Artificial Unintelligence: Is Technology Lowering Our Standards?

Many people think that technology is the extent of what humans are capable of doing. We typically accept that technology is the best there is and that it can solve all of our problems. Meredith Broussard is someone who rejects these claims and has written the book, Artificial Unintelligence, to show her argument. Broussard is a data journalism professor at the Arthur L. Carter Institute at New York University.

Broussard wasn’t always a data journalist, or a professor, for that matter. With an early interest in technology, she began studying computer science at Harvard. She was was one of “six undergraduate women majoring in computer science at a university of twenty thousand graduate and undergraduate students” (Broussard, 2018). This is a problem for many women when pursuing STEM degrees, and further discourages education for women in technology (Figure 1). She since then changed her major and was a computer scientist and a journalist before combining her two passions into data journalism.

Figure 1: This infographic shows some reasons why women are discouraged to go into STEM fields.

Her work involves her using her computer science background to find stories in numbers and use numbers to tell stories. Creating and using code is a form of investigative research for her. Although this is what her job consists of, Broussard focuses on what tech culture promises it will do, but has fallen short time and time again. She believes that there are fundamental limits to what we can (and should) do with technology and that “applying computer technology to every aspect of life has resulted in a tremendous amount of poorly designed technology” which gets in the way of everyday life rather than making life easier (Broussard, 2018).

Meredith Broussard’s book is not only trying to prove that technology has limits, but also using stories of real examples of how that is true. The goal of her book is to educate people on more technical information, like computer programs, and how they are coded to show that artificial intelligence is rooted in these things. Then, after covering the basics, she wants to show how people think technology is the solution to everything, but many of the problems we seek to solve take more humanistic approaches.

Overall, her goal is to educate people and for them to feel confident when it comes to discussing and understanding technology. This is important because educators are turning to reputable sources, like Edutopia, who write articles like, “Putting Learning First With New Tech Tools,” but do the educators even understand the technology itself? She wants people to understand the assumption she refers to as technochauvinism, which is the belief that technology is always the answer to our problems. She refutes this claim and believes that tech isn’t as new as we make it seem and there will never be a technological innovation that will allow us to escape the problems of human nature. She wants people to not to rely on technology and by better understanding it, we can insist that technology has the quality we deserve.

While I was reading chapter one of Artificial Unintelligence, I couldn’t help but think about how Broussard’s stance reminded me of Giorgia Lupi’s and Stefanie Posavec’s “Dear Data” project (Figure 2). Lupi and Posavec believe that digital data has its limits and that we should focus on collecting data on our own lives. This relates to Broussard as she sees the limits in technology and how tech, itself, cannot solve all human problems. By putting humanity back into technology, we continue to exert our control over it and to make it better fit our needs.

Figure 2: An example from the “Dear Data” project which graphed a week of complaints.

I am also reminded of an assignment exploring paper.li and the constraints that technology often has. Many of the articles that were curated for me based on my interests, were not relevant and most likely curated based on partnerships that paper.li has with those websites. The information that I was seeking, was not provided for me, but like Broussard suggests, we do not ask more of technology. After feeling unsatisfied with the site, I chose not to use that website, whereas I could’ve contacted the company to challenge the technology to be better.

As a digital studies minor, our goal is to question technology and to examine its effects. Broussard has allowed me to see more limits of the technology that we are constantly praising. Her work allows me to think critically about the tools we use and their impacts. Technology is a tool, but at what point does it become more than that…or has it already? She seeks to educate the public on technology and to empower us to not be scared of technical jargon. This is something that the digital studies minor helps us to do, too. It all starts with education, then we can begin to question.

Will I still be amazed by new technology that is introduced in the near future? Yes, but, now I will question what that technology is actually doing; is it advancing anything? Is it purely for entertainment? I will also thinking about how myself and others are examining solutions to problems. Broussard wants us to question whether technology is the right tool for the task. Sometimes the answer is to simply have paperback textbooks in schools because it is cost-efficient and does the job, as opposed to having a classroom full of iPads. If we never ask ourselves these questions, or take the time to find other solutions, we will never be anything more than submissive to technology.