‘Anatomy of an AI System’ by Kate Crawford for me depicted a huge web of planetary connections between what looks like an innocuous electronic and the highly disturbing account of the resources that it took to make it - as well as the data the device is collecting all the time. And for what purposes? For more capital which is going to just a few. The essay raises the question what the data will be used for. The text is a stark reminder that what looks like sleek, clean, high tech white-washes huge exploitation behind the technology.
As Crawford noted, “The territories are dominated by a few global mega-companies, which are creating new infrastructures and mechanisms for the accumulation of capital and exploitation of human and planetary resources.” and “At every level contemporary technology is deeply rooted in and running on the exploitation of human bodies.” The instances she describes are disturbing and powerful examples.
The writing maps ideas across centuries and across the globe, creating a scale and import in connecting details - the scale though is “almost beyond human imagining.” The essay uses the analogy/format of mapping to help make connections and attempt to give an understanding of what is involved in making AI systems, a scale that is “too complex, too obscured by intellectual property law, and too mired in logistical complexity to fully comprehend in the moment.”
How can we begin to see it, to grasp its immensity and complexity as a connected form? For instance, just asking Alexa, the AI agent, to turn on a light switch “requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch.” And tracing the resources it has taken to make a device is incredibly complex since such vast numbers of companies are involved in sourcing small parts of each appliance’s materials.
The text emphasizes that we are being “tracked, quantified, analyzed and commodified” all the time when we interact with tech platforms. The devices are cloaked in secrecy – the Echo is a sleek box which you aren’t meant to open when the battery runs out. “But in contrast to user visibility, the precise details about the phases of birth, life and death of networked devices are obscured. With emerging devices like the Echo relying on a centralized AI infrastructure far from view, even more of the detail falls into the shadows.”
I read the corresponding piece in Money.com (Julia Glum, “The Median Amazon Employee’s Salary Is $28,000. Jeff Bezos Makes More Than That in 10 Seconds,” Time, May 2, 2018, http://time.com/money/5262923/amazon-employee-median-salary-jeff-bezos/) which quantified Jeff Bezos’ salary in relation to those of his employees. A Nov 2017 UK reporter detailed that those who work for Amazon are, “weren’t allowed to sit, needed to package products every 30 seconds and dealt with timed bathroom breaks.” The May 2018 article noted 560,000 employees (f/t and p/t) “in the U.S., the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centers, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15/hour before overtime.” Contrast that with numbers worked out from Bloomberg that Bezos was earning Jan – May 2017 about $11.5 million per hour. And on an annual basis, Amazon filed (because of new federal rule that requires public companies to disclose the pay ratio between their employees and executives) that it’s “median worker — the person who makes more than half of the staff and less than half of the staff — earned $28,446 in 2017. For comparison, Bezos’ annual compensation last year was over $1.6 million.”
Where are the unions – why do so many people have so little power compared to one person?
And how can we not be complicit in this exploitation?