Expanding on a previous rant:
On singularities: Robots, computers, and factories are all just big, complex tools. Every tool is a lever. You need a human somewhere in the process to pull the lever, otherwise what you’re talking about is a perpetual motion machine. [The effect of automation on the unskilled workforce is] still the same question as whether to dig with spoons or a bulldozer, except scaled past the human capacity for imagination.
It’s important to understand that computers aren’t magic. They’re just fancy calculators hooked up to LEDs and wireless antennas. You can build purely mechanical computers out of gears, if you’ve got the room and the patience for it. I find that removing electricity from the system makes it a lot easier for people to understand that digital != abstract. There isn’t much difference, functionally, between a CPU and an abacus. How many gears do you have to line up before they become self-organizing and sentient?
Humans fall back on magical thinking when a system becomes complex beyond their powers of reason. Where the understanding of cargo dropping from the sky ends, the tribal imagination begins to supply plausible gods from their existing conceptual framework. How did the cargo gods make Netflix out of a fancy electric abacus? Surely these marvelous devices are alive and conscious in small ways, like our little purse dogs, and could become moreso if only they were bigger and more complicated.
tl;dr-abstraction and magic are the same thing. (That link is a required prerequisite for this post.)
There is a dynamic inherent to abstraction and trust. Because trust turns out to be a less intuitive concept than I’d assumed, I will quote Bruce Schneier at length:
This book is about trust. Specifically, it’s about trust within a group. It’s important that defectors not take advantage of the group, but it’s also important for everyone in the group to trust that defectors won’t take advantage.
“Trust” is a complex concept, and has a lot of flavors of meaning. Sociologist
Piotr Sztompka wrote that “trust is a bet about the future contingent actions of
others.” Political science professor Russell Hardin wrote: “Trust involves giving discretion to another to affect one’s interests.” These definitions focus on trust between individuals and, by extension, their trustworthiness.1
When we trust people, we can either trust their intentions or their actions. The first is more intimate. When we say we trust a friend, that trust isn’t tied to any particular thing he’s doing. It’s a general reliance that, whatever the situation, he’ll do the right thing: that he’s trustworthy. We trust the friend’s intentions, and know that his actions will be informed by those intentions.2
The second is less intimate, what sociologist Susan Shapiro calls impersonal
trust. When we don’t know someone, we don’t know enough about her, or her
underlying motivations, to trust her based on character alone. But we can trust
her future actions.3 We can trust that she won’t run red lights, or steal from us, or cheat on tests. We don’t know if she has a secret desire to run red lights or take our money, and we really don’t care if she does. Rather, we know that she is likely to follow most social norms of acceptable behavior because the consequences of breaking these norms are high. You can think of this kind of trust—that people will behave in a trustworthy manner even if they are not inherently trustworthy—more as confidence, and the corresponding trustworthiness as compliance.4
In another sense, we’re reducing trust to consistency or predictability. Of
course, someone who is consistent isn’t necessarily trustworthy. If someone is
a habitual thief, I don’t trust him. But I do believe (and, in another sense of the word, trust) that he will try to steal from me. I’m less interested in that aspect of trust, and more in the positive aspects. In The Naked Corporation, business strategist Don Tapscott described trust, at least in business, as the expectation that the other party will be honest, considerate, accountable, and transparent. When two people are consistent in this way, we call them cooperative.
In today’s complex society, we often trust systems more than people. It’s not
so much that I trusted the plumber at my door as that I trusted the systems that
produced him and protect me. I trusted the recommendation from my insurance
company, the legal system that would protect me if he did rob my house,
whatever the educational system is that produces and whatever insurance system
bonds skilled plumbers, and—most of all—the general societal systems that
inform how we all treat each other in society. Similarly, I trusted the banking
system, the corporate system, the system of police, the system of traffic laws,
and the system of social norms that govern most behaviors.
Liars and Outliers
In a high-trust society, complex machines work. Engineers study hard in school and pass up on opportunities to cheat, machinists show up to work and pay attention to the quality of their work, production managers don’t pressure their machinists and assemblers to focus on quantity at the expense of quality, and users read operating manuals without looking for frivolous opportunities to sue. Even lawyers are constrained by a general sense of what their society considers appropriate.
In a low-trust society, complex machines are unreliable and dangerous. There are too many places in an industrial supply chain where something can go wrong. In modern America, we have to design our CNC machines so that operators can’t disable them so they can go home early on Fridays. Everybody is cheating and if you give a shit about your company or the long term, that makes you a cuck because your boss wants to replace you with three immigrants doing a shitty job for half the cost.
Trust enables abstraction, abstraction enables prosperity, prosperity makes in-group competition more salient than out-group competition or environmental selection, and trust drops. In the end, the only thing that’s changed is sun activity. The little ice age selected for a very high-trust European society for many years that became extremely prosperous (read: high abstraction) during the Holocene, and now is beginning to eat itself as the Holocene comes to an end. It’s an open question whether we could build a bridge if we confiscated all the Rothschilds’ unlimited money to pay for it. Good luck with the infrastructure spending, Mr. Trump, you will surely need it.