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.