The Perils of Technochauvinism

More and more these days people are waking up to the fact that digital technologies often fail us and sometimes do great harm. The default assumption that digital technologies are always needed and beneficial is now being questioned by an increasing number of thoughtful people who understand these technologies well. One such person is Meredith Broussard, who, in her new book, Artificial Unintelligence, labels this erroneous assumption technochauvinism.

“Technochauvinism” is roughly equivalent to Evgeny Morozov’s term “technological solutionism,” which I’ve been using for years. Better than other writers so far, Broussard explains the nature of digital technologies—what they are, how they work, what they do well, the ways in which they’re limited, and how they fail—in a manner that’s practical and accessible to anyone who’s interested. As an accomplished journalist, her writing is clear and rooted in evidence. As an experienced digital technologist, what she says is well informed.

As the title suggests, much of this book focuses on artificial intelligence (AI), which is fitting given the prolific hype and common misunderstandings that obscure AI technologies in particular. Broussard explains what artificial intelligence is and isn’t. While others have described the important distinction between general AI and narrow AI, Broussard explains this difference more clearly and illustrates AI more realistically, using interesting examples. In one chapter, she walks readers through the use of algorithms to make sense of who survived the Titanic disaster, and in so doing reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of machine learning. In another chapter, she takes readers along on a ride in an autonomous vehicle to illustrate the dangers of AI that overreaches. She puts the proper application of AI into perspective.

Apart from AI in particular, she also describes the historical roots of technochauvinism as a byproduct of the worldview that is shared by most of high tech’s power elite. When this limited, self-serving worldview is incorporated into digital technologies, problems result, often promoting injustice.

Computers compute—they do math. As such, they’re better than humans at doing tasks that are based on mathematical computations. Despite the ubiquitous metaphor, computers are not like human brains. Computers don’t think, they aren’t sentient, even though terms such as artificial intelligence and machine learning suggest otherwise. Computers excel at computationally-based tasks, but we can’t rely on them to perform tasks that require understanding, which they lack, without humans in the loop.

This book will not be well received by those who are so invested in digital technologies that they refuse to think critically about them. I’ve already noticed a few undeserved, negative reviews of this book on Amazon that reflect this closed-minded, self-serving perspective. Writing this book took courage. You don’t write a book like this to gain popularity or make money. You do it because you care deeply about the world. This book speaks the truth—a truth that needs to be heard.

Leave a Reply