Hyperautomation is necessary to human survival

As a result of digitization (converting analogue to digital information) and digitalization (deploying processes that make use of digital information) congnitive load has INCREASED, not decreased.

The speed that information travels today means that just being able to keep up is a competitive advantage. But the result for humans is more communication channels, more meetings, and more demands. Burnout is a real thing. I’ve seen people change jobs as a way of declaring ‘email bankruptcy’ — they have become so under water and so overwhelmed that the only way to escape is to leave their job entirely and start fresh somewhere else.

Hyperautomation is not a technology. It is a change in culture where everyone is empowered to automate anything that can be. The democratization of software development made possible by no-code and low-code platforms is vital to realizing that vision.

Hyperautomation is most frequently cited as a solution to business problems. And it is. But it is more importantly the solution to a very real HUMAN problem: how to survive and thrive in the face of digital transformation.

‘Faking it’ is passé

The idea of ‘faking it till you make it’ is passé. A fad of the past decade that has seen devastating results at the same time as it has seen growing numbers of immatators.

Fakers may grow fast, but they don’t last. And they leave destruction in their wake.

A more sustainable strategy is marked by excellence in product, authenticity in message, and empathy in approach. People and brands that think this way establish themselves slowly, but they are more likely to endure on account of the fact that they have better products, are more credible, and achieve lasting loyalty from customers and colleagues alike.

Where does the heretic belong? Notes on Philosophical friendship

People want to go out on a branch, but they don’t want to go out on a limb.

Belief systems are always based in an appeal to authority. There is always a heretical founder and a canonical set of teachings (usually written) that are imbued with the founder’s authority as an everlasting proxy.

No one wants to be a heretic. The risk is to great. Ever since the Protestant Reformation made it possible for us to think of ourselves as members of a ‘priesthood of all believers’ (a concept that I believe Martin Luther came upon while sitting on the toilet) we have assumed an active role in building the world views we live in.

The theme is not ours. It is too lonely to write our own. We belong by embracing a common song, and assert our individuality through variation.

People buy ready-made ideas. They are sold everywhere, and even given away; but the ones that come free of charge prove to be even more expensive, and people are already beginning to realize that. The result is to benefit none and the same old disorder. […] It’s even worse for one who decides to study and to understand things on their own, and still worse for one who makes a sincere declaration of his intention.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Writer’s Diary

It is for this reason that the QAnon conspiracy captivated so many. All are bound together by a common set of texts, the meanings of which are so obscure that any number of interpretations might fit. All are welcome to participate and to contribute their interpretations, but only one or a few might be chosen to be correct by the collective. The power of QAnon comes from the power to combine the pleasure we get through imagination, the belonging we feel in a shared set of beliefs, and the thrill we receive at the prospect of being ‘chosen.’

Of course, this is not unique to QAnon. These are attributes shared by all modern communities. It’s how religion works. And it’s how Academia functions.

It’s how the world of the internet and of social media work. Gardens protected by walls built by dogmatic belief. ‘Stoics’ on Twitter, for example, retweet quotes from the ancients and genuflect before popularizers like Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, and Mark Manson (even though Mark himself claims to be more aligned to Buddhism and Existentialism). Each of these authors are smart and, I believe, authentic in their individual efforts to make sense of their world. But they leave dogmatists in their wake. And they are not members of the clubs that their writing inspires.

There are times when I lament my seeming inability to find and join a large group of like-minded people. Part of me misses the collective experience of the Church (or feels obligated to have that experience). But, then again, I also know that my greatest joy comes from the conversations I have with small groups of trusted friends who, despite differences in belief, nonetheless share a common set of sensibilities. They share a sense of openness and playfulness at the same time as they share an intensity and an urgency. They are dilettantes and bricoleurs in how they navigate the world of ideas, but they nonetheless navigate that world in order to solve real problems.

In short, belonging doesn’t mean you need to belong to an immense community. It doesn’t mean an embrace of dogmatism. It doesn’t mean finding a ‘Church.’

Through an embrace of friendship and intimate connection defined by honesty, kindness, generosity, and a genuine commitment to make sense of the world here and now, it becomes possible to be a heretic and to belong at the same time.

Metaphysics and happiness: What you think you know can hurt you and others

In his On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine says (paraphrasing) that the root of all evil is not money or anything else. The root of all evil is simply desiring after things over which you have no control.

Augustine was obviously influenced by Stoicism.

Of course, he ends up arguing that true happiness can only be found through faith in the eternal and unchanging, which is God.

But a more consistent avoidance of things over which you don’t have any control would include freedom from the desire to know things that are beyond our grasp — things like the nature/existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the reality of free will (to pull a list from Kant).

What is appealing to me about Pyrrhonian Skepticism (the best articulation of which is probably found in Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Skepticism) is that it represents a more consistent version of Stoicism. If happiness is to be found in the avoidance of desire for things over which we have no control, and certainty is a form of control, then we should refrain from believing in things about which we are uncertain.

The reason that strongly affirming claims about the nature of reality is that you expose yourself to sources of doubt. For any claim (the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, for example), it is possible to make an equally compelling case both for and against. Given the impossibility of certainty, choosing to believe either that there is a God, or that there is not a God means exposing your believe to constant threat. It also results in all manner of pernicious behaviors as you strive to continually affirm your belief to yourself and others despite the fact that you could quite easily be wrong.

Think about the damage caused most recently by believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

For the ancient Skeptics, the goal was ataraxia, or freedom from mental disturbance. The greatest tool for them was reason, which makes it possible to rigorously evaluate any and all truth claims. If a claim was found certain (i.e. irrational to believe otherwise), then believe would be affirmed. Inevitably, however, the result is a suspension of belief because it would be impossible to be certain either about a particular claim or it’s opposite.

With belief suspended, the Skeptics could return to ‘common life’ (borrowing an expression from Hume) of family, friends, institutions, etc in a way that could be fully enjoyed and appreciated without the burden of metaphysical commitments and the toxic relationships that clinging to uncertain sets of belief would otherwise have.

You don’t deserve to be happy

I feel like the language of deserving is fraught.

To deserve something implies that you have earned that thing, and that the thing that has been earned is still not yours.

It’s kind of like viewing the world as a series of IOUs, except there is no contract or agreement to document what is owed, and under what conditions.

When you deserve something, you feel like you are owed, but the one who owes (a person, an organization, the universe) is unaware of that fact.

The one who deserves is one who desires. Which means they don’t have the thing they want. They also don’t have any control over the thing they desire. By claiming to deserve a thing, there is a sense in which you are making a case, but that the ultimate decision about whether you receive the thing is not up to you. But when someone says they ‘deserve’ something, they are preparing a case that is never made. No judge ever receives their appeal.

Deserving is often just another word for resentment.

I hear a lot of people say they ‘deserve to be happy.’ But when we think carefully about the language of deserving, the idea of deserving happiness quickly stops making any sense.

Is happiness a thing that you can lack? Is it our responsibility to make a case to someone and pray that they agree with us?

No. Happiness is not a thing that one has. Happiness is a thing that one IS. You don’t deserve to be happy because there is no one to whom you can make an appeal. No one is holding out on you. As a state, whether you are happy or not is something that is entirely within your control.

To say you deserve to be happy is to say that the decision isn’t ultimately up to you. It puts you at the mercy of the universe.

To say that you deserve to be happy is simply to refuse responsibility for yourself. You don’t deserve to be happy, because it’s a choice — to be or not to be — that only you can make.

Freedom from time, and the compulsion to get things done

We all fall into the trap of what Giambattisa Vico called ‘the conceit of scholars,’ which is the false belief that our understanding of the world is as old as the world itself.

Very few of us Moderns recognize that those foundational concepts that drive us in our day to day lives — concepts like ‘time’ and ‘progress’ — are inventions of the Eighteenth century that, according to Reinhardt Koselleck, only become possible as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

And very few Moderns recognized how prototypically ‘male’ our concept of time is, as something that we work to master, through prediction and control, in order for us to achieve greatness. Thinking of time in this way is only possible if we can ignore the cyclical, and non-progressive (even Sisyphean) nature of actual day to day life — like cleaning the house and caring for others. The kind of ‘household management’ that Aristotle thought best for women, children, and slaves.

Our Modern experience of time is as something that is divisible into tidy increments, and as something that demands progress. Our experience of time is neither natural nor necessary, and yet it confronts us as if it were. As WI Thomas famously observed, “that which is perceived as real will be real in its consequences.”

Living in a city reinforces the Modern conception of time. Living on a farm frustrates it.

On a farm, you are never ‘done.’ You never get to check anything off your list. The next task is rarely predictable. The pasture I cut yesterday seems like it already needs to get cut today. The ATV that I rely on every day is unusable until I change out the water pump. Horses seem to take great pleasure in breaking fence boards. One of these days I need to figure out how to safely remove poison ivy.

Every day ends. But you are never ‘done.’

I’m grateful that my wife manages the dinosaurs (aka ‘horses’) because they are even more needy and unpredictable in their care from day to day as the property.

Taking a mind formed by a modern sense of time and progress and putting it on a farm is frustrating. Seen through a Modern lens, the farm can seem like it is always getting in the way.

But from another perspective, part of the frustration comes from the fact that the farm serves as a constant reminder of the artificiality of the conceptions of time and progress that otherwise rule modern life.

A recognition that how we think about time is neither natural nor necessary helps us to rethink the day to day. Instead of thinking about the dishes, the dog, the farm as inconvenient disruptions to what would otherwise be predictable and productive, we can now view the Modern demands of work as exceptions to what is otherwise the rule.

We can’t ignore the demands of time, oh course, since our relationships with others depend on it. And we can’t ignore the need to ‘get things done’ and to constantly ‘improve‘ because our employment probably requires this of us. But we don’t need to be ruled by these demands. We shouldn’t feel like failure to show up for a meeting on time or to meet a deadline represents a kind of existential threat…as if we are failing as human beings.

The proper place of time management is as something that supports human relationships. We agree that it’s important in certain contexts. Time and progress have their time and place. And it is important to honor our obligations as members of a shared and social world. But there is also freedom in recognizing that our obligations are to others and not to time itself.

We must resign ourselves to living in life as it is, with all its repetitive cycles and unpredictability. Only then can we truly flourish in more structured work environments. Because only then can we be liberated from the sense of anxiety that results when the messiness of real life threatens the artifice of Modern existence.

Is the denial of pain the denial of potential? A response to Mark Manson

Mark Manson tweeted something recently that’s been nagging at me. The sign of a good tweet.

To deny pain is to deny our own potential

@IAmMarkManson

Aphorisms like this have a lot of power on social media because, by virtue of how ambiguous they are, every reader can ‘see themselves’ in them. Super likable. Very shareable.

On the face of it, it sounds like just a different way of saying “no pain, no gain” — a truism with which very few would disagree.

But is what Manson says here simply a restatement of the fact that there is no growth without struggle? Or is it actually claiming something else? And if it’s claiming something else, is it right?

Don’t get me wrong. I like Mark a lot. I’ve read his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and I recommend it. There’s just something about this tweet (which I think is also a quote from his book) that, to me, doesn’t seem quite right.

The problem is that it’s unclear whether the issue is the denial of SOME pain or of ALL pain. If SOME pain, then the expression may be true, but only trivially so. It’s not actually useful until ‘pain’ is qualified either in terms of kind, degree, or both. If it is ALL pain, then it is clearly untrue because it is very easy to think of an example of pain which, if not denied, would absolutely interfere with the realization of one’s potential.

Athletes know that some pain is valuable for improving performance, but they also know that there are some kinds of pain that, if not denied, can be career ending.

This is different from saying “no pain, no gain” because in that case all it means is that no gain of any kind is possible without at least some pain.

I think what bothers me the most about Manson’s tweet is it’s ambiguity (what does ‘pain’ mean? what is our ‘potential’?) and the fact that it also involves human action (‘denial’), the meaning of which is contingent upon the meaning of those other ambiguous terms. In other words, the conceptual weight of the expression is simply not sufficient to justify a clear and specific meaning.

Okay, but who cares, right?

What worries me here is not that Mason’s quote is ambiguous, but that it’s ambiguity is one that I desperately want to resolve. Even if only trivially true in itself, there’s still value in Manson’s tweet because it underlines the importance of arriving at an understanding of each of its terms. Only if we know what it means to realize our potential and what pain is can we know the relation between those two things the the role we play in mediating them.

To find yourself, you need to stop looking

As long as I can remember, I have felt anxiety about my self. I know that I’m not alone.

That cliché about ‘searching for the meaning of life’ is one that I feel deeply. I was raised to think that I was special, and that I had some kind of higher purpose that was out there for me to discover.

But with no clear understanding of how I was special, or of what my purpose is, the result has been a life of ceaseless striving. The sociologist Max Weber described the Protestant work ethic as something that came about because Christians needed affirmation of God’s love. In the same way, I have sought recognition from others in a number of fields as affirmation that I am special.

At the same time, I refuse to accept affirmation because I feel like an imposter. Like I am pretending to be special rather than being special in myself. This pernicious cycle has turned me into a dilettante, cultivating just enough expertise in any given area to receive both (1) praise, and (2) an awareness that expertise in that area is not enough to provide me with that profound sense of purpose that I am looking for.

The problem here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the self. On the one hand, I’ve been searching for something essential about who I am, as if discovering my essence would give me clarity about the kind of meaningful work I should be doing in the world to fulfill my potential. On the other hand, amidst feelings of dissatisfaction, anxiety, and dread I have worried that these feelings are ultimately all that I am. The thought of being ‘freed’ from these hungry ghosts has been more terrifying than what I suffer from living with them.

What if I give up my fears and discover that there’s nothing left? (Sounds like a codependent relationship)

Learning about Buddhism recently has helped me to flip this problem on its head. The emptiness at the center of who we are is not something to be feared, but is rather something to be embraced.

I am not a thing that needs to be discovered. And I don’t have to worry that my happiness hinges on understanding some elusive meaning to my life.

Instead, I am at the ability to observe my mental states and ideas as experiences, and to welcome my hungry ghosts, not as parts of myself, but simply as friends along with all of the other experiences in my life. The ability to acknowledge that you are simply the ability to take yourself as another frees you to abstract yourself from negative thoughts, unproductive habits, and attachment to things over which you have no control. And it empowers you to accept responsibility for any actions you take in response, because every action now becomes intentioned.

I don’t have control over the thoughts and impulses that spring to my mind involuntarily. I do have control over how I choose to understand them, and how I choose to act in response.

What I take from Buddhism is that the ‘meaning of life’ consists in wisdom and compassion. For yourself, wisdom involves (1) understanding the nature of self as existential (something that acts and becomes) rather than essential (something that is in a way that is independent of experience), and (2) an awareness that anxiety comes as a result of attachment to things over which you have no control. In relationship with others, it involves compassion because we all share a longing for happiness as well as the ignorance, fear, and pernicious cycles that get in the way.

I’m not a Buddhist, but I do think that Buddhism (especially when considered philosophically rather than religiously) is a helpful lens for opening up new and helpful perspectives on the world and in one’s relationship to it. It is also extraordinary to observe how deeply it’s basic ideas about personal identity and the nature of the soul resonate with the Western history of philosophy, from the Stoics and the Skeptics, to the Italian Humanists, to Spinoza, Hume and Hegel, through Existentialism and Phenomenology.

The part of me that wants to think of itself as a unique snowflake with original thoughts resents the similarity in all of these thinkers and traditions. And that petulant child inside of me wants to reject these ideas simply because they are both unoriginal and increasingly popular.

But a bigger part of me takes comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my own struggle with meaning. And I am grateful to have these guides (and those I have yet to meet) seated with me as friends at the same table, along with all of my hungry ghosts.

NOTE: I am only at the beginning of my journey to understand Buddhism, just like I am at the beginning of my journey to understand anything. If you are more knowledgeable and see errors or opportunities for my thinking to be clarified or extended, please leave a comment and let me know.

Are robots slaves? On the contemporary relevance of Čapek’s R.U.R.

  • Written in 1920, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek is most well-known for having coined the term ‘robot.’ Although derided by many (including Isaac Asimov, who called the play ‘terribly bad’) it anticipates and responds to an important argument that continues to be used to justify automation projects today.
  • The most common argument for automation (one that is used by almost every vendor) is not new. It dates back to Aristotle who used the same logic to justify using slaves, women, and children in similar ways.
  • The most important contribution of Čapek’s play is not just that it coins a term, but in the work the term does. By deliberately connecting automation with Aristotelian slavery, and then viewing the results through a pragmatic lens, Čapek challenges us to consider the consequences of a technology-centered approach to automation and consider whether a more human approach is possible.

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) is … strange. What begins with a factory tour and a bizarre marriage proposal eventually concludes with the end of humanity and a new robot Adam and Eve.

Many have dismissed the work as an historical curiosity, whose only contribution was the term ‘robot.’ But that’s not entirely fair. Indeed, in spite of the fact that Isaac Asimov called the play ‘terribly bad,’ his famous three laws of robotics are in many ways a direct response to the issues anticipated by Karel Čapek.

A word on Čapek. He earned a doctorate in Philosophy in 1915. Because of spinal problems, he was unable to participate in WWI, and instead began his career as a journalist. As a philosopher and observer of the war in Europe, he was a pragmatist (in the philosophical sense), and critic of nationalism, totalitarianism, and consumerism. When evaluating these ideologies, as well as other popular philosophical positions of the time like rationalism and positivism, his approach was to ask, not whether something was true, but whether it worked. And this is exactly the approach we see performed in R.U.R.

As is often observed, the word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word robota. Although some writers suggest that robota merely refers to ‘hard work,’ it more accurately implies the kind of hard work that would be done by obligation, like that of a serf or slave.

The relationship between robots and slaves is surely intentional on Čapek’s part, and I would argue that it is intended to signal that we should think about robots in the same way as Aristotle famously described the function of slaves, women, and children: as bearing responsibility for the burdensome work related to sustaining bare life in order that (male) citizens might occupy themselves with a more elevated life of the mind. Indeed, this is the exact position taken by the character Domin in the first act of the play:

But in ten years Rossum’s Universal Robots will produce so much corn, so much cloth, so much everything, that things will be practically without price. There will be no poverty. All work will be done by living machines. Everybody will be free from worry and liberated from the denigration of labor. Everybody will live only to perfect himself.

At the center of Čapek’s play is a criticism of this belief, of this longing for a kind of guilt-free slavery capable of freeing us from burdensome work that we believe is somehow beneath us. It is a dramatization of the consequences of such a belief, were it to be fully realized.

What happens when humans get exactly what they ask for? In just 10 years (an inevitable timeline that is accelerated because a robot is given ‘a soul’), every human except for one stops working. They become superfluous relative to a productive system that values efficiency at all costs. They cease to be productive in every way, even to the point of losing their ability to procreate. They become so dependent on robots that they can’t bear the thought of living without them, even as this dependence is clearly leading to the destruction of the human race.

DR. GALL: You see, so many Robots are being manufactured that people are becoming superfluous; man is really a survival. But that he should begin to die out, after a paltry thirty years of competition. That’s the awful part of it. You might almost think that nature was offended at the manufacture of the Robots. All the universities are sending in long petitions to restrict their production. Otherwise, they say, mankind will become extinct through lack of fertility.but the R.U.R. shareholders, of course, won’t hear of it. All the governments, on the other hand, are clamoring for an increase in production, to raise the standards of their armies. And all the manufacturers in the world are ordering Robots like mad.

HELENA: And has no one demanded that the manufacture should cease altogether?

DR. GALL: No one has the courage.

HELENA: Courage!

DR. GALL: People would stone him to death. You see, after all, it’s more convenient to get your work done by the Robots.

Stepping outside of the play itself, Čapek’s argument seems to go something like this:

  • Many believe that human beings can only realize their true potential if they are liberated from the kind of work or drudgery that is necessary to sustain bare life. Human slaves are obviously unethical. Robots represent an opportunity to achieve all the benefits of slaves without the moral problems that accompany slaves in a more traditional sense.
  • But in practice, when liberated from work, human beings do not actually dedicate themselves to a life in accord with reason or to the contemplation of the Good. Instead, they are wont to squander freedom in pure leisure.
  • And a life of pure leisure is at odds with the values of efficiency and productivity that are essential to achieving such a life.
  • Hence, actually realizing the Aristotelian vision of ‘better living through slavery’ would actually place us in a contradiction, according to which we are forced to absolutely value both work and leisure at the same time. And because absolute leisure is not sustainable in itself, work (and those who perform it) is the only value that could possibly survive.

What can we who work in artificial intelligence and other forms of automation learn from R.U.R.? Even the most cursory look at the industry landscape will show that Aristotle’s dream of ‘better living through slavery’ is alive and well. Almost every automation company makes some version of the claim that their technology increases efficiency by taking care of the stuff that human beings suck at and hate so they can focus on the stuff they’re good at and like. But in the vast majority of cases, these companies are more fundamentally driven by a technology-centered rather than human-centered view of work, making arguments that are not fundamentally difference from the one made by Fabry, that “One Robot can replace two and a half workmen. The human machine, Miss Glory, was terribly imperfect. It had to be removed sooner or later.”

Čapek doesn’t help us by proposing an alternative relationship to robots that might be more sustainable. But that’s not really the point. The point, and the greatest value of his work in my opinion, is that it forces us to think carefully about what a human-centered approach to work and automation might look like. In reading R.U.R. we are forced to acknowledge that human-centered technology can’t mean freeing humans from work, because there’s something about work itself that is an inextricably part of what it means to be human. Čapek asks us to be more nuanced in how we view the relationship between human beings and technology, and to carefully consider how technology might complement work rather than replace it entirely. And it is here, in this call for nuance in support of a truly human vision of technology that R.U.R. is as relevant today as it was when it was first performed in 1921.