The Uncanny Valley of Privacy Violation

The uncanny valley is that region in which an artificial system, in gradually becoming better at mimicking a human’s appearance or behaviour, becomes eerily off-putting. In robots, in computer graphics, in children’s toys, we innately distrust dead things telling us they’re alive.

The recent creeping intrusion of social networks into our privacy is, I think, a facet of this innate distrust, and it’s perhaps unfair to assign too much malevolent motive to mechanical systems which were not designed with ill intent, or perhaps any intent, in mind.

I like that my browser remembers what sites I visit. It saves me repeatedly typing in the same URL, or trawling Google for an article I was reading yesterday. Clearing the cache is a crucial feature, but a browser that retained no memory of the sites you visit, ever, would become very frustrating, very quickly. It would be akin to constantly giving instructions to a person with neither long nor short-term memory, no capacity to learn from your previous instructions.

Computers aren’t people though. Once told to remember something, they hold on to that fact until they are told to forget it, or their magnetic bits fade and fail, whichever comes first. Here lies the problem. Computers are too good at remembering, the capacity and extent of their memories far beyond any human’s. Divulging a secret to a computer means it will be remembered forever, not because computers are nefarious, but because that’s just what they do. Though not the fault of the computer, and indeed an intended and deliberate feature, it’s unnatural, and falls into that uncanny valley that our brains tell us to fear and distrust (and perhaps rightly so).

Browser histories, locations, fitness data, email logs, as creepy as it is to picture all this sensitive data about our lives being compiled and archived, it would be incredibly frustrating if our devices were so stupid that they tracked none of this, and in many cases would negate the entire benefit of owning these devices, using these programs, or subscribing to these services.. The problem is that there’s no distinct line between what is useful and what is creepy.

This is not to argue that we shouldn’t be upset that this data can potentially be accessed without our consent, or to claim that the motives behind large companies collecting our data are entirely benevolent, and not a cause for concern. This is a call for reflection and moderation. Before we raise pitchforks and torches against our silicon creations, and demand they be destroyed or lobotomized, we should remember why we gave them un-life them in the first place.

  • Header image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/downhilldom1984/
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Automation Is Not a Justification For Universal Basic Income

Hand-wringing opinion pieces on the rise of automation and its impact on minimum-wage jobs have become vogue online. News articles about automated check-out lines, touch-screen fast-food menus, and computer-controlled cars are inevitably followed by editorials predicting an impending collapse of society as workers are replaced by circuits boards and algorithms whose only cost is a monthly electrical bill, and who never sleep or need a vacation.

These authors immediately and without fail give their game away by insisting that this is a problem that can only be solved by imposing a Universal Basic Income, mandating that the government take money from a small segment of the population and distribute it more fairly amongst the entire population.

This is marxism.

Given the historical record and moral repugnance of communism, socialism, and marxism (as these ideas routinely follow each other around), the only thing more shameful than calling for marxism is fear-mongering and feigning concern for one`s fellow man in order to do so. Authors who use advances in technology as evidence for their necessity are as short-sighted and ignorant of human nature as communists, socialists, and marxists have ever been.

Jobs are not an artificially limited resource in finite supply, and subtracting those jobs that can be performed by machinery from the current total does not leave humanity with a permanently lessened sum. Jobs are any activity a person can perform to produce a good or service in exchange for goods or services provided by other people. Jobs are potentially as infinite as human wants and needs, and limited only by our ability to imagine new ways to help and serve eachother, to improve eachother’s lives. So long as humans have the ability to act, they will find goods or services to offer that technology can’t replace. Actors, hair stylists, journalists, all provide services that at one point in history humans didn’t even know they wanted, and to assume that we have achieved the totality of all services that we will ever want is laughable.

Humans adapt to change. This is the same fact ignored by proponents of minimum wages, price regulations, or government subsidies. If an employee costs more to hire, a business owner will adapt by firing employees to reduce costs or raising prices to increase earnings. If a service such as education is made cheaper by government subsidies, institutions like universities can quickly raise the cost without reducing sales, as the difference in cost isn’t absorbed by the customer. Similarly, if a person loses their job to obsolescence of any kind, they quickly adapt to find a new job. This may require learning a new skill-set, working in a different industry, or providing a good or service to the world that has never been explored before, but humans do not sit motionless, waiting for a mystical body to dole out work like rations in a food line.

Technological change is nothing new, and history has seen new technologies supersede entire industries before. There is far less demand today for chimney sweeps and farriers due to electric heating and the automobile, but the demand for electricians and mechanics has grown in proportion. The new jobs that arose are in place of the old are far safer and more comfortable for those who perform them, and the humanity is far better off for the change. The savings incurred in placing robots into the workforce has and will continue to allow companies to undercut each other’s prices, as lowering the cost of production allows for lowering the price of their products, motivated by market competition. The cost of living has and will continue to fall as a result of technological advances, and as this drops consumers are left with more money to spend, and new industries arise to take advantage. Interior decorators and wedding planners would seem ludicrous extravagances back when a solid meal required an entire day’s hard labour, but are now viable careers in an age of plenty.

That the kind of tasks in which robots and automation excel; menial, repetitive, and back-breaking tasks, can and will be replaced by something other than a human is a fact to be celebrated. There is nobility in every kind of work, as every job by definition benefits society, but if less human capital is spent on necessary but monotonous tasks,  countless hours of human life are freed to be spent on tasks better suited to human creativity. If a job can be performed better and more cheaply by a robot than a person, bless the person for doing that job until now, and bless the creator of the robot for making that job obsolete. That the miracle of human ingenuity would be used as justification for the type slavery imposed by marxism would be ridiculous were it not so horrendous.