Leiden International Studies Blog

What does Technology do to Humans? Lessons from the UN and Leiden University "Unsee Us" protest against smart cameras outside the Lipsius building Leiden, 7 December 2021

What does Technology do to Humans? Lessons from the UN and Leiden University

Stefano Bellucci responds to the International Studies inaugural lecture on Artificial Intelligence at the United Nations and the controversy surrounding smart cameras on campus. “A world ruled according to a technological logic is a world indifferent to the beauty and the uniqueness of humans.”

It’s time we stop asking what we can do with technology, and we start asking what technology does to us. The inaugural lecture of the BA International Studies and the student protests against human scanners at the University both illustrate the changing relationship between technology and humans. In principle, there is nothing wrong with using technology to improve efficiency, but IT has now become so advanced and pervasive that we have begun to apply its logic to all aspects of our lives. I argue this may have far-reaching consequences. A world ruled according to a technological logic is a world indifferent to the beauty and the uniqueness of humans.

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Satellite mapping for UNCHR in Sudan. Source: www.euspaceimaging.com

Artificial Intelligence and Humanitarian Aid

The 2021 inaugural lecture of September 17, titled “Responsible Artificial Intelligence for the People and the Planet,” was delivered by Miguel Luengo-Oroz, the Chief Data Scientist at UN Global Pulse. The description of the lecture read:

[I]n a post [!?] pandemic world […] Artificial Intelligence is at an inflection point which requires ethical and responsible development to make sure no one is left behind […] In this talk, we will discuss the challenges, risks and potential harms raised by the Artificial Intelligence revolution.

Despite those claims, Luengo-Oroz’s lecture did not put forward any critical view regarding artificial intelligence (AI) or information technology (IT). AI was instead presented as a helpful tool applied to UN activities, such as, for example, humanitarian assistance in refugee camps. Maybe: Nonetheless, the lecture was extremely interesting, as it illuminated the UN’s global approach to the refugee crises in the third millennium. That strategy can be summarized as follows: to come to a more effective form of aid albeit from a distance, from a satellite. When the audience asked Luengo-Oroz to define technology, he took some time to find an answer, and eventually stated that technology is a tool or an instrument placed in human hands to make the world a better place. Not an original answer, but very revealing at that.

Is technology really but a tool within the human grip? We know from the ancient Greeks that techne is something humans need to mediate their existence. In that sense, it’s not just something we posess; it’s almost part of our ontology. Technology helps us maximize results and minimize effort. This is precisely what has happened to UN humanitarian aid. AI and IT were described as successful tools for humanitarian operations in refugee camps. This was demonstrated quite effectively by the speaker. He argued aid projects have become cheaper and more effective thanks to satellites that are quickly able to identify people in need. Based on that information, trucks can then easily target such people and supply them. This is certainly an interesting development, but it also implies a substitution of humans in an AI-humanitarian operation. Soon, those trucks full of supplies will no longer be driven by humans and doctors will help refugees online.

Another revealing point on the relationship of UN humanitarian aid and AI emerged when the speaker talked about truck drivers illicitly dumping waste water. As a result, the UN introduced surveillance over their contracted employees. The approach was clearly a most efficient one: control with camera and punish. But is it the most effective? Wouldn’t it be better to try and understand the problem behind this behavior: truck drivers’ wages, labor conditions, proper training, etc. Was this more humanistic (not punitive) approach even considered as a possibility to solve the problem?

As mentioned in the introduction, there is nothing wrong with using technology to improve efficiency, but IT has now become so advanced and pervasive that we have begun to apply its logic to all aspects of our lives. In this “technological paradigm,” technology ceases to be a mere tool, and becomes the way in which we operate as humans. This has implications for UN humanitarian practices and policy. For example, the job of the aid worker is completely detached from the analysis of the situation: the lives of refugees or the economic and political causes of conflict and destruction (the sources of the refugees).

The prevailing emphasis on efficiency and cost reduction leads to a generalized de-humanization of humanitarian action. This humanitarianism-without-humans feels like a paradox or even an oxymoron.

From UN Operations to Universities

Universities do not seem exempted from the anthropological revolution caused by the changing technological paradigm. The decision by Leiden University to introduce human scanners in our buildings is yet another clear manifestation of the changing paradigm.

Why were those scanners placed? Who decided this? Was it because of Covid-19? But why were they switched off during the lockdown? Were they placed to rationalize space and usage of buildings? Is space, for meetings and gatherings, becoming an issue? Whatever the reason, why wasn’t a discussion with students and staff initiated? What did students do to deserve to be controlled by their university? Which “crime” was committed there that required such a drastic measure to be introduced? We do not know anything about the decision-making process to place human scanners at Leiden University.

The people who decided to introduce this measure obviously did not believe they were doing anything wrong or strange. This is the very crux of “technocracy”! These officials are reasoning in terms of efficiency, cost reduction and minimum effort (or please let us know what else). Scanners are obviously the best way to count students (and not only!), and in a world ruled according to the technological logic, there is nothing wrong with this.

Fortunately, students initiated a petition in protest against the scanners. Protesting normally occurs in absence of democratic dialogue. A few university staff members joined. The sparse number of academics bothered by the introduction of scanners was astonishing. The university management reacted to the petition with an online message posted on the university website. They apologized for not having communicated the decision earlier and explained that Covid-19 was the reason for placing of the scanners. The naivety of the message sparked physical protests, and the scanners were eventually switched off. Nevertheless, they are yet to be dismantled. Hopefully they will be in the near future.

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Graffiti at Leiden University, December 2021. Source: unseeusleiden.noblogs.org

This story also reveals how a managerial apparatchik works: with indifference towards its own actions. “Self” and “action” (“being” and “doing”) seem completely disconnected from one another. Managerial actions respond to the logic of efficiency.

Conversely, acting humanly means to respond to the input of our conscience (and the unconscious). This is why passion, love, hate, togetherness, contradictions, and perversions are all feelings that cannot be associated with technology and efficiency—love, for example, does not go along well with efficiency, does it? Human feelings fall outside the technological paradigm.

During the protests, students expressed their feelings: discomfort and uneasiness towards being scrutinized and stalked by the logarithmic eyes of cameras and scanners. This is a situation of human emotions versus the technological machine, including the “administrative machine.”

And here we come to another major issue: who is right and who is wrong? Do students have the right not to be counted nor measured? If so, are those rights to be respected? Or is it the right of management to intrude into the public space with no permission from the scrutinized? When did Leiden University become a private business with managers possessing absolute power? The issue is serious. It is legal and ethical. Personal freedom and democratic dialogue are at stake.

From the University to the World

Technological calculus is perfectly rational; humans are not. Our psychologies (psyche in ancient Greek means “soul”) is what makes us inherently non-technological and perhaps even anti-technological. Fantasies and imagination, dreams and creativity derive from our inner self, which is unknown and chaotic. This is what makes each individual an exceptional being. A world ruled according to technology is a world indifferent to the beauty and the uniqueness of humans. Because a university is a place of knowledge and creativity it should also be a universal place of freedom, including freedom from the limits technology poses.

A university should be the place where technology is developed, why not? But it should also be the place of warning about what technology can do to humans. If technology becomes the all-encompassing universal condition, a new social landscape will emerge, inevitably dominated by task optimization, where ultimately the means become the ends.

Someone may retort, ‘yes technology can be dangerous, but is it possible to live without a smartphone?’ The answer is no, not as part of present-day society. However, technocracy (the absolutistic rule of efficiency and calculus) is not the answer either. Individuals, especially the ruling class, must be forced to be able to deviate from the apparatus diktats. Function (the job) cannot completely replace and suppress soul (psyche). There are instances when disobedience against an apparatus is the right thing to do. This is one way to connect one’s “self” (conscience or being) with action (doing).

On the contrary, humans become machines, particles of a technological apparatus. They are acted upon and are not owners of their actions. The subject is technology and not humanity.

The technological paradigm works in every sector of society, globally. We have seen it in action in UN operations and inside a university. But workplaces, hospitals, cities, factories, primary schools, are not spared by this new absolutist logic. In an effort to avoid falling into the nihilistic trap, signs of resistance, such as the Leiden University students’ actions, represent oxygen in the airlock. The tendency must be to regain control of technology and use it to alleviate human fatigue and not to increase mere productivity or for mere efficiency; to improve our health and not destroy us and the planet; to free humans from oppression and not to increase control and in the name of “security” and for the sake of cost-reduction.