Futurological Defenses of Automation, Outsourcing, Crowdsourcing, and Precarizing Labor
...Until, One Supposes, There Is Nobody Left To Buy Anything In A World Reduced To An Uninhabitable Cinder. You Know, for Profit!
John Herrman, in a breezy, buzzy tech piece, How to Work for Free for the Richest Companies in the World, recently observed: "The pattern of fostering a community of people to essentially do your work for you -- to assume the risk of trying new ideas, without any guarantee of safety -- [is…] happening on a near-weekly basis to people who've developed apps for Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and others. In fact, this process is… routine… The most important companies in tech have, to varying extents, intentionally built their modern selves on [this…] model."
It is a commonplace of futurological corporate propaganda since the fifties that increasing automation is going to lower average working hours or free up people to do more rewarding and creative work any day now, when in fact automation has almost always only threatened labor with unemployment instead (recall the actual Luddites), thereby lowering labor's bargaining power, accompanied by a predictable diminishing of labor standards, the comparative diminishing of laborers' buying power, and the consequent diminishing of living standards for people who work for living.
The reason the futurological argument appears plausible at first is because such futurologists like to pretend that emancipatory outcomes are somehow BUILT IN to the specs of the technologies they enthuse over. The reason the futurological argument should NOT appear the least bit plausible (apart from the fact that it has been made over and over and over again and almost never turns out to be true) is because emancipatory outcomes are political and not technical in nature. They demand political struggle and are not susceptible to techno-fixes in the absence of political struggle. Problems of poverty and ignorance and inequity are political problems that require political will and social struggle (education, agitation, organization) even if, in part, to deploy available techniques in the service of desirable and emancipatory outcomes.
Bosses invest in new technology to make more money, not to improve the lot of laborers, and increasing automation and other productivity gains associated with technological improvements have been accompanied by increasing wealth concentration and increasing worker precarity for more than a generation in the US, for example, precisely as these actual priorities would dictate. Although many futurologists still like to tell a different story, there is no reason to treat it as anything but a hoary and naïve science fiction cliché at odds with both a common sense understanding of how incumbent elites actually behave as well as with all the obvious facts in evidence.
Using developments in information and transportation techniques (shipping container standardization) and technologies (digital networked surveillance and accounting) to outsource jobs away from expensive, often unionized, North Atlantic labor and costly regulations to protect our planet more than their profits instead to cheap labor in overexploited regions of the world where fellow human beings labor invisibly under appalling conditions and low environmental standards imperil the planet on which we all depend for our flourishing and survival is just another application of the same mechanism through which "technological progress" in automation has not translated to the political progress in the name of which it has been peddled to the people by futurological propagandists for the corporate-military status quo. The crowdsourcing of promotional content (free reviews on Amazon.com), of land development (precarious squatters on toxic dumps and other hazard zones struggling to make marginal spaces habitable), of media app development (as in the example with which the post begins) are just applications of the same mechanisms yet again.
Futurologists really must come to terms with the extent to which they have functioned as relentless defenders of the interests of corporate elites and the status quo all the while pretending to be champions of "accelerating change" and "techno-emancipation" in "The Future."
Also posted at Amor Mundi.
Essays and comments posted in World Future Society and THE FUTURIST magazine blog portion of this site are the intellectual property of the authors, who retain full responsibility for and rights to their content. For permission to publish, distribute copies, use excerpts, etc., please contact the author. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Future Society takes no stand on what the future will or should be like.
Free Email Newsletter
Sign up for Futurist Update, our free monthly email newsletter. Just type your email into the box below and click subscribe.
This is my last posting for the next few days. I will be taking my office apart so that we can move to our new apartment downtown next Tuesday. I will be unplugged and disconnected except by tablet. Expect me to be back in the saddle before the end of next week probably in time to provide you with some more headlines. In the interim these are the stories I share with you this week:
Today, literally thousands of alternative transportation vehicles are coming out of the woodwork and they nearly all have the same problem – no place to drive them. Most are banned from biking and hiking trails, and they are neither licensed, nor licensable, for use on the streets. I’d like to discuss some new possible solutions and why Colorado is poised to take the lead in the alternative transportation marketplace.
In a recent conference promoting not only their latest gizmos but their company's animating vision as well, Google executives declared they were working toward a future in which technology "disappears," "fades into the background," becomes more "intuitive and anticipatory." Commenting on this apparently "bizarre mission for a tech company," Bianca Bosker warns that their genial and enthusiastic promotional language masks Google's aspiration to omnipresence via invisibility, an effort to render us dependent and uncritical of their prevalence through its marketing as easy, intuitive, companionable.
Occasionally during meetings one of my staff – an avid birder – will elbow me and I’ll look up and glimpse a bald eagle. Each time, I am in awe. I live in Washington State, which is home to a plethora of eagles, where pods of Orca ply the waters near the San Juan Islands, and where roads are sometimes blocked by herds of elk.
In this month's Report on Business Magazine, a supplement that comes with The Globe and Mail, one of Canada's national newspapers, Stanford University's Mark Jacobson provides a best case scenario
According to The Hollywood Reporter, celebrity tech CEO Peter Thiel is upset that movies like The Matrix and Avatar make technological innovation seem "destructive and dysfunctional."
A team of researchers are asking the public to help them locate and count all the sources of CO2 coming from power plants on the planet.
Initial results from a selective breeding program at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany based in Cambridge in the UK, indicate the successful creation of a new super wheat.