Friday, May 12, 2017

Waiting for Technological Unemployment

Technological unemployment was a long time coming. When Keynes used the term, he was not speculating about the future: He saw machine replacing humans in his own time. And, before him too, other acute observers saw this, and called it by other names, like 'Industrial Revolution'. And, yet, it may not have been anything like what we see now - automation of an unprecedented scale encroaching upon what we thought was to remain the most human of functions, like writing, teaching or sentencing a felon. 

Yet, it is not the scale but the idea which we should attend to. As it is, technological unemployment is being presented as 'common sense', an inevitability of progression of technologies and its tendency to replace human work. It is a secular force, we believe, that comes about by itself, in a self-directed manner.  We believe that Microsoft Word was a piece of our destiny - it was bound to appear as the Typing Pools became too busy - and as they say, rest is history.

However, technologies are directed and prioritised upon, a thing we know when we enter into a conversation about things that save lives. We know there is never enough money to develop a cure for Ebola, because the disease kills poor Africans, and yet we can easily find money to make space travel safe and comfortable enough for tourism: Technologies are directed by human priorities and human incentives. 

And, while we are quite happy with this theory and built a sophisticated and successful discipline solely focused on studying incentives - that's what economists do, by the way - we are never comfortable fully elaborating what the incentives really are in developing Robot Waiters and Automated Cars. Do they save lives? Do they make the environment better? Do they make dining experience more pleasurable or riding more social? Or safer? Not really. These do little but increase the rate of profit, which is a fine enough incentive, but they don't arise autonomously from the technologies themselves or consensually from the society at large. So, technological unemployment is not an automatic phenomena, it is being willed upon.

What's more is that The conversation about the inevitability of technological progress obscures not just its motive, but its method too. The capital flowing into the creation of Labour saving technologies stems from, more substantially than not, the low-tax regimes that the middle classes love to vote for. The governments thus installed, beholden to special interests because elections are expensive affairs, lower taxes because 'investments create jobs', and frees up surpluses to be invested in labour-saving technologies. The other side of the same process is indeed the defunding of public services, that eliminate the public domain research and any possible competition to proprietary technologies, and at the same time, create 'markets' for basic services so that the rest of the people have no option but to be indebted forever to keep the demand going. 

So, in a way, what we call technological progress isn't about going forward, but about going back to the ages before the democratic revolutions, where a few lorded over the many. And, yet such claims are blithely made: When Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, calls the Labour Agenda to renationalise Railways and reinvest in National Health Service a plan to take Britain to 1970s, she is plainly unaware that her own obsession with coming out of European Union can also be interpreted similarly; and considering that one of her key election pledges is to make fox-hunting legal again, she is yearning to go back to a more distant past. Like Turkeys voting for Christmas, middle classes everywhere vote for technological progress, blissfully ignorant of the consequence when more investment in made in making a machine learn than Children study.

However, this may sound pessimistic. Haven't technologies always created new opportunities, the liberal-minded journals like The Economist asks. However, carefully read, this is the same fallacy at the core: Technologies operating, developing, progressing, creating opportunities by themselves. In the breathtaking vision of The Economist, for example, people did nothing: All those poor people who stormed Bastille and inflicted the fear of God in Europe's ruling classes, all those revolutionaries and assassins who roamed the streets once and who found their mecca in the storming of the Winter Palace a century ago and changed politics forever, didn't mean a thing in this vision: It was just technologies moving forward, one inevitable step after another.

But consider the utopia that today's technology evangelists have. The World Economic Forum sums it up really well: I own nothing, have no privacy and having the best time of my life! So, in a way, the happy proletarian living in a complete surveillance state it will be. And, in this world, mass education would be unnecessary and health care is only needed for maintaining productivity: The future, as I said earlier, looks very much like the past. Going back, rather than going forward, is what we really collectively desire.

Someone warned that if this continues, people will rise before machines do. That is a really dim possibility, as this would require not just taking up arms, but, before that, forming a collective, which has been disbanded: Before technological unemployment hits us, we have been endowed with technological loneliness. The amplification of our demands have made us unique in the world, the glorification of selfishness has alienated us even from our families and mechanisation and personalisation of entertainment has ensured that we attend the circus of one, all the time. 

So, we wait not the people or the machines to rise, but for a fall. As we fast forward to the past, the underclasses may emerge, and maintaining economic participation becomes the challenge of the state. One would believe that the history will repeat itself, if not in Bastille but perhaps in Batangas this time around, but we should be weary about the repeat of history: Marx may have got a lot of things wrong, but he was right about repetition of history, as a farce.







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