Electric monk

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The JC pontificates about technology

An occasional series.

Electric Monk.jpg
An electric monk, yesterday.

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The electric monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself;[1] electric monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.”

—The late, greatly lamented Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Someone hijacked the revolution, and we are too distracted to do anything about it.

Scrappy little Wikipedia, crowd-sourced and free-for-all, vanquished forever the gargantuan Encyclopædia Britannica. Reddit bested the masters of the universe. Yet, we insects crawling over the planet’s face — we seem on the end of a perpetual hiding from new-economy conglomerates with their artificially intelligent engines exploiting our innate horror of boredom; filling our heads with a clangorous noise that pleases us by obscuring the abysmal silence that otherwise would predominate.

In this way we are aggregated, parsed, tracked, anticipated and nudged around as if we are cups on great Ouija board, and all just to monetise us: to extract value from the magical wellspring of human weakness: a value that gushes uncontrollably every time we needily click — every neurotic push notification consigning us, by degrees, to stale, mute, digital oblivion. The machines of loving grace effortlessly evade well-meant European data protection regulations designed to hinder their trawling, in passing making the internet even more of a drag, because programming the meatware to click through a cookie warning is easier to than programming a computer prevent that happening.

Okay, okay; enough already of the dystopian moaning — the JC is a glass-half-full sort of chap; this isn’t really his style.[2] Unless, by occupation, you mindlessly follow predefined rules — and if you that is your job, will you miss it? — there will always be plenty to keep you busy.

Where are our electric monks?

So here is the puzzle: why is it like this?

Why is this technological revolution such a drag? Where are our electric monks?

For, even if you believe our fleshy cerebella cannot match the overwhelming power of a neural network, there is still a limit: LinkedIn hints at it, with its underwhelming AI-assisted “predictive comment” functionality: not because it is so hopeless[3] — but because it even exists. This is a fingerpost out of the Matrix.

How so? Like so: if by mapping, tracking and anticipating all human frailty, artificial intelligence can predict our every move — if a machine can know more about us than we do — then it can emulate us. It can impersonate us. And a machine that can impersonate us, can fake us.

The day must soon arrive, therefore, when we can deploy AI against our overlords, to doom-scroll on our behalf. That ought to be devastating. Think GameStop, only with the Redditors tooled up with the same tech as the hedgies. Our respective machines joust furiously at each other we can escape through the side entrance and go back to what we were doing.[4]

Call this new implementation a virtual[5] “electric monk”. It would be a labour-saving device — it would doomscroll the internet for us.

Would. Could. And, by the very logic articulated above, already should.

But does not.

Why? Is it the agency problem, or just that AI isn’t very good?

Alien vs. Predator

Alien vs. Predator doesn’t work as a premise because no-one cares if two manhunting monsters knock seven bells out of each other — that reduces the threat of them knocking seven bells out of us.

Alien/Predator Alliance: Now there’s a film premise.

Now, if I can have one doom-scrolling electric monk, I can have a thousand. And if the technology works[6] then the forthcoming apocalyptic battle will not be between us and The Man, but between The Man’s technology (Alien) and ours (Predator). Since, Q.E.D., The Man’s technology has no way of telling us from our electric monks, then we have the advantage. The Man needs us. We don’t need The Man. Especially since our electric monks don’t have to emulate our behaviour at all. We can obstreperously configure them to emulate someone else. This is how Russian twitter bots hacked the US election, you see.

So, if we each deploy a thousand electric monks to randomly browse, like and share content at random, constrained only by the requirement that our synthetic doomscrolling should emulate some human’s habits, even if not necessarily ours, then all that wondrous aggregated data that the FANGS have on us isn’t on us. It is worthless, meaningless, hypothetical.

Systems theory, folks: the same way algorithms can extract profound insight from data they can inject ineffable absurdity into it.

Commerce is a profoundly human endeavour. To want; to need — to demand — is to be “intelligent” in a way that a machine cannot be. A “demand curve” is a second-order derivative of a uniquely mortal motivation. A clever algorithm can extract it from us — or for that matter create it in us — by manipulating our most secret communiqués. But only if they really are ours. The massed algorithmic armies feast upon a fey proxy. Just as they can hack our motivations, so can we hack theirs. An army of anonymous Redditors showed this quite nicely.

It has only become one-sided through a conjuring trick; a sleight-of-hand foisted upon us, wherein a few corporations have harnessed the network effect to generate apparent monopolies. They have the technology, they have the scale; we are but ants.

But enough ants can do a lot of damage. The beast awakens from its “dogmatic slumber[7]: the fight is only one-sided when the vendors have a scale to deploy tools that the ants cannot. But we now know — we have known for some years, in fact, but had forgotten — that we ants, if only we can co-ordinate, have a scale that a vendor can only dream of.

See also


  1. For thirty years, Grandma Contrarian had the 1981 Royal Wedding taped on video. It was her most prized possession. Not once did any of us watch it.
  2. Regular readers will know the JC is no subscriber to the dismal futurism of Ray Kurzweil or Daniel Susskind.
  3. Happy work-iversary!
  4. This is rather like the plot of Alien vs. Predator, come to think of it.
  5. Real electric monks, like electric sheep — you know, the ones androids dream of — would be take up space, drain energy and require servicing. Virtual electric monks would not.
  6. If it doesn’t — by no means certain to — then nor does The Man’s, and this phase of our cultural existence will pass on all by itself.
  7. This wonderful expression is David Hume’s