On 13 February 2015, the journal Science published an article titled “Fund climate intervention research, study says.” The article reports on the findings of a National Research Council study, which advocates slowing global warming by spraying microscopic particles into the upper atmosphere, thereby reducing the brightness of the sun.
In an apparently rational tone, the Science article discusses not the pros and cons of re-engineering the atmosphere, but reports on obstacles to manufacturing public approval for the approach. Noting the “albedo modification” proposal “faced skeptics from both right and left — from conservative lawmakers who felt it addressed a nonexistent threat and from environmentalists worried that geoengineering would sap support for [CO2] emissions cuts,” the article ends on an optimistic note, suggesting that hopefully the study “will end such gridlock — and help the United States avoid the controversies that have crippled climate engineering research elsewhere.” Nevermind people who worry something might go wrong or who like seeing the sun.
Such technological approaches to resolving problems with climate change are not motivated by concern for the environment: they are a way to increase funding opportunities for researchers while divorcing science as a social enterprise from moral questions about what science does. In terms of the psychology of addiction, this is organized science proposing to act as an enabler.
The straightforward policy solution to the current level of American CO2 emissions is to make energy more expensive. If energy were more expensive, Americans would use less energy and CO2 emissions would decrease. No risky, high-tech research subsidy is required. This is Economics 101.
Policy can’t change what people believe about CO2 emissions, but policy can change how individuals spend their money. The price system is how society makes collective decisions about the allocation of resources in a market economy. To save the planet, individuals would determine how to spend the money they aren’t spending on expensive energy.
Making energy more expensive doesn’t just mean increasing the cost of electric light and Internet browsing. Meat is very energy-intensive to produce. Since it takes far more energy to produce a pound of meat than it takes to produce a pound of vegetable protein, the price of meat would increase under this scenario. People would eat less meat as a result. Eating meat three times a week instead of three times a day is the easiest single thing Americans can do to reduce CO2 emissions. This would additionally reduce animal cruelty, reduce antibiotic consumption, and reduce agricultural runoff, leading to cleaner water. Since 80% of antibiotics used in the United States are given to livestock as a preventive measure, reducing antibiotic consumption would also help preserve one of the most effective tools available to modern medicine, which is presently under threat from over-use and drug-resistant bacteria.
The only sane way to view the National Research Council’s geoengineering report is as a provocation. It means that the American lifestyle cannot continue. It does not mean that we need more technology to keep living the way we do. It means technology has pushed us to the brink of ecological catastrophe.
The belief that more technology will solve the problems created by technology is an irrational article of faith. Modern technology simply hasn’t been around long enough to demonstrate that it can solve the problems it creates. The rise of modern technological civilization — which is the proximate cause of climate change — dates to the inventions of the Newcomen and Watt engines around the year 1750. These inventions — which powered the industrial revolution — were inspired by two principle causes: the Renaissance revival of Vitruvius and his three departments of architecture (buildings, machines, timepieces), combined with the need for an energy subsidy in the face of widespread wood shortages caused by deforestation (the steam engine was invented to pump water from coal mines because the English ran out of wood to burn for fuel).
Given that modern technological civilization is only some 250 years old, then if follows that: 1) modern technology has been an unbelievably destructive force globally when viewed across civilizational time scales, and 2) viewed across civilizational time scales, there is an almost complete lack of evidence that modern technology is able to solve the problems it creates. Geoengineering is a short-sighted solution, and probably insane.
The Connection to Growth
The only demonstrably effective way to reverse course is to slow the rate of technological growth. Today’s rate of growth is not some inherent feature of technology, but a political construct put in place after World War II. It is a (largely unexamined) policy problem. I know how repugnant ending growth must sound to a researcher, for whom the search for truth has become a secondary concern, but it’s the most logical solution. Occam’s Razor agrees.
Growth will end. We have only to decide whether it ends rationally or in disaster.
In the 10 October 2014 issue of Science, the editors ran a policy article titled “Amplify scientific discovery with artificial intelligence.” The abstract reads:
Technological innovations are penetrating all areas of science, making predominantly human activities a principal bottleneck in scientific progress while also making scientific advancement more subject to error and harder to reproduce. This is an area where a new generation of artificial intelligence (AI) systems can radically transform the practice of scientific discovery. Such systems are showing an increasing ability to automate scientific data analysis and discovery processes, can search systematically and correctly through hypothesis spaces to ensure best results, can autonomously discover complex patterns in data, and can reliably apply small-scale scientific processes consistently and transparently so that they can be easily reproduced. We discuss these advances and the steps that could help promote their development and deployment.
By printing such policy papers, the editors are exchanging one scientific goal (the search for truth) with another (economic growth). This is not the advocacy of scientific progress, but rather the advocacy of science as a means to economic growth on behalf of organized industry — at the expense of individual scientists who will be replaced by “the artificially intelligent assistant.” The burden of proof is on the authors and the editors to show why increasing automation in science will not result in job losses over time.
Growth in Practice
There are good reasons to question the merit of growth as a policy objective.
Automation typically means increasing economic growth while decreasing the number of quality employment opportunities: for example, in terms of the raw number of occupations filled, US manufacturing employment is at at levels not seen since just before we entered World War II.
The availability of manufacturing jobs relative to overall job opportunities has also been in steady decline since WWII:
Many of these lost jobs were high-paying union jobs with benefits. Despite these job losses, the value of US manufacturing output has increased over 800% since WWII:
Fewer people yield far more output because of automation.
It is difficult to maintain that increased productivity — though it costs jobs — nevertheless yields a net benefit to society. The value created by increased productivity has not been shared uniformly across the economy: incomes for typical households have been stagnant since 1965. In 1965, median US household income stood at $6,900. Adjusted for inflation this amount equals $50,292 in 2012 dollars. The median household income in 2012 was $51,371, an increase of about 2%. Adjusted for inflation, GDP increased over 360% between 1965 and 2012. Most growth since 1965 has therefore been growth in inequality. Growth means fewer jobs. Increased automation has not meant abundance for everybody, but it has meant a scarcity of high-quality jobs for many.
These macro-economic growth imperatives can lead to additional adverse consequences beyond job loss or wage stagnation. For example, farm prices in the late 1920’s collapsed due to over-production following the introduction of technologies like the tractor and the combine; the problems of industrial agriculture precipitated a broad price control subsidy regime which persists to this day — at taxpayer expense — increasing the cost, complexity and fragility of the food system. As complexity increases, costs increase disproportionately, because increased complexity needs to address the problems created by its own existence. This is a special case of diminishing returns, and can appear in the form of increased managerial overhead.
Increasing automation in science by using AI is likely to have similar unintended consequences.
Furthermore, the article published in Science appears to contain a number of internal contradictions which the editors should have caught. If, as the first sentence asserts, “technological innovations are … making scientific advancement more subject to error and harder to reproduce,” then it is hard to see why increasing the role of technologies like artificial intelligence is going to help improve things. If, as the second paragraph states, “cognitive mechanisms involved in scientific discovery are a special case of general human capabilities for problem solving,” then it is hard to see why it follows that the role of humans in “scientific discovery” should be considered a “bottleneck” and therefore diminished.
Specifically, given the large number of scientific null results that are neither written up nor published, it would appear that the authors are making an untenable argument: that artificial intelligence represents an improvement over the unknown efficacy of human research. To make such a case, the authors would need to show that artificial intelligence can learn from a negative or null result as well as a human (which cannot be validated since humans are unwilling to publish such null results). The authors are, in effect, assuming that only positive results are relevant to scientific discovery. By contrast, the Michelson-Morley experiment is perhaps one of the most celebrated negative results of the modern era, paving the way for General Relativity and such technologies as atomic clocks and GPS.
Relevance to the Meaning of Science
In an era where science is no longer a field of human endeavor, but is increasingly automated, Federal science funding can only be an industry subsidy. Any remaining scientists would be become merely means to organized industry’s macro-economic ends. This calls into question the very meaning of science itself as a human endeavor, but offers no solutions.
To ask a similar question: consumers may purchase and enjoy literature written by algorithms, but should they? Is it still properly literature if it doesn’t reflect the human condition? Ought we not educate young people to enjoy the experience of exploring the human condition and our place in the Kosmos? Or has the promise of secular humanism run its course, and the classical University education given way to an expensive variety of technical training, by means of which one takes on debt to procure a new automobile every few years? Is that now the meaning of life? Is this a new age of superstition and barbarism, where technology “advances” according to privileged seers who read the entrails of data crunched by the inscrutable ghost in the machine, waiting for a sign from the superior intelligence to come shining down from the clouds? So much for the love of learning.
These are not simply rhetorical questions, for if automation makes science as we know it obsolete, then there is — if nothing else — a substantive policy debate to be had where the federal science budget is concerned.
In the 18 July 2014 issue of Science, Kendra Smyth reviews the new book “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert. The book documents past mass extinction events and situates the present loss of biodiversity — due to human activity — within this context.
If it is the case — as Smyth writes — that “with warp speed humans are responsible for transforming the biosphere” and that “humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches,” then this state of affairs would seem to draw attention to certain un-examined assumptions behind statements like “humans have succeeded extravagantly.”
Specifically: perhaps our characteristic intelligence is not at all a survival advantage, but rather a genetic fluke, and the relative youth of our species (behaviorally-modern humans are roughly 50,000 years old) may then simply indicate that natural selection hasn’t yet gotten around to knocking us off the food chain. Perhaps this is a hypothesis better left untested. Perhaps we’re only “succeeding” insofar as we’re eliminating ourselves faster than natural selection eliminates other species.
It would also seem that the West’s post-Renaissance preoccupation with technological progress conceals an irrational vestige of our religious heritage: an irrational faith in a technological savior to the eschatological trajectory of technology. That is, we eagerly anticipate a technological solution to the problems created by technology. Given that modern technology is only 300 years old (beginning with the Newcomen engine in the early 1700’s) there is very little evidence in the history of the human race to support the view that technology will solve the problems of technology, making such beliefs very much an article of faith.
To quantify the aforementioned state of affairs, it may be worth beginning with an honest discussion of the heresy of diminishing returns. If one looks at the productivity of the US healthcare system, for example, we see a straightforward diminishing returns curve:
The meaning of the above chart is that relatively few medical innovations have made a substantive difference in quality of life and overall health outcomes: sanitation and hygiene (in the mid-1800’s, Ignaz Semmelweis at Vienna General Hospital decided that doctors should wash their hands), anesthetics and analgesics (patients used to die of shock during surgery), antibiotics (developed for around $20,000 of basic science research), and the vaccine. Since then, modern medicine has been largely concerned with addressing the problems of technological civilization, such as poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and environmental pollution. And medicine has been growing exponentially more expensive. Unfortunately, there are few patents to be found where a change in cultural values is what is needed: you can’t patent a healthy diet and exercise, so well-funded science turns its attention elsewhere.
Although diminishing returns is a well-documented economic phenomenon, it receives scant discussion in the mass media, which is otherwise filled with breathless accounts of the latest and greatest gadgets. The phenomenon is by no means limited to the healthcare industry, but appears throughout the economy. If one looks at, for example, the cost per patent over time, a similar curve emerges:
The above chart illustrates a simple point: patents get more expensive over time because most of the easy and most pressing problems get solved first. The diminishing marginal utility kicks in as more specialized patents affect fewer numbers of individuals, in contrast to patents with a more broad applicability that affect many people.
Here is what diminishing returns on investments in technology mean in cultural terms:
Fracking is a new energy extraction technology with many harmful consequences, including heavy water use, irregular seismic activity, and environmental pollution. Fracking is becoming an increasingly popular way of extracting energy for two main reasons: politically, Americans don’t want to depend on foreign energy sources; and, culturally, Americans want to persist in destructive, wasteful habits. Driving in automobiles is inherently wasteful, as over 2/3 of the energy purchased as gasoline is not converted into motion, but rather lost as waste heat. Fracking is a harmful technology designed to preserve a wasteful mode of transit for cultural reasons. Busses (measured in passenger miles per gallon), trains, and urban living are by far more energy efficient and less environmentally costly.
Many Americans delude themselves about their habits by purchasing “green” products like hybrid automobiles. While hybrids produce fewer emissions while in operation, they are more complex than conventional automobiles, use more energy-intensive materials, and they rely on toxic chemicals for their batteries, so that, on the whole, they may actually produce more pollution than typical internal combustion engines. If one purchases a hybrid with the goal of reducing carbon emissions, one would do better to adopt a vegetarian diet. Doing so reduces carbon emissions, reduces antibiotics use, lowers medical costs by improving diet, and reduces animal cruelty, without further concentrating wealth in the hands of the industrial system that profits from marketing “green” products that aren’t actually all that “green.”
Dietary modification, despite its advantages, requires self-control and a change in cultural values. Unfortunately, scientific and technological “progress” plays the role of an enabler for bad habits. These bad habits seem poised to wipe our species off the face of the planet.
In the January 24, 2014 issue of Science (vol. 343, P. 372), Albert-László Barabási reviews Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle. The novel concerns a large technology company that “relentlessly innovates to reduce crime, to organize and store all information, and to leave no one behind.” Employees live by the “Orwellian” NewSpeak dicta, “Privacy is theft” and “Secrets are lies.”
Where the novel would depict what Barabási calls “the 21st Century’s version of Orwell’s 1984,” both the novelist and the reviewer seem too eager to latch onto the technological aspects of 1984, as well as today’s growing surveillance state. The review concludes with an observation about the National Security Agency and George Orwell’s novel 1984, by way of likening the NSA’s use of private contractors to the themes in Eggers’ new novel, which “reboots 1984 for the digital age.”
The main problem with this techno-centric approach to looking at Orwell’s novel — or today’s surveillance state, for that matter — is that 1984 doesn’t need to be “rebooted for the digital age.” The key principle in the novel is a psychological one — that of the Panopticon — that applies as well today as it did at the very start of the industrial revolution, when the principle was first formulated.
Although 1984 depicts a pervasive system of surveillance, is not about surveillance technology per se, but about the psychology of living under a political system that makes use of such technology. Modern readers tend to focus on the technological aspects of 1984, but this is a modern bias that probably derives from the post-war emphasis on technological growth, and a shift in the science fiction genre away from what Robert Heinlein called “speculative fiction” to what is perhaps might more properly be called “technology fiction.”
In 1984, however, the technology is largely incidental: the protagonist Winston Smith suffers his downfall not because the surveillance proves to be an effective tool for law enforcement, but, rather, because of his own personal indiscretions. Winston Smith — petty bureaucrat and Party member — frequents a resale shop in the forbidden “proletarian quarters.” Winston buys trinkets left over from a world he spends his professional life erasing; he buys a notebook in which he writes his personal heresies; and, when he eventually rents out the spare bedroom above the shop — for the purposes of an illicit love affair — he is entrapped by the shopkeeper, who turns out to be an undercover officer with the “thought police.”
The society in 1984 is modeled on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: a prison design that Bentham proposed in 1787, which he felt had applicability to a broad range of social contexts. The full title of Bentham’s work reads:
“PANOPTICON; Or, The Inspection-House: Containing The Idea Of A New Principle Of Construction Applicable To Any Sort Of Establishment, In Which Persons Of Any Description Are To Be Kept Under Inspection; And In Particular To Penitentiary-Houses, Prisons, Houses Of Industry, Work-Houses, Poor-Houses, Lazarettos, Manufactories, Hospitals, Mad-Houses, And Schools: With A Plan Of Management.”
The key effect of the pan-optic (“all-seeing”) surveillance system in 1984 is psychological: a constant pressure exerted by the mere possibility of being observed, which coerces individuals into behaving as though there are in actual fact being monitored at all times. Orwell describes the psychology of the surveillance system in 1984 as follows:
“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.
“To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.”
It is, indeed, “Orwellian” that, as we become more aware of this type of surveillance, we come more under its influence — even while lacking a basic understanding of the real effects of the system. It is, to say the least, disconcerting that our modern biases — which we fancy to be so sophisticated — blind us so systematically to those ideas we need now more than ever to properly grasp.
While one may be tempted so suppose that our modern surveillance state represents something new — because of how technologically advanced it is — there is ample evidence that such a system of total surveillance cannot be effective, in terms of detecting all criminal behavior.
In his essay, “Your Face is Not a Barcode,” computer scientist Philip E. Agre reiterates an argument made by noted cryptologist Bruce Schneier. Using face recognition technology as an example, Agre writes:
“Face recognition is nearly useless for the application that has been most widely discussed since the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington: identifying terrorists in a crowd. As Bruce Schneier points out, the reasons why are statistical. Let us assume, with extreme generosity, that a face recognition system is 99.99 percent accurate. In other words, if a high-quality photograph of your face is not in the ‘terrorist watch list’ database, then it is 99.99 percent likely that the software will not produce a match when it scans your face in real life. Then let us say that one airline passenger in ten million has their face in the database. Now, 99.99 percent probably sounds good. It means one failure in 10,000. In scanning ten million passengers, however, one failure in 10,000 means 1000 failures — and only one correct match of a real terrorist.
“In other words, 999 matches out of 1000 will be false, and each of those false matches will cost time and effort that could have been spent protecting security in other ways. Perhaps one would argue that 1000 false alarms are worth the benefits of one hijacking prevented. Once the initial shock of the recent attacks wears off, however, the enormous percentage of false matches will condition security workers to assume that all positive matches are mistaken. The great cost of implementing and maintaining the face recognition systems will have gone to waste. The fact is, spotting terrorists in a crowd is a needle-in-a-haystack problem, and automatic face recognition is not a needle-in-a-haystack-quality technology. Hijackings can be prevented in many ways, and resources should be invested in the measures that are likely to work.”
Similar arguments can be made for other forms of automatic target detection. Consider, too, that the NSA doesn’t even attempt to process all the data it gathers — since it’s unnecessary. In an “Orwellian” twist, it appears that NSA chief General Keith Alexander can tell Congress that the NSA doesn’t “intercept” domestic communications by tapping into the fiber optic lines of telecommunications carriers, making copies of the data, and storing it in a warehouse. According to how the NSA defines what it does, data is only “intercepted” when it is “put into an intelligible form intended for human inspection.” Which is to say, in Foucault’s words, “the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.”
The more fundamental problem with the fixation on the technological aspects of the surveillance state is that it draws attention away from the real issues at play. Towards the end of 1984, the goal of the totalitarian state depicted in the novel is described as follows:
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
Like the characters in 1984 who, due to NewSpeak whittling down the dictionary, were in the process of losing the ability to express basic facts about their lives and circumstances, we — due to our cultural fixations on growth, and technology, and novelty — effectively live under the same circumstance, and cannot see it.
Jaron Lanier‘s discussion of privacy and technology in the November 2013 issue of Scientific American is quite nuanced and insightful. Unfortunately, his conclusion — that privacy needs to be monetized — misses the more fundamental problem: his solution is designed to preserve economic growth, yet it is this type of growth that promotes the technological developments used primarily for public and private surveillance.
Specifically, it is the increases in complexity and specialization associated with technological growth that make its consequences for privacy difficult to grapple with socially. It’s a cliche to point out that technology changes faster than culture can adapt to those changes; what’s less common is a discussion of the financial imperatives driving this technological change. This change is described as though it were necessary — as though technology were a force of nature — and the terminology used to describe this change carries implicit positive biases. This change, for example, is often described as “progress” — a benign succession of “revolutions” were constant improvements constantly amputate the past. Calling this change “progress” implies that these changes are always good — though the human history of such change is remarkably short, and the climactic and environmental changes associated with “progress” have proved sudden and dramatic. Economic growth and rapid technological “progress” may yet prove to be thoroughly disastrous.
If a new technology — like online targeted advertising or deep packet inspection — materially or emotionally complicates our efforts to satisfy more basic social and personal needs, perhaps it is more rational to simply dispense with that new technology, than to cope by adding a new layer of complexity.
A more sustainable solution is probably closer to what John Kenneth Galbraith described in a thought experiment from 1967. Writing in The New Industrial State, noted economist and former Kennedy policy advisor Gabraith pointed out:
“It would, prima facie, be plausible to set a limit on the national product that a nation requires. The test of national achievement would then be how rapidly it could reduce the number of hours of toil that are needed to meet this requirement.”
Monetizing privacy is a solution designed to support continued economic growth by commoditizing human activity within in a market structure, when, in fact, the widespread value attached to growth is at once arbitrary and the source of the problem. For most of human history, not much changed: the present value placed on growth is an anomaly, and may well be an error. There is certainly little evidence to demonstrate its long-term desirability.
Growth imposes heavy burdens, rather than ease them with conveniences. The 40 hour work week is modest compared to the 60 or 80 hour work week in the 1800’s, but is still an abomination in the history of humankind. Juliet B. Schor, who taught economics at Harvard for 17 years, points out that medieval peasants only worked 1/3 of the year. Marshall Sahlins, who teaches anthropology at University of Chicago, estimates that the average hunter-gatherer works about 15 hours per week.
“One of capitalism’s most durable myths is that it has reduced human toil. This myth is typically defended by a comparison of the modern forty-hour week with its seventy- or eighty-hour counterpart in the nineteenth century. The implicit — but rarely articulated — assumption is that the eighty-hour standard has prevailed for centuries…”
“These images are backward projections of modern work patterns. And they are false. Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed. Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure. When capitalism raised their incomes, it also took away their time.”
Between Schor and Galbraith, we are forced to admit that one choice our society does not offer is the freedom to choose between a life filled with things or a life filled with free time.
“In the total population of free-ranging Bushmen contacted by Lee, 61.3 per cent (152 of 248) were effective food producers; the remainder were too young or too old to contribute importantly…”
“In the particular camp under scrutiny, 65 per cent were ‘effectives’. Thus the ratio of food producers to the general population is actually 3 :5 or 2:3…”
“But, these 65 per cent of the people ‘worked 36 per cent of the time, and 35 per cent of the people did not work at all’!”
It is worth pointing out that hunter-gatherers enjoy a high quality of life, and, if able to survive early adolescence, stands a good chance of remaining healthy and active into their 70’s, with a free social support network to care for them as they age.
This is not the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence proposed by Thomas Hobbes. This is more like the “Equal liability of all to labour” demanded by Marx and Engels, to go along with the “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries” we call “factory farms” and the “gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country” we call the suburbs.
Due to automation, today’s work week could be much shorter. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity has more than doubled since 1965, though wages and the length of the work week have remained the same. There is an implicit, unexamined assumption that everybody wants more stuff instead of more leisure.
Consider the following graph, and keep in mind that one constant factor not reflected in the data is the 40-hour work week:
Another constant factor not reflected in the data above is compensation. According to the US Census, in 1965 median household income was $6,900. Adjusted for inflation, the 2011 value of this amount is $48,539. In 2011, median household income was $50,502. Over this period, incomes have increased 4%, while manufacturing output per worker has more than doubled. There is a very clear, though entirely implicit social value present here: it doesn’t matter how valuable our output is, you simply must work 40 hours per week.
The growth in productivity illustrated above equates not to growing incomes nor to fewer hours of toil, but to fewer employees. Technological growth does not create jobs, it destroys jobs.
Consider this graph of manufacturing employment indexed to non-farm payrolls:
What the above chart helps shows is that, while increases in productivity have not led to higher pay or shorter hours, these increases have led to fewer manufacturing jobs available. Computerization in offices has had effects comparable to industrial automation.
Furthermore, these changes have been overwhelmingly profitable for the owners of capital. While the above chart clearly shows that there are fewer manufacturing jobs in the United States than there once were, it is not at all the case that the United States “doesn’t make anything anymore.” The US makes a lot of stuff, and increases in productivity have led to clear increases in the raw value of manufacturing output:
In terms of the economics of growth and the solution Lanier provides to the free reign of corporations and governments over the collection of personal information, archaeologist Joseph Tainter offers some useful insights. In Chapter 4 of The Collapse of Complex Societies (now in its 22nd printing from Cambridge University Press), Tainter discusses numerous archaeological examples of diminishing returns.
What Tainter finds is that when a society makes repeated investments in complexity, those investments frequently suffer from diminishing returns.
“Control and specialization are the very essence of a complex society. The reasons why investment in complexity yields a declining marginal return are : (a) increasing size of bureaucracies; (b) increasing specialization of bureaucracies; (c) the cumulative nature of organizational solutions; (d) increasing taxation; (e) increasing costs of legitimizing activities; and (f) increasing costs of internal control and external defense.”
An apparatus to monetize privacy would require additional bureaucracy, which would need to be funded and managed, essentially making the cost of such a solution prohibitive — unless that solution perhaps generates tax revenue by subsidizing the types of growth whose consequences need to be controlled. Put more simply: we don’t need privacy-invading technology, at all.
Measured quantitatively, these technologies do not improve our standard of life. Take medical technology, for example. The following chart illustrates increases in life expectancy indexed to investments in medical technology:
The above chart has profound implications: very few medical technologies in the past 150 years have had a substantive impact on standard of living and overall outcomes.
First, sanitation and hygiene: Ignaz Semmelweis proposed that doctors should wash their hands between procedures at Vienna General Hospital in 1847. Second, anesthetics and analgesics: the discovery of painkillers and general anesthetics allow for operations where patients might otherwise die of shock during surgery. Third, antibiotics: the basic science research that produced antibiotics was accomplished with about $20,000 worth of funding. Antibiotics are, in short, what makes a lot of modern anatomical knowledge practical. Fourth, the vaccine — which was made practical right about where the chart above takes a nose dive in 1954. That nose dive is called “the point of diminishing returns.”
Since 1954, most of modern medicine has been concerned with counter-acting the effects of industrial civilization, in terms of poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, environmental pollution, artificial toxins from synthetic materials, and the like. As such, “growth” in modern medicine is generally characterized by diminishing marginal utility.
The notion that growth deprives individuals of leisure and the time needed for intellectual improvement has long been recognized by laborers. In 1878, the Constitution of the Knights of Labor advocated:
“The reduction of the hours of labor to eight per day, so that laborers may have more time for social enjoyment and intellectual improvement, and be enabled to reap the advantages conferred by the labor-saving machinery which their brains have created.”
What is new in our era is that we no longer know how hard we actually work, and what little it really wins us.
And despite widespread acceptance of the notion that consumer culture, disposable goods, and gross materialism are problems, nobody is willing to question the growth imperative than enables it all.
Image Source: Disney/Pixar Studios, WALL-E
The only sustainable solution is to “defund” the system — to remove the incentive for growth, and the increasing marginal costs associated with growth. The “technological fix” is less technology, not new or “better” technology. To prevent the continual onslaught of new technology, it is necessary to remove the growth imperative.
The consequences of “planned obsolescence” are not the inevitable byproducts of technology: they are planned. Where technology is not pushed, but “naturally” produces labor savings, this benefit can be directed towards shortening the work week or increasing pay. “Progress” doesn’t have to mean creating unemployment. These are policy decisions and cultural values.
A solution to the problem of electronic privacy invasion — the the least, however — should not fund growth in the industries that profit from invading privacy.
- 5 Reasons Why Prioritizing Growth Is Bad Policy (alternet.org)
- Marshall Sahlins “Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities” (genderandsexualitycore.wordpress.com)
- Why Economic Growth Alone Isn’t Sufficient Condition for Development (owachgiu.wordpress.com)
The August, 2013 issue of Scientific American features a grossly irresponsible column by David Pogue. The column, titled “The Last Thing You’ll Memorize,” suggests that perhaps mobile internet appliances have made memorization obsolete, arguing by analogy to the electronic calculator’s effect on upper-level math classes. Arguments by analogy are a rather tenuous way to make a point, and Mr. Pogue’s argument is no exception.
Mr. Pogue writes: “As society marches ever forward, we leave obsolete skills in our wake. That’s just part of progress. Why should we mourn the loss of memorization skills any more than we pine for hot type technology, Morse code abilities or a knack for operating elevators?” The sentiment doesn’t appear to be intended as an intellectual provocation. Mr. Pogue even appeals to the wisdom and technological foresight of his child, who — because of “smart phones” — couldn’t imagine “why on earth should he memorize the presidents” from his own country’s history. Students are allowed to use calculators on school exams, Mr. Pogue reasons, so why shouldn’t students be allowed to use “smart phones” to save them the trouble of having to remember things?
To extend Mr. Pogue’s argument slightly: does word processing make spelling obsolete? Do students no longer need to memorize all the idiosyncratic spellings found in the English language? Should we conclude that literacy is an obsolete skill? Should we simply forgo novels in favor of movies, since cinema is a newer technology?
The flaws in Mr. Pogue’s reasoning begin with his choice of metaphor, though the reasoning behind his choice to argue by analogy fails on closer inspection as well. While we may not exactly “pine for hot type technology,” there are a wide range of positive social values attached to the preservation of historical skills. Laser toner hasn’t replaced printing and engraving in all cases: artists still make etchings, photographers are still interested in the craft, quality, physicality, and historical relevance of chemical photography, artisan printing presses still set type, and most global currencies involve an active social role for the older, traditional skills, required for coining currency and printing bills.
New technology doesn’t always replace old technology; this is a biased view of recent history, promulgated to justify commercial planned obsolescence in the face of diminishing returns. Often enough, new technology simply gives old technology a new value. The tourist economy of Williamsburg, Virginia, depends on maintaining skills, architecture, and other cultural practices from the Colonial Era, as a sort of living museum. Artists still practice ancient pottery skills, often producing original artifacts of greater economic value than comparable mass-produced items. Cubic zirconium hasn’t replaced diamonds in engagement rings. Just because “Morse code abilities” are no longer a marketable skill, there are historical documents and records containing Morse code and references to Morse code, and preserving knowledge of these valuable artifacts for future researchers is part of what Universities do. And, while one may have trouble today landing employment with “a knack for operating elevators” — since automation and computerization now take care of these jobs in places like classy hotels, or high-rise office buildings — it may well be worth mourning how many paying jobs automation has replaced and continues to replace, especially given the current state of the labor market, and the bleak prospects for millions upon millions of indebted college graduates. Even the grocery store cashier appears to be an endangered species these days.
So, to consider Mr. Pogue’s central analogy — that of the calculator — we should begin by pointing out that while we may say that a calculator is good at math, we don’t conclude from that fact that it is smart. Branding aside, “smart phones” aren’t smart because they can substitute for human memory in some cases. The reference capabilities of “smart phones” may create opportunities for new skills — such as, an ability to formulate queries that will identify a factual needle in a haystack — this is quite different from saying that such a new skill can occupy and replace the role of memory. The value of a “smart phone” as a source for reference material is also highly contingent upon the quality of the source a user chooses to rely on: absent some sort of peer review process for Google listings, this would seem to be at the very least a precarious substitute for the sort of intellectual cannon with which students are typically acquainted through education. It is worth noting, on this last point, that books didn’t replace memory, even after the printing press made it cheap enough to fill libraries: the recording and storage of facts in books and libraries serve to make knowledge more accessible — not to replace memory — and Mr. Pogue provides no real evidence that Internet search engines are qualitatively different in this regard.
To further address the issue of online source material, Mr Pogue’s argument also assumes that the future of the Internet will look like it does today, with vast quantities of relatively high-quality material available at no cost. This may not be a safe conjecture at all: more and more corporations are looking for more ways to make money by offering proprietary services online. Bloggers may want to start getting paid for what they write. Commercial media outlets are erecting “pay walls,” FaceBook keeps its user-contributed content walled-off from Google and the public Internet, peer-to-peer networks are being challenged by legal action coordinated with competing commercial services backed by large corporations, and electronic surveillance may exert a chilling effect on what independent platforms are willing to publish, or what individuals are willing to read. The laws surrounding intellectual property rights are highly contentious at this point in time, affecting what types of reference material may be shared or quoted from, and in what manner.
Mr. Pogue concludes his argument by analogy by asserting: “Calculators will always be with us. So why not let them do the grunt work and free up more time for students to learn more complex concepts or master more difficult problems? In the same way, maybe we’ll soon conclude that memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task. Maybe we should let the smartphone call up those facts as necessary…” Beyond the aforementioned problems with Mr. Pogue’s assumptions about the character and quality of the information that will be available on “smart phones” in the future, there is an internal contradiction here in his position: if “progress” tends to continually replace technologies that once seemed current, on what grounds does Mr. Pogue suppose that the capabilities of today’s “smart phones” will remain stable enough to re-organize educational curricula around them? Every five-function calculator performs subtraction and multiplication in an identical fashion, but Google is not “objective” in the same way, and customizes search results based on a user’s past search history. What if one “smart phone” manufacturer blocks out Google access due to the terms of some other licensing agreement? Will it really “free up more time” if students need to use trial-and-error techniques to formulate queries on search engines, rather than simply recall the fact they’re looking for? If “memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task,” by what standard then will students be able to recognize whether a piece of information they retrieve from a search engine is reliable or not, or whether an argument they come across is historically well-grounded? Students could simply defer to the authority of certain trusted sources, but doing so would undermine Mr. Pogue’s advocacy that students “focus on developing analytical skills.”
But to look past the analogy, and to get to the point: many people consider loss of memory function one of the most terrifying prospects imaginable. Amnesia may be a staple in soap operas, but Alzheimer’s disease is a reality for many Americans. Loss of memory function is clearly a mental handicap. Any chess player will tell you that the ability to remember the past few moves is at least as important as the ability to project a few moves into the future: if you don’t keep track of what your opponent is doing, you can’t identify your opponent’s strategy. If you can’t remember a series of articulated statements, you can’t follow an argument. Memory is the basis of learning, and therefore of knowledge, and, by extension, wisdom. Deprecating memory skills is a recipe for a population of morons and zombies. If we don’t teach students how to remember things, we not only deny them the promise of education itself, but we deny them the basic skills needed to think strategically.
In the June, 2013 volume of Scientific American, Michael Shermer’s reply to a reader’s published letter makes a number of remarkable statements. Shermer was attempting to clarify or otherwise augment the meaning of his February, 2013 column, “The Left’s War on Science.” In discussing how “the ‘anti’ bias can creep in from the far left,” Mr. Shermer suggests that “Perhaps instead of ‘anti-science’ it is ‘anti-progress’” that is the real issue with the political left. I would like to address the implicit normative biases inherent in Mr. Shermer’s equating of “anti-science” with “anti-progress,” to which he seems to give ascent un-skeptically. Granted, he is not identifying the one with the other, but he does equate them, and this reveals a bias.
First, there is the more superficial bias contained in Mr. Shermer’s choice of phraseology, specifically, the use of an oppositional definition employing the prefix “anti” to specify his referent, the sense of which implies a normative value judgement given the popular discourse around such diverse spheres as “technology” or “freedom.” Who in their right mind is against “progress?” If automation is replacing our workforce, maybe “anti-progress” is also “pro-labor.” If cheap integrated circuits are the product of dubiously sourced coltan, maybe “anti-progress” is “pro-human rights.” If more automobiles make more pollution (because increased fuel economy doesn’t fully offset the increasing carbon costs of extracting energy from less accessible reserves), and if more fuel-efficient automobiles furthermore compound other state-centric financial problems (such as the market consequences of ethanol mandates on subsidized industrial agriculture in the US, or on third-world grain prices for what are otherwise staple food crops on the global market), maybe “anti-progress” is “pro-ecology.”
Or, to phrase the same difficulty in slightly different terms: do we really need more “progress” in the breeding of more productive grains, or is it maybe better to use culture to encourage a more comprehensive ecological view of the individual in the world, and to simply stop throwing out half the food we produce each year, or only eat meat three times a week instead of three times a day? Is it possible that these “ecological” solutions are not only less complex than new networks of industrial processes, but can also be more resilient and cheaper and more pleasurable to partake in? Would it be anti-progress, for example, to advocate for reducing unemployment by increasing labor-intensive organic food production for a less meat-centric diet, that is also less wasteful, more full of substantive choices and alternatives, and healthier?
Second, there is the bias conveyed by Progress itself, which Progress invokes in favor of itself, and for its own perpetuation, wherever Progress is invoked. Progress is a relatively new ideology in Western culture, dating for our purposes to the European Enlightenment. It says, basically, that things always improve through the mass accumulation of specialized, systematic knowledge and the mass dissemination of its applications. In a commercial sense, it means newer technology is always better and must also replace older technology. This ideology is relatively new. The European Renaissance, by contrast, venerated the wisdom of Antiquity; in Medieval Christendom things were better back in Eden; and in Rome, the mythic Golden Age of the remote past offered the ideal model for future aspirations. Even Francis Bacon, famous advocate of the “advancement of learning,” conjured up the long-lost Atlantis in his utopian manifesto on the future of the mathematical arts.
Looking more closely at such normative terms in their popular usage (to wit, “anti-progress”), certain flaws in the ideology’s positive formulation become apparent. A case study in terminology: if we look at bees, we can see they are a much older species than modern homo sapiens. They outnumber us, have been more successful at propagating their genes than us, and, in a sense are therefore “more evolved” than us. Are bees “better” than humans because they are “more evolved” or otherwise “more successful?” Consider this: if “progress” drives our species to destroy our own habitat, maybe our big brains aren’t really all that great of a survival advantage after all — or maybe, at least, it’s a little lunatic to talk about human intelligence in such superlative terms, as if our absolute superiority were a settled matter. I think the jury is very much still out on this: the average mammal lasts about a million years, so it’s really not like modern humans are a model of Malthusian-Darwinian longevity. Maybe Neanderthals really were better, and we out-competed them because we’re a genetic fluke, a virus, that will eventually consume itself by consuming its host — and though we would declare ourselves victors over Neanderthals, perhaps the cosmic hammer of natural selection just hasn’t landed quite yet, for our stupidity in destroying our living past. Which is not to suggest I am arguing against rationality or engineering, or Enlightenment values: to start building a metaphor from our case study in terminology: bees conduct their affairs with a lot of remarkable, organized, rule-governed social behaviors — and they do so with very little brain. With just a little more than what a basal ganglia can do, they might make a suitable metaphor for those same Enlightenment social values that produced that grand edifice of civil law our nation so highly esteems.
Third, there is the teleological component to Mr. Shermer’s particular choice of the term “progress” that can easily lead to false inferences about the ideology and its historical consequences. Specifically, “progress” implies progress towards something: you progress from A to B. “Progress” broadly understood, however, is more properly analogous to the way a scientist might talk about a body part being “designed” to accomplish a particular purpose, or an electron “liking” to do different things under different circumstances. Scientists in such cases aren’t really making teleological claims, though they are making a case for a structured set of circumstances. Perhaps, in empirical terms, human civilization is making progress towards catastrophe — be in environmental ruin or thermonuclear war.
What qualifies as “progress” in one context may be more usefully described as a type of normative bias, when the term’s usage is considered more broadly. Although it is easy to see that computers have replaced typewriters and wireless phones have replaced landlines in many cases, and we all agree these developments are more convenient in certain ways (though they also facilitate undesirable behaviors, such eavesdropping or distracted driving), these media-centric cultural touchstones are really of limited historical validity where “progress” is concerned. Computers have not replaced paper, or pens, or books, or the written word, or the value of “movable” or otherwise dynamic type: older technologies aren’t always replaced, though their role changes.
Many electric guitarists today seek out amplifiers driven by vacuum tubes, which are still sold for this purpose, and some musicians prefer to record onto analog tape, or to release new recordings on vinyl. This is normal. As of the year 6013 A.L., some 30% of computers are running Windows XP, a 10-year-old operating system. Outdated technology is the norm: there are six times as many users of the outdated Windows XP as there are Mac users, Apple’s stock price notwithstanding. Which is to say, equating (or, perhaps more properly, conflating) “technology” with “the newest technology” under the rubric of “progress” reflects a bias.
Lastly, there is the wisdom of the ages, which Progress would amputate from our intellectual heritage: Futurist architect and Italian Fascist Tomasso Marinetti apparently wrote persuasively in 1914 about this devastation of living history, embodied in historical buildings and common urban forms, how it represents “a victory for which we fight without pause against the cowardly worship of the past.” His vision was realized in many mid-sized American cities in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when historic downtown areas across the country were razed to make way for Interstates and parking lots and parking garages for suburban commuters. This same razing provided the match to ignite many of the the urban riots during the late 1960’s, and initiated a decades-long program of planned neglect in inner cities nationwide, while suburbs parasitized both cities and rural areas in the guise of an aggressive modernity.
Proverbs 6:6-8 reads: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise: which, having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.” The organization of ant society is profoundly decentralized, but also profoundly social and cooperative. The US Constitution is similar: it speaks of the “common defense,” the “general welfare” and “our posterity” but also of “the blessings of liberty” and of “Justice.” The ant is properly feminized in King James to accord with the Greek Sophia — Wisdom — in the same manner as other Biblical sayings, such as Proverbs 8:1 (“Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?”) or Matthew 11:19 (“The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children”). The teachings of Freemasonry take this basic appeal and apply it to secular society, in a Neoplatonist fashion, modeled after Plato’s utopian discourse on the ideal State.
Freemason Albert Pike — the only Confederate officer to be honored with an outdoor statue in DC — fashioned a highly inter-textual dialog called The Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. A compendium of Renaissance wisdom synthesized with the tools of Enlightenment systematic inquiry, the text represents a sort of Machiavelli of morals. Chapter VIII reads in part: “A Masonic Lodge should resemble a bee-hive, in which all the members work together with ardor for the common good… To comfort misfortunes, to popularize knowledge, to teach whatever is true and pure in religion and philosophy, to accustom men to respect order and the proprieties of life, to point out the way to genuine happiness, to prepare for that fortunate period, when all the factions of the Human Family, united by the bonds of Toleration and Fraternity, shall be but one household,–these are labours that may well excite zeal and even enthusiasm.”
Which is to pick up the Solomonic wisdom from the Proverbs, by adopting an animal that is industrious and well-organized like the ant, though less inclined to warfare, and also an ardent lover of beauty. Plato had Socrates say it similarly, in urging us to craft the works of a “fine and graceful” social order “so that our young people will live in a healthy place and be benefited on all sides, and so that something of those fine works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from a good place, leading them unwittingly, from childhood on, to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason.”
So I went and revisited Mr. Shermer’s February 2013 column, as I had that month’s magazine still on the table in my study. The column’s hook promises to explore “How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum.” I would rather have read someone argue from that starting point something more to the effect that “both ends of the spectrum” accept ideological “progress” so unquestioningly, that alternatives with their repercussions are almost inconceivable, and that this is a far greater problem, because it induces systemic blindness that is threatening the civilization whose values Mr. Shermer purports to defend.