What a complete and utter [redacted] [redacted], eh?
Maybe not so much. Here’s a scenario for you: perhaps in the future, super-intelligent AI can make all the complex systemic decisions in the background, while we jumped up mammals can play in-group/out-group and petty status games with each other, safely attached to our addiction machines. Coming to a Black Mirror near you.
If only life were as neat as a one-hour TV techno-thriller. There’s an irony that boomerangs back from Musk’s grandiose statement, which is that many people’s experience of Covid triggered exactly a search to “find meaning in life”, stranded amidst so much downtime, isolation, injury and death.
And this wasn’t robots at your door ceasing your working life, but one of our oldest biological foes (though who knows with what human bioengineering to sharpen its teeth – if you want a cure for sleepiness, go explore how easily AI can help make bioweapons).
However, before we tumble blissfully into the singularity, we still have a few clear years left when human responsibility for policies and institutions might still matter.
Thus the importance of the existence of WhatsApp messages to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. Whatever the technology, this is still humans chattering among themselves, in quickly assembled groups, as to what they should do about a threat that is clearly encircling them. Something we were doing hundreds of thousands of years ago, and which is probably the root of our very sapience (such as it is).
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However, looking at how Westminster (and maybe Holyrood too, let’s see) has besmirched itself with its WhatsApp behaviours, the old E.O. Wilson quip comes to mind: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
We can get to the first two, highly relevant categories later. But is WhatsApp a “god-like technology”? As much commentary has noted, it maybe accelerates old political methods – the conversation in the corridor, the pub or the smoke-filled room, the silently-passed memo – to a god-like ubiquity and speed.
There’s also a simplicity about using WhatsApp which seems to be part of its appeal (“No Ads! No Games! No Gimmicks!” was a note on founder Jan Koum’s desk).
Where things get simple-minded is the politicos’ apparent belief that WhatsApp’s encryption system – the messages are private to each sender and receiver, and disappear when each deletes them – ensures some protection for their speech.
I imagine it’s on the task list of many young spads to join a particular WhatsApp group, watch out for the intemperate comments of your political rivals, screengrab their foul-mouthed or culpable moments, and file away in a dark folder – ready for Machiavellian use.
I guess this is where we get to the “medieval institutions” part. Again, much of the mainstream commentary – written by political journalists who survive by virtue of back-channel, off-the-record conversations – seems to be down on WhatsApp’s effect on government.
Where can boundaries be tested, heterodox notions aired, counterfactuals explored, they ask? Not, it would seem, on WhatsApp, where any thumbed-out act of open-mindedness is evidence for a takedown at some future point.
Yet I’m reminded of a paper that Julian Assange wrote decades ago, which justified WikiLeaks as the great subverter of one of the classic behaviours of the state. This was to preserve a zone of knowledge, deliberation and action that was structurally inaccessible to citizens, and which necessarily served elite interests. The data leaks given to WikiLeaks brought sunlight, and the people, into this murk.
In a way, Assange’s philosophy is what’s implicitly guiding the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, in its public campaign to get as many WhatsApp and other intranet-level communications into their research base. Given the sheer numerical disaster of Covid – in lives, money and opportunities lost – there is a presumption that the voters need to know the full context of our state’s policy decisions.
But it’s really messy to have WhatsApp in this picture. An expert I consulted – and I won’t give her name, which shows that (at least in journalism) you shouldn’t make a fetish out of transparency – was stern about WhatsApp and government.
She said: “WhatsApp is an ephemeral and unstructured channel, like all chats – it shouldn’t be used [by politicians and policy makers]. You end up with unfindable critical data. The civil service is actually good … at hiring librarians to sort their info. Tech companies should learn from government here.”
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We’ll see whether the Scottish Government’s position lines up behind this slightly rosy account. They’ve also used the term “ephemeral” for WhatsApp activity, Shona Robison claiming it’s not part of “the culture” up here. Humza Yousaf has instead cited a procedure whereby policy decisions are officially itemised, thereby allowing exchanges on WhatsApp to be auto-deleted after a few weeks.
Yet what are we scouring for in a WhatsApp exchange? Not the pedantic sifting through of policy options – but raw candour and filth. Which brings us to E.O. Wilson’s first category of problematic humanity: those “Paleolithic emotions”.
That’s fully on display in Dominic Cummings’s (and others) loutish locutions. But the political decay of the Tories is defined by their (yes) medieval heartlessness, in their WhatsApp posts about the fate of the elderly under Covid.
Pick yir electoral windae, dishonorable members.
So WhatsApp, somewhat like Twitter, is an amplifier of the worst tendencies of the political classes. Now what will these characters do when a really god-like technology falls into their hands?
I can think of three instances already where the record isn’t encouraging, overall.
Industrial capitalism has taken us to an environmental precipice. The nuclear bomb has hung us from an existential wire. At least bioengineering has self-regulated to the degree that we haven’t exterminated ourselves (though perhaps somewhat degraded ourselves).
So although I couldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, I am grateful for Musk recovering his inner sci-fi idealist in his Lancaster House chat the other day.
He trashed Sunak’s grim list of AI duties (“stopping benefit fraud”, etc), by reminding us all that technology should be about the liberation of human uniqueness from toil, necessity, alienation and routine.
Why do progressives leave that kind of startling aspiration to ketamine-chewing tech-bros?
And of course, who’s to say that the superintelligences can’t join us on our post-work “search for meaning”? I’m sitting with my coffee at the end of this piece, listening to the lovely new – maybe final –Beatles song. Which, due to the infinitely sensitive tools of current AI, features John Lennon’s ringing voice separated out from an old demo. On the new track, Ringo Starr clatters fabulously, Paul McCartney harmonises and bass-plays, and the late George Harrison plangently strums.
Isn’t it this part of human nature – the part that yearns to hear pure love songs like Now And Then, performed by special humans, alive and dead – that we want powerful technology to enhance and engage with? Or is it the scrotal-faced fury of a Dominic Cummings, king ferret in the sack of his WhatsApp groups?
We still have time left to make some decisions in this area. Personally, I vote for Ringo.