Smart Technology Isn’t All That Smart

“Putting out the fire with gasoline, do you know that line from David Bowie’s song Cat People?” This is how Jan Willem de Graaf opens our conversation. On December 6, he was installed as lecturer Brain & Technology of the new and first lectureship of the Applied Psychology study program (Academy of Human and Labor). ‘Everything that we want to solve in this world with Smart Technology creates new problems and challenges that we have to tackle again. That is, freely translated, Bowie’s message, ‘says Jan Willem.

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So Smart Technology presents us with problems that we are not familiar with standard technology or technology?
Exactly. If you walk through the history of man and technology in seven-league boots, you will see that 200,000 years ago we humans led a varied life as hunters and gatherers that we could sustain for 75 years. When we settled as farmers to work one piece of land, those repetitive actions did us no good. Our bodies wore out earlier and our range became smaller. You could say that as individuals we got poorer. Our property required a legal system and armies to defend it. Our society became stratified and the so-called ‘happy few’ emerged from the working class in the eighteenth century in the Enlightenment. Then the industrial revolution followed. You can actually consider the steam engine as the greatest technological development after the agricultural era.

Do you mean that language has become technology? Explain that.
Language drives technology these days. As code. We survived for centuries with levers, spears, and hammers, but language eventually became the means of describing processes. Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, all needed language to flesh out their scientific discoveries. From the moment the computer age began, language has been central to machines, as a programming language. I think that is a special conclusion.

You said that somewhere around that agricultural revolution, we have become individually poorer as humans. Did technology ultimately make us poorer?
Technology has brought us a lot, but I am not necessarily impressed by all the technological developments. In my lecture, I also mention that we are driven by the politics behind the technology. I find that a difficult issue. Watch the music available from streaming services. The algorithms behind it determine what you and I will be served. And believe me, that set is very limited. Anyone can upload music. So much great, original music is being made, but the masses hear only 1 percent of the offer that those streaming services have. And that is mainly Dutch rap at the moment. Also, look at Sky Radio: with this others create something that automatically becomes the soundtrack of our life. The big companies are in charge. We live in a Superstar society. The top is high and narrow.

Can that be broken?
In his theory of economic inequality, the economist Thomas Piketty argues for more balance. He says that rendering from existing capital is faster than you can get from labor. That is exactly the Sky Radio idea: what is popular becomes more popular because it is popular. That circle is difficult to break. I do not believe that in the year 2050 we will be ‘brain dead, but I do think it is important that we have the awareness that we are participating in what the multinationals are imposing on us. In two years, IBM will be 100 years old. Microsoft and Apple have also been around for nearly 50 years. We trick ourselves into thinking that so much is changing. The real technical revolution took place between 1800 and 1915. The Smart World that was already emerging at that time still asks us to stay alert.