Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Golden Age

One of the minor amusements of the World Cup has been the adverts on ITV. In between Ray Winstone taste-testing the odds, and the iPhone bidding to become your personal trainer, the football-themed ads have been dominated by the tropes of automation and global threat, ranging from Ronaldo & co battling aliens in Samsung's high-tech gimp suits (like a shit version of The Edge of Tomorrow), through Nike's Incredibles-style humans versus clones (resistance!), to Kia's production line robots turning out standardised players and stadia (resistance is useless).

The mirthful words "Zlatan agrees", from the Nike mini-epic, ran through my head as I browsed Our Work Here Is Done: Visions of a Robot Economy, a free e-book from Nesta, which styles itself as the "UK's innovation foundation". It's free because it comprises a collection of short essays that are little more than souped-up blog posts and extended adverts for other books, rather than any original research or profound analysis. Most of the observations about job polarisation and the relationship of technology to inequality are well-worn and bordering on the anodyne. That said, the contributions by Izabella Kaminska and Steve Randy Waldman, both of whom touch on the political aspects of technology, are worth reading, though they're pretty much in keeping with their previous musings at FT Alphaville and Interfluidity.

In a rather hyperbolic plug, one of the contributors, Frances Coppola, talks of the robot economy as an imminent "golden age", which is a reference to the cyclical theories of Carlota Perez. The idea that technology advances in long waves, alternating spurts of innovation with longer periods of exploitation, is a commonplace. Perez dates the start of the current cycle, the ICT revolution, to 1971 and the introduction of the Intel microprocessor, though the start of the Unix epoch is surely as significant. Technology wave theory remains embedded in a hardware paradigm, hence the inextinguishable yearning for jet-packs and the excitement over robot cars. This also leads to an underestimation of the multiplier effects of software, i.e. that code components can be reused and refactored even more extensively and cheaply than machine parts or manufacturing techniques.

Coppola believes that new times require new leaders: "In the past, the direction of change has been set by visionaries. In the 1930s, economic thought was led by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, and the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented far-reaching policy reforms". In reality, Keynes was a marginal figure during the period (his ideas had more impact in Germany than the USA or UK) and FDR was no fan. The Keynesian consensus is a product of the 1940s. The moral of this tale is that ideas come to the fore when they match the prevailing view: supply meets demand. Faced with an existential crisis in 1940, Britain quickly socialised its economy. Faced with the task of rebuilding after 1945, and accepting that a return to the market orthodoxy of the thirties would risk another slump, Keynes's view of a managed economy was a pragmatic compromise. Visionary it was not.

Casting round the landscape for new thought-leaders, Coppola is optimistic: "One of the defining features of the information technology and communications revolution is the decline of the individual decision-maker and the growth of collaboration, teams and sharing. ... But we are now seeing the same phenomenon in other areas too. The 'hive mind' created by social media and similar technologies is far more powerful than any individual could possibly be, and from it can come not only original ideas but a real impetus for change". I'm surprised to see anyone still pushing the idea that the hive-mind is an unalloyed force for good. It's as if Twitter had never been invented. The hive-mind is a classic hardware paradigm: imagining that multiple brains connected over the Internet are the equivalent of parallel processors. It is also a failure to understand basic mathematical laws. The reason the 'ask the audience' lifeline in quiz shows has a high success rate is because of normal distribution not aggregate intelligence.

Coppola cites as proof of this collective wisdom the coincidence that the Q&A panel at the book launch (i.e. the contributors) all agreed that a basic income was desirable, essentially as a means of maintaining aggregate demand and providing the wherewithal for people to pursue poorly-paid vocations (academia, journalism, music etc, rather than pigeon-racing). Of course, this coincidence is proof only of groupthink. Basic income has become a credible option in social and economic debate in developed countries since 2000 (ideas come to the fore when they match the prevailing view), reflecting both angst at the increasing redundancy of the traditional working class and a fear that without some form of "dole" the under-educated hoi polloi will resort to violence. The real question is what form a basic income takes, which is ultimately a debate about power and privilege.

I'm also sceptical of Coppola's reading of history. Different eras adopt different (and complex) attitudes towards the collective and the individual, which reflects the material base and consequent social norms. The reality of innovation, whether in music or technology, is a fluid mixture of contributions from formal organisation, ad hoc collaboration and individual insight. The lone genius, oblivious to the world, is as much a myth as the highly-trained, complementary team (an orchestra playing Beethoven's 9th is a perfect combo of symbols). The long march of history has undoubtedly moved from the necessity of collectivism to the possibilities of individual liberation, but the paradox is that the social and psychic damage caused by this evolution has increased the scope and value of collective action. The paradox of our "post-collective" age is that hyper-connectivity, i.e. social media, has reduced the "impetus for change" to emotivist spasms (this week's Twitchfork riot over Michael Fabricant is another lesson in futility).

The Nesta e-book shows the sherpas of thought-leadership still faffing about in the foothills, largely reluctant to address issues of class and property, and still hoping that a consensus among the well-bred will produce a "vision" of the future in which we can all, in Keynes phrase, "live wisely and agreeably and well". In contrast, the TV adverts reveal that we remain in fearful awe of technology, attracted by the promise of personal empowerment and collective perfection, but repelled by the presumed loss of humanity and the threat of alienation. The idea that our only defence is the collective neck muscles of Ronaldo, Rooney and Ibrahimovic is depressing. If they could get a tooled-up, young Ray Winstone on side, that would make a lot of difference.

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