Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Podcast Interview - Is High Tech Turning Turning Us Into the Borg?

I recently had the privilege of being a guest on the Social Network Show podcast. The show is hosted by Dr Jane Karwoski and deals with the impact of technology, particularly social networking technology, on society. Dr Karwoski invited me on to talk about the Borg-likeness of the modern world. Regular readers of the blog will know that this is a topic I am quite interested in, having written a couple of posts about it, and I was pleased to be given the opportunity to talk about it on the podcast.

In the show, I distinguish between two different senses of 'Borg-likeness':

Borg-likeness1 We are increasingly becoming fused with technology (in a physical and metaphorical sense), i.e. we are becoming literal cyborgs.
Borg-likeness2 We are increasingly interconnected with one another and this may be suppressing our individuality and limiting our autonomy, i.e. we are moving towards a collective organism like the Borg on Star Trek.

Then myself and Dr. Karwoski consider the technological and ideological forces that may be driving us toward Borg-likeness (in both senses) and whether this is something we should worry about. You can listen here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Value of Deep Work and How to Prioritise It

(Trigger Warning: This post is a bit self-helpy)

My life is filled with trivial, time-wasting tasks. As an academic, teaching and research are the most valuable* activities I perform. And yet as I progress in my career I find myself constantly drawn away from these two things to focus on administrative tasks. While efficient administration is important in large organisations (like universities), it feels like a major time-sink to someone like me because (a) I am not ultimately rewarded for being good at it (career progression depends far more research and, to a lesser extent, teaching) and (b) I don’t have any aptitude for or interest in it.

But the time-wasting and triviality doesn’t stem entirely from administrative pressures. It also stems from my own wanton behaviour. I can go for long stretches every day, when I have the time to be working on the more important things, doing everything but. Instead, I end up in a ‘technology loop’, flitting back and forth between email, facebook, twitter, and various other distraction sites, all part of an endless search for new updates and entertainments. The result is that the day ends and I feel anxious and unsatisfied by my failure to do anything productive.

I say this as someone who is a big fan of periodic laziness. I dislike the notion that productivity is the be all and end all of life. I think we should spend some of our time in self-indulgent, non-productive states. Nevertheless, a life without some deep, meaningful and productive work would be bad too. I derive tremendous personal satisfaction from my creative and productive acts, both on this blog and elsewhere in my professional life. The question is how can I set up my life so that I achieve this balance? How can I avoid the days of anxiety-inducing time-wasting, without falling into the productivity trap?

This is what Cal Newport’s recent book Deep Work is all about. The book is about the distinction between two types of work:

Deep Work: “Professional [note: this seems unnecessary to me] activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”

Shallow Work: “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate

Newport’s central thesis is that the former is (for most people) more valuable and more meaningful than the latter (an inevitable conclusion given the definitions), and yet modern workplaces and network tools are set-up so as to make the latter more common. He tries to provide the reader with various strategies for prioritising deep work in their everyday life.

Now, I’m incapable of reading anything uncritically. It’s a consequence of my academic training. So although I like a lot of what Newport has to say, I also find myself in disagreement with some of his claims. But I don’t want to dwell on those disagreements here (if you’re interested, some of them are addressed on this Chronicle of Higher Education review of the book). Instead, I want to share some of the tips and tricks. In particular the six strategies that Newport presents for prioritising deep work in your life. These are summarised in the image below; I expand on them in the remainder of the post.

Strategy 1 - Develop Your Depth Philosophy
If you are going to make deep work an important part of your life, you need to figure out the basis on which you are going to do this. Are you going to commit fully or periodically oscillate back-and-forth between deep and shallow work? Newport identifies four different depth philosophies that have been adopted by different deep workers:

The Monastic Philosophy: This involves total commitment to deep work. You cut yourself off from the world as much as possible in order to avoid the distraction-rich environment that encourages shallow work. You focus purely on the deep stuff. Newport cites the computer scientist Donald Knuth and the science fiction author Neal Stephenson as two prominent proponents of the monastic philosophy. To these, he could probably add the film director Christopher Nolan. All three of these individuals are famously dismissive of email and others forms of correspondence that distract them from what they really want to do. This monastic style of existence is probably only accessible to the privileged few. Most people have to do some shallow work (and I suspect not even Knuth, Stephenson and Nolan are able to completely avoid it).

The Bimodal Philosophy: This involves oscillating back-and-forth between periods of monastery-like commitment and periods of shallow work. Newport’s go-to example is Carl Jung, who used to divide his time between a busy psychotherapy practice and social scene in Zurich and a rustic stone house in the woods near Bollingen. It was in the latter that he engaged in the deep work that formed the backbone of his famous theories. Another example is Bill Gates who used to have ‘think weeks’ while the CEO of Microsoft. During these think weeks he would cut himself off from distraction and focus on reading and thinking big thoughts. The key feature of the bimodal philosophy — and what separates it from the next two philosophies — is that the periods of time spent in deep work are relatively long and uninterrupted. Bimodal workers spend at least one day committed to deep work, possibly more.

The Rhythmic Philosophy: This also involves oscillation but on a more habitual basis. The idea is that you make deep work part of your daily routine. This probably best sums up my own attitude to deep work. I try to start each (work!) day with a writing session. I don’t check work emails until after this session is completed. I find this rhythmic approach is common among many writers. I remember reading Stephen King’s book On Writing years ago, and as I recall he described his own daily routine of writing 2,000 words a day. Usually he would complete this in the morning and spend the afternoon running errands, though he admitted that some days it was harder to reach the 2,000 word target. I usually set myself a minimum target of 1,000 words and find that I can easily meet this in a couple of hours (this is down to the nature of the writing I do, which is relatively untaxing; if I was writing a novel I’m sure it would be more difficult).

The Journalistic Philosophy: This involves grabbing any moment you can for engaging in deep work. It has the name it has because Newport bases it on the experiences of the journalist Walter Isaacson. Isaacson is now famous for writing big biographies of historical and intellectual figures (Benjamin Franklin; Albert Einstein; Steve Jobs). When writing his first book, Isaacson had to balance the demands of his work as a busy journalist with the deep work necessary for writing the book. He did this by grabbing any spare moment he could, in the interstices of his daily life, to work on the book. I have gravitated towards this philosophy at times in my life, particularly when working to deadline, but I don’t really enjoy it. Newport isn’t a huge fan either, arguing that it would be particularly difficult for someone who is unused to deep work to adopt this philosophy at the outset.

One thing I like about these four philosophies is their diversity. In the past, I have been a proponent of the rhythmic philosophy, often advocating it to my colleagues and insisting that with as a little as half an hour a day dedicated to deep work they could accomplish far more than they ever expected. I now realise that this may be overly prescriptive. Some people need more extended periods of focus; some people can work with less routinised schedules.

Strategy 2 - Ritualise the Process
I have semi-famous namesake. This other John Danaher is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu master who has trained some of the top UFC fighters. His most famous student is probably the Canadian fighter Georges St. Pierre. Interestingly, this other John Danaher was doing a PhD in philosophy in Columbia University New York before he quit to take up his current career. Sometimes I get confused for him on social media sites though people usually quickly realise their mistake (sadly my proficiency at BJJ is noticeably less impressive than his). Anyway, in St. Pierre’s book The Way of the Fight, the other John Danaher says something interesting about the relationship between excellence and routine:

I have a belief that all human greatness is founded on routine, that truly great human behaviour is impossible without this central part of your life being set up and governed by routine. All greatness comes out of an investment in time and the perfection of skills that render you great. And so, show me almost any truly great person in the world who exhibits some kind of extraordinary skills, and I'll show you a person who's life is governed by routine.

The thought resonates. In order to engage in deep creative work, you need to cut out some of the background noise. By keeping other parts of your life reasonably constant and rule-governed, you can dedicate your creative energies to that which is most important. This is the power of routine, or as Newport prefers to call it ritual.

To consistently engage in deep work, Newport recommends that you ritualise your process. There will be diversity in these rituals — you have to experiment and find out what works best for you — but a good routine should address three questions:

(a) Where will you work and for how long? - Do you have a favourite desk, cafe, corner of the library, park bench (etc) where you like to work? For deep work, the location should be relatively isolated (i.e. free from shallow work distractions). You may be able to achieve this in your normal workspace (for instance, I use an app called ‘Freedom’ to block internet access for certain periods of time) or you may need to have two separate workspaces (e.g. home and the office).

(b) How will you work once you start to work? - You need to develop some structure that will concentrate your mind so that the time is used effectively. For instance, if you are into writing you might set yourself a target number of words.

(c) How will you support your work? - i.e. what will you do to ensure you have the energy and motivation you need to sustain the work. Food, coffee, exercise and the like are all common support mechanisms.

Strategy 3 - Make Grand Gestures
Sometimes people have trouble escaping from shallow work. Their homes and offices are filled with distractions that constantly tempt them away from the sustained focus required for deep work. When this happens, it can help to make a grand gesture. This is a costly commitment that effectively shocks or forces you into a deep work mode.

Newport provides several examples of authors doing this (it’s telling that so many of the examples involve writing). Perhaps the most famous is JK Rowling, who was struggling to write the final volume of the Harry Potter series. Although she had a home office, she found her home too distracting to allow her to shift into the headspace needed to finish the series (particularly given the weight of readers’ expectations). So she checked into suite in the five star Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. Initially she was just going to do this for a day, but she found that the suite enabled her to focus. She continued to use the suite until the book was finished.

Of course, it’s easy for JK Rowling (a billionaire author) to make such a grand gesture. But similar solutions can work at a smaller scale. You could build your own workspace in a garden shed, or furnish a new home office, or rent a cottage for a couple of weeks. Anything that takes you out of the shallow work mode and encourages you to commit to the process.

Strategy 4 - Don’t Work Alone
This is a tricky one. Some modern workplaces over-emphasise the value of collaboration and community. Newport criticises Facebook’s plans to create the largest open office space for this reason. The reality is that such workspaces are often incredibly distracting (and competitive) and can compromise the focus requires for deep work.

Still, there is some rationale behind them. The belief of people like Mark Zuckerberg is that the open spaces will encourage people to communicate and will lead to serendipitous creativity. Two (or more) people with distinct ideas will combine their efforts to produce something new, interesting and valuable. Newport accepts that this may be true, but argues that serendipitous creativity is not best facilitated by a massively open office.

Instead, he argues for a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model. He uses the example of MIT’s famous Building 20 (now demolished) to illustrate the idea. Building 20 was a temporary shelter constructed during WWII. It was used as an overflow space for academics and researchers from different disciplines. The mismatch of academics and disciplines led to interesting and productive collaborations. This was helped by the haphazard design of the building. Many of the internal walls and floors could be rearranged, and new equipment could be added as the researchers saw fit.

Newport argues that the creativity that arose in Building 20 was made possible by a hub-and-spoke model of design. Researchers had their own workspaces (the spokes), which they could redesign as they saw fit, and then they had common spaces (the hub) where they could encounter and share ideas with diverse others. It was this ability to collaborate and interact in the hub and then retreat to the spoke when the deep work needed to be done, that enabled the serendipitous creativity. Newport suggests that we adopt a similar ‘hub-and-spoke’ model for our work lives.

Just to be clear, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of collaborative deep work. Two or more people who meet in one of the ‘hubs’ could find a project on which they can collaborate. This may lead to joint deep work. The point is simply that constant exposure to others who may not share anything with you is more likely to compromise deep work than assist.

Strategy 5 - Execute Effectively
Newport refers to this strategy as ‘Execute like a business’, but I just can’t bring myself to accept that title. There’s a serious reason for this: I don’t think there’s anything about the strategy that is essentially businesslike. And that’s kind of Newport’s point. There’s a less serious reason for it too: Newport seems way more inclined to businessy, self-helpy linguistic constructions than I am. They always raise my sceptical hackles and make me more resistant to advice than I might otherwise be. So I’ve dropped the reference to ‘businesslike’ execution.

The gist of this strategy is that you must appreciate the difference between what you are trying to do and how you are going to do it. You know that are trying to work deeply, but how will you know whether you are working deeply? The products of deep work are the result of many hours of sustained effort. And the time from production to feedback can often be slow. How can you ensure that you are on the right track?

Newport offers four bits of advice for effective execution (borrowed from another business book but applied to his own work as an academic computer scientist):

A. Focus on the ‘wildly important’: i.e. don’t waste effort on work that doesn’t have value. The idea here is akin to the (in)famous 80/20 heuristic. According to this heuristic (derived from the work of the economist Vilfredo Pareto) approximately 80% of the value you produce will come from 20% of the work that you do. So you should prioritise that 20% over everything else. I have my problems with this. I think it may hold true in retrospect (e.g. it may well be true that 80% of the pageviews on this blog come from 20% of the posts) but I think it is difficult to know in advance what will prove to be most valuable. Some things have highly unexpected payoffs. Still, I think the heuristic has some utility: there are probably a lot of things that we could exclude that are relatively valueless.

B. Act on Lead Measures not on Lag Measures: A lag measure is an ‘after the fact’ measure of success. For an academics it it might be the number of peer-reviewed publications in top-ranked journal’. These are useful for assessing your overall level of performance or success. A lead measure is something that can help to predict whether you will achieve the desired lag measure. For an academic this might be the number of words written for a proposed journal article per day. The idea is that you should focus on lead measures when working deeply. They are within your immediate control and can chart your progress to your desired goal.

C. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: This builds on the previous bit of advice. The idea is that you should keep a visible record of how well you are doing at achieving your lead measures. This could be something as simple as a wall-calendar on which you mark your daily attainment of some relevant lead measure. To stick with the academic example, the calendar might record total number of words written per day, or numbers of hours spent working on research and so on. By making it visually appealing you can help to further focus your mind on how you will get to where you want to be.

D. Create a Cadence of Accountability: When working as part of a team, it is important to create a regular schedule of meetings during which team members will account for their progress on relevant project goals. This ensures everyone is keeping pace and that the goal is within sight. Newport argues that you can incorporate regular accountability into solo work as well. For instance, he has a weekly review during which he checks to see how well he is progressing on his lead measures. If he has fallen short of a target, he tries to figure out why and adjust his schedule for the following week accordingly.

The advantage of this advice is that, if effective, it enables you to have more free time. If you are focusing on what matters most in your line of deep work, and not getting drowned in the shallow tasks that fill out most working days, you have more time for family, friends, leisure and relaxation. Which brings me to my favourite piece of advice…

Strategy 6 - Be Lazy
You can’t spend all of your time engaged in deep work. You need to switch off every now and then. There should be no endless checking of work emails or attending to other administrative tasks. Do these things at specific times; process them in a methodical way; and don’t allow them to invade your downtime. Newports gives three main reasons for favouring this kind of laziness. The first is that not consciously attending to some facet of deep work can enable unconscious insight. I agree with this. I know that when I am out taking a long walk or bike ride my mind often stumbles upon ideas for articles I would like to write. The second is simply that switching off allows you to recharge your mental faculties. And the third is that the kind of work that fills your downtime tends to be of low value anyway. You would be better off leaving it out.

To facilitate regular bouts of laziness, Newport recommends a daily shutdown ritual. This ritual serves as a clear signal to yourself that it is okay to switch off and prevents incomplete tasks from dominating your attention during your downtime. The precise details of the ritual can vary, but Newports suggests that, at a minimum, (i) it includes drawing up a clear plan for the next working day and (ii) this plan is captured somewhere where it can be revisited when needed.

His own shutdown ritual involves a review of the day’s accomplishments, a final email check, and drawing up a task list for the next day. I have started doing this recently and I find it quite beneficial. It really does help me to switch off and separate myself from my working life. It also allows me to be far more focused when I need to be and, ultimately, content in what I am doing. I suspect this is the sign of maturing relationship with work, something that most people go through once they have settled into their working lives.

Anyway, those are the six strategies for prioritising deep work. There’s a lot more in Newport’s book. Despite my occasional misgivings, I definitely recommend checking it out.

* To be clear, I am not claiming that I am valuable to the world. I have no idea whether I am or not. I’m simply suggesting that the generally accepted view is that this is where the value of academics lies.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Reality Transducer or Omniscience Engine? Five Metaphors for the Internet of Things

I think metaphors are important. They can help to organise the way we think about something, highlighting its unappreciated features, and allowing us to identify possibilities that were previously hidden from view. They can also be problematic, biasing our thought in unproductive ways, and obscuring things that should be in plain view. Good metaphors are key.

With that in mind, in this post I want introduce five different metaphors for thinking about the internet of things (IOT). These metaphors were inspired by my recent reading of Samuel Greengard’s book The Internet of Things (MIT Press 2015). I think they provide interesting insights into the potentialities of the IOT, though they may also skew our thinking in misleading ways. I want to explore the positive and negative features of these metaphors in what follows.

Before I do that, however, I want to consider more deeply the value of metaphors by using a case study from the work of the philosopher Daniel Dennett.

1. The Value of Metaphors: Dennett’s ‘Universal Acid’
Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is an extended meditation on the meaning of Darwin’s theory of evolution for our understanding of ourselves. The book is replete with clever metaphors and thought experiments. Indeed, Dennett is something of a master of the art, recently collecting his greatest hits in a book entitled Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking.

Given this, it’s hard to pick just one metaphor from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to foreground my discussion of the IOT. But I’ll settle on one of the simplest and most arresting: the metaphor of universal acid. Dennett describes it like this:

Did you ever hear of universal acid? This fantasy used to amuse me and some of my schoolboy friends — I have no idea whether we invented or inherited it, along with Spanish fly and saltpeter, as a part of underground youth culture. Universal acid is a liquid so corrosive that it will eat through anything! The problem is: what do you keep it in? It dissolves glass bottles and stainless-steel canisters as readily as paper bags. What would happen if you somehow came upon or created a dollop of universal acid? Would the whole planet eventually be destroyed? What would it leave in its wake?
(Dennett 1995, 63)

Universal acid doesn’t really exist, of course. But the fiction is both provocative and evocative. Through the simplicity of the original idea (“a liquid so corrosive that it will eat through anything!”) and the well-time rhetorical questions (“what would happen if…?”), Dennett quickly has us imagining its reality.

The payoff comes later. Dennett uses this provocative fiction as a symbolic representation (i.e. a metaphor) for Darwin’s theory of evolution. As he puts it:

Little did I realize that in a few years I would encounter an idea— Darwin’s idea— bearing an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landscape still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.
(Dennett 1995, 63)

In fact, this is the central thesis of Dennett’s book — one he develops over the next 500 or so pages. Evolution really is somewhat akin to a universal acid. Once you understand that we are ourselves products of the evolutionary forces that Darwin describes — in both our bodies and our minds — nothing is ever quite the same again. Your entire worldview is dissolved and reconstituted by the process. There's some exaggeration in the metaphor, to be sure, but that's part of its charm.

I think this example reveals the power of metaphor. When you use a symbolic representation as a framework for understanding another important concept or idea, you can cast that concept or idea in a new light, appreciating both its virtues and dangers in a heightened way. Can we do this for the IOT?

2. Five Metaphors for the Internet of Things
Let’s start by asking a question: What is the internet of things? To some extent the ‘IOT’ has become a buzzword, often bandied about by people who don’t really know what it is but recognise that it is important. The gist of the IOT is relatively easy to grasp. We are all now used to the idea that computers can ‘talk’ to each other: sharing data and information through the internet. We are also all now used to the idea that other devices can connect to one another using the same infrastructure (e.g. smartphones, tablets and wearables). What we may not realise is how many ‘things’ are (and can be) imbued with similar degrees of connectivity.

This is what the concept of the IOT enables us to see. Indeed, the takeoff in terms of the number of objects and devices that can now connect via the internet is truly astonishing. Cars, buildings, warehouses, thermostats, clothes, shoes, traffic lights, cameras, watches, flasks, and eyeglasses are just some of the things that have now been tagged and imbued with internet connectivity in the past few years. This trend can be expected to continue. Greengard cites some figures from Cisco Systems that illustrate the potentialities:

[A]pproximately 12.1 billion Internet connected devices were in use in April 2014, and the figure is expected to zoom to above 50 billion by 2020. In fact the networking firm [i.e. Cisco systems] says that about 100 “things” currently connect to the Internet every second but the number will reach 250 per second by 2020. Overall, the Internet Business Solutions Group at Cisco Systems estimates that more than 1.5 trillion “things” exist in the physical world and 99 percent of physical objects will eventually become part of a network.
(Greengard 2015, 13)

This may be an over-estimate, but it gives a sense of the eventual scope of IOT. And connectivity is just a small part of it. The real impetus for this is to collect data from the things imbued with internet connectivity, mine this data for useful information, and then use it for making better decisions through both human and automated decision makers.

How can we make sense of the IOT? This is where the metaphors come in. One thing that struck me while reading Greengard’s book was the different ways in which he described the infrastructure of the IOT and its various possible uses. Although he never explicitly labelled these descriptions, or referred to them as metaphors, I think it is worth doing so for the reasons stated above. So, without further ado (further? hasn’t there been plenty already?) here are five metaphors for thinking about the IOT:

The IOT as the Apotheosis of Connectivity: Dali’s famous painting “The Apotheosis of Homer” depicts the epic poet’s ascension to the divine. It was a common scene in classical art. This reflects the original theological meaning of the word ‘apotheosis’, which is to elevate something to a divine or holy status. I use the term deliberately (if advisedly) here. The suggestion behind this first metaphor is that the IOT represents an elevation of connectivity to a sacred status. This is perhaps the most basic metaphor for the IOT. As Greengard puts it, the IOT “extends connectedness far beyond computers and into all the nooks and crannies of the world” (Greengard 2015, 16). Optimistically, this augurs an end to loneliness and isolation; more pessimistically, it augurs a struggle (which many already experience) to maintain privacy, solitude and disconnection.

The IOT as a Reality Transducer: ‘Transduction’ is a term used in many fields. It refers, roughly to the process of converting one thing into another. In biophysics, for example, it refers to the conveyance of energy from one electron to another by changing the class or type of energy. And a ‘transducer’ is a device for converting one kind of quantity (e.g. pressure) into another type of signal (electrical). I use the term loosely here to refer to the potential for the IOT to convert physical reality (“real” reality) into digital or virtual reality. If everything is tagged and imbued with digital technology then it can become part of the digital world. If the tagging incorporates control technologies (e.g. robotic systems) then the physical reality can be manipulated using the same tools as the digital world. Greengard says this represents an ‘advanced state where physical and digital worlds are blended into a single space’ (Greengard 2015, 18). This opens up many interesting, and possibly disturbing scenarios. It may deconstruct our concept of reality (remove ontological distinctions between the virtual and the real), and lead to the programmability of the world (through advances in nanotechnology).

The IOT as an Omniscience Engine: This is another quasi-theological metaphor. In orthodox monotheism, God is supposed to be an omniscient (“all-knowing”) being. I have my doubts whether such a being is possible, and I’m not even sure that the concept of ‘omniscience’ is coherent, but nevertheless I think there is something about the IOT that warrants the metaphor of the omniscience engine. Kevin Ashton, coiner of the term ‘internet of things’, wrote an article in 2009 lamenting the fact that ‘people have limited time, attention and accuracy — all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world’ (quote from Greengard 2015, 20). In other words, he was lamenting the epistemological limits of humans beings. The hope was that the technology behind the IOT would be better at capturing data about reality. This suggests to me that the IOT can be viewed as a way to make the world more knowable. In the limit, this implies that the IOT could know everything about everything. But ‘knowledge’ is a tricky concept. Mass data collection is not knowledge: making sense of the information collected by the machinery of the IOT will be key.

The IOT as a Global Neural Network: This is an obvious metaphor. It moves us beyond the IOT as a tool for connectivity and data collection, and focuses on its other capacities for data mining/processing, and physical action in the world (through human or robotic agents). When you include those capacities, you see the potential for the IOT to form a global neural network. Neural systems in humans and other animals perform three basic functions: they collect sensory data; they process this data; and they initiate actions in the world. The infrastructure for the IOT can perform the same basic functions. This is interesting in its own right: a single or multipolar agency could emerge from the architecture of the IOT, which raises many fears and hopes (cf Bostrom Superintelligence). But it also enables us to appreciate the next metaphor.

The IOT as a Hivemind Platform: This metaphor appeals to the concept of a superorganism or hivemind, i.e. something akin to a bee colony or, to use a fictional analogy, the Borg of Star Trek. The idea is that the IOT is potentially all-encompassing. We might think that there is some hard and fast distinction between us (human beings) and other ‘things’ in the world. But there isn’t. There is no reason why we cannot be among the things that are incorporated into the infrastructure of the IOT. In many ways we already are. Wearable tech and prosthetic implants can be imbued with internet connectivity: they can be controlled and updated from the ‘cloud’. In the near future, we will be able to use these implants and devices to connect with one another on a brain-to-brain basis. Indeed, there are already some examples of experiments doing exactly this. As the potential for this kind of connectivity grows, we could transition to a something like a hivemind society. I’ve explored some of the issues arising from this in my previous posts about the Borg-like society.

So there you have it. Five metaphors for thinking about the IOT. I think these metaphors enable us to see potentialities within the technology that may previously have been hidden from view. But I also accept that they may be hyperbolic and overblown. Are there better metaphors to be adopted? I’m curious to know what you think.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Powerful Nonsense Ep 95 - Finding meaning in an automated world

I had a flurry of podcast interviews to start the new year. One of them was an interview on Powerful Nonsense. This is a very interesting podcast hosted by Cem Yildiz and Wayne Ingram which gives advice to young people about work and fulfillment in the new economy. They invited me on to talk about meaning in an age of automation. The conversation ended up being quite wide-ranging. Here's a small sample of the topics we covered:

  • Am I a technophile or a technophobe? (Answer: Neither)
  • What role does science fiction play in shaping the future?
  • Is the labour market undergoing a polarisation effect?
  • Are we entering an age of material abundance?
  • The rise of the basic income guarantee
  • Self-driving cars and the uberisation of the economy
  • Status quo bias in work and philosophy

And more. This was a fun and challenging interview. You can listen to it here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Justice-Related Objections to Effective Altruism


(Taxonomy of Objections)

This post is the first substantive entry in my series about effective altruism. In a previous post, I offered a general introduction to the topic of effective altruism (EA) and sketched out a taxonomy of the main objections to the practice. In that post, I adopted a ‘thick’ definition of EA, which holds that one ought to do the most good one can do, assuming a welfarist and consequentialist approach to ethics, and favouring evidentially robust policy interventions. I identified nine major objections to this form of thick effective altruism, divided into three main families. The diagram above depicts all of this.

In today’s post, I want to take a more detailed look at the first family of objections: the justice family. The gist of the justice objection is that thick EA fails to appropriately weigh justice-relevant conditions when assessing the policies that ought to be favoured by its adherents. This objection takes three forms: (i) the equality version; (ii) the priority version; and (iii) the rights version. Let’s look at each objection and the possible responses from the proponents of EA.

As with all the entries in this series, what follows is based closely on Iason Gabriel’s excellent article ‘What’s wrong with effective altruism?’. I will add some commentary of my own along the way, but I can’t claim any originality for the main points.

1. The Equality Objection
Gabriel notes that most EAs appreciate the instrumental value of equality (understood broadly here to include equality of outcome and opportunity). Inequality of outcomes can often be an impediment to securing other goods and can give rise to ‘resentment, domination and the erosion of public goods’ (Gabriel 2015, 4). Furthermore, the welfarist philosophy underlying EA is committed to the concept of marginal utility. This concept implies that more good can be done by giving something to the poor than by giving the same thing to the relatively wealthy. This is heavily emphasised in all the EA literature I have come across.

Nevertheless, despite this instrumental appreciation of equality, critics charge that adherents of EA do not appreciate the intrinsic good of equality. Gabriel makes the point using a thought experiment.

Two Villages: There are two villages in two different countries, both in need of assistance. There are two possible policy interventions which could be funded (the funding being the same for both). The first intervention would allocate money equally between the two villages, supporting the same projects in both and achieving a substantial overall benefit. The second intervention gives all the money to one of the villages. By doing so, the second intervention achieves a marginally greater overall gain in welfare. Which intervention should you favour?

To be consistent with their welfarist and consequentialist philosophy, the proponent of EA would have to favour the second intervention, even though it pays no heed to the intrinsic value of equality. This is a problem according to the critic.

Let’s formalise this into an argument objecting to EA:

  • (1) Equality is an important intrinsic moral good — an essential part of any theory of justice.

  • (2) Thick EA is insensitive to the intrinsic value of equality (support: Two Villages thought experiment) 

  • (3) Therefore, thick EA fails to be just.

Is this a serious objection? Gabriel is non-committal in his analysis, but notes that there are several plausible lines of response available to the proponent of EA. The first is simply to reject the guiding normative premise, i.e. reject the notion that equality is an intrinsic moral good and an essential part of any theory of justice. This might seem unpalatable at first glance, but there are several philosophers who defend the notion that equality is not an intrinsic good. For example, Harry Frankfurt has recently penned a short book defending this proposition, and libertarians like Michael Huemer have offered sustained objections to it in the past. The advantage of this response is that EA is still perfectly well able to address the instrumental value of equality in its assessments. This, in turn, mitigates the initially negative reaction to dropping the intrinsic value of equality.

Maybe that’s a step too far for some people. If so, there are other ways to reconcile EA and equality. One is to broaden one’s conception of the good so that equity becomes part of the welfarist system of values. Welfarism, as it is typically conceived, focuses on a narrow set of well-being metrics, including things like absence of pain, lifespan, improved educational attainment and so forth (more on these metrics in a future entry in this series). This set of metrics could potentially be expanded to include equality of outcomes. Gabriel channels Samuel Scheffler on this point, noting that one could adopt a ‘distribution-sensitive conception of the overall good’. The problem with this is figuring out the weight that should be attached to equitable distributions in the assessment of outcomes.

Another possibility would be to allow equality to be used as a tie-breaker when other welfare-based comparisons are indeterminate. This would accommodate some of the intuition behind the equality objection, albeit not all of it.

In sum, it’s not clear how serious the equality objection is to the EA project.

2. The Priority Objection
The second variant on the justice objection focuses on the concept of priority. This features in many accounts of distributive justice. A pure form of distributive egalitarianism would treat everybody equally. So if there was $1,000,000 to be divided up between a population of 1,000, everybody would get an equal share of $1,000. This pure egalitarianism does not sit well with many people. The problem is that in a population of 1,000 there are likely to be important differences when it comes to how much some people deserve to receive. For example, some people might be independently wealthy and so not in need of $1,000. Some people might have been wealthy before, but gambled away all their money on speculative investments. Such people would be less deserving of the money than someone who was deprived through no fault of their own. The concept of priority is introduced so as to pay heed to these differences in deservingness.

What this means in practice is that distributions should usually favour the worst off. In other words, they should get priority when it comes to divvying up things like social spending or charitable giving. Ostensibly, thick EA pays heed to this prioritarian vision of justice. If you read books like MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, the message clearly seems to be that we should donate to the ultra poor. The critic argues that thick EAs are not true prioritarians in practice. They favour interventions that are cost-effective and result in the greatest marginal gains in welfare. The problem is that interventions favouring the poorest of the poor are unlikely to be both cost-effective and result in the greatest marginal gains in welfare. The poorest of the poor suffer from complex, multidimensional forms of deprivation that are difficult to overcome via any one policy intervention.

Once again Gabriel makes the point using a thought experiment:

Ultrapoverty: In a developing country, many people are living in extreme poverty. Some of those people are worse off than others. As an EA you have to choose between two possible policy interventions. The first focuses on those who can benefit the most: urban literate men. The policy is very successful in lifting them out of poverty. The second program focuses on those who are worst off: illiterate widows and disabled persons living in rural areas. It has some success, but less than the first program.

The claim is that the thick EA would have to favour the first policy in order to be consistent with their welfarist and consequentialist philosophy. This means they are not truly sensitive to the prioritarian vision of justice.

To formalise this, we can say:

  • (4) Any complete vision of justice ought to include a prioritarian condition when it comes to distributions of benefits and burdens, i.e. it ought to favour those most in need. 

  • (5) Thick EAs are insensitive to the prioritarian condition (support: Ultrapoverty thought experiment) 

  • (6) Therefore, thick EA fails to be just.

What can be said in response? Gabriel suggests four possible replies.

The first is to bite the bullet and reject the prioritarian condition. Again, this might seem like an unpalatable thing to do. The prioritarian view has a certain intuitive appeal. But there are philosophers who reject it. For instance, Huemer, in the paper linked to previously, critiques the prioritarian view. But this critique has limited scope, applying only when certain other conditions are met. Furthermore, even with this limited scope, Huemer’s view is not beyond criticism and has, indeed, been recently challenged by Pierre Cloarec. Still, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to reject prioritarianism.

A second response is to incorporate the prioritarian condition into their welfarist calculus, possibly on a defeasible basis. Gabriel notes that some large charitable foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, already incorporate priority rankings into their decision-making. This suggests that this particular criticism of EA may be more theoretical than practical. A third response would be to use priority as a tie-breaker in cases where the welfarist calculation is indeterminate or equivalent between two policy interventions.

The final response is slightly more theoretical. One justification of the prioritarian view holds that it is important because it legitimises the state’s actions. That is to say, in order for the state to legitimately hold coercive power over its citizens, its institutions must be justified to the worst-off in society. This is one of the ideas in Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Given this theoretical grounding, a proponent of EA may be able to step around the prioritarian critique by arguing that they are focusing on private donations. The claim would be that private donations are not subject to the same need for legitimation and hence the priority condition can be ignored. The problem with this is that it feels like the EA gets off on a technicality, and I’m not sure how defensible it is in a world in which private interests hold considerable state-like power (this being one of the critiques of large philanthropic donations like those emanating from Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg).

3. The Rights Objection
The final justice-related objection focuses on rights. Most people know what rights are. They are those somewhat elusive moral-legal entities that entitle you to make claims on others and impose duties upon them. They could include things like the right to bodily integrity, freedom of conscience, property, education and so on. Following Dworkin’s classic metaphor, rights are sometimes said to operate as ‘trumps’ in political and legal decision-making. You cannot sacrifice someone’s rights to the greater good.

The critic of EA worries that it is not sensitive to the trump-like quality of rights. EA’s may be able to respect rights in a defeasible manner, perhaps by accepting that respecting rights is a decent heuristic to follow when trying to secure the optimum marginal welfare gains. But such defeasible support for rights is insufficient for the critic. Another thought experiment can be used to make the point:

Sweatshop: You are working in a developing country that has seen a remarkable growth in dangerous and poorly regulated factory labour (‘sweatshop labour’). This has lifted many people out of poverty, but led to an increase in workplace fatalities. Some NGOs want to campaign for better working conditions (‘workers’ rights’). They ask you for money. You have reason to believe that your donation would enable them to persuade the government to introduce a workers’ rights charter. But the effect of this would be to reduce the number of employment opportunities in the country, thereby preventing many people from escaping poverty. What do you do?

This thought experiment is a little less hypothetical than the preceding ones. If you read MacAskill’s Doing Good Better you will find a robust defence of sweatshop labour on the grounds that it is undoubtedly good for the poor. But the rights theorist may balk at this. They would argue that favouring sweatshop labour involves an impermissible tradeoff between the rights of the workers and the greater good.

To put this formally:

  • (7) Any complete theory of justice must include respect for individual rights as trumps, i.e. rights cannot be traded off for the greater good. 

  • (8) Thick EAs do not treat rights as trumps (support: Sweatshop thought experiment) 

  • (9) Therefore, thick EA fails to be just.

This objection mimics the standard deontological objection to consequentialist ethical theories. According to the critic, rights operate as deontological side constraints to decision-making. Can the proponent of EA address this problem? Gabriel identifies three responses.

The first is to try to incorporate rights into the overall conception of the good that motivates the EA position. This is not as unusual as it might first sound. Amartya Sen has argued (LINK) that respect for rights should be included as an additional factor in the overall assessment of the good. They would be included alongside the welfare assessments that are common to EA; they would not be reducible to such welfare assessments. In other words, when assessing the merits of some policy intervention, EAs should try to include respect for rights and gains in welfare in their assessments. This might lead them to conclude that the welfare gains from sweatshop labour are offset by the rights violations.

The second response is to hang tough and insist upon the consequentialist analysis. In other words, to insist that in at least some cases gains in welfare trump rights. I tend to find this appealing for reasons discussed elsewhere on this blog. I am broadly in favour of consequentialist approaches to ethics and find many standard deontological objections unpersuasive. For instance, the most common objection to consequentialism is that if you follow its advice to the hilt you will end up doing some seemingly bad things. But as Pettit points out, in most such cases, following the deontologist’s advice also requires some bad things. This is because most such objections to consequentialism involve dilemmatic decision problems in which no course of action is 100% desirable. Thus, in these cases it still seems like assessing the overall outcomes is the best way to go. That’s not to say it’s easy to assess those outcomes and to figure out what should and should not go into our assessment of the good; but it is to say that insisting on deontological constraints is not as compelling as some seem to believe.

The third response would be to develop rights-based defences of things like sweatshop labour to back up the initial welfarist assessment. Gabriel briefly alludes to this possibility. He suggests that the sweatshop labour example involves a tradeoff between a right to subsistence and a right to reasonable working conditions. In this case, the right to subsistence might win out. However, Gabriel reneges on this position because he accepts an argument made by Henry Shue which claims that subsistence includes security in the possession of what one needs to get by. The concern then is that sweatshop labour wouldn’t include that security.

4. Conclusion
To briefly recap, the three justice objections all claim that EA is deficient because it fails to incorporate some justice-relevant condition. As outlined above, there are various ways that the proponent of EA can respond. These typically reduce to either hanging tough with their welfarist-consequentialist approach to assessing policies; or modifying their view to incorporate the relevant conditions.

Although I have covered these objections in quite some detail, I have to say that I find these to be the least interesting objections to EA. It’s not that the points raised are unimportant. It’s just that they are all really about the moral theory underlying the EA position. It’s always possible for the proponent of EA to amend their moral theory so as to align more closely with our moral intuitions. The real issue is whether those amendments undermine other aspects of EA, such as its insistence on useful objective metrics for assessing policy interventions. That’s what the next set of objections will deal with. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Robot Overlordz: Ep 237 The Sofalarity and the Future of Work

I had the good fortune of being invited back onto the Robot Overlordz podcast for a third time. On this occasion, I was talking about the future of work. Several topics were discussed over the course of the podcast, including:

  • What is work and what might a world without it look like?
  • Depictions of a postwork future in science fiction, including Star Trek and Wall E (and the idea of the 'sofalarity')
  • The polarisation effect and its impact on the future of work
  • The politics of the basic income guarantee

And more. Check it out. I recommend listening the higher quality recording, which is available here.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Goods of Work (other than Money) in a Postwork Future

Let’s distinguish between two senses of the word ‘work’:

Work1: The performance of some skill in return for, or in the ultimate hope of receiving, an extrinsic economic reward.
Work2: Activities performed by human beings, individually and in groups, for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons, not necessarily for economic reward.

The second sense is the more general one, encompassing all human activities. The first sense is the one I always rely upon in my writing about technological unemployment and antiwork political philosophy. I introduce them both here because I want to look at a recent paper by Anca Gheaus and Lisa Herzog entitled ‘The Goods of Work (other than money)’, which deals with the ways in which ‘work’ contributes to the good life.

The paper makes two interesting points. First, it argues that paid work (i.e. work1) can be a source of great value and meaning in our lives, apart from the economic rewards it provides. In fact, there are four specific non-monetary goods associated with work which should be recognised and distinguished from one another. Second, it argues that these goods should be factored into any theory of distributive justice. This has important repercussions for those who think that redistributions of income are an adequate compensation for the loss of work.

I want to examine these points in light of my ongoing interest in technological unemployment, the basic income guarantee, and the concept of a ‘postwork’ future. Although I appreciate Gheaus and Herzog’s identification of the goods of work, and their linking of these goods to debates about distributive justice, I want to suggest that concern for these goods is compatible with welcoming the shift to a postwork future. Part of the reason for this has to do with the distinction between the two senses of the word ‘work’ outlined above.

1. The Four Non-Monetary Goods of Work
In his much-lauded 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the filmmaker David Gelb presents a fascinating insight into the working life of Jiro Ono, a legendary Tokyo-based sushi chef. Jiro runs a small, three Michelin-starred, restaurant in the basement of an inauspicious Tokyo office building. He has been making sushi, day in day out, for over 70 years. He embodies the philosophy of the shokunin (roughly, the Japanese for ‘craftsman’), constantly seeking to refine and improve his technique, and finding his work to be immense source of value and personal satisfaction.

The documentary lacks a critical edge but nevertheless makes an important point, namely: that there is something about dedicating one’s life to the cultivation of a skillset that can be incredibly rewarding. If this can, in turn, be a source of economic security for oneself and one’s family, then this is all the better. But the value of the work doesn’t lie solely in the receipt of the economic reward. One gets the sense from the documentary that Jiro is entirely unmotivated by money: he is solely concerned with his craft. That work can be source of such meaning is an important factor when considering the antiwork position that I have articulated on this blog a number of times.

It is also one of the central insights of Gheaus and Herzog’s paper. They argue that work is a privileged context for the realisation of four non-monetary ‘goods’. These goods are analytically distinct and should be factored into any scheme of distributive justice. They are:

Excellence: Work is a privileged context for the realisation of excellence. Gheaus and Herzog define this broadly to include the development of knowledge, the honing of some skillset and the production of excellent pieces of work. Work is a privileged context for the realisation of excellence because excellence requires ‘sustained effort and focus’. Work allows people to dedicate their time and effort to something. It also provides them with the pressures needed to ‘up their game’ and engage in high quality performances. Excellence is also a key motivator for people engaging in work. The forms of work that allow people to develop mastery are the ones associated with higher levels of job satisfaction.

Social Contribution: Work is one of the primary (though not the only) context in which people can make a contribution to the societies in which they live, i.e. produce a good or provide a service that people need/desire. Gheaus and Herzog argue that ‘work is a natural context in which to realize the good of social contribution because we spend much of our time in it and because it is the typical setting for social encounters aimed at producing utility’. Nevertheless, they concede that the market does not always ascribe value to the things that make the greatest social contribution and that voluntary work (as opposed to paid work) is another important context in which people make a social contribution. This good is analytically distinct from the good of excellence because one does not need to achieve excellence in order to make a social contribution.

Community: Work is a way in which people can achieve the good of community. It is commonly observed that people desire to do things together with other people, i.e. to interact with others and engage in joint enterprises. Work provides one of the chief fora for engaging in joint enterprises. As the labour law scholar Cynthia Estlund has observed “the workplace is the single most important site of cooperative interaction and sociability among adult citizens outside the family” (quote taken from Gheaus and Herzog 2015). Gheaus and Herzog note that different work environments can be more or less conducive to this good. The traditional hierarchical organisational structure of the company may not be the best way in which to achieve a sense of community; more cooperative and egalitarian organisational structures might be preferable. Again, this good is clearly separable from the previous two: community is possible with neither excellence nor social contribution.

Social Status: Recognition and validation is an important part of human social life. Our sense of self-worth is negatively and positively impacted by the esteem in which others hold us. Work is a way in which to achieve esteemed social status. As Gheaus and Herzog put it “[f]or the majority of people in this day and age paid employment provides by far the most opportunities for gaining social recognition.” Recognition is often achieved through the extrinsic rewards of work (pay, benefits in kind, power, organisational role and so forth), rather than directly through the work product itself, though obviously there is a connection between the two. The recognition associated with work is partly symbolic insofar as it is a function of a cultural system in which work and the work ethic is valorised. Recognition is, once again, clearly separable from the previous goods: one can achieve higher status through work without necessarily being excellent, without working in community with others, and without making important social contributions.

The four non-monetary goods of work are illustrated below.

2. The Goods of Work in a Postwork World
I find much to admire in Gheaus and Herzog’s analysis of the goods of work. I think it is undeniable that work is, as they rightly suggest, a forum in which these four goods can be achieved. I also think they are right to emphasise that these goods should be factored into any scheme of distributive justice. We shouldn’t assume that the goods of work can be compensated for by redistributions in income. Arguments for the basic income guarantee are thus only a partial solution to the problem of unemployment.

That said, I’m more interested here in the question of what this means for a postwork future, i.e. a future in which machines can replace humans in most economically productive forms of labour. Should we worry about such a future because it would cut us off from the goods of work? I appreciate this is not something that directly concerns Gheaus and Herzog in their paper, but I nevertheless think that their analysis suggests that it should not. There are two main reasons for this.

The first has to do with Gheaus and Herzog’s claim that work is a ‘privileged context’ for the realisation of the four non-monetary goods. As they themselves concede, this claim is highly contingent. Paid work is clearly associated with both bad things and good things. I have dedicated several blog posts to articulating the negative features of paid work, including its monopolisation of time, its erosion of freedom and autonomy, its limitation of opportunities, and its increasing precariousness (to name but a few). Gheaus and Herzog recognise this point and, indeed, discuss the ‘bads’ of work in a short section of their paper. It is also pretty clear from their analysis that paid work only imperfectly realises the four goods they mention. This is why they think it is important to factor the goods into a scheme of distributive justice: if everyone was getting these four things from their work there would be no need to worry about their distribution. Finally, the fact that (paid) work is a ‘privileged context’ for the realisation of the four goods is only true because we live in an economic system in which work is effectively compulsory (i.e. you must do it, or prove that you are unable to do it, in order to survive). It’s because we have to dedicate so much time to paid work that it becomes a forum for achieving excellence, social contribution, community and social status. If machines could takeover most forms of productive labour, and if the link between labour and income was severed through the introduction of a basic income guarantee, then paid work might lose this ‘privileged’ status. Again this is something the authors recognise, suggesting that their analysis only holds given the current reality.

This brings me to the second reason for thinking we could embrace a postwork future, which is that the four goods identified by Gheaus and Herzog are also clearly realisable in the absence of paid work. The problem with their analysis is that it does not clearly distinguish between the two senses of the word ‘work’ that I introduced at the outset of this article. The four goods are made possible by work2, not by work1. We will never stop working2, no matter how good machines get at displacing human labour, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t welcome the end of working1.

I’m not sure that this claim needs an elaborate defence. It seems obviously true that people can achieve excellence, social contribution, community and social status without paid work. Indeed, people already do this. For example, most of the work2 that I perform on this blog is unpaid (it is connected to my professional work, but indirectly so). Nevertheless, I’m motivated to do it because I think it helps me to develop various types of excellence (in terms of intellectual insight, writing, communication skills and so forth). It may also help me to make a social contribution and attain social status (though I’m less sure about those two things). I have many friends who use sports and other hobbies as fora for achieving the four goods identified by Gheaus and Herzog. They don’t get paid for any of these activities. It also seems obviously true that the compulsory nature of work can hinder many people from attaining these goods as they are forced to engage in forms of work that are not conducive to excellence, social contribution, community and are associated with a lowly social status. People need to engage in the right types of work2 to achieve the four goods. They do not necessarily require work1.

This doesn’t mean that the end of work1 is an unequivocal good. There are legitimate concerns one can have about the tendency for technological unemployment to exacerbate social inequality, and it is possible that the technological trends that facilitate widespread technological will cut us off from important sources of objective meaning. These are the concerns that interest me and that I have discussed at length elsewhere on this blog.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Is Resistance Futile? Are we already Borg?

From the days of the Acheulean hand-axe on, humans have always had a symbiotic relationship with technology. How far will that relationship go? One haunting vision of the future is provided by the Borg — one of the main villains of the Star Trek universe. The Borg are a technologically advanced civilisation in which organic entities (humans and other humanoid life-forms) have been cyborgised, i.e. technological artifacts have been directly fused into their biological systems. These artifacts allow the individual Borg to form part of a collective consciousness (or hivemind) that roams the universe trying assimilate other lifeforms into the hivemind. The vision is ‘haunting’ because it seems to undermine some of our core values, including individuality and self-determination.

Or at least that seems to be the view of the Star Trek writers. But maybe the Borg aren’t that scary? And maybe they aren’t some distant future possibility? These are questions that David Gunkel asks in his article ‘Resistance is Futile: Cyborgs, Humanism and the Borg’. Gunkel defends two main claims in this article. The first is that, contrary to what you might have thought, we are already Borg: certain technological, cultural and philosophical developments have sufficiently blurred the line between human and machine for us to count as cyborgs. The second is that cyborgisation may not be as great a threat as the Star Trek writers presume. Gunkel supports this by identifying three possible responses one can have to the reality of cyborgisation, only one of which echoes the threat-narrative of the Star Trek writers.

I want to evaluate Gunkel’s arguments in the remainder of this post. Although I am broadly sympathetic to his claim that we are already Borg (or, at least, that we are heading in that direction), I’m less sure about the claim that this need not be all that threatening. To give a quick precis of my argument: I think Gunkel’s assessment focuses on a red herring. The problem with the Borg is not that they undermine humanism and humanistic values, as he seems to suggest, but rather that they undermine individualism. Although individualism is often subsumed within humanism, the two are separable and should be kept separate for the purposes of this debate.

1. Three Ways in Which we are Already Borg
Gunkel argues that there are three ways in which humanity has already been cyborgised. Let’s go through each of them.

The first way in which we have already been cyborgised is that some of us — possibly the vast majority of us — have become technical or physical cyborgs. That is to say, we have directly integrated technological artifacts into our biological systems. The most obvious example of technical cyborgisation comes from the use of prosthetic devices, such as artificial limbs. Although such prosthetics have been around for a long time, they are now becoming more functional and more impressive. Take the case of Leslie Baugh. He was injured in an industrial accident and had both his arms amputated at the shoulder. He has now been provided with two robotic arms. These are directly integrated with his nervous system and allow him achieve near-natural motor function. Check it out in the video below:

It’s pretty clear to me that with these prosthetic limbs Baugh is a technical cyborg. Indeed, he is aesthetically very close to the standard science fictional representation of a cyborg. The precise number of people living as such technical cyborgs is unclear, but Gunkel cites one estimate suggesting that 10% of the U.S. population have such devices.

This is arguably a low-ball estimate. Gunkel continues the argument by claiming that pharmacological interventions are a type of cyborg technology. A good example of this is the technology of immunisation. This practice results in the long-term reprogramming of the human immune system. If we include such interventions in the definition of technical cyborgisation, then the number of technical cyborgs is much higher. Indeed, there are probably few, if any, who fail to meet this definition.

The second way in which we have already been cyborgised is metaphorical, rather than technical. At least, that’s the term Gunkel uses to describe the phenomenon. Metaphorical cyborgisation effectively involves the extended mind hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, we are ‘natural born cyborgs’ because we all extend our mentality and physicality into technological artifacts. We thus form extended functional loops that are not confined to the flesh-bags of our organic selves. The obvious modern example is how people use their smartphones as external memory, cognition and sensory devices. I have written about this form of cyborgisation at much greater length on previous occasions, so I won’t belabour it here.

The third way in which we are already cyborgs has to do with the philosophy of ontology. This is the branch of philosophy concerned with what kinds of things exist (and the nature of existence more generally). One important aspect of ontology concerns the classificatory boundaries between different kinds of things. What distinguishes my cat from my dog? My table from my chair? My left hand from my right hand? And so on. Gunkel — endorsing a thesis originally defended by Donna Haraway — claims that we are ontological cyborgs because the classificatory boundaries between humans and other entities have become increasingly blurry in the recent past. Haraway argued that this was true in at least two respects. First, the boundary between humans and animals is much less distinct than it used to be. Capacities such as sentience, rationality, problem-solving, morality have all traditionally been taken to be unique to humanity, but many argue that such capacities can be (and are) shared by animals and, perhaps more importantly, are not obviously shared by all humans either. Thus the boundary between the human and animal has been deconstructed. Second, the same has happened with the boundary between human and machine. More and more machines are capable of doing things that were once thought to be uniquely human.

This ontological form of cyborgisation is particularly important for Gunkel’s argument. Although the other forms of cyborgisation hint at it, this third form really underscores the fact that we are in an ‘unstable ontological position’. As he puts it:

[W]e have never really been human. We have always and already been Borg, insofar as the differences between human and animal and animal and machine have been and continue to be undecidable, contentious and provisional.
(Gunkel 2015, 5)

The diagram below summarises Gunkel’s view.

As I say, I am broadly sympathetic to Gunkel’s argument. I may not be as extreme as he is and I may have some quibbles. For instance, I’m not sure how useful it is to extend the definition of technical cyborgisation to include pharmacological interventions. The consumption of food could be classified as an intervention of this type, which would imply that we are always technically cyborgising ourselves. But if we extend the definition that far then I’m not sure that the concept of cyborgisation has any useful content. We will still probably try to distinguish between these mundane forms of technical cyborgisation and the more robotic/digital forms. But maybe that’s Gunkel’s whole point. Also, I’m a little disappointed that Gunkel doesn’t consider some of the criticisms of metaphorical cyborgisation as well. I’ve done this on previous occasions and I think it does weaken the idea to some extent. Finally, I would also quibble with the extent to which ontological cyborgisation is true. I’m not an essentialist: I don’t think there are essential differences between humans and animals and humans and machines. But I still think it’s possible to draw useful conceptual boundaries between these groups.

All that said, I agree with the basic thrust of Gunkel’s position. Technology has always been pushing us in the direction of cyborgisation, and contemporary cultural and philosophical movements are supporting this push.

2. How should we react to cyborgisation?
The critical question is: what does this mean? Should we worry about our cyborgisation? Should we embrace it? Or should we treat it with a degree of equanimity? Gunkel identifies three main answers to these questions.

The first says that we should worry about cyborgisation because it involves dehumanisation. In other words, it involves the conversion of humans into something non-human. This is disturbing because humans are holders of rights and sources value in modern culture. The Enlightenment philosophy is a philosophy of humanism. It celebrates and protects humanistic qualities. The fear is that cyborgisation will degrade and override these qualities. Cyborgisation consequently constitutes a threat. Popular representations of cyborg lifeforms often support this threat-narrative. This certainly seems to be the case in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Picard seems to embody the values of Enlightenment humanism. His assimilation to the Borg in the episode ‘Best of Both Worlds’ is thus incredibly poignant. It is a pure fictional representation of dehumanisation.

The second answer is epitomised by transhumanism. This is a philosophical and cultural movement that embraces cyborgisation. It does so not because it rejects humanistic values, but because it wants to perfect them. Transhumanists’ problem is that the organic shells in which the ‘human’ sits is imperfect. It is prone to infection, decay and decomposition. It constrains and limits our freedom to do what we want and be who we want. Transhumanists thus seek to use technology to overcome these limitations. In a sense then, their goal is to perfect humanism. They see cyborgisation as the way to do this.

The third answer is more radical. The previous two answers both share a commitment to humanism. They differ merely in whether they see cyborgisation as a threat or opportunity. The third answer calls into question the commitment to humanism. It is the posthumanist answer. Proponents of this answer see the cyborg as neither dystopian nor utopian. Rather, they view it as something which helps to deconstruct the humanistic system of values. One can welcome this deconstruction. As Gunkel points out, the category of the ‘human’ has always been socially contested. Indeed, it is often a tool for social oppression and exclusion:

Despite what one might initially think, the term ‘human’ is not some eternal, universal, and immutable Platonic idea. In fact, who is and who is not “human” is something that has been open to considerable ideological negotiations and social pressures. At different times, membership criteria for inclusion in club “anthropos” have been defined in such a way as to not only exclude but to justify the exclusion of others, for example, barbarians, women, Jews, people of color, etc.
(Gunkel 2015, 7)

To the extent that it helps us to avoid such exclusion, cyborgisation may be a welcome phenomenon and may encourage us to transition to an alternative (possibly better; possibly not) system of values.
I would imagine these three answers forming a spectrum or dimensional space. One could oscillate between the various views or occupy ‘in between’ positions. I have tried to illustrate this in the diagram below.

3. Concluding Thoughts
I enjoy Gunkel’s analysis of this topic. I am a sucker for science fiction, particularly Star Trek, and any attempt to fuse science fiction together with some serious philosophical analysis is always bound to appeal to me. That said, I disagree with the focus in Gunkel’s article. Although he mentions the importance of freedom and self-determination to the way in which the Star Trek writers conceptualise the Borg-threat, he chooses to focus on the concept of humanism in his discussion of cyborgisation. I see this as a (slight) mistake.

To me, ‘humanism’ (in the sense that Gunkel seems to use the term) is a philosophy that is concerned with identifying the core properties of human beings and then using some of these properties to ground a system of values. So, for example, the capacities for moral judgment, higher reasoning, sentience and self-awareness might all be deemed uniquely human (what separates us from the animals) and sources of value. Human society should be oriented toward the cultivation of these capacities and toward protecting them from malicious interference. Organisms and objects that do not share these capacities are then excluded from these protections. The processes of cyborgisation that Gunkel identifies do indeed undermine this view because they show how the supposedly-unique properties of human beings can be shared by other organisms and objects. This might be threatening to those with a religious or overly biological understanding of what it means to be a ‘human’, but should be unproblematic to most. Indeed, many self-identified ‘humanists’ have no problem with the idea that ‘human’ rights should be extended to animals that share human capacities.

Humanism, so understood, is distinct from individualism. This is the notion that the source of values and bearer of rights within society is an individual. That is to say, a unique and coherent self that is distinct from other individuals. Humanistic values often incorporate individualistic values — such as the values of freedom and self-determination — but they are distinguishable. I could happily embrace a blurry boundary between the human and the machine (or the human and the animal) while remaining a staunch individualist. I could, for instance, view a chimpanzee as an individual rights bearer, entitled to some degree of freedom and a right to self-determination. I could also, quite happily, view a technical cyborg like Leslie Baugh as an individual rights bearer. The technical and ontological deconstruction of the ‘human’ does not necessarily compromise individualism.

And this, I think, is where Gunkel misses the mark with his analysis of the Borg. The Borg are threatening not because they undermine the philosophy of humanism, but because they undermine the distinct philosophy of individualism. They are threatening because they use technology to deconstruct a unique and coherent self and then assimilate that former self within a more general collective consciousness. The question we should be asking about the ongoing process of cyborgisation is whether it is doing the same thing.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Effective Altruism: A Taxonomy of Objections

The effective altruism (EA) movement has been gaining quite a lot of notoriety recently. Although EA ideas have been common in academic circles for years, two major books have been published in the past year presenting the central tenets of the movement to the wider public. The first was from the movement’s godfather, Peter Singer, and was called The Most Good You Can Do. The second was from the movement’s precocious young figurehead Will MacAskill and was called Doing Good Better. MacAskill’s book in particular received widespread media coverage, no doubt in part fueled by the impressive resume of its young author.

I consider myself favourably disposed towards the EA movement. I have followed GiveWell’s donation recommendations in the past and will probably do so again in the future. But I am not uncritical of the movement. I find some of the advice unappealing (e.g. the ‘earning to give’ model); I worry about the evidential basis for some of the favoured causes; and I am sensitive to those who challenge its ideological presuppositions (even though I share many of those presuppositions).

That said, I am not well-educated on some of the ethical, methodological and practical aspects of the debate about EA. That’s why I welcome Iason Gabriel’s recent paper ‘What’s Wrong with Effective Altruism?’. It provides a detailed overview and critical engagement with some of the leading objections to EA. It is remarkably fair-minded. After having read it, I have no idea whether Gabriel supports the movement or not. That’s always a good sign in my books.

Anyway, as part of my general effort at self-education, I want to follow Gabriel by looking at each of these objections in some detail. This will take me several posts. Today, I simply lay the groundwork for this more detailed analysis by doing two things. First, looking at the defining characteristics of effective altruism. Second, providing a taxonomy of the leading objections to EA.

1. Thick and Thin Effective Altruism
As with all growing social movements, the meanings attached to the term ‘EA’ are becoming slightly more nebulous over time. Gabriel thinks it is important to distinguish between thin and thick definitions of EA. This is a common category-distinction technique in philosophy. The descriptor ‘thin’ is used to denote an austere and bare form of a particular doctrine. The descriptor ‘thick’ is used to denote a more contentful and abundant version (i.e. one that comes with a lot more commitments and conceptual baggage).

The thin and thick forms of EA can be defined in the following manner:

Thin Effective Altruism: The bare notion that one ought to do the most good that one can do through charitable donation.

Thick Effective Altruism: Thin effective altruism plus some additional commitments. Most commonly, these include a commitment to welfarism (i.e. the idea that individual well-being is the ultimate good), consequentialism (i.e. the idea that optimising good outcomes is the appropriate measure of effectiveness), and evidentialism (i.e. the idea that charitable interventions should be assessed using robust and reliable forms of evidence)

The thin form is quite vague and general. It is non-commital about the underlying moral theory one uses to determine what is good. It is, in principle, acceptable to many different schools of thought. But vagueness can be a vice when you are trying to develop a social movement. If too many people have different notions of what is good and what is effective then they may work at cross purposes. In this respect, thin EA reminds me of Thomas Aquinas’s famous first principle of practical reason: do good and avoid evil — a platitude if ever there was one. (Note: I appreciate that Thomist philosophy adds more flesh to these bare bones).

The thick form is more common in the literature. Certainly, if you read MacAskill’s book you will find a pretty clear endorsement of the three additional commitments mentioned in the definition of thick EA: welfarism, consequentialism and evidentialism. And, as I just suggested, it makes sense for EA to be articulated in this thicker form, not just for moral reasons, but also if the goal is to develop EA into a coherent mass movement.

It’s for this reason that Gabriel, in his treatment of the objections to EA, focuses solely on the thick version. I’ll be doing the same.

2. A Taxonomy of Objections
Okay, now that we have a clearer sense of what EA is all about we can proceed to consider the objections. These have proliferated over the years, but some have been particularly prominent in the less favourable reviews of MacAskill’s book. Gabriel suggests that they fall into three main branches: justice objections; methodological objections; and efficiency objections. Within each of these three branches there are three distinct forms of the objection, making for nine in total. This is illustrated in the diagram below.

I’ll go through each branch of this taxonomy in detail in future posts. For now, I’ll give a general overview, starting with the justice branch:

Justice Objections: The welfarist/consequentialist philosophy favoured by EAs renders the movement blind to important, justice-related values (i.e. values that affect how the benefits of charitable interventions get distributed and how they intersect with other moral concerns). There are three more specific forms of this objection:
Equality: EA only values equality in instrumental terms, i.e. it is not sensitive to the intrinsic good of equal distributions of welfare.
Priority: Although EAs purport to give priority to the poorest of the poor, they are unlikely to do this in practice. The desirability of a charitable intervention is, for EAs, always determined by its effectiveness (i.e. the marginal gain in welfare) and policies focusing on the worst off are unlikely to be the most effective according to this metric.
Rights: EAs are consequentialists and so do not give adequate weight to individual rights in their moral assessments. They may view the protection of rights as a convenient heuristic for achieving welfare gains, but they are willing to override rights when the consequences justify this. In short, EAs do not treat rights as trumps.

This brings us to the methodological branch. This may be the one I find most interesting:

Methodological Objections: The tools EAs use to assess and evaluate charities end up biasing them in unfavourable directions. Three of these biases are apparent in the work of EAs:
Materialism: EAs favour causes with tangible, quantifiable and easily measurable goals. This biases them away from causes with less tangible benefits. It may also bias them in favour of questionable, but evidentially tractable, metrics of evaluation (e.g. DALYs)
Individualism: EAs favour causes with benefits for individuals, leading them to ignore or undervalue community-level goods. But these should not be ignored as they form an important part of the good.
Instrumentalism: EAs are focused on achieving certain outcomes, not so much on the procedures that lead to those outcomes. This often leads them to favour technocratic as opposed to democratic interventions, on the grounds that the former are cleaner and more efficient than the latter. This ignores the value of democratic procedures and, possibly, contributes to bad governance in donee countries.

And then, finally, we have the efficiency branch, which is also pretty interesting to me as I find myself intuitively at odds with some of the advice given by EAs but unable to fully articulate my intuitive concerns:

Efficiency Objections: The advice given by prominent EA organisations is less robust and less efficient than they suppose. This is important because the EA movement has taken on the social responsibility of providing such advice to its adherents. Again, this objection comes in three main forms:
Counterfactuals: EAs often rely on counterfactuals when giving advice. For example, their earning to give advice is premised on questions like ‘what difference would it make if I worked with a charity and helped people directly versus working in finance and donating the money I make?’. But they are inconsistent in their treatment of counterfactuals, sometimes neglecting similar questions like ‘what difference would it make if I donated to one of GiveWell’s top charities versus making another donation?’.
Motivation/Psychology: EAs have great faith in the power of reason and rationality to change how people behave, but they may be wrong to do so when the movement is so young and the existing adherents so self-selecting. This may affect their ambitions of creating a truly mass social movement.
Systemic Change: EAs are often quite reactionary in their advice: favouring neglected causes because of their marginal utility, but moving onto other interventions when a sufficient mass of people address the previously neglected cause. This leads them to ignore or misvalue the importance of systemic change in making the world a better place.

For what it’s worth, the last of these criticisms seems to be the most prominent in the past year or so. Many left-leaning critics of EA challenge the way in which the movement acquiesces with the global capitalist status quo. There has some interesting fightback on this by EAs.

I’m sure this brief overview of the leading criticisms is frustratingly vague. I have no doubt that some readers are longing for more detail. Never fear, I will provide it in later posts. If you cannot wait that long, I recommend reading Gabriel’s full paper.