Progress can Be Fun

Posted on December 6, 2016

Progress Can Be Fun

Robots with computer brains can chat, vacuum-clean and beat us in chess and go. They can also help us in exploring the surface of Mars or in defusing landmines. Do they differ from a thousand and one delights described in early medieval Baghdad in “The Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanisms”? Do they differ from entertaining wonders presented half a millennium later in London, Madrid or Paris as mechanical Turks, digesting ducks and dancing marionettes?

Yes, they do. And both differ from the computer aided manufacturing executed by assembly-line robots or by 3D printers. Why? Well, they differ because creative individuals, who used to imagine float valves or thermostats to entertain the rich and the powerful in the past, are currently imagining entire families of chores, which can be taken off human shoulders, brains and hands. Toys became computerized robots. Needless to say, these shoulders, brains and hands belong to all, even lower classes, not only to the elites. Producing food and everything else required a large and obedient working force in the past. It does not depend so much on the large numbers of disciplined laborers today. What it does depend on is knowledge. Knowledge and access to it are much more hotly contested by owners of copyrights and victims of copywrongs than ever before. Can access to knowledge be managed more democratically than land ownership or control of the means of industrial production?

Knowledge and access to knowledge are – at present at least – imperfectly controlled by oligarchies of meritocratic elite. This control has always been questioned and should be declining. One of the publishers of academic journals asked me what I thought of a new journal launch proposal. They suggested a title, two editors (one of them properly WASPish – “holds a chair at Harvard University”, another’s name indicates another continent and another skin color but still a safe academic position at a corporate university of a multinational giant). They asked me, business-like: “can the field grow in the next five years and sustain and strengthen the proposed journal?”

Well, the proposal to predict and control academic production of knowledge by two authoritatively sounding male front desk clerks, whose job will be performed by a robot called Scholar One Manuscript Central, is obsolete. Perhaps playing God with dice and randomizing access to knowledge offer a more promising chance of creative success?   

After all, Viagra would never be invented if a marketing barbarian did not pop up among serious R&D employees, focusing on an irrelevant side effect of tested drugs. We cheer him, because we have a gut feeling that real progress should be more fun than a slavish routine and dead algorithms.


December 6, 2016