Thinking About What We Value

I am such a slow reader, but I’ve made a little dent in the stack of books that I got for Christmas:

Stack of books, mostly on Artificial Intelligence

At the rate I’m going, I hope to have these books read by Spring Break.

My line of inquiry went something like this: As an educator, I’m interested in how human brains interact with ideas–with information. I loved reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow, which presents the human brain as something that has a habit of making all kinds of mistakes in judgement as it seeks to follow a model of reality. Thinking of the brain as some kind of  faulty information processor, it made me want to investigate things that seem to process information more efficiently: computers (software, algorithms, etc.). That interest led me to many of the books that you see stacked in the image above.

I still have a lot to read, but I definitely wanted to jot down this note:

It feels like economic development has followed this path where humans are paid to do a thing, and then we get better at doing that thing, and then we get a machine to do that thing for us, and then we work with that machine to make even more improvements, and the desired end result is the machine is doing all the work and the machine owner is getting all the profit. This seems like how capitalism would be “solved.” I know I’m not making myself very clear here, but keep in mind I’m not an economist or a computer scientist–I’m a high school teacher librarian.

But, getting back to this goal of getting machines to do things for us to maximize efficiency and profit, think of the jobs that are lost if the end goal of an industry or a vocation is to make money. If money is the morality of a field of work, is that the kind of morality that’s best for our future?

  • Computers can trade on the stock exchange incredible numbers of shares to maximize profits. The mathematicians who help write the algorithms that trading software use are handsomely rewarded to use their skills to make… money.
  • Ideas can be promoted and shared and liked and retweeted by bots to grab our attention for advertisers and influence how we think about a subject. The folks who create bots are often blue collar type programmers who do the work to pay the bills. The brain power spent on making such bots seems like an example of trading money for improved efficiency at concentrating attention and influence.

If it’s all about money, and money keeps getting concentrated among 20% or 5% or 1% of the population, that’s what I mean when I say it seems like we’re close to “solving” capitalism. Like computers solved checkers and chess and Jeopardy!, capitalism will be solved and that’s kind of fun for the 1% who win, but what about everyone else?

We spend a lot of our resources, our human capital, on solving problems related to making more money. If solving the problem doesn’t lead to making more money, then why even attempt it?

  • Selling news that’s likely to get our attention, enrage us, or confirm our pre-existing beliefs is often more profitable than selling actual journalism.
  • Quality early childhood education leads to incredible benefits, but we (in the US at least) make it incredibly difficult for children from poorer families to receive quality early childhood education. A large part of the problem is that we don’t pay early childhood care providers very well. Perhaps it’s perceived that there isn’t enough return on investment to adopt policies and practices that guarantee all children access to high quality early childhood education.
  • Schools across the country have frequently elected to not employ librarians. Having such an information professional on campus is an extravagance that, apparently, doesn’t do much to boost the bottom line.

I suppose this list could go on for a while, and I understand the logic of a primary counterpoint:

Hey, nothing is stopping you from having all those things. You want early childhood education? You want quality journalism? Librarians? Pay for them. Nothing’s stopping you. The beauty of our system is we have freedom of choice–may the best forces win.

The problem is, as it’s turning out, the “best” ideas seem to be those ideas that maximize profits. Maybe money shouldn’t be the endgame.