Evaluating the Promise of Technological Outsourcing

“It is crucial for a resilient democracy that we better understand how these powerful, ubiquitous websites are changing the way we think, interact and behave.” The websites in question are chiefly Google and Facebook. The admonition to better understand their impact on our thinking and civic deliberations comes from an article in The Guardian by Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann, “Why it’s dangerous to outsource our critical thinking to computers.”

Selinger and Frischmann are the authors of one the forthcoming books I am most eagerly anticipating, Being Human in the 21st Century to be published by Cambridge University Press. I’ve frequently cited Selinger’s outsourcing critique of digital technology (e.g., here and here), which the authors will be expanding and deepening in this study. In short, Selinger has explored how a variety of apps and devices outsource labor that is essential or fundamental to our humanity. It’s an approach that immediately resonated with me, primed as I had been for it by Albert Borgmann’s work. (You can read about Borgmann in the latter link above and here.)

In this case, the crux of Selinger and Frischmann’s critique can be found in these two key paragraphs:

Facebook is now trying to solve a problem it helped create. Yet instead of using its vast resources to promote media literacy, or encouraging users to think critically and identify potential problems with what they read and share, Facebook is relying on developing algorithmic solutions that can rate the trustworthiness of content.

This approach could have detrimental, long-term social consequences. The scale and power with which Facebook operates means the site would effectively be training users to outsource their judgment to a computerised alternative. And it gives even less opportunity to encourage the kind of 21st-century digital skills – such as reflective judgment about how technology is shaping our beliefs and relationships – that we now see to be perilously lacking.

Their concern, then, is that we may be encouraged to outsource an essential skill to a device or application that promises to do the work for us. In this case, the skill we are tempted to outsource is a critical component of a healthy citizenry. As they put it, “Democracies don’t simply depend on well-informed citizens – they require citizens to be capable of exerting thoughtful, independent judgment.”

As I’m sure Selinger and Frischmann would agree, this outsourcing dynamic is one of the dominant features of the emerging techno-social landscape, and we should work hard to understand its consequences.

As some of you may remember, I’m fond of questions. They are excellent tools for thinking, including thinking about the ethical implications of technology. “Questioning is the piety of thought,” Heidegger once claimed in a famous essay about technology. With that in mind I’ll work my way to a few questions we can ask of outsourcing technologies.

My approach will take its point of departure from Marshall McLuhan’s Laws of Media, sometimes called the Four Effects or McLuhan’s tetrad. These four effects were offered by McLuhan as a compliment to Aristotle’s Four Causes and they were presented as a paradigm by which we might evaluate the consequences of both intellectual and material things, ideas and tools.

The four effects were Retrieval, Reversal, Obsolescence, and Enhancement. Here are a series of questions McLuhan and his son, Eric McLuhan, offered to unpack these four effects:

A. “What recurrence or RETRIEVAL of earlier actions and services is brought into play simultaneously by the new form? What older, previously obsolesced ground is brought back and inheres in the new form?”

B. “When pushed to the limits of its potential, the new form will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the REVERSAL potential of the new form?”

C. “If some aspect of a situation is enlarged or enhanced, simultaneously the old condition or un-enhanced situation is displaced thereby. What is pushed aside or OBSOLESCED by the new ‘organ’?”

D. “What does the artefact ENHANCE or intensify or make possible or accelerate? This can be asked concerning a wastebasket, a painting, a steamroller, or a zipper, as well as about a proposition in Euclid or a law of physics. It can be asked about any word or phrase in any language.”

These are all useful questions, but for our purposes the focus will be on the third effect, Obsolescence. It’s in this class of effects that I think we can locate what Selinger calls digital outsourcing. I began by introducing all four, however, so that we wouldn’t be tempted to think that displacement or outsourcing is the only dynamic to which we should give our attention.

When McLuhan invites us to ask what a new technology renders obsolete, we may immediately imagine older technologies that are set aside in favor of the new. Following Borgmann, however, we can also frame the question as a matter of human labor or involvement. In other words, it is not only about older tools that we set aside but also about human faculties, skills, and subjective engagement with the world–these, too, can be displaced or outsourced by new tools. The point, of course, is not to avoid every form of technological displacement, this would be impossible and undesirable. Rather, what we need is a better way of thinking about and evaluating these displacements so that we might, when possible, make wise choices about our use of technology.

So we can begin to elaborate McLuhan’s third effect with this question:

1. What kind of labor does the tool/device/app displace? 

This question yields at least five possible responses:

a. Physical labor, the work of the body
b. Cognitive labor, the work of the mind
c. Emotional labor, the work of the heart
d. Ethical labor, the work of the conscience
e. Volitional labor, the work of the will

The schema implied by these five categories is, of course, like all such schemas, too neat. Take it as a heuristic device.

Other questions follow that help clarify the stakes. After all, what we’re after is not only a taxonomy but also a framework for evaluation.

2. What is the specific end or goal at which the displaced labor is aimed?

In other words, what am I trying to accomplish by the use the technology in question? But the explicit objective I set out to achieve may not be the only effect worth considering; there are implicit effects as well. Some of these implicit effects may be subjective and others may be social; in either case they are not always evident and may, in fact, be difficult to perceive. For example, in using GPS, navigating from Point A to Point B is the explicit objective. However, the use of GPS may also impact my subjective experience of place, for example, and this may carry political implications. So we should also consider a corollary question:

2a. Are there implicit effects associated with the displaced labor?

Consider the work of learning: If the work of learning is ultimately subordinate to becoming a certain kind of person, then it matters very much how we go about learning. This is because  the manner in which we go about acquiring knowledge constitutes a kind of practice that over the long haul shapes our character and disposition in non-trivial ways. Acquiring knowledge through apprenticeship, for example, shapes people in a certain way, acquiring knowledge through extensive print reading in another, and through web based learning in still another. The practice which constitutes our learning, if we are to learn by it, will instill certain habits, virtues, and, potentially, vices — it will shape the kind of person we are becoming.

3. Is the labor we are displacing essential or accidental to the achievement of that goal?

As I’ve written before, when we think of ethical and emotional labor, it’s hard to separate the labor itself from the good that is sought or the end that is pursued. For example, someone who pays another person to perform acts of charity on their behalf has undermined part of what might make such acts virtuous. An objective outcome may have been achieved, but at the expense of the subjective experience that would constitute the action as ethically virtuous.

A related question arises when we remember the implicit effects we discussed above:

3a. Is the labor essential or accidental to the implicit effects associated with the displaced labor?

4. What skills are sustained by the labor being displaced? 

4a. Are these skills valuable for their own sake and/or transferable to other domains?

These two questions seem more straightforward, so I will say less about them. The key point is essentially the one made by Selinger and Frischmann in the article with which we began: the kind of critical thinking that demigrated require of their citizens should be actively cultivated. Outsourcing that work to an algorithm may, in fact, weaken the very skill it seeks to support.

These questions should help us think more clearly about the promise of technological outsourcing. They may also help us to think more clearly about what we have been doing all along. After all, new technologies often cast old experiences in new light. Even when we are wary or critical of the technologies in question, we may still find that their presence illuminates aspects of our experience by inviting us to think about what we had previously taken for granted.

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