A.I., A.I., captain!

Joseph Stiglitz, he of former World Bankiness, haver of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics who warned that globalization was taking place at the behest international conglomerates rather than “forces,” now comes to light his hair on fire present similar cautions about Artificial Intelligence:

“Artificial intelligence and robotisation have the potential to increase the productivity of the economy and, in principle, that could make everybody better off,” he says. “But only if they are well managed.”

Beyond the impact of AI on work, Stiglitz sees more insidious forces at play. Armed with AI, tech firms can extract meaning from the data we hand over when we search, buy and message our friends. It is used ostensibly to deliver a more personalised service. That is one perspective. Another is that our data is used against us.

“These new tech giants are raising very deep issues about privacy and the ability to exploit ordinary people that were never present in earlier eras of monopoly power,” says Stiglitz. “Beforehand, you could raise the price. Now you can target particular individuals by exploiting their information.”

It is the potential for datasets to be combined that most worries Stiglitz. For example, retailers can now track customers via their smartphones as they move around stores and can gather data on what catches their eye and which displays they walk straight past.

The data farming of which we are all willing seeds know no boundaries, recognizes no politics and sees only profits. Shaded with the camouflage of complexity, it is a winning hand. Are we up for the ‘boring overwhelming’ of taking on the Tech giants? Wait, let me come in again…

Image: Warehouse operated by Amazon, via The Guardian

The Next Great Consumer Society

One of these words does not belong. David Leonhardt’s NYT magazine article on China offers a lot to digest over a week heavily gilded with L-tryptophan, so take it slowly and don’t miss the subtext – what’s wrong with the entire formulation: mainly that the hope of all humanity and the fate of the known universe rests upon China kicking some old-school lavish consumption into high gear.

The larger idea is to build a more sustainable economy, or what Chinese leaders have called a balanced and harmonious society. In that economy, families would not have to save 20 percent of their income in order to pay for schooling and medical care, as many do now. They would instead be able to afford more of the comforts of modern life — better housing, clothing, transportation and communication. In time, China would become the world’s next great consumer society.

Okay, it’s sounds good, especially with sprinkles of harmony, but which of these ideas don’t go together? I know – the whole idea that there can be anything but a continuation of the way things have been is nothing but hippie. But that’s why this whole thing is so difficult and you need to get off the baby sitter, Joel, and figure out something new besides the old brand of consumption. Buy and save the world. You see how incoherent that sounds? well, that’s this plan in its entirety. Read the article – the best case scenario, that China props up the world economy by engaging some kind hyper-consumption mode, is absolutely bleak. How long will that last? Then what? Remember: closed system. Whatever else it is, another fossil-fueled buying spree that lets us all hang on a little longer is not enough… is not it, as the kids say. This is not anti-growth, it’s just a realization that we can no longer see everything only through the prism of growth – as important as that is. So, it’s really a comment on the weakness of this response, if we can even still call it one, of framing the next last best hope on China going down the path we have used to get where we are, which is turning them into us so that we can… what?

remember, also, cycles are for pedaling. In some ways, this is the story of China’s decline before it even starts, and in this way can be instructive. Our future is linked – there are no separate dimensions for prosperity and decline. It is this we will choose/fail to reckon with until we no longer cannot.

May you enjoy your bird with family and friends.