Thursday, January 29, 2015

Technological Advance Means More Work, Not Less

Here's an old one from last year - an interview with anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan:
...Civilization and industrialization have most certainly introduced innumerable problems, but our ability to remove ourselves from the merciless "survival of the fittest" paradigm is a no-brainer. How could you ever convince people to relinquish the gifts of modernity — things like shelter, food on-demand, vaccines, pain relief, anesthesia, and ambulances at our beckon call?

It is reality that will "convince" people — or not. Conceivably, denial will continue to rule the day. But maybe only up to a point. If/when it can be seen that their reality is worsening qualitatively in every sphere a new perspective may emerge. One that questions the deep un-health of mass society and its foundations. Again, non-robust, de-skilled folks may keep going through the motions, stupefied by techno-consumerism and drugs of all kinds. Do you think that can last?
Most futurists would answer that things are getting better — and that through responsible foresight and planning we'll be able to create the future we imagine.

"Things are getting better"? I find this astounding. The immiseration surrounds us: anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, etc. on a mass scale, the rampage shootings now commonplace. The progressive ruin of the natural world. I wonder how anyone who even occasionally picks up a newspaper can be so in the dark. Of course I haven't scratched the surface of how bad it is becoming. It is deeply irresponsible to promote such ignorance and projections.
That's a very presentist view. Some left-leaning futurists argue, for example, that ongoing technological progress (both in robotics and artificial intelligence) will lead to an automation revolution — one that will free us from dangerous and demeaning work. It's very possible that we'll be able to invent our way out of the current labor model that you're so opposed to.

Technological advances have only meant MORE work. That is the record. In light of this it is not quite cogent to promise that a more technological mass society will mean less work. Again, reality anyone??
Transhumanists advocate for the iterative improvement of the human species, things like enhanced intelligence and memory, the elimination of psychological disorders (including depression), radical life extension, and greater physical capacities. Tell us why you're so opposed to these things.

Why I am opposed to these things? Let's take them in order:

Enhanced intelligence and memory? I think it is now quite clear that advancing technology in fact makes people stupider and reduces memory. Attention span is lessened by Tweet-type modes, abbreviated, illiterate means of communicating. People are being trained to stare at screens at all times, a techno-haze that displaces life around them. I see zombies, not sharper, more tuned in people.

Elimination of psychological disorders? But narcissism, autism and all manner of such disabilities are on the rise in a more and more tech-oriented world.

Radical life extension? One achievement of modernity is increased longevity, granted. This has begun to slip a bit, however, in some categories. And one can ponder what is the quality of life? Chronic conditions are on the rise though people can often be kept alive longer. There's no evidence favoring a radical life extension.

Greater physical capacities? Our senses were once acute and we were far more robust than we are now under the sign of technology. Look at all the flaccid, sedentary computer jockeys and extend that forward. It is not I who doesn't want these thing; rather, the results are negative looking at the techno project, eh?
Do you foresee the day when a state of anarcho-primitivism can be achieved (even partially by a few enthusiasts)?

A few people cannot achieve such a future in isolation. The totality infects everything. It all must go and perhaps it will. Do you think people are happy with it?
Why Do the Anarcho-Primitivists Want to Abolish Civilization? (io9)

That point about work is the most profound, I think. Despite all our labor-saving devices, we work more hours per year than medieval peasants. I was listening to a podcast whee the author pointed out that when email came along, we all thought it would be great that we wouldn't have to take the time to write out a letter in longhand, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, go to the post office, and so on. We would have so much more time! But of course now we spend a good portion of our day as well as our free time answering emails. And thanks to the digital tether, we are essentially working twenty-four-seven for our employers. The host of another podcast I heard recently described how an executive friend of his doesn't answer phone or emails when he leaves work and how people are mad at him that they had to wait until the next morning for a response.

So the idea that technology is going to free us from work has a rather poor track record.


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  2. Note the hostile reaction Zerzan received from just about all the commenters at io9. Even the interviewer thought he was wrong-headed. Of course, that's exactly what one would expect from a bunch of science-fiction fans, most of whom by into the cult of progress.

    1. I noticed that too. It's common to use the argument that anyone who criticizes any aspect of society is dependent on society, and thus not "pure." Of course, there are people who live closer to that ideal, but you've probably never heard of them. No one really engaged with his points.

  3. "Despite all our labor-saving devices, we work more hours per year than medieval peasants."

    Not really. Only the minority that work in corporate jobs get to experience the joys of the 24/7 digitally tethered work life that you describe. Many others are lucky if they can get any kind of work at all. There is a lot of unemployment and underemployment out there these days.

    Also, all of the work that the medieval peasants did was essential to their survival, while much of the work that the corporate types do (the emailing and the endless meetings) seems to be completely pointless.

    1. Both accurate points. Often people argue that we are experiencing a utopia of leisure because they look at aggregate hours. But that tells you nothing. This is caused by people who can't get enough hours and are struggling (or are working two jobs of limited hours which is counted as two "low hour' jobs) and people working essentially on-call twenty-four hours a day.

      It seems like the low pay and lack of benefits of most jobs in our society is specifically designed to terrify people into accepting the high-pressure, always-on-call, pointless busywork jobs. I think this is by design.

  4. If medieval peasant lifestyle is what you want, you can get that easily by becoming homeless and living off food bank donations plus scrounging in dumpsters and maybe earning some cash by collecting aluminum cans from the garbage and selling to the recycling place. Actually, you'll be much better off than a typical peasant: work less, eat better, get better medical care, better clothing, less abuse from the police than a typical peasant would have suffered from his lords hencemen, etc, etc. Lots of homeless people have books and mobile phones loaded with music and other entertainment devices that a medieval peasant could only dream of.

    1. 1. You have a very distorted view of medieval peasants. The subsistence income of today and then are profoundly different.

      2. This has nothing to do with the topic. Why must we work to the extent that we do given our productive abilities? Is it necessary to work to the amount that we do to have a better standard of living than people in the past? Consider the amount of "busy" work and nonsense jobs that we all must do. Please explain why this is required.

      3. Your "alternate" mode of living is ironic given that this lifestyle is exactly what is used to terrify us into working the amount that we do. Is this good? It is necessary? Is it just? Is there an alternative? Is that the only choice, live on the streets or work 40 hours a week 50 weeks a year?

      4.Let them eat cell phones, eh? Very common (non)argument. Medieval peasants didn't dream about any of this stuff because they didn't know it existed and didn't care. However, there is no evidence that they were any less happy than we are. What has made our lives better is the scientific method - more access to food (although I would argue of less quality) and better health care. That's true. But the fundamental question remains - why has technology historically led to more hours of work, not less? Talking about computers or health care and such is a red herring.

    2. Why must we work to the extent that we do given our productive abilities?

      H. L. Mencken: “Once I ventured the guess that men worked in response to a vague inner urge for self-expression. But that was probably a shaky theory, for some men who work the hardest have nothing to express. A hypothesis with rather more plausibility in it now suggests itself. It is that men work simply in order to escape the depressing agony of contemplating life – that their work, like their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting them to escape from reality. Both work and play, ordinarily, are illusions. Neither serves any solid and permanent purpose. But life, stripped of such illusions, instantly becomes unbearable. Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror. He works. He plays. He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property. He strives for the coy eye-wink called fame. He founds a family, and spreads his curse over others. All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to forget himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself. Life, fundamentally, is not worth living. So he confects artificialities to make it so. So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.”


    3. Raoul Vaneigem: "Perhaps man realizes himself in his forced labour? In the nineteenth century the concept of work retained a vestige of the notion of creativity. Zola describes a nailsmiths’ contest in which the workers competed in the perfection of their tiny masterpiece. Love of the trade and the vitality of an already smothered creativity incontestably helped man to bear ten or fifteen hours which nobody could have stood if some kind of pleasure had not slipped into it. The survival of the craft conception allowed each worker to contrive a precarious comfort in the hell of the factory. But Taylorism dealt the death-blow to a mentality which had been carefully fostered by archaic capitalism. It is useless to expect even a caricature of creativity from the conveyor-belt. Nowadays ambition and the love of the job well done are the indelible mark of defeat and the most mindless submission. Which is why, wherever submission is demanded, the old ideological fart wends its way, from the Arbeit Macht Frei of the concentration camps to the homilies of Henry Ford and Mao Tse-tung."

  5. This is the classic confusion of Technology with Capitalism.

    1. Good point. But isn't it technology that has made capitalism? For example, the productive forces of the factory made capitalism possible, and it's capitalism which forced people into the eighteen-hour days and six-day weeks all year round. Even Communism had its Stakhanovite movement. Is it possible to increase technological control and not increase the top-down hierarchy of forced work under any system? And has this ever happened?


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