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On Elegance and Big Tech’s Lack Thereof

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When I wrote about opposition to Mitt Romney, I said, “We currently reside in an ugly, nasty, indecent world.”  I have been thinking about that a lot – how has the world come to such a place?  Human nature has been the same throughout history, yet the course of history has been largely towards beauty and decency, gross detours on that journey notwithstanding.  As I thought about the question I recalled the discussion of big tech as spring-boarded by Franklin Foer’s book last November.  I wrote two posts on it personally.  In the first I addressed some of what I thought was Foer overreaching and in the second I discussed where I thought the real existential threat of big tech did reside.

In my first post I talked about how much of what is passing for “Artificial Intelligence” right now is really pattern recognition based on massive, and I mean MASSIVE, data analysis.  It is a brutish thing, deeply “inelegant.” And so I need to explain “elegance” as a mathematical and scientific concept.  Most of us think of elegance as:

a refined grace or dignified propriety urbanity
b tasteful richness of design or ornamentation – the sumptuous elegance of the furnishings
c dignified gracefulness or restrained beauty of style polish – the essay is marked by lucidity, wit, and elegance

But mathematicians and scientists think of something a little different when they think of that word:

d scientific precision, neatness, and simplicity – the elegance of a mathematical proof

When a scientist or mathematician or engineer thinks of elegance they think of simplicity.  Yet the great technical achievements of this age – big tech – is anything but simple, even relative to the problem it hopes to solve, it is far from elegant.

Perhaps an illustration.  Consider the Brooklyn Bridge – the prototypical suspension bridge.  While it has its beauty, with its two massive stone pylons and web of cables it is brutish – particularly in comparison to the Golden Gate Bridge of the same two pylon basic design.  The Golden Gate with its metal pylons and simpler cable design is somehow sleeker; there is an elegance in its refinement.  Now consider the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston, still two pylons but with their upside-down “Y” shape and the single line of cables, the elegance has become such that the bridge almost appears to be based on entirely different design principles.  Finally, consider the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland.  The single pylon design creates a bridge that appears light and airy in comparison to something like the Brooklyn Bridge.  Suspension bridge design has through the years progressed in elegance.  From a brute force approach using massive amounts of material to something far less cumbersome and appearing much lighter while able to do the same job and having the same strength – that is true elegance.

The achievements of big tech are based not on elegance, but on the commodification of computing power.  Anyone looking at the computer code of today and comparing it to the code of my youth would shudder.  When I was learning to write code elegance was the what it was all about.  We had to accomplish as much computing with as little code as possible because computing cycles, memory and everything else was scarce.  But no more.  The development of the micro-computer, the explosion in sales thereof, and the resultant decrease in the price of computing capability has put us in a position where there is an over abundance of computing cycles, memory and all the other things one needs to compute.  Thus code today looks like a novel while in my day it was a single verse poem.  And so the current accomplishments of big tech have far more in common with the Brooklyn Bridge than with the new Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge.

And now, for a moment, let us consider the history of technological advances, which seems always to come in fits and starts and with each new start move from the brutish to the elegant.  We like to think fondly of the post-war era in this nation when manufacturing formed the backbone of the economy and paid a very middle-class wage.  The refinements in manufacturing, developed of necessity during the war, had made manufacturing fairly elegant compared to what it was like at the turn of the century or even earlier at the beginning of the industrial revolution.  Working in manufacturing during its early days was indeed brutish.

Consider the work houses of a Dickens novel.  More accessibly, consider the depiction of manufacturing in Birmingham, England set just after WWI as depicted in the Netflix series Peaky Blinders.  This is ugly stuff – there is nary a concern for safety, the work is hard and laborious.  The workers are the rough and tumble, uneducated and live in the humblest of circumstances.  Their society and culture was coarse and harsh.  It was a life far from elegant, and while the life of a factory worker in the 1960’s or 70’s may not appear elegant when compared to a banker in New York, it was most definitely elegant when compared to a factory worker of  50 years earlier.

And so now we stand at the beginning of the age of technology – a time analogous to the beginnings of the manufacturing industry.  The pervasiveness of technology is such that we are all in its thrall.  Unlike early industrialization where it was only certain classes of people that suffered under its brutishness, we all suffer under the brutish forces of big tech.  And so, like the factory workers of the early industrial revolution, our society and culture is harsh and coarse.  In a real sense we all work for big tech – we are the content suppliers for this massive, brutish engine of information exchange.  Is it any wonder then that, “We currently reside in an ugly, nasty, indecent world?”

But it was more than just the the happenstance of war and the elegant advances that it wrought that moved us forward in the industrial age.  Great benevolent forces, generally Christian forces, were unleashed by things like Dickens depictions of the workhouse.

That the technology of big tech will advance is unquestionable. The real question is will those advances be used to produce elegance or will they be used to make things even more harsh?  The answer to that question depends on other forces acting in our culture.

Here is a new mission field.  Is the church up to it?


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