“We need to tell more diverse and realistic stories about AI,” Sara Watson writes, “if we want to understand how these technologies fit into our society today, and in the future.”
Watson’s point that popular narratives inform our understandings of and responses to AI feels timely and timeless. As the same handful of AI narratives circulate, repeating themselves like a befuddled Siri, their utopian and dystopian plots prejudice seemingly every discussion about AI. And like the Terminator itself, these paranoid, fatalistic stories now feel inevitable and unstoppable. As Watson warns, “If we continue to rely on these sci-fi extremes, we miss the realities of the current state of AI, and distract our attention from real and present concerns.”
Watson’s criticism is focused on AI narratives, but the argument lends itself to society’s narratives about other contemporary worries, from global warming to selfies and surveillance. On surveillance, Zeynep TufekÃ§i made a similar point in 2014 about our continued reliance on outdated Orwellian analogies (hi 1984) and panoptic metaphors.
Resistance and surveillance: The design of today’s digital tools makes the two inseparable. And how to think about this is a real challenge. It’s said that generals always fight the last war. If so, we’re like those generals. Our understanding of the dangers of surveillance is filtered by our thinking about previous threats to our freedoms. But today’s war is different. We’re in a new kind of environment, one that requires a new kind of understanding. [“¦]
To make sense of the surveillance states that we live in, we need to do better than allegories  and thought experiments [the Panopticon], especially those that derive from a very different system of control. We need to consider how the power of surveillance is being imagined and used, right now, by governments and corporations.
We need to update our nightmares.