Should computers serve humans, or should humans serve computers?

The best science fiction doesn’t necessarily tell us something about the future, but it might tell us something about the present.

At its best, sci-fi finds something true about human nature or human society and then places it in a new context, where we can look at it with fresh eyes. Sci-fi helps us see ourselves more clearly.

This is a video made by Microsoft in 2011 that shows one sci-fi vision of the future:

This is a utopian vision of technology. Computers exist to make people more productive, to extend the natural capabilities of our bodies, to serve as a true “bicycle of the mind”. Computers are omnipresent, but they are at our beck and call, and they exist to serve us.

This is a video showing a different vision of the future:


This is a dystopian vision of technology. Computers are omnipresent, but instead of enabling us to be more productive or to grant us more leisure time, they exist to distract us, harass us, and cajole us. In this world, the goal of technology is to convince us to buy more things, or to earn points in a useless game, or to send us on odd jobs the computer chose for us.

A similar vision of the future comes from Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards. The protagonist rides a self-driving car, but she can’t turn off the video advertisements because her implant is six months out of date, and so the commands she barks at the car fail with an “unknown” error.

She blames herself for failing to upgrade her implant, in the way you might chide yourself for forgetting to see the dentist.

As the car arrives, she pays for the trip. Then she notes:

“At least in terms of payment, the manufacturers made sure there was never any difficulty with version differences. It was only the actual applications that gradually became impossible to control.”

Between the utopian and dystopian, which vision of the future seems more likely to you? Which vision seems more true to how we currently live with technology, in the form of our smartphones and social media apps?

I know which one seems more likely to me, and it gives me the willies.

The core question we technologists should be asking ourselves is: do we want to live in a world where computers serve humans, or where humans serve computers?

Or to put it another way: do we want to live in a world where the users of technology are in control of their devices? Or do we want to live in a world where the owners of technology use it as yet another means of control over those without the resources, the knowledge, or the privilege to fight back?

Are we building technology for a world of masters, or a world of slaves?

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Marve on June 8, 2018 at 11:19 AM

    False dichotomy. Both visions are equally dystopian.

    In the meta sense, the first is a piece of corporate made propaganda, but if we discount the possibility that there’s a Gibson-ian mega-sprawl not far from that nice middle class house, and discount that both visions aren’t coexisting in the same timeline. The father might work for a company which produces the AR experience in the second video, but his socioeconomic situation allows him to shield his family from the worst aspects of surveillance capitalism blighting the women in the 2nd video.

    Do we want to live in a world where computers serve humans … in order to serve the bourgeois?
    Or should humans directly serve computers owned by the bourgeois?
    Or should computers serve humans in order to improve their own lives?

    It’s pretty usual for technologists to have completely rid themselves of class consciousness, however being a user of technology is now in itself a class relationship. Ensuring that your technology is not serving another master is only for the most knowledgeable and skilled users, and even they must be quite rightly left with a lingering sense of paranoia.

    The future will be a dystopia uniquely of our own creation.


    • Posted by Marve on June 8, 2018 at 11:46 AM

      Additionally the education tech the daughter is using could go either way.
      How is the syllabus licensed, and was it made in open collaboration with educators, or was it funded by corporations, who inserted subtle fossil fuel or junk food propaganda.
      Does the girl have rights to her data, or is it bundled into securities and sold on markets.

      The dystopia hidden behind the slick interface.


  2. I’ve just finished reading ‘Theory of bastards’. Given the events in the book, I don’t think it is dramatic to point out that this discussion about technology and/or social control assumes that technology is available (ie. not in a state of dis-repair or malfunction), and – to follow this train of thought – that electricity, that powers technology, is available.

    I am just reminded that I am having the luxury and privilege of using technology the way I do today. I am grateful, yes, and also experiencing motivation to serve the poor, oppressed and/or marginalised. For example, a political prisoner in a detention centre might not have access to the Internet, no matter how much software I write for Internet-users.

    I question whether there ought to be edification in areas outside of technology; currently, I am not seeing how technological improvements can help to build a more just and righteous world, without change on an (inter)personal level. I’m a little dis-illusioned, if you will, and my decision to drop out of an undergraduate course in Computer Science (with a focus on Software Engineering) might have a little to do with that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.