finally, robotic beings rule the world

Last week in The Guardian Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann ask, “Will the internet of things result in predictable people?” As the article concludes,

Alan Turing wondered if machines could be human-like, and recently that topic’s been getting a lot of attention. But perhaps a more important question is a reverse Turing test: can humans become machine-like and pervasively programmable.

This concern reminds me of one of mentioned a few times here recently, coming from Mark Hansen’s Feed Forward, where the capacity of digital devices allows them to intercede in our unconscious processes and feed forward a media infoscape that precedes, shapes, and anticipates our thinking. In doing so, as Hansen points it, it potentially short-circuits any opportunity for deliberation: a point which is likely of interest to most rhetoricians since rhetoric (in its quintessential modern form anyway) hinges on the human capacity for deliberation.  This is also a surprising inversion of the classic concept of cybernetics and the cyborg where it is feedback, information collected by machines and presented to our consciousness, that defines our interaction with machines.

Put simply, the difference between feed-forward and feedback is the location of agency. If humans become predictable and programmable, does that mean that we lose agency? That we cease to be human?

Cue Flight of the Conchords:

In the distant future (the year 2000), when robot beings rule the world…  Is this too tongue in cheek? Maybe, but it strikes me as a more apt pop cultural reference than The Matrix, which is where Selinger and Frischmann turn when they note that “even though we won’t become human batteries that literally power machines, we’ll still be fueling them as perpetual sources of data that they’re programmed to extract, analyse, share, and act upon.” Why is “Robots” better? Perhaps unintentionally it presents robots and humans as one in the same. Humans may be dead, but robots are surprisingly human-like. The humans-turned-robots revolt against their human oppressors who “made us work for too long/
For unreasonable hours.”

The problem that Hansen, Selinger and Frischmann identify is also the problem Baudrillard terms the “precession of the simulacra” (which, not coincidentally, is the philosophical inspiration for The Matrix). And it suggests, like The Matrix, that the world is created for us, before us, to inhabit.

We might ask, even if sounds perverse, how awful is it if people are predictable/programmable? Of course, we are (or hope to be) internally predictable. When I walk down the hall, I want to do so predictably. When I see a colleague coming toward me, I want my eyes and brain to identify her. I’d like to wave and say hello. And, I’d like my colleague to recognize all of that as a friendly gesture. Deliberation is itself predictable. Rhetoric and persuasion rely upon the predictability of the audience.  I suppose that if you knew everything about me that I know about me then  you could predict much of the content of this post. After all, that’s how I am doing it.

That said there’s much of this post that I couldn’t predict. Maybe the “perpetual sources of data” available to digital machines know me better. Maybe they could produce this post faster than me. Maybe they could write a better one, be a better version of me than I am. After all, isn’t that why we use these machines? For the promises they make to realize our dreams?

I think we can all acknowledge legitimate concerns with these information gathering devices. What corporations know about us, what governments know about us, and what either might do with the information they glean. Furthermore, no doubt we need to learn how to live in a digital world, to not be driven mad by the insistent calls of social media with its alternating calls to our desires and to superego judgments of what we should be doing. However such concerns are all too human; there’s nothing especially robotic about them. While we want to be predictable to ourselves and we want the world to be predictable enough to act in it, we worry about our seeming or being predictable to others in a way that causes doubts about our agency.

However in many ways the obverse is true. It is our reliable participation in a network of actors that makes us what we are (human, robot, whatever).

This is a complex situation (of course). It requires collaboration between human and machine. It requires ethics–human and robotic. It is, by my view, a rhetorical matter in the way that the expressive encounters among actors open possibilities for thought and action to be shaped. I would not worry about humans becoming robots.