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This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

“There is an error with my dependencies”

Exolymph reader Set Hallström, AKA Sakrecoer, sent me an original song called “Dependency” — these are the lyrics:

sudo apt update
sudo apt upgrade

There is an error with my dependencies
Consultd 1.2 and emplyomentd 1.70
I cannot pay my rent without their libraries
And to install i need to share my salary

Where do i fit in this society?
The more i look and the less i see
They want no robots nor do they want me.
work is a point in the agenda of the party

sudo apt update
sudo apt upgrade

My liver isn’t black market worthy
And my master degree from a street university
My ambitions are low and i am debt free
There is no room in the industry for robots like me

Don’t get me wrong i would also like to be
Installed and running and compatible with society
But i am running a different library
Because my kernel is still libre and free.

All unedited. Another thing — Craig Lea Gordon’s novella Hypercage is available on Amazon for zero dollars. Review coming soon, but I wanted to let you know now!

International Labor Economics, Ugh

The "Bread and Roses" Lawrence textile strike of 1912. Photo via Library of Congress.

The “Bread and Roses” Lawrence textile strike of 1912. Photo via Library of Congress.

In recent musings about Las Vegas, I called myself bourgeois. Refresher: according to Karl Marx, the bourgeoisie are the capitalist class, prone to consumerism — also often associated with snobbery and intellectual affectations. Think New Yorker readers.

I bring this up because commenter gaikokumaniakku said, “There are a lot of folks who thought they were bourgeois, and then they woke up one morning to another rejected job prospect and realized that they were lower-class.” I agree with Scott Alexander that class does not solely hinge on money, but the point is a good one.

gaikokumaniakku also asked what I think of the term “precariat”, which is a play on “proletariat” (opposite of the bourgeoisie). The precariat are people without financial reserves or job security. Macmillan Dictionary’s BuzzWord blog published this in 2011:

“New, international labour markets, significantly expanding the available workforce, have weakened the position of workers and strengthened the position of employers. Increasingly, workers are in jobs which are part-time and/or temporary, have unpredictable hours, low wages and few benefits such as holiday or sick pay. This means that employers can follow what demand dictates and simply [fire people] if work is not available, and are also not obliged to pay anyone that isn’t actually working.”

I find it plausible that globalization is a big part of this. That’s been an ongoing trend: jobs once located in [country where labor is expensive] disappear offshore to [country where labor is cheap]. Workers don’t have the same freedom of movement that employers do, so they can’t easily respond to market changes. Larger companies especially, which rely on many people’s labor, can shift operations to wherever costs the least.

Demonstrators in New York City during the 1913 May Day parade. Signs feature Yiddish, Italian, and English. Photo via Library of Congress.

Demonstrators in New York City during the 1913 May Day parade. Signs feature Yiddish, Italian, and English. Photo via Library of Congress.

Priest and professor Giles Fraser wrote a Guardian editorial on this very topic:

“In this era of advanced globalisation, we believe in free trade, in the free movement of goods, but not in the free movement of labour. We think it outrageous that the Chinese block Google, believing it to be everyone’s right to roam free digitally. We celebrate organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières for their compassionate universalism. But for all this talk of freedom from restriction, we still pen poor people into reservations of poverty. […] At present, globalisation is a luxury of the rich, for those of us who can swan about the globe with the flick of a boarding pass. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is globalisation for the poor.”

The other macro factor that might be creating (and provoking) the precariat is technological unemployment. The machines are taking our jobs!!!!! Ahhhhh!!!!! My guess is that we’ll adjust to new levels of productivity, like we did after the Industrial Revolution, but the transition phase will be very painful. (I basically stole this theory from Ben Thompson.)

Beyond that, I don’t have any particular insights. If you do, hit reply and let me know?

A Hard Day’s Night of Fake Work

Playing video games. Original photo by R Pollard.

Original photo by R Pollard.

I’ve been playing a lot of Game Dev Tycoon, a business simulator in which you start and build a game development company. (Hat tip to Way Spurr-Chen!)

Sonya: “This game is so addictive.”
Alex: “That’s how you know it’s good!”

It is bizarre that I come home after work, usually drained from relating to people all day, and I want to pretend to go right back to work. A business simulator is most compelling when it mimics real professional stress. Game Dev Tycoon‘s appeal is the edge-of-your-seat anxiety that arises from owning a hypothetical small-to-medium business. You have to watch your revenue like a hawk, balance decisions about future investment against the necessity of meeting payroll, and respond to the vagaries of the market.

In his book Play Money, journalist and MMORPG expert Julian Dibbell talks about this trend — the convergence of work and play — in what you might call “post-developed” countries. He hypothesizes that it’s a condition of late capitalism. When your daily tasks consist of manipulating symbols on a computer screen, the content of work starts to closely resemble the content of recreation. Or vice versa?

Facebook, Tinder, and their ilk bring everyone’s social life into the fold as well. Your entire experience of the world can be directed through a carefully designed software interface, constructed to guide you toward certain actions and away from others.

For the most part, none of this is new. Board games and card games are also best when they involve resource management and strategic goal attainment. But the internet and ubiquitous computing greatly increase the scale of our reliance on interactive Platforms™ for employment, entertainment, and community.

Universal Basic Income: Is It Feasible?

There was an astute exchange about universal basic income on Hacker News today. Jon Stokes, one of the founders of Ars Technica and a former Wired editor, posted this:

I have the following summary of the how I think that many tech people like [Sam Altman, president of startup accelerator Y Combinator] believe UBI is going to work:

  1. Companies innovate by doing things more cheaply with automation than human workers can do them.
  2. As a result of automation, the more efficient companies reap all the profits in a market as they drive the less efficient companies out of business (and the humans out of jobs).
  3. This bonanza of profits that automation yields is taxed.
  4. The taxes from the accumulated wealth of the winners — wealth that, again, exists because the winning companies’ machines were able to do things more efficiently than the losing companies’ human laborers — go toward paying the laid-off laborers a basic income.
Photo by Nacho Pintos.

Photo by Nacho Pintos.

Roy Murdock replied:

Optimizing companies will do everything possible to avoid the corporate taxes (>60%) required to make universal basic income a reality. If you are assuming that winning companies are the best at implementing automation and reducing cost, it is a fatal mistake to assume that they will suddenly become charitable when it comes to wealth redistribution — no, they will ‘win’ because they optimize every single aspect of their balance sheets. They’ll move their capital offshore where it will be taxed at a fraction of the US rate. They’ll pay lobbyists to make sure tax loopholes stay open, and that the wealth accretes to the few at the top of the company who run the business. […]

UBI for everyone creates a large misdirection of resources that perpetuates the problem of too many people, too few jobs, social unrest. We have solved this problem in the past through war, which stimulates the economy through government spending, reduces excess labor (especially young, angry, dangerous men), reignites nationalism and social cohesion (against a common and clearly evil enemy such as Hitler), and realigns national incentives towards R&D and infrastructure investment. I am not advocating for war, merely making an observation. Does UBI get distributed to everyone who is unemployed, or only those who are laid off from jobs?

It’s a fair question. How on earth will we fund this endeavor? I’ve written about the intuitive consequence before — if people can’t work, how can they buy?

Career X-Risk: The Legitimate Reason To Fear Computers

Aeon published a long reflection on the possibilities of emergent consciousness, written by George Musser. In the essay he noted:

“Even systems that are not designed to be adaptive do things their designers never meant. […] A basic result in computer science is that self-referential systems are inherently unpredictable: a small change can snowball into a vastly different outcome as the system loops back on itself.”

It’s the butterfly effect, in other words. A small change within a complex system will cause a cascade of new small changes that quickly add up to large changes. Thus computer programs can surprise their designers. Often they’re just buggy, but at other times they develop capabilities that are difficult not to anthropomorphize. Either computers are messing up — cute, maybe frustrating — or they’re stumping us with semblances of creativity. It’s a human impulse, to ascribe intent and meaning to any output comprised of symbols (for example, text or numbers).

I’m not a mathematician, an engineer, or a scientist. Like most of us, I don’t have the training to understand rudimentary AI. (I don’t have the aptitude either, but that’s a separate discussion.) It’s starting to scare me more and more. I’m still skeptical of x-risk, so that’s not my worry. To be honest, I’m anxious about becoming obsolete. It’ll be a long time before the kind of work that I do can be fully automated / algorithmized, but maybe humans who understand computers better than I do will be able to glue different smart programs together and perform my job with less human labor.

The economy is a complex system. Small gains in efficiency can ripple out to transform entire industries.

A More Literal Disruption

“Automation did not upend the fundamental logic of the economy. But it did disproportionate harm to less-skilled workers.” — Daniel Akst

Earlier in the article, Akst explains, “technological advances have not reduced overall employment, though they have certainly cost many people their jobs. […] technology has reshaped the job market into something like an hourglass form, with more jobs in fields such as finance and food service and fewer in between.” In other words, the low and high ends of the market are thriving. The middle level of prosperity is fast becoming obsolete. (“Millennials” and “middle class” are two terms that don’t belong together.)

Here’s the “fundamental logic of the economy” that Akst references earlier: efficiency drives growth. When we figure out how to accomplish tasks using less time, materials, and money, then we can devote the extra resources to something else. We can better leverage comparative advantage. This “grows the pie”, as politicians like to say. New forms of human organization — such as the corporation — can produce greater efficiency, but they’re nothing compared to the advent of steam power or computing.

Machinery photographed by MATSUOKA Kohei.

Machinery photographed by MATSUOKA Kohei.

Technology is phenomenally valuable because it frees up time that was formerly occupied by drudgery. However, the transition from one mode of business assumptions to the next is always excruciating. Workers suited to the last paradigm struggle in the new one — observe the devastation of America’s Rust Belt. Or look further back, at the Industrial Revolution! Artisans lost their livelihoods and peasants were forced into tenement cities to serve as human fuel for factories.

After two centuries of industrialization, those of us in “First World” countries have a standard of living higher than a colonial-era villager could imagine. This hypothetical yeoman might predict abundant food and physical comfort, but he could never conceive of the mind-expanding access to information that is normal now. The idea of an on-demand, self-driving car powered not by magic but by math would blow multiple gaskets.

My point is that the Next Big Thing won’t necessarily be “disruptive” in Clay Christensen’s sense — it’ll be DISRUPTIVE like an earthquake that reorders the landscape.

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