The Cult of the Algorithm: Artificial Intelligence and other Oxymorons

Computers aren’t smart. They’re just stupid really fast.

Artificial Intelligence is a made-up term. Computer Learning is a lie. Don’t believe the hype.

Humans love to anthropomorphize inanimate objects. We give cars and boats female names. The chair has arms and legs. The iPhone X “reads” your face.

No it doesn’t. Stop it. Computers do not have brains, eyes, ears, senses, feelings, emotions, or anything even close to what really makes us human – understanding, love, compassion, or empathy.

As we sit here wondering how we got to a place where Facebook knows more about us than we admit to ourselves, where our “feed” is determined by algorithms, we wonder why humans are acting less and less “human” towards each other every day.

The Algorithm.

The end-all, be-all of the tech generation.

If you’ve read the history of Google, you know that the Algorithm is the holy grail, the ultimate fantasy – their “god”. An “objective”, inerrant viewpoint, as perfect in it’s uncorrupted purity as it is scrubbed clean of any messy, fallible shortcomings of human interaction or influence. (If only that was true. They’ve been proven to be as fallible as the humans who code them.)

At first, it’s allure is powerful – no more injustice, no more corruption, no more special interests and ulterior motives. What utopian plane of equal justice for all could this possibly usher in?

And the idea that money could be made, a lot of it, through the well-trained ministration of Algoritha, scaled to infinity with enough VC funding, is the bread and butter of the tech industry’s self-justified salaries and irrational exuberance. A thought bubble, if you will.

Talk about out of balance. How did we get here?

First of all, this obsession with an omniscient mechanized overlord is nothing new. In the excellent article, “Deus Ex Machina” (Harper’s, February 2018), Kelly Clancy expertly contextualizes and summarizes the human obsession with a perfect master, its ultimate impossibility, and the foolishness of believing in such a thing. Highlights:
“E. M. Forster, in his 1909 short story, ‘The Machine Stops’, imagines a world thousands of years in the future where humans… rely on an omniscient machine for their every need. The Machine’s user manual is their holy book, and in their prayers they celebrate it’s many blessings:
The Machine feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. The Machine is a friend of ideas and an enemy of superstition.
They are so familiar with the failings of the human mind, that they no longer trust their own senses, their own eyes and ears, and prefer to ask the Machine for answers rather than experience things firsthand….
“The software company Northepoint owns a proprietary algorithm called COMPAS, used by courts to score the risk of recidivism for parole candidates. Northepoint has refused to disclose how the algorithm works, but an independent study by ProPublica found it twice as likely to categorize African-Americans as high-risk as compared to whites.”
In Silicon Valley, the Algorithm has reached supernatural levels of worship. It is the new religion. The idea of a benevolent, omniscient Master Control Program is their Golden Calf. Objective truth in code form. It is all-seeing. It cannot be refuted. It is never wrong.
When Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, wanted some personal information scrubbed from Google’s search results, his own engineers refused, claiming that the Algorithm must be the confessional, and there can be no hiding from it’s piercing gaze. Sauron’s eye in spider form.
How did we get here, this time?

At Google, and therefore any other tech company that apes it’s stupefying success, the prime directive is to hire the best engineers in the world.

Engineers. The whole company is made of them.

But who are engineers?

I was an early nascent hacker, hot-rodding my Apple II+ to switch lights on and off in the house, writing code, breaking into Chase Manhattan bank and… well, I digress…, but the point is that I was an early believer, a member of the first church. I’d read books about the Ur hackers at MIT, the origin figures. I wanted to be them.

These early MIT denizens were obsessed, driven to forego all the other ‘normal’ aspects of life in the pursuit of their perfect code. Not unlike musicians. They did not go outside, they did not play sports, they almost never spoke to the opposite sex. These people were the social outcasts of their generation. So, they stayed home and glued their faces to computer screens. I could relate to them. If I wasn’t practicing piano, I was on my computer. I went from one keyboard to another.

In computers and coding, social misfits like me could inhabit fantasy worlds, or create our own worlds. Worlds where the high school quarterback didn’t get the cheerleader, where the bullies couldn’t beat them up after school. They could create an artificial world on their own terms, and rewrite the rules and make a new game where they were winners instead of losers.

Computers never snubbed us. They obeyed our every command. What power! Nobody in real life would listen to us, but the computer right in front of them would be a willing accomplice to our every whim – an obedient slave.

Engineers in general follow this blueprint. They exist in the Platonic Form, where every line is parallel, a point has no dimensions, and there is no friction in physics. They prefer the blueprint, the design, the idea that there is a singular correct answer, and that all others are inferior and wrong. This is their world view in vocational form.

Only with this belief can they feel confident. The unknown is scary and to be avoided. Only through this external proof of repeatability – an algorithm – something you could plug data into on one end and reliably predict the outcome on the other end. The Scientific Method.

In other words, nothing like real life at all.

You know – real life, where people let you down, where accidents happen, where kids get bullied, where life isn’t fair.

No wonder we loved the artificial world! We were acolytes to the greater good. The keepers of the holy documents. The purveyors of a new truth that erased our failures, and highlighted our prowess at the new ‘reality’ instead.

Many of these people became engineers. Next thing you know, in today’s tech bull market, they’re being overpaid to write code to control every aspect of your life. Why them? Simply because they speak the language of computers fluently, and can bend the zeroes and ones to the wills of their investors.

But these unbalanced people have been crowned as human ATM’s for the VCs. Cue the prospectors, and the whole thing spins beyond any semblance of control. Just another gold rush in Northern California. A feeding frenzy on Wall Street.

And next thing you know, those same techs, drunk with unforetold wealth, attention they never got as kids, and the ear of the media, announce that tech is the most important thing in the world. Imagine that. And the world listened. Imagine that.

You know what engineers aren’t? Artists. Creatives. While they might use some creativity when coding, or have a creative hobby, ultimately the goal of the Algorithm is a piece of code that is completely locked down, producing predictable results. Because that’s what investors like – predictability, dependability, reliability. The opposite of creativity.

I’ve worked with artists and I’ve worked with techs, and they do have many good things in common – obsession with their craft, self-motivation, creative problem solving, anti-establishment, counter-cultural, drug addicted, etc. – but that’s where the parallels end.

True creativity aspires to create something new and different every time. Something unique. They want the happy accident, the right “wrong” thing to happen that leads them down a path that none of them could’ve thought up consciously. Creativity embraces the unknown.

Also, great art captures the soul. It makes you feel. It uses intangible means to elicit an emotional response. It challenges norms, it speaks truth to power, it surprises you, it shocks you, it makes you wonder, dream.

Nowadays, tech companies are power. They are leviathans of commerce, behemoth machines of capitalism. They didn’t start out that way. Read the history of Google. They wanted to be the best search engine in the world, and they did it. Except one problem. How to pay for all of that?

In almost an after-thought of a business model, they realized that if they turned their engineers around, and aimed their search gun and data mining tools back at their own users, instead of the internet, they could sell your information to their advertisers, and quickly, their “classifieds” department became the most profitable division in the company. It was this reversal that became the cash cow for Google, and from that moment on, the tail has wagged the dog.

Google’s motto, “Don’t Be Evil”, started out as an internal ethic, then it become a warning, as they tip-toed the line between masters, and now it is an admonishment, used to curtail their own amoral activities that many entire countries now forbid.

But who has to remind themselves every day to ‘not be evil’, expect those who either cannot discern good and evil, or those who naturally drift toward the illicit?

Nowadays, the company downplays the phrase entirely. Too much irony. As recently as last week, they made the news for discretely scrubbing any reference to “Don’t Be Evil” from all of their official corporate documents.

We have a new religion in America. The worship of the Algorithm. The techies are the priests, burnishing their knobs while counting their blockchain rosaries. This cult is Wall Street friendly. Many miraculous blessings have flowed from the font of Stanford.

This new religion has no trouble recruiting new members. The ranks of the electronically lonely swell every day, fueled by the very technology that promises them succor when no other teat will offer them sustenance. And once you’ve tasted the Soylent Green (ironically, now a popular meal-replacement drink used by many of those same Red Bull / Adderall addicted plebes in Silicon Valley), you’re ruined.

Clancy goes on to point out that there can never be an all-knowing machine:

  • Mathematicians David Wolpert & William Macready’s “No Free Lunch” theorem
  • Darwin himself said that nature shows us that evolution favors the specialist – this strain of bacteria is a master fermenter, this bat is a genius of ultrasonic hunting, etc.
    • At best we will get lesser gods – the deity of loan applications, the demigod of weather prediction
  • The true danger is the human’s belief that such a thing exists. This belief can be exploited.
    • The Catholic Church for centuries sought to limit the distribution of Bible translations in order to control access to the word of God. And we all know about the need for having a priest intercede between us and God, right?
    • Mayan elites guarded knowledge of hieroglyphs, too, insisting they alone could mediate between the god and common men.
    • It is easier to persuade people when you can refer to a source of information beyond their comprehension.
  • This past fall, the journalist David Lewis infiltrated a white-nationalist convention in Seattle and found that most of it’s members were young men working in the tech industry. Both world views embrace an alternate reality where the members extol their own features as superior.

Americans believe in two things – miracles and technology. If there isn’t a magic pill that will heal you, then there’s a machine, a procedure, or an app that will do it. All of these lies promise salvation without atonement, all gain with no pain.

No wonder us Americans love our tech. Talk to any kid coming out of school today. They all want to work in or with tech in some way or form. Can’t blame them. All the other industries were shipped overseas by the multinational corporations that used to provide careers and livelihood here in America. It’s tech or bust. Mostly bust.

What makes us human? To me, it is the very things that a computer algorithm could never display – love, empathy, compassion. It is the opposite of an algorithm. It is unique to each interaction, not repeatable. Humans feel pain. They understand. And their unpredictability surprises, delights, frustrates, and sometimes, breaks our hearts. But it is never not human.

Yet here we have exalted the very people who suck at being human. The ones that ran to the comfort of their glowing screens to escape, creating another fantasy world where they were heroes. And now we reward them for how “lifelike” their fantasy worlds are.

So when these very same people start talking about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and all that other nonsense, all I hear is extremely imbalanced people, the naked New Emperors, blinded by their money, attempting to even further justify their half-brained view of the world, ignoring the very things they suck at, and continuing to be devoted to and to anthropomorphize those same cold, heartless machines that raised them. Mater Ex Machina.

Computers are nothing but fancy screwdrivers. They are tools. Period. Tools can be used for good or evil, depending on the human wielding them. They can do boring, repetitive tasks really well, with almost no variation. They can do billions of these transactions in a second. They can store data strewn to the four corners of the earth and never forget where they put it.

But intelligent? Nope. Learning? A total crock. Maybe if I was one of those engineers, obsessed with the artificial make-believe world of coding, an acolyte to the almighty Algorithm, I might mistake some of the stupid pet tricks I teach my machine to do as “intelligence”, but for the rest of us humans, let us never forget that the dog will never know it is “shaking hands”. It just knows what to do to get a treat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *