Thanks to Uber-Hitler, we can blame tech rather than ourselves
News that enters history right away tends to officialize the existence of a new time period. It often crystallizes a series of existing elements into a single unseen story that makes the current reality inescapable. An American plane dropping an atomic bomb on civilians to erase a city was such a moment.
This kind of groundbreaking event must act as a wake up call. If not, the world frightens to become meaningless. Humans walking on the moon certainly had a lot to do with Hiroshima, and the fact that one of the lunar craters was named Oppenheimer echoes this basic truth. Rockets can transport humans or weapons of mass destruction. The chief architect for the Saturn V, Wernher von Braun, was an ex-Nazi SS. Space programs clearly compensated for humanity’s dark side.
So here’s a good summary of what just happened in Arizona:
“Homeless Junkie Killed By Robot Uber Car Carrying Transgender Armed Robber”
This headline may come from an alt-right website. But let’s acknowledge that extremists often nail it. Whichever flag is being waved, they have a way with words. All of the facts that constitute the uniqueness of this event are assembled into one scathing formula.
Of course, I am offended. However, the following headlines are offending me even more, as they are lies designed to lure the reader into thinking that technology is responsible for the tragedy:
The so-called “self-driving car” seems to be the perpetrator. But who exactly is the “self” here? Was there a particular mind involved? Is the car aware of the world? Did the Volvo really decide by itself to embark a “Transgender Armed Robber” before cold-killing a “Homeless Junkie”?
After all, the headlines from the mainstream media are much more deceptive than those of their alt-right counterparts. I would call this “fake news,” since obviously there was no such thing as a “self” in the car that crashed in a pedestrian.
This is not a theoretical statement but a very factual truth: technology is innocent here, therefore it should not be incriminated. The robot did not choose to be put in this awful situation.
This scapegoating is wrong in so many ways.
In fact, we should start by thanking technology for the light it has shed on how our system makes it possible to kill homeless pedestrians with complete impunity.
The immediate declaration of the local police chief does not rely on a conspiracy. Uber did not have to bribe anyone in order to promote this type of headline:
In the same week, ten other pedestrians died on the roads of Arizona. This state has the highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the U.S.
In these videos, you can clearly realize that the victim didn’t appear out of nowhere:
View post on imgur.com
The police investigation was probably following this routine equation:
“Car crash + Death of homeless person carrying plastic bags in the dark = Nothing wrong, shit happens, next case please.”
To put it another way: if you want to kill someone and not go to jail, just take your car and hit a homeless person crossing the road at night. Unless you were drunk or speeding, nobody will ever bother you. If you respect the law, you can take a life and nobody will ask you anything. This would sound like an extremist view if I weren’t stating the facts.
If you are curious about this phenomenon and interested in philosophy, it’s what Agamben calls “bare life”. A black male walking in the dark with a hoodie on is also bare life: it’s a life you can take for free, and in this context, the justice system won’t care much. The media might pick up the story, but only if it’s not black on black.
Technology reveals this disturbing truth: when a homeless person crosses a road and dies in a car accident, our society considers the tragedy to be inevitable and neutral. At best, it’s sad but not wrong: the victim “deserved it” somehow.
However, rather than drawing this harsh conclusion, we prefer to imagine that if a robot hadn’t been driving, a life would have been saved by a human hero with whom each of us can fully identify. Vanity is the word to describe such a view.
The “self-driving car” did not produce lives that are worth nothing to society. It didn’t decide to steal jobs either. However, news outlets can’t keep themselves from spreading such stereotypes. Let’s have a look at the bigger picture.
Who exactly is responsible for the fact that Uber now incarnates what technology is? How exactly did we get here?
The same kinds of questions have been asked in the wake of Hiroshima: is this really what technology should look like? The answer, as evoked, was no. Walking on the moon was as useless as building the Eiffel tower, but this venture served some very important needs: it was a demonstration of our ability to discover the world rather than destroying it.
These experiences shaped the minds of millions of scientists and engineers who have been charmed by the superiority of the quest for truth rather than usefulness therein. A quest for nature rather than the market. In France, a candidate in the 2017 presidential election was proposing a space program to go on Mars. The media thought it was ridiculous and made fun of him. The public opinion concurred. Meanwhile, Elon Musk was managing a private company to achieve such a goal.
Iconic astronauts have reportedly criticized this venture, called SpaceX. CBS might have distorted the exact statements somewhat, but nevertheless, a suspicious lack of enthusiasm remains and Musk appeared a bit heartbroken at the time.
Why exactly would Neil Armstrong not fully support SpaceX? Well, because the reason why SpaceX exists is the market rather than science.
This company is not about discovering the world but rather improving existing technology to cut costs. Elon Musk’s company will not invent a new paradigm. Why is that?
Because no investor would have ever payed to build the Eiffel Tower or to send a man to the moon. Only public money can be spent on such crazy projects. Discovering a new paradigm means you are blind at some point. Nobody can foresee all of the functional applications.
The Eiffel Tower became very useful only several years after its construction, as an antenna for radio transmissions, a weather station and a variety of other things. Had it not existed, we should have built something similar and that is why it was never dismantled. Just consider how space programs also enabled satellite communications, etc.
Eiffel addressed his critics with the following statement: “My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way?” Does this sound like a business plan to you? What about “We want to send a human to the moon”? Doesn’t make any sense moneywise, right? However, I’m sure the return on investment was high. Not only because of the innovation push but also thanks to the inspiration it created. Also, thanks to the Russians for launching the quest with Sputnik and Laika.
Beyond its commercial nature, SpaceX’s mission statement distils a great ambition, one that somehow looks similar to Eiffel’s taste for grandiosity: “enabling people to live on other planets”. But is it really?
There is a core difference: Eiffel was aiming at something new and unseen, whereas SpaceX wants to reproduce something that we already know. The idea of “people living” sounds much too familiar. “Discovering the world” is absent from this objective, which is more about replicating a model than discovering a new paradigm. “People living on other planets” would look a lot like “People living on earth”: emigrated workers would be completing assignments for companies, which means eating, sleeping, being distracted by screens and dying as usual.
Compare to NASA’s mission: “Drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.”
You might argue that NASA’s objectives are too broad and vague. True but still, there is this ambition to be a open game changer whereas SpaceX is just aiming at transplanting what we already know, somewhere else.
Musk’s ventures remain very interesting and inspiring because they are on the edge: it feels like he’s trying to fill a gap that the states let open. But it also shows the limits of private investment. Musk recognized this himself: ”Creating a rocket company has to be one of the dumbest and hardest ways to ‘make money’.”
His statement confirms the warning that the ex-astronaut Neil deGrasse Tyson gave him almost three years earlier:
The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That’s just not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen for three really good reasons: One, it is very expensive. Two, it is very dangerous to do it first. Three, there is essentially no return on that investment that you’ve put in for having done it first.
And his analogy is excellent:
A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments. This is how it’s always been. And the best example, I think, is Christopher Columbus. That was not a private mission. There were some private monies in the public monies that were used, but basically the mission statement was established by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, and they said go plant the flag wherever you land. There’s hegemonistic motivation, and it wasn’t specifically military at the time, but Spain certainly had an armada to back up their land grabs. Only after that, only after Christopher Columbus comes back and says, “Here are the people that I found, here are the foods, and here are the trade winds,” only then does the Dutch East India Trading Company come in and make a buck off of it. They didn’t have to make that first investment. The risks were quantified, the cost was well understood, and the return on investment was calculable. That is a recurring model in the history of our civilization, and I don’t see any reason why that would be any different from advancing a frontier such as that in space.
So what is SpaceX doing now? They’re bringing cargo back and forth to the space station, as should have been happening decades ago. You don’t need NASA to move cargo, you get NASA to do the things that have never been done before. And then when they do it enough and there’s a routine, then you farm it off to private enterprise, which can actually do it more efficiently than you can, and presumably make a buck for having done so.
The takeaway here is that the market can exploit the world only once it has been discovered. However,But it can’t be the leader of lead the world discovery. Only states can do that, thanks to their ability to waste vast amounts of money on pointless projects.
The Large Hadron Collider built by the CERN in Europe would be a good example. It is interesting to To be compared with the Texan Superconducting Super Collider that was cancelled by the Congress in 1993, because . Because even when the states bring the money, the return on investment that we ask for private companies has contaminated the scientific research sphere.
In 2013, The Guardian wrote:
Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered ‘“productive’” enough.
The scientist explained:
After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn’t my way of doing things any more. Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.
Higgs also “regrets that the particle he identified in 1964 became known as the “God particle”.
This name was invented because scientific research needs to be sold. “God particle” is the marketable product name for “Higgs boson”.
It feels like the new paradigm for innovation was set by Apple and Samsung. The public and scientists like to think that a flashy new item needs to be delivered regularly. This thought system subsumes science to the absurdity of PR.
Here’s what a theoretical physicist recently wrote:
You haven’t seen headlines recently about the Large Hadron Collider, have you? That’s because even the most skilled science writers can’t find much to write about. (…)
“It’s a PR disaster that particle physics won’t be able to shake off easily. Before the LHC’s launch in 2008, many theorists expressed confidence themselves confident the collider would produce new particles besides the Higgs boson. That hasn’t happened. And the public isn’t remotely as dumb as many academics wish. They’ll remember next time we come ask for money.
I too would like to see a next larger particle collider, but not if it takes lies to trick taxpayers into giving us money. More is at stake here than the employment of some thousand particle physicists. If we tolerate fabricated arguments in the scientific literature just because the conclusions suit us, we demonstrate how easy it is for scientists to cheat.
Fact is, we presently have no evidence – neither experimental nor theoretical evidence – that a next larger collider would find new particles. The absolutely last thing particle physicists need right now is to weaken their standards even more and appeal to multiversal math magic that can explain everything and anything. But that seems to be exactly where we are headed.
This appetite for precise predictions is tightly related to the fact that we live in a society of control. The current ideal for people is a place where there are no surprises. The omnipresence of reputation systems is a good example of that predominance.
When people are moving around, they use Airbnb and Uber to limit any uncontrolled encounter. The model that they follow is circulation rather than travelling. Columbus was traveling, as he was exploring. We tend to circulate most of the time. And this is what the market likes: limited risks based on reliable predictions. “People living” looks a lot like this model, even if they’re on Mars.
However, let’s quote Neil deGrasse Tyson again:
If you make no mistakes (…) then you are not on the frontier. (…)
It’s true in science and I heard it applied to car racing. (…)
If you are in complete control of your car, you are not in the race.
The ex-astronaut’s point is to illustrate that Musk is actually doing something new: his exploding rockets are a good sign as they suggest SpaceX is “on a frontier, not a space frontier where they’re going further than NASA has gone, they’re on a frontier where they want to make access to space maximum.”
Does this also mean that Uber losing control of its cars is a sign that they are on the right track?
The answer comes in two points, one cynical and the other more structural.
1- After all, NASA’s accomplishments stalled not only because the race with the USSR was over, but also because of the failures that cost lives to astronauts.
The public is more tolerant of military related losses, especially when the victims are civilians that don’t hold a western passport (credible estimates of Iraq War casualties range from 150,000 to 460,000).
The public is also more keen to spend money on these bombs, as they elect people who make the “War on terror” a priority. According to Gizmodo, this new inspiring quest is another reason why Americans don’t explore space anymore, as it “is expected to cost US taxpayers over $5 trillion dollars in the long run.”
The vast fraction of this money that is not spent on droning and killing people goes to “control” of course. The United States intelligence annual budget approximates $50 billion.
From this perspective, Uber would be on the right track if it didn’t kill Americans in America. In this context, even the homeless can become a recognized victim, thanks to tech scapegoating and human vanity. Running driverless tests in the Middle East might be a better idea for the PR of “Uber innovation”.
2- But let’s be serious for a minute: what is Uber trying to invent, anyways? Did this successful startup kill someone for the sake of world discovery? The answer is no.
Uber is just trying to leverage some existing infrastructure to make it more cost-effective. The objective is somewhat similar to SpaceX’s aim of bringing down space cargo costs. Uber is not revolutionizing transport but just optimizing the road system that was built with public money.
Roads are a very lame network from a technology standpoint: yes they’re convenient, but they cost a lot to maintain and many people die using them. They die of boredom in their daily traffic jams during their commutes to work. And they also die physically: since 1945 in France alone, 500,000 people have died in car accidents. That’s the equivalent of our country’s casualties during the Second World War.
If private companies can help solve this problem with autonomous cars, then great. But they will probably not invent a revolutionary transport network, which is sad.
And here again… Musk reappears to be on the verge of replacing what was the traditional role of the state. The Boring Company is also about optimizing costs for an existing technology, but the Hyperloop really jumps into another field by proposing a new paradigm.
But guess what? Hyperloop is not a company, it’s an open-sourced concept. Which confirms that actual innovation needs a bigger framework than the private sector.
On reflection, governments have always been involved in such projects: the French TGV and the Japanese Shinkansen were both born from state efforts. France thanked its national railway company by dismantling it.
Apparently it cost too much. The TGV it invented 40 years ago is now leveraged for commercial purposes. The new structure is much more cost-effective. That’s all well and good, but what does the system invent or create today? Intrusive mobile apps maybe…
Another great example is Air France which was privatized in 2003. That same year, the Concorde was nixed. It was the only supersonic commercial flight in the world. You could go from Paris to NYC in 3h30. The whole aeronautical industry illustrates the glaring lack of innovation when the private sector dominates a field: not much has changed since the 60s, except lower costs, of course.
Ultimately the private sector knows how to leverage existing inventions and make them cost-effective but it doesn’t seem to be able to create whole new markets. The child needs someone to build the playground.
And here comes the Steve Jobs song right? What a fabulous inventor!
Well, the internet was invented with public money, everybody knows the story.
Without mentioning that Bell Labs received 50,000 francs from France back in the 19th century, one can argue that the whole transistor industry would not have existed without quantum mechanics, a discovery that was also funded with public money. No public money, no computers.
The bottom line is that we are collectively responsible for handing over technology to the private sector, and reducing innovation to cost-cutting. The market is good at operating a system, not inventing a new one.
Tracing back the origins of technological breakthroughs should make us reconsider the way we assess government spending.
Failure to recognize this creates a twofold problem: (i) fundamental innovation stalls and (ii) the public starts thinking that technology is just Uber and Facebook, when these companies are just private gold diggers operating in mines that were funded with public money.
I, too, hate paying taxes but we should look at the facts from time to time. Our future doesn’t have to be only about removing taxi drivers and creating data for Facebook, etc. Elon Musk is a kind on whistleblower for technology, but he can’t save it all by himself.