Friday, January 1, 2016

Our Computers Are Picking Who Gets Hired

            A barrista friend of mine complained to me the other day that she had applied for a job as a park ranger of the Indiana Dunes State Park, a park with large sand dunes along Lake Michigan east of Chicago, and had been rejected as a result of an evaluation by a computer.  That’s right!  A computer rejected her.  What irony for a machine to be rejecting my friend for a job where she would be working in nature!  She filled out a series of questions, some multiple choice, some yes or no.  Each multiple choice question listed a series of answers, each indicating a different degree of knowledge or experience relating to a particular activity that was involved in the job for which she was applying.  The yes or no questions were up or down inquiries as to whether she had done this or that in connection with the job.  She did send in a letter and a resume, but these would only have been looked at if the machine had been unable to select one of the applicants on the basis of the questions alone.

            My friend could understand the park administration wanting to get an idea of the applicant’s knowledge and experience.  But preset discrete questions are simply unable to grasp the nuances of each applicant’s knowledge and experience.  Nor can they pick up on the related knowledge and experience not covered by the questions or unusual but relevant knowledge and experience.  Certainly there is much to be learned about a person’s character and perspective on a job by reading a cover letter.  There is much to be learned not only about a person’s work history, but also about his attitude towards work by reading his resume.

            My friend was not perceived as a whole person with a coherent sense of self, but instead was perceived as a series of discrete data which gave her the equivalent of a pixilated sense of self.  She was judged by a machine in terms of her discrete functional capacity to answer a bunch of isolated questions.  She was judged as a series of isolated mechanical functions rather than in terms of her isolated functions fused together to form a flowing blendable continual sense of self.  The latter is important, because the work of a park ranger involves tasks that are not always predictable and routine.  All kinds of accidents and crises can occur in a state park, and a multiple choice and yes and no test is not going to assess the nuances of the character of an applicant, his intuition and resourcefulness, to deal with new situations.  Also, a park ranger needs good social skills in dealing with park visitors, and social skills come out in interviews, not in computer evaluations.

            This use of machines to intervene in the life situations of human beings is not just found in job evaluations.  These interventions are an essential part of the romantic matches made on different dating websites.  People are reduced to a series of discrete skills, personality traits and interests and are matched accordingly.  People become pixilated presentations of themselves.  Which is why so few enduring couples result from these computer matches.  And anyway, if these websites were effective in quickly matching people up, how could the ones that charge their clients stay in business?  The profits come from people who continue to look for new romantic partners over a long period of time.

            But still the fact that so many people use internet dating says a great deal about the emotional state of people in today’s world.  People are modeling themselves after the complex behavioral entities – the modern machines – that surround them.  Like the machines, they become a series of discrete processes, discrete functions and discrete presentations.

            This modeling after machines has really been going on for many years.  Students going on to college or going on to graduate school have been evaluated by a series of standardized primarily multiple choice tests.  These tests again reduce human beings to a series of discrete bits of knowledge.  But in the U.S., increasingly, standardized tests are occurring in elementary school to monitor how much students are learning and indirectly to monitor the quality of education they are receiving from their teachers.  Classwork for the students focuses on reading and math, two subjects that lend themselves more easily to quantification.  As a result, less emphasis is placed on social studies and science and the arts.  The student becomes a part of a competition to see which school can produce the most functional academic machines.  The process of robotization starts at an early age in today’s schools.

            Mediation by technology is also obviously present in the use by stores of online websites to sell their goods and services.  As customers become more and more used to doing their shopping from the comfort of their homes, the direct interaction between customer and salesperson becomes less and less present in purchase situations.  And online stores have many online means to find out what different customers want.  A customer is reduced to a series of discrete tastes, discrete preferences, and discrete likes.  He is often sold on goods and services based on what he has bought in the past.  In effect, he becomes like a consumption machine.

            Technology facilitates many life processes, but only at the price of reducing our perceptions of one another to discrete data and discrete images.  The latter is particularly present in Skype conversations.  Yes, it becomes a means of looking at someone who may be physically far away.  The problem is that many companies now use Skype as a way of saving the money of having their employees travel in order to conduct business.  There is no way that deep bonds can be formed as easily through the discrete images of Skype.  And deep bonds are a good foundation for conducting effective ongoing business.

            On still another level, what does it do to each one of us to be constantly presenting ourselves as discrete data and discrete images.  As we negotiate our interactions with other people on the Internet and directly and indirectly through different complex modern machine programs as well as spend so much of our day doing so, we begin to merge our pixilated self- presentation into a pixilated self-conception.  We begin to believe what we present of ourselves.  This is a major danger of our increasing involvement with modern technology.

            By the way, my barrista friend is determined to get at least a part time job in nature.  She recently applied to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a tallgrass prairie reserve located southwest of Chicago.  She again got rejected, but this time she received a letter from a human, telling her that, although she was qualified, there were other applicants that were more qualified.  What a pleasure it was to be rejected by a human!  Her dignity was restored.  She is now applying again for another position at the Indiana Dunes State Park.  Maybe to win over the machine that will be passing judgment on her again, she can send it a ceramic apple, with a robot worm that pops out and sings Stevie Wonder’s hit “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”.

© 2015 Laurence Mesirow