High-skill robots, low-skill workers

Some notes on what I think I understand about technology and inequality.

Let’s start with an obvious big question: is technology destroying jobs faster than they can be replaced? On the long term the evidence isn’t strong. Humans always appear to invent new things to do. There is no reason this time around should be any different.

But in the short term technology has contributed to an evaporation of mid-skilled jobs. Parts of these jobs are automated entirely, parts can be done by fewer people because of higher productivity gained from tech.

While productivity continues to grow, jobs are lagging behind. The year 2000 appears to have been a turning point. “Something” happened around that time. But no-one knows exactly what.

My hunch is that we’ve seen an emergence of a new class of pseudo-monopolies. Oligopolies. And this is compounded by a ‘winner takes all’ dynamic that technology seems to produce.

Others have pointed to globalisation but although this might be a contributing factor, the evidence does not support the idea that it is the major cause.

So what are we left with?

Historically, looking at previous technological upsets, it appears education makes a big difference. People negatively affected by technological progress should have access to good education so that they have options. In the US the access to high quality education is not equally divided.

Apparently family income is associated with educational achievement. So if your family is rich, you are more likely to become a high skilled individual. And high skilled individuals are privileged by the tech economy.

And if Piketty’s is right, we are approaching a reality in which money made from wealth rises faster than wages. So there is a feedback loop in place which only exacerbates the situation.

One more bullet: If you think trickle-down economics, increasing the size of the pie will help, you might be mistaken. It appears social mobility is helped more by decreasing inequality in the distribution of income growth.

So some preliminary conclusions: a progressive tax on wealth won’t solve the issue. The education system will require reform, too.

I think this is the central irony of the whole situation: we are working hard to teach machines how to learn. But we are neglecting to improve how people learn.

“This game is rigged, man.”

I am going to try my hand at the occasional blogging again. And I have decided to do this not at my tumblr, but back here. It was fine to post things to Tumblr occasionally, but I have started to dislike not having these notes on my own server. And perhaps more importantly, I started to get really annoyed by Tumblr’s lack of a functioning search. So, I’ve imported all the things I posted to Tumblr over the past few years into this blog, and we’ll continue where we left off.

In this first post of the new year, some things related to inequality under late capitalism. To begin with a bit of video from Adam Curtis for Charlie Brooker’s enjoyable end-of-the-year review Wipe 2014.

I was pointed to this by Hans de Zwart and on Twitter I responded that the idea of non-linearity reminds me of the ideas on warfare developed by John Boyd, which I am currently knee-deep in. And Boyd’s ideas of winning by decreasing mismatches between your model of external reality and reality itself while increasing those mismatches for your opponent in turn connects with James C. Scott’s concept of legibility.

Meanhwile, James Bridle has been charting technological infrastructures of control for The Nor, a project commissioned by the Hayward Gallery. The essays James has written on his charting of surveillance cameras, radar and high-frequency trading infrastructure are hugely enjoyable reads because James has gone out there and done the legwork. This isn’t idle theorising, these are ideas grounded in lived experience of today’s reality on the ground. While recounting his experiences tracing these technological infrastructures, James makes many interesting connections to literature, as well as non-obvious observations about how these technologies relate to today’s social injustices. Long story short: you should go and read the lot of them.

Inequality is engineered, and deliberate. It is an arbitraging of social conditions, a perpetuation of the existing situation by those who seek to profit from its differences.

Low Latency, James Bridle

The reason I am blogging these things is that I continue to be interested in new forms of resistance against the non-linear warfare described by Curtis and Bridle’s technologies of control. The first step is to become aware of these strategies, but to return to Boyd, the question then is how to operate in such a way that you can survive on your own terms, by using tempo and agility and basically a better understanding of reality.

To close things off, a few recent things I read which are all about capitalism, and its instrumentalisation of everyday life. First off, Andres O’Hehir on the perceived death of adulthood, a phenomenon which I sort of recognise, and which he aptly describes not as some kind of conscious lifestyle choice or megatrend, but as a thing emerging from the demands put on us by the market and the cultural industry.

The suit-wearing, gin-drinking 35-year-old Organization Man of 1964 and the couch-bound, action-figure-collecting 35-year-old fanboy of 2014 are dialectical mirror images of each other, economic archetypes called forth by their respective eras.

The “death of adulthood” is really just capitalism at work, Andrew O’Hehir

It’s curious to think that “becoming an adult” is something the market does not want you to do.

And finally, two pieces on the sharing economy. One, by Avi Asher-Schapiro, clearly describing how Uber’s blueprint makes the livelihood of workers even more precarious, while at the same time forcing them to tell their customers they love their jobs. The other, by the infamous Evgeny Morozov, rightly points out the sharing economy alleviates some of the pains of living under late capitalism, while doing nothing to solve the root causes of those ails.

But under the guise of innovation and progress, companies are stripping away worker protections, pushing down wages, and flouting government regulations. At its core, the sharing economy is a scheme to shift risk from companies to workers, discourage labor organizing, and ensure that capitalists can reap huge profits with low fixed costs.

There’s nothing innovative or new about this business model. Uber is just capitalism, in its most naked form.

Against Sharing, Avi Asher-Schapiro

There’s no denying that the sharing economy can – and probably does – make the consequences of the current financial crisis more bearable. However, in tackling the consequences, it does nothing to address the causes. It’s true that, thanks to advances in the information technology, some of us can finally get by with less – chiefly, by relying on more effective distribution of existing resources. But there’s nothing to celebrate here: it’s like handing everybody earplugs to deal with intolerable street noise instead of doing something about the noise itself.

Don’t believe the hype, the ‘sharing economy’ masks a failing economy, Evgeny Morozov

I blog these things as a reminder to myself of some of the arguments against the current vogue of digitally mediated service delivery platforms. They can be so seductive and many clients and peers seem blinded by their promises. I am interested in salvaging the good bits of these services, they are after all potentially empowering, while coming up with solutions to the injustices they perpetrate and enlarge.