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.


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.

Sorry, Google, I won’t spy on myself for you

I turned down a chance to spy on myself for Google. This was a real offer: Google, picking my address at random (or so it says) offered me a modest sum of money if I would let them install a monitor on my computer that would report on everything I did online.

Google claimed it wanted to better understand what users do online so as to provide a better Internet experience, or something to that effect. It wasn’t hard for me to turn this offer down, despite Google sending me two letters and having someone call me on my home phone. I was not gentle in turning down the offer but, so far, my Internet connection has not been cut off in revenge.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the real reason for Google taking a personal interest in me and, presumably, untold thousands of others: Advertising.

FenceGoogle evidently seeks further refinements in the algorithms it uses to “tailor” advertising to its Gmail and other users, based on what you are reading or the content of your e-mail. And likely for other, more nefarious purposes. It is disquieting how accepted corporate breaches of privacy seem to be accepted. A son-in-law of a friend, prompted by being asked what he does for a living, actually saw himself as providing a necessary service when he explained how he works for a technology company to tailor advertising to the profile of a user, complaining that non-tailored advertising “would be a waste” — for the recipient of the advertising!

We’ve gone far down a slippery slope when being bombarded by corporate advertising is considered a public service.

This is simply one logical outgrowth of the concept that corporations shouldn’t be taxed. Bus stops, building walls, the insides and outsides of public transportation vehicles, even the sidewalks, are crammed with advertising — city governments ask them to buy advertising space instead of taxing them. National governments borrow from the wealthy and from corporations instead of taxing them; less so can local governments, given the damocles’ sword that corporations can dangle. Tax us? We’ll just move our factory. Voilà! No more pesky taxes to pay.

The ‘right’ to do whatever you want to others

There is no reason to expect technology companies to act any different from those in older industries. It’s not surprising that many Silicon Valley millionaires style themselves as libertarians: What more fundamental “right” could there be for such people than the “right” to be left alone, i.e., to not pay taxes or submit to regulations. Never mind that their newly minted piles of money are built on infrastructure created by government agencies and paid for by taxpayers. The Internet was invented in a Pentagon laboratory; the World Wide Web in a European research laboratory. Global positioning satellites, products of government space programs, are the basis of many a private profit.

The working people whose taxes paid for these technologies aren’t receiving renumeration, but Silicon Valley millionaires certainly are.

So it’s more than a little hypocritical for eight technology companies (AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo) to suddenly declare opposition to government spying programs. The eight corporations grandly call for limiting governments’ authority to collect users’ information; for oversight and accountability; transparency about government demands; respecting the free flow of information; and international treaties to harmonize privacy rules.

It is not beyond notice that these corporations said nothing on this topic until Edward Snowden provided the world with details of spying programs by the U.S. National Security Administration, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters and others. Indeed, the president of a lobbying group, the Center for Democracy and Technology, admitted in an interview with The Guardian that the eight companies are motivated by a fear of losing business in the wake of revelations of their routine facilitation of U.S. government spying.

The extent to which they have lost some of their public standing due to the uncovering of their cozy relations with spying agencies has resulted in this public-relations effort. Nonetheless, Silicon Valley millionaires’ libertarian principles hasn’t stopped them from using “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which has very little to do with trade and much to do with tightening corporate control over society) to get some of their fondest wishes snuck in through the back door.

Technology companies are well represented among the 605 corporate lobbyists who have access to the otherwise secret Trans-Pacific Partnership text, through their own executives and through organizations such as their Information Technology Industry Council.

Why is corporate spying different than government spying?

There is not one word in the jeremiad about privacy from corporate spying. Facebook and some other social-media websites collect more personal information than does the NSA. These torrents of personal information have one core use — to be monetized by Facebook and its cohorts. Advertisers would love to have your personal information in order that they can tailor the advertisements shown you, and follow you with their ads whenever you are online. The more information you willingly hand over to social-media networks, the more they are going to profit from you and the less privacy you have.

Google has decided to supplement its data gathering through direct spying conducted by software directly installed on your home computer. The ability to profit from your detailed personal information by selling it to advertisers and who knows whom else is valuable enough to Google that it is willing to part with minuscule crumbs from its cash hoard to induce you to provide it to them. Maybe next year, Google will offer a small payment if you’ll provide a DNA sample. Many a pharmaceutical company would like to have such information and we should not fall out of our chairs in shock if the libertarian heroes of Silicon Valley are willing to get it for them.

We are outraged by government spying. As we should be. Why, however, is there pervasive silence over corporate spying? Big Data is watching you, and is likely more efficient at it than Big Brother. Is it because capitalist ideology has so inculcated the world with the idea that government is always bad and the private sector is always good? Is it because that ideology’s insistence that creating a profit is the sum of human existence, regardless of who is hurt? It it because corporate domination of every sphere of life has become so taken for granted that it is no more noticed than the air we breath? Is because everything of human creation is being reduced to a commodity, even our own privacy?

Government spying and corporate spying lie along the same continuum. Government is not some disembodied entity floating above society; it is a reflection of the most influential and powerful entities and groups within a given society. The largest industrialists and financiers are those most powerful in a capitalist country — governments thus act on behalf of those interests in opposition to the interests of the working people who comprise the vast majority.

The world system of capitalism requires a center; that center, the United States, necessarily goes the furthest in accommodating these elite interests. It is then no surprise that so much of the spying conducted by U.S. spying agencies concentrates on gleaning industrial and trade secrets from other countries and on suppressing domestic peaceful political dissent. The technology companies are among the beneficiaries, making their sudden privacy advocacy naked hypocrisy, nothing more. I’ll no more spy for Google than for the NSA.

The high cost of new and improved

Planned obsolescence is not a natural phenomenon like the tides. Yet most of us accept it as such. I’ve been forced to think about this because my computer is not long for this world. Eight years ago, it was as up to date as can be. Now, Mac OS 10.3 is evidently one step removed from a stone tablet.

That in itself is a solvable problem. But the friendly and knowledgeable computer person who advised me on new computer options calmly told me that some of my crucial software programs won’t be readable on the latest system. I will have a great many files that will become unreadable (yes, I do back up) without having to cobble together some cumbersome solution.

“New and improved” is marketing gospel. Well, it’s mighty big business — as much as $1 trillion is spent on marketing in the United States alone. People have to buy a whole lot of stuff to justify all the money spent on them to buy it. If products work for a long time, people won’t be moved to buy all that “new and improved” stuff. That’s where planned obsolescence comes in — it’s simply big corporations forcing us to buy new stuff.

Having a new computer isn’t a terrible thing in itself. But having your software be made outdated, thereby rendering many years of writing inaccessible, shouldn’t be the price paid for “progress.” As the friendly and knowledgeable computer person explained just how behind the new and improved times I was, I sighed and said to him, “This is why I don’t like capitalism. It’s all this planned obsolescence.” The computer person, clearly an intelligent person (and working for a quite reputable computer retailer), looked at me totally blankly. He had no idea of what I could be talking about.

To him — and far from him alone — the rapid updating of computer software and hardware was some natural phenomenon, as natural as the tides. I am not arguing here for stasis, nor am I unused to dealing with new computers. Because my original profession, newspaper journalism, was among the first industries to undergo computerization, I’ve been writing on computers since 1978. There were no personal computers then, nor was the concept of “user friendly” yet in existence.

We used highly specialized, balky computers where one had to continually devise methods of getting the machine to do what it was supposed to do but often would not. So I can say I am quite pleased at the advances of the past couple of decades. But continually updating systems so that they become obsolete in a few years is not “new and improved” — it is “let’s make people buy more of our stuff.” What about the many people who can’t afford to keep buying more stuff?

At least the electricity doesn’t have new operating systems

This perpetual consumer arms race is hardly limited to computers, although not necessarily carried as far in other industries. Can you imagine that, needing to replace your decade-old automobile, you go to a dealer, only to find out this year’s new model runs on a different type of fuel, and that you no longer can go to your local gas stations because it won’t run on the same old fuel. Or what if the electricity was changed every few years? Sorry, we’re on a different voltage this year, so all your home’s power sockets are now useless, and you can’t use your lamps or appliances.

Although other industries don’t have the audacity of computer and software makers, a relentless push to induce more consumer purchases is endemic. The weight and size of what we buy is bigger. And it is wrapped up in ever more packaging. The social costs of all this unnecessary consumption are high, and are paid for in environmental destruction.

Here are two statistics that put some perspective on this immense waste:

Add in the immense costs of advertising to induce us to buy stuff we otherwise wouldn’t want or need, and we are talking mountains of waste. Obtaining figures is difficult, but estimates of the money spent on marketing in the U.S. per year range from $460 billion to $1.07 trillion.* Further add in the costs of raw materials, production and transportation, the effects of all this on the environment and the psychological stresses on people continually told they are inadequate without owning the latest gadget, and the impact of new and improved becomes clearer.

All we need is another Earth

Almost all of the world’s higher-income countries, and many lower-income countries, are consuming far beyond Earth’s ability to recuperate. To put this in stark terms, a study by the non-profit group Global Footprint Network estimates that humanity is consuming the equivalent of one and a half earths. The group’s study says:

“This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.”

The Living Planet Report 2012, a study produced by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Global Footprint Network, provides country-by-country and region-by-region breakdowns. It finds that the Middle East/Central Asia, Asia-Pacific, North America and European Union regions are each consuming about double their regional biocapacity. Africa and “other Europe” are about even, while Latin America is currently consuming at less than half its biocapacity.

To this it should be added that Africans themselves use less — much of the consumption there (and in other developing areas) is generated by multi-national corporations headquartered in stronger countries. People in poor countries consume minuscule amounts in comparison to the wealthy of the world and the middle classes of the advanced capitalist countries.

The Living Planet Report’s conclusions, despite being frequently couched in moderate language, nonetheless declare that “business as usual” will lead us to disaster:

“Clearly, the current state of human development, based on increased consumption and a reliance on fossil fuels, combined with a growing human population and poor overall management and governance of natural resources, is unsustainable. Many countries and populations already face a number of risks from biodiversity loss, degraded ecosystem services and climate change, including: food, water and energy scarcity; increased vulnerability to natural disasters; health risks; population movements; and resource-driven conflicts.” [page 10]

All those shiny computers and mobile phones — and so many other consumer products produced in every greater numbers — use metals mined from around the world, often under dangerous conditions. Many of these products are assembled under brutal sweatshop conditions. The environmental damage from moving all these raw materials, manufactured parts and finished products around the world is enormous, and increasing as more destructive and capital-intensive technologies are necessary to extract less accessible resources. We tend to not think about these costs.

“New and improved” is of human creation. If it were as natural as the tides, there wouldn’t be advertising bombarding us everywhere we turn. We have only one Earth and, for now, the rest of the universe is out of our grasp. In a satirical short story written by the science fiction author Stanisław Lem, space-faring marketers set off a series of supernovas that, from Earth, align in the night sky to spell out the name of the product they were promoting. Imagine the budget for that campaign!

And imagine life forms on the planets orbiting those exploded stars — would our morals be so low as to destroy all life on multiple planets to advertise a product? Surely they would not. Yet we seem to be on a course to destroy life on this planet for the sake of short-term corporate profits. Is new and improved really that important?

* The former estimate (from 2008) from Charles W. Lamb, Joseph F. Hair, Jr., Carl McDaniel, Marketing [South-Western Cengage Learning, Mason City, Ohio, USA, 2009]; the latter estimate (from 2005) from the Metrics 2.0: Business & Market Intelligence web site.