by Dan Cohen
In HI12 I mentioned Ben Shneiderman’s talk on automation and agency, and he kindly sent me the full draft of the article he is writing on this topic. New to me was the Sheridan-Verplank Scale of Autonomy, which, come on, sounds like something straight out of Blade Runner:
In all seriousness, as Ben notes, scales like these reinforce an unhelpful mindset in which there is a unidirectional spectrum between human and machine agency, and a sense that progress moves from human control to AI running everything.
If you look around you can now see these charts everywhere, and they are dominating many of our conversations about emerging technology. Here, for instance, is the SAE standardized levels for automated vehicles:
Note especially the dark blue line zigzagging on the right side—that’s the gradual transfer of agency from human to machine.
Our goal should be to add dimensions, context, and complexity to these unidimensional scales. The best outcomes will be ones that enable humans to do new and better things with the assistance of—not the replacement by—autonomous machines.
Henrik Spohler takes photographs of the midpoints of global commerce. (Container terminal, Rotterdam Harbor, The Netherlands, 2013. Henrik Spohler, Audiovisual Library of the European Commission, CC BY-NC-ND. Via Europeana‘s new exhibition of “Social and Employment Realities” in the contemporary world.)
In HI13, I discussed Ian Milligan’s survey of historians’ research practices, and their near-universal reliance on the smartphone camera. Alexis Madrigal has a good follow-up piece in The Atlantic about this.
In this space I should have expanded on why the practice of mass archival photography might change what we historians write, not just how we do our work; Alexis helpfully captures some of this:
There’s some precedent for how history has been changed by increasing digital accessibility. Wellerstein groups photo-taking in the archives under a broader set of changes that he terms “high volume” research methods. “The practices will change what kind of questions you’ll ask,” he said. Take a highly regarded book, Charles Rosenberg’s The Cholera Years. In it, Rosenberg tracks how three newspapers in New York covered cholera. “He spent years working on that,” Wellerstein said. “You can call up every source he used in that book in one afternoon using ProQuest,” one of several databases of newspapers.
That does not invalidate the book, which Wellerstein described as “great,” but someone working on the same topic now would have the option to expand the field of inquiry. “You might look nationally, internationally, look over a vast amount of time, correlate cholera with something else,” he said. “Would you get better history? I don’t know. You’d get different history though.”
As is often the case, a good starting point for thinking along these lines is Roy Rosenzweig’s now-classic essay, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” which forecast a future of either very few primary sources, or so many that we would have difficulty managing it all. (Twenty years later, we’ve ended up with the latter.)
Humane Ingenuity subscriber John Howard, the University Librarian at University College Dublin, responded to HI13 with their setup for better archival smartphone photos (for both staff and visiting researchers), including the ScanTent:
Portable tent + LED lighting + platform for your smartphone. I need one of these.
On the latest What’s New podcast, I talk with Iris Berent about her forthcoming book The Blind Storyteller: How We Reason about Human Nature. Those who liked Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow will really enjoy Iris’s book (and our conversation), since it exposes other core elements of thinking, shows how innate many concepts are, and reveals why we have such trouble thinking about our own minds. There are now many fascinating studies of infants that imply that babies know much more than previously believed, and this possibility of considerable innate knowledge can be difficult to accept, since we think of ideas as ethereal and acquired over time rather than physical and DNA-like. Can month-old babies figure out physics or ethics, and if so, how? Tune in.
Laura Ben Hayoun’s photography highlights the presence of gig workers in public spaces. (December 2016. Paris. Bike delivery person. Laura Ben Hayoun, Audiovisual Library of the European Commission, CC BY-NC-ND. Also from Europeana’s “Social and Employment Realities” exhibition.)