shining glass, brushed metal, and misery

You have likely already come across this remarkable piece of reporting by Adrian Chen, where he delves into the world of human social media workers who scrub Facebook and similar sites of offensive and illegal content, but if not you need to check it out. It’s essential that we recognize that our visions of a frictionless, technology-enabled future are, fundamentally, lies.

In my complaints about the popular portrayal of artificial intelligence, I have mentioned that people underestimate just how much human training goes into the Bayesian models that underlie a lot of the algorithmic internet — the recommendation services, the natural language processing, the predictive systems. The existence of thousands of Filipino workers laboring for awful wages to wash your Facebook feed is not quite the same thing, but it springs from the same dedication to sanitizing the future to better fit our Jetsons-inspired vision. As Chen writes, “Companies would prefer not to acknowledge the hands-on effort required to curate our social media experiences, Roberts says. ‘It goes to our misunderstandings about the Internet and our view of technology as being somehow magically not human’.” You would be amazed at the number of people I still hear say, “Amazon, it’s like magic. I just click a button and a few days later a package arrives.”

When most people think of the future, I think they’re imagining something like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, impossible cities of impossible heights and impossible affluence. (A friend of mine who worked in Abu Dhabi doing IT for awhile told me that it was like living in Sim City, played by your dad, with the unlimited money cheat on.) And I think they’re right: I think the future is Dubai, the future is Abu Dhabi. It’s the mountain of groaning humanity, sweating and poisoned, laboring for pennies, building monuments of gorgeous crystalline perfection, which some Stanford grad in a hoodie takes pains to hide backstage, relying on our collective desire to never look behind the curtain.