Sunday, June 20, 2010

the ethical and political dimension of technological progress

The skill ladder keeps going up.  I remember what it was like working in IT back in 1998, and it's nothing like it is now.  The amount you need to know to break into this industry is somewhat daunting.  A lot of those jobs were being outsourced then, but it's crazy now.   Or not even outsourced - a lot of it is just automated.  In fact, that was my first IT job: automating shit.  

This guy Marshall Brain thinks automation is going to result in either (a) everyone being unemployed and starving or (b) what I would describe with the word "communism".  He's not the only one espousing a technological/eschatological viewpoint.  There's also Robert Wright, who thinks we're at the beginning of a period in which we're either going to basically get things right or simply kill ourselves.  I'm somewhat convinced of Wright's position, at least in the general features.  He makes political gestures which, if not wholly inspiring, are probably the best we can rationally hope to achieve in the short-run.

All of this got me thinking about the Luddites and the Luddite Fallacy. Automation by itself isn't causing the longer and deeper recessions we're suffering.  There has been almost no break in the blinding pace of technological progress since the early 19th century, when the Luddite movement erupted.  (I would argue that if you look at it from the position of very early human civilization, we have been post-"singularity" for about 500 years now.)  And yet we're not all unemployed, and the prosperity and increase in quality of life has been tremendous by almost any relevant measure.

The question I want to raise is this: Is it automatic?  Does the relentless quickening of technological advance and the increase in productivity automatically result in greater prosperity for everyone, or is there some moment of political decision in this that has to be seized in the right way? It's not as though you introduce an automated loom and the people who used to weave now go and make looms instead. There's a time lag. You have to be trained, and that requires education. Education requires money. There are college students today who are the first in their families to attend.Education and training are hardly guaranteed, especially in American society. It's hard to register this, but the working class had to fight for the right to public education, and it was pretty lousy for a century—Marx described this in the first volume of Capital. Arguably it was the GI Bill which economically enfranchised an entire generation and made possible the previously unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s.

So my point is that technological progress and the increase in productivity it brings is good and necessary and shouldn't be opposed under any circumstances.  There are very few people who do oppose it, though.  The problem is that the questions of prosperity and quality of life—which are connected with things like the level of unemployment, the kinds of social safety nets available in the society, etc.—aren't technological questions.  They're not guaranteed by technological progress.  This is very different from suggesting that technological progress causes unemployment.  I kind of doubt that because if that were the case society would have collapsed some time during the Renaissance—which is arguably when the singularity actually occurred.  What I'm thinking—and again, this goes back to my previous point about the role and meaning of human subjectivity—is that there's a political and ethical dimension to all of this.  The reason we've benefited so much from technological progress isn't because there's something inherently wonderful about it.  Technological growth is more like a natural growth, even if it exists in symbiosis with us, its host.  The reason we've benefited is because people have organized themselves and have struggled against capital and have demanded and won those gains for themselves.

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