Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.
But if you look even closer, things get stranger still. Automated processes are often far less impressive than the puffery and propaganda surrounding them imply—and sometimes they are nowhere to be seen. Jobs may be eliminated and salaries slashed but people are often still laboring alongside or behind the machines, even if the work they perform has been deskilled or goes unpaid.
Remarkable technological changes are indeed afoot, but that doesn’t mean the evolution of employment, and the social world at large, has been preordained. We shouldn’t simply sit back, awestruck, awaiting the arrival of an artificially intelligent workforce. We must also reckon with the ideology of automation, and its attendant myth of human obsolescence.
If what we encounter on Facebook, OkCupid, and other online platforms is generally “safe for work,” it is not because algorithms have sorted through the mess and hid some of it from view. Rather, we take non-nauseating dips in the digital stream thanks to the labor of real-live human beings who sit before their own screens day and night, tagging content as vulgar, violent, and offensive. According to Chen, more people work in the shadow mines of content moderation than are officially employed by Facebook or Google. Fauxtomatons make the internet a habitable place, cleaning virtual public squares of the sort of trash that would chase most of us offline and into the relative safety of face-to-face interaction.
Today many, though not all, of the people employed as content moderators live abroad, in places like the Philippines or India, where wages are comparatively low. The darkest tasks that sustain our digital world are outsourced to poor people living in poorer nations, from the environmentally destructive mining of precious minerals and the disposal of toxic electronic waste to the psychologically damaging effects of content moderation. As with all labor relations, race, gender, and geography play a role, determining which workers receive fair compensation for their labor or are even deemed real workers worthy of a wage at all. Automation, whether real or fake, hasn’t undone these disturbing dynamics, and may well intensify them.
Jefferson gilded chains by making them hard to see. Slaves (“members of the slave community” as the video awkwardly dubs them) cooked hot food and put it on shelves, making it appear as if the evening’s fare had been conjured by magic. The same hidden hands whisked away dirty plates just as quickly. Slaves also stood at the ready in the basement, waiting to load up any wine the master and his guests required. The appearance of seemingly automated abundance Jefferson so doggedly cultivated required substantial additional labor—the labor of making labor seem to disappear.
The problem is that the emphasis on technological factors alone, as though “disruptive innovation” comes from nowhere or is as natural as a cool breeze, casts an air of blameless inevitability over something that has deep roots in class conflict. The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate.
Capitalism needs workers to be and feel vulnerable, and because automation has an ideological function as well as a technological dimension, leftists must keep intervening in conversations about technological change and what to do about it. Instead of capitulating to the owning class’s loose talk of automation as a foreordained next phase of production, we should counter with demands that are both visionary and feasible: a federal job guarantee that provides meaningful work to all who want it or job sharing through a significant reduction in the workweek. When pundits predict mass unemployment following a robot takeover, we should call for collective ownership of the robots and generous social benefits detached from employment status, including pushing for a progressive variation of a universal basic income under a rallying cry that updates the 1970s socialist feminist slogan to Wages for All Work—not just the work that bosses recognize as worthy of a meager paycheck.
[...] The online sphere inspires incessant talk of gift economies and public-spiritedness and democracy, but commercialism and privatization and inequality lurk beneath the surface.
This contradiction is captured in a single word: “open,” a concept capacious enough to contain both the communal and capitalistic impulses central to Web 2.0 while being thankfully free of any socialist connotations. New-media thinkers have claimed openness as the appropriate utopian ideal for our time, and the concept has caught on. The term is now applied to everything from education to culture to politics and government. Broadly speaking, in tech circles, open systems—like the Internet itself—are always good, while closed systems—like the classic broadcast model—are bad. Open is Google and Wi-Fi, decentralization and entrepreneurialism, the United States and Wikipedia. Closed equals Hollywood and cable television, central planning and entrenched industry, China and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. However imprecisely the terms are applied, the dichotomy of open versus closed (sometimes presented as freedom versus control) provides the conceptual framework that increasingly underpins much of the current thinking about technology, media, and culture.
While openness has many virtues, it is also undeniably ambiguous. Is open a means or an end? What is open and to whom? Mark Zuckerberg said he designed Facebook because he wanted to make the world more “open and connected,” but his company does everything it can to keep users within its confines and exclusively retains the data they emit. Yet this vagueness is hardly a surprise given the history of the term, which was originally imported from software production: the designation “open source” was invented to rebrand free software as business friendly, foregrounding efficiency and economic benefits (open as in open markets) over ethical concerns (the freedom of free software). In keeping with this transformation, openness is often invoked in a way that evades discussions of ownership and equity, highlighting individual agency over commercial might and ignoring underlying power imbalances.
very similar to what Morozov says in his Baffler piece
(this inspired my open web talk. I swear I didn't actually read it before I wrote my logic piece though, even though it feels eerily similar. i did read that NLR review of it - maybe that's why?)
Open standards, in general, foster a kind of productive chaos, encouraging innovation and invention, experimentation and engagement. But openness alone does not provide the blueprint for a more equitable social order, in part because the “freedom” promoted by the tech community almost always turns out to be of the Darwinian variety. Openness in this context is ultimately about promoting competition, not with protecting equality in any traditional sense; it has little to say about entrenched systems of economic privilege, labor rights, fairness, or income redistribution. Despite enthusiastic commentators and their hosannas to democratization, inequality is not exclusive to closed systems. Networks reflect and exacerbate imbalances of power as much as they improve them.
[...] The cultural field has become increasingly controlled by companies “whose sole contribution to the creative work,” to borrow Cory Doctorow’s biting expression, “is chaining children to factories in China and manufacturing skinny electronics” or developing the most sophisticated methods for selling our data to advertisers.
damn that's brutal
More troublingly, at least for those who believed the Internet upstarts would inevitably vanquish the establishment dinosaurs, are the ways the new and old players have melded. Condé Nast bought Reddit, Fox has a stake in Vice Media, Time Warner bet on Maker Studios (which is behind some of YouTube’s biggest stars), Apple works intimately with Hollywood and AT&T, Facebook joined forces with Microsoft and the major-label-backed Spotify, and Twitter is trumpeting its utility to television programmers. Google, in addition to cozying up to the phone companies that use its Android operating system, has struck partnership deals with entertainment companies including Disney, Paramount, ABC, 20th Century Fox, and Sony Pictures while making numerous overtures to network and cable executives in hopes of negotiating a paid online television service.
The corollary of Benkler’s and Shirky’s argument is that only those who despise their work deserve to be paid for their efforts. It’s worth pointing out that these men—despite their enthusiasm for social production—release their books with conventional publishers and hold positions at elite academic institutions. Surely they do not believe their work as professional writers, researchers, and teachers is suspect because they were compensated. There is a note of truth in the idea that adversity fuels creativity, but when reduced to an economic truism—a decline in industry profitability won’t hurt artistic production because artists will work for beer—the notion rings not just hollow but obscene.
Yet the challenge of maintaining oneself in a world of money is hardly a problem unique to the creatively inclined. This dilemma may not trouble those who choose to pursue wealth above all else, but most people seek work that feeds both the spirit and the belly. Likewise, the cultural realm is not the only sphere in which some essential part cannot be bought or sold. Teaching, therapy, medicine, science, architecture, design, even politics and law when practiced to serve the public good—certainly the gift operates within these fields as well. The gift can even be detected in supposedly menial jobs where people, in good faith, do far more than meager wages require of them. Creative people are not the only ones who struggle desperately to balance the contradictory demands of the gift and the market. But culture is the domain where this quandary is often most visible and acknowledged. Culture is one stage on which we play out our anxieties about the impact of market values on our inner lives. As we transition to a digital age, this anxiety is in full view.
imo this is less about culture (at least in the plausible variant of the argument she's addressing) and more about marginal cost. think about it more tho