The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same?
As a global community, we are moving through a pivotal moment in history as technological advancements connect us virtually in an instant. Our ability to communicate with one or more people instantly via social media and the Internet can make possible what might have once been considered magical. Language barriers that once inhibited communications are now more easily circumvented with translating tools embedded in social media and available on the internet and our phones. Similar to the lived reality of people alive during the advent of the printing press, telegraph, telephone, or even Luther’s demand that the masses be taught to read, I imagine we move through daily lives that will be reflected in history books describing the great technological advancements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
But what will those history books say? When I ask students to consider if we are more or less connected now than ever before, their answers are surprisingly mixed. Despite instantaneous communications across time and space it can be argued we are less connected because we see people hunched over their phones siloed from others who are literally right next to them - no making small talk with strangers on a bus. In some cases, visiting with friends and family is interspersed with text messages, phone calls, and social media posts. Even if someone feels we are more connected with virtual communication, they might say the quality of those interactions is decreasing.
Is being interrupted, distracted, or a lull in conversation really that different now than it was in the social world prior to the Internet, cell phones, and other technological innovations? I would argue that it isn’t. In fact, we now include people in conversations who aren’t physically present in the way they had to be with the telephone, printing press, and expansion of literacy beyond the elite, albeit with similar interruptions, distractions, and lulls.
As we interact virtually with more and different people, we also encounter perspectives that are different from our own. While this is also not new to encounter different perspectives, it is likely we encounter more and different perspectives than we ever have before. No longer must we wait for a newspaper to be delivered to our doorsteps to read an opinion piece or two. All we have to do is switch on a computer or our phones to read someone’s thoughts about anything, anytime. And, just as we might have discussed those news pieces in-person with friends and family, we now interact with people we don’t know who have perspectives sometimes very different from our own.
At no time were these different perspectives more obvious to me than during 2016 to 2020 after a U.S. president was elected, social justice movements and countermovements swept across the United States, and COVID-19 kept many people at home with their computers and phones. We argued, fought, and insulted each other virtually about masks, whose lives matter, how the country should be run, religion, health, and vaccines; you name it, each of us disagreed with someone. This is not new.
But it felt new to disagree writ large with anyone and everyone who cared to make a social media post, publish news or information, or comment virtually. We (re)discovered that we have different opinions even as we (re)discovered that people lie, are jerks sometimes, get angry, don’t know the difference between fact and opinion, and feel and think any number of emotions and thoughts. We even found the like-minded. Again, not new.
But it might feel new when our daily news and social media feeds remind us that people agree, disagree, fight, love, kill each other, help each other, help each other, commit atrocities, seek remedies, bully, make friends, discover new things, worry about their health, suffer, celebrate, are poor, are rich, practice religion, embrace atheism, sell things, and buy things.
Currently information and conversations about Artificial Intelligence abound, and I have been to somewhere around a dozen meetings or presentations about AI in just the last few months. Artificial Intelligence has entered our global community’s conversations, and everyone who has access is using or trying it out, worrying about it, arguing about it, or deciding what to do about it. Some embrace it, while others express fear. At some of the meetings I attended, I caught myself thinking, repeatedly, about how we are revisiting societal problems in light of a new technology. The topics I hear discussed are many - students cheating, how to best regulate new tech, and threats to jobs, among other perennial issues.
Parallel to thinking about unsolved and regurgitated social problems as each surface in communications, is a sense that AI can be seen as being very much like a person. It lies, makes things up, “hallucinates,” and exhibits bias, and, conversely, tells truths, states facts, writes fiction, and can exhibit neutrality. It does these things based on what it learns from the information it draws from, created by us. The algorithms that shape AIs are also created by us. In effect, AI exhibits human faults and virtues based on human information. It is us writ large because we socialize it.
The points? As we lament differences and celebrate similarities we find in each other, and as we identify faults and virtues with the technologies we create, let’s also reflect on those attributes as such. In doing so, we have another opportunity to identify and change long-standing social problems while increasing our understanding of ourselves and each other as individuals and as a global community.