Fred’s Views - Issue 20
A weekly summary of what I've found interesting at the intersection of economics, finance and technology.
Due to a heavier workload than normal, this will be a different (and shorter) edition than usual. I came across this series in The Guardian, that almost perfectly embodies why I'm writing this newsletter. The Guardian is telling the stories of how automation and AI can impact vulnerable communities, for example by taking arbitrary decisions on welfare payments that the affected people have no recourse for.
It's a good example of an application of technology that sounds good in theory but doesn't work out so well in practice. I'm a firm believer in the promise of technology to make our world better, but I don't believe in technology for technology's sake. Today unfortunately, the debate about tech, like so many other things, has become polarised. Between the “tech bros” who lazily quote Ayn Rand without understanding the context or the flaws in that thinking, and the naysayers who reflexively oppose all technological change, the space for nuanced, rational thinking about technology and its impact on our society has shrunk too small.
The key thrust of this newsletter is that technology doesn't exist in a void, but rather encapsulates moral, political and social choices. Technological transformation will lead to a society that reflects these choices, and hence it is important to question the underlying motives of the technologists, and to articulate the kind of framework that we would like technology to operate in. For me it is clear that individual agency, dignity and solidarity should be the touchstones for technological change, and any development should be viewed through this lens.
At the same time, technology is quintessentially fallible, and imperfect. Its detractors willl paint it as an ominous, inexorable force, whereas most often, technology struggles to fulfill the lofty promises its creators have made. Hence there is an equal need for a sober look at its transformational potential, away from either alarmist or fawning assessments. In the Guardian series I linked above, “robotic process automation” is mentioned in ominous quotes, conjuring visions of the Terminator taking aim at welfare recipients. Readers of this newsletter, however, will know that RPA projects rarely deliver the benefits that were promised, and are thus maybe not as scary as it sounds. On the other hand, the authorities seem to have bought into this Terminator idea, a decision that shows their moral, political and social choices, and that therefore merits scrutiny.
That's it for this week's edition. As always, thanks for reading and please forward this to anyone who you think might be interested, it would be much appreciated.