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Re: <nettime> unionization and the bots
Edmund Berger on Tue, 17 Nov 2015 05:06:43 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> unionization and the bots


   Hello Alex (and all!)⦠this is my first time posting on Nettime, but
   Iâve been lurking amongst the conversations for a few years now.

   The interesting thing about the conversation around robotic production,
   automation and the like is that itâs very well possible that this isnât
   a far off possibility, and something that weâre actually situated in
   the midst of. Pushing tech to the point of disrupting labor isnât a
   goal of capitalism, though it is its logical culmination â in many
   ways, what weâre witnessing is the profound accident of capitalism!
   Discourses surrounding automation always seem to speak of it in terms
   of an event â a dangerous âjobless futureâ, if youâre a dystopic
   realist, or a âfuture to be inventedâ if youâre a left accelerationist
   type. Bound up in this event are notions of temporality, design, and
   technologies yet to come, which will either be catastrophic if left
   unplanned or liberatory if handled correctly. Then there is, of course,
   the third position staked out by people like Jeremy Rifkin and Paul
   Mason where a kind of mutant-capitalist system emerges organically from
   within this crisis (as long as our consciousness is ready for it).

   Iâm just going to rattle off some thoughts that are pretty
   self-evident, but mapping the contours of this stage is always
   necessary. It seems to me that like all things in capitalism,
   automation unfolds is a very uneven â and by extension, chaotic â
   manner. There is a generalized understanding that job loss, at high
   enough rates, will impact long-term profitability through a dampening
   of consumer purchasing power, but this understanding gets lost in idea
   that surplus populations, the technologically unemployed, will only
   exist for a short before getting reabsorbed by the labor force. Looking
   at short-to-medium term profit yields, the decision to dump its human
   labor force for a robot one becomes a non-question â otherwise we
   wouldnât be facing this down! At the same time, there is a sensitivity
   to be had for which industries automate, and within those industries,
   which sectors will themselves face automation. This uneven mixed
   human-robot labor force will exist for a long time, and perhaps even
   permanently. For example, Apple might automate its factories in full,
   while the rare earth mineral extraction phase of the supply chain might
   remain in human hands. McDonalds might automate their hamburger
   assembly lines, while retaining a handful of human workers to interact
   with the population. There are cases like the matsutake mushrooms
   pickers analyzed by Anna Tsing in her recent book, which illustrates
   the âweird laborâ that opens up when global luxury demand collides with
   ecologically ruined landscapes. To automate these jobs would require
   extremely complex artificial intelligence that seems pretty unlikely on
   the current radar. All in all, the effects are what everybody has been
   fearing: hyperproletariatization through a dwindling number of
   increasingly precarious jobs. It becomes the amplification of laborâs
   dismantling, perhaps beyond what the neoliberals intended to do.

   We would also have to address a potentially uneven spread of automation
   on a global level. The recent âreshoringâ phase in the US was billed as
   a bid to return jobs from overseas, but in reality was the opting of
   automated factories over the rising cost of labor in China
   (attributable to the need to foster domestic demand during the Great
   Recession). Likewise, we saw a production flight from China to
   Indonesia, India, and Vietnam, who gave the world stage the next big
   âChina Priceâ. China has responded in kind with an ambitious plan to
   automate 80% of its production by 2020, effectively abandoning its
   agenda of domestic demand while also aiming to reclaim production from
   its Southeast Asia competitors. This, of course, is contingent on the
   continued buying power of the West, but as the âhiccupâ of the
   Recession shows, financial crises in the West spells disaster for the
   fragile systems in the East. In the event of another recession (which
   seems quite likely, as US firms are opting out of investment in
   materials goods and are instead putting their cash into financial
   assets), or a âcreeping automationâ scenario where surplus populations
   begin rising with no one properly taking notice, China would find
   themselves in an overproduction crisis of extreme proportions. It also
   begs the question: what becomes of Indonesia, India, and Vietnam?

   Â A few more wrinkles to add into the equation: eliminating bullshit
   jobs sounds great, and universal basic incomes could go a long way to
   countering the ongoing fragmentation of austerity and precarity.
   Automation, as a rallying political point for the left, could
   conceivably give it the âjoltâ needed to mount a large-scale
   counter-offensive against neoliberalism. But before this can be even
   tackled, it must be approached through the prism of the unstable world
   ecological system. Can the conversion of factories, restaurants, call
   centers, entire supply chains, be done in a way that the input and
   output of energy is lower than human labor? The environmental impact of
   information technology is not broached nearly as much as it should be,
   and automation â be it in production or the home (i.e., internet of
   things) â will surely increase these conditions. Similarly, weâre just
   now coming to realize the tremendous impact of what goes into
   information technologies: the extraction of rare earth minerals has
   proven devastating for the regions that this mining takes place in (and
   this doesnât even bring to the table the vexing problem of e-waste).

   One thing that automation has up on human labor is its increased
   flexibility, being able to run at certain times and intervals and at
   greater speeds. Combined with the ongoing advancements in sensor
   technology, one could imagine a vast machine of automated production
   where the factory churns out goods in correspondence with actual needs
   (in an acceleration of the already-existing production conditions of
   post-Fordist capitalism, albeit in a retooled manner). In this
   hypothetical scenario, this would go a long way ecologically speaking,
   as it would cut down on waste and bulk âup-frontâ production. Yet such
   a thing would never happen in capitalism. Even though profitability
   might be higher with a robot workforce instead a human one, the returns
   come incrementally, as the costs of retooling production are immense.
   It does not seem conceivable then that a firm, or a combination of a
   firm and outside investors, would shell out the money for retooling and
   then forsake a mass production system.

   A paradoxical situation: automation will be disastrous on a variety of
   scales if deployed in a capitalist context, but will happen
   none-the-less. Automation might also be what the left needs, but could
   very well be ecologically impossible. Which way out? Anti-automation
   politics? Pro-automation revolutionaries? Or would it be advocating a
   kind of Green New Deal before even approaching automation?

   Best,

   EdmundÂ

   On Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 9:58 AM, Alex Foti <[1]alex.foti {AT} gmail.com>
   wrote:

     Â  Â are robots bringing a jobless, 100% capital future?
     Â  Â many books (e.g. rise of the robots) and personalities (stephen
     Â  Â hawking), institutions (including bank of england) have described and
     Â  Â decried the ongoing substitution of human workers with intellingent
     Â  Â machines and intelligent, learning-capable software. from call center
     Â  Â operators to legal analysts, translators, radiologists etc pretty much
     Â  Â any job that can be routinized and made ready for siri-like
     Â  Â intelligence will go the way of the assembly line.
 <...>

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