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Watch the boulder

from Peter Radford

There’s a bold rolling down the hill.

We are watching it carefully. It is accelerating. It is enormous. It will mow us down. Lives will be lost. Or at least livelihoods will be lost. People will suffer. The boulder is terrifying.

But, hey, let’s keep watching.

That’s about the attitude of the people who keep on talking about the imminent tsunami of automation, AI, and other so-called disruptive technologies. Let’s keep watching because it’s bad — really, really, bad.

The good folks at Axios distribute a regular synopsis of all the hyperbole surrounding the future of work and today’s edition caught my eye. Buried deep in the summary is a short item headed: “A long disruption is ahead, with low-paying jobs“.

The contents are grim reading.

Here’s a taste:

“Their big picture: There may be a long, deep economic disruption lasting decades and taking millions of jobs. The economy will eventually come out of it. But wages for most jobs may be too low to sustain a middle-class lifestyle.

Important background: In the 19th century, it took about six decades for U.S. wages to recover after the first industrial age automation of the 1810s. And the agriculture-to-industrial shift of the 20th century lasted four decades.”

This is hardly something to ignore. 

And the picture being painted is becoming commonplace amongst those who profess to have insight into the likely outcome of the storm moving in from Silicon Valley.

The banality of the analysis that gets us to this sort of commentary is beginning to annoy me. I think what irks me most is the matter-of-fact manner in which the apocalypse is announced. It’s as if we have no choice. It’s as if the democratic process was entirely incidental to the inevitability of capitalist development.

Perhaps I ought not get so vexed. After all the technocrats delivering their doom laden prognostications are trying to be informative. In this case a person called Karen Harris, who is something to do with what the Bain consulting firm calls its ‘Macro trends Group’, tells us that the “coming disruption may be the most disruptive to the work force in a hundred years”. In her opinion this means the displacement of about 2.5 million jobs a year, which is twice the amount of chaos caused by the last great shift, which was from agriculture to industry, and which rocked America to its core.

Let me register my objection to the word “disruption”. Chaos is chaos. The displacement of workers by machinery is just that. Disruption is an anodyne substitute for the reality and is designed to allow the disruptors to avoid facing up to the human consequences of their actions. Disruption sounds vaguely progressive because we all know change is upsetting but usually comes with benefits. And those benefits, as the right wing economists constantly lecture us, have accumulated into lashings of prosperity for even the lowest of workers. How many times are we told that even the worst paid contemporary employee is swimming in a sea of riches that the kings of yore could only dream of?

This is supposed to make us all feel good. It is supposed to stiffen our spines against evils of collective angst about poverty. The right wingers hector us with sermons about the current cornucopia, and that it is all a result of the magic of markets and the power of disruption. To heck, they say, with deploying the government in aid of those affected. Let them get educated. That’s the future of work. Getting educated.

Except, naturally, they haven’t yet explained how a midlife worker writhing under the benefits of disruptive displacement would actually afford to get educated. Presumably the market magic will figure that out.

Possibly.

Sometime.

Disruption has seeped so deeply into the lexicon of the libertarian technology freaks that they throw it about happily. They wear it as a badge. They seek to throw people out of work in the name of disruption. Why? Because the business school and right wing economic elite have declared it a good thing. The management consultants are giddy over disruption. Entire sub-industries have emerged to measure, account for, and glorify disruption. The only thing missing, to my limited knowledge, is a futures market in disruption. Can it be far off?

That boulder rumbling down towards us is a hugely good thing.

Seriously.

Don’t be a Luddite and resist. Embrace the heady air of disruption instead.

Our Karen Harris of Bain drones on:

We can stipulate that given human history and adaptability, we can have a phenomenal future, but transitions are always challenging. Given where we are starting today, given inequality, changes in geopolitics, it’s hard to see a turbulent-free transition to this brighter future.” 

Stipulate?

Hang on. This means that the good folk at Bain are telling us that everything’s going to be just dandy. They are certain. How come? Because it was in the past. The future, you see, is a replica of the past when it suits the preferred narrative. Apparently we aren’t disrupting that. Prior epochal changes settled down eventually. So this will too. There will be, apparently, a “phenomenal future”.

That’s if you didn’t get flattened by the boulder.

And if you did? Well, that’s your fault for not getting an education. Smarten up is the message. Smarten up. Or get crushed.

The key in this choice is that you have no choice. What the disruptors desperately want to avoid is that we realize we do have a choice. There’s this thing called democracy. And we can use it to fight back.

For starters we should slap a great big tax on disruptive technologies to finance mass education.

Listen to the howls of opposition. No! A tax would penalize progress. It would stop civilization in its tracks. Heck it might even slow down the down-pouring of all that disruptive technology.

You know, like the Uber cars that are choking our cities, ruining public transportation, and raising pollution. Or the Facebook advertising frenzy based on the insinuation of technologic oversight of our every move.

You know. That kind of disruptive progress.

Mind the boulder!

Yes, I mind the boulder.

  1. Helge Nome
    April 6, 2018 at 6:38 am

    I would suggest that it takes about as many people today as it did in the days of Henry Ford to bring a new car to market.
    (The contemporary car is, of course, a very different animal from Henry’s creation)

    I would also suggest that, historically, there is little correlation between the advance of technology and unemployment.

    There is, however a strong correlation between economic and financial malfunction and unemployment.

  2. Craig
    April 6, 2018 at 6:49 am

    Yes, we should embrace disruptive forces like innovation, AI and especially the new paradigm of Monetary Gifting….because our habituation to employment as the only or primary means of purpose is so incredibly limiting, it enables the continuance of the failed experiment of homo economicus and blocks our evolution toward our actual species designation of homo sapiens sapiens, i.e. wise and aware man.

  3. April 6, 2018 at 11:03 am

    What Peter overlooks is that there is bad as well as good technology, and likewise uses of it. Bombs are bad and disruptive, but though communications technology is good, the use of it to distribute bombs and lies is bad. If “for starters we should slap a great big tax on disruptive technologies to finance mass education” we should slap a far greater fine on disruptive users and miseducators. Like the supersonic Concorde aeroplane, some things are worth doing as a form of art, but if found to be disruptive can cease to be so if we stop using them.

    In my family “a midlife worker writhing under the benefits of disruptive displacement” is getting too close for comfort. So much for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But was the New Industrial State working anyway? In Karen Bain’s opinion we are talking about “displacement of about 2.5 million jobs a year, which is twice the amount of chaos caused by the last great shift, which was from agriculture to industry, and which rocked America to its core.” So what was that last great shift about? Hugh Kenner’s “Paradox in Chesterton” has reminded me that:

    “The dignity of man is at the root of Chesterton’s sociology and so of his multifarious polemic against the Servile State which would maintain the poor secure in factories. This he contrasts with the state of divided property which would restore to each small owner the essential dignity of a servant of God who controls in his own right a portion of the work of God, . … Chesterton sees ‘property as a natural right of men and not a legal privilege of lucky men; economics as the servant of ethics, the servant of the servant of God”.

    So can factories be good when servility is bad and self-control good? The paradox was answered in the Mondragon enterprise by investment where the need rather than the money was, good work rather than financial insecurity ensuring voluntary cooperation. I can see a similar attitude in gift-aided charities and preservation societies all around me, but not in the pursuit of monetary revenue and profits.

    • April 7, 2018 at 11:35 am

      “[S]ome things are worth doing as a form of art, but if found to be disruptive can cease to be so if we stop using them”.

      Reading Peter again, I apologise for not applauding the point of his satire:

      “The banality of the analysis that gets us to this [Bain] commentary is beginning to annoy me. I think what irks me most is the matter-of-fact manner in which the apocalypse is announced. It’s as if we have no choice. It’s as if the democratic process was entirely incidental to the inevitability of capitalist development.”

      So what is a “democratic process”? Has party politics proved to be disruptive? Perhaps we need to stop using it and revert to local people being represented by local people known to be considerate, honest, wise, socially committed and familiar with both local and global issues. [Is that what we should be aiming at when training budding politicians]?

      • Prof James Beckman, Germany
        April 7, 2018 at 1:46 pm

        Hi, Dave, we have traveled similar intellectual paths, I expect. I tried to accept econ theory, since the topic is really important. I returned over & over to the anthropological path of living with your data, at least to do qualitative investigations. Then came the systems approach, actually I believe developed operationally during WWII. Norbert Wiener, in math/logic, put together cybernetic thinking, or at least my initial approach.
        But economists do inanimate models & love national level statistics which really measure little we find out. A home is hardly just a consumable, but rather an investment & means of offering tangible security for further borrowing. What we export is hardly just a taking away from domestic production because via the currency exchange mechanism it returns what the seller believes is of greater value for consumption, investment or simple saving (cash behind the stove). Etc. What is the income of the person who cares for others, the latter having to be cared for at cost to state or family. What is the value of production which rots in the fields or is discounted at retail every three months. The list is endless of how we don’t measure accurately critical variables at a given moment & then allow them to alter value over short periods of time. Perhaps most confusing is the value of services we produce ourselves in asset maintenance, like the caregiver does, OR unreported income.
        All of the above & more can be dealt with–it just takes more sophistication & time than
        economists are willing to give it. The academic journals seem not interested in a more complete & necessarily complex rendering of what lots of economists know to be the path.
        Unlike revelations of false data seen in alleged research findings in the psychological sciences, economists do a lot of correlation analysis on poorly defined concepts, it seems to me. However, like that show business icon, Donald Trump, on with the show….

    • Ctesias62
      April 8, 2018 at 10:43 pm

      Whilst not denigrating Concorde as a work of art (diplomatic gesture to france), in a typically british fashion it was preffered to the competing Black Knight Rocket project. The basis of this was that supersonic travel was going to be the future, as opposed to an (already proven) reliable launch system for satellites.

  4. Prof James Beckman, Germany
    April 7, 2018 at 10:37 am

    Hi, Peter, I was raised in Silicon Valley & have lived in Denmark/Germany since 2002. From my view, the change comes from tech (mostly US & China), from human displacement (all those refugees who are piling in on us–thousands in my small city east of Frankfurt), & the threat of more violence from Russia & certain Middle Eastern nations.
    My ancestors came from four European nations in the 1880’s & 1890’s. In the 1930’s dust-bowl Americans went west to California. So where are these unhappy Brits & Americans headed?
    Like my Hispanic friends in California, my ancestors all found new ways of life–mostly through education. How many Brits or Americans are upgrading their skillsets? Here in automotive Southern Germany I can offer hundreds of jobs through my friends to engineers, or engineers with business training (Master’s level). We have to educate Indian & Chinese engineers (Bachelor’s level) a bit more to fill vacancies.
    Start-ups are a piece of cake in the US if you do tech, work long hours & at the beginning take little income. This is immigrant life also at a lower educational level, & work at a con- struction site or restaurant.
    So long term unemployment comes when people don’t act, according to my experience.

    • April 7, 2018 at 12:21 pm

      What a darned good response to Peter’s political arguments! Having been trained as an experimental engineer, I am very sympathetic to this; indeed I have argued that the concepts learned in communication, control and computing engineering are necessary for the understanding of economic systems. Let me extend that to the organisation of political representation, and to reformation of basic education to train and exercise all parts of the brain instead of just its left side, i.e. moral/emotional, evaluative/sensory and artistic/motor skills as well as audio-symbolic/linguistic manipulation.

      My one quibble here is that being able “to mend the bus of commercial mass production as well as drive it” is good only if mass production is good, and right now we seem to be doing more than the planet’s ecology can take.

    • April 8, 2018 at 4:46 am

      So long term unemployment comes when people don’t act, according to my experience. No, always and everywhere unemployment is a political decision to force people to be unemployed. This benefits nobody whatsoever in any reasonable sense of “benefit”. What it does do is enforce and maintain the power of the current haves over the have-nots. That is the only reason for unemployment. If one’s job is lost to a machine, a sane society would guarantee a job for that person, for everyone. Maybe not as good a job, but a decent job. Automation is just a smokescreen, an excuse, a means for class war.

      Sure, the more active, more edumucated people will get the jobs. So what? If you throw 90 bones to 100 dogs, the meanest, strongest and hungriest dogs will get them. But they’ll only get 90 bones. It is a lot more complicated than that of course. (Modern finance can be a bone-sharing mechanism sometimes.) But what is always ignored is the simplest and easiest and most obvious thing – you can’t get a job that doesn’t exist. In depressions, it hardly matters how smart or active you are – the primary factor is luck and being a “have” already.

      • Prof James Beckman, Germany
        April 8, 2018 at 8:55 am

        Hi, Calgacus. A lot of meat on the bones you throw into our discussion. Of course, people need help, so when YOUR ancestors came to America (if you are American) most likely they went to countrymen, or even people from their own town or extended family. There was little public assistance until the 1930’s when Roosevelt started public employment–not payments.
        The big discussion between Keynesians & Friedmanites (to pick a label) was in part about public expenditures to include work projects & later unemployment insurance/public welfare. The latter group conveniently spoke about the “magic” of the market to (vaguely) deal with whether people needed help down cycle or not. Thus, we have uninformed comments about only “lazy” people not finding work. No sense of the reality of job skills deficiency, insufficient travel/living assets or mental/physical health problems.
        Born in MId-West & living since childhood in California, I have experienced the past 16 years working out of Europe. There, of course, resources are far more plentiful at the economic bottom. Notice, however, that EU-wide unemployment has long been about 10%.
        The US may not have been until recently not much better, as so many people of employment age have just dropped out of the workforce by not registering for work or showing employment. There are lots of issues in other words in the complex matter of earning a living. Good luck to you, my friend.

  5. April 8, 2018 at 1:13 pm

    Peter, I agree in whole with your arguments. World War II lead to the death of 85,000,000 people, nearly 70% of them civilians. With another 60 million displaced due to the war. This is a huge price to pay to rid the world (we thought) of fascism. Yet this “disruption” lead to many technological, social, medical, and governmental changes, many of them beneficial. It seems unlikely to me, however, that most of those killed or displaced would have voted for the war if a less painful but effective way to get rid of fascists was available. Such as honest and open elections, citizen recalls and referendums, or just the assignation of political and military leaders who wanted war for nationalist or personal reasons. History is indeed a process, but it is not a process with an inevitable result. As conservatives like to say, “people don’t make history, history makes people.” But this is just half the process of history. People always have the potential to “make” history by the choices they make and the actions they take, particularly collectively. History is certainly interactive. The examples Ms. Harris provides to support her conclusions could have come out differently. The earliest industrialization of the US (1800-1840) displaced so many workers from farms and depressed salaries because many of the owners of the textile mills benefited from a large pool of potential workers competing for jobs. This made the transition slow and painful. This might not have been the case if government or even some of the large mill owners (e.g., Boston Associates) had intervened to regulate mill owners and protect worker welfare. In other words, while it’s true that some transitions, like those following WWII may be difficult or impossible to control, others are not. For example, the transition from industrial to financial capitalism in the US during the 1950s to 1980s moved forward even though the regulators and other government members, as well as many business persons knew clearly the multiple risks involved. Sometimes those who benefit from disruption carry the day, even with strong opposition. In most instances in the 20th century the beneficiaries of disruption have won with just propaganda and bribing members of government. Now we have the additional disruption of Trump in office. On the disruption that AI and robotics may represent, two questions to ponder. One, what benefits are claimed for AI and robotics and who claims these benefits are real? Second, what is the most useful response to these claims by those who oppose them?

    • Prof James Beckman, Germany
      April 8, 2018 at 2:26 pm

      Hi, Peter & Ken, isn’t the problem that we don’t know HOW to approach the issues so that most people are benefited. Governments or super wealthy people don’t normally act for the public benefit. Notice how that very strange guy, DT, lied & lucked his way into the White House, and then began to hurt the very people (as well as the majority of the rest of us) with his tax program & attempt to gut Obama care. Now with his beefed up military & bellicose attitude he can greatly hurt most people on the earth either in military or trade wars. Living here in Europe, this California guy sees how less well-off locals feel threatened by the refugees & so we have another possible source of violence, don’t we?

      • April 9, 2018 at 9:19 am

        Prof James Beckman, Germany, if not hurting people were a sign of serving the public good, then no public good would ever be served. Public good is like most language. It is malleable. It can be used to serve many ends and many different types of societies. In the words of Spock, “The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few,” or the one. Is this public good? Or is pubic good about creating a fair and equitable society? So, the first things we need to discuss are whether we want to focus on serving the public good. And, if so, what that is in terms of specific decisions and actions.

      • Prof James Beckman, Germany
        April 9, 2018 at 10:06 am

        Ken, good questions. In my 16 years living as an expat in Denmark & Germany, it is obvious that here they value less violence, more free health care/education & a higher publicly supported income level. They offer lots of careers for full-time employment to the qualified, mostly by education & knowledge of local culture/language. But lots of people stumble, even among educated Germans & Danes, so they fall towards that safety net.
        I think we have to be specific about our standards. Recall that recent financial & tech innovations came mostly from America, in part based on government expenditures on research during & after WWII, as well as its super-talented/highly motivated immigrants. I believe that non-European minorities are more roughly treated here due to the difficulty of gaining the skills needed to proceed. Now we see the first all-black blockbuster movie, taking in over a billion dollars by now. We have black billionaires like Michael Jordan & Opray Winfrey.

      • April 9, 2018 at 11:39 am

        Prof James Beckman, Germany, first is what you describe a “safety net” or an impediment to human freedom and creativity. The latter is the answer of most conservatives (not those who call themselves conservatives in the US Congress, who are not conservatives). Why is technical innovation a public good, if it is? Same for immigration. Inviting aliens into your land has sometimes not been viewed as public good. Spartans killed incoming aliens almost on site. And Sparta was one of the world’s first democracies. And why should we share our resources or our respect with aliens. Wouldn’t it be better to work to reinforce the strength of our common, existing bonds of culture? Integrating strangers into an exiting culture is difficult; sometimes impossible. If the integration fails we now have a potential enemy in our midst. Questions to contemplate.

      • Prof James Beckman, Germany
        April 9, 2018 at 4:58 pm

        Ken, more clear thinking. True, the safety net de-incentivizes, but then Germany lost most of a generation of men in WWII & much of the country was flattened by bombs & artillery. Security is still in as I have lived among Germans since 2002. Neither the UK nor US was remotely close to this, although the London bombings were pure misery, I am sure.
        The globalist might say that Sparta didn’t “get it” & Rome did–you need foreigners as customers, economic goods suppliers & finally warriors. The French “got it”, too, with their French Foreign Legion & the Brits with their various colonial economic machines/military forces.

      • April 9, 2018 at 8:11 pm

        Prof James Beckman, Germany, excellent pragmatic examination. Too bad most neocons and rock-ribbed conservatives don’t follow pragmatic analysis.

      • Prof James Beckman, Germany
        April 10, 2018 at 10:11 am

        Ken, then we pay for their visit to, say, Syria. Since hardly any of the Trumpites have military combat experience, or living as a civilian in a war zone, their words are generally drivel to feed their personal political & economic ends. That’s why an Eisenhower is worth a ton of Bush II’s as far as I am concerned.

      • April 11, 2018 at 9:29 am

        Prof James Beckman, Germany, Yes, most of us will pay for the limitations of the current controllers of the US government. Most of these guys and girls are libertarians a la Ayn Rand or F.A. Hayek. A fancy version of the old hippie motto, do your own thing and fuck the rest of the world. Plus, most have serious problems with emotional maturity and stability. On this, I give you EPA Scott Pruitt being a selfish little kid in his “visit” last week to Disneyland. Lest you be confused libertarians are not conservatives, politically or socially. They are utopians. Their utopia is liberty, individual rights, and markets. Since no utopia is ever pragmatically possible, we know libertarianism will never succeed. And, as a utopianism it opposes every other possible utopian and down-to-earth way of life (e.g., conservativism, socialism, democracy, communism). Which means nothing is accomplished unless and until one utopia takes charge (as libertarians are attempting to do right now) of everything. But the main problems with libertarianism is it is morally bankrupt, imperils pragmatic freedom (not perfect freedom), always attempts to place self-interest over societal interests, assumes, against all evidence that humans are essentially good and beneficent, and considers our world as merely a stage for the ego, with its appetites and self-assertive passions and disregards the duty, discipline, and sacrifice on which the preservation of society depends.

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