The Unstoppable March of Technology

Every conversation that I have been in over the past 3 weeks outside the home has been about generative AI, and the vein of all these conversations is quite similar. Most of the people I met are optimistic about this new “technological advancement.”1 I met a few skeptics who believe that generative AI is adept at generating only a summary of what’s already out there and incapable of coming up with something original.2 I agree with those skeptics, based on the screenshots that abound on Twitter and my brief experience giving a handful of prompts to ChatGPT. The apparent inevitability of the “next thing” in technology is can not be understood as one that stems from rational thought: Rather, it is a cultural (almost religious) belief, and it pervades in the social psyche. For a while now, there has been this unstated acceptance that new technologies will come along, and those who don’t use them will be left behind in the dust. What if one were to ask the question, what if the dust is good enough? One wouldn’t even think of it; when has dust ever been “good enough”?. Is the cutting edge really something you want to be on? You better want to be there, or you will be left behind. Even if you are standing still on the travelator of technological advancements, you will be pulled along, dragging and screaming, on the unstoppable march of technology.

It is always hard to keep up with the news. I don’t read much of it anymore. Many times, I don’t know the topic that has been debated on all the newsletters for the past 3 days. I don’t feel like I miss many things. I find out about these things eventually, and most of the time, I am underwhelmed by what I find out. So, I have decided to not keep up with the news and instead spend my time on long form magazine articles, non-fiction books that try to guess where things went wrong3, and novels that have nothing to do with the present. But even this level of disconnection did not save me from finding out about the recent advances in generative AI technology: Large language models.

For a long time, the goal of AI scientists was to make something that was sentient and could think and do things like a human being. Some AI scientists thought the creation of such an AI system was inevitable, so they started working on the problem of ensuring that these AI systems (which will undoubtedly be created, duh.) don’t end up adversely affecting humans. Such an AI system does not exist yet. However, AI technology has come a long way: It can now write a mediocre essay about any topic, which is probably plagiarizing 100s of great essays and millions of mediocre essays on the same topic.

Another feature of this generative AI craze has been that it can write individual, isolated functions in programming languages for things like integrating a spreadsheet with some other tool or for connecting to the API of a service and automating some task, which was being performed manually. This feature is probably not very scary to most software engineers; nevertheless, let me say it aloud just once: Most engineers are not writing isolated functions. Their everyday task involves making sense of the myriad ways things are done at their workplace, and figuring out a way to make the technological stack a little bit easier to understand, while convincing a large retinue of coworkers that what they are doing actually makes things easier. Further, this kind of “duct-taping” between spreadsheets and some other tool is only necessary because most people agree that the tools that they use daily at work are terrible in general and particularly bad at achieving their primary function.

Generative AI can also create some images. Wired magazine thinks that these images are better than “art created by most humans.” They declared that generative AI now has “lowercase creativity.” I think this claim is wrong. AI art is AI art; not “human” art. There is no “authority” who can decide what is “real” art and what isn’t. So, whatever each viewer decides goes. For me, a painting by Klee or that of a minion by my niece is still objectively and incomparably better than the images generated by a computer program. Despite all the dressing up of AI as some “magical system,” it is just a computer program.

Funnily enough, even this article about “AI’s ability to generate images that are better than art by most humans” is not content with this bizarre and monumental claim. Somewhere in the middle, and completely out of nowhere, the author starts talking about how in the future you could generate 3D images, then use that to create a world in the metaverse and then walk through it with your VR headset. (You might notice that all the terms used in the previous sentence were coined in the 90s and entered the public’s psyche less than a year ago, when one company decided to change their name, and make one of those terms the central theme of their future businesses.) A simpler reading of the article is that it was written by somebody who has one foot in the door of every single hype train that is leaving the station.

Once, there were letters and we used to wait. Then, there was the telegraph. Then, radio, television (Idiot Box), computer, the Internet (Revolutionary), smartphones, social media (Anxiety), connected people, and connected homes (Internet of Things). Every technology brought along some problems which were fixed by the next advancement. No one stopped to think whether the adoption of each technological advancement was necessary; whether it introduced more problems than it solved; whether this march of technology was really inevitable and whether it was really a march forward.

Freud noticed this early:4

Freud once pointed out that new technologies merely solve problems created by other technologies. To the common refrain that without the telephone, we’d be unable to hear the voices of our adult children who live hundreds of miles away, he replied, “If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice.”

Neil Postman, a social critic from the 1980s, spoke about it too:5

To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is stupidity plain and simple. Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress.

– p.158, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Postman)

Postscript: A list of articles that take a sober view of what is lost by always being on the cutting edge:

  1. AI And The Limits Of Language
  2. The Prompt Box is a Minefield: AI Chatbots and Power of Language
  3. Does Digital Connectivity Democratize Culture?
  1. It is interesting that the change has been characterized as an advancement even before it is completely clear what the change really even is. 

  2. This undoubtedly depends on what you mean by “original,” on which there is considerable debate. 

  3. We are all in tacit agreement that things have gone terribly wrong, right? 

  4. Author: Meghan O’Gieblyn. From the “Dear Cloud Support” column in the February 2023 issue of Wired magazine. 

  5. I found this quote on 2023-04-29 when I was re-reading Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Postman used the same word, “inevitable,” as I had chosen to use in the opening paragraph of this post. I am glad to find out that others share the frustration that I feel when people talk about “unavoidable technological progress.”