The Prescient Coder

I have argued elsewhere that this future would be a great thing, realizing the socialist dream of full employment by capitalist means. But let's consider the dark side.

Among the many processes that information systems make more efficient is the process of capitalism itself. A nearly friction-free economic environment allows fortunes to be accumulated in a few months instead of a few decades, but the individuals doing the accumulating are still living as long as they used to; longer, in fact. So those individuals who are good at getting rich have a chance to get richer before they die than their equally talented forebears.

There are two dangers in this. The smaller, more immediate danger is that young people acclimatized to a deliriously receptive economic environment might be emotionally wounded by what the rest of us would consider brief returns to normalcy. [...]

The greater danger is that the gulf between the richest and the rest could become transcendently grave. That is, even if we agree that a rising tide raises all ships, if the rate of the rising of the highest ships is greater than that of the lowest, they will become ever more separated. (And indeed, concentrations of wealth and poverty have increased during the Internet boom years in America.)

If Moore's Law or something like it is running the show, the scale of the separation could become astonishing. This is where my Terror resides, in considering the ultimate outcome of the increasing divide between the ultra-rich and the merely better off.

I first stumbled upon Jaron Lanier’s One Half a Manifesto in 2016. I had briefly engaged in a discussion with a fellow software engineer on the topic of “the technological singularity.” This individual remained adamantly convinced that the singularity would be real, and he hoped to be alive when humanity would transcend to a higher plane of existence. He gave me a link to a blog post that would validate his claim.

That blog post was not Lanier’s, but another writer, I forget exactly who. I remember reading about half of it and having two responses to it. The first was how crude and unsubtle its faux-intellectual gimmickry was. The thing that finally put me off to finishing it out was when the writer not only put a segment of text in a blue box, but also telegraphed to the reader that the text’s residing in a blue box made it special, somehow imbued it with relevance and deep meaning, just because he’d figured out how to write the words “blue” and “border” into a CSS file.

The second response was how glad I was in that moment to have been to grad school. There was so much about those years of my life that I loathed, but I did come away with a skill, whose importance for my mental and intellectual wellness as a human being I did not fully appreciate until I was confronted with the blue box whose information was supposedly special: the ability to see through this nonsense. Don’t show me a blue box. Make an argument. Connect it to facts. Show me how you arrived at your conclusion. Show me how and why you think the way you do. Don’t tell me I should believe because you can flatter me, or make me afraid, or make the words I’m reading pretty. Tell me I should believe you because you have a compelling idea based on sound argumentation.

That is how I came to search out other, more intellectually nuanced opinions on the technological singularity, which led me to Jaron Lanier’s One Half a Manifesto, so called because, to quote Lanier: “The quest to rationally prove the possibility of sentience in a computer (or perhaps in the internet), is the modern version of proving God’s existence. As is the case with the history of God, a great many great minds have spent excesses of energy on this quest, and eventually a cybernetically-minded 21st century version of Kant will appear in order to present a tedious ‘proof’ that such adventures are futile. I simply don't have the patience to be that person.” And so Lanier eschews the proof and leaves us the other half of the manifesto: his argumentation. Just what I was looking for.

I could write multiple essays on the topics contained within Lanier’s:

  1. How Moore’s Law has turned out to be correct about computer hardware, but not about our experience of using and creating computer software, the quality of which becomes harder to maintain over time, not cheaper and easier.
  2. The idea that “the universe is data” or that “human consciousness is an ambient effect.”
  3. Whether or not humans would be able to recognize it at all of our machines became self-aware.
But these were all concepts I gleaned from his essay when I first read it in early 2016, before Trump and before Covid-19. In the same section as the pull quote that begins this essay, Lanier notes that both those trumpeting the nearing triumph of the technological singularity and those worried about grey goo overrunning the Earth, have missed perhaps the most concerning element of modern techno-idolatry: it is putting a large amount of wealth in relatively few hands in a market economy that tends to emphasize and enlarge any existing disparities. He worries that Moore’s Law, which states that computer hardware’s cost halves at the same time that its efficiency doubles within a span of about eighteen months, could come to apply to wealth distribution, and that this catastrophe would be technologically wrought.

Software engineers are not usually known for our prescience. If we were, the world would have far more stable software systems, and the terms ‘bug,’ ‘crash,’ and ‘freeze’ would not be so ubiquitously known. Coding is a hard, hard task to do well. We must abstract a problem into symbols representing both data and behaviors and put it all together in a way not just so that a computer can execute it, but so that it will be extensible by other humans in the future, and work correctly in as many different contexts as we can imagine. The sheer magnitude of the scope of these possibilities challenges even the most gifted imaginations. We cannot account for it all, as much as the best of us struggle to.

However, looking back from the vantage of 2020, from the technological and social landscape of today onto what it was possible to know and glean and synthesize in 2000, Jaron Lanier looks like quite the prescient coder indeed.