By Dr John Töns
We can celebrate the defeat of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. We can claim that even though they may not have been vanquished they are well and truly under control. Thanks to organisations like the WHO, Pestilence is on the run. Whereas once upon time famine was an omnipresent threat, today it has been reduced to a tool of war. Whilst war has been confined to local conflicts, no doubt future historians will quibble whether this is the age of PAX Americana or whether the three super powers China, Russia and the USA are merely engaged in some sort of Mexican stand-off. As for death it too is no longer the threat it once was in the latter half of the 21st century for many the cause of death may well be acute boredom. But as the traditional analogue horsemen of the Apocalypse exit stage left, the digital Horsemen ride up to take their place: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (or FANG for short). FANG represents an existential threat to humankind, yet far from being threatened by FANG we appear to have embraced it.
Whereas the analogue horsemen represented a readily recognisable threat the same cannot be said for their digital counterparts. FANG is our own creation. What could possibly go wrong? What makes FANG such a threat How can FANG possibly be equated with the four analogue horsemen? We are in control of FANG and so it is no threat. Yet it is a dangerous illusion to think that we are in control. But all is not lost – we can win this final battle; analogue can beat digital. Those who think in base 10 can debase the primacy of binary thinking but to do that we need to understand the nature of the threat FANG, in its many disguises, poses.
Like all children FANG was quite adorable, cute even. It offered to do so much for us. Facebook was a rather sweet and innocent way for people to get to know one another better. Amazon gave us access to books from around the world. Netflix meant that we could get any movie on demand and as for Google, why, it opened the world for us, so much so that it entered our language as a very useful verb. To google means to find out, to discover. But like all children they grew up, they are now snotty adolescents and we run the danger, that unless we act now, that they will become surly adults; the sort you would not want to meet in a dark alley.
So how did it all go so dreadfully wrong? Clearly with a name like FANG, sound oral hygiene is important. Sadly, that is also where the root of the problem lies. For we know that Harald Bluetooth really had a tooth that was black with decay – blue tooth sounds nicer, but it is decay, nonetheless. Of course, it was not obvious at first. Who would not want to have ‘smart’ technology? You wear one of these wrist bands that monitor your heart rate and keep track of how much exercise you are getting and as a bonus it sends that information to your phone. Your phone is hooked up to your Facebook page, and of course you would like your friends to know how much fitter you are getting. Then as you take photos of your latest purchases these too will go on to Facebook, to be picked up by Amazon and soon you will be told that ‘people who bought this widget also bought this gizmo. Before you know it you have two unwanted items adding to your mountain of clutter.
But your smart phone can do much more than that. All you need to do is to invest in a four year old, who will show you how blue tooth can enable the internet of things to do everything you want it to. You can now turn on the air conditioning, so your home is at the right temperature when you get in. You can even order it to have the coffee ready for you. Even better is the fact that your phone tracks your every movement; the only downside is that it will also snitch on you if you are speeding and provide information to your insurer. Want to know about the possible future? Simply google China and Dystopia. But take care everything China is doing out in the open is being done in the West. In China it is done with the blessing of the State, in the West it is done with the blessing of the large corporations. All these little blue tooth devices enable FANG or its minions to build up a complete picture of not just your every waking moment but also what you do whilst you sleep.
These smart products are great, and they seemed to make life so much easier, but we had not fully understood how FANG could use them to shape our future. One day we discovered, to our horror and surprise that Facebook was not such a friend after all. Facebook had discovered that all this information we were giving away could be turned into profit. The more we shared the more Facebook knew about us and that information is worth cold hard cash for it meant that advertisers could target potential customers far easier.
Amazon too could get into the act. Whereas it started as a convenient way to buy books, it soon diversified into selling anything and everything. The more we bought online the fewer shops remained open. It was beginning to look very much like the world that E.M. Forster had imagined in his novella The Machine Stops was coming to pass. This was when a few of us began to have doubts about the wisdom of the path we were on. Although Forster’s story had been written in 1909, he seemed to be right. Already almost two thirds of the world population is urbanised. Cities are effectively huge machines – they make a large array of ‘smart’ technologies feasible. But the more reliant we become on artificial intelligence to run the world the greater the risk when, for whatever reason, that artificial intelligence (AI) breaks down.
Facebook showed us how the information that blue tooth technology was harvesting could be subverted. Amazon quite unwittingly alerted us to another inherent weakness of our reliance on artificial intelligence. AI is supposed to be about creating a more efficient and more cost-effective world. Recruiting staff is an expensive and time-consuming process, but for Amazon the solution was close at hand. It had recruited smart, mainly white middle-class males with freshly minted PhDs who had wrapped their entire education around maths and technology. Surely it would not be beyond their ability to write a recruitment algorithm. No more messy job interviews, AI could handle the entire recruitment process thanks to these clever young engineers. Success! The resultant algorithm reflected the world as they knew and understood it. Their recruitment algorithm discarded any candidate who was not male, white and middle-class. Just as God created ‘man’ in His own image so our young PhDs created their world in their own image. Amazon acknowledged failure and discarded the algorithm, but it should sound a warning bell. AI relies on algorithms that are produced-based on data that describes the world as it is, not as it could be or as we would like it to be.
Netflix seemed to be the most benign of the digital apocalyptic horsemen but again we misjudged badly. Initially it was not so bad – it was simply a means whereby we could get access to lots of different movies, documentaries and the like. But we did not look far enough. An important aspect of being human concerns the stories we develop to make sense of the world. As Netflix became bigger and more powerful it became responsible for delivering to us the stories that it had created. Of course, Netflix has an eye for profit and so it is busy learning what sells – any account that does not attract an immediate audience is scrapped. Netflix’s many imitators have embarked on the same course with the result that the creative attempts to make sense of the human experience has been impoverished. Netflix has the potential to usher in a dumbed-down version of humanity; such a dumbed-down version is unlikely to be able to mount an effective response to FANG.
And what of Google? Surely Google is a force for good? Through Google Scholar I can get access to all the latest articles on any topic that captures my attention. Google Maps enable me to find any place on the planet and of course Google itself opens the world to me. Everything I possibly ever need to know is available on Google. No longer do I need to talk to someone about servicing my car – Google’s YouTube will provide me with a step by step instruction. Surely Google is the most benign of these digital horsemen?
Think again! Google is by far the most dangerous of the four. Google encourages us to become passive consumers. Thanks to Google we can retreat into a world of incestuous amplification where we only listen to those who agree with us. Thanks to Google we can live vicariously where reality is banished. Of course, the danger is that one day the machine will stop.
It is of course very easy to blame FANG, but we must not lose sight of the fact that we have carefully cultivated the ground in which FANG thrives. I guess we have Friedrich Hayek to thank for this. His book The Road to Serfdom was the catalyst for the dominant role neo-liberalism was to play in the latter half of the 20th Century. The national institutions in the Western World and our global institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank did not merely uncritically embrace the economic theories that flowed from it – they also imposed it on any nations that were looking for development support. Ironically the very policies that were supposed to keep us of the road to serfdom only served to put us on that road. Just ask any wage earner who now finds that she is part of the precariat – ie little or no income guarantee making it virtually impossible to ever own one’s own home.
But wait… there is more! Politicians of all ideological shades were so impressed with the free market that it was decided that free market principles were the foundation of the good society. Not only was there a push to privatise a broad suite of public services, free market principles were to determine how much funding was allocated to public goods such as Health, Social Security and Education. It has been the application of free market principles to education that has opened the gate through which FANG galloped through and begun the task of taking over our lives.
Arguably it may have started when Deep Blue beat Kasparov at chess. For IBM it was possibly no more than a marketing exercise, but for some of us it opened up a new world of possibilities. We had known for some time about the computer’s capacity to solve complex problems involving the manipulation of huge amounts of data. The real break-through however, was that it demonstrated the ability of computers to solve problems fast. It is estimated that there are potentially 10 to the power of 40 possible chess combinations. To defeat Kasparov Deep Blue had to ‘think’ through all these possible combinations within the time constraints of a chess tournament.
Kasparov’s defeat was the annunciation that FANG was to be conceived. It was far from an immaculate conception; its parents were economic rationalism and neo-liberalism. The big hitters in the world of computers were dazzled by the riches that lay before them. Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Oracle and many others were looking at making the most of machine or artificial intelligence. All they needed was a small army of tech savvy engineers. National governments also recognised this new reality. By the first decade of the 21st Century a new paradigm had taken hold. Nations recognised that domestic prosperity relied on their capacity to attract and retain the very best people as Brown and Tannock put it:
The basic story goes as follows: the path to national prosperity lies in maximising global competitiveness; to be competitive globally, nations (rich nations, in particular) need to maximise their share of the world’s high tech, high skill, knowledge economy jobs; to help create and fill these jobs, nations need to recruit the world’s most skilled and talented individuals, from wherever they come; since other nations are competing for these same workers (and indeed, for one’s own set of domestic workers), nations need to adjust their immigration, education, economic and social policy in order to attract and retain them; the global war for talent thus puts into play a game of never ending one-upmanship, and reinforces the hegemonic development model of the competition state. (Phillip Brown & Stuart Tannock (2009) Education, meritocracy and the global war for talent, Journal of Education Policy, 24:4, 377-392)