Non-algorithmic meditations

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Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan


Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan

A common request this Christmas past was for cell phones as gifts for the teenagers – and younger. A couple still don’t have phones, but that doesn’t mean the kids have accepted this as reality. To them it’s a deprivation, almost an assault. It does no good to mention, for example, Syria and what Syrian kids long for – likely not e-products – although give even them a few years in our affluent West and they’ll be insisting they too need phones to survive.
And one topic of conversation this year among adults has been how much time kids spend on their devices, plus the ill effects this is said to be causing them. Everywhere we look, teens and twenty-somethings are on their phones and devices, no matter what’s going on. At last weekend’s excellent concert by Pontiac’s Julie Corrigan, one table of young adults in front of us had every one of them on their devices, as they moved their heads to Julie’s music. I realized then that adults are wasting their time berating kids about their devices. This is what kids do. It would be smarter of us to call the devices and phones as “stuff kids do” – kid stuff, in other words. Apparently the middle generations are actually using devices less often; so ought we not just wait them out and trust that as they grow into their older years they’ll shed this “kid stuff” and pay attention to the world immediately around them and to research which indicates that screen-exposure should be reduced?
This topic smacks of Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, “the media is the
message” — remember how we tried to make sense of that startling truth? With media now everywhere, McLuhan’s observation remains current.
I wonder if it doesn’t mean that we are so hungry for messages that we seek them everywhere, and in-coming streams are the first places to look. This hunger suggests we are eager to learn new things and interact with others. That seems a good hunger, but today McLuhan might say we’ve lost our ability to distinguish the content of messages from the fact of messaging.  Something is coming in on the device, so it must be a message, and since messages are what we seek, we have to pay attention to whatever is arriving … something like that?
Obviously we still have trouble distinguishing media from its messages and content, and McLuhan’s view remains real, that the big message is the ubiquity of media – it’s everywhere, double and triple time. Will we soon realize there’s only one equation here – that there is no message? All that remains is media and
the technology driving it. Technology itself is a message.
And why is this problematic? One, is that this is a re-structuring of how we experience and of our experiences themselves. We are up-ending our culture to better accommodate automation and Artificial Intelligence. Today’s media is run by machines using algorithms. Algorithms actually create messages by agglomerating the content of web traffic.
When we Google, we connect to click-farms and bots, rarely real people or real research, but what advertisers want us to believe is real. “Five stars” for a good vacation spot, book, recipe, shirt, or wine refers to no criteria, no checking, no policing, as our real-life experience might require. Hence, “automation” swiftly morphs into “manipulation”.
Where this becomes dangerous (and not just subterfuge) is with ideologies and interpretations of social and world events. Algorithms count bot-clicks and bot-
postings and advise us of these numbers as though they were real people and their reactions. We get pandemic fears (of immigration) and extreme interpretations of events (school shootings never happened) because our machines are feeding this to us, at the hands of algorithms manipulated by unscrupulous people. “Drink it up”, sang Leonard Cohen.
If this is the new world of AI, do we actually have the courage and patience to wait for our grand-kids to grow out of their screen-enchantment? Can we avoid self-sabotage as we set up systems which can be so easily automated? Automation and our mania for convenience gives AI keys to the house.