Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Luddites Never Stood A Chance

The precarious situation of the waged classes was highlighted in 1811 when the Luddites resisted the usurpation of their jobs by new-fangled machines. Since that time, employees have had mixed fortunes: some have managed to hang on to the coat tails of capitalism; others have found refuge in the relative stability of the professions; yet more have hunkered down in the bunkers of bureaucracy. Nevertheless the general trend is plain to see: the robots are coming and, as technology becomes more sophisticated, there will be fewer jobs for humans to do.

This effect, already well advanced in manufacturing industries, is now laying waste to the lower levels of clerical positions as more of us use online processes to complete our tax returns, book our flights or pay our bills. And the hot news is that it may soon be the turn of the teaching profession to feel the pinch, as several experiments involving the deployment of computers have demonstrated.

In India the pioneering work of Professor Sugata Mitra has shown that illiterate, non-English speaking children, given access for the first time to a computer terminal, quickly learn to find and navigate the internet. Furthermore, when set specific tasks, they make significant, measurable educational progress without the aid of teachers. In Ethiopia researchers have successfully brought knowledge (which is one definition of education) to remote villages where there are no schools by giving ipads to the kids. And in Kenya it's Kindles that are bringing reading to the masses. These results suggest that human intervention in the form of teachers may no longer be necessary. Some - Pink Floyd included - would even argue that the whole system of education is the establishment’s instrument of mass control and repression: in which case the demise of teachers should lead to a beneficial surge of individual development and creativity around the world.

The big tech companies are surely dedicated to the elimination of humans from their processes: they prefer algorithms. Facebook has a clever one which monitors your activity so as to work out your consumer preferences. It has another one which decides which of your “friends” it thinks you would like to hear from (by comparing your “likes”) and then ensures that those with different views will no longer irritate you by appearing on your newsfeed. Google is at it as well. A nifty piece of published research has proven that it delivers tailored search results to different individuals, despite their entering identical search terms under controlled parameters. In other words there is no such thing as a standard Google search: its algorithms will reinforce your prejudices and, in so doing, mimic the restricting activities of conventional education systems.

Sometimes algorithms may appear helpful – even beneficial – as when the likes of Kobo, Sony, Amazon et al. suggest books and records similar to those previously purchased - even if they don’t always get it right. I used to think that Tesco's algorithm was particularly prescient when it came to extrapolating my grocery preferences, until I realised that any fool, given enough time shopping in my company, could do as well. What Tesco really needs to work on is the programme that offers replacement items for those which are out of stock. My last delivery came with an aubergine shamelessly presented in place of a celeriac which, if deliberate, was tantamount to a provocative, mind-expanding experience, which is an uncharacteristic and dangerously subversive precedent for any algorithm.

The Luddites couldn't see it coming, but future employment prospects are only promising if you are a qualified algorithm writer - in which case you could have a job for life in the business of second-guessing human behaviour.


  1. Oh dear me no! What`s the algorithm for Hamlet or the Hallelujah Chorus; how about Kant`s Categorical Imperative or e=mc2: where do the Sagrada Familia, Guernica or the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy come in?
    Above all, what algorithm will do you Life of Brian or, indeed The Bible?
    Algorithms are great for the two dimensions of chess (the rook & King ending) but they are the workhorses of life. They`ll never fly. Unless you can show otherwise.....