When machines run people

People build machines to run them, hoping that they enhance our lives. But when machines run people, the opposite tends to happen.

Consider night shifts in factories, which the industrial age introduced to humanity. Humans are built to sleep through the night – staying up and working instead can wreak untold damage on one’s health. Strong evidence tells us that working night shifts is probably carcinogenic. Why do we do this? Because it is efficient to run the machine around the clock rather than spend a few hours each day warming it up. The large industrial machine has humans working in shifts to keep it turning around the clock.

The smartest minds in the world are huddled today in Silicon Valley, running large corporations that spare no opportunity in manipulating people into clicking on ads or buying stuff they don’t really need. Now if you asked these clever folks, they would tell you how they are innovators, artists and harbingers of the future – not malicious manipulators of human behaviour. But the machine that they work for, with its attractive stock options and incentive structures, aligns them to its goal without their explicit knowledge or consent. Once again, the machine is running the humans.

The machines can take different forms – like that of nationalistic fervour. When neighbouring countries are at war, people who might share ethnicity, cuisines and even languages, want nothing more than to blow each other’s brains out. If they met outside their countries, in faraway lands, they would share only warmth and bonhomie. Yet, within their own borders, they brand each other as the enemy. This machinery of nationalism, with its slogans, anthems and symbols, breaks the world down into narrow domestic walls.

Science fiction is replete with the stereotype of robots and computer programs subordinating human society to a class of slaves, living in the dark ages. But that cliche, like most others, lacks imagination. The machines have always been with us. Can you see through their machinations?

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