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The Shiny Hammer

Despite what the subject material of many articles I’ve written may indicate, I am not a worshiper of technology. I don’t regard anything as untouchable subject material and I strive to always keep my mind open. In more recent times be it blockchain or artificial intelligence there seems to exist a sort of cult idealism that follows the progress of the field. It is a separate force from that of a founder or early adopter. The fact of the matter is those two groups would share many commonalities yet rarely converge in practice. One group understands the limitations of the subject matter. The other does not, or is too foolish to acknowledge such. This cultist behavior is one that sees the solution to every problem as solvable through the medium they have chosen.

I used to have an old professor in college. A man of rather tall stature, soft eyes, and a face showcasing the extent of his wisdom. Though he only taught mathematics I found he had some insight that even he may not have realized the true universality of far beyond the field of his teaching. One of his most frequent mannerisms was after teaching any equation then stating “Just because you have a new shiny hammer, doesn’t mean you should go use it to beat on everything”, much to classes’ amusement. There’s a universal truth to be found in such a simple saying however. One that echos through fields, trades, societies, and civilizations. A truth that is more oft rejected than it is unknown. That truth is this: there is no singular solution to anything, and using one solution on everything will end in disaster. If you go beating on everything with a hammer, sooner or later everything ends up broken.

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been the latest instance of something being sold to solve every problem it seems apt to start with that subject. Even more so as it really is the hardest subject to take on with this argument. Make no mistake on the following: AI is remarkable, and will only become more remarkable with time. The abilities of reason and basic utility of such AI as Large Language Models (LLMs) are awe inspiring. They will have impacts on many fields, and indeed the whole world in the coming years. However, just because we have a new shiny hammer does not mean we should go use it to beat on everything. For it’s many benefits and features AI is not some kind of golden ticket solution to every problem that has ever existed. Even with the advent in the coming years of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) it will still not be a solution to every problem. The cult forming rapidly around some kind of super intelligence wrought forth by the minds of man saving humanity from itself is childish delusion in the absolute best case. Even a technology as powerful as AI is not a solution for everything. People did not stop playing chess and watching tournaments when the technology beat the best man had to offer. In fact, chess play statistically has grown since then. People won’t watch AIs play against each other. They want the human imperfection and that’s why they watch and play. The rise of AI as an opponent for practicing Chess improved many people, but it failed to take over the field. Extrapolate that situation out farther into other fields. Even when AI can make full movies with text to video that are beautiful, people will still pay to watch their favorite actors and the industry will continue. Even when AI can perfectly execute in android bodies such things like ballet and figure skating they will fail to replace the humans who worked to get to such comparable skill levels. This applies to politics, managers, salesmen, bartenders, and the list goes on. While an incredible thing, AI is perhaps the biggest oversold shiny hammer of all time.

These singular solutions are not exclusive to technology. In fact I’d say of of the best examples in history is being written right now. That is one of governance, and specifically the idea of democracy. Going sparingly over the history, the concept of democracy was one most attributed to the Greeks. As I’m sure almost anyone in the western world would know the concept of democracy is the idea that by being a citizen of that country you have a right to represent yourself (via an equal vote) on matters of governance. There is much nuance and variation to this concept in the west however this is the basic premise. With the American nation rising from humble origins to the most prominent global superpower of the twentieth century it comes at no surprise that many attributed such a success to (among many other things) a democratic governance system. There’s nothing wrong with making such an assertion, and I would likely even argue in favor of that conclusion. However, where the idea became a problem is the concept that, because it worked in America, it would work everywhere. There are a great many more nations that function better under other ideologies. Case in point, here’s a short list of every American intervention to institute democracy that ended with a different government being formed before stability: Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. There are more, however I believe that sufficiently proves my point. A perhaps even better example of a wealthy and functional nation free of democracy would be Saudi Arabia. Ruled by an absolute monarchy, here are a few quick notes: they are the largest exporter of oil by GDP, one of the biggest players in their region politically and militarily, and are also one of the most stable in the region thanks to said government investing heavily into education and other quality of life improvements for citizens. This is only one example country. There are many more that currently exist with similar levels of success free of democracy, and countless more throughout history. Democracy was a shiny new hammer, and America erroneously tried to use it to beat on everything.

I’d say every advancement humanity has made was at one time or another the shiny hammer. From lightbulbs to corporations to political parties to the wheel itself at one time or another something was invented then immediately overused. In some of the most ancient of cases an idea is not even invented; only rediscovered such as governmental structure. The outcome is still the same. Even old hammers are dusted off and polished to shine once again, that they may be used to beat upon everything that presently does and doesn’t function. I’d almost say it is in human nature to attempt pattern recognition on things. When given a tool that fixes a few problems, the mind endeavors to extrapolate that solution to ends it never reasonably could reach. Once aware of this predisposition one is empowered to avoid it as you now are. While the new and the old can solve many problems, use caution when anything is sold as a cure all. There are many more snake oil salesmen then geniuses in this world. At the end of the day you’ll find it all to have been just a shiny new hammer.