A brave new world?

Submitted by AWL on 23 June, 2015 - 5:22 Author: John Cunningham

According to the authors we are entering a “second machine age”.

The first came with the invention and development of the steam engine by James Watt and others in 1775 and now “Computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power — the ability to use our brains to understand and shape our environments — what the steam engine did for muscle power. They’re allowing us to blow past previous limitations and taking us into new territory.”

Previously it was thought that computers, despite their prodigious capabilities, were limited at certain tasks particularly those which require flexibility such as human language communication, playing chess or driving a motor vehicle. Society is now near the point where this will drastically change.

Of particularly pressing concern is the effect of the second machine age on jobs. Technological innovations have always affected jobs, this is nothing new. Automatic threshing machines when introduced in the USA in the mid-19th century reduced the agricultural workforce by 30% but America was expanding and the unemployed could be “soaked up” by other sectors of the economy. In today’s world prospects, particularly for semi-skilled and unskilled workers, appear grim although the authors take a breezily optimistic view of what is likely to happen. Here we arrive at the point where this interesting, fascinating — and annoying — book reveals its true colours.

Despite sounding some warnings about what the future may hold the authors’ gung-ho, “can-do” attitude tends to overwhelm whatever critical edge their writing has. In fact their Ivy League prepiness (both teach at MIT) soon becomes irritating, particularly when coupled to their American-centrism. Their cavalier endorsement of entrepreneurship, capitalism and their worship of technology leads them to wax lyrical about a new application which has re-designed a beer bottle, only to mention in passing highly beneficial developments such as eye and cancer treatments.

While entrepreneurship exists and it would be stupid to ignore this, the main criterion for assessing its products seems to be how much money they have made, not what benefits it has brought to society. Adulatory references to millionaires, billionaires and hedge fund investors therefore abound. Apart from the ideological tunnel vision displayed this ignores the way many of the developments trumpeted by Brynjolfson and McAfee and their idols in Silicon Valley are often not the products of geeky whizz-kid enterprise in sub-urban garages. To look further at this we need to go back to 1957.

The Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik and the Americans suddenly realised they were behind in the space race. In response the government established the Defense Advanced Research project Agency (DARPA). One activity of DARPA was to fund and establish computer science departments in various US universities and this led directly to the development of the computer chip at the University of California. Referring specifically to the Apple company (Owen Jones made a similar point in a Guardian article), Marian Mazucatto remarks in her book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public Vs Private Sector Myths, that,

[...] what remains relatively unknown to the average consumer is that the core technologies embedded in Apple’s innovative products are in fact the result of decades of federal support for innovation [...] nearly every state of the art technology found in the iPod, iPhone and iPad is an overlooked and ignored achievement of the research efforts and funding support of the government and the military.

So, is Steve Jobs (deceased CEO of Apple) really the brilliant innovator he is often made out to be? Or, did he develop already existing technology and make a few cute designs to put them in? In fact, compared to its rivals, Apple fares poorly in the research field. It ranks in the bottom three of 13 in terms of the proportion of revenue allocated to research and development.

Although the authors mention DARPA (in connection with the driverless car) they omit to mention anything else about it or about other government agencies in the USA: the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), the Orphan Drug Act and the Nanotechnology Initiative — all of which have driven and initiated research which the private sector has then profited from. All the more ironic then that the authors start one section of their book with the heading “Please, no more Politburos” where they argue against any role for the state!

The authors repeat, on a number of occasions that society is driven first and foremost by technology. Technology is central to our life and it is no peripheral matter that James Watt (and others) changed the world we live in. However, social, cultural and economic factors are also important and usually determine the technology — when, how it is introduced, for whom or whether it is simply abandoned or delayed.

Nor do the authors mention how technology is used for social control. In his book Seventeen Contradictions and the end of Capitalism, David Harvey mentions how, “A Second Empire French industrialist renowned for his innovations in the machine tool industry openly proclaimed that his three goals were increasing precision in the labour process, increasing productivity and disempowering the worker” (emphasis added). Further, the steam engine was not invented by James Watt; 58 years earlier Denis Papin of Marburg University designed and built a steam engine for a boat which he then sailed down the local river. The authorities, afraid of the reaction of riverside employers and workers, destroyed his invention and Papin spent the rest of his life as an exiled pauper in England. Less dramatically, the technology for synchronised sound in the film exhibition industry existed long before its introduction as the (incorrectly labelled) “talkie”. The economic environment and the lack of a suitable cinematic infrastructure prevented this until Warner Brothers took a gamble on it to revive their flagging fortunes in 1929.

Technology does not and should not dictate to us how we live our lives. How and when technology is used is a mix of social, economic and, ultimately, political decisions. Few would advocate a modern-day version of Luddism (machine-breaking) and the primary criterion must be — does a particular technological innovation benefit humankind? Clearly, the consequences of the second machine age for employment are central. Estimates vary but millions of jobs are bound to disappear, particularly as, globally, the South catches up with the North. The authors appear breezily confident that those made redundant will find some kind of work elsewhere by some process of market adjustment.

Given the numbers involved this seems hopelessly unrealistic and they are, unsurprisingly, thin on detail. They even fail to ask such obvious questions as who, if millions no longer have any work (or precarious work at best), will buy the products produced by the new technology? By contrast trade unionists and socialists should be developing ideas about work-sharing schemes and a drastic reduction in working hours. Andre Gorz, the French writer who has much of interest to say about “post-industrial society”, suggested that a thousand hour year is perfectly feasible and could be realised within a comparatively short period of time.

Personally, I don’t want a “talking fridge” which will tell me when I’m running out of butter. I already have two apps for this — they’re called eyes (blind people may however benefit from this technology). Nor am I bothered about the shape of my beer bottle, as long as the contents meet my exacting standards. Along with, I’m sure, the readers of Solidarity I want to see a society where technology neither enslaves humanity, nor reduces us to the level of idiots mindlessly consuming the latest gadget or app. A world where free time is expanded and the hours necessary for tedious and soul-destroying work are drastically reduced.

For this to happen technology needs to be shaped to use-value and social need, not left to the whims of Silicon Valley whizz-kids, billionaires, hedge funders and their MIT cheerleaders.

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