Full of Schmidt

They’re at it again, those knucklehead Silicon Valley extremists.

Eric Schmidt

They’re at it again, those knucklehead Silicon Valley extremists. Here is former Google CEO and current Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt, from a written op-ed published on September 12:

A decade ago, to launch a digital music service, you probably would have enlisted a handful of elite tastemakers to pick the hottest new music. Today, you’re much better off building a smart system that can learn from the real world—what actual listeners are most likely to like next—and help you predict who and where the next Adele might be.

Schmidt’s piece, published on the BBC web site, wasn’t about music per se, but was more broadly a glowing look at the progress being made by artificial intelligence; what’s more, one might read the music comment as little more than a pointed dig at Apple and just move along.

And yet, really? “You’re much better off building a smart system that can learn from the real world”? When it comes to music? Or any artistic human endeavor, for that matter?

I am doing my best to control my outrage that this man is someone anybody listens to. It would appear that Eric Schmidt wants to be the last human standing; while he’s allowed to pontificate and prognosticate he seems to have no need for any other individual point of view, and seems not to value in the slightest the very things that make us human in the first place: our individual hopes and dreams and inspirations and passions. Nope, just put all of us into a big blender and spew out data and we’ll be a-okay.

This view of the world is already reductive and demoralizing; that he further resorts to straw-man populism is despicable. Uh-oh: better watch out for those “elite tastemakers”! You don’t want them getting in the way of your mathematically predicted music!

First off I suggest that Mr. Schmidt has to put his money where his mouth is if he expects to be taken seriously. If “everyone” knows better than those damned elitists who want to tell us what to do all the time, then why doesn’t Google (and Alphabet) hand corporate decision-making over to the social media mob? It’s very elitist of him, after all, to think he knows better than all of us combined, right?

Ah but it turns out the demagogues of Silicon Valley are themselves inveterate elitists who slyly and consistently employ populist rhetoric for their own profit-hungry purposes. They elevate the quantitative formulations of Big Data into unalloyed truth, conveniently overlooking the helplessness of quantity alone to identify quality (nowhere in the history of humanity have we ever seen sheer numbers equate with human value), and also conveniently overlooking the subjectivity that will always embed itself into algorithmic selection, because (hey, how about that!) algorithms are at some point in the process created and overseen by human beings and will ever more reflect subjectivity even when posing as immutably objective.

Second, I can’t help wondering why anyone listens to any technology executive when it comes to sweeping cultural generalizations. All Schmidt is ever trying to do is increase his company’s revenue. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; that’s what capitalists do. The trouble begins when we confuse his professional motivations with anything resembling societal wisdom or personal insight. It’s all the more alarming when someone with so little apparent patience for the ineffable value of flesh-and-blood human beings becomes some kind of spokesperson for the future of humanity. Sounds like something from a Black Mirror episode if you ask me.

So: if we are going to continue to want to be blinkered and hornswoggled by digital ideologues into believing that humans have no qualitative place in the world, then fine: let us welcome the robots and algorithms of these mythical “smart systems” and let’s all be content to have music funneled automatically into our brains before we even know we want it there. Which also sounds like a Black Mirror episode.

But if anyone out there understands that beauty and inspiration cannot be manufactured out of data, that quantity does not have a one to one relationship with quality, that human beings are not now and never can be reducible to objective components, then join me in telling Mr. Eric Schmidt to go back to counting his money and leave the human endeavors to those of us with some humanity left in us.

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