Automatism + Automaticity – 20th Century

If you thought my previous introduction was dark, then if you use your imagination a little to color in the details of what comes next, then you may actually begin to lose your faith in humanity – but I choose to spare you such sketches, because I myself don’t even want to have to stomach such gory images of reality. *

Throughout the 20th Century, there was much interest in automatism and automaticity. The beginnings of this interest can easily be traced far back into the 19th Century, but rather than meticulously detailing the historical background, let me point out that the interest in these topics was from several different sources. Industrialization generally raised interest in machinery and automation. At the same time, Marxist ideas contrasted capital with labor. There was also much scientific interest in logic and reasoning, and finally there were also significant scientific advances in medicine and also in related fields such as psychology.

By the middle of the 20th Century, a new industry known as “media” had become established – and this new industry (with roots in publishing dating back several hundred years, ultimately to the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press) was strongly aligned with and likewise strongly based in capitalism. This led to much research and development in promoting and increasing the productivity of capital investment, resulting in less interest in human-centered (“humanist”) analyses (final result: more interest in profit maximization).

In this context, there was an increasing divergence between machinery and automation on the one hand, and human interests (including notions of “humanity” and “humane behavior”) on the other. Increasingly, humans became an input into algorithms focused on maximizing other measures, such as output or profit. Today, automatism is popularly viewed as a dystopic Luddite horror story rather than in a context of scientific fascination with natural phenomena.

The ideal scenario in this scheme is the “making money while you sleep” image, that of a fat slob sipping a drink, gazing at bathing beauties, while relaxing under a palm tree along the beach on some remote island beside a laptop tallying up the money rolling in as dumb laborers in some grungy industrial town far away work in sweatshops to scratch together enough money for rent, food, clothing and maybe every now and then a cigarette.

You just assumed that someone was paying attention.

Nat Simons of Renaissance Technologies, quoted in Malcolm Gladwell, “Talking to Strangers”, chapter 4, audio version 12:52 [talking about the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme fiasco]

Apparently, no one was paying attention to the ponzi scheme fraud perpetrated by Bernie Madoff – nor to any of the dozens of cases of crimes against humanity documented in Malcolm Gladwell’s book. There are many many more cases throughout the 20th Century where apparently no one was paying attention. In most industrial countries a large portion of the population ingest chemicals to help them pay less attention, produced by industries making ever more profits. Is this a case of automaticity in action? Is this good or bad, right or wrong?

Many industries reap large profits by manipulating information such that humans automatically behave in ways reminiscent of Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. These industries are able to reap so much profit, that they are willing and able to invest large sums into research and development – not about products or services, but rather about marketing products and services to consumers willing and able to pay for them, leading to more profits for these industries. Is this a case of automaticity in action?

When we utilize a search algorithm, are we aware of the way that search algorithm works? A few years ago, I asked Matt Mullenweg to pay attention to this question. There were thousands of software developers in the room – you could hear a pin drop. Later, several developers spoke with me and laughed at how absurd it was for me to question Google’s authority in this field. Is this a case of automaticity in action?

The 20th Century is over, but we need to be aware of our roots. There are legacy technologies. Each legacy technology potentially gives rise to its own distinct legacy automaticity. We are morally accountable for our decisions to use a technology, or to refrain from using it. If Greta Thunberg can choose to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a boat, you can choose to behave rationally the next time you search for information.

We are free to choose. Will we choose the automatism of a Pavlov dog? Sometimes, yes. Always? Well, maybe we ought to ponder the alternatives a little more….

* I am reminded here of Susan Sontag’s excellent “Regarding the Pain of Others” – if you need a little more disgust in your life, I recommend picking up a copy.

[thank u, next]

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