Exponential by Azeem Azhar — tech’s dizzying acceleration

Life in 2021 feels like riding a aging roller coaster with no brakes. Accelerating climate change, deadly pandemics, and elucidating the global supply chain are the most direct triggers of our collective dizziness. But what if the peculiar instability of our time is not the temporary uplift of the road, but the result of structural changes set in the movement many generations ago by our own urge to innovate? Will it be?

And what if, as Azeem Azhar argues, the shock of these tremors diminishes and forces humanity to fundamentally rethink and restructure our political and economic institutions? mosquito?

His book Exponential Is radical, fascinating, subtle, and ultimately, that recent innovations in computing and other new technologies have fundamentally changed human existence, and the consequences are almost incomprehensible. It’s a contradictory view. As Azhar writes, this fast-paced acceleration of social, economic and political change has just begun, thanks to the mutual enhancement of technological advances such as AI, renewable energy and 3D printing.

The main lesson of this book is the upward “hockey stick” growth that not only promises unimaginable benefits but also threatens the convergence of new technologies, inevitably compounding the increase in socially destructive forces. Thanks to the way it drives the orbit, the ride of mankind is only fast and bumpy from here. Dismantling the relatively stable institutions and social norms we rely on for happiness.

These “promises and dangers” stories are a popular non-fiction classic written by technology insiders and sort leaders such as technology analyst and prominent entrepreneur Ahzar. Newsletter and podcast.. The two focal points of technology risks and benefits are usually aimed at convincing the reader of a neutral, balanced, objectively wise outlook for the author, but unlike the average reader. The author’s personal investment and privileged position in technology culture is a very disproportionate share of its promise and a relatively minimal exposure to its dangers.

Exponential Leverage the same strategy by relying entirely on a universal “us” (“it is us who decides what we want from the tools we build”) calls. Azhar does not hide in the story, but instead uses personal anecdotes and conversations with Silicon Valley CEO and founder to clearly establish him as a seasoned insider. Still, his book never reveals a reflexive perception of how his position colors his own bullish view of unconstrained technological growth.

Thankfully, this book not only deals with complex issues such as the future of globalization and automation, but also offers far more than self-serving technology boosterism. The author repeatedly framed the exponential growth of “techno-social” power already built into the current course, but this course was set entirely by human choice, not the fate of the universe. Also reminds me. Azhar reveals that an exponential growth earthquake could ruin an entire home unless it chooses to radically reform its fragile and poorly adapted economic and political institutions. , This is very important.

Perhaps Azhal’s most valuable insight is that conservative management of the individual risks posed by new technologies is not enough. Tweaking AI algorithms to make them a little fairer or providing social media users with some shiny new privacy controls is not enough to repair the growing cracks in society. Our current socio-economic and political order is not fit for purpose and cannot withstand the upcoming storm. Azhar is particularly pointed out in his criticism of the unchecked and socially corrosive forces of large technology platforms that currently lack the incentives to align their business models with human welfare.

Still, in a way that reveals how a truly conservative technological culture exists, Azhar offers his proposed reforms in a tone that deeply apologizes to his imagined readers’ sensibilities. Even the most modest steps to prevent long-accelerating and socially devastating declines in equal pay for work are offered with the caution that “this probably all sounds utopian.” “This approach may sound radical,” he said, requiring regular inspections of algorithmic systems similar to those we have for critical infrastructure.

If this is the face of utopian radicalism in the 21st century, these are certainly strange times. Some of Azhar’s recommendations go a step further. Mandating technology platform interoperability to make it easier for users to move their data presence to a platform that is content with their business practices actually provides a twisted “all-winner” incentive that is currently driving a harmful technology monopoly. It weakens to. He hasn’t discussed the limitations of the approach, but proposals to integrate the restructuring of global “digital rights invoices” and “data commons” are welcome and potentially transformative.

But these structural reforms are in tension with the old techno-solutionist metaphor. Assembling social problems as awaiting technical corrections, retaining helpless individuals who are not responsible for systematic change, and presuming that the answer to the problems that technology creates is always more technology.

For example, Azhar guarantees that the climate crisis will lead to a renewable energy technology revolution. But only on the last 10 pages, he admits that cheap energy only promotes more use, unless consumption habits are suppressed. A very informative chapter on global cybersecurity and the proliferation of disinformation threats suggests that “the solution is digital literacy,” that is, teaching people how to strengthen passwords and identify fake news. doing. After explaining how powerful political forces colluded to destroy and curb the trade union movement, Azhar advises workers to fight back with the help of apps and online forums. It’s better than nothing, but it’s also like advising a fox to sharpen his teeth without suggesting someone to stop fox hunting.

At the center of it Exponential You can clearly see the stress fractures that are expanding in the pillars of the current techno social order, but a possible world that is dominated beyond the most important values ​​of that order: frictionless efficiency, infinite growth, and infinite growth. Unchallenge hierarchy reveals internal conflicts that occur when you can’t see yet. None of us know how that conflict will be resolved. But we must fight to ensure that all those who inherit the world have a legitimate and legitimate stake in their decisions.

Exponential: How accelerating technology is leaving us behind and what to do about it By Azeem Azhar, Random House Business, £ 20, 352 pages

Shannon Vallor is a professor of data and artificial intelligence ethics at the University of Edinburgh and author of Technology and the Virtues (OUP).

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