Since 1959, the ABC has supported the Boyer Lectures to spark conversation. 2017’s series featured Genevieve Bell
discussing our fast, smart and connected world:
Bell begins by setting the context associated with technology for herself and Australia in general. She discusses her journey to Silicon Valley via a PhD in Anthropology. This serves as the starting point of a conversation about what it means to be human in a digital world:
We are not just passive by-standers in this digital world – we have been active creators of it. So it is time for another conversation, about our possible digital and human futures, and about the world we might want to make together.
She begins the story about technology by going beyond the usual story of Ada Lovelace, Bletchley Park and the human computers. She instead discusses the early computers in Australia – CSIRAC and SILLIAC – and how they compare with today’s technology.
Today’s computing had a million times as much memory for one-ten-millionth the power. Another colleague pointed out, that it would basically take 4 million CSIRACs to replace my current mobile phone, which would require most of the electricity in New South Wales, and most of the landmass too.
Although the processing power of these initial computers may not seem so significant now, they were behind a number of significant projects, including the building of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl These developments moved us from a world associated with what might be possible to what was actually happening, making speed the measurement of success.
In the second lecture, Bell discusses how we have evolved from a focus on speed to incorporate connections.
Even if you don’t keep your smartphone within arm’s reach, and you don’t use Facebook, or Twitter or Instagram, or Snapchat or Tinder, you live in a world where your friends, your kids, your parents, your bosses, your politicians, your teachers, they all do, and where those services and their underlying ideas are shaping this world and how we live in it.
1978 announced the arrival of the first personal computer, the TRS80, a device that opened the world to a new digital world. Even if you are not a part of this personally, there is no doubt that you know someone who does. Bell discusses the rise of Silicon Valley, Douglas Engelbart’s demo, ARPANET’s initial network and the birth of the internet in 1989, reminding us that to approach the future, we first need to appreciate the past.
Looking back at the typewriter, Bell explains how the design was about speed and efficiency. Associated with this, the story of Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R., where the term ‘robot’ derives:
In his play, a factory owned by a man named Rossum mass-produces mechanical creatures who resembled humans and who can be set to work. Over the arc of the play, the mechanical creatures become numerous and also increasingly unhappy, demanding the factory owners help give them more capacity — to reproduce, to love, to feel.
Ultimately the creatures are pitted against humans in an epic struggle that humans are bound to lose. Described variously as a satire, and later as science fiction, Capek’s play owes a great deal to both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the stories of the Golem, and, from this vantage point, I see Blade Runner and the story of the replicants.
Another addition to our world has been electricity. This was not straight forward. It involved negotiation between existing technologies.
There are important questions to ask. What is getting connected? Why? And how? What drives an infrastructure roll out? Efficiencies? A governmental or civic agenda? Cultural aspirations or experiences? Who is doing the connecting, and what is their motive? Will the network evolve and change over time? What are the measures of success and the driving forces? Who are the other voices in the story, and what might be their threads? And ultimately, what is the world that all this connecting will build?
The last lecture begins with a quote:
Each of us, from the day he’s born, begins to deposit information about himself in various public and private files. By the time he emerges from school and the armed forces, the ordinary young adult cannot have escaped becoming the subject of at least a dozen personal information files. Our necessary social interdependence assures an acceleration at the rate at which personal data are accumulated and stored. Until yesterday it’s been manila folders; it becomes increasingly a computer record, which stores and organises an ever-wider range of data about each of us.
This was from Sir Zelman Cowen and his Boyer Lecture in 1969. In this last lecture, Bell unfurls how we got to now. She explains that Cowen’s prediction has clearly come into existence:
That data-centric world seemed benign at first — smartness that helped us. We gave up data about ourselves, and the technology around us got smarter. Devices and services knew us, gave us recommendations about food and books and movies and news, helped us remember passwords, and websites, and made sure we didn’t get lost or stuck in traffic. More recently those devices and services reminded us to walk more, to vote, to leave for the airport. They promised us better dates and hook-ups, better travel times, ticket prices, cheap data plans because we were in the airport, advanced warning for bush-fires in our area, and reminders to take umbrellas or wear sunscreen. They helped label our photos, and curate our memories, and find our friends. And it turns out they have been shaping our conversations, our views, and our attitudes.
Bell explains that one of the aspects that we need to consider is the intent associated with these developments. This takes us back to BF Skinner and the teaching machine:
Skinner viewed people as mechanistic systems, reducible to electrical impulses and operant conditioning. This matters, because the notion of the human that Skinner theorised still pervades AI today. Replace stimuli with data, and you see the same frame. AI is, at one level, just data in, and data out – measurable and mechanistic.
How do we balance between the utopian and dystopian stories being told about technology. So much of this is about the ethics and morality, rather than the actual technology itself. How then do we engage with this? What is the bigger vision? Bell argues that there are four things we can, and should do, in our smart, fast and connected digital world: build new approaches, invest in the (hard) conversations, strive for accountability, and make our own (Australian) future.
the next time you hear that story about killer robots, ask yourself: What is the history of this technology? Where did it come from? What are its vested interests? And who are its beneficiaries? And what logics about the world is it normalising? And most importantly, what is the broader context into which it fits?
This is a helpful resource in appreciating the current digital context. As we add Digital Technologies to the curriculum, Bell addresses some of the reasons why. In addition to this, she provides a wealth of resources to take further.