Who do we talk with and what do we talk about?
At UKAI we’re big fans of Ivan Illich and his ideas around conviviality and how they might relate to imagining AI systems differently.
"I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members."
Today we’ll be looking at the local and global forces that move a system toward a centralized stability and those that urge it toward more decentralized diversity and how cognitive technologies will influence this balance.
Centripetal forces are those that move an object toward a centre. Centrifugal forces are those that move it outward. At a social or cultural level, we can imagine centripetal forces as those that tighten rules and expectations and centrifugal forces as those that resist or localize structures. Historically, there has always been an ebb and flow in terms of whether a centralizing or decentralizing ideology predominates. This is changing.
Language is a useful site to find examples of how this works. When we are writing or speaking to others, our language choices are constrained (if we hope to be understood). Word order, the meaning of words, and grammar act as ordering forces that shape the language available to us in a communicative act. Words have come to signify something, and without a shared set of expectations about what they signify, even basic conversation would be difficult or impossible.
At the same time, there are disordering forces at work in speech acts. The lived experience of speech is greatly influenced by context. Saying “look out” in a business meeting has a different range of potential meetings than saying the same on a street to a stranger. Intonation also plays a role, with emphasis, rhythm and tone altering the potential meaning of what we say. Imagine that the bold words in these short phrases are emphasized in a conversation.
“I don’t care” and “I don’t care”
How does this shift the potential interpretations of the statements?
Groups can also adopt variations in language that both create a sense of collective belonging while also actively refuting the centralizing tendencies of language. Slang, jargon, and intentional deviations from canonized grammar signal common social relations and belonging.
Grammar texts and “rules” of language might lead us to believe that speech is codified and somewhat ‘fixed’, but the reality reveals a specific and contextual tension between these official rules and how we disorder or manipulate them to articulate different intentions and values. To articulate our values, we both leverage the official structure of language and disorder it to accommodate the context.
A centripetal example can be seen in 18th century France. Prior to the full establishment of the nation state, the French language was far from homogeneous and defined by sometimes mutually incomprehensible dialects from region to region. The formation of the French state led to efforts to ‘nationalize’ the French language and this was done through schools and other ordering institutions. Today, most French speakers share a similar dialect.
A more balanced example is evident in Japan. The Japanese spoken on the national broadcaster, NHK, is described by Japanese people as a form of centralized “Kanto” dialect. Other local dialects persist but the ability to switch between a local dialect and a more mutually understood version is necessary and ubiquitous. This idea of ‘code switching’ is an accommodation to both centralizing and decentralizing tendencies.
Elements of modern English and its enormous vocabulary came out of contextual need. Many of the phrasal verbs in English (such as “run away” or “throw away”) arose out of a period of language blending in England following 1066 when proto-French speaking invaders married proto-English speaking locals. The soldiers were prevented from using Germanic words in public and they were pressured to adapt these same words at home. So we see words with similar meanings but slightly different implications in different contexts. “Retreat” in the social realm becomes “run away” in more familiar contexts. “Dispose” becomes “throw away”.
How does this relate to AI?
All social interactions are defined by both centripetal pressures and centrifugal urges. Centripetal tendencies show up in expectations around appropriateness, deference, historicity, and so on. Centrifugal tendencies show up in desires to reflect the needs of the situation and one’s own identity and dignity.
In some situations, choices to ‘disorder’ our social interactions are unlikely to be successful. You can’t negotiate with a highly bureaucratized system, or as we are discovering, an automated one.
Narrow AI is usually about optimization and speed. In service to the operation of these systems, inputs and stimuli need to be usable and generally predictable. Map programs such as Google Maps use location data in order to optimize routes for travellers. Someone dragging 99 cell phones in a wagon down a street creates inputs for which the system is ill prepared, and traffic is directed away from the seemingly overcrowded route. Other examples require less planning. Siri jumping into the conversation every time a French-Canadian speaker calls for their “Cherie” is a local example.
Sociologist Richard Sennett in his 1970 Uses of Disorder remarked on the reduction in complexity of social interactions available to those living in cities. The needs of our economic system increasingly ask us to limit our range of action in interpersonal communication. AI systems only amplify this trend. Put simply, if we want to benefit from the gains these technologies offer, we must accommodate their design. We become objects, sacrificing agency in service to friction-less interactions. Just as industrialization forced workers to accommodate themselves to machines, AI is demanding the same exchange across all facets of public and private life.
In many cases, we are unaware that we are giving anything up. The more that is surrendered, the more powerful centripetal forces of organization become. We are aware that cameras on our neighbours’ front doorsteps watch us without our consent. We are squeezed into a binary of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours policed by technologies that come to define the binary in the first place. Trespass and other non-violent acts of resistance have a long history. Poaching of wood, water and game, following the transfer of the commons to private ownership, was the most popular and most common offence conducted in opposition to the privatization of nature’s gifts. While I may view poaching and trespass as generally undesirable behaviours, we are excluding even the potential for these acts as we turn control over to systems with which we cannot negotiate.
Rules and their violation have historically been mediated by human beings in dialogue. We increasingly turn over this work of mediation to institutions meant to act with minimal reference to context. Of course our social biases and oppression find new homes in these ostensibly ‘neutral’ structures. Racist police services are therefore transitioned to robot dogs trained on racist data all in service to not having to collectively talk through diverse perspectives on a real, lived situation.
We need technologies that promote exchange. Instead we get systems that more deeply entrench official ideologies at the expense of those that benefit little from the ideology as currently written. The gift of language is the ability to negotiate meaning with others. The gift of the social is the free exchange among different subjects with unique views of the world. Instead, the world becomes defined by screaming voices demanding that the line between acceptability and trespass be redrawn. We should also be concerned about how absolute that line becomes and what forces we assemble to enforce its limits.
Each moment of being in community is different. Absolute and abstract limits, enforced by systems indifferent to context, severely curtail our capacity for expression and resistance. Without a diversity of approaches to algorithmic systems, our culture will become more rigid, interaction will be replaced by a non-communicative tolerance, and true resistance will be even more out of reach.