Artificial intelligence (AI) is coming and we better be prepared.
The subtitle of Anthony Elliot's
The main argument of the book is that, as a transformation of unprecedented scale and intensity is about to occur, we must be ready to rethink much of our daily lives, starting by acknowledging that, as the books concludes, “we might have, as it were, simply run out of styles of thinking or frameworks for understanding the impact of such changes” (p. 200).
This argument is a tricky one because it connects the problem of knowledge (how to know) and the problem of power (what to do) in a problematic way. The essence of the question is nicely expressed by the character Tancredi in
In the introduction, Elliot defines AI:
[The term AI is] encompassing any computational system that
[The term AI is] encompassing any computational system that
The obvious problem with this definition is that it takes the metaphoric transfer of intelligence from human intelligence to artificial “intelligence” at face value. In other words, we are left wondering what self-awareness – “to sense” or “react intelligently” to data – actually means when applied to non-organic systems. Because the difference between human and artificial intelligence remains unclear, the relative value and limitations of each remain indistinct, leaving no conceptual escape from the “technological tsunami sweeping the globe” (p. 16). The rest of the book describe some features of this tsunami.
In the first chapter, “The digital universe”, Elliot summarises the main points of his analysis, arguing that in this “universe”, social forms of daily life and “complex digital systems” are interdependent when it comes to issues of “transformation” (p. 26). Elliot grounds his analysis in three traditions: the social theory of Nigel Thrift (p. 43); the study of advanced modernisation and the self (p. 45) in Anthony Giddens, Zygmunt Bauman, and Ulrich Beck; and what Elliot calls the “critical discourse […] pertaining to reinvention, innovation and experimentation”. According to Elliot, the latter “calls our attention to an emerging branch of social ideologies of self-fashioning, in which instantaneity, plurality, plasticity, speed and short-termism grip the imaginations of women and men throughout the digitalized cities of the West who are riding the next wave of innovation” (p. 49). For Elliot, these three traditions, “provide a framework within which it is possible to begin to think critically about the emergence and spread of a By this I mean the general social process by which everyday life and modern institutions become increasingly influenced and shaped by the digitalized and technical apparatuses of AI.
By this I mean the general social process by which everyday life and modern institutions become increasingly influenced and shaped by the digitalized and technical apparatuses of AI.
The second chapter, “The rise of robotics”, is about the social, economic and political effects of automated work in the global economy, interpreted through Marx's theory of technology, the arguments of “sceptics” and “transformationalists” about the “fourth industrial revolution”, the influence of globalisation, and offshoring of automation and the resulting disruptions.
In the third chapter, “Digital life and the self”, Elliot discusses the impact of new technologies on the production of the self “and the daily lives of individuals”, arguing that, rather than producing “an enforced solitude”, “new technology creates both new opportunities and new burdens for the self.” (p. 19.) Adopting a psychoanalytical approach, Elliot argues the case for considering the self as an “information processing system” and “construct[ing] our lives as portable selves, moving across society (online and offline) as if the self is an information processor” (p. 84). The grounds for this suggestion is that, “in this age of smart machines, the key psychoanalytic question is not so much how do we connect but what does it mean for the self when we connect” (p. 84). Elliot dismisses Sherry Turkle's concerns about the new solitude and alienation of the digital age, arguing that digital objects such as social media and “robotic pets” contribute to a “transitional space”, offering people opportunities for “engagement with the wider world rather than a defensive reduction of it” (p. 94). For Elliot, the inability to take advantage of these opportunities should not be blamed on new technologies, but on an individual's life conditions, such as “debilitating emotional imprints from their past or because of the impairment or corrosion of their capacity for processing unthought emotion” (p. 102).
In the fourth chapter, “Digital technologies and social interaction”, attention shifts from the individual to the collective impact of new technologies, and Elliot applies Goff-man's “action framework” to the analysis of the institutional organisation of social interaction, the role of chatbots, the impact of co-presence, mobility, desynchronisation, and individualisation on social relationship and Michael Harri's “eclipse of silence”.
The fifth chapter, “Modern societies, mobility and artificial intelligence”, discusses the impact of automation on mobility, as this notion applies to its civilian and military dimensions, such as the “Google car” and “drones and killer robots”.
In the final chapter, “AI and social futures”, Elliot addresses the future of intimacy, health-care, and democracy in order to argue for the necessity of public policy to develop adequate strategies to handle the complex matrix of risks and opportunities associated with transformations in these domains. As intimacy is not limited to “interpersonal relationships”, but includes also “impersonal objects” and “the cultivation of our connection to technology itself” (p. 162), in healthcare the pace of transformation opens up questions only partially addressed by the debate between “technologists” versus “traditionalists”, and democracy is facing “benefits and burdens” that “question liberal, individualist conceptions of democracy” (p. 184). For Elliot, public policy can address these challenges through three main strategies based on the “digital tooling up of an active and engaged citizenry” (p. 195), the role of government, and the role of the markets. The viability of market solutions, however, requires “systemic corrections” or “structural change” towards “greater transparency and accountability” of the companies involved (p. 197), to avoid the risk that “the transformative potential of complex algorithm” would “reproduce and amplify the biases and other human failings to which some critics argue it is ostensibly resistant” (p. 199).
For an audience more experienced with a critical intake of the social glitches of technological development, however, Elliot's analysis contains at least a few limitations. The first, as mentioned earlier, is Elliot's definition of AI and the blurring of the difference between human and artificial, life and digital life, and so on.
The second limitation consists of the narrative representation of technological development as an independent variable. Maybe it was a choice to focus on and discuss social implications. But this choice becomes problematic when we discuss the nature of this development – the forces and ideolgies supporting it, the practices legitimising it, and so forth – because the nature of this develepment itself is put outside the range of critical scrutiny. Resistance is futile and compliant adaptation is the only choice. Elliot accurately describes the extension and intensity of the transformative power of new technologies but neglects to identify the sources of this power: the social forces, the ideological myths, and ultimately the nature of the interests that feed the seemingly irresistible penetration of new technologies in our lives.
These two limitations have at least three implications on the discussion about the “culture of AI”. First, this seems a “culture” in which AI is an independent variable of the equation that generates social change. In dis-cursive terms, this brings about the naturalisation of technological development, that is, the interpretation of technological development as a natural phenomenon – a tsunami – that we can deal with only as far as the effects, but not the causes, are concerned.
Second, social conflict and the role of social structure in shaping technological development – a core tenet in the critical theory of technology – are neglected. The “culture of AI” results from technological development construed as a process independent from social forces and impacts a notion of society purged of social conflict. In a critical perspective, this conflict – and not technology per se – is the real engine of social change.
Third, the concept of “revolution” is construed to describe a radical change of established ways of life, conventions, institutions, and even ways of knowing, but not a radical subversion of relations of power. This is important because this kind of technological “revolution” ends up not challenging, but strengthening, existing relations of power.
Elliot's book is useful reading, however, because it reflects an approach or a culture of AI that is influential among corporate and political elites. Students with critical ambitions should familiarise themselves with it if they want to defend the idea (and its implications!) that technological development and other processes apparently “irresistible” – such as globalisation – are not independent from, but dependent on, social structures, relations of power, and ultimately the competition for control over the distribution of values in society.
Post-truth, fake news, alternative facts. Terms like these have circulated in public debates, particularly in the last five years, raising concerns about the state of the digital public sphere in many countries. Fundamental epistemological questions such as what is a fact and how can we know if something is true have been given renewed attention. For everyone who has taken an introduction to philosophy of science course when entering the university, these questions are (oddly) familiar.
Nevertheless, Farkas and Schou have succeeded in positioning the book in a more philosophical part of the current debate about digital truth and falsehood, which can ensure this conceptually interesting book a longer shelf life. By applying discourse theory – mainly inspired by Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, and Oliver Marchart from what has been called the Essex School of Discourse Analysis – the authors describe their approach as a post-foundational political thought. This approach is supposed to grasp “the political signification of meaning without relying on essentialist and universalistic assumptions about the constitution of society, humanity, nature or truth” (p. 15). From this position, the authors lay out a theoretical foundation to explain why some discourse and social constructs are more dominant than others. The dominance of specific discourse should be seen as an accomplishment established through ongoing processes of hegemony. Thus, social reality can be seen as a battleground between opposing attempts to impose and fixate particular discourse as dominant, self-evident, and natural. Farkas and Schou argue that this is not a defence of relativism – nothing is true and everything is possible. Rather, the book encourages us to juggle many thoughts simultaneously, instead of only dealing with typical dichotomies such as true/false. Yesterday's misinformation is not necessarily today's misinformation, as we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic when cumulative insights from research have expanded our knowledge of the virus.
This book can be read as a complicated balancing act which argues that truth, evidence-based policy, and informed decisions are conditions for democracy, but at the same time, not
Still, Farkas and Schou argue that today's situation is less a crisis of truth, and more a crisis of democracy. It is maintained that contemporary democratic states need to create spaces for politics that allow for contestation, disagreement, and pluralism. Instead of glorifying past periods of proclaimed consensus, more should be done to increase representation and participation. The authors outline how rationality has replaced popular sovereignty, consensus has replaced conflict, and the needs of the capitalist market have replaced the will of the political people – all of which are all valuable and worthwhile concerns.
Nevertheless, even though it is necessary to problematise observations such as those presented by French President Emanuel Macron – who indirectly said that truth is democracy and democracy is truth – the book could be clearer on how disinformation, fake news, and alternative facts impact democracy. “Defactualisation” can have dramatic consequences for democracy and is a term used by Hannah Arendt, but also by Natalia Roudakova, who has written the book
This affects not just the public sphere, but also the institutions tasked with producing public facts, such as journalism, governmental agencies, scientific organisations, and academic institutions. The undermining of the legitimacy of institutions can potentially undermine a shared reality among the public. In turn, this undermines the possibility for democratic accountability, especially through public opinion and the press. In short, information disorder can create democratic decay.
Even though the book is upfront about not aiming to address whether democracies are facing a deep-seated “crisis of facts”, or how accurate current debates around truth, deception, and democracy are, it would have strengthened the book if it had this empirical perspective.
Nevertheless, Farkas and Schou have brought a barrage of intellectual ammunition to readers who are interested and concerned about the current state of truth in liberal democracies. The conceptual framework of
The book consists of eleven chapters, most of which have already been published in leading journals on media and journalism. According to the authors, however, there is a need for tying together these articles into a whole, in order to be “able to articulate the surprising finding of how mainstream media help the inattentive citizen in an economized world” (p. ix). By “economized world”, the authors refer to the fact that economy has a larger say than ever before on society at large, hence increasing the need for following and understanding the general development of the economy in order to be a competent voter, employee, and consumer.
The main result in the book is that media helps inattentive media users to form a “correct” perception of the performance of the economy. This causality seems to be even stronger when the economy is doing fine than when it is doing less well. This is a surprising result, as the main result in previous research has been to demonstrate a “bad-new-bias” (Kollmeyer, 2014) in how the media cover the economy, suggesting that media considers bad news to be the best news stories.
Another interesting result is that what matters is not whether media actually helps users understand details of the general economic development or tricky concepts like structural unemployment or labour supply. Rather, it is more important to the inattentive audience that they get a general feeling of the general state of the economy they live in: is it going up or down? This result suggests – much to the surprise of this reader – that the media is doing a pretty good job at equipping weaker media users with adequate knowledge to navigate in an ever more complex society.
The authors suggest a couple of possible explanations for this surprising result. First of all, it does not require that much to sense the general state of the economy. Second, what the authors baptize the “mainstreaming” of economic news gives news consumers easier access than previously to create their own feeling of the state of the economy.
By “mainstreaming”, the authors imply that economic news stories become part of the general news stream by using the normal criteria of news value (identification and domestication, according to the authors; p. 2). This leads us to a third and complementary explanation: the financial crisis has accelerated the mainstreaming of economic news stories because it has increased the general interest in the state of the economy – even for the inattentive audience. And the mainstreaming has increased the interest of the public in economic news.
However, according to the authors, another interesting result contradicts this overall positive message: The media also makes media users more aware of how uncertain the current and future economic development is and will be. It is also shown that a sense of uncertainty makes the expectations of media users to the performance of the economy take a negative turn. As we might expect the future economy to become ever more uncertain, we might also expect the media to report this and, hence, become a current drag on the economy.
One of the strengths of the book is that the authors, in the conclusion, make a pressure test (“tryktest” in Danish) of their results. They admit – and try to defend – why social media has been invisible throughout the book. They even raise the discussion of whether a correct picture of how the economy is performing even exists.
This last point also indicates a main weakness of the book: In essence, its ontology and epistemology are positivist, as it is essentially assumed that economists understand the economy, and as a consequence, it is also possible for media to present a “correct” picture of the state of the economy. And economists do not disagree or belong to different economic paradigms.
How we interpret the economy does, however, depend very much on the economic paradigm applied when the discussion comes to understanding the underlying reasons for the economic development, pinpointing problems or suggesting solutions to remedy these problems. Implicitly, the authors rely on the dominant New Keynesian economic paradigm without ever telling the readers about it. But the state of the economy is not just something factual – it has to be interpreted: which facts should be highlighted? Which should be ignored? What constitutes a major or a minor problem? When is something a possibility or a threat? Economics is not and will never become an objective science.
The other main weakness is that the reader is given the impression that, after having read the book, we now know something about the actual consumption of economic news. However, the evidence is at best flimsy. The empirical evidence of actual and individual consumption of economic news is, as in previous research, indicative. We know very little about which economic news stories are actually read, understood, and processed by individual news consumers. Hence, further research on a much more detailed and qualitative level is needed. One possible avenue of research is to use social media to gather data on the actual consumption of mainstream economic news by actual social media users of, for example, Twitter (Soroka et al., 2017) or Facebook (Madsen, 2018). Another possible avenue would be to observe individual consumption of economic news combined with qualitative in-depth interviews.
As it is now, research is too focused on content analysis of the media coverage of the economy and has an arm's length approach to the individual and actual consumption of economic news and the consequent and actual behaviour of individuals as voters, consumers, employees, and even employers. Nevertheless, by reading this book, one gets an excellent view of the state of art within this field and in addition, a lot of new empirical knowledge on the issues is presented to the reader.
Finally, due to my vanity and the fact that we as researchers all too often draw on the work of others in a very superficial and even misleading way, which hinders progress in our joint knowledge of different societal phenomena, let me as an example note that my own work (Madsen, 2018) is briefly mentioned in the conclusion (p. 157). According to van Dalen and colleagues, my paper apparently demonstrates that Facebook changes economic news. It would be more accurate to say that it describes and analyses which type of mainstream economics news Facebook users share, like, and comment upon. It is, furthmore, demonstrated that news about the business cycle does not attract much attention on Facebook. This result actually substantiates the notion of the inattentive audience.