Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Technology, Growth and Employment

This post puts me back in old territory after a long journey through inner landscapes, prompted in part by my own personal transformation—which is unending of course—as well as the Occupy movement, which is, for me, part of The Venus Project, The Zeitgeist Movement and all other attempts to self-educate, together, into the new; to make sense for ourselves of where we are, and of the nature of the challenges we face. And although economic matters such as money and labour prompt us to ask the deeper questions, it will soon prove to be a transformation of consciousness—which is anyway ongoing and perpetual—, value, and meaning we are wrestling with. Key battlegrounds are selfishness-altruism, competition-cooperation, rights-obligations, scarcity-abundance, work-pleasure, waste-food, and more broadly that dichotomies themselves are illusions, scales, perception-filters with which we have co-evolved, learned, grown wiser. It is my sense that we are now coming to experience dichotomies as embedded ‘tools,’ as interwoven through our reality as life and as subtle as language, rather than as insoluble Platonic absolutes. All institutions and their driving ideologies are thus on the table; everything is caught up in this transformation. We are tasked with doing good work, both for and in ourselves, and for and in the network which enables us—where “both” suggests a separation not there.

That broad backdrop denoted, it is appropriate to zero in on, anew, a topic which is now finding more column inches in the mainstream than previously; technological unemployment. I’ve written on this before, but that was then, and this is now. Today I begin by pointing out that employment itself is a technology. Exchanging labour and time for a wage is new in human history, particularly as fused with self-worth and ‘independence.’ Typically we do not penetrate that concept, that how we value ourselves is reflexively, autonomically associated with our ‘job’ or ‘career.’ We tend to leave that association unexamined (though I ought to point out that introspection itself is also a new phenomenon; the word ‘self-conscious’ didn’t appear until 1690). However, feeling that we have a place, are somehow contributing to the network which sustains us, is a ‘deep’ urge arising from being a social animal capable of abstract language. This urge is present in humans of hunter gatherer groups to city metropolises. That combination—social + abstract language—makes homo sapiens sapiens myth- and symbol-based creatures. We exist in language, as Fritjof Capra stated. Language is a landscape, a repository of accumulated wisdom we are steered by when we understand, communicate, learn, do. ‘Technological unemployment’ is an expression with a rich history and layered symbology, bound up in value, identity, utility, Cartesian Dualism (nature-nurture). Its shifting meaning to us is as important as the ‘problem’ it has perceived into existence.

What is the problem it identifies, exactly? There are many answers, what follows is mine.

Systemically, socioeconomically, we equip consumers with purchasing power via the labour each worker exchanges for money. Money has purchasing power enabling those holding it to take ‘ownership’ of the goods and services their and other workers’ labour has helped to produce. Jobs and careers (in the contemporary sense) are ‘inventions’ for allotting or distributing (via wages) symbols of value which also have the power to affect exchange. We get purchasing power—a vital component to the spiraling cyclicality of consumerism—via wages. The fewer people equipped with lasting purchasing power the fewer consumers there are. This is of course a big and ongoing problem in a growth-based system.

The human realm in which this cyclical distribution takes place is called ‘the economy,’ which, quite by chance it seems, must grow, or spiral outwards, forever. The surface reason for this is to be found in the design of the usury-based money system; the deeper reason we have a usury-based money system in the first place lies in our sense of ourselves as Masters of Nature, the Good Ones, Separate, growing and conquering the Idle Resources of the Wild. We have been multiplying, battling Enemy Nature all the way, fulfilling our Destiny of Ascent. But now, as Charles Eisenstein points out, our once unshakable belief in our Dominion is crumbling. Hold that thought.

Parallel with our briefly explained system of value-distribution, we have increasing ‘efficiency’ and ‘competition.’ In the allegedly hot melee which is evolution we have ‘technological advances.’ Change is nature, nature is ongoing accrual of wisdom, we are of nature, nature is a ‘technological’ process we are embedded in (“technological” meaning the perceiving and ‘solving’ of ‘problems’). Change is the only constant. In my view there is nothing ‘unnatural’ about computers and robots. There is nothing ‘better’ about the past than the present or future, other than what we perceive, imagine. Efficiency and competition are, in part, doing economically better than the Other; producers strive to deliver goods and services for sale to consumers at lower costs so as to increase profits, get their hands on more purchasing power, and enjoy life more. Part of this has been automation, which is millennia old, including tamed fire, store, pickling, pulleys and anything else which Makes Life Easier. But as we Make Life Easier we shrink—after some juncture, slowly and fitfully at first but now very obviously—the economic usefulness of human labour, on balance and over time. As Andrew McAfee recently pointed out, “The list of things humans are demonstrably better at than computers is shrinking pretty dramatically.” We humans are less and less necessary to economic production, and yet we are still socially, 'humanly' important to each other. “Humans need humans.”

So it comes down to value; how to value each other, how to reward, punish, share our ingenuity. What is value? Whence does it arise? Should we ‘measure’ it? If so, then how? If strangers exchange smiles on a bus should they then use a smart phone application for measuring smile effectiveness, then bill each other accordingly—since both strangers derived ‘value’ from the exchange—to keep the ‘economy’ going? What of the wide gamut of human activity should we include in the economic realm, should we call labour, should earn money? If humans become economically redundant, should we commit mass suicide because we have thus become useless? How dominant in terms of power and decision making should the economic realm be? How unquestioningly should we idolize it? Youth unemployment in Greece is 45%, 49% in Spain. In the States, the labour participation rate is at 64%, close to how it is was during the Great Depression. The Great Depression. Useless people everywhere, starving because they were useless, are useless. Meanwhile, I hear factory production is at around 40% capacity across the planet, but we don’t need more humans to produce more, we need them to buy more. Why? To appease Perpetual Growth. We don’t need to buy more, Perpetual Growth does. How ‘useless’ have we become? Where is our vaunted imagination?

As our unshakable faith in our Manifest Destiny crumbles, as we tire of consumerism, no longer want more and more; as population growth slows, to zero and less in some western lands; as our ingenuity and restlessness render us economically redundant, every pillar that supports the usury- and growth-based system cracks more deeply, loses strength. Without Growth, we have Recession or Depression. That these concepts stand in opposition to each other tells its own story. That we can converse about greed, about consuming too much, about a simpler life, yet still demand jobs, decent wages, a Return to Normal, tells another. But more and more of us are seeing through the veil, experimenting with different ideas, perceptions. The Story of Ascent unravels as we peer through its mists, and as we peer, we seek and we probe, adding fuel to the process of creating the New, which is gathering strength. The energy we want to contribute to Ascent is shrinking, thus the Old is deflating. The New is gaining strength as a direct consequence of this, struggling to its feet, getting ready to walk, becoming more visible, more charismatic, clearer. And nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

Technological unemployment will remain a ‘problem’ while we too tightly and rigidly associate utility with job and career, while we distribute purchasing power (value) via labour, while we measure value exclusively via market processes and call only its result True Value, while we insist ownership of property in larger amounts is what life is about, and while we battle to sustain our usury-based money system. Because the old associations are so deep, the direction which is taking us away from them appears to lead nowhere, for now. But it’s always like that. You could make a good case that Rome’s collapse was in part due to ‘technological’ unemployment: “In AD 28 there were three million slaves and four million people in Italy.” (Rifkin, “The Empathic Civilization”, p229.) Systemically, machines and slaves are producers we don’t pay, we don’t furnish with purchasing power. In this system, that is a problem.

But what the ‘goal’ might look like is not the issue at this stage, nor any stage. Is there agreement on the goal of the current paradigm? The journey is the destination. There is no ending, no Final State, no perfection. Everything is always emerging, changing, learning. As we probe, question, create new interpretations and ideas, so we imagine different ways of being, cut new paths. Imagination, folks, imagination! Isn’t that the source of value? Drink of its spring, do not be too afraid, be open to change. Isn’t that what the challenge of crisis demands?


poulpinnette said...

Some thoughts.
On the work/wage complex.
We seem to have a system where people pay tremendous lip service to work for money (a little bit like the "free" market) while money comes from lots of different places, not just wages.
Money comes from winning the lottery.
Money comes from dealing.
Money comes from speculation.
Money comes from begging (giving).
Money COMES FROM interest too. The small middle class which is so up in arms about the evil Wall street traders also has a small investment portfolio, in many cases, albeit for retirement, of course.
The idea that money MUST ONLY COME FROM WORK is a very totalitarian, limited and PURITAN one.
This idea is very indebted to our belief that life must be "fair".
That belief is incredibly naive, and does not withstand even rudimentary observation.
We still do not agree on the machines.
I believe that the machines have radically influenced our attitudes about ourselves, about work, and OUR CAPACITY TO DO PHYSICAL WORK, and to be present in our bodies.
When I say that the machines have made US (not them...) lazy, I am not making a value judgment, I am saying that not solliciting our MUSCLES, has had unintended repercussions on our capacity TO THINK, and to.. SOLVE PROBLEMS (dixit you).
WE did not foresee this.
We did not foresee this, because as Charles Eisenstein has developed, our overinvestment of separation has seriously damaged our CAPACITY TO PERCEIVE THE ORGANIC NATURE of our relationship to each other, and to our natural world.
In other words, we have not destroyed this organicity, but we have destroyed our capacity to perceive it.
This goes hand in hand with our difficulty in reflexion : the "re" prefix means a looping the loop, RETURNING.
Reflexivity/reflexion is essential to thought.
And unmitigated PROgress, opposed to it in a Cartesian duality, as you say, keeps us clicking on an endless series of links over the Internet.
On Cartesian duality... can we escape it ?
We need DIFFERENT OPPOSITIONS, that are not just polarizations, as I have said before.

Toby said...

Debbie, my thoughts on your thoughts.

I agree about money (would change "comes from" to "moves around because of"), but yes, all that is otherwise true. The question is far deeper than that though; what backs money and why; then, after that, what do we need money for (if anything), what should money be, how should we create it, how should we destroy it? Can money be a good reflection of value?

"[As] Eisenstein has developed, our overinvestment of separation has seriously damaged our CAPACITY TO PERCEIVE THE ORGANIC NATURE of our relationship to each other, and to our natural world.
In other words, we have not destroyed this organicity, but we have destroyed our capacity to perceive it."

Again, I agree, but would have kept "damaged" and not moved to "destroyed".

But there is no returning whatsoever. No man can put his foot in the same river twice; the second time he's not the same man, and it's not the same river. Change is the only constant.

And the broader question is this: What is Right and Good? Do you have a single answer to this? That, e.g., humans ought to be more 'natural,' use 'machines' less often? If so, how? Why? On whose say so? Machines have indeed radically influenced us, but so did 'taming' fire, farming, 'coming down from the trees', and indeed pretty much everything we do which is a deep change from one paradigm to another. Can we stick to one paradigm, unchangingly? Which one? How could one possibly attempt to affect such an intent without becoming totalitarian? Why would it be Bad if humanity went extinct? Over 99% of all living things which ever lived are extinct. It's hardly unusual.

"On Cartesian duality... can we escape it ?
We need DIFFERENT OPPOSITIONS, that are not just polarizations, as I have said before."

Good question. That's the question. My answer; Jein. (German word for yes and no.) My other answer is, I don't know. And then, perhaps, that it's the wrong question. Perhaps "escape" ought to be replaced with "transform". Which your final sentence rightly implies, I feel.

poulpinnette said...

You know I am a rather radical person, Toby.
One of my French/American friends told me the other night that I sounded like a tea party person because of what I was saying about the school system : that in France, particularly, the PUBLIC (and private) school system was set up with the idea that it was necessary to take children away from their parents in order to educate them, to PROTECT THEM from "evil" work that was exploiting them (and their parents who were exploiting them too...).
So, the implicits of the French school SYSTEM have always been that IT IS BETTER FOR THE STATE TO EDUCATE CHILDREN IN SCHOOLS than their parents, or others, elsewhere, and in order to fulfill this mission, the State, and French society, have constantly insisted on the obvious (!!!) legitimacy of the public INSTITUTION of school to instruct and educate children.
My friend accused me of polarization in talking this way. Opposing the family, and the social body.
Basically what she was saying was that I was not being a NICE, REASONABLE person, who votes for Barack Obama, embraces the Democratic party's ideas on health care, etc, etc.
Over at Volatility, Russ is reflecting on organicity. There IS no return, Toby, even if we wanted to return, but some of us are really tired of the deep alienation we PERCEIVE the machines creating in our lives.
If WE try to pull back from the machines... we can do it IN OUR HOMES, for example, at least.
I am not talking about trying to change society, Toby.
I have been very clear on this point for a long time. I have no ambition for SOCIAL PROGRAMS.
But sometimes I wonder... if what YOU WANT in YOUR LIFESTYLE implies the destruction of what i want, love, etc, HOW CAN WE POSSIBLY TOLERATE EACH OTHER, TOBY, in the long run ?? (This is how constant harping on "tolerance" COULD... be perceived as a cute pipe dream with no connection to... "reality", in addition to breeding intolerance. Just WHAT is the relation between our daily lives and our ideals/utopias, anyway ?)
How can we ALL have what we want, in separate little boxes... IF... we perceive the organicity of our lives ?
At SOME point in time... choices WILL be made. From my point of view, too many "choices" have been made at an institutional level already. And choice implies.. exclusion. At this point, I am trying very hard to maintain my individual FREEDOM, and turning... necessity ? into liberty.
It IS possible...

Toby said...

"if what YOU WANT in YOUR LIFESTYLE implies the destruction of what i want, love, etc, HOW CAN WE POSSIBLY TOLERATE EACH OTHER, TOBY, in the long run ??"

There's the rub, Debbie. It is a point which troubles me. My response is not to insist, only to argue my view, and let myself be changed by other viewpoints and new information. Remember our musings on violence? I stated in those two posts ("On Violence" I and II) that violence is inescapable. Even peaceful resistance is perceived as violence by those who passionately disagree, and unity of perception is both impossible and undesirable. As I understand it "We, The 99%" have around 35% support in the US. That's a minority. If they insist, peacefully, on deep change, they are causing upset and disturbance to those who passionately disagree with them. But is that 'wrong?' Change happens anyway. It's not about justice (which is perception). Change just happens. Forever. And our judgments of whether each experienced change is 'right' or 'wrong' is a learned perception. There are no absolutes in my opinion. Something I've learned from you, Debbie.

Machines don't create anything. If there were suddenly no humans, what would the machines be? We are the machine. We have a binary, machine-like consciousness which creates binary, machine-like systems. Transcending that takes a shift of consciousness across the planet. I don't know how that works, I only know I want to try and do what I can in that direction, without insisting. I'm changing what I do, as I can, an approach which is far from 'perfect,' but it is my approach, for whatever reasons. I would say though, that your reflexive passion against machines is misplaced, for the reasons I have laid out. Does that mean you ought to change to be more like me? Not at all. Does it mean we disagree? Yes. Is that a problem? Jein; what is a problem? How do we perceive it? How 'creatively' do we respond to it?

I would say that in trying our best not to be totalitarian we have to try not to insist others be like us. This generates its own tensions and stresses. But because there is no such thing as perfection, we can at least live with that. And on that point, to be binary for a moment, it's either living with it, or not. But what does "not" mean in this case? Suicide, or fighting what we dislike, what we want to change 'for the best'?

As to upsetting others, doing so seems to upset you too. Why? If it is not agreement you seek, why be bothered when people disagree with you? I would argue it is because you, very humanly, have strong emotions and deep empathy. We are a social animal, highly complex. There is a tendency to conformity with the group for biological reasons. The only full 'escapes' from this I can see are psychopathy/sociopathy, and living in a cave as a hermit. You want neither, as far as I can tell. You want (choose), therefore, that set of 'problems' generated by living in that infuriating place called society. There's nothing 'wrong' with that.

Malagodi said...

Important, fundamental issues.

A couple of weeks ago, (Dec. 26), a musician that I've had the honor of doing some work with, Sam Rivers, died at age 88 in Orlando.

Last Wednesday the musicians who've been in his big band over the past 20 years staged a memorial concert. It was free for anyone to attend. I drove the 225 miles, one way, with my recording and photography equipment to document the event. It was a lot of work, and I use a fair amount of sophisticated technology (though most considered 'consumer' technology) to accomplish this work. The result is posted on my Vimeo channel here:

This 'work product' was shared with the musicians, and everyone else, via Facebook, where they seem to be 'appreciated'. [key word meaning to increase value or worth]

No one paid me. There was no remuneration of my costs, nor do I expect any future monetary gain. The 'work' was produced as a social good with no formal involvement of the larger economy. I point this out to corroborate the principle points of your post. It is rather like your writing here as well, a 'work product' created solely as a social good, without relation to economy.

The technology. The technology that I use is an extension of my ears and eyes and brain, and functions according to its construction to effect my intent. It is an integral part of this activity, which would be impossible without it. An alien scientist would observe a creature using materials in its surroundings to accomplish a task. I and my tools are one.

The difference between man and machine is not one of substance; that is, both are 'natural' phenomena. It is not even so much that one is biological and the other technological. The fundamental difference is that the human has the capacity to express intention, the machine, so far, does not. (Remember the critical villainy of HAL in 2001, was the result of its capacity to hold and express intention.)

However, it is obvious that in the industrial economy where social good plays no part in the intention of the producer, all technology displaces human labor; that is its raison d'etre. The old Marxist idea (or perhaps it is older) that all wealth is created by labor is now obsolete. For the first time in history, wealth can be created without labor.

I cannot recommend more highly the book, which I may have mentioned before, "Mechanization Takes Command" by Sigfried Gideon. I believe it would add a certain flavor to your interest in the Venus project.

Toby said...

Hi Stephen,

I'm listening to Rejuvenation right now. Great drummer, and the band produces one hell of a beautiful noise. So, appreciation from me to you, which I see as a healthy or 'organic' money, a good kind of money, which, like love or respect, diminishes nothing, causes no effective negative on the other side of a ledger.

'Intention' is a good word that gets at what for me is the key difference between man and (current) machinery. Another might be 'flexibility.' We are, as I said to Debbie, machine-like in our thinking, idolize where it's not at all 'necessary' and therefore having been building inflexible 'machines' as the state, as institutions, as bureaucracies, as governments, as money-systems, schools, corporations, for far longer than we've had what the mainstream thinks of when it hears the word 'technology.' The 'problem' lies with us and how inflexibly we measure value, appreciate each other's contributions, and worth. Then there's our archaic notions of punishment and reward.

We are not far from machines with intent. If we are not careful, if we don't get our act together, we could land ourselves in very hot water indeed. To be capable collectively of giving rise to more beautiful systems of governance and social organization, at least a majority of us need to be as flexible and 'wise' socially as our hands are dextrous. Education, money, 'work', value, technology; them's the battlegrounds, quite possibly in that order, though one won't be lastingly changed without all others undergoing similarly deep revolution.

I'll look into that book. Thanks for the tip.