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When Technology Outpaces Government and Economic Innovation

by Michael Szul on tags: technology, government, economy
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I struggled to find a good title for this post. I'm pulling together a handful of concepts, philosophies, and recent events to contemplate how technology impacts other parts of our society, and sometimes that cross-contemplation prevents a quippy title.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I did a recent rant on supporting creatives, whether that means open source software developers on GitHub Sponsors, or chefs and writers (and craft beer magazines) on Patreon. One of the people I follow and support is journalist and writer Adam Rowe, who has a great Twitter account about early era science fiction art. One of Adam's recent posts centered on the cover art to Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. For those that don't know, Le Guin was a pioneer of early science fiction, and helped to break many barriers getting sci-fi accepted by the mainstream. This isn't the first time in the past 12 months that Le Guin has returned to the limelight: The Long Foundation (mentioned in a previous issue) had an Interval salon talk with author Kim Stanley Robinson (from Mars Trilogy fame), who spoke about his relationship with Le Guin, and her influence on the genre.

Drawing more connecting lines between between Rowe and Robinson's foray into Le Guin's domain: Both Rowe's post and Robinson's talk carry a lot of the weight of the Left Hand of Darkness—a novel especially notable for having a utopian portrayal of an anarchist society. The intrigue here is that when we think of anarchy, we don't often think about a society prospering.

Star Trek is one of my all-time favorite universes because it explores what life would be like in the far future with humanity's one mission to explore the unknown. The Federation is a loose United Nations, but rarely does Star Trek discuss the economy or government. We know that "money" in the most general sense has been eliminated as a form of greed, and abundance is common—poverty is a thing of the past. Many take Star Trek to represent a close-to-utopia socialist society, but others would argue that it's a "post-money" society with a participatory economic system.

In a world where scarcity is a thing of the past, can capitalism work? Can democracy? Wired interviewed Manu Saadia—author of Trekonomics—back in 2016, and he saw a world where wealth and health were in abundance, so competition was satisfied via academic achievement and Federation rank. Reputation, after all, was not in abundance.

What does any of this have to do with the reasons you, dear readers, signed up for this newsletter? We're constantly bombarded with articles about how automation and artificial intelligence are going to reduce the workforce and change the shape of employment.

"[Kai-Fu] Lee, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, predicted that artificial intelligence will automate and potentially eliminate 40 percent of jobs within 15 years."

Lee is clearly shaping himself into a poster child for Chinese artificial intelligence advancement, and he's been a little prone to exaggeration, so let's check in on the U.S. side. How about the Democratic contenders for the 2020 Presidential election?

Bernie Sanders:

"[I] will work to prevent workers from being displaced by automation in the first place. We will end tax breaks that encourage companies to replace American workers with robots. Trump’s recent tax bill expanded one of those tax breaks; we are going to close it."

Elizabeth Warren:

"We need to pass my Accountable Capitalism Act. Among other things, it will require large companies to let workers elect board members. This will give workers more control over corporate decisions, including on introducing new technology and how affected workers are compensated."

Pete Buttigieg:

"First, because what you learn is often associated with what you can earn, we need to make sure that every student can develop basic digital and lifelong skills that are increasingly necessary for the new jobs of the future."

Andrew Yang:

"As we undergo this transition, we need to ensure that Americans get a slice of every Amazon transaction, Facebook ad, Google search, and self-driving truck mile. By implementing a [value-added tax] at half the European rate and making these companies pay their fair share, we can implement a Freedom Dividend of 1,000 per month for all American adults to help them transition through this difficult time."

The Vox article is short on the answers from some of the other top candidates, but without even looking you can be assured that they all followed a similar theme of trying to ram automation into our current economic and democratic processes—walking the line between ensuring innovation that creates more capital for corporations and finding talking-points for how the everyday, blue-collar worker will be helped. Only Yang's answer has some indication of societal transformation.

But what if we're wrong? If we can automate 50% of the jobs out there, shouldn't we want to? Then we could spend our time on things we actually enjoy doing, right? Douglas Rushkoff wrote in a CNN article years ago that:

"I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?"

All of this potential job loss is hypothetical though. Let's circle back to the modern year of 2020 and look at another technology-related innovation hurting the everyday worker: The gig economy.

The so-called gig economy was supposed to allow freelancers, and others in need of petty cash, to do a handful of jobs when they wanted (or needed) to. This didn't stop with freelance designing or coding, but continued to describe jobs from Uber, Lyft, AirBnb, GrubHub, etc.. The problem? Many people who see themselves as Uber drivers are devoid of healthcare, and have none of the protections that cab driver unions offer. Meanwhile, Uber is heavily eating away at the cab business. Uber has essentially used contract worker status to avoid paying for the normal protections and benefits that would be received by a full-time employee. This means that while the gig economy flourishes, and increases the revenue and capital of companies that rely on this model, the workers themselves tend to suffer.

California has attempted to rectify this with bill AB 5, which is already being contested in court. This bill forces companies reliant on gig workers to pass a "sniff test" to determine if those workers truly are independent.

Uber is not short on despicable business practices, but is the gig economy that they subscribe to a problem? Or is it only a problem because of our current societal norms when it comes to commerce, employment, and regulation?

Ben Thompson holds no punches about this in his newsletter when discussing AB 5, Uber, and things like healthcare, including a quote back to a previous assessment:

Beyond the lack of regard for consumers, the truth is the venom is misplaced: it's not that Uber is bad for not hiring workers and giving them attendant benefits, it’s that said benefits shouldn't be Uber's—or any employer's — responsibility at all. It's employer-based health care that is the problem, and in ways that go beyond the economic benefits of universal health care (the most obvious of which is the broadest possible risk pool, not to mention unmatched buying power). It’s that people are afraid to leave or lose their jobs because they lack the most basic of safety nets.

What Ben is talking about is a fundamental shift in the way we view "benefits"—something that hasn't changed much since employee benefits actually became a thing. Connect this with our original topic of the way that AI is expected to fundamentally change the economic landspace because of automation, and you're looking at a future where abundance is widespread, but menial jobs aren't needed, and many companies are providing task-based jobs. Trying to shoehorn this into our current corporatist economy will not work, and it has some fundamental challenges with capitalism—especially the extractive capitalism that private equity and the financial industry is currently pioneering.

So what does the future look like? Unfortunately—outside of Star Trek—most of our visions of the future are dystopian, and any of our speculation on alternatives to capitalism and democracy are incapable of imagining a functioning, prosperous society. This is why science fiction like Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness are important. They allow us to imagine alternative visions that can help us shape our own future in lieu of circumstances of the present. It's easy to look at our current use of technology and only see the darkness in surveillance, data collection, automation, and artificial intelligence in light of our massive mega-corporations and wealthy politicians, and see only despair, but as Codepunk co-editor Bill Ahern often says, our technology seems to evolve faster than our morality; Once that morality catches up, we see changes in business and government that reflect this new moral outlook. In fact, we're starting to see some of that now with climate change, despite the current Presidential administration's stance on green policy. I imagine that the same will happen with the effects of automation and the changes that the gig economy has brought us.