When I was studying hard and pretending to read lots of books just after the turn of the millenium I rode on an exhilarating wave of cultural and information theory dominated by concepts of speed and power. The neoliberal military machine was firmly established, tearing up the gulf again post 9/11, and the potential for 24 hour news to ignite our collective psyche was beginning to really pick up the pace. Media executives were slowly realising that the odd mysterious object they wielded in their small, clammy, white hands was in fact a giant pipe, for which the sensationalism of all things that could in any way be regarded as even remotely political, was the crack. It was a fascinating roller-coaster of a wave. I wasn't riding it though, my feet were not even wet. I was watching it unfurl and crash into the beach from the hotel room, casually flicking through the television channels to find different angles of the same footage. More comfortable locations from which to watch the obliteration of the well-placed groynes of political sensibility so painstakingly laid down by past protectors. All those considerably more knowledgeable of society's disdain for collective preservation; and those with the hard-learnt experience of our inexplicable collective tendency to happily and willingly, perhaps grudgingly, often enviously, spectate.
Fast-forward and I'm binging on my Twitter newsfeed in the early hours.
Jack Ma (CEO of China based mega-company Alibaba) and Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX and twitter bants*) have engaged in a, well, what is it? It is not a 'debate' as advertised, more of an overly formal chat I guess Link. A bit like the forced conversation you are made to have with your new step-mother as a teenager. How long is this going to go on for? Long enough, it transpires, to establish that there is a fundamental, conflictually catastrophic, schism in ideological perspectives at the table.
Much of the content shared between the two is distinctly painful (minutes 13 - 18 are delightfully uncomfortable) but there is plenty of time to appease some shareholders, and give some interesting spins on Artificial Intelligence (they are at an AI conference after all); as well as drop a hint or two as to why Elon is in China in the first place (see 21:45).
There are plenty of better-informed portrayals of each man's personal character and the manner in which they have grown to capture and influence the movement of their respective company's share-price. I'm not going to attempt to defend Elon's character or his actions but he most certainly sings from my hymnbook when it comes to the subject of technological evolution. Elon spends some time emphasising how the existence of the human species represents just a tiny, miniscule amount of time, an unbelievably short-lived moment in the evolution of techniks, of technology (30:47).
I'm rather biased here, I stumbled upon the writing of theorist Bernard Stiegler, a central proponent of the theory of technological evolution, over ten years ago, and this line of thought has always resonated with me enormously. I found the key principles to be a tremendous call to action; this is our time, this is our moment, we have to use it, we have to do everything we can to make it work, to not just, as Elon somewhat contradictorially puts it, 'go along with the ride' (2:50). It is very difficult to propose to people that they consider humanity's biological evolution as something completely distinct and seperate from technology. We naturally like to think of ourselves as the central actor in the unfurling of history. We like to think we invented fire, that we invented the wheel, that we invented history, so of course it is for us to decide our future. It comes as something of a shock to consider the fact that we might merely be spectators, present for only the tiniest and shortest of rides.
If viewed as steps in the evolution of technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning present our next steps on a path paved by 'the internet', 'social media' and 'big data'. Jack Ma it seems doesn't have any cause for concern. 'Hey, don't worry about jobs. We will have jobs. We'll all be looked after (21:40). Hey I don't worry about things I don't understand, I let other people worry (23:35). Computers are just computers, computers are just a toy (25:57). Computer's have chips, but humans, we have heart (26:05). How do we make sure that computers are just the tools and the toys of humans. Human beings, controlled by machines? I never think about that, it is impossible (30:23).
Watching an edited montage of Elon's eyebrow raising in response to Jack's statements I was filled with a terrible concern that Jack and Elon do in fact both share an important insight; that our default collective tendency as a species is to spectate. To 'go along with the ride'. Sadly, it might well be the case that our collective understanding of technology will only be recognisable after having washed over many of the social constructions we once enjoyed.