Recently the New Yorker has caught my attention with a series of short and concise essays broadly around the Donald’s ascent. In that vein, the recent article about Silicon Valley and “fake news” struck me as insightful but I couldn’t help but wondering if the author was deliberately obtuse or if in fact I do live in an different dimension.
Whether self-driving cars and trucks, drones, privatization of civic services like transportation, or dynamic pricing, all these developments embrace automation and efficiency, and abhor friction and waste. As Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management told MIT Technology Review, “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.”
There is a punch line but as I’ve argued here before these indicators of success, productivity, innovation and efficiency depend on your perspective. If you are a capitalist business such things are beneficial to your bottom line, if on the other hand you owe your existence as a wage slave to the things arising from the consequence of inefficiencies or the lack of innovation then such measures become a threat.
The perfect example offered by Om Malik is the long haul truck driver, and a recent test to replace the driver with an automated process. Great for Uber (who bought the company doing the development) but not so good for the long haul truck drivers.
But returning to the “paradox”. Erik Brynjolfsson concluded the paragraph above with these words
It is, he said, “the great paradox of our era.”
I would argue that it is only a paradox if you assume that the interests pushing innovative disruption, ie the technocratic elite actually have a genuine interest in the welfare of the people affected by its change. Further, you could even argue that concerns about social impacts may well be seen as a unnecessary distraction to those who want to rule the new world. In other words, the disciples of disruptive technology regard the social aspect of their work as something disconnected from the actual technology, a thing apart.
You can see evidence of this in all sorts of places but primarily you see it in the utterances of (well paid) experts who champion technological innovation and production efficiency. Their view is that these things are naturally good because they are good for business and since what is good for business is good for the economy, so they should be also economically good. Since by extension a good economy is apparently good for everyone then the circle is complete, everyone benefits. Troublesome exceptions such as a large pool of potentially unemployed drivers will sort themselves out (magically).
The problem here is one of perspective. It is assumed that because technology is useful that it somehow trumps the social and personal. Unfortunately the obvious truth is “technology-powered capitalism…tends to reward fewer and fewer members of society”. Equally obviously, King Trump isn’t going to do bugger all about it. In fact if you want a conspiratorial analysis you might suspect that the powers to be understand that a, technology is going to fuck the existing socio-economic order leading to b. widespread social unrest which c. will undoubtedly lead to violent internal dissent which is why d. we are waging a so-called war on terror while the state steadily increases the surveillance and policing of its own.
Or maybe I read too much science fiction.