Monday, December 19, 2016

Book Review: The elephant in the room

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A review of The Bleeding Edge by Bob Hughes, New Internationalist, £10.99.
by Michael Roberts

This is a very good book, which stands above many others in the ever-growing genre that looks at the role and impact of the new technologies of robots and artificial intelligence on the future of human social organisation.  As Betsy Harmann, Professor of Development Studies at Hampshire College US, says in the book’s blurb: “Rejecting both apocalyptic pessimism and techno-optimism, Hughes provides a compelling map to the future in which information technologies are harnessed for the common good.”

Bob Hughes taught digital media at Oxford Brookes University, but he is also an activist, particularly for the rights of migrants, co-founding a campaigning organisation, No One is Illegal UK in 2003.  Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at Oxford University, writes a foreword in which he argues that “technology is neutral.. how we use technology is up to us.  The machine is not in control, corporations and politicians are… it has not been artificial intelligence that has made our world more unequal.  It has been us.” This is Hughes’ message.

Hughes starts by arguing that technological progress has gone hand in hand with the development of capital.  As a result, computers, electronics, intellectual ideas have been converted into private property for profit, leading to “entrenched inequality”.  Yes, capitalism has been the social system under which massive technological progress has been made, reducing the material inputs and time it takes to deliver goods and services people need.  But this has been at the expense of growing inequality and the rapacious destruction and wasteful use of natural and human resources.

As Dorling says in his foreword, “profit maximisation is the anathema for true innovation.” Echoing Mariana Mazzucato in her book, The Entrepreneurial State, which shows how many key technological developments were not the results of capitalist innovation or ‘animal spirits’ but the product of state funding and public scientific research that were then ‘commodified’ by capitalist corporations like Apple, Microsoft or Google.

But Hughes also gives us excellent examples of the way that capitalism and the drive for profits distorts (and delays) innovation from meeting the needs of people.  Kodachrome, the first mass market film launched in 1935 (p32) did not come from research by capitalist corporations but from two musicians working in their spare time at the kitchen sink.  No corporation spent time and money trying to see if manned flight could be achieved; it was done by two Wright brothers with their own.  It is the same story with xerography (later privatised into Xerox), or disk memory (later IBM).  These advances were achieved by individuals in their own time and often in face of opposition from their employers who preferred research for a quick buck than for innovation.

One of the most famous was Colossus, the world’s first true programmable digital computer, which was developed by engineers in the state-owned British Post Office during WW2.  These pioneers were then consigned back to mundane jobs after the war and computer development was stunted for decades by corporate neglect.  A Brookings Institute study found that 75% of computer development funding had come from the state in 1950 – after which corporations did little to develop this exciting innovation, delaying its impact until well into the 1980s.

Hughes then gives us a chapter on the development of technology in class societies going back to the feudal period, arguing that it was the “takeover of egalitarian societies by unequal ones” that held back technological development.  It is here and really throughout the book, that I have my biggest disagreement.  Inequality or an “unequal world” is the bugbear for Hughes.  But this is an imprecise concept.

Inequality has existed for most of human civilisation, but it is driven by the control and distribution of surplus labour and output by a tiny elite.  The history of human social organisation after the primitive communism of hunter-gatherer societies has been the history of classes, to paraphrase Marx. 

Inequality is a thus a product of class society; it is not the cause of it.  Thus it is the capitalist mode of production that has incentive to turn technology toxic, not ‘inequality’ as such.  If you were go through Hughes’ text and replace the words “inequality” or “unequal society” with the word “capitalism”, the picture of causality would be clear.

Making ‘inequality’ the enemy of technical progress smacks of the same ambiguity as found in such books as The Spirit Level, a book that has had wide success. That book argues that there are “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”.  But the real contradiction is not between an unequal society and technical progress, but between technical advances to boost the productivity of labour and the profitability of capital.

Hughes covers excellently the damage that capitalism (sorry, unequal societies) do to life expectancy, height, violence, the environment etc, just as the Spirit Level did.  These are chapters not be missed.  Hughes concludes that “inequality is the elephant in the room” that nobody likes to mention (p111).  Actually many refer to rising inequality now (as Thomas Piketty, the modern economist of inequality, put it in the interview: “I believe in capitalism, private property, the market” — but “how can we tackle inequality?” ).  But few (including Piketty) attach its cause to the capitalist mode of production. That is the real elephant in the room.  By delineating inequality, there is a danger that the elephant will be mistaken for a mouse.

Hughes graphically outlines in a series of chapters that, if technology was controlled by public organisation and in common (or as he prefers, following Kropotkin, the thoughtful anarchist, in ‘mutual association’), then huge strides in innovation could be made.  He provides a host of examples for solving global warming, reversing environmental destruction, reducing wasteful production and protecting natural resources, including flora and fauna.

Planning for need is not only necessary; Hughes shows that it now clearly viable with modern computer techniques like big data, artificial intelligence and quantum computers (see chapter 12 for an excellent account of the so-called ‘calculation debate’ of the 1980s that was supposed to show that planning was impossible because of the millions of decisions involved and therefore socialism was infeasible).  Indeed, Hughes reveals that during its brief rule, the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, actually developed Cybersyn, a project that showed the possibility for harnessing digital computing to plan for social need.

In his final chapter, Utopia or Bust, Hughes discusses the key contradiction for the technology of the future. “Automation under capitalism (here the true elephant is mentioned) is less to relieve drudgery than to relieve manufacturers of some of their wage bills and reduce their reliance on skilled workers” (p310).  Automation under capitalism stunts individual ideas and innovation.  And it is also wasteful e.g. building roads rather than public transport and communications (“when you look at the hours a car can save you and the hours spent paying for it.. a worker has to dedicate each year about two months of work”) (p320).  Airplanes can be more ecologically friendly and more comfortable and useful if they just went slower (p322).  Labour saving devices to reduce toil in the home (washing machines) actually have increased the time spent on child care (nearly 30 hours a week for a woman, the same as in 1900! – p324).  Communal developments would save time and toil for housework – and so mainly for women.  Yet, as Hughes says, the “capitalist world seems specifically designed to eliminate communal activity” (p326).

At the end of the book, Hughes asks “dare we demand equality?” and he calls for the ‘banning of inequality’.  But is this the way to pose the issue?  Technology is indeed the handmaiden of the social order controlling it.  Inequality is the result of that social order.  What is needed is the removal of that social order and its replacement by what used to be called socialism (not ‘post-capitalism’ or ‘equality’).  Then technology can flourish for all and inequality itself will fade.  The demand we must dare for is the common ownership and control of technology, not ending the unequal distribution of its fruits.

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