2020 Visions

Scott McLemee reviews some of the books now being published by university presses, many of which seem to predict our world in the upcoming decade.

February 8, 2019

Among the new and forthcoming university-press books this season, a number strike me as efforts to anticipate what life will be like in the 2020s. Not that the authors put it that way, naturally. (Prognostication seldom counts as scholarship.)

But awareness that a new decade is approaching always tugs at the mind a little -- away from current events and recent trends, toward speculation about where they may be headed. Here are a few notes in that direction.

It's a given that our technology will keep on developing, possibly even without us. In The Creativity Code: Art and Innovation in the Age of AI (Harvard University Press, April), the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy suggests that the future may yet bring a leap beyond machine learning. For now, algorithms that not only duplicate human skills but learn from their mistakes are what define artificial intelligence. But du Sautoy considers the possibility of reaching another stage: machine creativity, technology that is itself capable of innovation. The author purportedly "moves us to the forefront of creative new technologies and offers a more positive and unexpected vision of our future cohabitation with machines," as if we weren't cohabiting with them plenty already. (The quoted passage here, like the others in this column, is taken from the publisher's description of the book.)

Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson, the editors of Life by Algorithms: How Roboprocesses Are Remaking Our World (University of Chicago Press, June), propose that information technology's effectiveness at replicating human decision-making processes is having a worrying effect: "computers have offered a model of cognition that increasingly shapes our approach to the world." In fields as seemingly unconnected as "finance, medicine, education, housing, the workplace and the battlefield," human activity is conditioned by "roboprocesses" -- algorithmic problem solving via scripted interactions between person and machine.

So chances are you will spend much of the ’20s with no way of knowing whether the voice on the other end of the phone is coming from flesh and blood or from a really sophisticated automated device able to detect emotional cues when you speak and incorporate that data in a reply. But don't think of this as alienating or dehumanizing. It's just part of the texture of experience that Jay David Bolter calls The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media (MIT Press, May). The author identifies "a series of dichotomies that characterize our current media culture: catharsis and flow, the continuous rhythm of digital experience; remix (fueled by the internet's vast resources for sampling and mixing) and originality; history (not replayable) and simulation (endlessly replayable); and social media and coherent politics."

The trend is toward recognizing these dichotomies en route to liquidating them. Automation and artificial intelligence have the further effect of pressing down on the labor market in ways that can only become more volatile. The current decade is closing with low unemployment figures in the United States, but the authors of three forthcoming titles are highly skeptical of the much-touted economic recovery. David G. Blanchflower's Not Working: Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone? (Princeton University Press, June) looks behind the employment statistics to examine "how many workers are underemployed or have simply given up trying to find a well-paying job, how wage growth has not returned to pre-recession levels despite rosy employment indicators, and how general prosperity has not returned since the crash of 2008."

Meanwhile, as Gary Roth emphasizes in The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility (Pluto Press, April), "more graduates emerge every year into economies that are no longer creating a steady stream of stable jobs," so that "the odds of landing one decrease -- and over-educated people end up scrapping for poorly compensated positions for which they’re overqualified." Duncan Exley addresses the same precarious norm in The End of Aspiration? Social Mobility and Our Children’s Fading Prospects (Bristol University Press/Policy Press, April).

All of which accounts for much of the malice and rage that is pooling up to form toxic swamps on social media. In turn, a new industry has emerged: commercial content moderation. Sarah T. Roberts provides an ethnography of this largely hidden sector of digital culture in Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media (Yale University Press, June). "Over 100,000 commercial content moderators" work to "evaluate posts on mainstream social media platforms: enforcing internal policies, training artificial intelligence systems, and actively screening and removing offensive material -- sometimes thousands of items per day."

The work involves continuous exposure to "hateful language, violent videos and online cruelty uploaded by users," which is probably not even the worst of it. If any task can and should be entrusted to the care of the artificially intelligent creativity of roboprocessing algorithms, this would seem to be the one. But that may end up being the catch-22 of the 2020s: the only thing worse than commercial content moderation is not being able to get a job doing it.

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Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

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