The real danger of AI (and it is not new)

There are two words in the phrase “artificial intelligence”. And it is only one of them poses the real dangers we face…

I not sure I want to read another article about artificial intelligence. I’m not sure I want to write one, either.

But here I am, doing it anyway.

Before you give up on me, can I say one thing: this isn’t really about AI. It’s about people and what it is we need from life.

AI learning

The advent of AI has direct bearing on my livelihood, so I figure I should get to grips with it. To that end, I joined a Gen AI learning circle run by marketing guru Claire du Preez and much learning is being done.

The learning circle discussions are not technically oriented, but they are often centred on the gains and failures encountered in using AI tools to help people get their jobs done.

And sometimes, the talk turns philosophical.

In a recent session, a participant wondered aloud: Does using AI make us lazy, does it mean we are using our brains less?

In that same discussion, someone cited the example of using GPS maps on our phones. One person said she uses directions from maps every time she gets in her car, even if only to check traffic conditions.

We all smiled, and agreed – yep, who can do without those directions from our phones?

But what if it is not laziness?

Later that night, mulling it over, I wondered: perhaps it is not so much that AI makes us lazy; perhaps the issue is that it moves us away from reality.

Is it another stepping stone on the path on which digital technology separates us from the things that (I think) make us human?

Ask yourself:

  • Is Facebook now the primary way in which you interact with your friends?
  • Is Zoom now the main way you talk to your colleagues?
  • Is Google Maps now the main way you get from Point A to Point B?
  • Is shouting at someone on Twitter (or X) the way you vent your frustrations?
  • Do you ever look up a recipe in a book, and see the notes you made to yourself about it years ago, along with split cake batter stains? Or are recipes something you get on your phone?
  • All those people on LinkedIn that you don’t in fact know in real life – are they now your network?

These things are all digital tools, and many of them are based on various forms of AI. They are all useful (and even life-saving, in the time of Covid-19). There’s no going back to a world in which we walk everywhere and write grocery lists in a notebook and keep a paper calendar hanging next to the one and only phone in the house.

I have always been an early tech adopter, and have loved the learning curve I’ve been on. I’m not about to stop now!

But, but, but…

Perhaps the danger of artificial intelligence in general is not that some machine-driven version of intelligence will take over the planet and imprison us all in its matrix.

Perhaps the danger lies in the other word – “artificial”.

Are we are missing (more than we know) a real relationship with the world, human interactions with people, birthday cakes in the office, discussion in the in the pub after work?

In her seminal article The Friendship Problem, Rosie Spinks says:

We are so burned out by the process of staying afloat in a globalized, connected world that we simply don’t have the energy for the kinds of in-person, easy interactions that might actually give us some energy and lifeforce back.

She writes that people have the illusion that “we can effectively eliminate any and all friction from our lives”, which creates a kind of “social atrophy” as Esther Perel calls it.

In all the times I’ve used ChatGPT and similar tools, that’s exactly what I’ve felt: a kind of unease generated by the lack of friction, by the sheer easiness of asking and receiving.

What to do?

I’ll be attending my Gen AI learning circle with interest and concentration, and I will never stop playing with tech.

But I am also trying to get out in the garden more, to talk to people in shops, to phone friends that I haven’t spoken to in a while.

I’m trying essentially to live in the present, while using the tech tools we have with attention and caution and thought.

And now I am off to phone a friend.

READ MORE OF MY WORK

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How to reach me

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media).

I write a post every week, sometimes about my professional life and work, and sometimes about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here

Leaving home ain’t what it used to be

My son is leaving home – sort of. But for young people in 2024, this is not the simple process it used to be. Kindness and understanding are key…

When I was just 17, I left home.

Well – sort of. All I did was go to university in town several hours drive away from where I had gone to school, and move into a room in the safe environment of a residence.

We got three meals a day as part of the deal. There was a shared bathroom, and washing machines two or three flights of stairs upwards.

I truly can’t remember if we had to clean our own rooms, or if there were cleaning staff for the general areas only. Given that it was 1980 in South Africa, I suspect we had cleaning help.

So, it wasn’t really “adulting”, as they say now.

Sharing was caring

Adulting came later, once I moved to Cape Town to do my honours degree. I moved into a flat, shared with two other people. We bought groceries, cooked, did the dishes and cleaned. I lived in that sort of shared accommodation for years after that, moving into my own flat somewhere in my mid-twenties.

In all those shared spaces, and in my own flat, there generally wasn’t a huge amount of money to go round, but there was food to be eaten and (mostly) enough money to go out for drinks or coffee or a burger.

I’m not sure that my experience was shared by many of my contemporaries. Going to university was not something many school leavers did. But a fair amount of people living in the strange enclave that was white South Africa followed a path like this.

(And of course, it was not typical at all for my male friends and family: they had the prospect of enforced military conscription hanging over their heads).

Fast forward to 2024

I’ve been thinking about those days because our household is in the grip of a “leaving home” moment. We’ve converted a small garage into a studio flat, and my son and his girlfriend have moved into it.

In other words, my baby has left home. My nest is not as empty as it could be though. He has just moved across a small and rather untidy courtyard, and I see them both every day. (As a friend said: “At least he didn’t go to Australia!”)

What strikes me though is how different the experiences of young people are today – particularly economically. In my first, not-very-well-paid journalism job, I earned enough money at the age of 21, going on 22, to set up home in a flat with a friend, run a small, elderly second-hand car – and even acquire a kitten.

When I see what the potential earnings of my son and his friends are (assuming they can find a job) and measure that against the cost of living, I am sharply aware that the attainment of independence is not as simple as it once was.

Try a little kindness

No matter how much people in their early 20s yearn to set up their own homes (even just shared houses), for many it’s just not possible. Or it is only possible incrementally, over a long period of time.

For those of us privileged enough to have bought homes and (perhaps) saved a bit for our retirement, it’s best to suspend our judgements about “the youth of today”.

A careful look at what is going on in the world will tell us that things truly are different. For all of us, older and younger, “adulting” now means accepting that we need to make do and mend, to be content with what we have.

And perhaps, if we are lucky, get a kitten.

READ MORE

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Main picture: yousef alfuhigi, Unsplash

How to reach me

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media).

I write a post every week, sometimes about my professional life and work, and sometimes about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here

South Africa’s 2024 election: Some thoughts

Votes in a democracy are secret. That doesn’t stop everyone I know talking about South Africa’s 2024 election – it’s going to be a big one.

Here we are again, going to the polls to vote for a democratic government.

On May 29, 2024, South Africans will be able to go to an election venue and put their crosses on not one but three different ballot papers. Here’s the gist:

  • One ballot paper (the national one) will elect 200 people to a 400-member parliament. We vote for a political party, and those parties then nominate people to serve in parliament on a proportional basis. As I understand it, there will be 52 parties on that list.
  • A second ballot paper is a new addition to our options. The other 200 members of parliament get elected here, and there are both parties and independent candidates on them. The lists vary according to which of the nine provinces you are in.
  • The third ballot elects provincial governments and also includes parties and independent candidates.

This summarises my understanding of my reading on news sites, the IEC website and government publications). I may have some nuances wrong but one thing is clear: that’s one complicated set of choices!

Decide who to vote for: what’s at play? 

I am not going to go into party manifestos or track records or promises, or even the merits and demerits of the many, many election posters decorating our landscapes. I’m not a political commentator and it’s not my place to suggest how other people should cast their votes.

But I am good at scanning the information landscape and detecting patterns and things to think about. Based on that, I am going to suggest some general principles which I am applying to the mayhem, and which might help others.

The principles have two layers, one looking specifically at the 2024 election, and one looking at more general leadership issues. 

First, what to think about when looking at the ballot papers

The national ballot appears to be simple enough: pick your party and vote for it. But there are ways in which it is not at all simple. We don’t have a political situation in which there are two or three major parties and you decide which is the least awful. We have one party that has been in the majority for 30 years and many medium-sized to very small opposition parties. It is widely being predicted that the majority party (the ANC) will lose its majority for the first time this year. And that means they will have to enter into a coalition with other parties.

If you support the ANC, the choice is clear: vote for them. But if you don’t support them you are in a guessing game: how will any of the parties on offer perform in a coalition? They won’t be at liberty to implement their promises and policies and manifestos, so scanning those is interesting but not germane to the realpolitik of a coalition. 

If you are an opposition voter, I’d say you need to consider that the party you vote for will be sending its leaders to the negotiating tables and corridors where the deals will be made. So it’s not even about your faith in the party structures. Instead, it’s the calibre of the people who are party to the deal. And in that case I am looking for people who have the good of the country at heart, who are pragmatic rather than arrogant and who have some governance experience. In other words, people who can be trusted to form a coalition that will be a stable government. 

The second, new ballot is a chance to do something new: one can vote for a party, but that’s what we’ve been doing since 1994 and the lack of constituency accountability has always been a problem. For the first time, you can vote for an actual person (assuming one is standing in your region). That’s what I am going to do, applying the same principles as above: are they pragmatic? Experienced? Do they have the good of the country at heart?

Provincially, there is the new option of an independent candidate. But I would suggest the baseline for voting should be the performance of the existing government in your province. This level of government is closer to home and easier to assess, and should make a voting decision relatively clear. 

Some overall thoughts about leadership

I’m relying here on earlier pieces I have written about leadership and governance to suggest some general principles to guide your thinking.

Beware of glamour

In a 2017 article, looking at the end of the Barack Obama era in the United States, and the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, I wrote: “Every time I see another glowing tribute to the lovely Obamas I think this: just because I like the look of the Obamas, just because they appeal to my muddled left-wing sensibilities, just because they appear to be people of understated charm and sophistication, just because they radiate the kind of glamour that works for me, that does not mean that Obama has been a good president, or that he did not (perhaps) ruthlessly climb his way to the top of the Democratic pile to get to the White House. He is a politician and you don’t get to be President of the United States by being nice to musicians and making dreadful puns over a Thanksgiving turkey.” 

In short, glamour does not necessarily make for good governance. When surveying the parties and people on offer in South Africa in 2024, try to put aside personal likes and tendencies to hero worship: what you see on the surface may have no bearing on what that person or party is actually like.

To do that, you are going to have to do some work: 

In a July 2020 post, I wrote: “Paying attention over long periods of time to the detail of how a political party or an organisation works is hard and complicated work, which most people just don’t have the time or the inclination to do. And so, again and again, we fall for charm over hard work, and for style over substance.” In 2024, to the extent that you can, try to assess people and parties in terms of their track records rather than on what they promise.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, this is a complicated election, and it brings the possibility of substantial change to the political landscape. Because of that, it’s tempting to feel that voting is just too much of a guessing game, that there’s so much in play that the meaning of one vote can’t be discerned. But not voting is not an option – for me anyway. And so I will go and do the best I can, with hope that the people I vote for will also do the best they can.

READ MORE

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Main picture: Filiz Elaerts, Unsplash

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media). 

I write a post every week, some about my professional life and work, and some about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here.  

Inner work: Strange and lovely journeys

My theme word for the year 2024 is adventure. That doesn’t mean travel, or exotic sports: it means doing inner work.

I’ve taken four journeys since the start of 2024.

One was a lightning trip up the coast to Great Brak River to spend time with family visiting from Australia; and another was a weekend away in Langebaan, about an hour out of Cape Town.

 So far, so ordinary.

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I’m not old, I’m a perennial

Senior? Silver surfer? Retiree? None of these words will do. Join me in my quest to find an answer to the question: what to call old people?

Over supper, in our age-divergent household, we rediscovered an ancient truth. Young people think everyone over the age of 30 is old.

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Skin colour in emojis: the dilemma (solved?)

What to do about skin colour in emojis? There are no easy answers, but I think I got there…

My young son and his friends are gently amused by the way the parental generation uses emojis.

Apparently, we either use them too much, or too literally. When I send a smiley face emoji, I mean I am smiling. Out there in young-people-land, it’s not so simple.

Personally, I’m happy to keep on using emojis to express my feelings, directly and literally. What I have never been happy about is the issue of what colour to use when I pick a human-representative emoji (sometimes of course, the choice isn’t available; these things do vary from app to app and platform to platform).

Yes, indeed, I am about to venture into the territory of skin colour and its representation in the digital world.

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