Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his treatise on individualism, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” In “Self-Reliance”, Emerson explains that we must believe in our own institution and reject the opinions of others in order to transcend the bounds of the physical world. Emerson, a man born at the precipice of the 19th century, wrote this in 1841. The transcendentalist’s words are never more relevant 180 years later. His words transcended the bounds of the physical world.
By now, it’s likely you’re either pessimistic about artificial intelligence’s impact and cautious just the same. Or you’re entirely eager and will disregard any of the potentially negative effects that come along with AI-generated innovation. If Emerson were to write about today’s technological innovation, he may see the internet as an institution that is the lengthened shadow of AI. He may add that the tool, itself, is one of self-reliance.
As I drove down the the 101 highway from San Francisco to its airport, the landscape was adorned with billboards, each fervently advertising the integration of AI in their products. From tech giants to local startups, everyone was riding the AI wave, promising smarter solutions and transformative experiences. At that moment, a historical analogy struck me, drawing parallels between the urban development of the mid-20th century and today’s digital transformation. Fresh off of reading Robert Caro’s The Power Broker for the first time, it dawned on me that we’ve seen this in the physical world. And, if so, we are to hold two opinions at once: awe and terror.
Robert Moses, the mastermind behind New York’s sprawling urban infrastructure, could be seen as an analogous figure to the evolving influence of AI on the internet. While Moses reshaped cities, AI is reshaping the digital frontier.
Pick your favorite quasi-dictator in whatever field you’re familiar with — Steve Jobs in computing, David Fincher in Hollywood — and in his ferocity, drive, the scope of his vision and a parallel disregard for anything else but blind adherence to it, Robert Moses might put them all to shame. (re:form)
Robert Moses, remembered by many as a genius urban planner, revolutionized New York’s infrastructure. He created beaches, parks, bridges, and highways. Yet, amid the monumental structures, the intricacies of human life, especially those of marginalized communities, often got lost. Much like AI today, Moses was a force of massive potential, capable of improving lives. However, with potential unchecked, it often grew blind to the nuanced requirements of individualism and diversity.
Years ago, one could have contended that Zuckerberg is the Robert Moses of the internet, given how Facebook reshaped our digital social landscape. Similarly, Elon Musk, with his ventures spanning electric cars, space exploration, neural interfaces, and paving over Twitter might be hailed as another Moses of the internet. Yet, neither Zuckerberg nor Musk could hold a candle to the transformative power AI promises. The tech magnates, despite their vast influence, are human. Neither are capable of the Emersonian transcendence. AI, on the other hand, is a self-evolving entity, capable of rewriting the fabric of the internet, society, and culture with an omnipresence that Moses had over urban development.
Much like Moses’s infrastructural feats, AI-driven platforms favor efficiency, speed, and broad appeal. Platforms like art curation websites, influenced by AI algorithms, are increasingly pushing mainstream aesthetics, sidelining unique and diverse art forms. The internet, once a haven for niche cultures and perspectives, risks becoming a homogenized space, echoing the uniform highways and bridges Moses built.
The glaring parallel between Moses’s bridges in New York and AI-driven content recommendation systems is their underlying biases. Moses’s low-hanging bridges on the Southern State Parkway intentionally excluded buses, the primary transportation for the city’s marginalized communities. AI, when fed biased or homogeneous data, amplifies existing prejudices, limiting exposure to diversity and perpetuating stereotypes. Just as Moses’s bridges dictated who could access the amenities of Long Island, AI algorithms dictate the content we consume, often entrapping us in digital echo chambers.
Another salient overlap lies in the promises both Moses and AI made to the public. Moses’s developments promised better connectivity, recreation, and urban growth. AI promises smarter solutions, personalization, and efficiency. However, both often overlooked the human element. While Moses’s highways might have disregarded the cultural hubs they bulldozed over, AI’s algorithms might overlook the value of serendipity, diverse exposure, and organic creativity in their quest for precision.
The vast expanse of AI’s influence, unlike any individual’s, offers both challenges and opportunities. The bridges, parks, and roads Moses built are physical and not easily changed, but AI is dynamic. With the right approach – encompassing diverse training data, regulations, user education, and ethical design principles – we can steer AI away from mere efficiency towards holistic betterment. But this is only idealistic; it’s like meeting Moses while a Yale undergraduate. His peers and observers already knew his power; he successfully outwitted Walter Camp (the father of American football) who was then an administrator and coach at Yale.
Many large, sophisticated technological systems are in fact highly compatible with centralized hierarchical managerial control.
Langdon Winner (1980)
While Moses’s architectural might reshaped urban landscapes, often sidelining the human element in its wake, AI has the potential to rewrite the very essence of our digital contributions. As we stand on the cusp of an AI-driven era, it’s imperative to remember and learn from history. Just as urban spaces thrive with diversity, individuality, and inclusivity, so should the digital realms we inhabit. The lessons from Moses’ era must guide our journey with AI, ensuring we construct digital bridges that connect, not exclude us. And that we save parts of what currently exists rather than paving over it entirely.
In reading The Power Broker for the first time, the following provides context around the downsides of development. Read the history of America lost by the urge to innovate upon what already exists. Like Zuckerberg paved over parts of the web and Musk works to pave over Twitter, artificial intelligence will pave over what we now see as the internet. Take this necessarily long excerpt from The Power Broker:
It was in those streets — at Fraunces Tavern at Pearl and Broad — that their leader, having just refused a crown, took farewell of his weeping officers, weeping himself as he did so and then walking silently to the barge waiting at Whitehall Ferry. And it was to those streets that George Washington returned six years later — in a barge rowed by thirteen ships’ captains clad in white uniforms — to step ashore at Murray’s Wharf at the foot of Wall Street as women threw flowers at him (he “read his history in a nation’s eyes,” wrote one) and be sworn in on the balcony of Federal Hall at the corner of Wall and Broad. And it was through those streets —the streets of the first capital of the new Republic — that there walked the three men — Hamilton, Jay and Madison — who together were “Publius,” author of the eighty-five great essays urging ratification of the controversial new Constitution. […]
Lafayette was only one of a hundred heroes for whom the old fort and Battery Park were the setting for the spectacles honoring them in triumph or in death. Troops were drawn up in the park by the thousands to greet Dewey after he defeated the Spaniards at Manila (the astrakhan busbies of cavalry hussars shook in the sea breeze), Pershing after he defeated the Germans in France, and TR after he returned from safari (conspicuous among the regiments out in full dress to greet the ex-President were a handful of men in khaki and campaign hats: the Rough Riders). Most of New York’s great triumphal processions began there; it was at the Battery that Wiley Post came ashore, and Admiral Byrd, and Gertrude Ederle, and Amelia Earhart, and Coste and Bellonte—and, of course, Lindbergh, slim, bareheaded Lindbergh—to be greeted by Grover Whalen and to ride in an open car between mounted policemen “the short, glorious mile” up a Broadway whose canyons were swirling with confetti. The fort’s cannon boomed at solemn one-minute intervals as the body of young Captain James Lawrence, who had earned immortality by crying “Don’t give up the ship!” as he lay dying on the deck of the Chesapeake, was carried ashore and as Washington’s riderless horse—and Hamilton’s and those of a score of other heroes of the Revolution—were led out from it up Broadway. In New York in which the old was ruthlessly demolished to make way for the new, the fort was pricelessly rich in ghosts of the city’s great past.
Moses’s urban designs were hailed as masterpieces of modernity, yet they echoed a philosophy that missed the nuances of individual lives, especially the marginalized. In the same vein, as we race towards integrating AI into every facet of our digital existence, we must pause and introspect. The billboards that flash AI’s prowess, the algorithms that curate our content, and the smart systems that predict our needs should be designed with humanity at their core.
As we have seen with Moses’s infrastructural legacies, physical or digital constructs built without comprehensive foresight can last for generations, often with unintended consequences. The underpasses of Moses’s design, which once excluded the marginalized from the beaches of Long Island, serve as a stark reminder that our creations, no matter how grand, can become monuments of discrimination.
In today’s digital age, AI’s unchecked dominance could similarly turn the internet, once a beacon of democratization, into a tool of inadvertent oppression. But unlike the concrete structures of the past, the malleability of AI gives us an advantage. With conscious efforts, we can ensure that AI’s evolution is anchored in ethics, inclusivity, and a deep understanding of the diverse tapestry of human experience.
The challenge ahead is formidable but not insurmountable. As stewards of this digital renaissance, our responsibility transcends beyond technological innovation. We must ensure that, unlike Moses’s urban landscapes, our digital spaces are crafted with an unyielding commitment to humanity, ensuring that every individual, irrespective of their background, can traverse these spaces with dignity, freedom, and a sense of belonging. Only then can we truly harness the transformative power of AI, building not just smarter systems but a more inclusive and harmonious digital world.
AI technology, alone, can’t be sole power broker. With more inputs and a greater understanding of long-term impact, we can insure that the internet’s greatest technology doesn’t become the lengthened shadow of a few men.
By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams