Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Marketing and Fashion

Back to the topic of accelerating progress: what is truly accelerating at exponential speed is fashion. This is another point where many futurists and high-tech bloggers confuse a sociopolitical phenomenon with a technological phenomenon.

What we are actually witnessing in many fields is a regression in quality. This is largely due to the level of sophistication reached by marketing techniques. Marketing is a scary human invention: it often consists in erasing the memory of good things so that people will buy bad things. There would be no market for new films or books if everybody knew about the thousands of good films and books of the past: people would spend their entire life watching and reading the (far superior) classics instead of the new films and books, most of which are mediocre at best. In order to have people watch a new film or read a new book, the marketing strategists have to make sure that people will never know about old films and books. It is often ignorance that makes people think they just witnessed "progress" in any publicized event. Often we call "progress" the fact that a company is getting rich by selling poor quality products. The "progress" lies in the marketing, not in the goods. The acceleration of complexity is in reality an acceleration of low quality.

We may or may not live in the age of machines, but we certainly live in the age of marketing. If we did not invent anything, absolutely anything, there would still be frantic change. Today change is largely driven by marketing. The industry desperately needs consumers to go out and keep buying newer models of everything. We mostly buy things we don't need. The younger generation is always more likely to be duped by marketing and soon the older generations find themselves unable to communicate with young people unless they too buy the same things. Sure: many of them are convenient and soon come to be perceived as "necessities"; but the truth is that humans have lived well (sometimes better) for millennia without those "necessities". The idea that an mp3 file is better than a compact disc which is better than a vinyl record is just that: an idea, and mainly a marketing idea. The idea that a streamed movie is better than a DVD which is better than a VHS tape is just that: an idea, and mainly a marketing idea. We live in the age of consumerism, of rapid and continuous change in products, mostly unnecessary ones.

What is truly accelerating is the ability of marketing strategies to create the need for new products. Therefore, yes, our world is changing more rapidly than ever; not because we are surrounded by better machines but because we are surrounded by better snake-oil peddlers (and dumber consumers).

"The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women's fashion" (I am quoting Larry Ellison, founder and chairman of Oracle).

Sometimes we are confusing progress in management, manufacturing and marketing (that accounts for 90 percent of the "accelerating progress" that we experience) with progress in machine intelligence (that is still at the "Press 1 for English" level).

Technological progress is, in turn, largely driven by its ability to increase sales. Therefore it is not surprising that the big success stories of the World-wide Web (Yahoo, Google, Facebook, etc) are the ones that managed to turn web traffic into advertising revenues. We are turning search engines, social media and just about every website into the equivalent of the billboards that dot city streets and highways. It is advertising revenues, not the aim of creating intelligent machines, that is driving progress on the Internet. In a sense, Internet technology was initially driven by the military establishment, that wanted to protect the USA from a nuclear strike, then by a utopian community of scientists that wanted to share knowledge, then by corporations that wanted to profit from e-commerce, and now by managers of advertising campaigns who want to capture as large an audience as possible. Whether this helps accelerate progress and in which direction is, at best, not clear.

When Vance Packard wrote his pamphlet "The Hidden Persuaders" (1957) on the advertising industry (on how the media can create the illusory need for unnecessary goods), he had literally seen nothing yet.

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads" (I am quoting former Facebook research scientist Jeff Hammerbacher in 2012).

And, to be fair, the best minds of his generation are not only used to make people click on ads but also to create ever more sophisticated programs of mass surveillance (as revealed in 2013 by National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden).

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