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Tag: capitalism (page 1 of 2)

Indignities of Late Capitalism

I prefer capitalism to the alternatives, but I’ve still gotta laugh (and cringe) at some of the results. Modern life is fucking weird. Links links links…

Juicero is a startup that raised more than $100 million to “reinvent juice” or whatever bullshit. A ground-breaking scoop showed that Juicero’s machines are basically unnecessary. You can squeeze the pre-filled juice bags by hand and get essentially the same result.

The whole Juicero saga made me snort audibly at least once. Thank you, venture capitalists. (Maybe Juicero’s valuation is actually justified because of the amount of amusement it caused?!)

Another tidbit from Silicon Valley; this one is a #shortread: “Investing in Snapchat is something that no one responsible should ever do. Snapchat is the equivalent of driving drunk.”

Tweet by Sarah Jamie Lewis. Insert "this is fine" dog here.

Tweet by Sarah Jamie Lewis. Insert “this is fine” dog here.

Tay Zonday of “Chocolate Rain” fame articulated what’s wrong with journalism better than just about anyone else. He’s also very woke, which somehow surprised me. Man, remember when that video went viral? I did not take him seriously, but apparently I should have.

Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss rally creeps me out. Examined through a feminist lens, the name is demeaning — how about a hashtag-less boss who just happens to be a woman? Also, yeah, I’m a woman, not a girl. Plus all the ~omg inspiration~ smacks of multi-level marketing schemes or infoproduct “how to be an entrepreneur” sellers.

There’s more to the Wall Street bull and newly added Fearless Girl sculptures than most of us realized. Capitalist guerilla art + pernicious marketing + the author is dead so who cares anyway. (Every possible take will be written, as the commandments of the internet say!)

Tweet by Charlie Warzel.

Tweet by Charlie Warzel.

Lastly, Louise Mensch thinks that everybody is a Russian agent. She’s pretty close to being Alex Jones for liberals. It honestly seems possible that she’s undergoing some kind of psychotic break and broadcasting the whole process on Twitter.


Header photo by Anthony Quintano.

The Fleet Can Withdraw

For work I had to read Lyft co-founder John Zimmer’s manifesto about the future of cities. A quote that jumped out at me:

Technology has redefined entire industries around a simple reality: you no longer need to own a product to enjoy its benefits. With Netflix and streaming services, DVD ownership became obsolete. Spotify has made it unnecessary to own CDs and MP3s. Eventually, we’ll look at owning a car in much the same way.

I think he’s right. No doubt rich car enthusiasts will keep their toys, like people still cherish their record players. Who knows whether it will be legal for a human to drive on regular streets at that point? I’m not the first person to ask that question, but it hasn’t stopped being worth asking.

Nor am I the first person to identify the inevitable next step. When you don’t own any of the equipment that you use, someone else controls your access. They can cut you off. (Pretty sure there are multiple Black Mirror episodes about this.) Consider that your ability to challenge an access provider may be limited. Lyft, for example, includes an arbitration clause in their terms of service:

YOU AND LYFT MUTUALLY AGREE TO WAIVE OUR RESPECTIVE RIGHTS TO RESOLUTION OF DISPUTES IN A COURT OF LAW BY A JUDGE OR JURY AND AGREE TO RESOLVE ANY DISPUTE BY ARBITRATION, as set forth below. This agreement to arbitrate (“Arbitration Agreement”) is governed by the Federal Arbitration Act and survives after the Agreement terminates or your relationship with Lyft ends. ANY ARBITRATION UNDER THIS AGREEMENT WILL TAKE PLACE ON AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS; CLASS ARBITRATIONS AND CLASS ACTIONS ARE NOT PERMITTED. Except as expressly provided below, this Arbitration Agreement applies to all Claims (defined below) between you and Lyft, including our affiliates, subsidiaries, parents, successors and assigns, and each of our respective officers, directors, employees, agents, or shareholders.

Caps not added. I will never understand the aesthetic conventions of contracts.

For reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, this passage from a Nathan Jurgenson essay about the glut of modern media feels related:

From 24-hour television to the online posts being cycled through algorithms optimized for virality, the constant churn of news seems to make everything both too important and of no matter. Every event is explained around the clock and none of these explanations suffice. Everything can be simultaneously believable and unbelievable.

Maybe because we don’t own the information we consume. Of course, we never owned our everyday data, except in the banal sense that people had to buy newspapers.

More likely the correspondence is that we dip in and out of infostreams — open up social media for a minute, scroll, close the app to switch to email — the way we duck in and out of rideshares.

Rhythms of engagement. Cycling like a heartbeat. Blood in, blood out.


Header artwork by Leonardo de Moura.

The Staid Side of Money

I interviewed my Twitter friend Marc Hochstein, who is the editor-in-chief at American Banker, about finance and technology. (He didn’t speak with me in a professional capacity, but I think his workplace is helpful context.)

Hochstein started his career as a wire service reporter at Dow Jones. He called it a “character-building experience” that involved a lot of cold-calling day traders. The upshot is that Hochstein has been reporting on banks and finance for decades, so his perspective on recent industry developments is interesting.

(Why you should care about this: Our world runs on money. The financial-services industry is hyper-entwined with government, and together they’re the base-level system that everything else is built on top of. That’s actually a simplification since “everything else” and “finance” developed concurrently, but you get the idea.)

I think this quote sums up a lot:

In the last two years — maybe three or four years — there’s been a lot more interest in technology as a potentially transformational force, than there has been in a very long time. You could argue that banking was always, in a way, a technological industry, or always a data industry. There’s a quote from Walter Wriston, who was the chairman of Citicorp back in the ’80s and ’90s. I forget the exact verbatim quote, but it’s something like, “A bank is nothing but a data warehouse, that’s always what it’s been.”

But the banks — financial institutions in general — have been slow to upgrade their core technology, and for some understandable reasons. Changing the core of the bank is a hard thing to do. […] When times are good, when they’re making a lot of money, there’s no real impetus to change anything. And then when times are bad, they don’t have the resources to do anything. Or resources are scarce, I should say.

Hochstein pointed out that the “Uber narrative” hasn’t played out in finance like it has in other industries. He told me, “The barriers to entry are higher. The stakes are higher, because you’re talking about people’s money.” Fintech startups can’t afford to beg forgiveness instead of asking permission. Regulators don’t take kindly to that, and users don’t either.

Technology hasn’t shaken up finance as much as people in Silicon Valley might have expected. Over the last few years, Hochstein explained, “The rhetoric changed from ‘fintech is going to eat the banks’ lunch’ to ‘fintech is going to make banking better at what they do’.” Still, “it’s a little early to say” whether fintech is actually improving banking, or what the degree of change will be. “I wouldn’t say it’s been a profound effect, but it’s there.”

On the bright side, “Transferring money is slowly getting faster.” The Automated Clearing House is finally moving to same-day settlement. “Part of the reason why they did that, why they finally had an impetus to go there,” Hochstein said, “is because of things like Ripple, and bitcoin, and cryptocurrency, as well as real-time payment systems that you see in a lot of other countries.” Hochstein noted that regulators and the Fed have also been pushing in this direction.

I find this slightly mind-boggling. It’s a big deal that ACH is moving to same-day settlement — not real-time, just same-day. In the year 2017.

I asked Hochstein which issues are going to dominate a lot of attention going forward, and he mentioned “open banking” and data portability. Basically, banks have a tremendous amount of lock-in because of all the information they’ve collected and stored about your identity and your account activity.

There’s some talk of forcing banks to provide this information to competitors — or whoever else might be authorized by individuals, e.g. money-management apps like Mint — via API. Guess whether the banks want to do that!

In conclusion, finance gonna finance. Big companies gonna rent-seek. They change when they’re forced to, either by regulation (Dodd-Frank Act, for example) or by the competitive environment. In general, these institutions move slowly. On balance that’s actually a good thing, considering how much havoc they could potentially wreak.


Thank you to Marc Hochstein for talking to me — follow him on Twitter or read his articles.

Photo of the Wall Street bull by Sam Valadi.

Controlling the Opposition to Some Extent

This quote is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” He speaks of puppet movements and useful idiots. (The latter term is also Leninese, as it happens.) There is a less-popular companion statement, which seems to have bubbled up from the frustrated id of anonymous extremists:

"All opposition is controlled opposition." Made with Buffer's Pablo.

“All opposition is controlled opposition.” Made with Buffer’s Pablo.

The idea behind this maxim is that the state allows a certain amount of opposition to exist, and often infiltrates protest movements or steers them from afar. (Anarchist groups have developed what they call “security culture” as a way to guard against this.)

Dissidents are permitted to bleed off tension without actually endangering the regime. People with the savvy and energy to organize real trouble are swallowed up by doomed groups fighting for doomed causes.

For example, the “controlled opposition” interpretation of the #NoDAPL protests would be: The activists feel like they’ve won a victory, but the pipeline will just be slightly rerouted, built eventually, and imperil the groundwater in due time. The tribe’s supposed success serves to placate the public. Behind the scenes, the state and its capitalist cronies do whatever they want.

Some observers interpret mainstream political parties as controlled opposition en masse. Show contests orchestrated by the deep state in order to keep the voters occupied. Wars are engineered by corporate interests. According to this paradigm, we don’t just swoop in and crush ISIS because the military-industrial complex thrives on hot wars.

I think “all opposition is controlled opposition” is a bit like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Both sayings are nonsense when interpreted literally, but they’re catchy ways to encapsulate an emotionally compelling idea.

Yes, clearly controlled opposition does exist. But genuinely disruptive fringe groups also exist. The English government didn’t benefit from the IRA, and the French Revolution managed to behead a couple of monarchs (plus many unfortunate members of the aristocracy). Mao Zedong’s rise to power was not controlled opposition.

In general, I think people tend to see conspiracies where there are actually incentive structures. Of course the state has to strike a balance between crushing dissent entirely and allowing it to enter society’s memetic bloodstream. If the politicians and bureaucrats err too far in either direction, the state loses its power.


Header photo via the euskadi 11.

Personalities, Bought and Sold

Sara Watson wrote about the contradictory selves that each of us scatters around on the internet:

I catch glimpses of her in side­bars and banners, in the branded ads creeping into my infi­nite scrolls. She surfaces in recom­men­da­tions and person­al­ized results — fleeting encoun­ters unless captured by screen­shot.

She is a pixe­lated, auto­mated portrait of myself. She is frag­ments, an amal­ga­ma­tion I see in the digital mirror. She’s me, now through a glass darkly.

She is a pastiche of my patched-together digital detritus. She is my browsing history, my status updates, my GPS loca­tions, my responses to marketing mail, my credit card trans­ac­tions, and my public records.

Artwork by Matt Lyon.

Artwork by Matt Lyon.

As a pretty public person who makes a living writing (or at least tries to), I struggle with this. I don’t care about the personal effect that ~surveillance capitalism~ has on me (I do care about the political effects, don’t worry!) because let’s be real, the personal effect is nil. I just get advertised to a little more effectively. But it does frustrate me that my public persona is so fractured.

There’s cyberpunk me, which you get exposed to via this newsletter, and which also comes out in the chat group, on Twitter, and on Hacker News. There’s business-y me on Twitter, my website, and occasionally Facebook. But I have a whole separate sphere of interests centered on makeup and other “girly” stuff, expressed via Instagram and Reddit.

I feel really weird when I “cross the streams” by talking about makeup on Twitter or whatever. I’m not presenting something cohesive, from a branding perspective. And since clients come from everywhere, that potentially threatens my livelihood, or at least de-optimizes it.

There are always tradeoffs. The internet and social media have been such a boon to me, especially since I do not function well in normal office environments, but constantly pitching myself to anyone who drops by is exhausting.

Imagining a Cyberpunk Social Safety Net

I’m still thinking about how to structure the rewards for readers who financially support Exolymph. But one of the current ones is that people who contribute $10 via Patreon can choose a topic for me to write about. Beau Gunderson posed the question, “What would a cyberpunk social safety net look like?”


A social safety net is a formalized way of catching people when they fall. Traditionally, the government pays for a few survival-level services, like food stamps and homeless shelters in the United States, or healthcare in more civilized countries. (Sure do love our privatized medical system that totally doesn’t punish the poor!)

But a cyberpunk future-present is dominated by corporations rather than the state — would they be inclined to pick up the slack?

In a way, the ideal version of a cyberpunk social safety net would be a bit like how things used to function for the middle class. You had a decades-long career at a big company; in exchange for your labor and loyalty, they provided your family’s healthcare and a pension. The Baby Boomers are the last generation to participate in this scheme.

1950s motivational posters. Image compilation via Kevin Dooley.

Image compilation via Kevin Dooley.

I don’t mean to romanticize the past — a lot of things about the 1950s through ’90s were awful, especially if you were a person of color, a woman, LGBTQIA, or any combination of the above. Even if you were a straight white man, striking out on your own, whether as an entrepreneur or a societal dropout, was pretty risky. (It’s still pretty risky.)

Regardless, the “work for BigCorp until you turn sixty-five and eat cake at your going-away party” paradigm is being dismantled by the twenty-first century. “Precariat” is a hot buzzword; labor is contingent and people hop from gig to gig.

Workers get shafted unless they have particular scarce skills (like programming or deceiving the public). Broadly speaking, the causes are globalization and technological advances. No need to pay for benefits in [rich country] when workers in [poor country] don’t expect them!

At this point I’m just reviewing things you already know.

One vision of ultra-capitalist social services comes from radical libertarian David Friedman (as quoted by Slate Star Codex):

[A]t some future time there are no government police, but instead private protection agencies. These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts.

How might such protection agencies protect? That would be an economic decision, depending on the costs and effectiveness of different alternatives. On the one extreme, they might limit themselves to passive defenses, installing elaborate locks and alarms. Or they might take no preventive action at all, but make great efforts to hunt down criminals guilty of crimes against their clients. They might maintain foot patrols or squad cars, like our present government police, or they might rely on electronic substitutes. In any case, they would be selling a service to their customers and would have a strong incentive to provide as high a quality of service as possible, at the lowest possible cost. It is reasonable to suppose that the quality of service would be higher and the cost lower than with the present governmental system.

If you want a LOT more speculative detail about edge cases and such, read the SSC review (or Friedman’s book itself). To be clear, I don’t think privatized protection agencies are a good idea.

The cyberpunk social safety net that would be easiest to implement is a sort of collectivized insurance, modeled on Latinx tandas — lending circles. You could probably even incorporate a blockchain to make it trendy — or possibly to make it scale better? I am not a software engineer. Anyway, imagine this:

Every month, fifteen friends put money into a pot, which is kept by a mutually trusted member or a trusted third party (e.g. church pastor or bank safe). Whenever one of the friends has a crisis, like losing their job and needing to cover rent, the necessary funds are dispensed to them.

Before you email me, yes, there are a million ways this would be complex and difficult in practice. What if someone tries to claim something that a third of the group thinks is a illegitimate expense? Okay, majority rules. What about vote brigading? How do you vet people who want to join?

Mixing social relationships and money tends to be tricky.

That doesn’t even address the problem that arises when someone undergoes a real catastrophe and needs hundreds of thousands of dollars to start resolving their issue. But hey, it might be better than nothing. It might help the half of the American population who can’t come up with $400 in an emergency.

If that’s not pessimistic enough for you… I asked members of the chat group to weigh in, and @aboniks elaborated at length:

If this is a cyberpunk vision where people can be digitized, social security is basically a programming exercise, right? The safety net is actually a safety network. Contractors design theme parks for our digitized psyches and call it a day. Or people each get X amount of storage space and X number of processing cycles to run their own virtual retirement. AIs sell them experience-design services. People duplicate themselves with falsified credentials to engage in benefit fraud and increase their storage space.

Political arguments over meatspace benefit levels and healthcare could translate into arguments about involuntarily putting people into hibernation mode. Article 12 of the Digital Rights Act ensures equal access to services, but people with certain neurological conditions are being discriminated against when they apply for control of real-world mobile camera platforms; rich meatspace Thiels find the erratic movement of their drones to be unsightly.

Anyway, however you pitch it in the end, keep in mind that social security is fundamentally about having and not having. It’s going to be the believability of the conflict between the service users and the service providers that makes your vision work. Or not work.

More realistically, I expect we’ll see something like the private prison industry being broken up and reforming as a service provider for social security beneficiaries. The idea that we’re all going to have a 1/1 bungalow with a garden and an aging Labrador in front of a crackling fire… no. Looking at how people with only SS income are living these days, even an institutional housing project with razor-thin profit margins would be a quality-of-life improvement for a lot of urbanites. The extended family is largely a thing of the past unless you go out of your way to make it happen, and the nuclear family is headed the same way. Lots of poverty-line “senior singles” in our future.

I’m still looking into incorporating my family though. The future I’m likely to live through is much more friendly to corporations than it is to humans.

(Lightly edited for style consistency.)

So, what do you think?


Easily the best response, from reader Brett:

Maybe in a cyberpunk social safety net, there would be a (computer) program that would calculate and dictate when volunteers should steal a roll of toilet paper from their work. The toilet paper would be hoarded and then sent along to those who need it. The computer program would subtly manage the rate of stealing across its networks of humans so the thievery is distributed across many different corporations and never detected by competing algorithms looking for “leakage” in their expenses.

Health, Happiness, 8asdf6a7f57

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

I was nervous in all the cliché ways — sweaty palms, rubbing them on my thighs, slightly flushed and slightly sweaty. Everyone said the procedure wouldn’t hurt. But I didn’t know of any person who had gotten it reversed. So this was permanent. It wouldn’t help to dream of regaining ownership.

The recruiter gave me a kind glance over her desk. “Are you ready, dear?” She seemed configured to look grandmotherly, complete with the faint cookie smell. I felt a little suspicious, wondering if she was a bioengineered multi-stack human, placed here to comfort me into signing myself over. Or maybe her personality was just a happy coincidence for the corporation.

I needed the money. That’s how these things always happen. People used to join the United States Army because the education and income were worth risking your life. I heard about that from old Boomers on street corners. When I was a kid, they still hung around.

I never liked their greyness, the frozen-in-time feel of them. Boomers rocked back and forth on their haunches, shooting the shit with each other, and you couldn’t help but listen while waiting for the crosswalk. My parents’ parents, the generation birthed by the “Greatest Generation”; the generation that caused all of this anyway. Fuck ’em.

The recruiter pushed a tablet and stylus toward me. She nodded with a smile, just like a benevolent automaton would. I swiped through the forms slowly, trying to read everything but feeling my eyes glance off the denser patches of legalese. What could they say in these documents that would deter me, anyway?

I needed the money.

The press called them “oblivion jobs” — liberal columnists thought they were evil and conservative columnists called them an honest day’s work. Snapchat blew up with the debates for a while. Then other liberals jumped in and pointed out that this new solution was better than fully conscious drudgery.

Besides, the second faction of leftists argued, it was condescending to confiscate options from the poor. Let them choose. We chose, in droves, because it paid decently. Finally, something that paid decently! I was a holdout, actually. Paranoia and an irregular news habit kept me away from the recruiting offices until almost everyone else I knew had signed up.

The value proposition was straightforward: Sell your time and labor, like any job. But you don’t have to be awake while it’s happening. Rent out your body and accept long stretches of blankness. Would you rather be aware of the monotonous physical labor — hollowing out arcology units, adjusting every terminal for the dirt it was lodged in? Or would you rather wake up ten hours later, never having processed how you spent the time?

The commercials said it would be like going straight from breakfast to watching TV with a beer in hand. And you’d stay in shape, hooray!

The hardware-wetware combo behind this was complex and poorly understood, controversial among engineers as well as pundits. Roboticists were exasperated at first, not used to being second best, but eventually they resigned themselves to the new status quo. Machines were physically more capable, but they couldn’t match the sensory intuition of oblivion workers.

Everyone who told me the procedure wouldn’t hurt was right. And soon my employment situation felt familiar, of course. It was only strange for a couple of weeks to “wake up” with an aching back, nearly ready to go back to bed again.

Foozles + Whizgigs + Dopamine

“Humans are actually extremely good at certain types of data processing. Especially when there are only few data points available. Computers fail with proper decision making when they lack data. Humans often actually don’t.” — Martin Weigert on his blog Meshed Society

Weigert is referring to intuition. In a metaphorical way, human minds function like unsupervised machine learning algorithms. We absorb data — experiences and anecdotes — and we spit out predictions and decisions. We define the problem space based on the inputs we encounter and define the set of acceptable answers based on the reactions we get from the world.

There’s no guarantee of accuracy, or even of usefulness. It’s just a system of inputs and outputs that bounce against the given parameters. And it’s always in flux — we iterate toward a moving reward state, eager to feel sated in a way that a computer could never understand. In a way that we can never actually achieve. (What is this “contentment” you speak of?)

Computer memory space. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Kate Losse wrote in reference to the whole Facebook “Trending Topics” debacle:

“no choice a human or business makes when constructing an algorithm is in fact ‘neutral,’ it is simply what that human or business finds to be most valuable to them.”

That’s the reward state. Have you generated a result that is judged to be valuable? Have a dopamine hit. Have some money. Have all the accoutrements of capitalist success. Have a wife and a car and two-point-five kids and keep absorbing data and keep spitting back opinions and actions. If you deviate from the norms that we’ve collectively evolved to prize, then your dopamine machine will be disabled.

It’s only a matter of time until we make this relationship more explicit, right? Your job regulating the production of foozles and whizgigs will require brain stem and cortical access. You can be zapped with fear or drowned in pleasure whenever it suits the suits.

Software Meets Capitalism: Interview with Steve Klabnik

Old woman working at a loom. Photo by silas8six.

Old woman working at a loom. Photo by silas8six.

I interviewed Steve Klabnik via email. If you’re part of the open-source world, you might recognize his name. Otherwise I’ll let him introduce himself. We discussed economics, technological unemployment, and software.

Exolymph: The initial reason I reached out is that you’re a technologist who tweets about labor exploitation and other class issues. I’m currently fascinated by how tech and society influence each other, and I’m particularly interested in the power jockeying within open-source communities. You seem uniquely situated to comment on these issues.

Originally I planned to launch right into questions in this email, but then I start opening your blog posts in new tabs, and now I need a little more time still. But! Here’s a softball one for starters: How would you introduce yourself to an oddball group of futurists (which is my readership)?

Steve Klabnik: It’s funny that you describe this one as a softball, because it should be, yet I think it’s actually really tough. I find it really difficult to sum up a person in a few words; there’s just so much you miss out on. Identity is a precarious and complex topic.

I generally see myself as someone who’s fundamentally interdisciplinary. I’m more about the in-betweens than I am about any specific thing. The discipline that I’m most trained in is software; it’s something I’ve done for virtually my entire life, and I have a degree in it. But software by itself is not that interesting to me. It’s the stuff that you can do with software, the impact that it has on our world, questions of ethics, of social interaction. This draws a connection to my second favorite thing: philosophy. I’m an amateur here, unfortunately. I almost got a higher degree in this stuff, but life has a way of happening. More specifically, I’m deeply enthralled with the family of philosophy that is colloquially referred to as “continental” philosophy, though I’m not sure I find that distinction useful. My favorites in this realm are Spinoza, Nietzsche, Marx, and Deleuze. I find that their philosophical ideas can have deep implications for software, its place in the world, and society at large.

Since we live under capitalism, “who are you” is often conflated with “what do you do for work”. As far as that goes, I work for Mozilla, the company that makes Firefox. More specifically, I write documentation for Rust, a programming language that we and a broader community have developed. I literally wrote the book on it 🙂 Mozilla has a strong open-source ethic, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up working there; I do a lot of open-source work. On GitHub, a place where open-source developers share their code, this metric says that I’m the twenty-ninth most active contributor, with 4,362 contributions in the last 365 days. Before Rust, I was heavily involved with the Ruby on Rails community, and the broader Ruby community at large. I still maintain a few packages in Ruby.

Exolymph: To be fair, I described it as a softball question precisely because of the capitalist shortcut you mentioned, although I’m not sure I would have articulated it like that. Darn predictable social conditioning.

What appeals to you about open source? What frustrates you about open source?

Steve Klabnik: I love the idea of working towards a commons. I’d prefer to write software that helps as many people as possible.

What frustrates me is how many people can’t be paid to do this kind of work. I’ve been lucky to been able to feed myself while working on open source. Very, very lucky. But for most, it’s doing your job without pay. If we truly want a commons, we have to figure out how to fund it.

Exolymph: I’ve been reading a bunch of your blog posts. I’m curious about how you feel about working in an industry — and perhaps doing work personally — that obviates older jobs that people used to count on.

Steve Klabnik: It is something that I think about a lot. This is something that’s a fundamental aspect of capitalism, and has always haunted it: see the Luddites, for example. This problem is very complex, but here’s one aspect of it: workers don’t get to capture the benefits of increased productivity, at least not directly. Let’s dig into an example to make this more clear.

Let’s say that I’m a textile worker, like the Luddite. Let’s make up some numbers to make the math easy: I can make one yard of fabric per hour with my loom. But here’s the catch: I’m paid by the hour, not by the amount of fabric I make. This is because I don’t own the loom; I just work here. So, over the course of a ten hour day, I make ten yards of fabric, and am paid a dollar for this work.

Next week, when I come to work, a new Loom++ has been installed in my workstation. I do the same amount of work, but can produce two yards of fabric now. At the end of my ten hour day, I’ve made twenty yards of fabric: a 2x increase! But I’m still only being paid my dollar. In other words, the owner of the factory gets twice as much fabric for the same price, but I haven’t seen any gain here.

(Sidebar: There’s some complexity in this that does matter, but this is an interview, not a book 🙂 So for example, yes, the capitalist had to pay for the Loom++ in the first place. This is a concept Marx calls “fixed versus variable capital”, and this is a long enough answer already, so I’ll just leave it at that.)

Now, the idea here is that the other factories will also install Loom++s as well, and at least one of the people who’s selling the cloth will decide that 1.75x as much profit is better, so they’ll undercut the others, and eventually, the price of cloth will fall in half, to match the new productivity level. Now, as a worker, I have access to cheaper cloth. But until that happens, I’m not seeing a benefit, yet the capitalist is collecting theirs. Until they invest in a Loom2DX, with double the productivity of the Loom++, and the cycle starts anew.

Yet we, as workers, haven’t actually seen the benefits work out the way they should. There’s nothing that guarantees that it will, other than the religion of economists. And the working class has seen their wages stagnate, while productivity soars, especially recently. Here is a study that gets cited a lot, in articles like this one.

“From 1973 to 2013, hourly compensation of a typical (production/nonsupervisory) worker rose just 9 percent while productivity increased 74 percent. This breakdown of pay growth has been especially evident in the last decade, affecting both college- and non-college-educated workers as well as blue- and white-collar workers. This means that workers have been producing far more than they receive in their paychecks and benefit packages from their employers.”

We haven’t been really getting our side of the deal.

Anyway.

So, this is a futurist blog, yet I’ve just been talking about looms. Why? Well, two reasons: First, technologists are the R&D department that takes the loom, looks at it, and makes the Loom++. It’s important to understand this, and to know in our heart of hearts that under capitalism, yes, our role is to automate people out of jobs. Understanding a problem is the first step towards solving it. But second, it’s to emphasize that this isn’t something that’s specific to computing or anything. It’s the fundamental role of technology. We like to focus on the immediate benefit (“We have Loom++es now!!!”) and skip over the societal effects (“Some people are going to make piles of money from this and others may lose their jobs”). Technologists need to start taking the societal effects more seriously. After all, we’re workers too.

I’m at a technology conference in Europe right now, and on the way here, I watched a movie, The Intern. The idea of the movie is basically, “Anne Hathaway runs Etsy (called About the Fit in the movie), and starts an internship program for senior citizens. Robert De Niro signs up because he’s bored with retirement, and surprise! Culture clash.” It was an okay movie. But one small bit of backstory of De Niro’s character really struck me. It’s revealed that before he retired, he used to work in literally the same building as About the Fit is in now. He worked for a phone book company. It’s pretty obvious why he had to retire. The movie is basically a tale of what we’re talking about here.

Exolymph: I’m also curious about what you’d propose to help society through the Computing Revolution (if you will) and its effect on “gainful employment” opportunities.

Steve Klabnik: Okay, so, I’m not saying that we need to keep phone books around so that De Niro can keep his job. I’m also not saying that we need to smash the looms. What I am saying is that in a society which is built around the idea that you have to work to live, and that also rapidly makes people’s jobs obsolete, is a society in which a lot of people are going to be in a lot of pain. We could be taking those productivity benefits and using them to invest back in people. It might be leisure time, it might be re-training; it could be a number of things. But it’s not something that’s going to go away. It’s a question that we as society have to deal with.

I don’t think the pursuit of profits over people is the answer.


Go follow Steve on Twitter and check out his website.

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