Automation vs. Augementation

This is a thoughtful piece by danah boyd that gets to some things I’ve been thinking about re: AI.

Whether you are in Camp Augmentation or Camp Automation, it’s really important to look holistically about how skills and jobs fit into society. Even if you dream of automating away all of the jobs, consider what happens on the other side. How do you ensure a future with highly skilled people? This is a lesson that too many war-torn countries have learned the hard way. I’m not worried about the coming dawn of the Terminator, but I am worried that we will use AI to wage war on our own labor forces in pursuit of efficiency. As with all wars, it’s the unintended consequences that will matter most. Who is thinking about the ripple effects of those choices?

There is a lot of commentary in this r/metafiltermeta thread about AI, which was framed from a place of anxiety:

I’m reading about AI’s impact on coding, graphic design, video, motion graphics, architecture and law. I hear proponents say that they think AI will change jobs, and that smart workers will learn how to use it as an assistant, but when I review Silicon Valley’s contributions to labor in the U.S., mostly I see entire fields gutted, and folks moved over to poorly paying gig economy work.

The more thoughtful responses pointed, I think correctly, to the eventual Gartner Hype Cycle state of equilibrium you get to once you get unrealistic expectations out of the way, trudge through the salty marshes of “told you it was all bullshit,” and get to “how is this thing going to be used day-to-day?”

The people at the Peak of Inflated Expectations do what they always do: Try to solve their problems in a manner ill suited to the tool in front of them, or in a manner that is not reflective of the limitations of the model. The chorus waiting for them down at the bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment has no single motivation: Some of it is wise realism, forward thinking, and experience; some of it is whistling past the graveyard or just missing that “productivity gains,” like many things in technology and business, are not a series of home runs and grand slams, but rather singles and the occasional double. Reframed more bleakly, grinding down labor’s ability to resist induced precarity is a game of inches.

Which is the long way around to saying that if the people who are pointing to offshoring and content-farming mania of the naughts and tens are correct in saying they’re the closest analogies we have, and if danah boyd is right that “we tend to optimize towards more intense work schedules whenever we introduce new technologies while downgrading the status of the highly skilled person,” then it’s going to mean fewer people working in AI-effected systems that are biased toward always looking for one more headcount they can get away with removing. It’ll look different from the “prompt engineering” everyone imagines today. It’ll be software companies figuring out how to integrate existing “dumb” systems with generative AI systems acting as synthesizers, with a few humans acting as QA on top of that process, working from a weakened position.

“ChatGPT Is an Ideology Machine”

Jacobin last month:

A wide variety of Marxists have also seen ideology as a form of kitsch. First articulated by the Marxist art critic Clement Greenberg in 1937, the notion of kitsch is “pre-digested form.” Among all the things we might say or think, some pathways are better traveled than others. The form of those paths is given; we don’t need to forge them in the first place. The constant release of sequels now has this quality of kitsch — we know exactly where we are when we start watching a Marvel movie. For Greenberg, the avant-garde was the formal adventurer, creating new meaning by making new paths. Hegemony and kitsch are combined in the output of GPT systems’ semantic packages, which might miss aspects of “the world” but faithfully capture ideology.

Today I started using the org-protocol stuff I talked about yesterday with a set of regular todos I added to Things. For my daily writing and journaling todos, I captured links to the headings from the org documents and pasted them into the notes field of the Things todo before marking them done. Clicking on those links brings up a new Emacs frame that jumps straight to the heading in the correct file.

That pretty much recreates the workflow I had with Bear and Things for other kinds of task/notes combinations, and it shows me how to use org-protocol and org-capture to do similar kinds of workflows where Emacs participates in the rest of my tools ecosystem.

So, promising trial experience. I’m a little becalmed on heavy-duty task/work tracking right now, so I’m satisfied to just note that the idea works and that I’ll keep using it to find out where the edge cases are: Something always comes up.

The idea that keeps popping up in my head is that a lot of my past “emacsimalism” – a recurring phase I’ve experienced over several decades – was due to the fact that Emacs was pretty much a technology island. The Mac builds weren’t always very good, and the ways in which it could speak to the system around it were sort of flaky. But things like org-protocol and a little bit of utility glue with osascript do a lot to make it easier to find your way into and out of Emacs. You don’t have to make it your everything because it can work well alongside other things that might suit your individual style better. The idea I’m sort of nibbling around right now is that I don’t like org-mode for organization of work and tasks so much as I like it for organization of text and ideas. It’s less “a smarter Things, OmniFocus, or Reminders,” and more “what I wish Ulysses had been.”

Maybe that’s why assorted org syntax implementations in more modern text editors (e.g. BBEdit, Sublime, Atom, VSCode) are always disappointing: They’re usually just syntax highlighting and no smarts. Might as well just be doing Markdown at that point, because the smarts of org-mode pretty much live in Emacs and lisp. Without that, you’re just quibbling over whether a backslash or an asterisk is better emph notation.

Anyhow, we’ll leave it at that until there’s something new to say. I think I’ve visited this topic plenty.


I disabled my Twitter account late last month, so I think I have a bit under two weeks for it to fully deactivate. I think I will thread the needle between making an announcement and merely noting that I have embarked on the process of closing my account by making it the last heading of today’s post, unmentioned in the summary.

There’s a needle to thread because my strong preference would be for people to give up on Twitter. So if you’re someone with whom I might have some influence, I’m happy for you to read this and do the primate thing – “Hm, Mike is a thoughtful, ethical person whose ideas I tend to take under advisement, and he sees Twitter as, on balance, negative and harmful, so I will take that idea under advisement, as well.”

That’s all.