What to do about AI, and The Great Asymmetry

Tim O’Reilly’s compelling post on regulating AI, ‘To understand the risks posed by AI, follow the money‘ is a must-read. O’Reilly is one of my publishing role models, the founder of O’Reilly Media and a key figure in the early conceptualisation of open-source software. Among the hundred articles you’ll see on AI today, his credibility should jump the queue.

A key takeaway is that, in trying to mitigate the potential harms of AI, rather than focusing on the technology itself and what it might be capable of, we should focus on sensible regulation. And, more importantly, that that regulation is feasible and has good precedents. We really can influence what people – and people as corporate decision-makers – are able or likely to do with their technology:

So perhaps it is time to turn our regulatory gaze away from attempting to predict the specific risks that might arise as specific technologies develop. After all, even Einstein couldn’t do that.

Instead, we should try to recalibrate the economic incentives underpinning today’s innovations, away from risky uses of AI technology and towards open, accountable, AI algorithms that support and disperse value equitably.

This emphasis on what people do with technology, rather than on the technology itself, reminded me of Stephen J. Gould’s wonderful essay, ‘The Great Asymmetry‘. In describing the great asymmetry, Gould explains:

We can only reach our pinnacles by laborious steps, but destruction can occur in a minute fraction of the building time, and can often be truly catastrophic. […] We perform 10,000 acts of small and unrecorded kindness for each surpassingly rare, but sadly balancing, moment of cruelty.’

A crowd of thousands of people stand beneath an enormous, floating black sphere. The sky is dark and menacing. This image was created with AI.

Gould argues that we obsess too easily over whether a particular scientific development is helpful or harmful, and we should focus rather on the great asymmetry. What science does is exacerbate the great asymmetry, because science makes it easier for people to destroy: ‘our particular modern tragedy resides in the great asymmetry, and the consequential but unintended power of science to enhance its effect.’

Whether or not we’re working with AI, what matters is what our work does for the great asymmetry. I find it grimly motivating to know that the daily slog – let’s not sugarcoat it, it can be a slog – of building things properly, of being kind, and of telling stories that make people better, is the steady work of shoring up the right side of the great asymmetry.

Professional advice for book publishing

Book publishing can be overwhelming, especially if you’re new to it. There is so much to learn! There are so many options! So many pitfalls! You can lose so much time and money along the way.

Before you go any further, get independent, expert advice in a one-hour consultation with me. We’ll talk through your project in detail, and get you on the right track to achieve your aims.

I’ve been working with authors and publishers for over 25 years. I run Electric Book Works, which manages world-class publishing projects for organizations. My private, one-on-one consultations are something different: they are for people who can’t afford to hire a studio like mine, but do need some expert advice.

Note: I don’t provide input on your story or your content. I can refer you to reviewers and coaches for that, if you need it. We’ll focus on how you’re going to turn your idea into a beautiful book that others can read.

A one-hour consultation over Zoom costs $60 (USD). To make a booking, email book@arthurattwell.com.

Is strategic publishing the industry’s fastest growing sector?

Over at Electric Book Works, we’ve been working on a range of fascinating publishing projects, and they all have something in common: they are great examples of strategic publishing.

I’ve been speaking and writing a lot about strategic publishing recently. In short, it is publishing for strategic reasons, as opposed to commercial reasons. And I reckon it’s the fastest-growing sector in the book-making industry.

If you’re a publishing company like Pearson or Penguin, publishing is your business, and you measure success in book sales. You’re publishing for commercial reasons, not strategic ones.

On the other hand, if you’re a non-profit like CORE Economics, you measure success in other ways, like the number of universities adopting your textbooks. And publishing those textbooks is part of your strategy for changing how economics is taught, and changing the way that economists think.

Why is it useful to distinguish between strategic and commercial publishing?

Firstly, it’s useful to put a name to this valuable strategic tool. That way, organisations can more easily add it to their discussions and plans.

Secondly, for us book-makers, strategic publishing has very different dynamics to commercial publishing. And we must be careful not to apply the tools and trappings of commercial publishing to it. For example, the way we cost projects, and measure return on investment, is very different. Publishing to the open web also becomes a much higher priority, which changes the tools and skills we want on a project.

Strategic publishing has always existed, usually as an innovative exception to the commercial-publishing norm. As publishing costs drop, service providers learn new skills, and the web becomes more central to all our lives, I expect that we’ll see it grow into a distinct, recognised field within publishing. In publishing-studies departments, for example, we’ll see teachers and researchers exploring its particular dynamics.

I’ve written more on strategic publishing on the Electric Book Works site:

On Wednesdays in November (and perhaps beyond) I’ll be hosting weekly Conversations in Strategic Publishing: a casual Zoom call for anyone interested in this field. Get the details here.