Smartness as a new way of life

Book interview: ‘The Smartness Mandate’ by Orit Halpern

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Smartness, the drive towards ubiquitous computing, has gone beyond technological horizon-scanning to shaping the way we live today, says Orit Halpern.

“We call it a mandate,” says Dr Orit Halpern, “because we’re interested in how machine learning and artificial intelligence have become natural and necessary to the evolution of society. It’s when we decide a particular technology is essential to the way we live in a way it hasn’t always been.”

As an example, the co-author of ‘The Smartness Mandate’ describes a scenario in which her overheated students instinctively resorted to the digital environment control system of the lecture room, when “they could have just opened the window. It’s now automatic to assume a computer-driven system will be more efficient.” During the past five decades, says Halpern, we have seen human intelligence redefined as computational.

Halpern, who is Lighthouse Professor and chair of digital cultures and societal change at Technische Universität Dresden, states that the book she co-wrote with Robert Mitchell is about two things. “First, it is a history of how the idea of smartness emerged. It is about how artificial intelligence, big data and ubiquitous computing are changing human habitation, politics, economics and perhaps the future of who we are.

“Second, is how we want to diagnose what I call smart power: from chip wars to building initiatives, from surveillance to capitalism, there’s a new type of geopolitics happening and it’s centred on computing.”

She goes on to say that this is what enables us to think of the future of energy as “not being so much about oil as lithium. We’re even seeing a change in planetary metabolism due to computational infrastructure. Things like smart cities, smart roads, smart grids.”

By power, she means “how people control territory, control each other, make money and build things”. This is done, she contests, through “a particular set of technology. It’s not every technology: it’s really about machine learning, AI and big data. These things have come together around the term smartness in a critical way.”

If you want to understand contemporary politics or economics, Halpern continues, “you’ve got to understand how we’ve come to imagine the world in terms of ubiquitous computing, as well as what’s at stake. And so, it’s about the evolution of the species: it’s about the sort of future we want for humanity.”

Smartness as a new way of life

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In ‘The Smartness Mandate’, Halpern and Mitchell make the point that “different visions of smartness” can be put to different purposes: in the American South-West, indigenous groups harness smart technologies to create social justice and equity, “but we’re also talking about surveillance systems that are potentially racist and sexist”.

Now that everything is technological, says Halpern, “we have choices about what sort of societies we build with those technologies”.
For Halpern, when it comes to smartness, one of the fundamental questions to address is “where the mandate comes from”. She thinks it is projected by the fact that we have “changed our understanding of the relationship between nature and culture, nature and technology, and we have increasingly inserted the term smartness to encompass that. There are forms of computation all over the place. Nature calculates. We use the term mandate to describe the naturalisation of technology.”

This is a concept that she addressed in her first book, ‘Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945’, which covered the emergence of cybernetics. At the time it was a tough sell. “You had to convince people they needed computers. So, the question is, when do you move from people finding technology as questionable to them seeing it as part of the natural order of things, part of the way societies evolve?”

One of the terms that stands out in ‘The Smartness Mandate’ is arguably unfamiliar in the engineering space. But Halpern and Mitchell use the plural noun ‘imaginaries’ as a rough equivalent to the more recognisable ‘projection’ currently used in the technology lexicon. This is a key term because it assists us to differentiate between what “we imagine technology does and what it actually does”. Applying this concept to the Russian bombardment of Ukraine’s infrastructure, while we might prefer to imagine that a more efficient method of destabilising energy generation and distribution might be via cyber weaponry, there is also the stark reality of competing for physical terrain by using less-than-smart artillery dating back decades.

‘Smartness is about the sort of future we want for humanity’

Dr Orit Halpern

Halpern says that on the one hand “we have this imaginary of what artificial intelligence could do, while the Russians want to control the ground by putting people in it”. Which explains why mastery of digital networks is less important to an aggressor that is historically conditioned to making gains by force. “It’s all about how people envision and understand power, and that’s a really critical aspect of our book. When you study China or Russia or the United States, there are always these histories that run into each other.”

The technologies that combined to produce Amazon or Facebook, “combine differently when used by a totalitarian state or non-constitutional democracy. You’re always dealing with that problem.”

One aspect of how smartness is interpreted by the authors is “no matter how we imagine all our smart systems, there’s always a lot of history, as well as biological and other frontiers that we run into. One of these is that no matter how much we believe we can compute, calculate or predict the future, we have found that we simply can’t. We have choices about how we can engineer this infrastructure: it can be more equitable, and it can be less equitable.”

While ‘The Smartness Mandate’ appears to be a book about the Anthropocene era – the period in Earth’s history when human activity has had a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems – Halpern is prepared to go further by suggesting that smartness could be replacing it.

“Anthropocene is still positing this idea that there is a nature and then there is a technology; that human beings are outside of nature,” but the term smartness resolves this conflict, she says. Not only does the concept exist in both domains, but ubiquitous computation is one of the best tools we have to combat current ecological crises, while big data and AI are vitally changing how we understand nature. In any case, computer chips are ‘natural’ because “everything follows the laws of physics”.

Smartness, Halpern argues, gives us a new terminology that helps us deal with “older distinctions we’ve inherited from the history of science that just don’t work any more”.

‘The Smartness Mandate’ by Orit Halpern and Robert Mitchell is from the MIT Press, £26

We read it for you

‘The Smartness Mandate’

According to Halpern and Mitchell in ‘The Smart Mandate’, there’s a new logic governing the world we live in. There’s now an imperative to make our existence ever smarter through ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning. As the authors show in this superb analysis, ‘smartness’ is a technological shift that has changed the way we understand the nature of society, economics and environment for both better and worse. But it’s more than just technology, they argue. It’s an epistemology, their philosophical term for describing a world view. And it is from this perspective that they go beyond the equations in the algorithms and get to grips with the idea that smartness is a mode of managing human life. Above all, they see the mandate to be smart as a new form of planetary governance. An intriguing view of the technology we take for granted.



Smart way forward

On November 6, 2008, still in the immediate aftermath of the worldwide economic crisis initiated by the US subprime mortgage market collapse, then-chairman of IBM Sam Palmisano delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Palmisano was not there to discuss the global economy but his corporation’s vision of the future in a talk titled ‘A Smarter Planet’. Palmisano laid out a vision of fibre-optic cables, high-bandwidth infrastructure, seamless supply chain and logistical capacity, a clean environment, and eternal economic growth, all of which were to be the preconditions for a ‘smart’ planet.

This future world would come through the integration of humans and machines into a seamless Internet of Things that would generate the data necessary for organising production and labour, enhancing marketing, facilitating democracy and prosperity, and for enabling a mode of automated, and seemingly apolitical, decision-making that would guarantee the survival of the human species in the face of environmental challenges. In Palmisano’s talk, ‘smartness’ referred to the interweaving of dynamic, emergent computational networks with the goal of producing a more resilient human species – a species able to absorb and survive environmental, economic, and security crises by optimising and adapting technologies.
Palmisano’s speech was notable less for its content than for the way in which its economic context and planetary terminology made explicit a hitherto tacit political promise that had attended the rise of smart technologies, though IBM had capitalised for decades on terms associated with intelligence and thought.

Edited extract from ‘The Smartness Mandate’ by Orit Halpern and Robert Mitchell, reproduced with permission.

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