Killing ourselves with technology

What do we do when technology spirals out of our control? Or, to put it more bluntly, when does humanity’s ability to build ever more dangerous weapons become a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Albert Einstein is said to have remarked that he didn’t know what weapons the third world war would be fought with, but the fourth would be waged with sticks and rocks. Even that classic of science fiction optimism, Star Trek, had humanity surviving a third world war. (Spock recounted the tolls of Earth’s three world wars in one episode.)

But we wouldn’t, would we? Or we might wish we didn’t. One story that has long lingered in my mind is an early Philip K. Dick story, “Second Variety,” published in 1953, a time when the cold war was looking decidedly hot. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic France, in a world in which nuclear bombs and other equally nightmarish weapons have reduced most of North America and Europe to gray ash, with only a stubby tree trunk or a blasted wall dotting barren, depopulated landscapes.

NagasakiThe West’s governments have retreated to a bunker somewhere on the Moon, with scattered groups of soldiers huddled in hidden underground bunkers on Earth trying to “win” the world war. The land is uninhabitable because of a super-weapon developed by the U.S. — autonomous machines that hone in on any living being and rip it to shreds with whirring metal blades that make short work of whatever they encounter. The Western soldiers are protected by a belt that forces the death machines to back off. This is the weapon that turns the tide of the war into a U.S. advantage after years of “losing” the war against the Soviet Union.

But what is there to “win”? Much of the world is uninhabitable, not only because of the total destruction and residual radiation from countless bombs but from the new weapon. There is no alternative but to huddle in underground bunkers. As Dick’s story unfolds, the nightmare gets progressively worse — the weapons are not only autonomous, they are self-replicating and continually inventing newer and more deadly varieties of themselves. The last pockets of U.S. and Soviet soldiers in this slice of the French countryside are systematically killed as the machines learn to build robots difficult to distinguish from humans; robots allowed into bunkers as refugees, only to suddenly become unstoppable killing machines, and which don’t distinguish one side from the other.

Although shuddering at the mere thought of their deadliness, more than once a soldier tries to justify these ultimate weapons by saying “If we hadn’t invented them, they would have.”

If we didn’t shoot first, bomb first, destroy first, they would have. Whatever we do is justified. No culture has a monopoly on such thoughts. But such thoughts combined with the technological progress of the present day, rising nationalism and budget-busting military budgets leave the possible end of the human race a concrete possibility rather than merely a science fiction allegory.

Philip D. Dick was no prophet — no one is — but the nightmare world he created is chillingly tangible. What would happen if a technology of war was given autonomy? Such a weapon would be purposefully designed to kill swiftly and without mercy. The Pentagon has already begun a program designed to create autonomous weapons systems.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

But what if an artificial intelligence decided humans were in the way? Isaac Asimov famously had his robots programmed with three laws that blocked them from doing any harm to any human. The other side of this equation was explored in another Star Trek episode, when the Enterprise encountered a planet populated by advanced robots. The robots had killed their creators so far back in time that the robots couldn’t remember when, but had done so because their creators “had begun to fear us and started to turn us off.”

Technology need not be feared nor is it necessarily fated to escape all control. There are no von Neumann machines swarming everywhere (at least in this part of the galaxy!), and I am inclined to agree with Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there is no evil technology, only evil applications of technology. Yet we live in a world where there are plenty of opportunities for technology to be used for evil purposes. We see some of this all around us as workplaces become sites of tightening surveillance and control, from computers that report on us to bosses, to the endless treadmill of work speedups. Technology is today a tool of capitalists, to extract ever more work out of us, to outsource work on scales never before possible and to facilitate ever faster and more numerous speculation in dubious financial instruments.

Technology in these hands also makes waging war easier — a drone operator can sit in a control room thousands of miles from the targets, safe from the carnage rained down on far-away peoples. If autonomous weaponry ever is unleashed, how could it be controlled? It couldn’t. Humanity won’t survive a third world war.

When we think of existential threats to our descendants’ world, we tend to focus on global warming, environmental degradation and the looming collapse of capitalist industrialism, of the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. That is properly so, and these do seem to be the gravest challenges that will face us across the 21st century. But technology applied to perfecting military killing machines is within the human imagination. Dick conjured this at the midpoint of the 20th century and he is far from the only one.

Yes, a warning and not a prophesy. But in a world of vast inequality, of an industrial and financial elite willing to do anything, even put the planet’s health at risk, for the sake of acquiring more wealth, the potential for evil applications of technology are ever present.

One more reason, if we didn’t already have enough, to bring into being a better world, one built for human need and environmental harmony rather than private profit. We then wouldn’t need to endure a mad pursuit of fetishized technological advancement; instead we could harness technology for the greater good as necessary. Barbarism remains the likely alternative.

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High-tech exploitation is still exploitation

In the so-called “sharing economy,” it isn’t the profits that are being shared. What is being shared are ways of putting old models of weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping.

“Sharing economy” enterprises designating employees as “independent contractors” so that workers are left without legal protections, and undercutting competition through insisting that laws and regulations don’t apply to them, really aren’t new or “innovative.” But it’s Silicon Valley companies that are doing this — so, hurray!, it’s now exciting and, oh yes, disruptive! Quaint, archaic standards such as minimum wages and labor- and consumer-law protections are so old-fashioned that Silicon Valley billionaires are doing us all a favor by disrupting our ability to keep them.

That “sharing economy” enterprises are focal points of a new technology-stock bubble is another reason to question the hype surrounding them. While waiting for the right moment for an initial public offering, the poster child for the “sharing economy,” Uber Technologies Inc., has had no trouble attracting investors, and is now valued at US$51 billion. Not bad for a company that claims to be nothing but an app — except for when it claims to be hiring drivers when its interests dictate. (More on that below.) To put that valuation in perspective, it is higher than 80 percent of S&P 500 companies — an index selected from among the largest companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges. This for a company founded in 2009.

"Nothing is nothing" photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

“Nothing is nothing” photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

How Uber’s valuation matches up with its income is impossible to say as the company does not reveal its financial results. A report in TechCrunch says that Uber may be pulling in more than $1 billion in gross receipts per year, and estimates Uber’s cut of that revenue to be about $213 million. (Uber takes a 20 percent cut from its drivers, but some drivers say it takes an additional cut for “fees”) Between its revenue and the $5 billion in funding it has received, the company could afford to hire its drivers as employees, but instead spends its money on attack advertising.

The company launched a multi-media fusillade of attack ads last month when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dared suggest regulations observed by others might apply to it, including a bombardment of television ads and robo-calls. (I received two. They didn’t work.) True to form, Mayor de Blasio, the Obama of New York City who is carrying out former billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s fourth term, backed down.

Uber vehemently opposed a proposed one-year cap of one percent growth in its drivers (which would have applied to all companies) despite already having more registered cars than all of the city’s yellow-cab companies combined, and in contrast to the hard cap that exists on the number of yellow-cab permits. When not attacking the mayor, Uber’s attacks were concentrated on yellow-cab companies and drivers.

Driving down wages for low-wage taxi drivers

Who are the taxi drivers whom Uber wishes you to believe are privileged and should be subjected to more competition? A New York City yellow cab driver pays the company that owns the cab $100 or more at the start of a 12-hour shift, pays for gas and is subject to consumer regulations. The driver spends the first hours of his or her shift covering these daily expenses. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance summarizes the situation for taxi drivers this way:

“Drivers are earning less and working longer, some days earning below the minimum wage. Right now, after 12-hour shifts, with no overtime pay, taxi drivers make $10-12 an hour in take home pay. More traffic and more cars competing for the same fares will drive incomes deeper into poverty levels. … In its ‘disruption’ playbook, meanwhile, Uber tells drivers to pick up illegally as a way to overwhelm local enforcement and break down regulators, and promises to pay the fines. Drivers desperate for work risk time in jail and for immigrants, loss of naturalized citizenship, while brand Uber claims innovation. Drivers are used and discarded. …

Uber seeks to decimate the regulated taxi industry and replace it with a transportation monopoly of no consumer protections and no full-time work for drivers. For Uber, drivers aren’t just Independent Contractors, they, quite frankly, are not workers at all. Why tip, or require commercial insurance or registration, or comply under federal or state transportation or labor laws when this is ‘just a side thing.’ Low Uber fares — when they are not price surging — are aimed at out-competing taxis and justified by calling the income supplemental. Taxis aren’t the only target, as they also aim their sights on dismantling public transportation, by proclaiming to be cheaper than buses in Chicago and LA and faster than an ambulance. If they gain a monopoly, the purpose of low fares will have been served and price surging will be the norm.”

The “disruption” or “innovation” that this promises is the Wal-Martization of transportation. In fact, the corporate law firm that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. used to successfully defeat a discrimination class action (Wal-Mart v. Dukes) by women employees, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, has been hired by Uber to fight its California drivers who say they are improperly classified as independent contractors instead of as employees. Not exactly the defender of working-class drivers Uber claims to be in its propaganda.

A San Francisco federal judge and the California Labor Commission separately ruled earlier this year that Uber drivers are employees, rulings the company continues to contest. But when it was sued for alleged text spamming, Uber claimed the messages were legal because they were hiring solicitations. But how can Uber “recruit” if it is nothing more than a software provider as it claims?

The degradation of working conditions through the “sharing economy” is of course not limited to one company. A provider of home-cleaning services, Homejoy, has closed itself rather than contest lawsuits seeking to have its “independent contractors” be re-classified as employees. Grocery-delivery service Instacart and courier Shyp have reclassified some of their workers as employees in the face of lawsuits.

A lottery economy facilitates inequality

The founders of these companies and the speculators who sink millions into them hope to be the winners in what has become a lottery economy. Only a minuscule percentage of inventions become commercially successful — a director of public affairs for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office said a decade ago that 99.8 percent of issued patents are not commercially viable. A small number of those commercially viable ideas are worth millions or billions to its creators. This is similar to the art world, where a minuscule number of artists sell works for millions while the overwhelming majority of artists earn little or nothing.

But are the entrepreneurs who win the lottery really worth so much more than everybody else? None of these corporate lottery winners created their successful company on their own. There are engineers who design the product’s physical form, assembly-line workers who assemble the product and advertising agencies that create the demand for the product. Then there is the social structure that enabled the millionaire to become wealthy through an invention or the creation of a popular product or through rising to the top of a large corporation or simply through being a popular entertainer or athlete (although most inherited their money through luck of birth).

The mythology of the solo genius justifies massive inequality because the “solo genius” single-handedly created a popular product and thus single-handedly brought prosperity upon the land. For such selfless services, the solo genius must be compensated with fantastic wealth. But why should Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg amass $18 billion and so many others get nothing? Why should Apple Inc. accumulate unprecedented wealth while conditions in the sweatshops that produce its gadgets are sufficiently grim to cause a wave of suicides?

Why should those who stand to make gigantic fortunes from whatever “sharing economy” enterprise is the one that wins the lottery make fortunes on the backs of working people struggling to survive?

At the end of the day, what computers and apps do is shift consumer spending from one merchant to another. The rider who uses an Uber black car is substituting that service for a taxi; the shopper who buys online is substituting for a local store. Just as Wal-Mart seeks to monopolize low-end retail, thereby sending money into the bulging wallets of the multi-billionaire Walton family instead of re-circulating the money through local spending, “sharing economy” enterprises are seeking to vacuum up as much money as possible, with speculators salivating over the potential profits.

Billionaire Silicon Valley libertarians are attempting to become wealthier at the expense of working people. That’s not disruption, that’s capitalism as usual.