In 1988, Shoshana Zuboff wrote the prescient book In the Age of the Smart Machine, in which she argued that we face two roads with information technology: We can “informate” or “automate.” The high road would be to “informate,” which would mean using information technologies to better understand a particular process (for example, how to diagnose an illness or how to tell fake reviews from real ones), and then using that knowledge to support more complex applications rather than pushing out human role and judgment from the process. In contrast, to “automate,” the low road, involves replacing human work and skill with machines so that narrow, well-defined tasks are carried out at a lower cost and with more control, but at the cost of nuance, flexibility, and judgment.
Unfortunately, thoughtless automation is driving the day. If we don’t get off this train, it might have the same results it has had in other sectors of the economy: an unsustainable economy with high unemployment—and a lot of cheap, plastic crap.