Can Technology Save Us?

The Left’s wires are crossed about technology. We hack away at the Gordian knot.

No.

Techno-pessimism abounds on both the left and right, while techno-utopianism remains the breathless mission of the most annoying and consistently wrong people on the planet. Headlines among the left include “Under Capitalism, “Labor-Saving” Technology Only Adds to Our Workload,” in Jacobin,1 Schadt, Peter and Hans Zobel, “Under Capitalism, “Labor-Saving” Technology Only Adds to Our Workload.” Jacobin. February 17th, 2021. https://jacobin.com/2021/02/eu-germany-digitalization-technology  and “Technofascism in India” in Dissent.2 Bhattacharyya, Debjani and Banu Subramania, “Technofascism in India.” n+1. May 13th, 2020. https://www.nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/technofascism-in-india/ There exist podcasts with names like “Tech Won’t Save Us” and “Trashfuture,” the first a fairly serious examination of the injustices faced by those living in shadows of the tech industry, the second a meticulous, mocking documentation of the seemingly thousands of tech-startups that manage to blow an entire hospital’s worth of funding on pool tables. The message is nearly uniform: the work created in lab benches and behind computer desks impoverishes the public.

In local terms, none of these are surprising: most technological changes in the last several decades have been means of siphoning wealth away from workers toward owners with only secondary improvements to people’s daily lives, which explains both the left pessimists and the optimists, while the right’s whole thing has been trying to stand athwart anything that interferes with their dystopian fantasy vision.

This has not always been the relationship between the left and technology.

A scientist using a steam machine with pulley to extract a tooth from a man. Pen drawing by C.E.H., 1894.

The promise of science and technology liberating us from the oppression of the past and capitalism has been a feature of leftist thought since the beginning, from Soviet techno-utopianism to the vague promise that we will simply automate ourselves out of work (positive), and of course the French Revolution post-terror reconstituted science as a method of creating useful technologies rather than an extension of the aristocratic arts. Marxism in particular has a long tradition of techno-optimism, owing to Marx’s formulation that while capitalist technologies make life worse today, they make revolution inevitable in the future. The Marxist-feminist classic by Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, is a particularly famous entry for promoting the idea that technology itself can liberate women from the cruelties of patriarchal capitalism. Each step of technology has another generation of Marxists declare that this technology will be the one that finally causes the contradictions of capitalism to resolve. And we would be fully negligent if we did not at least note the concept of fully automated luxury communism, or its most famous work, Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani, which somehow feels incredibly dated even though it is only four years old at time of writing.

As is so often the case, we can see the origins of this emotional shift in fiction most clearly.

How Does Our Tech Evolve? How Do We?

Brennschluss Interlude (Or, Byron the Bulb and His Economic Consequences)

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is one of the most important meditations on the true nature of technology in postwar world literature. It’s also a very strange, very funny book. Among its wackier and more improbable characters is a sentient, immortal lightbulb named Byron, the subject of a lengthy digression within the novel. Pynchon imagines not only Byron but all the light bulbs of the interwar period as sentient beings engaged in various sorts of gossip and commentary on their own role and the evolving world around them. Mostly, though, they’re passive observers – and the results of the transformations they observe are, unfortunately, tragic.

Byron the Bulb was manufactured by Osram in 1920s Berlin. He comes into the world plotting mischief for humans –“all you do is develop the knack (Yogic, almost) of shutting off and on at a rate close to the human brain’s alpha rhythm, and you can actually trigger an epileptic fit!” – but his most important characteristic is the aforementioned immortality: no matter how long he stays on, he seemingly can’t burn out. This quickly runs afoul of the Phoebus cartel, an international conspiracy led by GE, which sets the prices and controls the operational lives of all the light bulbs in the industrialized world. Phoebus in turn is checked by the Grid, a (to simplify) counter-conspiracy which sells more juice the more efficient the light bulbs are.3 In this context, Pynchon seems to be talking about the Grid as the cartel of energy companies, as opposed to Phoebus the cartel of bulb manufacturers. However, in general throughout the Byron story Pynchon tends to mean by The Grid the power grid itself, the sentient network and hence community of anthropomorphized light bulbs across the industrialized world.  They compromise on a lifespan acceptable to both parties. After Byron has burned for 800 hours, Phoebus dispatches the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies (see where this is going?) to disappear him to a “control point” in Berlin. Byron escapes and sets off on a game of cat-and-mouse across Europe with this fascistic “C.I.A.” As he becomes a sort of itinerant movement leader for the mortal lightbulbs, his dreams of mischief give way to visions of how the bulbs can use their powers, even the ones they might not realize they have, to help humanity. But he finds himself always one step behind Phoebus, and eventually their traitorous agents among the bulbs block any collective action: “His youthful dreams of organizing all the bulbs in the world seem impossible now – the Grid is wide open, all messages can be overheard, and there are more than enough traitors out on the line.” Tales of other immortal bulbs scattered around the world, of isolated acts of resistance (and voltage and current – hyuck hyuck hyuck!), amount to nothing. In the end, bitter and resigned, Byron learns to love his own impotence.

What likely occurs first to politically minded readers – and not at all incorrectly – is to read The Story of Byron the Bulb as something like a goofy allegorical reframing of the struggle between the social movements of the twentieth century and international capital’s enforcers. The very name of the cartel, Phoebus, puts one in a mythological frame of mind, where the story takes the shape of a rebellion of lowly beings against their gods, masters, and creators. On this reading, the story serves a pedagogical function: a primer for budding leftists on how a lifetime of failure turns one young radical with a heart of gold and a filament of tungsten into a jaded, crotchety has-been – never seen the likes of that before! 

(Left): Comparison of Edison, Maxim, and Swan bulbs, 1885. The Wonders of the Universe (https://archive.org/details/b21498830/page/n273/mode/2up). Creator: Anonymous. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. (Right): Osram lamp, 1910, high candle power type (Forty Years of Electrical Progress). Scan from Forty Years of Electrical Progress, London: Ernest Benn, 1930. Scanned by Andy Dingley. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

To go further, we must appreciate how the story recasts the human in technological terms, and vice versa. Throughout his body of work Pynchon is obsessed with the idea of the machine-man or man-machine – the human being who, through their integration with technology, in some way loses their humanity; and the machine which, through its uses and abuses by human beings, becomes all too human itself.4 Near the end of his first novel, V. (1963), Pynchon invents a life story for Kilroy, the meme character of a large-nosed sadsack peeking over a wall, which American GIs doodled all over the place during World War 2. Ingeniously, Pynchon places his origin in a diagram for a band-pass filter, with plus- and minus-signs for eyes and an inductor for hair that could also pass for a lightbulb filament. Thus, Kilroy becomes Pynchon’s consummate machine-man/man-machine, as well as a sort of schematic version of Byron the Bulb.    Pynchon is not unique in seeing humanity and its technology as somehow imbricated in one another, as having their bits entangled, as mutually co-constituting each other5 Take the word “robot,” for example – it means “worker” in Slavic languages, and its modern meaning was coined in a science-fiction play by the left-liberal Czech writer Karel Čapec, RUR(1910). – but he is among the most eloquent expositors of the theory that we and our tools co-evolve. Hardly a comforting idea: if there is a moral in Pynchon, it’s that a hierarchical, militarist, economically exploitative society gets the technology it deserves – and will likely destroy itself as a result.

Technology’s cheerleaders view the destiny of our creations as a teleological striving toward perfect, maximally efficient and effective design. But in actual fact we are constantly making decisions that undercut this assumption. The Phoebus cartel, drunk on the machine-think imperatives of profitability and corporate growth, ruthlessly enforce the production of a technology that’s worse for everyone. The only meaningful check on their power, because Byron fails, is the Grid. In the negotiation between two interdependent systems somewhat at cross purposes, the human side of the man-machine must deliberate and argue until a particular arrangement is reached. But which humans? Notably, the light bulbs themselves have no seat – or socket – at the table.

For those wondering why we should worry about the inner workings of an absurd corporate conspiracy within a novel, get this: the Phoebus cartel really existed. As the media studies professor Markus Krajewski reports, it emerged out of a meeting of executives from major manufacturers – Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, the United States’ General Electric – in Geneva around Christmastime, 1924.6 Markus Krajewski, “The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy,” IEEE Spectrum, September 24, 2014, https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-great-lightbulb-conspiracy The top priorities of the cartels, exactly as Pynchon says, are price controls, production quotas, and, of course, research into planned obsolescence.7 According to Krajewski, who researched Osram’s own documentation from the Phoebus era, “to create [a lightbulb] that reliably failed after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours took some doing over a number of years. The household light bulb in 1924 was already technologically sophisticated: The light yield was considerable; the burning time was easily 2,500 hours or more. By striving for something less, the cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress.” The main points of attack in the research programme were the lightbulbs’ rated voltage and current, and untold dollars and hours were devoted to fiddling with the material, shape, and dimensions of the filaments. “The cartel’s justification for these changes was that at the higher current levels, the bulbs produced more lumens per watt. Alas, more current means not only more brightness but also higher filament temperature and therefore shorter life.” Even Pynchon’s pop-trash suggestion of a Phoebus lab hidden under a Swiss Alp is at least nearly literally true: “Each factory bound by the cartel agreement – and there were hundreds, including GE’s numerous licensees throughout the world – had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a central testing laboratory in Switzerland. There, the bulbs were thoroughly vetted against cartel standards. If any factory submitted bulbs lasting longer or shorter than the regulated life span for its type, the factory was obliged to pay a fine.” Ah Byron! Ah humanity! The cartel may be gone, but by global industry-wide agreement, incandescent bulbs continue to be sold at Phoebus’s paltry 1,000–hour lifespan to this day.

The nightmare of the twentieth century never truly ended, and we still live in the world the Phoebus cartel helped to make a hundred years ago. Their wranglings in a ubiquitous but rarely noticed economic sector should remind us that any technology as it exists in the world is not necessarily the end of its potential. We who don’t have a seat at boardrooms or in industrial planning meetings should be skeptical of the technologies that are made available for public consumption. More often than you might think, there are people who are interested in preventing those technologies from being all that they can be.

We like to imagine Pynchon falling into a fit of ecstatic revery in some musty, cavernous research library as he stumbles upon the Phoebus conspiracy. He’s already been mulling over the ambivalent nature of light – both wave and particle, both redemptive and destructive (as for the latter, think searchlights seeking out prisoners, or the blinding flash of light when a nuclear bomb detonates). As a moral and political thinker, seeing our only hope in solidarity, he figures all our helpful gestures, of love and of pragmatism, as lighting the way for others in the dark.8 Not for nothing is the epigraph of Against the Day the Thelonious Monk quote, “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.” One of the great jazz pianists of the bebop era and beyond, Monk is also the main inspiration for the character of McClintic Sphere in V. Sphere’s inner journey formalizes into a proverb that we here at Strange Matters take for a first principle: “Keep cool, but care.” Byron, before his downfall, urges his neighboring bulbs – us – to escape Phoebus’ monomaniacal perspective and recognize light as literally more than meets the eye:

Whenever he can, he tries to instruct any bulbs nearby in the evil nature of Phoebus, and in the need for solidarity against the cartel. He has come to see how Bulb must move beyond its role as conveyor of light-energy alone. Phoebus has restricted Bulb to this one identity. ‘But there are other frequencies, above and below the visible band. Bulb can give heat. Bulb can provide energy for plants to grow, illegal plants, inside closets, for example. Bulb can penetrate the sleeping eye, and operate among the dreams of men.’

Other worlds, like other frequencies, are possible.

Is Tech Deterministic, or Contingent?
Socially Constructed, or Biophysical?

Or are they? They probably are, but not necessarily always. The matter actually turns out to be ridiculously complicated.

Like all novels of ideas,9 An old name for a loose genre of sorts within literary fiction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – straddling philosophical, political, modernist, and science fiction novels – that was dedicated in one way or another to exploring the conflict between the great ideas of their era. For more information, see Chapter 3, “Readymade Ideas” of Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (2020) and John Michael Colón, “Art That Contains Theories” in The Point Issue 26 (Winter 2022). Gravity’s Rainbow is of more than just literary interest. The tale of Byron the Bulb raises fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of technological evolution; and in turn, the mental models we construct to explain how our tech changes and develops have serious implications for our practical political and economic projects. When the socialist Left is debating within itself about tech – usually in extraordinarily crude terms – these fundamental questions are very often what’s at stake, even if they’re barely discussed directly at all.

If we had to sketch it out on a napkin, we think you could set the parameters of a more intelligent discussion about technology by asking two difficult questions, the possible answers to which produce two distinct but interrelated dichotomies of philosophical positions.

Robert Seymour, The March of Intellect, ca. 1828. Print : etching, with watercolour; image 249 x 350 mm, British Museum, Museum number 2003,0531.29. Satire against corruption: A huge automaton representing the new London University (later University College, London) tramples over greedy clerics, doctors, lawyers and the crown. Curator’s comments: This is one of a large number of satires on the theme of the March of Intellect or the March of the Mind. These phrases can stand – as here – for the Rationalist view of Progress, but in other contexts are used contemptuously to imply that education for the masses will lead them to neglect their proper duties. London University was founded in 1826 to serve a student population that included Roman Catholics, Jews, and other non-Anglicans who had previously been denied university education.

The first question is this: what ultimately determines the evolutionary path a particular technology takes – the internal logic of its biophysical requirements, or the socially constructed decisions of the societies that develop it? Or in other words: is tech primarily a social construct, or a fact of nature? 

Now, any reasonable and educated person understands that, stated in absolute terms, this is a false dichotomy. Technology is obviously to some extent both a social construct limited by social structures and a biophysical product limited by the laws of physics. But properly stated, the question is asking – which limit, in the last analysis, is more important? Which takes the predominant role in shaping what a technology will ultimately be?

This is very closely related to the second big question: is the evolutionary path technology takes contingent or deterministic? Here’s an easy way to understand what those words mean: imagine that technology’s evolution, seen over time, forms a sort of “tech tree” like those in video games such as the Civilization series or Paradox Interactive’s various titles – some progressive ladder or pathway a society can take, beginning with the ability to build Stonehenge and culminating with the ability to build rocket ships. What we’re asking is, what is the shape of the tech tree? Is it a straight line moving up from the Stone Age to the Silicon Age, a single path that all societies must take and upon which some are simply more or less far along (or, more provocatively, higher or lower up) than others? Or is the tech tree a more complex set of branching paths – perhaps not even a tree at all so much as a fungal network, a tangle of crossroads, a set of possible trajectories within a bounded possibility space – where different societies can choose to pursue and grow different possible technologies and, as they move further down along one path, unknowingly leave behind possible roads not taken? To put it in practical terms: we have the technology that we have, because our society took the path that it took. But could this technology have been otherwise?

By William Heath using the pseudonym Paul Pry, represented by a vignette of Paul Pry. Print: etching, with watercolor; image 28.6 x 40.4 cm British Museum, Catalogue of political and personal satires, vol. XI, London 1954, no. 15779. Within the image: Rapid transport: passengers travel on a model horse driven by steam; a postman equipped with wings travels by air; a steam-powered waggon travels between Bath and London in six hours; a pneumatic tube takes passengers from Greenwich Hill to Bengal; there is a suspension bridge between Bengal and Cape Town; a giant flying fish takes convicts from England to New South Wales; Irish emigrants are fired from a cannon; etc. Mechanization: boot-polishing and shaving are powered by steam; bodies are lifted by crane up on the roof of a church for burial in order to foil body-snatchers. Sophisticated tastes among the masses: dustmen eat icecream and pineapples; cat’s meat is called “delicate viands for quadrupeds”; a street-vendor sits under a tasselled parasol reading fiction. A tombstone marking the grave of the “Select Vestry” is decorated with dining implements, implying that the introduction of local government elections will stop aldermen etc. from extravagant dining at public expense. Extravagant building projects: Marble Arch and Buckingham Palace; a church with Chinese, Indian and Gothic features; literally building castles in the air to pay off the national debt.

Broadly speaking (and we must place a huge asterisk here, as this isn’t always necessarily true),10 A very important exception to this general tendency is Marxism. Marxists, though deterministic in their theories of technological evolution, tend to be social constructivists about technology itself, inasmuch as in the Marxist story the forces of production (technology itself) and the relations of production (how the production processes of society are organized in terms of class and political economy) are always very intimately related, with the latter driving the development or lack thereof of the former. This is usually in the context of the idea of “transitions” between modes of production – from feudalism to capitalism, and from capitalism to socialism. So, for example, in Marx’s story there are certain elements of capitalism (the bourgeoisie’s overthrow of the technologically stagnant feudal landlords, individual capitalists’ need to adopt labor-saving technology or get eaten up by competitors who do) that up to a certain point drive the development of the forces of production. But at a certain point of development, the very same property and class relations (a wages system, private ownership over the means of production) stop being aids to technological development but actually impede its further progress (for any of a rather large number of reasons Marx names at one point or another, including: the “anarchy of production” caused by the inability to plan and coordinate beyond the firm, the highly destructive periodic crises generated by capitalist social relations, the possibility increased class conflict presents of the “mutual destruction of the contending classes”). It is precisely Marx’s belief that collectivizing the economy is necessary to reach the next stage of technological development – that, indeed, a process of “self-socialization” has begun already under capitalism itself, with the rise of large vertically integrated firms of the sort later socialists would call monopolistic or oligopolistic – which leads him to believe the rise of socialism is more or less inevitable, at least as the only viable option other than a regression into less complex social forms. Thus, whether bolstering the productive forces of technology or serving as fetters upon their reaching the next level, the social organization of production is for Marxists the driving force behind technological development and makes it evolve along certain fixed lines: a determinist social constructivism. (Although even this is a bit of a simplification; at other moments Marx emphasizes how technology drives the evolution of social relations too, and they’re really in a self-reinforcing feedback loop – though generally he does seem to think social relations are more often in the drivers’ seat.) It’s difficult to cite any one passage of Marx for his total view of technology, since he doesn’t even use the word (preferring the German term often translated as “forces of production” or “productive forces”) and his ideas in this connection are peppered across his body of work and subordinated to other theories in his system. But you can get a sense of what we’re on about from “Idealism and Materialism” in The German Ideology; “Preface” in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy; “The Fragment on Machines” in The Grundrisse; “Chapter 12 – The Concept of Relative Surplus Value,” “Chapter 15 – Machinery and Modern Industry,” and “Chapter 32 – Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation” of Das Kapital Volume I; and “Chapter 5 – Economy in the Employment of Constant Capital,” “Chapter 13 – The Law As Such,” and “Chapter 48 – The Trinity Formula” of Das Kapital Volume III. people who are social constructivists about technology tend to believe its many possible evolutionary paths are contingent and could have been otherwise, whereas people who are naturalists about technology tend to believe its singular evolutionary path is deterministic and more or less set in stone.11Readers familiar with theoretical evolutionary biology will recognize, probably with a bit of shock, how strikingly similar this debate about technological evolution is to certain major controversies in the past few decades within the study of biological evolution. In particular, the dichotomy between what we’ve called contingency and determinism is directly analogous to the arguments between Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris of whether contingency or convergence is the dominant driver of the evolution of organisms. Good socialists can and should disagree on any or all of these extremely tricky points, though actually existing socialists tend to be very bad about making clear where they stand and why.

Pynchon and the story of the real-world Phoebus cartel make an excellent case for the constructivist-contingent side of things. Planned obsolescence of the sort Phoebus imposed on lightbulbs (and which has become standard across a broad range of consumer products – smartphones, computers, etc) is clearly bound up with a capitalist firm’s need to keep people buying the same product line to secure a permanent revenue stream. People will only keep buying if an updated version makes innovations that are truly indispensable (which is expensive and highly uncertain) or if the product is rigged to break down at predictable intervals (which is cheap and highly reliable); capitalists thus chose the latter as a key design principle. In societies, or even individual productive units within society, where production takes place not to secure a revenue stream by selling a product but with an eye to the producers using the end-product themselves, technology can be (indeed, has been and is being) designed in order to be reliable, resilient, redundant, and repairable. This is not only an abstract argument about technologies that have existed, but a political and moral argument that we would make better technologies in a society whose industries were run on principles of worker self-management and universal distribution of basic needs – that socialism would produce different and better tech than capitalism.

On the other hand, there are certain brutal truths that stand very much in favor of the naturalist-determinist position and cannot be ignored. 

The first is that all technologies, in order to exist at all, have biophysical requirements: the laws of nature must be manipulated in certain ways, and only in the correct ways, in order to achieve the predictable effects that we call the characteristics of that technology. Electrons, stem cells, soil nitrates, and gravity do not particularly care about our social structures, any more than they care about our feelings. If you’ve decided you need to make steel, then all other things being equal you’re going to need to make steel – and there’s a very good argument that socialist steel, capitalist steel, and fascist steel will all more or less be the same and come about by the same process. Here a certain language of personification can be helpful. For the steel itself in a way imposes certain requirements upon the productive process; it doesn’t care whether you’re a socialist, a capitalist, or a fascist; instead, no matter who you are, it will not allow you to produce it unless you do certain operations with certain materials in a certain order. The steel dictates the recipe, you’re just a sous-chef following orders. And what’s worse, that recipe may only be achievable by certain social configurations – if your social structures aren’t shaped a certain way, you simply may not be able to make steel. This is what left-techno-pessimists like Jacques Ellul mean when they say that, far from society determining technology, it’s technology that determines society – and usually, they argued, by forcing it into a more authoritarian shape.

Alright then, you might say: if steel production makes us more authoritarian, then let’s just learn to do without steel. That’s all well and good on paper: but now you have to do without cars, railroads, and everything else that uses steel as an ingredient, unless you can come up with a replacement input produced in sufficient numbers by acceptable methods. The same is true for any technology. What’s even more complicated is that the same technology can have radically different industrial uses – some of which are desirable, others of which are not. (You need a chemical industry and its attendant knowledge base to produce the ingredients for the pharmaceutical industry’s modern medicines – but as soon as you have it, you instantly also have the ability to produce chemical weapons.) And worst of all, even if you make responsible choices, the actions of your neighbors may force you to reverse them anyway. Perhaps other technological pathways and social structures are technically possible, but it doesn’t matter. A hostile imperial power (or several!), using wage labor to develop heavy industries that produce superior military technology, may simply force you to either adopt the same techno-social framework yourself for self-defense (as post-Meiji Japan and the USSR arguably did) or be conquered by them and have those structures imposed upon you by force (as happened to most colonized countries). Either way, it’s the same result – you become the mirror image of the dominant societies. Regardless of whether other paths of technological evolution are possible in principle, this Red Queen effect – the tendency of competing entities to evolve as copycats to one another – probably accounts for the seeming rigidity and linearity of human history’s tech tree in practice, however open it may be in principle.

But on the other-other hand, there’s good reason not to lose hope. Things often seem impossible until they’re actually done, after which they become bland facts of life. Look closer at the history of human technology, as Lewis Mumford and Kevin Carson have done for the history of energy systems and Chris Paine has for the history of electric vehicles, and certain very plausible roads not taken for the development of certain technologies present themselves.12For extremely interesting and underrated libertarian-socialist takes on the history of technology, see Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934) and Kevin Carson, The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto (2010). For the capitalist suppression of early electric vehicle technology, see Chris Paine’s film Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006). If you understand the deep motivations underlying some technology’s development well enough, it does not seem insane in principle to assert, given alternative ways of meeting those same needs that were available at the time, that we could have set off in a different direction. And if that’s the case, then there may be a way we can make the Red Queen effect work for us and not just the bad guys. Because there’s always a first-mover advantage in these things: if you build a better mousetrap than the competition, and it just works, then not only the mousetrap itself but all the social structures and philosophical principles that make it possible will instantly become more attractive to others who want a leg up – even your ideologically opposed competition. Build a cooperative magazine whose articles kick ass and whose writers get paid competitive rates, and cooperatives become more attractive not just to the converted but to all readers, editors, and writers of good taste. Build an anarcho-socialist society with a world-renowned animation industry and high-quality pharmaceutical exports, and orders of magnitude more people will suddenly become interested in becoming anarcho-socialists.

Still, these are all open ontological questions. While the truth is probably somewhere in between both dichotomies, it’s not clear which side of each or both wins out – and it may very well vary from case to case. If certain technologies insist upon social processes we find unacceptable, we may have to do without them; if we can’t, we may have to compromise our social principles (though we have to know where to draw the line in that compromise); if possibilities for alternative paths of development in line with our principles exist, we can’t ignore them; and if we can successfully exploit them, we may have significant advantages. Our practical political goals in a number of key domains will ultimately be rooted in the outcome of debates we have amongst ourselves over the fundamental nature of technology – and we must try, despite our inevitable differences on those principles, to make acceptable compromises and work together towards our shared end goals. In the various case studies we’ll now proceed to analyze, you’ll see these fundamental questions reappear in different forms again and again. 

A Rose By Any Other Name Rots Just The Same: Technocracy, Meritocracy, Aristocracy

Bound up with the question of whether technology can save us is the habit of certain technologists to anoint themselves our saviors.

An argument is made with some frequency in American contexts that many of the US political system’s failures to address the changing technological environment of its citizens result from the technological ignorance of its lawmakers: that senators, executives, and judges are drawn too frequently from legal educations and not frequently enough from physics and chemistry and so on. The solution would be to elect leaders who are knowledgeable on STEM subjects, so that they are better equipped to craft and enforce legislation that is in tune with these new technologies. To deal with our democratic issues with a new layer of technocracy.

Or perhaps better yet, what if our leaders only hailed from the STEM professions and could simply sub in to make economic and social decisions for the whole, based on some optimized understanding of society’s functioning? During the interwar period, groups of engineers, scientists, and other technical professionals in the US and Canada formed small working groups and professional societies that would eventually coalesce into the “Technocracy Movement.” Groups like the “Technical Alliance,” whose membership included some big names (including none other than the influential economist Thorsten Veblen!), was led by the somewhat mysterious and enigmatic Howard Scott, who presented himself as a university-trained engineer (in reality his academic credentials have been questioned). Scott and others would go on to found Technocracy Incorporated, a company set up to promote the distinctively non-democratic ideals of Technocracy: the top-down, scientific management of society’s resources allocated toward ends historically associated with the distributional outcomes of something akin to a labor voucher system,13 Under a Technocracy economic system, workers work according to fundamentally different schedules allowing them to work significantly shorter weeks, often only 12-16 hours. They would be able to achieve this, the Technocracy adherents claim, by replacing the standard 12-month calendar with one long 365-day “month” where workers work staggered schedules each week in groups which allow for more downtime overall for each worker.    along with what is essentially an energy theory of value.14 They attempt to measure the energy requirements to produce goods and services. In the 1920s, groups of technocrats conducted the “Energy Survey of North America” to establish the energy value of all goods and services produced in North America(!). Once they had their estimate of the total energy, the technocrats would then take the total energy and divide it by the total number of citizens over age 25 in the technate (their term for the proposed North American Technocratic society). This ratio would serve as the value of one voucher (or “energy certificate”) redeemable for a specific quantity of energy. Each member of the technate would receive an equal number of energy certificates. Each time you buy something, the energy cost of what you bought is deducted from your available energy certificates. Further, the vouchers they received were tied to their identity (non-tradable) and expired after a certain length of time to prevent hoarding.   On paper, it’s not the worst plan, and this scheme arguably represents the rational kernel to the Technocracy vision for society insofar that could potentially reduce the amount of socially necessary labor time (to put their views into Marxian terms). Technocracy correctly predicted many of the most important social, economic, and even ecological problems. But the movement, though initially left-adjacent, began to posture as apolitical in its unsuccessful bid for influence during the Depression, and even took a hard anti-communist turn in the 1940s in reaction to the public turning on them for opposition to US and Canadian intervention in World War 2. Perhaps in a nervous tic born of such convulsions, rather than attacking capitalism the Technocracy people blame a conceptual stand-in they call “the Price System” for its failings; and instead of believing it will take political and economic struggle to fix things, they believe a new society can somehow be engineered from the top down. As one Technocracy advocate claims in one of Technocracy Incorporated’s many hour-long videos, “We are making a new approach; it is not political, financial, philosophical, legal, religious, or moral – it is a technological approach. Technocracy is the scientific answer to America’s social problems.”15 For Technocracy adherents, “Any social system that exchanges goods and services by trade or commerce based on commodity evaluation and uses debt tokens or money is a price system.”

While this obscure movement seems not to have had much direct influence on our society, Technocracy, Inc.’s idea of “science applied to social operations” permeates technocratic thought more generally. It is the single most eloquent expression of STEMlord arrogance as a political programme. And as a philosophy held most often by scientists, engineers, or other experts of one sort or another, it’s rather convenient, isn’t it? Those professionals who currently happen to occupy expert positions in the leading research institutes and the apparatus of the administrative state (or in Scott’s case, perhaps not) have a vested interest in presenting themselves as a natural and perhaps inevitable choice for leadership. And those who are by inclination less interested in democratic decision-making can use the rhetoric of technocracy to crush dissent within their disciplinary fiefdom and circumvent the need for public accountability. The Technocracy movement of the 1930s aspired to become the executive committee of an engineered society to replace capitalism. The actually existing postwar technocratic elite, in both the US and USSR, were ultimately the servants of the military-industrial complexes of these conflicting imperial states. And since the rise of global capitalism and neoliberalism, the technocratic ideal has been most visible in the oligarchs produced by the boom years of Silicon Valley, with their variously realistic plans to colonize space and overcome the limits of the human body one VC-subsidized enshittified app at a time. This technocratic lineage is to us best embodied by a truly obscene fact: Joshua Haldeman – one of the leaders of Technocracy, Inc. in Canada – is the grandfather of Elon Musk.

Technocratic arguments are unpersuasive for a variety of reasons. Let us begin with the least interesting, from within the bounds of boring old liberal democracy: first, the actual elected lawmakers have only a small level of participation in the crafting of legislation. It is simply not a significant part of their job. It is a part of their job description, to be sure, but a senator is simply too important to be bogged down with technical details of their work. The actual blood, sweat, and ink of a law is made by their staff. Whether we have Senator Olds, JD or Senator Olds, PhD of chemistry has little bearing on the legislation they end up endorsing and “writing,” because that’s somebody else’s job. And this goes for executives and judges as well, perhaps even more so: judges are famously reliant on their clerks for the actual research and drafting of legal decisions, especially as they go higher up the chain of promotions.

Another uninteresting problem with this proposal is one that anybody from the sciences spots quite readily: scientists are not generalists. Senator Olds, PhD of chemistry, is not meaningfully more informed on data privacy law than any random person off the streets. They may not even be any more informed on laws regarding the safe handling of toxic organic chemicals – they may, after all, have been a specialist in crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance, polymers, catalysis, the list goes on. PhDs are not designed to give a person a general knowledge of their field; though some level of that is a prerequisite, they are designed to push the boundaries of knowledge of that discipline. The belief that any scientist is straightforwardly more informed in areas outside of their specialty is a form of anti-intellectualism known as scientism, and it drives scientists with any real intellectual formation up a goddamn wall. In this particular case the argument can be boiled down to a belief that studying law teaches you less about law than studying physics.

More interesting is the question of how this perspective affects more fundamental questions about who ought to rule in society – something that’s particularly important for those of us who want more radical forms of democracy. The key argument of the technocrats is that those with the correct expertise should be in charge. In our context, this can be a subversive idea: for many technocrats, the powerful are simply not educated in the truly important ways to rule over us, and they will cite decisions in parliaments and courtrooms as evidence, with the implication being that the problems with these decisions are born of ignorance, of lack of qualification, of insufficient discrimination on who is allowed to enter into the halls of power. But when technocrats feel they or their favored experts are in power, technocracy as an ideology becomes fundamentally conservative. It’s in this context that technocracy reveals its deep roots and connections to some of the oldest reactionary arguments for hierarchy.

The belief that governance is simply too big a problem to be left to the unqualified is an ancient belief, finding its most famous advocate in renowned anti-democracy shithead Xenophon.16 More famous for his Anabasis, it is his Lacedaemonion Politeia where he lays out his argument that Athens should be more inegalitarian and authoritarian The most classical term for this is “aristocratic,” “rule by the best.” The logic that pro-aristocracy advocates have made for thousands of years is that knowing how to farm or lay brick does not give one insight into how a government should be run, and instead the running of a government is best left to those who are trained specifically for that purpose. Typically the term has more specific connotations than simply “a ruling elite,” and implies the use of a hereditary caste of rulers, which allows the allocation of educational resources relevant to ruling to be limited exclusively to members of that caste from birth.

In 1958 Michael Dunlop Young coined the term “meritocratic” as a dystopian satire of the weaknesses of the British Tripartite System of education.17 This was a system for dividing students early in their career into high- vs middle- vs low- educations based on testing. Like all such systems, it was very easily exploited by wealthy families. The choice of terminology was deliberate: it replicated nearly all of the flaws of aristocratic governance, just with a temporary broadening of who was allowed to enter the elite. Young designed meritocracy as aristocracy with extra steps and more doublespeak, but the term itself has captured the imagination of people who are especially proud of their SAT scores. The laudatory version of meritocracy, which is far more commonly seen than its original satirical vision, should be understood in this light: whatever the steps taken to find and identify these meritocrats, the intent is to protect the rulers from even hearing feedback from the ruled.

While the modern framing is often cast as “technocratic,” which is fortunately already a tarnished term due to its staggeringly poor performance under recent tests like the Monti government of Italy, the distinction between “government of the technically skilled,” “government of the meritorious,” and “government of the best” sound pretty easily confused. And indeed it seems like hair-splitting: from a meritocracy standpoint, the problem with aristocracy is the lack of standardized tests; from a technocracy standpoint, the problem with meritocracy is the choice of subject matter for those standardized tests.

The problem that brings technocratic thinking into being is a real one: in an ever more complex technological society whose industries depend upon many different kinds of deep but narrow technical expertise to keep their operations running and improve their processes over time, how are “the people,” broadly construed, to make informed decisions about how to run their lives? 

Technocracy says they can’t, and that only the technical experts ought to rule. But as we’ve seen, this is a fake answer to a real problem. Technocrats are self-serving, denigrating necessary expertise that lies outside their field while treating their own specialized knowledge as if it’s general enough to justify their rule. They do not solve the problem of coordinating information exchanges between area experts any more than a democracy with expert consultants or civil servants does, and would possibly on average fare worse. Their argumentative structures share family resemblances and direct lines of descent with ancient and discredited notions of there being some natural, divinely ordained aristocracy. And finally, as demonstrated by the history of everything from Technocracy, Inc. to today’s Elon Musk cult, people with technocratic politics tend not to be technical experts themselves, and to place their quasi-religious faith in charlatans who are merely cosplaying as great engineers, scientists, or inventors rather than actually being that. The ultimate problem with all of this is that technocracy believes living a life is a specialized skill – whereas, in fact, everyone lives a life that gives them special insight into some aspect of our shared problems, and it takes all types to build a world together.

For socialists and radical democrats like us, the problem of experts remains. This has been a problem for most practical socialist experiments in the twentieth century, whether social-democratic, Leninist, or anarcho-syndicalist. And it’s particularly urgent to this magazine, since we are continually publishing technical experts in various fields precisely because their insight is urgently needed by social movements of which we’re a part. The liberal democracies’ principle of consultation – whereby technical experts are summoned to be advisors of, or hired as permanent bureaucrats by, sovereign bodies of elected ordinary citizens – seems like a good starting point for addressing the problem, and may be translatable to direct-democratic rather than representative assemblies. But probably the most promising approach is something like the principles outlined by the great Trinidadan libertarian Marxist CLR James in his famous essay “Every Cook Can Govern.” James turned his thoughts to Athens, that birthplace not only of anti-egalitarian thinkers like Xenophon and Plato and Aristotle but also of egalitarians like Demosthenes and institutions like the Assembly. He notes that not only were the city’s laws and judgments decided upon by the assembly of its free citizens, but that day-to-day administrative posts were filled by mandatory shifts assigned by random sortition precisely like our own jury duty today. The Athenians trusted ordinary people to run the city, in other words; people were elected by vote only for a handful of positions that required area expertise, like being a general for a war, and this was seen not as core to democracy but as a necessary and unfortunate concession to the aristocratic principle. Our social movements have much to learn from such attitudes in structuring their own autonomous institutions and cultures.

Red Queen’s Race in Surveillance and Privacy

“But that isn’t what people mean when they say technology,” we hear you say, “that isn’t what I mean when I say technology.” Fear not, fellow strawman, we hear your cry of dissatisfaction. We know that that the cyberpunk dystopia that people fear is not a dystopia of flammable houses, parking lots for parking lots, and privatized sanitation departments, but one of surveillance, endless oceans of observations, data banks reaching to the heavens that log every motion of every atom of every consumer in order to create ads that target the time between taking a bite of their sandwich and taking a sip of their water.

We find it hard to deny that the various powerful creeps of the world are hard at work peeping into every nook and cranny of your life. And that they are at the very least hard at work developing new tools and methods to watch you in the bathroom. They are, after all, both powerful and creeps. Power lets them hire lots of clever people to develop new surveillance technologies, and their creepiness creates a bottomless well of demand for watching you in the bathroom.

We also find it hard to blame the chisel for the sculptor’s choices. A complicated but powerful fact about observation technologies is that any new method of observation leads rapidly to new methods of deception. Identification cards can be forged, digital footprints can be spoofed, radars can be jammed. A particularly exciting one is in poisoning generative algorithms, using the very nature of their plagiarism-centric inputs to corrupt their eventual outputs.18 Melissa Heikkilä, “This new data poisoning tool lets artists fight back against generative AI,” MIT Technology Review October 23rd, 2023 https://www.technologyreview.com/2023/10/23/1082189/data-poisoning-artists-fight-generative-ai/  This is baked deep into the nature of what an observation technology is: it is the use of some artifice to collect greater information. Anybody who understands that artifice, that technique, can devise techniques that deceive it. Often deception is cheaper than observation, and even in cases where it isn’t, high-observation systems often disproportionately reward those who engage with them in bad faith.

The faith that advances in internet technology in particular necessarily decrease privacy is a recent change of heart in the public discourse, revealing that this is not and was never inevitable. The fear for most of the 90s and 00s was not that the internet would destroy privacy, but that it would enable too much privacy. Liberal and conservative commentators alike expressed constant, boring fear that citizens would be able to move through online spaces with total anonymity and that they would necessarily use this power to do evil. The idea that a person might wish to have privacy to evade abusers in their personal life, or for that matter to evade predators they had not yet met, seems to have been completely outside the imagination of these utter vacuums of emotional intelligence. From the NYT in 2010: 

“Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People – even ordinary, good people – often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.”19Julie Zhuo, “Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt,” New York Times (29 November 2010)

While debates over banning many of the simplest methods of internet self-defense were heated, they ultimately petered out over the last decade or so. Not because the technologies were outlawed, nor because they were obsoleted, but because they simply were not adopted with nearly the same broadness as intrusive surveillance technologies. Superpower governance has included the haphazard but powerful expedient of subsidizing surveillance corporations while electing not to prosecute those firms for crimes.

This is a political decision, not a technologically determined outcome. And this can be seen most clearly by the fact that privacy violations that Americans take for granted are illegal not just on paper but in practice in other parts of the world. Germany is the most obvious example, where the digital right to be forgotten, a powerful framing of some privacy rights, warps any social media space that comes into contact with German citizens. A reactionary may argue that this is once again a privilege of the European, only possible because America bears the mantle of world police. The less demented have little trouble observing that whatever Germany’s failings at dealing with dangerous criminals and terrorists, it’s hardly any worse than the United States.

Arnold Eagle (American, 1909 – 1992), photographer [Man works with machinery with a drill bit attached], about 1940–1942. Gelatin silver print Image: 33.7 Å~ 26.3 cm (13 1/4 Å~ 10 3/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XB.204.4

“There is a reason that questions around privacy and surveillance are decided primarily in courtrooms and legislatures, not in laboratories and workshops.”

The efficacy of these privacy violations is worth interrogating. There are typically two justifications given for the expansion of the panopticon: public safety and profitability. Public safety claims are most often grounded in counterterrorism, while the center of the profitability argument is the individually targeted advertisement. It would be hard as an American to feel convinced by the counterterrorism arguments: the history of post-9/11 counterterrorism in America is a history of entrapment, embarrassingly inflated claims, and frankly regular terrorist attacks slipping easily through the nets designed to stop such attacks. And targeted advertising seems equally dubious, with many of the most advanced users of targeted advertising abandoning expensive, complicated tools in favor of older, dumber, but much more efficient forms of advertising.

Which is all a very long way of saying that the erosion of the American citizen’s privacy, and by extension the privacy of large swaths of the world, is the result of organized, creepy political campaigning. There is a reason that questions around privacy and surveillance are decided primarily in courtrooms and legislatures, not in laboratories and workshops. Privacy technology is not a place where there is a past with privacy and a future without: the future is indeterminate, and a world where we can close our doors and be alone with ourselves is a matter of fighting for it.

Can’t Look Back: Nuclear Weapons

[A]ges in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance… A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak. The great age of democracy and of national self-determination was the age of the musket and the rifle.20George Orwell, “You and the Atomic Bomb,” Tribune (19 October 1945), https://orwell.ru/library/articles/ABomb/english/e_abomb

At the risk of making ourselves look like fools, let us engage with a field of technological advancement where the changes in tools available does seem to have over-determined politics. The history of military technology is the history of pointy rocks, and how to best place those pointy rocks inside people. A stick of some length with a pointy rock on the end, delivered as either a projectile or more intimately via human muscle power, enjoyed an incredibly lengthy period as the military technology par excellence. Eventually advances in chemistry enabled people to deposit pointy rocks into people from further ranges with greater reliability with less reliance on human musculature, and it was in this context that most modern military theory was written – including our more recent theories of revolution. 

Less need for training, less ability for armors to protect your best trained soldiers, and a variety of technologies that don’t have that much to do with pointy rocks themselves created an environment where the limiting factor on military deployments became the ability to simply get warm bodies holding guns to the field of battle in sufficient numbers. The early theorists of this era focused on aristocratic control, as these theorists were aristocrats who had little faith or interest in the capabilities of the people they stepped on, but the French Revolution revealed that you really could get an awful lot of warm bodies to the field without the aristocrats really having all that much control.

This series of changes in European military technology, most associated with the gun but also driven by social, economic, and even religious factors, is collectively termed “the military revolution,” and our most famous modern theories of revolution all come in this context. It is worth being explicit here: Marx’s model for a proletariat revolution that successfully topples bourgeois states is built for a military technology framework. His predictions are not exclusively driven by the industrialization of workplaces, but also the industrialization of battlefields. In the pre-modern European military context, where a small number of highly-trained, well-equipped, life-long soldiers were capable of suppressing enormous numbers of scattered peasants, you do not have a similar theory of revolution. Post-military revolution, there simply isn’t enough training, armor, or experience to reliably defeat musketline after musketline.21 Yes somebody’s going to come at us with something like The Great Northern War, but check those force numbers and casualties again, and of course who ultimately won, for example, The Great Northern War Highly dangerous, readily available, and perhaps most importantly user-friendly weapons created a context where an army can be created frighteningly quickly from a non-militarized population. To explain the mentality a bit more, let’s look at one of the more famous theorists of revolution, Mao Zedong:

There is no profound difference between the farmer and the soldier. You must have courage. You simply leave your farms and become soldiers. That you are farmers is of no difference, and if you have education, that is so much the better. When you take your arms in hand, you become soldiers; when you are organized, you become military units.22Mao Zedong, tr. Brigadier General Samuel Blair Griffith II (USMC), Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare (1989), https://www.marines.mil/Portals/1/Publications/FMFRP%2012-18%20%20Mao%20Tse-tung%20on%20Guerrilla%20Warfare.pdf

While pointy rocks delivered by chemical propellants remain the primary collector of souls on the battlefield, we all now cower in the shade of the mushroom cloud. Strategic nuclear weapons have only been used twice in the history of the world so far, and we are edging onto 80 years since the last time they were so used, but they hover ominously (and sometimes literally) over all of our political decisions.

In theory, total nuclear disarmament is a political decision that the world could make. Many countries have disarmed voluntarily, and many more that hypothetically could have nuclear arsenals have elected to not develop them. The decisions national leaders make around nuclear weapons are often complicated – while being in the nuclear club comes with numerous benefits, it is an expensive membership. While the question of why a government would choose to have doomsday in a bottle is beyond the scope of this essay, the question of how this technology should influence our thoughts as socialists isn’t.

No less than George Orwell as quoted above proposed that the light of revolution may have finally been eclipsed by the light of the atom bomb, but we can also see that several revolutions have, in fact, happened in the atomic age. The Chinese Civil War happened in the shadow of the bomb, and since then we have seen the fall of fascism in Iberia, of monarchy in Nepal, and of nearly the entirety of direct colonial apparati. There is certainly room for argument about why nuclear states did not resort to the use of nuclear weapons to protect favorable status quo, and the most obvious answer so far is that “none of these revolutions were seen as worse than the potential outcomes of using nuclear weapons.” If there was the threat of a communist revolution in the colonial metropoles, there might be a different calculus. Unfortunately for our thought experiments but very fortunately for our ability to be alive enough to do thought experiments, we have very little historical data about when states think situations are important enough to use nuclear weapons.

As said, in theory, yes, we are now locked into an era where it’s nukes or nothin’, that all of us who are not in a position to wield the atom against others are subjects of those who can. But the historical data is contradictory on this point. We have quite a bit of warfare in the nuclear era, and very little of it has used nuclear weapons. Historians refer to this as the “nuclear taboo,” invoking a cultural logic to why states that have nukes simply elect to not use them.23 This is different from the decline in use of chemical weapons, which fell out of favor for most militaries because they are just generally less effective than a comparable high explosive payload. The chemical weapons ban treaties are generally people just saying that they’ll do something they wanted to do anyway. The logic is less about some sort of transcendental ethics and more about tit-for-tat escalation: whoever uses nuclear weapons first will be the very next target for nuclear escalation, and while it is fairly easy to find reasons why using nuclear weapons would accomplish some limited objective, it is even easier to decide that the costs of using nuclear weapons would more than wipe out your gains. An obvious example here is the Korean War, where General MacArthur not only requested authorization to use nuclear weapons against Chinese forces, but went to the press to try to embarrass President Truman into granting him that authorization after he was denied, an attempt to undermine the civilian control of the military that completely ended MacArthur’s career and has become much of his legacy.24 This story partially included as an excuse for this very funny quote by a very bad man: “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President…I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the laws for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.” An example that we currently have to live in fear of is the Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022, where one side has nukes and the other not only lacks them but is outside the formal umbrella of another nuclear power; nonetheless, the nuclear armed side has, at least so far, elected to not use them.

None of these are situations in which a nuclear actor has been put under existential threat. If there were such a situation, would they use nukes? We only have one, arguably two,25 South Africa’s nuclear arsenal is a point of historic contention, and the end of apartheid in South Africa is a more ambiguous existential destruction of a state than the fall of the USSR, so we’re just noting it here for completeness sake. instances where a state was put under existential threat while holding nuclear weapons, but in these instances we do not see the use of nuclear weapons, even though it lead to the total end of those states, even though those states would have been using nuclear weapons against people who could not retaliate in kind. The USSR, one of the most nuclear armed countries of all time, really truly died, broken into fragments, and its primary inheritor state has only ever prosecuted war against its own former constituent states (and to only a mixed record). The rationale behind the lack of use of nuclear weapons under existential threat is similar to the rationale for refraining from nuclear weapons elsewhere: once you’ve used them, you now have to live with having used them. Specifically, you now have to negotiate with people who know you broke the nuclear taboo, and do you really think that your position at the negotiating table is going to be stronger after that? 

The question then, per Orwell, is “can the many defeat the few.” Can the old logics of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune and the Chinese Civil War and so on apply, can we still make kings tremble at the march of the masses or is their castle now unassailable and unreachable? The historical evidence so far says yes, that the great and powerful can fold. But we must confess to, and confront, fear on this topic. And there is as yet no total resolution to that fear, that fear that we may have merely been lucky to have exceptionally humane and gentle leaders over the last 80 years, and that a sufficiently hard nosed and bloodthirsty king or president or even general would make the calculation that they would rather see billions consumed by hellfire than negotiate with peons.

Empirical Problems with the Automation Revolution

Here at Strange Matters, we aren’t satisfied with making material conclusions that don’t consult material data, especially not when that data is well collected. A claim that goes uncontested by both techno-pessimists and techno-optimists is that innovations in automation will lead to a permanent, total reduction in all labor demand; the two disagree on whether this will lead to poverty or liberty, not whether or not it will happen. But innovations in automation have been happening, debatably, since the Olduwan era, and we all still show up to work, so either the process is geologically slow or the relationship is more complicated.

And as is so often the case, reality seems to defy our need for straight lines and singular causes. Automation giveth and automation taketh human jobs. The overall impact of automation on total employment in capitalist economies seems to be a wash,26 Ramaswamy, K. V. (2018) “Technological Change, Automation and Employment: A Short Review of Theory and Evidence,” International Review of Business and Economics: Vol. 2: Iss. 2, Article 1. with automation as often causing increases in labor demand as decreases, and perhaps most surprisingly the impacts are not merely class based but also have different impacts depending on race, gender, and age.27Minerva E. Ramos, Jorge Garza-Rodríguez, & Damian E. Gibaja-Romero, “Automation of employment in the presence of industry 4.0: The case of Mexico,” Technology in Society no. 68 (February 2022). The actual, real, historical data suggests, per Iyanatul Islam, “the apocalyptic notion that one faces large-scale technological unemployment either in India or globally is exaggerated. On the other hand, the romantic notion that new technology – especially in the form of on-line work – will create a new era of prosperity in India driven by digitally-enabled micro-entrepreneurs is unlikely to materialize.”28 Islam, I. (2018). Automation and the Future of Employment: Implications for India. South Asian Journal of Human Resources Management, 5(2), 234–243. https://doi.org/10.1177/2322093718802972 

While certain jobs are automated, automation also transforms existing roles and creates new ones. There is a growing demand for skills related to designing, implementing, and maintaining automated systems.29 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment for Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services: Scientific Research and Development Services (NAICS 5417) in the United States [IPUMN5417W010000000], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/IPUMN5417W010000000, December 3, 2023. The history of employment in response to automation reflects a pattern of adapting to technological changes. While some jobs are displaced, new opportunities seem to emerge, and the workforce often undergoes shifts in skill requirements. If automation overall has resulted largely in a wash when it comes to employment, how about certain newer forms of automation, such as the recent accelerating innovations in artificial intelligence? Here, too, the results are at best mixed, but point towards a wash.30Felten et. al. (2020) The Occupational Impact of Artificial Intelligence: Labor, Skills, and Polarization. NYU Stern School of Business Furthermore, process innovations within firms (rather than the adoption of robotics, AI, or other product innovations) are variously shown to have no relation to employment,31 Calvino, F. (2019), Technological Innovation and the Distribution of Employment Growth: A Firm-Level Analysis, Industrial and Corporate Change, 28(1), 177-202. or a weakly positive one.32 Van Roy, V., Vivarelli, M., Vertesy, D. (2015), The Employment Impact of Innovation: Evidence from European Patenting Companies, Vita e Pensiero.

Muddying the waters further for each inevitable techno-unemployment camp, recent research on the flow of labor globally suggests a complex relationship between the research and development of new technologies and where and by whose hands this labor happens. In the journal Nature in 2019, researchers found that global labor flows (examined using decades of LinkedIn data) pass through specific geo-industrial clusters of companies in specific locations cyclically.33 Park, J., Wood, I.B., Jing, E. et al (2019).. Global labor flow network reveals the hierarchical organization and dynamics of geo-industrial clusters. Nat Commun 10, 3449 These flows persist to a significant degree (and unabated by the deployment of automation technology) by the availability of financing and a steady influx of educated workers. And when the technology these workers are building does disrupt, it is not along the employment axis, but rather along the geo-spatial one, so to speak – new technologies shift which cluster of activity people, companies, and capital flow towards. So even among the workers directly engaged in the production of technological innovations (automation included), the notion that workers are building their own permanent replacements is dubious.

That the most basic model falls apart on contact with a messy reality is neither surprising in general nor in this specific case. The period of the industrial revolution is not a broad decline in labor demand – far from it, it was a period of accelerated impoverishment through speed ups and crack downs on labor organizing, not a period of mass unemployment or reduced hours. If anything, this period represents the apogee of labor demand for humans; according to the Bank of England, 1830 was the absolute peak of work hours in England over the last 800 years.34 “A Short History of Working Hours,” The FRED Blog, October 4th 2021, https://fredblog.stlouisfed.org/2021/10/a-short-history-of-working-hours/  It is twice what it is today, but also twice what it was in 1523. 

On the intellectual side of things, we have seen constant predictions of mass unemployment or bulk labor reductions due to automation. On the right, this is a dream of a world where elites no longer need the working classes to make their luxury products, and the latter can simply be kept entertained on a steady diet of UBI and streaming services while the former pursue grand transhumanist experiments; on the Left – for Marx in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” say, or Keynes in “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren” – it means the promise of a fifteen-hour workweek for all, or our collective escape from scarcity into an abstract realm of freedom where the division of labor and the distinction between work and play have fallen away completely. It’s interesting how much these visions converge on distributional questions, even as they differ in who they think would be in charge of administering this workless world. 

But if the automation of one sector tends to mean the creation of work in another, and there is no simple inverse correlation between machine production in any given industry and aggregate human employment across the economy, then fully automated luxury – whether communistic or stratified – may just be the wrong framework entirely for understanding the political consequences of labor-saving technologies. In such a situation (which does seem to be the world we actually live in) the total abolition of work is, as a goal or an object of political debate, not even wrong. It just has nothing to do with anything that could ever exist. The real questions instead would have to do with the balance between our leisure time and our desire for certain goods and services. The population’s working hours would be limited not by the presence or absence of machine production per se but by predominantly social limitations: on the one hand, by our social regulation of the maximum workweek (whether via overtime laws or industrial custom, and always at any rate as a result of class struggle over how to set it); and on the other hand, by the labor-hours biophysically required to produce the goods and services we’d like to consume (i.e., the workweek must be at least long enough that the working population produces what the total population wants to consume – whatever, and however, they’ve decided that will be). Labor-saving tech would only ever mean the abolition of certain kinds of work, in favor of other kinds. The question would then become: what kind of work don’t we want to do, so we can hand it off to the machines; what kind of additional human work will those machines require, and are we okay with that; and what sort of other work, just for humans, do we want to make sure we’ve freed ourselves up to do as a result of these decisions? If we don’t like the kind of work a certain industry requires, can we learn to do without the industry’s products? And who’s “we” – who makes these decisions, and how? 

These are questions which get us far away from the idle daydreams of the typical automation discourse, and closer to the real problems a high-technology society would face if it were capable of large-scale, long-term planning. It’s disappointing, therefore, to realize how totally unprepared not only technologists or capitalists but even socialists are to even begin answering such questions – and this, despite the fact that for many pro-technology socialists it was questions of automation which got them interested in democratizing the economy in the first place.

History and Craft-Consciousness

But it’s not just the techno-optimists who are liable to be disoriented by the actual, rather than imagined, effects of labor-saving technologies. One could just as easily imagine the left-technopessimists having a bad day about it, too. After all, one of the key reasons for Left skepticism of technology is the way that, under a system of wage labor, automation means throwing people out of work instead of a shorter workweek. As we’ve seen, however, this may well be more true of individual industries in the short run than of the whole economy in the long run. 

If permanent technological unemployment isn’t a given, then do revolts against new technologies have any reasonable basis? A clever pro-technology leftist, recovering from their own shock, might even add that it’s an argument for a more moderate version of something like their old position: the socialist embrace of tech eliminates drudgery and expands our capacities, replacing repetitive and physically taxing sorts of work with creative and intellectually stimulating jobs; anybody temporarily displaced by automation can be dealt with by offering free retraining, placing them elsewhere via something like a job guarantee, or simply letting them live without needing to work due to an expansive welfare state. Hence, resistance to technology is merely backwards-looking nostalgia, and denies the possibility of significant improvement of working conditions – with only minor inconveniences, due to a purely temporary displacement.

Anti-technology leftists will likely be unmoved by such ideas. They might cite, for example, something like the recent Hollywood strikes, where writers forced management to accept a clause in their contract forbidding the use of AIs to write screenplays. Not only the film industry’s capitalists but even a leftist techno-optimist might say they’re rejecting a potentially revolutionary technology due to their short-sighted attachment to an obsolete process they happen to benefit from. Yet many people, even if they can’t quite justify why, will be incredibly suspicious of this convergence of arguments. Should AI really be making movies for us? Designing buildings? Painting portraits? Composing music? Is any of this the sort of labor we really want to save ourselves from?

Like Thomas Pynchon in a famous essay, they might ask: what’s so bad about being a Luddite? The Luddites smashed machines that were putting people out of work – but, and this is perhaps the more interesting thing, it put them out of creative and fulfilling artisanal work that tended to be under their control, either directly or via the guild system; and it forced them, as a result, to find soul-destroying and repetitive wage labor in factories following the strict orders of the absentee owner whose machines they had to half-mindlessly tend. Compare this to a comment by the British comedian Roger O’Sullivan during the strike:

Sci-Fi: maybe someday in the future technology will automate all the boring things in life so everyone can focus on their artistic endeavors 

Reality: okay so we’ve successfully automated all art so nobody should be distracted from their boring jobs anymore

This starts to get us closer to what’s really at stake, beyond the question of keeping up employment, when we talk in abstract terms about “working conditions” on the one hand or “living standards” on the other. The kind of skilled work that the Luddites were forced to leave behind wasn’t just lucrative, but created meaning in their lives: it was a form of expression and an exercise of their tactile design abilities through direct and intimate work with particular materials. Artists call such traditions of labor crafts, and they know that underneath all the great art forms and their masterpieces lay a large body of practical knowledge developed over centuries in precisely this unpretentious, unglamorous, and collective manner by people not yet considered artists themselves. 

Indeed, many great artists have received their initial education in their artform precisely through some sort of minor craft. The great Finnish architect Eero Saarinen received early formal training in sculpture and furniture design, while his German contemporary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe started his career as an apprentice in his father’s stone masonry workshop. The banjo was invented by an anonymous Black musician of the seventeenth century who may have used it to sing the earliest of the classic spirituals, and important twentieth-century musicians like Moon Dog in jazz and Suzanne Ciani in electronica famously invented their own instruments too. 

So important were the craft traditions to art that the Bauhaus – the preeminent design collective of early European modernism – explicitly crafted their interdisciplinary training program around them: students would first spend a year on a preliminary course of elementary instruction working with all the Bauhaus’s different materials (stone, clay, glass, textiles, etc); then, if admitted to one of the workshops (each dedicated to one material and its attendant craft), they would proceed to a three-year apprenticeship; only after which, if they were especially talented, would they be allowed to work as architects at the Bauhaus’s associated firm. This programme was modeled explicitly off the values of the earlier Arts & Crafts movement in Great Britain. Notably, most of these people were avowed socialists – and the practice of the crafts was explicitly a part of their socialist orientation toward technology.

For this whole tradition of socialists, the right to a job or a fair wage alone is not enough: people are entitled to a particular sort of work that is aesthetically, physically, and morally fulfilling, as well as to the consumption of the beautiful things produced by such work – a kind of work which has a very tenuous relationship indeed to the machine process. 

It’s easier to describe what this sort of labor feels like from inside our own heads than it is to trace its history with precision. Intellectuals of various kinds have occasionally been known to remark upon this decidedly non-intellectual sort of knowledge. Veblen wrote about it as the Instinct of Workmanship, and contrasted it with the predatory instincts at the origins of class rule; vaguely right-wing philosopher Matthew Crawford made it the central subject of a book that was much beloved of hipsters around ten years ago called Shop Class as Soulcraft; he in turn was mostly doing a paraphrase of Heidegger on the phenomenology of tools; and probably the most eloquent exponent of it is the classical Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who illustrates it in colorful parables and dialogues. When one is in close contact with some material and has to work with tools to shape it, the act of doing so trains certain intuitions that can’t be trained any other way. The process itself is informative, teaching us how to look through our eyes, move our hands, and otherwise manipulate matter in new ways that are almost impossible to describe in words but produce undeniably graceful actions and better results. It’s a nonverbal, noncognitive manner of learning about the previously unexplored possibilities that lurk not only within the material but in ourselves. And what’s more, this ongoing process of improvement – which needs to be under our control for the relevant effects to be able to take place at all – produces a sense of mastery that is intimately tied not only to artistic excellence but to self-governance and freedom more generally. We might call it craft-consciousness.

Does large-scale industry kill the spirit of craft? Socialists past and present have diverged rather markedly on this question – and their view tends to shape their attitude towards technology as a whole. 

It’s often been remarked, for example, that the very examples used to illustrate craft-consciousness – a carpenter woodcarving, a jazz musician soloing – point to its strong correlation with a small-scale, artisanal mode of production. Craft, the argument goes, is therefore destroyed with any industrial revolution. The large, vertically integrated, capital-intensive processes that characterize not only capitalist society but any industrial socialism, with their mass production of standardized products and their allocation of mindlessly repetitive work through a fine-grained division of labor, mean that the only possible relationship of any given worker to the relevant materials is highly abstract and alienated at best. From this point of view, industrial technology itself forces the human workforce to adopt a purely utilitarian attitude towards their own work; tactile knowledge and self-expression are not only incompatible with but practically inconceivable on the assembly line. For these socialists, then, the only way to preserve craft-consciousness is to clear out some sort of space for artisanal production – whether by forcing the economy to return at least partially to some real or imagined pristine primitivism, or by somehow enforcing people’s right to pursue crafts in their leisure time.

On the other hand, there are socialists who wonder whether the industrial process is so alienating not because of the nature of technology in itself but because of the work process under a capitalist system of command and control.35 “The principal difference between factory production and handicraft lies not in the machine’s superiority over more primitive tools as an instrument of technical precision, but in the fact that in the factory each operation involved in manufacturing a product is performed by a different man, whereas the craft product is made entirely by one person. But if industry is to develop, the use of machinery and the division of labor must be maintained. Neither factor is in itself responsible for the loss of creative unity which has resulted from technological development. The root of the evil exists rather in the much too materialistic attitude of our times and in the loss of contact between the individual and the community.” Walter Gropius, “The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus” in Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, & Ise Gropius (eds.), Bauhaus, 1919-1928 (1938) Remember that a great deal of the artisan’s craft-consciousness is tied to their control over the work process. Is it possible that mass production, too, has an artistic dimension, one that has been suppressed by the wages system and the employer-employee relationship? Would genuine worker control tap into previously unknown reserves of artistic creativity among the workers, transforming some industrial process we’d only ever thought of as utilitarian into an artform? Could socialists run a car factory at least somewhat like an artists’ workshop? Cars are an illustrative example because of the way certain parts of their production – particularly design – are already extremely artistic. Indeed, certain highly invested subcultures, stretching across both the industry’s workforce and its consumer base, are driven by an essentially aesthetic reaction to the relevant vehicles. And while the most purely artistic work tends to take place in very limited high-prestige design positions, the fact is that carmaking is an inherently collaborative process – the drawings of the auteurs are invariably tweaked by multiple committees of engineers – making the final product a team effort. There’s even a competition in Formula One racing called the World Constructors’ Championship that specifically tests this cooperative capacity, where companies have to design and construct a brand new car every single year under exacting specifications. Many socialists imagine that once firms are genuinely under the control of their workforces, these existing trends would intensify. More people from more departments, across the rank and file of the company, would have a seat at the table in the negotiations over what to make and how to make it rather than just following orders from above; and this in turn would lead to new design innovations, to a greater sense of ownership over the product or a greater intuition over the nature of the entire productive process on the part of the average worker, and ultimately to the recreation of something like the old craft-consciousness – only now on a larger scale, at a collective rather than individual level.

The first kind of socialist tends to imagine their utopia as a world of gardens, cottages, handsaws, and handwriting; the second tends to imagine theirs as one of CNC mills, injection molds, silicon, and fiber-optics. (We like to call them the wood people and the metal people.) But of course the nice thing about society is it’s a big enough place that we don’t all have to be the same: there’s no reason to think these positions couldn’t coexist, as long as one faction isn’t overly hostile to the other, and any viable socialism would likely need to take advantage of insights from both. One could imagine a situation, for example, where a reduction of the workweek due to more efficient production in the irremediably boring sectors could free people up to adopt small crafts in their leisure time; and conversely, crafts without any real audience might be given a new lease on life through their adoption as part of the productive process for a large-scale worker cooperative that leverages them in some bold new way. 

Where there are differences that don’t resolve themselves through some convenient symbiosis, the only real solution is that bothersome, messy democratic pluralism with which we’re so familiar from civic life under the better-functioning liberal democracies, only extended to the economy and its many new democratic republics within firms, agencies, and planning boards. Different people in different sectors (industrial, rural, service, creative, etc.) or with different temperaments (austere, opulent, granola, gadget-obsessed, etc.) will need to figure out how to get along with one another and arrive at workable compromises through the political processes taking place in the chunks of society they’re active in. A lot of unsexy work will have to be done in a lot of meetings. If it’s of any consolation, though, that’s how any complex society has got to be run – the difference is who gets let in the door of the rooms where decisions are made.

Conclusion

We would be poor socialists if we did not update our theories to fit reality, and we would also be poor socialists if we just went “well, its complicated” and walked away without at least thinking about actions. When confronted with a situation where you have to change plans, it is best to start from the beginning: what do we want? This itself is a library worth of arguments, but let’s just call it “a fairer, freer world.”

How do we make the world more fair? How do we make it more free? And how do the technological changes that have happened yesterday, today, and tomorrow change that? For what we have confronted today, there are some answers: 

First, we must not surrender ourselves to aristocrats, however they may brand themselves. Yes, in matters of boots, consult the bootmaker, but we should feel free to tell the bootmaker they made a bad boot. All of us are the experts of our own lives, and the notion that not just execution but goals be surrendered to bureaucrats, safe from the consequences of those goals, has a horrifying and noxious track record when tested. We want to make the world better, not worse.

Second, privacy, the bedrock of freedom, is a continuous contest. It is ground to be fought over. In legislation, yes, but far more often in our daily lives: using and supporting privacy tools, not voluntarily doing work on behalf of the enemies of privacy and liberty, being conscientious not just of our own privacy but of the privacy needs of our friends and family.

Third, we can change the world even if the powerful have the bomb. We can look to past movements and see how they have bent the world to their needs, see what worked and what didn’t. We must not discard our past. Every generation has faced new challenges, but they have also learned from the past, and we do have evidence that people have fought, and won, in our current age.

Fourth, we should not do capitalists’ work for them with automation. New automation technologies are moments of upheaval and renegotiation: it is in the interest of capitalists to convince the worker that the options are to accept the capitalist’s demand or not have any job. This has always been the first tactic capitalists have used during moments of negotiation: do not join a union or you will lose a job, do not use your sick days or you will lose your job, do not vote the wrong way or you will lose your job. Time after time, these are bluffs, and so it is with the tactic of “if you do not accept lower wages, we’ll replace you with a machine.” This has been trotted out continuously since before the industrial revolution, and we still have to show up for work and capitalists still have to compete with each other for the labor pool. Our labor movements have no business surrendering to a repeatedly called bluff, but more successful movements will be ready to incorporate changes in the labor market into how they represent and organize workers.

And where does this leave us? Well, truthfully, not in a great spot. We want to be able to tell you that there’s some simple solution: invest in bitcoin or pour water on the macbooks, become a scientist or become a hermit, learn to program or learn to farm. But pretending that there’s any great morality play here would be deceptive at best, and if we believe in the future we can’t afford to lie to ourselves like that. ~

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Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.