analysers possibly see the forest for the trees that way? But how can they really know the forest if they never really see the trees?

I don’t know… I think that to really benefit from knowledge of a thing you must be able to empathise with it. I think empathy is the root of understanding life. And would you put anything you truly empathised with under a microscope?

Anyway these kind of topics always remind me of that W. H. Auden poem, The Unknown Citizen. So I copied it here for you.

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

 

The image above is an edit (edited only so that I could use it) of a photo I saw last year in the Washington Post captioned. “July 23, 2017 A tourist takes a selfie at a subway station. Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images”

Be Notified of New Posts