Tag Archives: AI ethics

For an Erotics of Data

“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

… the erotic is not a question of only what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
Audre Lorde,”Uses of the Erotic” (1978)

In our contemporary technological societies we are swamped by data, almost our every action and behaviour now measured, collated, processed and inscribed as data somewhere by something for someone. Data leaks from us much as our skin sheds dead cells – a digital dust that accumulates in often unseen piles in corners and parts of the online world where we may not always go, or be allowed to go, ourselves. It becomes mixed with other types and forms of data to become something like a viscous film that then pervades and coats the diverse environments we inhabit and, indeed, even fills the very air we breathe through the waves of its electro-magnetic transmissions. As our lives progress it begins to cloy our options and choices, accreting invisibly to what options we are offered by automated decision-making systems, affecting our lives in ways we struggle to discern, always with the nagging sense that some traces of what we have done previously have become determinants in how our world is being progressively shaped by these external forces.

How can we empower ourselves through a relationship with and to data? Not just to be its subjects, carried along by unfeeling, reductive logics? Being empowered would require us to assume agency, to be directly engaged in the processes of making meaning from data. It would be an opportunity for us to re-define our relationship to data not just on purely functional bases, but in an embodied way, encompassing all that it is to be a sentient, sensual being.

Eroticism is one of humanity’s key modes for experiencing pleasure and satisfaction – not just in terms of sexual gratification – but in terms of the quality of our engagements and experiences with ourselves, each other and the worlds we inhabit. The erotic is a model in which completion and quantity are held in tension with partial revelation, incompleteness and fragments. Rather than a whole panorama of behaviour, the erotic is effected through glimpses, shards of a spectrum. It is a space of creativity and exchange that is playful and transcendent of intention and mere function. It is always a site of negotiation, but not necessarily one of direct transaction between participants – singular or multiple. Humans imbue things with an eroticism through the power of our imaginations. It is fundamentally individual, but can be shared. Participation, though, is only through directly experiencing something as truly erotic, otherwise it is false, a sham.

In seeking new ways to define ourselves as actors – not simply subjects or victims – in an era of climate impacts, pandemics and their consequences, it seems to me that an erotics of data presents us with a powerful means to embrace and become empowered by the revelations that working with data can bring us. Why should we not be stimulated and aroused by data as we are by other forms of recording and communicating things of value? If we can be pleased by the shape and form of things, then why not by the shapes and forms of data? Can they be crafted in ways that allow such potential?

How might we clothe ourselves in data, yet also be able to change and put off data much as we change our clothes according to mood, to sense of occasion or just whimsy? Clothes never truly change the reality of who we are, yet they do help us adopt different behaviours, or alter the way in which we might be seen by others. Whilst clothes can be part of how we construct our personal identity, or identities, and how we project those identities to the world around us they are never part of our essential being. They play a powerful role in our concepts of erotics and our erotic behaviours towards each other – signifiers of many states and fluidities, from the protective and safe to zones of connection. How might we clothe ourselves as nimbly, as flexibly in data? For it to be an active material of identity rather than a filmy detritus that coats us and which we are barely able to clean ourselves of, let alone choose how it enfolds around us? How can we make use of the properties of data about us without it necessarily becoming a piece of property, an asset that accumulates and sticks to us?

What is available to us is a veritable deluge of data, both captured, synthesised and modelled, and there are whole sectors of human society who are in the midst of an orgiastic frenzy of analysis and meta-analyses of not just the data itself, but of all the potential inferences that the systems and deployments of “artificial intelligence” can possibly be attuned to generate. How can we take pleasure in being metaphorically washed over by data, just as we might stand purposefully in a rainstorm, our senses alive to the energy of the elements and the forces of nature?

To be empowered is feel yourself able to make demands of others you may have been afraid or unwilling to before. It is to give yourself permission to ask to be treated with equality and equitably. It is to see yourself as an agent of choice, not just one who is acted upon. It is to define your own measures of value and quality, not simply accept those of others foist upon us by hierarchies, customs and conventions. In this, the erotic is a powerful expression of how we choose to take pleasure, to measure joy and fulfilment in our lives. It is an intensely personal, individual yardstick by which we can measure the honesty of our own claims to personal agency. For something can only feel erotic to us if we truly experience it. We all know when we are faking.

For these reasons, when confronted by the authoritarian potential of mass data surveillance, by how trammelled our lives and choices could easily become as the data collected and processed about us grows ever more detailed and fine-grained, I suggest that developing an erotics of data could be a fantastically subversive, even undermining, approach to something that is being greedily hoovered up by governments and corporations as yet another vector of control. Just as humour punctures and deflates authority, the erotic is outside the pale of polite convention. It is hard to control, hard to police – the more it is repressed, the more pressure builds and it erupts in unexpected places. Even in submission, there can be an erotics which subverts domination.

Rather than as an asset class, or an object of capital and profit, could we re-cast our concept and perception of data as elements of flow, like molecules of water? Something which makes up our world, is an important element of ourselves to which we contribute and from which we can draw, but which is never entirely personal? What does it take for us to step aside from our habitual practices and deferences to demand a different path? As our societies experience a pause in their frenetic everyday momentum can we reflect on what kind of world we want to re-emerge into? What kinds of relationships to each other, to systems and polities, to states and exceptions do we want? What can and should we demand?

Cooperation is the foundation of human societies, it flourishes on diversity and differences – our desires and appetites whetted by the dynamic between the familiar and the novel, what we are capable of ourselves and what we need others to provide. Power is wielded through the consent of the governed. To demand a new social contract that also gives us, the people, a fair say in how data is generated, collected, stored, processed and used – one in which there could be the potential for an erotics of data to emerge – is threshold we can only pass through by active, intentional choice. It is to imagine a very different world to the one we currently inhabit, which has been imagined and crafted to privilege a select few beneficiaries, with the costs distributed across the rest of us. If we choose instead to cooperate with our own desires and imaginations we might engender a radically different outcome altogether.

“Recognising the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”
Audre Lorde,”Uses of the Erotic” (1978)

London, April 2020

Listen to Audre Lorde speaking on “Uses of the Erotic” (YouTube)

Some recent bookleteering

I’ve recently re-worked some of my posts from here into publications made with bookleteer:

Hiding in Plain SightRead Online or Download PDF

A Calculation is Not a JudgementRead Online or Download PDF

The Data Sublime & A Poetics of DataRead Online or Download PDF

Daemons of the Shadow WorldRead Online or Download PDF

View other publications i’ve made on bookleteer here.

Daemons of the Shadow World

*** a newer & expanded version is available on bookleteer ***

It is my firm belief that my role as an artist is to imagine the unthinkable – to perceive beyond the horizon of the probable and to stretch one’s imagination beyond the limits of the normative everyday. By opening up such vistas it becomes possible to anticipate impacts and consequences of actions and decisions – acquiring uncommon insights into potential futures we may come to inhabit.

Daemons of the Shadow World is a proposal for an artwork that recasts privacy and the role of individual or personal data; that rethinks how data subjects are commodified; that explores what it could be like to unbalance how power is expressed and exercised through data analysis and use.

Almost every aspect of modern life is now measured, sensed, datafied, transmitted, analysed and transacted. Those transactions bloom like flower banks to encompass not just each individual’s data profile and traces, but everything and everyone they are connected to. This quantification and measurement of each interaction – the inferences that are drawn, the biases that result and the effects which ensue – is propelling us towards an ever more normative society. A social and cultural entropy. Each individual is becoming ever more tightly defined, less fluid. We are being reduced to a singular concept of identity, one that assumes repetition is truth, and that predictability is a desirable quality.

But, of course, the history of humanity is also that of diversity, divergence and struggle: especially for those upon whom power is exercised by those who wield it. There are many ways of enforcing conformity through such means as religions and ideologies, conventions and traditions. These have the habit of making people behave in a predictable and controllable manner – consumerism and the digital society is merely another manifestation of this. The inducements offered in our consumer society to accept socially normative concepts of identity are like a feedback mechanism that reinforces itself and entrenches asymmetries of power. In the same way, it discriminates against those for whom fluidity of identity is a necessity – people who are often the most vulnerable in society : anyone who diverges from the norm, whether by virtue of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or status – for instance, refugees.

Data profiling clearly is having normative effects, reinforcing and entrenching privileges for those who are already best served by society and status quo. What about those for whom no singular identity is possible or desirable? Those whose identities are fluid, in construction or even in deconstruction. Those who are economically disadvantaged and whose choices are forever circumscribed by poverty and denied access to credit. These are the people most at risk of being excluded, segregated and even criminalised by the impacts of data profiling. The subtleties, quirks and nuances that allow us to defy definition are all too easily captured, measured and sorted into data points which can then be exploited against our own benefit.

Any transparency in data traffic goes only one way. we do not see how the data we share with the big systems (such as search engines, social media platforms or online shopping portals) is used by those who acquire it. Neither how the ‘nudge’ systems – increasingly adopted by governments and public agencies – use our data to influence our choices and life options. Nor do we have any real understanding of how the scope and scale of the total digital surveillance by the Five Eyes network of intelligence agencies is used, despite the hints and indications revealed by whistleblowers scubas Edward Snowden.

Indeed, different societies and cultures across the world have markedly different attitudes to ‘privacy’ – as evinced by China’s state-sponsored social credit system (itself perhaps less different from Western commercial data capture, monetisations and behavioural nudges than we might suppose). To assume that either privacy or identity are stable concepts in all contexts and situations me be part of the problem, a reflection of our own hegemonistic cultural values in the West.

Privacy, as commonly defined in Western industrial societies, is itself a relatively modern concept – most likely emerging in Europe in the context of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation period. Its roots are bound together with the rise of mercantilism and the equally modern concept of the individual. It found early articulation in the shifts in domestic architecture from the 1500s on – the creation of private spaces (such as bedrooms) in shared households, especially where there was a need to worship in secret as religious conformity began to fracture between Protestantism and Catholicism. It also found articulation in the commonplace books where a newly literate populace began to record their internal, private thoughts, interests and reflections. This individual subjectivity reaches a critical mass in Descartes’ formulation of the self as a discrete entity separate from all else.

It should, however, be no surprise that now, in an age of near total surveillance, privacy is on the verge of a complete reconfiguration. It is, coincidentally, happening alongside the realisation that western industrial capitalism is also facing its own zero-sum game in which not just humanity, but all life teeters on an edge. Unbridled consumption of finite resources, leading to rampant ecocide and mass extinction, presents a distinct trajectory that humans, our cultures, societies and civilisations, cannot sidestep.

To safeguard individuals and their personal data, privacy has for sometime been proposed as a human right that should be inalienable. But what if an alternative, perhaps even complementary strategy could be to turn the tools of data analysis against those who seek to define us and measure us as singular commodities by synthesising a plurality, a multiplicity of identities – camouflage of a kind? What if privacy is re-thought as a condition not a commodity – a dynamic sequence of states that we flow through rather than a static position to cling on to? How do, and have, other cultures navigated the duality of individuals within communities and shared spaces? What might we learn from cultures which do not privilege the sense of individuality as ours does?

MyLoki – a daemon for digital dazzle

This project is a thought experiment exploring how it might be possible to devise ‘autonomous agents’ (daemons) that synthesise and propagate additional data – using neural networks and employing techniques such as ‘generative adversarial networks’ – to mask our data traces and transactions across systems. In effect creating a ‘data dissensus’ in the accuracy of our individual ‘shadow profiles’, to undermine their statistical value through massive duplication. Invoking the generation of duplicitous activities that resemble our actions but, in effect, create multiplicities of possible identities. To overwhelm the algorithms of oppression with too many statistically similar variables that confound their ability to ‘predict’ and shape our behaviours.

Instead of referring to “Artificial Intelligence” and anthropomorphising it with qualities it is far from having, let’s call such software a “Model for Partial Statistical Probability”. How could we devise and use such programs to act as software agents – daemons – for each of us, to dazzle the data harvesters with a blizzard of statistically probable profiles, endlessly generated to camouflage the data traces of our actions and behaviours in the digital world? Whereby each  would become a portal to an infinite number of selves, all bifurcating in myriad ways – perhaps by just a hair’s breadth – each one polluting the value of our data trail by injecting just enough uncertainty to render the value of the data as junk for the profilers, marketeers and manipulators. To détourne the techniques of oppression against the oppressors, reverse the flow of digital ‘spam’ from the individual back towards those who seek to manipulate us.

Each daemon would be a personal Trickster, like the Norse god Loki, working on our behalves to frustrate the will of the corporates, the political parties, the special interest groups, agencies and governments that seek to use personal data to commodify us and profit by our, often unwitting, collusion in their narrative.

What could the features of such agents be? What limitations might need to be placed on their use? How might we need to re-think our entire digital economy – not to see data as a commodity, but as condition?

I invoke Loki and the figure of the Trickster, precisely because they are ambiguous – causing mayhem but bringing luck and fortune. Sometimes misfortune. Uncertain. Are they not the type of gods we might want to align ourselves with against the patrician, all seeing, all knowing Olympian Algorithmic gods of our datafied society? Or perhaps like a kind of Orphic mystery wherein the exuberance of multiple data selves being propagated into the shadow digital world allows us a moment of escape from being subjectified and commodified ad nauseam?

To acquire the opportunity, once again, to lose ourselves in the anonymity of the press of numbers. A pinch of freedom from the everyday atomisation we experience through constant personalisation, behaviour tracking and the inferences that drive our ‘choices’, already determined through pre-set automated decision-making algorithms.

A Conceptual Projection

The project described above is patently an absurd idea. What I am proposing is unlikely to built (from a technical standpoint) and could possibly present unknown dangers if released online (from an ethical perspective).

Therefore this thought experiment requires a kind of performative conceptual prototype to demonstrate the paradox at its heart. This might take the form of a set of ‘blueprints’ for the conditions under which a MyLoki daemon might be activated and operate; or a flow chart diagram of the actions and possible consequences for what could happen when individual’s data become pluralities; not just duplicitous but multiplicitous.

Such a set of blueprints or diagrams could then form the focal point of a deliberative forum assembled from people with diverse knowledges and skills across a range of disciplines and sectors. This group would be charged with exploring the ramifications of – and speculating on just what theoretical frameworks could emerge from – such an unreasonable, improbable and irrational set of possibilities?

By proposing something, that is as lateral and excessive a conceit for resolving the conundrum of privacy and personal data as the Judgement of Solomon was for determining the maternity of a disputed child, I hope to explore things which might indeed be truly unthinkable in our current situation. If we can think beyond the bounds of reason and the horizon of the probable, what uncommon insights could emerge that we cannot fathom now?

Giles Lane
London, October 2019

Originally developed with the support of the Open Data Institute‘s Data as Culture research theme, Copy That? December 2018

A Calculation is Not a Judgement

*** a newer and updated version is available on bookleteer.com ***

When human judgement is drained from a system and reductionist rules are applied to complex situations, the results can lead to terrible injustices and harms. If we privilege the procedural outcomes of artificial systems over the importance of humanity, life and experience and the more-than-human world, we will likely face a self-reinforcing feedback loop of such effects, not unlike the existential threat of runaway climate change.

I wish to advance a proposition… a distinction. Namely, that there is a significant gulf between the mathematical operation by which a calculation can be arrived at, and the emergent process of evaluation by which a judgement is made. I think this is an important distinction for our times, because it describes the difference between a procedure of abstraction and a process of conscious deliberation. A calculation can be determined by a non-sentient entity following a series of steps to accomplish an end (such as an algorithm). Humans have created machines that can do this at scales and speeds far beyond our own individual capabilities. A judgement, however, requires a sentient being, imbued with consciousness and the capacity to exercise discernment and perception, to arrive at an authoritative opinion.
And time.
It takes time to absorb and reflect, to ruminate and pass judgement. What I hope to argue here is that consciousness itself is an irreducible constant fundamental to fair and trustworthy judgement.

I am, perhaps, re-treading old ground: the argument between quantitative and qualitative methods has rolled on for at least two centuries – rooted in the slow rise to dominance of a kind of scientism as the prevailing order of knowledge and worldview. Both methods have merits, and their integration or synthesis can lead to remarkable achievements. Both are rooted in very human beliefs and traditions of how knowledge comes about. Wielded together, they stimulate extraordinary benefits but, when asymmetrical in influence and power, the drawbacks are considerable.

We now live in a world where the quantitative has achieved ascendancy in almost all areas of life, where computations and automated decision-making affect the everyday lives of billions of people. Tremendous advantages in speed, efficiency and technical capabilities across the panoply of human activity have resulted. But they also amplify injustices and inequalities, or compound environmental and ecological over-exploitation and destruction. In doing so their scale and speed disempower and degrade the intrinsic agency of human beings in favour of inflexible and unfeeling systems. It is crucial to see that it is a deliberate choice to quantify and sort the world in this way, not an impartial effect of some immutable logic that cannot be challenged.

As Oscar Wilde might have framed the distinction, the difference is one of knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing” (from The Picture of Dorian Gray). It is trivial to calculate the price of something according to a formula of tangible inputs and costs – yet far more elusive to judge its value. That demands a broader spectrum of parameters, such as context, emotion, culture and other intangibles. Our human fallibilities lead us to both extremes. Judgements, too, can be unsound. Intention and ethos determine how and why we adopt a particular trajectory – as much as our adherence to one method or another, one disciplinary process or another.

The predicaments outlined above are, I believe, at the very root of the proliferating existential dilemmas which humans, indeed all life, now face. The stabilities of our ways of living are being challenged everywhere by changes in natural forces we have clearly, recklessly, contributed to – possibly beyond our capability to re-balance, notwithstanding an irrevocable and devastating loss of biodiversity. I believe that the over-exploitation of the natural world, of other creatures and lifeforms has been facilitated by precisely the unfeeling calculation of systems based on abstracting life into discrete parts that can be separated from a complex whole and used indiscriminately without repercussion. It is a brutal and destructive alienation that does not factor in to its calculation of profit and loss the consequences and costs of its atomistic unravelling of mutual interdependence. It ignores the fundamental connectedness that unites all matter in the universe, the forces which bind all things together.

We see the results of this alienation across the planet in the systematic extraction of specific resources causing catastrophic loss of entire environments and ecologies surrounding them. There is no doubt that this can only persist for so long, and that this timeframe is rapidly collapsing in on itself.

We also see this alienation in the human sphere when bureaucratic systems over-emphasise adherence to rules above consideration of individual, or even collective, circumstances. One of the most appalling examples in recent years has been the terrible injustices and harms inflicted on the Windrush Generation by Theresa May and the UK Home Office’s “Hostile Environment” policy. Or the shocking percentages of automated administrative decisions in the benefits system being overturned on appeal. Or anecdotally from friends and family, in the number of long-established EU citizens resident in the UK seemingly routinely denied “settled status” on their first attempt using the government’s automated system.

And these are just the most visible examples of intentional applications of the technology of bureaucracy, and its component methods and tools, to harm the vulnerable. They are almost certainly intended more as a distraction, or sleight of hand, whilst other yet more egregious activities are kept in the shadows. It seems to me that much of this is being done as a climactic frenzy of industrial capitalism – to squeeze every last drop of advantage from a system that is so weighty with its own entropy that it cannot possibly endure indefinitely. Banking the last pennies to hedge against an uncertain future where, it is assumed, the wealthiest will command the most safety, luxury and authority.

But, I doubt it will go the way anyone currently anticipates. The speed of environmental and ecological transformation – which we are now experiencing as increasingly extreme climate impacts – is already confounding the most accurate models and projections that have been achieved so far, since none can reliably forecast the full range of interdependent, interwoven forces and factors we have interrupted with our industry and massive emissions of carbon into the atmosphere over the past few centuries.

I sincerely doubt the wisdom of focusing our civilisation’s faith too closely on systems that use automated, statistical calculation of probabilities to make future-facing decisions on our behalf, let alone in the here-and-now. It would itself be a further profound disconnection from our very humanity to hope that such technologies will ‘save’ us from the profound disconnection of the human from the more-than-human natural world. This has been gathering pace for hundreds of years, since at least the European ‘discovery’ of the Americas and the growth of modern industry and global capitalism. Our technologies are reflections of our cultures and societies, not simply neutral, inevitable outcomes of rational enquiry and engineering. They arise out of our cultures, beliefs, behaviours – they are value-driven… the products of choices, intentional or unconscious.

Evidence is growing (as documented by ProPublica among others) that demonstrates how algorithmic decision-making has a tendency to amplify existing biases leading to exacerbated injustices and inequalities, as well as other pernicious effects. Instead of the promise of impartiality that has justified an increasingly reliance on both bureaucracy and algorithmic systems, we have come to realise that they have all of our human fallibilities coded in, but with the additional twin enhancements of speed and scale – rippling the effects out further and faster. Now would be an apposite time to check the headlong rush to automate how we manage our societies and everyday lives, especially as we must shift our economies and industries from extractive and destructive activities to ones which preserve and maintain life and ecologies. The two are inextricably linked.

… some are already engaged in experiments that try to make the possibility of a future that isn’t barbaric, now. Those who have chosen to desert, to flee this “dirty” economic. war, but who, in “fleeing, seek a weapon,” as Deleuze said. And seeking, here, means, in the first place, creating, creating a life “after economic growth,” a life that explores connections with new powers of acting, feeling, imagining, and thinking.”
Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times (2015)

Knowledge, Skill Acquisition & Competence

Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus’ model of skill acquisition is a useful guide in discerning the distinction between a calculation and a judgement, through tracing the path from novice via advanced beginner, competent, proficient through to expert. It describes how, in the early stages, the novice must learn the rules and understand how to use them. As their experience grows (and presumably confidence in their ability to apply the ‘right’ skills), they rely less on formal analytical application of the rules and more on their intuitive knowledge of what will work best in the given situation.

“Dreyfus and Dreyfus’ essential point is to assert that analytical thinking and intuition are not two mutually conflicting ways of understanding or of making judgements. Rather they are seen to be complementary factors which work together but with growing importance centred on intuition when the skilled performer becomes more experienced. Highly experienced people seem to be able to recognise whole scenarios without decomposing the into elements or separate features.”
Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee? The Human Price of Technology (1980)

This model complements the four stages of competence (often attributed to Abraham Maslow), which describes the path from Unconscious incompetence via Conscious incompetence, then Conscious competence to Unconscious competence. Again, from a baseline of lack of ability, and even a lack of awareness of inability, there is a trajectory towards competency becoming innate. It becomes embodied not just in the mind, but absorbed into a whole sense of self such that the delivery of expertise is often described as the expert having an intuitive feeling for the right thing to do.

Experience then becomes the key to transcending the application of rigid rules-based approaches and developing craft, skills and expertise. It is also the domain of art and creative practices. What this amounts to, is another order of knowledge that Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge”. It is not the procedural, codifiable, step by step, “explicit knowledge” approach that calculation and computation are so excellent at, but something transmitted through experience itself so that the learner eventually acquires the ability to judge what is right to do. Not simply a linear problem-solving trajectory, but a holistic awareness of the whole problem or task. It is committed and informed, acquired by desire and often with passion and with care – a praxis established through dialogue and reciprocal exchange. Being relational, it is a foundation for cooperation and collaboration.

“While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.”
Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being (1969)

Irrational Logics

The Judgement of Solomon (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament 1 Kings 3: 16-28) offers a classic example of wisdom in a judgement. It realises justice not through a direct procedure, but through what could be described as an irrational logical path. The story tells of King Solomon called to rule which of two women is the true mother of a baby, each claiming it as their own. No witnesses can say who the true mother is. With no other way to tell between them, Solomon’s perverse solution is to propose cutting the baby in half, dividing it equally between them. The story presents his wisdom as the insight that when one woman gives up her claim to save the life of the child, she is revealed as the true mother – concerned more for the child’s welfare than her own rights or sense of property.

The story is of a classic type that has parallels in the literatures and storytelling traditions of other cultures, like the tradition of Sufi teaching stories. Such stories illustrate how, sometimes, there is no rational path to truth or a just decision but, instead, an irrational, counter-intuitive approach can reveal it in unexpected ways. It is imaginative and transgressive, employing techniques familiar in creative, artistic practices – excessive, surreal and disturbing. These are not quantities but qualities of imagination. It may be perfectly possible to compose a fiction or a piece of music or an artwork to order, by following rules and formulae (for instance the ‘police procedural’ novel or many a three minute pop song). Yet something else is needed for it to become art or literature that transcends the skeleton of its construction and rises above hackneyed cliché and routine prosaicness. Our entire mode of existence and civilisation now hinges on dilemmas as, or even more, knotty and seemingly irreconcilable as the problem faced by Solomon. We are going to need the wisdom of irrational logics and unfettered imaginations to devise visionary, engaging and realistic ways to resolve them.

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Freedom” in Words Are My Matter (2016)

Beyond Measurement: the incalculable heart of humanity

Fairness and trust are both qualities or conditions of human experience rather than fixed rules that can be applied indiscriminately. Neither are particularly amenable to formulaic measurement, indeed they are often critiqued precisely because they are almost impossible to quantify. In the context of automated algorithmic decision-making systems (e.g. in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning) this lack of fixity and highly subjective nature is frequently alluded to. The lack of stable frames of reference for what is at any one time fair, is a feature of its contingent nature. Likewise with trust – what constitutes the nature of trust in any given situation is highly contingent and almost impossible to codify into a stable matrix of elements and factors.

Yet we instinctively know what feels fair or unfair, and what trust feels like, as equally we know when it switches to distrust. Thus it appears that consciousness is also a necessary factor in experiencing fairness and trust, just as I reckon it is for arriving at a judgement. And, since feeling is such an important aspect of both fairness and trust, it could be that these two conditions, like our human intelligence, are bound up not only in the mind and thinking, but are co-located and co-created in our embodied experience of knowing. Perhaps neither are at all suitable for programmatic calculation.

What then, drives some to persist in trying to automate trust and fairness in an effort to remove the human from the loop in deciding what is fair or trustworthy? It seems perverse to me to be using such technologies to replace the human, instead of defining alternatives that could enhance our understanding and judgement by doing what computers and systems do best – classify, sort and order huge quantities of information to reveal patterns that are not immediately obvious. The analysis and calculation of data could then inform human-derived judgements that encompass broader contexts and situations including mitigating factors and contradictory states not suited to binary classifications. Better together, one might say.

The upshot of the successes of Deep Blue against Gary Kasparov in 1997 and AlphaGo against Lee Seedol in 2016 has been to invigorate both chess and go with new approaches and strategies, enhancing the potential and pleasure of the process of playing. The successes of these systems have not diminished either game, but suggested new possibilities. And here there may be a lesson in determining the difference between a sentient player with consciousness for whom the playing itself may be the point, and a procedural system wholly focused on achieving a finite goal: winning. By focussing on the objective of an end as the goal, those seeking to train “artificial intelligences” might be missing the fundamental point – and value – of playing; that is, the sensations it provides a sentient being of being alive and of existing in relation to something other than themself. A continuity of consciousness.

A deeper question to be addressed is cui bono? Who ultimately benefits from the increasing automation of aspects of our society? Just as the Industrial Revolution and factory production reduced the independence and skills of many craftspeople, so too the automation of everyday life is removing ordinary people from participating in decision-making. It places the definition of how parameters are set higher and higher within a social hierarchy increasingly isolated and removed from the experience of living among ordinary people. Such a rarefied extraction of authority without direct connection to context and situation also shrugs responsibility, and provides an effective insulation against culpability. Witness the degeneration of our politicians and political system – how lies, deceit and incompetence have become normalised, even venerated, without meaningful consequence.

I perceive there to be a parallel between the political imposition of strict rules and the mechanistic fallacy of atomising everything into discrete parts without perceiving the crucial balance of relations between them. They both ignore the basic truth of life that, while everything is indeed made up of the same elementary particles, their unique composition into the infinite variety of matter and life is absolutely particular. Local specificity is a feature of life’s mutability – how everything is in constant flux and adaptation in relation to its local context and environment. Scale seems to be a crucial issue here – universal laws function well at the atomic (micro) level and at the cosmic (macro), but clearly not so unambiguously at the meso scales we inhabit as lived reality. There, diversity and locality are contingent on achieving any effective equilibrium.

Complex living systems just don’t seem to obey laws and rules that are based on reductionist concepts. Perhaps at the micro and macro extremes it is possible for static rules to operate seamlessly, but in the elastic middle we need flow and dynamism. As atoms themselves are held together by the forces, or relations, between electrons, protons and neutrons, so all of matter and reality are bound by the multifarious forces and relations that govern the natures of different entities. To overlook the reality of our relational existence and to reduce everything down to inert and unconnected bits is, inevitably, to be missing a key part of a whole equation – a series of calculations that will never completely add up. Connection, interdependence, reciprocities are the fundamental forces that bind and make whole the matter of life.

We will need all of humanity’s diverse knowledges and skills, from poetry, art and music together with mathematics, physics and many others, to find the necessary paths to a fair future for all life on the planet. We shall need the ability to calculate and to build machines that can help us sort and make sense of vast amounts of data, whilst simultaneously we must retain our independent, fluent, human capability to judge – soundly – what decisions are most appropriate for each circumstance we encounter and must respond to.

The Uses of Not
Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not,
is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.
Lao Tzu, from Tao Te Ching: a book about the way and the power of the way
(a new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1997)

London, July 2019