Friday, May 17, 2019

Erosion of individual autonomy- I

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is an inquiry into humanity’s apocalyptic, tech-driven future. “Modernity is a deal,” Harari writes. “The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” That power, he suggests, may in the near term give us godlike attributes. Modern biology offers a mechanistic view of humans and  exposes even our most sacred emotions of love and hate as simple heuristic learning algorithms, evolved over millions of years to help us make quick decisions.

This has made techno-utopians think that man-made algorithms can decipher these organic algorithms. This has resulted in authority slowly shifting from humans to algorithms. Governments in that situation would be much less powerful than Google. We have already built vast data-processing networks that can know our feelings better than we know them ourselves. Google can process our behaviour to know what we want before we ourselves know it. Big Data analysis already allows accurate predictions of individual human behavior based on their tweets and Facebook posts.

We are at the edge of letting cars without drivers take us to the airport and automated chat bots answer our inquiries online. A lot of our current jobs are slowly being replaced by automated processes that are faster and cheaper. Algorithms are now getting better than humans at data entry and analysis and  even music creation. The next decade of development might make millions of people completely irrelevant to economic and societal progress. This includes not only office workers, but artists, doctors, lawyers and scientists, as algorithms are already entering their fields. Many of us will most likely have to reinvent ourselves in the upcoming years, if not even now.

What problems will such technological changes bring about? What will an uneducated 40-year old taxi driver upgrade to that can be useful in the economy of the future? Harari thinks that  if current trends continue, then the benefits of this phase of modernity will be vastly unequally distributed. The new longevity and super-human qualities are likely to be the preserve of the techno super-rich, the masters of the data universe. Meanwhile, the redundancy of labour, supplanted by efficient machines, will create an enormous “useless class”, without economic or military purpose. Harari envisages that “Dataism”, a universal faith in the power of algorithms, will become sacrosanct.

He thinks that only those abilities of humans will be encouraged that the political and economic system finds useful. An example is the attention helmet that I had written about earlier. It shuts outs empathy and doubts and enables a person to make quick decisions in morally difficult situations. But overuse of the helmet risks creating lots of what he calls ‘over-sized ants’ who are very good in the dimension that is rewarded by the political system and market forces but are deficient in other dimensions. You are often told that you are free to make your own choices about what you want to do. But what if technological progress makes it possible to reshape and engineer those choices in directions which someone else determines?

Evegeny Morozov gives an example of such a ‘directed  choice’ in To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. The 'suggestion' is due to the various kinds of data that are floating around the Web and interpreted in myriad ways by different algorithms. Suppose you are thinking of becoming a vegetarian and visit a few websites on the topic. An algorithm belonging to a tech giant correctly guesses your intention and concludes that there is an 83% chance of your becoming a vegetarian within a month.

Whoever operates the algorithm sells this information to the association of meat producers. Suddenly you start receiving free samples of meat and while visiting various websites you keep getting ads explaining the benefits of eating meat. Finally you decide to remain a meat-eater. You are of course oblivious of the connection between your initial aspiration, the samples, the ads. Are you making your choice consciously or are you being directed towards the preference of somebody else? In Homo Deus, Harari writes:
In the heyday of European imperialism, conquistadors and merchants bought entire islands and countries in exchange for coloured beads. In the twenty-first century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. 
This echoes one of Gandhi's main criticisms of modernity - it reduces individual autonomy. According to Ronald Terchek in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy, ‘Autonomy stands at the center of Gandhi’s political philosophy. It is his greatest good and precedes in importance his other political and social goals.’ His focus on individual autonomy was what made him question the use of machinery, attack social ills like untouchability, be suspicious of the state and other institutions, the uses of violence to settle disputes, repudiate capitalism, communism and imperialism. He says in Young India on June 12, 1924, ‘I am not interested in freeing India merely from the English yoke. I am bent upon freeing India from any yoke whatsoever.‘

In Bapu Kuti, Rajini Bakshi makes a distinction between the historical Gandhi and the civilizational Gandhi. The historical Gandhi may be criticized and condemned as an ordinary figure. But the civilizational Gandhi, the Gandhi of the  ideas and concepts and uncomfortable questions scattered throughout his works about what a good society should be like, is a far more imposing and enduring figure. I am more interested in the Civilizational Gandhi, especially his critique of modernity which many find queer. Getting lost in extreme statements distracts from the substance of his critique. He considered modern civilization to be without a moral centre with its emphasis on progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost.

He held that modern man was the victim of a vast humbug perpetrated by legislatures, educational institutions, hospitals, and armies. The ‘life-corroding competion’ encouraged by modernity resulted in bondage rather than freedom. He insists that economics and science should be judged not only by their own internal standards but also by standards external to them i.e. ethical standards.  He recognized the oppression in theories of efficiency and progress, conventionality and commonsense. He held that freedom came from internal sources rather than by submitting to the will of others.  He keeps reminding us of what we are missing in modern life. He said in Harijan, 1-2-1942 (in Democracy: Real and Deceptive):
If the individual ceases to count, what is left of society? Individual freedom alone can make a man voluntarily surrender himself completely to the service of society. If it is wrested from him, he becomes an automaton and society is ruined. No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom.  In reality even those who do not believe in the liberty of the individual believe in their own. Modern editions of Ghenghiz Khan retain their own [autonomy]. 

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