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In a Guardian piece, Paul Mason, author of the forthcoming Postcapitalism, argues that in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, information technology is toppling capitalism in a way that a million marching Marxists never could, with the new normal unable to function by the dynamics of the old order.

I agree that a fresh system is incrementally forming–especially in regards to work and likely taxation–though it’s probably a heterogeneous one that won’t be absent free markets in the near term and perhaps the longer one as well. “Abundance” is a word used by a lot of people, including the author, in describing the future, but it may not be what they think it is. Food has been abundant for many decades and there have always been hungry, even starving, people.

Mason quotes Stewart Brand’s famous line “information wants to be free,” but let’s remember the whole quote: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. …That tension will not go away.”

At any rate, I’m with Mason in thinking we’re on the precipice of big changes wrought by the Internet and its many offshoots and can’t wait to read his book. An excerpt:

As with the end of feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s replacement by postcapitalism will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being. And it has started.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies – the giant tech companies – on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world – Wikipedia – is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.•

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Very much looking forward to the forthcoming book Machines of Loving Grace, an attempt by the New York Times journalist John Markoff to make sense of our automated future. 

In an Edge.org interview, Markoff argues that Moore’s Law has flattened out, perhaps for now or maybe for the long run, a slowdown that isn’t being acknowledged by technologists. Markoff still believes we’re headed for a highly automated future, one he senses will be slower to develop than expected. Those greatly worried about technological unemployment, the writer argues, are alarmists, since he thinks technology taking jobs is a necessity, the human population likely being unable in the future to keep pace with required production. Of course, he doesn’t have to be wrong by very much for great societal upheaval to occur and political solutions to be required.

From Markoff:

We’re at that stage, where our expectations have outrun the reality of the technology.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the current physical location of Silicon Valley. The Valley has moved. About a year ago, Richard Florida did a fascinating piece of analysis where he geo-located all the current venture capital investments. Once upon a time, the center of Silicon Valley was in Santa Clara. Now it’s moved fifty miles north, and the current center of Silicon Valley by current investment is at the foot of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. Living in San Francisco, you see that. Manufacturing, which is what Silicon Valley once was, has largely moved to Asia. Now it’s this marketing and design center. It’s a very different beast than it was.                                 

I’ve been thinking about Silicon Valley at a plateau, and maybe the end of the line. I just spent about three or four years reporting about robotics. I’ve been writing about it since 2004, even longer, when the first autonomous vehicle grand challenge happened. I watched the rapid acceleration in robotics. We’re at this point where over the last three or four years there’s been a growing debate in our society about the role of automation, largely forced by the falling cost of computing and sensors and the fact that there’s a new round of automation in society, particularly in American society. We’re now not only displacing blue-collar tasks, which has happened forever, but we’re replacing lawyers and doctors. We’re starting to nibble at the top of the pyramid.

I played a role in creating this new debate. The automation debate comes around in America at regular intervals. The last time it happened in America was during the 1960s and it ended prematurely because of the Vietnam War. There was this discussion and then the war swept away any discussion. Now it’s come back with a vengeance. I began writing articles about white-collar automation in 2010, 2011. 

There’s been a deluge of books such as The Rise of the Robots, The Second Machine Age, The Lights in the Tunnel, all saying that there will be no more jobs, that the automation is going to accelerate and by 2045 machines will be able to do everything that humans can do. I was at dinner with you a couple years ago and I was ranting about this to Danny Kahneman, the psychologist, particularly with respect to China, and making the argument that this new wave of manufacturing automation is coming to China. Kahneman said to me, “You just don’t get it.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “In China, the robots are going to come just in time.”

_____________________________

 

“All Watched Over
by Machines of Loving Grace”

I’d like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

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A deluge of data that assaults the senses doesn’t worry me so much. What’s more concerning is when those tubes carrying information to and from us are so quiet that you can barely hear a hum, when there are no tubes, when the system becomes seamless. It will happen, and it will seem normal.

From “We Are Data: The Future of Machine Intelligence,” Douglas Coupland’s latest Financial Times column (and one of his best):

What we’re discussing here is the creation of data pools that, until recently, have been extraordinarily difficult and expensive to gather. However, sooner rather than later, we’ll all be drowning in this sort of data. It will be collected voluntarily in large doses (using the Wonkr, Tinder or Grindr model) — or involuntarily or in passing through other kinds of data: your visit to a Seattle pot store; your donation to the SPCA; the turnstile you went through at a football match. Almost anything can be converted into data — or metadata — which can then be processed by machine intelligence. Quite accurately, you could say, data + machine intelligence = Artificial Intuition.

Artificial Intuition happens when a computer and its software look at data and analyse it using computation that mimics human intuition at the deepest levels: language, hierarchical thinking — even spiritual and religious thinking. The machines doing the thinking are deliberately designed to replicate human neural networks, and connected together form even larger artificial neural networks. It sounds scary . . . and maybe it is (or maybe it isn’t). But it’s happening now. In fact, it is accelerating at an astonishing clip, and it’s the true and definite and undeniable human future.•

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In his Vice Motherboard articleMarriage Won’t Make Sense When Humans Live for 1,000 Years,” Transhumanist Party Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan predicts traditional marriage will become obsolete if radical life extension is realized. Well, sure. In fact, reconsiderations of wedlock will occur without far longer lifespans, driven by much simpler technological and sociological changes. 

Like many Transhumanists, Istvan is so ebullient about the topic that his timelines for progress are incredibly ambitious, unrealistically so. For instance: I’m willing to wager you won’t be leaving your small child at home with a robot nanny within 15 years.

From Istvan:

Social, financial, and religions pressures aside, the deeper philosophical question of the transhumanist age is: Are people really willing to marry for the rest of their lives when those lives may be hundreds or even thousands of years long? This is especially a pertinent question when it’s almost certain coming technology will allow us to radically change who we are in the near future, both physically and mentally.

In a world of indefinite lifespans, the marriage commitment takes on a whole new meaning and level of commitment.

America and many parts of the developed world are losing their religion, however, which certainly will contribute to less social pushing for matrimony. A recent Pew Research Center study found that many young people increasingly possess no religious leanings at all. In just a few decade’s time, if this statistical trajectory holds, younger generations may broadly prefer not to ever marry.

And who can argue with them? Within 15 years, some of the so-called classic advantages of marriage will be gone. Many people will have robot house nannies, driverless cars, and automated stoves that cook for us. In 20 year’s time, we may also use artificial wombs (ectogenesis) to grow babies, and use our own stem cells to provide genetic treatments to build the perfect child. A spouse will simply not be as necessary in the transhumanist age as it once was.•

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Remember when Al-Qaeda was the face of modern terror? Ah, the good old days.

One result of the confluence of America’s disastrous war in Iraq and Syria’s destabilization has been the emergence of ISIS, with its beheadings and drownings, all captured with torture-porn film techniques and promoted via social-media campaigns. 

In a Spiegel piece, Christoph Reuter interviews the incarcerated ISIS member called Abu Abdullah, the rare member of the terrorist organization captured alive. Abdullah’s chore was to outfit suicide bombers in Baghdad with explosive accessories and coach them in their mission. Quiet time in solitary has not mitigated his madness. An excerpt:

Spiegel:

Did any of the men you accompanied have doubts about their mission?

Abu Abdullah:

No, then they would have failed to carry them out. They were prepared for their assignments for a long time. When they came to me, they were calm, sometimes even joyful. When they put on the belt they would say, for example, “Fits well!” Abu Mohsen Qasimi, a young Syrian, was still making jokes two minutes before his deployment, and then, when he drove off by himself, he bid a friendly farewell. With one young Saudi Arabian, I was wondering how we could inconspicuously change spots, because I was sitting behind the wheel at first. We pretended to have car trouble, both got out and then pushed the vehicle for a bit. Nobody noticed anything. We both laughed.

Spiegel:

You are blushing as you relate that story. Apparently these are pleasant memories. Would you do everything over again?

This is the only moment in the one-and-a-half hour conversation when Abu Abdullah flinches. He turns pale, as though he had been caught red-handed. Then he says that he cannot answer the question.•

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I was reading a BBC article about lethal robots manufactured in South Korea, which are purchased to protect everything from pipelines to airports, and it made reference to a NYT piece I had all but forgotten about, Tim Weiner’s 2005 look at the Pentagon’s desire to robotize its forces. Autonomous soldiers haven’t yet insinuated themselves into our military in a pronounced way, but the research continues apace. Eventually technological capacity will meet desire. From Weiner:

The American military is working on a new generation of soldiers, far different from the army it has.

“They don’t get hungry,” said Gordon Johnson of the Joint Forces Command at the Pentagon. “They’re not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.”

The robot soldier is coming.

The Pentagon predicts that robots will be a major fighting force in the American military in less than a decade, hunting and killing enemies in combat. Robots are a crucial part of the Army’s effort to rebuild itself as a 21st-century fighting force, and a $127 billion project called Future Combat Systems is the biggest military contract in American history.

The military plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in automated armed forces. The costs of that transformation will help drive the Defense Department’s budget up almost 20 percent, from a requested $419.3 billion for next year to $502.3 billion in 2010, excluding the costs of war. The annual costs of buying new weapons is scheduled to rise 52 percent, from $78 billion to $118.6 billion.

Military planners say robot soldiers will think, see and react increasingly like humans. In the beginning, they will be remote-controlled, looking and acting like lethal toy trucks. As the technology develops, they may take many shapes. And as their intelligence grows, so will their autonomy.

The robot soldier has been a dream at the Pentagon for 30 years.•

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I’ve already posted about Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the new General Director of the European Space Agency, who wants to colonize the moon and use that perch to further explore space. Of all the settlement schemes floating around the stratosphere right now, this one seems to me to be the best and most pragmatic. If we’re going to build colonies in space, the moon should probably be first. More from Richard Hollingham at the BBC:

There are good reasons, he says, for going back to the Moon for science as well as using it a stepping-stone to further human exploration of the Solar System.

“The far side of the Moon is very interesting because we could have telescopes looking deep into the Universe, we could do lunar science on the Moon and the international aspect is very special,” he explains. “The Americans are looking to go to Mars very soon – and I don’t see how we can do that – before going to Mars we should test what we could do on Mars on the Moon.”

For example, Woerner suggests, the technology being investigated by Nasa to construct a Mars base using a giant 3D printer would be better tried out on the Moon first. Learning to live on an alien world is going to be tough – but the challenge would be a lot easier, particularly in an emergency, if the extraterrestrial community is only four days away from Earth rather than six months.

Woerner envisages his Moon village as a multinational settlement involving astronauts, Russian cosmonauts and maybe even Chinese taikonauts.•

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Make a case for ridesharing as a means to greater convenience or to reduce pollution or to (potentially) disrupt racial profiling, but do not make one based on jobs. Uber has squeezed its drivers and made it clear it would love to be rid of them entirely. Uber is about Uber, not about Labor. 

Worse yet is making a case for Uber as a friend of workers by invoking the name of Eric Garner, the African-American man selling loose cigarettes who was choked to death in NYC by police in 2014, as Gerald Seabrooks, a Brooklyn bishop, did this week at a Harlem press event organized by Travis Kalanick’s outfit. Saying that Uber having its way in NYC could have prevented that tragedy is every bit as offensive and untrue as is Kalanick using military veterans as a prop for PR purposes.

From Kelly Weill at Capital New York

Gerald Seabrooks, a Brooklyn-based bishop, said increased employment opportunities would be a boon to minority communities.

“If [Eric] Garner had a job, today he would be alive,” Seabrooks said. “We’re talking economics here. We’re talking jobs.”

But Uber’s reputation isn’t necessarily progressive. The company has come under fire for taking large commissions from drivers’ paychecks, and for fighting to classify drivers as contract workers, rather than employees entitled to benefits.

De Blasio’s own administration has also accused for-hire companies like Uber of prioritizing the wealthy over the working class.

“What it boils down to is this,” taxi commissioner Meera Joshi said in June. “At some point, I strongly believe the city needs to step in and make sure that there is a balance between those of us who choose instant gratification and convenience of travel with private vehicles and the much larger group who cannot afford private car service.”•

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We might already be smart enough to allow the continued survival of our species, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Homo sapiens will ultimately need to engineer evolution if we are to continue to thrive (though that new IQ better also be matched to improved ethics). Of course, our species with dramatically improved intelligence will no longer exactly be our species, but that’s not the worst thing.

In a Washington Post piece, UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh skillfully lays out the future, arguing that the path to tomorrow won’t be blocked by the reported 83% of Americans who currently think manipulating a baby’s genes for greater intelligence is wrong. It’s scary to think of such procedures at the moment, but eventually the moment will be different. An excerpt about designer babies and geopolitics:

Intelligence is, generally speaking, good, and more is, generally speaking, better. It’s better for the person in question. It’s better for society to have more intelligent people. It’s not the most important thing. But ask yourself: All else being equal, would you rather have your child have an IQ (for all the limitations of that measure) of 85, 100, 115 or 130?

So here’s how it will happen. Say the 83 percent poll results hold, even once safe genetic modification is available (it’s not clear they will, given that at this point they reflect a purely hypothetical question, but say they do), and Congress bans such modification. Or say there is worry — understandable when it comes to a new technology — that the modification won’t be safe and will cause the birth of children with various birth defects or other problems, so Congress bans it because of that.

Now it’s gone! No more of this awful technology. Except, wait: Say the Chinese don’t see things the way we do. Out come some number of babies with horrible birth defects (truly a tragedy, and as a purely ethical matter, possibly a reason against such experimentation; I’m just saying the ethics won’t matter much). And then things get worked out, and now the new generation of Chinese, or Japanese, or Russians becomes on average much smarter than the new generation of Americans. How long will American public opinion remain opposed to a technology that seems vital to national success, and perhaps even national independence?•

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Steven Pinker has argued, pretty persuasively, that humankind is less violent than ever before. If so, that’s a real sign of human progress. But what about the wars waged within, the kind that know no detente without intervention?

Mental illness is detected now more than ever, and there are logical reasons for that–greater awareness and diagnosis, longer lifespans–but it also often seems like a mismatch disease of modern life, and one influenced by our technological epoch. In smart Economist essay “The Age of Unreason,” John Prideaux thinks through the received wisdom of a link between mental illness and economic development and also wonders if a small Belgian town’s treatment of those with disorders holds lessons for the rest of the world. An excerpt:

The statistical relationship between mental illness and development is new evidence for an old theory. Since the 19th century, people have been arguing that mental illness is a price to be paid for progress. In Civilisation and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud popularised the notion that neurosis increased in tandem with profit. Before Freud, an American neurologist, George Beard, had noted that a nervous disorder he labelled neurasthenia (and others nicknamed “Americanitis”) was on the rise. He put it down to the speeding up of modern life, facilitated by the telegraph, the railway and the press.

Neurasthenia disappeared from the psychiatrist’s lexicon in 20th-century America but enjoyed a long afterlife in China; Chairman Mao himself was said to suffer from the condition. It faded from view only after Arthur Kleinman, a Harvard anthropologist, conducted fieldwork in China in the 1980s and concluded that the symptoms of neurasthenia were rather like those of depression. Drug companies spied an opportunity to sell pills that they were already making. Rates of diagnosis for depression, which was virtually unknown in China 20 years ago, are now catching up with those elsewhere.

This is not because economic progress, of which China has seen more than any other country over the past three decades, makes people sick. Rather, it is due to a combination of the profound effect that growing richer has on diagnosis and the less forgiving standards for normal behaviour set by modern service-sector jobs. Dealing directly with customers makes different demands on the brain from work in a factory or on the land.

Surveys suggest that the incidence of serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia (a condition characterised by hearing voices and withdrawal from society) and bipolar disorder (which causes extreme, uncontrollable mood swings) is fairly constant at between 1.5% and 3% of the population around the world.•

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It’s merely 50 years since commercial aviation truly took off, as only one-fifth of Americans had ever flown in a plane by 1965. Now, of course, flying is a routine transportation, one we can’t imagine living without. But that’s what the latest edition of Gizmodo’s Meanwhile in the Future does, wondering how life would transform if environmental damage made it so that in 2061 we were in a “world without commercial air travel,” except for special cases of urgent individual need (e.g., transport to a funeral or humanitarian mission). Host Rose Eveleth questions sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson and University of Kentucky geography professor Matthew Zook about what this new normal would look like. The latter guest is the one who compares a flightless tomorrow to postwar America if that place and time had been wired. Robinson, meanwhile, wonders if gigantic ships would become itinerant cities.

It’s an interesting thought experiment, in part because it’s such an unlikely scenario that we would try to ward off the Sixth Extinction in this manner. Eveleth quotes 5% as the amount of the carbon footprint caused by aviation (though that’s all flying and not just the commercial kind). Since meat production is responsible for about three-and-a-half times that amount of carbon, it would be a lot simpler to just create in vitro substitutes. Especially since less flying would mean more travel by other environmentally unfriendly vehicles.

Still, a very fun show. Listen here.

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In his new London Review of Books piece, Slavoj Žižek argues that “China is full of antagonisms and barely controlled instabilities that continually threaten to explode.” Maybe. It’s certainly the largest experiment in world history in its mélange of capitalism, communism, nationalism and authoritarianism. Can the centre hold? Does its relative cultural seclusion from the larger world ultimately support or damn the whole enterprise? An excerpt:

Everyone can be a socialist today, even Bill Gates: it suffices to profess the need for some kind of harmonious social unity, for a common good and for the care of the poor and downtrodden. As Otto Weininger put it more than a hundred years ago, socialism is Aryan and communism is Jewish.

An exemplary case of today’s ‘socialism’ is China, where the Communist Party is engaged in a campaign of self-legitimisation which promotes three theses: 1) Communist Party rule alone can guarantee successful capitalism; 2) the rule of the atheist Communist Party alone can guarantee authentic religious freedom; and 3) continuing Communist Party rule alone can guarantee that China will be a society of Confucian conservative values (social harmony, patriotism, moral order). These aren’t simply nonsensical paradoxes. The reasoning might go as follows: 1) without the party’s stabilising power, capitalist development would explode into a chaos of riots and protests; 2) religious factional struggles would disturb social stability; and 3) unbridled hedonist individualism would corrode social harmony. The third point is crucial, since what lies in the background is a fear of the corrosive influence of Western ‘universal values’: freedom, democracy, human rights and hedonist individualism. The ultimate enemy is not capitalism as such but the rootless Western culture threatening China through the free flow of the internet. It must be fought with Chinese patriotism; even religion should be ‘sinicised’ to ensure social stability. A Communist Party official in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, said recently that while ‘hostile forces’ are stepping up their infiltration, religions must work under socialism to serve economic development, social harmony, ethnic unity and the unification of the country: ‘Only when one is a good citizen can one be a good believer.’•

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Profusion CEO Mike Weston has written a WSJ article which tries to think ahead of the problems that will arrive when cities have been smartened up. The main issue he examines is marketers purchasing information to target citizens with products. Weston suggests we can tackle the issue with stringent legislation and/or business ethics, but I wonder if those tactics will work. The legislative approach will, at best, be a leaky boat, as it’s likely that this type of information wants to be free–as in liberated. Laws will always likely trail the technology. Expecting businesses to be constrained by a code that runs counter to the bottom line seems unlikely. But it’s good people devoted to data science like Weston are thinking in advance of these developments, and his piece is well worth reading. An excerpt:

By analyzing this information using data-science techniques, a company could learn not only the day-to-day routine of an individual but also his preferences, behavior and emotional state. Private companies could know more about people than they know about themselves.

For marketers, this is a dream come true. Imagine the scenario: A beverage company knows a particular individual’s Friday or Saturday night routine. The company knows what he drinks, when he drinks, who he drinks with and where he goes. It also knows how the weather affects what beverage the individual chooses and how changes in work patterns influence how much alcohol he consumes. By combining this information with the individual’s social-media profile, the company could send marketing messages to the person when he is most susceptible to the suggestion to buy a drink.

Businesses could market divorce services to couples who, through data analysis, are shown to exhibit behavior that indicates that their relationship could be in trouble—things like unusual travel patterns, and changes in work-life balance, such as a rapid increase in the amount of time both individuals spend at work or in separate bars. Individuals who are shown to lead very unhealthy lifestyles could be deliberately targeted by brands selling fatty foods.

The scenarios are endless, ranging from the genuinely useful to the potentially terrifying. But what will moderate how a smart city works and how brands can use data?

____________________________

A pre-Internet attempt at a smart city, The Woodlands, 1977.

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Donald Trump commandeering the GOP with his xenophobic vileness is the price the party has to pay for refusing to work with President Obama on immigration reform.

I didn’t believe a second Obama term would chasten his enemies across the aisle the way some did (even the President), but I believed immigration was the one area in which Republicans would bend since their future pretty much depended on it. If the issue had been handled right after their broad defeat in 2012, it would have largely been yesterday’s news by now. But as gerrymandering damages the nation as a whole, it’s likewise done no wonders for conservatives. Finding it unnecessary to yield to prevailing winds has enabled the GOP to move into another national election dragging the past behind it, prone to the opportunistic rantings of a lowest common denominator like Trump. He’s yours. You own him.

From “The Dream World of Southern Republicans,” Howell Raines’s op-ed in the New York Times:

Even more dramatic changes in voter attitudes will shift the region’s party balance, to the detriment of the Republicans. This won’t come about because current Republican voters and their elected officials now in office will somehow be converted, but because they will be overwhelmed by new voters in the burgeoning Hispanic and Asian communities, who will join the black minority. Over half of the nation’s 40 million blacks live in the South.

For the time being, however, a traveler through the South can’t help but notice that its affluent, suburban whites remain myopic about the obvious signs, like the multiracial families to be seen among Walmart shoppers on any given day in any shopping mall.

Houston and Dallas are among the 11 American cities with the largest Hispanic populations. Vibrant Vietnamese communities are all along the Gulf Coast. Major cities have Spanish-language advertising, and have or soon will have sleek Latino-oriented shopping centers, like the new one on the fashionable southern side of Birmingham. The Asian presence in the medical, academic and business communities is substantial and growing, perhaps most notably in Baton Rouge, where Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and presidential candidate (who is Asian-American, like Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina), works.

Judging from the laws they are passing, Southern Republicans seem untroubled by Mitt Romney’s 17 percent of the minority vote in the last presidential election. It seems an overstatement to say that Southern Republicans are in outright denial about the fact that whites will be a minority in America around 2043. It does seem fair to say that the national Republican Party is underreacting, and Southern Republicans seem to be especially resistant to appealing to their minority neighbors.•

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Noam Scheiber, who emerged from the TNR apocalypse to work the Labor beat for the New York Times, has published a piece that argues the Uberization of the economy occurred decades before Uber and ridesharing and smartphones and the whole thing. We were on a piece-work trajectory for decades, with efficiency experts and management gurus urging leaner missions for corporations. Makes sense since the middle class began its faceplant in the 1970s, a dive which may only get worse. An excerpt:

David Weil, who runs the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Labor Department, describes in his recent book, The Fissured Workplace, how investors and management gurus began insisting that companies pare down and focus on what came to be known as their “core competencies,” like developing new goods and services and marketing them.

Far-flung business units were sold off. Many other activities — beginning with human resources and then spreading to customer service and information technology — could be outsourced. The corporate headquarters would coordinate among the outsourced workers and monitor their performance.

Cost was unquestionably an advantage of the new approach: Workers were typically cheaper when off the corporate payroll than on it, and the arrangement allowed a company to staff up as needed rather than employ a full complement of workers at all times.

But simply cutting costs wasn’t the primary motivation. The real advantage was to enable the organization to focus on what it did best rather than distract itself with tasks for which it had little expertise and which were not especially profitable.

Since the early 1990s, as technology has made it far easier for companies to outsource work, that trend has evolved beyond what anyone imagined: Companies began to see themselves as thin, Uber-like slivers standing between customers on one side and their work forces on the other.•

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Private enterprise launching missions to Mars certainly has to do with mining the asteroid belt as much as anything else, with some dreaming of dollars in the trillions. Corporate entities that are essentially space states are concerning, and at Seize My Future, in a smart post, Devin Daniels wonders if they’ll be a reality within four decades. I think his timeline is a little aggressive, but the speculative narrative is worth reading. The opening:

2050

It is my personal belief that by 2030, we will see private space trips become far more common place, and we’ll see the advent of space hotels. By 2040, asteroid mining will have begun in earnest, an industry with the potential to generate multiple trillion dollar companies. Here’s the rub – that’s greater than the GDP of almost all countries on this planet. These corporations will need live people available both for customer service as well as maintenance on both the hotels and the mining units. Over time, these corporations will develop moderately sized settlements, so that those employed in space can have a little space to call their own.

Over time, this trend will rise. As this happens, it may only be a matter of time before a corporation decides that it would be better off as an entirely independent entity, not having to pay billions of taxes to Earth-based governments. They may make the case that their workers deserve to have local, direct representation, and that the countries on Earth do not provide adequate representation of space colonists. Whether or not this is a fair argument to make is irrelevant for the purpose of this post – it may be, it may not be. What we’re concerned with is – will it happen? To this end, I offer a short story about LunarTech, LLC – a hypothetical company that exists in the year 2050 doing lunar and asteroid mining, that got its start with lunar hotels.•

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We’re not hostage to the time we live in, but we certainly feel its sway, one way or another. Today, several young players have walked away from the NFL because of knowledge we now have about brain injuries (though even the league itself suspected it long ago). But there was a time during the Vietnam War when some left the game for political reasons. Dave Meggyesy probably did so most loudly, but Raider Chip Oliver likewise went all in, joining the One World Family commune and devoting himself to vegetarianism and peace, refusing a professional football contract he felt was being taxed to fund the war. From a 1970 Sports Illustrated:

“Out of it” now describes former Oakland Linebacker Chip Oliver—well out of it, that is. Last January he joined a commune in Larkspur, Calif., so you can figure, if you want to, that it’s costing him $25,000 a year to scrub down the commune’s nonprofit, health-food restaurant tables. He figures that a fifth of that money just “went down the drain in Vietnam—now Cambodia,” and says, “That’s one reason I quit. The only way not to pay taxes is not to make money.” There are other reasons. “It’s a silly game they’re playing,” he says of the pros. “I’m going to miss playing football—the actual football part of it—but I’d look up at the people in the stadium and realize I wasn’t helping them. I wasn’t helping anybody. All we’re doing in pro football is entertaining these people and…they need to do their own creative thing.” A vegetarian diet, periodic fasting and yoga have cut Chip’s weight down to a tough 180 pounds from his playing weight of 230; he has cut his worldly possessions down to a few old clothes and an Instamatic camera. He is a happy man. “Even my mother likes me better this way,” he says. “So does my father [a retired Army sergeant], but he’s afraid to admit it. He doesn’t like me associating with these ‘Communists.’ “•

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The communist capitalist authoritarian state known as China has permitted Ai Weiwei to have his first solo show in his homeland. Unsurprisingly, it’s considered one of his least political creations. James Fullerton of Vice talked to the artist about his current state of mind and the surveillance state. An excerpt:

Question:

Whether or not it’s making up for artistic weakness, it’s undoubtedly the case that the Chinese authorities’ treatment of you has made you an international star and given you a platform far bigger than one you’d have otherwise.

Ai Weiwei:

Yeah, the government officials always tell me, “Weiwei, you are being treated like this not because you are a bad person but because you are too influential.” I said, “Yes, but think about how I became too influential. You helped make me more influential.” Look at any hero story: The hero will not be the hero if there is no monster. You have to have a terrifying monster to make that little boy become a hero. Even the most innocent or weak person can be a hero.

Question:

What are the monitoring levels like now?

Ai Weiwei:

There are no people following me anymore. There is no harsh 100 meters [behind me] following, or people in restaurants seated at the next table to me, or waiting in the park behind bushes taking photos. Of course, [they’re still] monitoring my phone and my email—that’s normal. Every digital signal is monitored. I welcome them to do that.

Question:

Why?

Ai Weiwei:

I told them: “I have no secrets; you have secrets.” So I invite them to my office, my bedroom. I put a camera in my bedroom once to broadcast myself—it was right above my bed [for a 2012 project called WeiweiCam]. I forgot it was there. Then the police called me and said, “Weiwei, please shut it down.” I asked if it was a discussion or an order. They said it was an order.

Question:

Last September you said, “My heart is in the most peaceful place it has been for a decade.” Do you still feel that way?

Ai Weiwei:

Yes. If you see my show in 798, there’s one foundation stone missing under the pillar. I replaced it with a crystal block. It’s transparent. I put a piece of paper with a message there that my son wrote to me: “Xin ping er hao,” meaning that if your heart is at peace, then the world will act accordingly. My son, only six years old, made up this sentence. I feel more peaceful than ever.

Question:

But the climate for artists in China is getting worse, with the government smashing down on dissent in the arts and trying to make artists promote Communist values. Why do you feel so peaceful in this climate?

Ai Weiwei:

The environment is much harsher and it’s getting worse. But the general condition in China is much more free. The state of mind, people’s hearts… they are much more liberal today than ever.•

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So many jobs at airports and hotels can be handled by present robotics, without even factoring improvements to be made in the coming decades. One airport in Japan has decided to go all in with exoskeleton suits and robot baggage carriers and floor cleaners. Two excerpts about the transition follow.

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From “Robots to Descend on Haneda Airport” at Asahi Shimbun:

Robots will be cleaning the floors and carrying luggage at Haneda Airport by September, the operator of the airport’s terminals has announced.

Employees will also be using strap-on robotic devices to assist in lifting heavy loads.

Japan Airport Terminal Co. will lease the robots from Cyberdyne Inc., it said July 2.

Five robots will clean the floors of the terminal buildings at the airport in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, while three robots will each be able to carry up to 200 kilograms of luggage.

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From “Japan Turns to Robot-Worked Airports” at PSFK:

A number of different robots developed and manufactured by Cyberdyne will be introduced at the airport, including the exoskeleton robot suit HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) for labor support, cleaning robots and transport robots.

HAL’s name may recall the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the suits were designed to help workers lift heavy objects and those undergoing physiotherapy recover strength in their limbs. At the airport, they could assist workers handling merchandise in shops or loading and unloading luggage. The robot suits work by detecting electric signals from the wearer’s brain to make it easier for people to move objects.

The two companies aim to make Haneda Airport a world pioneer in robot technology use in airports, creating a vision for the future airport with robot technologies, while helping to make it an even more attractive place for travelers.

Japan Airport Terminal will provide sales promotion and maintenance services at the airport for the robots and the company’s knowledge and experience in the airport business will be combined with Cyberdyne’s cybernics technology to create a next-generation airport model making use of broad applications of robotics technology.•

There’s a legal push to make Uber drivers full employees of the company, but what does it say if its workers can’t afford to be full-time employees? Some Libertarians may think Americans choose piece work because it’s so great and flexible, but in many instances it’s the former middle class just grasping at straws. And that straw will get thinner and thinner until eventually it disappears.

From Douglas MacMillan at WSJ:

Flexibility is the new cherished buzzword to dozens of startups rushing to defend the legality of their employment models. Companies from Uber to Lyft to Postmates say they are pioneering a new gig economy where workers are free to clock in and out as easily as they open a smartphone app, helping many of them make time to care for a family or pursue an education or career.

But that flexibility comes at a cost to these workers, some of whom are unhappy with paying for their own health insurance and costs such as car maintenance and fuel. Last month, Uber was ordered to pay Barbara Berwick, a former San Francisco driver for Uber, more than $4,100 to cover the costs of vehicle mileage and tolls, after she argued successfully the company was so deeply involved in every aspect of her job that it was legally acting as an employer. …

But some of those drivers may just dislike the idea of working full time for Uber. Javier Calix, a driver in San Francisco, said in an interview that he would not take a full-time job offered by Uber because the company doesn’t pay him enough for that to make economic sense. While he said he used to make around $25 an hour, after gas and other expenses, when he first started driving for the service two years ago, that’s now down to about $15 an hour after all the fees Uber takes out of his pay.

“I wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Calix said of the prospect of full-time Uber employment.

 

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A reductive view of those of us worried about the transition into a much more automated society is that we think progress is bad, something to be halted. Not true. Better tools will make us richer and relieve us of a great deal of drudgery. But we should be concerned that the wealth might be in the aggregate, not well-distributed, with widespread technological unemployment possible.

From an Economist piece about America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Agea book that tries to make sense of the new normal:

SOMETHING about the new economy drives prognosticators to extremes. Optimists argue that the world is entering an age of abundance, with productivity surging, diseases like polio being wiped out, and tourists flying to Mars. Pessimists retort that abundance for the few will mean impoverishment for the many. Smart machines will destroy jobs and depress wages. Knowledge workers will be proletarianised. And rising insecurity will promote tribalism and protectionism.

One of the many virtues of America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age is that it avoids such extremes. The authors part with the cyber-utopians in acknowledging that disruption has a dark side. But at the same time they part with the cyber-pessimists in embracing radical change. The new economy is not only generating new opportunities. It is providing people with the tools that they need to cope with disruption. …

A century ago Walter Lippmann, a journalist who was then just 24 years old, wrote a surprise best-seller called Drift and Mastery. He noted that “our schools, churches, courts, governments were not built for the kind of civilisation they are expected to serve”. Americans needed to “adjust their thinking to a new world situation”, otherwise they would be condemned to “drift along at the mercy of economic forces that we are unable to master”. These words ring just as true today as they did then. “America’s Moment” provides as useful a guide as any available to turning drift into mastery once again.•

The average age of an International Business Times writer seems to be about twelve, so these young folks sometimes aren’t so familiar with history, believing, for instance, that Project Orion might merely be a “claim” that Freeman Dyson has made rather than well-recorded history. So I’m thrilled when the publication invites someone with a bit more experience to pen pieces for it. One such guest scribe is security expert/erstwhile fugitive John McAfee, although his last article, one about Edward Snowden, was a little woo-woo in the head. Philip K. Dick couldn’t have done better after downing a bowl of amphetamines on a spinning tea cup at Disneyland. 

In his newest writing for IBT, an analysis of the Hacking Team hack, McAfee argues that the Dark Net is exploited by surveillance software companies and governments alike to legitimize mass spying. Further, he believes we’re in the midst of a growing global cyberwar waged by a welter of states and corporations. On one level or another, that type of gamesmanship is happening and will continue without end. An excerpt:

As with the Sony hack, it is the leaked emails that allow us to dig deep into the psyche of this industry. In one of the Hacking Team’s leaked emails Vincenzetti states: “The Dark Net is 99% used for all kinds of illegal, criminal and terrorist activities.”

This statement, as with many of his statements, is blatantly false.

On the Dark Web we of course find mind-numbing pornography, advertisements for hit men, drugs of every kind, fake Cartier watches that even Cartier cannot distinguish, human traffickers of every kind, money launderers – and even lawyers.

However, in the overwhelming majority of the Dark Web, we find human rights activists who, if their identities were known, would certainly be executed by their home country.

We find scientific or religious theories that are unpopular and would invite repercussions if the authors were known. We find whistle-blowers who pass documents of delicate sensitivity but powerful impact.

It is the medium of last resort for the disenfranchised of the world. It is definitely not “99% used for all kinds of illegal, criminal and terrorist activities.

These, and similar statements released by every one of the corporations who create and market surveillance software are designed to foster the attitude of fear propagandised by covert and law enforcement agencies within every government on the planet.”

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There can be no reasonable argument against a living wage from a moral perspective. None. But the economics of the minimum wage are puzzling and often partisan. We’re warned that decent pay will kill jobs–even a philanthropic soul like the mid-life, sweater-clad iteration of Bill Gates holds this position–but is it true? In his latest Financial Times column, Tim Harford suggest there should be fewer opinions and more research. An excerpt:

The UK minimum wage took effect 16 years ago this week, on April 1 1999. As with the Equal Pay Act, economically literate commentators feared trouble, and for much the same reason: the minimum wage would destroy jobs and harm those it was intended to help. We would face the tragic situation of employers who would only wish to hire at a low wage, workers who would rather have poorly paid work than no work at all, and the government outlawing the whole affair.

And yet, the minimum wage does not seem to have destroyed many jobs — or at least, not in a way that can be discerned by slicing up the aggregate data. (One exception: there is some evidence that in care homes, where large numbers of people are paid the minimum wage, employment has been dented.)

The general trend seems a puzzling suspension of the law of supply and demand. One explanation of the puzzle is that higher wages may attract more committed workers, with higher morale, better attendance and lower turnover. On this view, the minimum wage pushed employers into doing something they might have been wise to do anyway. To the extent that it imposed net costs on employers, they were small enough to make little difference to their appetite for hiring.

An alternative response is that the data are noisy and don’t tell us much, so we should stick to basic economic reasoning.•

 

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“Progress is real but so are its consequences,” wrote Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants, and he isn’t the first or last to say so. When it comes to tools, the most-pressing short-term concerns are environmental damage, skill fade and technological unemployment. 

On the latter topic, Mary Clare Jalonick of the Associated Press reports on agricultural drones, which are to farms as robots are to warehouses. They’re an amazing example of progress, far more precise and friendlier to the environment, though the consequence, once the slow-moving FAA works out the rules, is likely fewer jobs. The opening:

CORDOVA, Md. (AP) — Mike Geske wants a drone.

Watching a flying demonstration on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Missouri farmer envisions using an unmanned aerial vehicle to monitor the irrigation pipes on his farm — a job he now pays three men to do.

“The savings on labor and fuel would just be phenomenal,” Geske says, watching as a small white drone hovers over a nearby corn field and transmits detailed pictures of the growing stalks to an iPad.

Nearby, farmer Chip Bowling tries his hand at flying one of the drones. Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association, says he would like to buy one for his Maryland farm to help him scout out which individual fields need extra spraying.

Another farmer, Bobby Hutchison, says he is hoping the man he hires weekly to walk his fields and observe his crops gets a drone, to make the process more efficient and accurate.

“I see it very similar to how I saw the computer when it first started,” says Hutchison, 64. “It was a no-brainer.”•

 

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Not only can death kill you, but it has all sorts of nasty side effects.

We’d do almost anything to avoid the end, even to just avoid thinking about it. That leaves us open to all sorts of manipulations that prey upon our justifiable fears. In a Financial Times piece about a trio of new books that study our uneasy relationship with mortality, Stephen Cave explains how the human need for infinite life can create a living hell. An excerpt:

To protect ourselves from the inevitable — or at least the thought of it — we need wholly different defences. According to what these authors christened “terror management theory”, these defences have two elements. First, we develop cultural world views that in some way promise “order, meaning, and permanence”. Second, we strive for self-esteem, which reassures us that we are doing what our cultural world view requires and so “enables each of us to believe we are enduring, significant beings rather than material creatures destined to be obliterated”.

An obvious example of a death-denying world view is Christianity. Founded on belief in Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, it promises eternal life for all believers. It is therefore no surprise that those prompted to contemplate mortality by these psychologists afterwards proved to be more inclined to believe in God, Jesus and the efficacy of prayer than the control group.

But religions are not the only world views promising some way of living on. Nationalism and similar mass movements offer continuation as part of a great whole. As Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski vividly explain, the 20th century is replete with examples of more or less veiled immortality ideologies, from Nazism’s “thousand-year Reich” to the “eternal and indestructible” revolution of Chairman Mao in China. The toll taken by these movements shows that death denial can be a dangerous business. And indeed, as experimental evidence shows, fear of mortality makes people more attracted to charismatic leaders, more nationalistic, more aggressive and more suspicious of foreigners. We might therefore wonder what the daily diet of killings served up by news programmes is doing to our psyches.•

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