The Aggregate: Reclaiming Democracy in the Age of AI, and Inclusivity in the World of Beauty
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some of the biggest stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
Can Chess-Playing Computers Predict the Future?
The Atlantic – Yuval Noah Harari, “Why Technology Favors Tyranny”
This article ran in the October edition of The Atlantic as part of a collection of stories tied to democracy in America: past, present, and in this case, future. The title is as foreboding as it sounds, and Yuval Noah Harari delves in great detail into the complex role of technology in government, economics, and overall livelihood.
“The emergence of liberal democracies is associated with ideals of liberty and equality that may seem self-evident and irreversible. But these ideals are far more fragile than we believe. Their success in the 20th century depended on unique technological conditions that may prove ephemeral.”
This is only the second paragraph in the article, but provides a succinct thesis that Harari explores in great detail throughout the article. He explains democracy as a historical anomaly, not the dominant, enduring governmental structure that we have come to know and view as a hallmark of righteousness that is meant to be evangelized across the globe. He argues that the period of time in which American democracy was born, and then able to flourish, was dependent largely upon technology that supported a democratic way of life.
“Fears of machines pushing people out of the job market are, of course, nothing new, and in the past such fears proved to be unfounded. But artificial intelligence is different from the old machines. In the past, machines competed with humans mainly in manual skills. Now they are beginning to compete with us in cognitive skills. And we don’t know of any third kind of skill—beyond the manual and the cognitive—in which humans will always have an edge.”
Henry Ford’s assembly line still required salt of the Earth manual labor, FDR’s New Deal programs depended on the toil of American workers, and even more modern renditions of industries, like mining and farming (industries that are technology and equipment-heavy), still required a substantial workforce to support them–but in today’s world that is largely not the case. Jeff Bezos doesn’t need human labor in order to dominate the economy the way John D. Rockefeller did; in short, the need for a working class–the good, rugged individuals who characterize American democracy–is ultimately disappearing.
“All of this leads to one very important conclusion: The automation revolution will not consist of a single watershed event, after which the job market will settle into some new equilibrium. Rather, it will be a cascade of ever bigger disruptions. Old jobs will disappear and new jobs will emerge, but the new jobs will also rapidly change and vanish. People will need to retrain and reinvent themselves not just once, but many times.”
This reshaping of industry–and subsequently of our collective identity as Americans–is not a new feat, nor is it an impossible one. We have already seen anxieties about humans becoming marginalized or irrelevant play out on a national scale; i.e. the election of Donald Trump. However, if Harari’s predictions hold true, the AI revolution will bring about an identity crisis that threatens our democracy in far more dangerous, insidious ways than even a Trump presidency can begin to foreshadow.
“But there is no particular reason to believe that AI will develop consciousness as it becomes more intelligent. We should instead fear AI because it will probably always obey its human masters, and never rebel. AI is a tool and a weapon unlike any other that human beings have developed; it will almost certainly allow the already powerful to consolidate their power further.”
Beyond even reshaping government and industry, artificial intelligence has an unprecedented ability to shape our entire lives. Harari points out that even in the twenty years since Google was invented, we have come to live in a world where “‘truth’ is defined by the top results of a Google search.”
“It’s not so hard to see how AI could one day make better decisions than we do about careers, and perhaps even about relationships. But once we begin to count on AI to decide what to study, where to work, and whom to date or even marry, human life will cease to be a drama of decision making, and our conception of life will need to change. Democratic elections and free markets might cease to make sense. So might most religions and works of art.”
All of these largely depressing revelations aside, Harari leaves readers with a surprisingly organic call to action. Taking personal strides to prevent the increased consolidation of data–and then subsequently of power–is something every single individual is capable of doing, even in the digital age. In the world of AI, the goal of maintaining liberty and democracy is shifted, once again, back to the rugged individuals on whom it was founded.
When Beauty is Still Only Skin-Deep
The New York Times Magazine – Bee Shapiro, “Beauty Is More Diverse Than Ever. But Is It Diverse Enough?”
Selected as a nod to happenings in the world of beauty and fashion these past few weeks, this article ran in The New York Times Magazine earlier this month. Society, as of late, has taken great strides toward inclusivity in representations of beauty in popular culture. While this is a welcome, albeit long overdue, change of pace, Bee Shapiro uses this article to look into whether or not the steps being taken are enough, or if there is still more work to be done.
“In an era of makeup collections with 40 foundation colors and more spokesmodels of color than ever before, diversity at the beauty counter would seem to be accepted, even celebrated. Yet if you ask influential makeup artists, hairstylists and photographers about it, the answer is more likely: It’s a start.”
Shapiro cites the success of products, like Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line, and the recent abundance of women of color on runways as examples of the expanding vision of inclusivity in the world of fashion and beauty. However, she also speaks to well-established members of the industry who seem to believe that these changes are more surface- level fixes to a much deeper problem at the core of representations of beauty.
“We’re stuck in a place that is politically correct,” [makeup artist Sam Fine] said. “Let’s take it to a place that’s real and lasting. For example, every brand is launching 40 foundation colors because it’s the trendy thing to do. But is the brand actually doing the work – the initiatives and outreach? It’s not just about putting a black model next to Gigi Hadid. The stock needs to be there, and not only 40 shades at your Times Square Store. The people at the counter need training.”
This quote, captured by Shapiro, is poignant and rings with more truth than many cosmetics companies are probably willing to admit. Shapiro points out that many makeup artists or hairstylists are still unsure of how to work with women of color at times, and how this not only disadvantages the professional prospects of models or actresses, but is also undoubtedly hurtful and damaging to their perceptions of self. We have lived by a far too narrow definition of beauty for far too long, and the importance of adequately training the people who support models and actresses of color (whether that means beauticians or people such as photographers) can not be overstated.
“And unlike past moments, when diverse beauty became popular in spurts and stops, [hairstylist Nai’vasha Johnson] is confident that what’s happening is more than just a trend. “We have morphed into a world where people are very much in touch with who they are,” she said. “They are firm about it and unwilling to change or pacify themselves for anyone. It’s a world of ‘This is who I am.”
This closing sentiment offers readers a hopeful takeaway for the strides that will continue to be made in an increasingly diverse, accepting world of beauty and fashion. While there is still much to be done–educating and informing the peripheral industries within the world of beauty being one of these things–the trajectory we are on is promising. Shapiro’s article offers hope that while beauty may always be perceived as skin deep in certain ways, there is no limit to the skin that can be considered beautiful.