Notice & Comment

Dreams and Dystopia, by Matthew Bodie

*This is the fifth post in a symposium on Orly Lobel’s The Equality Machine: Harnessing Digital Technology for a Brighter, More Inclusive Future, selected by The Economist as a best book of 2022. All posts from this symposium can be found here. Further reviews can be found at ScienceThe Economist, and Kirkus.

There are two books, both separately competing for hearts and minds, within Orly Lobel’s The Equality Machine.  The first, beautifully represented by the dazzling dust jacket, is an exercise in techno-optimism—a paean to the potential for digital technology to serve as a force for societal equality.  The second, however, is a darker tome: a compendium of the ways in which our new digital universe is an exaggerated and twisted version of society’s worst impulses and prejudices.  These two themes—one serving as text, the other largely subtext—coexist uneasily within Lobel’s compelling exploration of technological wonder and horror.  She lights a candle, rather than cursing the darkness, but a candle can only go so far.

The Equality Machine provides a thoughtful, wide-ranging, and often jaunty ride through recent developments in the intersection between technology, science, employment, culture, and identity.  Lobel’s mission is to convince readers that “digitalization can and must become a powerful force for societal good—for fairness, inclusion, economic growth, expanded opportunities, innovation, and, above all else, inequality.” (p. 4)  She knows that many of her readers approach rapid technological advances with skepticism, having heard “horror stories about technology gone wrong.”  (p. 3)  But technology is advancing, with or without the skeptics, and Lobel wants her recruits to engage in the process of turning the tech towards equality.  She is an incrementalist, rather than a utopian; she sees the possibilities in making things better, and she thinks the focus in much of the literature has been too negative.  Instead of harping on stories of technology gone wrong, she argues that we need to focus on how developments in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics can make the world more equal in the long haul.

As we journey along with Lobel though the past, present, and near future of technological change, however, sunny byways often give way to gloomier landscapes.  The book consists of a series of in-depth discussions of specific areas in which tech has intersected with society.  For each of these, Lobel provides an overview of the ways in which things have gone badly, but then proceeds to generate hope that things can change for the better.  In going through these areas—hiring and compensation, sexual harassment and violence, medical treatment, gendered chat bots and sex robots—The Equality Machine provides a sober assessment of the ways in which sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia have run amok within these milieus.  Lobel highlights people doing extraordinary work in these spaces—for example, Regina Barzilay, who has developed AI processes to uncover new ways of detecting breast cancer and kill harmful bacteria (pp. 136-140), and Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT roboticist who has emphasized the emotional and humanizing capabilities of robots, rather than their physical ones. (pp. 269-275)  But these individual innovators stand out against a backdrop of misogyny, racism, and oppression. The chapters on “the senses” discuss how AI creators have chosen women’s voices for assistants like Alexa and Siri because of their submissive undertones, and how digitized images have been encoded with sexist stereotypes. The evidence presented in the book for the “bad” side of tech—discriminatory hiring algorithms, GamerGate, revenge porn, STEM conference manels, sex robots with exaggerated racial and ethnic characteristics, medical diagnoses and treatments that assume a male patient, racist facial recognition—is so overwhelming that it gets harder and harder to keep pace with Lobel’s optimism.  Even she seems discouraged at points.

There is undoubtedly progress that has been and will be made.  But at times, The Equality Machine seems to pit individual researchers, policymakers, and entrepreneurs working for positive change against inchoate forces of deplorability.  In so doing, Lobel chooses not to identify her opponents.  There is a culture war going on, or at least an ongoing cultural struggle, and technology reflects that conflict.  But Lobel does not call out the patriarchy, or white supremacy, or Christian nationalism.  These cultural currents are what feed the disturbing technological outbursts of bad behavior that Lobel is trying to fight.  Data reflects culture; it is our past decisions, desires, and interests reduced to ones and zeroes.  The fight against inequality cannot achieve victory simply through technocratic fixes.  It must also wage a battle for hearts and minds.

The Equality Machine does not spend much time defining its vision of either the common good or equality, but its operational norms are likely not to ruffle too many feathers in the worlds of higher learning and TED talks.  The most likely objection is that Lobel does not go far enough in challenging technological innovations that further the class divide.  Unlike academic and policy research that challenges Amazon’s workplace surveillance, Uber’s relentless algorithms, or the “ghost work” conducted for AI systems at the edges of precarity, Lobel focuses on identity-based inequality.  In her discussion of the platform Fiverr, where she serves as a policy consultant, she notes the disparities in pay based on sex but does not raise objections to the platform’s classification of workers as contractors.  (p. 90)  Yes, Marx is quoted, but for an observation about the power relations between women and men. (p. 15)  Although never explicitly set forth as such, the book’s vision of equality is focused on uprooting discrimination and disparities based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and especially sex, leaving class-based economic inequality somewhat in the shadows.

Elon Musk might have served as a nice foil for The Equality Machine, had his broadsides on the state of artificial intelligence been fired off in time for publication.  Recent reports indicate that Musk is planning to develop a new version of the AI chatbot ChatGPT that is less “woke.”  Rather than ruing the rampant inequality, harassment, and bias to be found in digital spaces, Musk has argued that AI is being trained to “lie” to avoid politically incorrect truths.  The Equality Machine carefully describes how, in fact, the opposite has been the case: how discriminatory biases and stereotypical thinking have warped the new world of tech.  To that extent, Lobel may be in fact underselling the power of her prescriptions.  Although sketched in broad contours, the book’s policy recommendations include much greater access to private data for public purposes (pp. 298-300), as well as public-private partnerships to facilitate greater diversity (pp. 295-297).  She believes in a world of genuine, perhaps radical equality, and she wants to harness the power of tech in service of this perspective.

That, ultimately, is the unstated end goal of The Equality Machine: to entice reluctant allies onto the battlefield for the future of tech with an optimistic vision for the future.  Lobel’s message is honorable, and her tactics understandable: if our digital world is left in the hands of unrepentant tech bros, they will continue to dominate it.  Perhaps things are perhaps not quite as rosy as the book makes them out to be.  But then again, perhaps The Equality Machine’s vision of a brighter future will convince right-minded souls to start pulling up their sleeves and getting to work, and things will be better than before.

Matthew Bodie is the Robins Kaplan Professor at University of Minnesota Law School.

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