Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Tech’s unfulfilled promises

I’ve been enthusiastic about technology for most of my life. Since 1993, it’s been the main way I’ve made my living. Even before that, I thought of technological progress as, on balance, something which was clearly of benefit to the world. It offered the possibility of greatly increasing the productivity of human work, eliminating repetitive and boring tasks, reducing the length of the working week and expanding economic activity and with it the range of potential human achievement. It opened up the prospect of enriching humanity, both materially and psychoculturally.

Of course, because we would still be living under capitalist relations of production, the benefits of technology would not be evenly distributed. The already rich would arrogate the lion’s share of the newly created wealth, while the growth in leisure time resulting from increased productivity would be out of the reach of the majority of workers. But these two factors — the concentration of wealth in the hands of the obscenely rich and the grossly disproportionate allocation of “free” time, would themselves undermine the stability of the “relations of production” that brought them about. They’d lead to a revolution. Probably not in my lifetime but certainly in someone’s.

Perhaps coincidentally, it was around the same time as I actually started to work in a tech field that my optimism about the approaching global revolution began to wane. The collapse of communism, Tony Blair’s removal of clause 4 from the British Labour Party’s constitution and a variety of less tangible factors all no doubt played a part in the fading of my revolutionary fervour. It’s a weird feeling to undergo a fundamental change in one’s world view. You can’t just replace all your beliefs all at once. Gradually, you find that you have some convictions that seem deeply held, even though the foundation they previously rested upon has been broken up and carted off.

For example, while I am a historical materialist no longer, I have retained an unshaken commitment to materialism. I used to joke that I dropped the “historical” because I belatedly realized how little I actually knew about history. It’s perfectly true that my historical knowledge was gravely inadequate (as I confirmed when I began to write a doctoral thesis on a mid-seventeenth-century English poet) but that doesn’t really explain my political shift, which really came about as it became increasingly obvious that marxism wasn’t filling an urgent psychological need for me.

However that may be, my materialism survived the change in my beliefs and continues to do so 27 years later. It’s the reason why the last word of the first paragraph above isn’t “spiritually”, but a less satisfactory alternative. Similarly, most of my economic convictions have remained strong, even though I’ve long forgotten the marxist premises on which they were originally founded. Admittedly those convictions took a drubbing in the years following 2008, when they seemed to predict that global capitalism could not possibly survive the great destruction of capital brought about by the reckless gambling of risk-hungry financiers. (“Risk-hungry” that is, until the bets started to go wrong, at which point they clamoured for a bail-out, insisting that their gambles should be retrospectively guaranteed by the world’s governments.)

Capitalism continued for at least another decade, though I can take some comfort from the many indications that I was’t the only one to believe it was finally toppling over the precipice. The behaviour of the ultrarich in the years since the crash unmistakably indicates that they’ve abandoned hope of maintaining a sustainable balance of demand (spending) and wealth-extraction (or, as economists call it, “saving”) but have instead opted to grab as much loot as they can as fast as they can. The plutocrats have given up on capitalism, so maybe the rest of us should trust their judgment as to their best interests. Maybe, instead of a proletarian revolution, we’re seeing the early stages of a “top down” one, in which the will of the exploited to to pull down the system is less important than the failure of will of the exploiters to continue to hold it up.

It might seem that, having started to write about technology, I’ve veered off into a rant about economics and politics. However, these topics are inextricably interconnected. Technology, including information technology, robotics and machine learning, can be expected to cut the costs of production throughout the global economy. But if these reductions in costs are mainly realized in the layoff of workers, then the amount being paid in wages and salaries will drop. Since the people with the least disposable income are the people most likely to spend what they have, the layoffs can be expected to bring about a failure of demand, probably leading to a fall in real prices and offsetting the productivity gains. The new wealth will be destroyed almost as soon as it can be created.

Normally, you’d expect the capitalist governing class to do something to try to balance this out, with the aim of preserving or sustaining the system that has rewarded them so well. But for several decades now, and particularly since the crash of 2008, this is not what has been happening. Instead the global capitalist class has been allowing a huge, destabilizing disparity of wealth and income to develop. It’s starting to look as if the ultimate capitalist economic crash may finally be imminent. It’s been a long time coming. On the other hand …

Up to this point, I have been assuming that the gains in productivity brought about by technology are real, but I’m not at all convinced that this is in fact the case, for several reasons. First, tech brings with it a new set of problems to be dealt with, from spam and malware, through security and privacy threats to an increasing alienation on the part of the workers who use the technology, as its workings become ever farther removed from them. I’ve written recently about the people working in law firms who use Word as if it were a kind of digital typewriter — even though very few of them are old enough ever to have used a real typewriter.

As a cornerstone of Microsoft’s Office suite, Word is a good example of what I’m talking about. During my early years working in tech, Microsoft was the most successful tech company in existence, led by Bill Gates, then the world’s richest man. It’s worth remembering that Gates’s current philanthropic activities are founded on the fortune he made from Microsoft’s ruthless, hardheaded business practices. At the time, his company seemed destined to dominate the business world for another two decades. Its two great money-spinners were its Office suite and Windows operating systems, both of which were thought to be essential software for any serious business.

In effect, Microsoft made Gates extremely wealthy by extracting rent from the business world for the use of these two sets of products. If this software did, in fact, bring about a great increase in the productivity of office work, it’s clear that by far the largest beneficiary of that increased productivity is the company that made the software! This is a pattern that is repeated with variations throughout the tech economy.

Microsoft’s dominion came to an end earlier than most of us expected, because the company underestimated the significance of the worldwide web. The company that did take the web seriously enough to develop a way to find useful information in its unstructured, pathless vastness, has made billions of dollars a year by ensuring that advertisers pay as much as they can bear to appear in its search results and on the websites whose advertising it controls. The current richest man in the world runs a company whose mission is to destroy retail and build a monopolistic “everything store”. While Google at least supplies something essential (though far from being as useful as it might be), its main competitor for the world’s advertising budget provides little more than an opportunity for billions of people to produce (for no pay, of course) unimaginable quantities of “user-generated content” in which the ads can be embedded, as well as the ubiquitously tracked eyeballs that help to persuade the advertising managers that they’re actually paying for something useful. If this is a good bargain for the “user”, how can it have made Facebook so rich so quickly?

Another of my unprovable suspicions is that, if information technology has made work more productive for anybody, it has done so largely for those whose occupation is the production of yet more information technology. This thought struck me when I was trying to anticipate the objections that readers of this post might raise. Rightly or wrongly, I imagined the objectors as people who themselves work in tech. They’re the ones who see the benefits — to their own lives. For most of the rest of us, the effect of the great advances of recent decades has been felt mainly in the fields of entertainment and leisure: fast gaming machines, streaming audio and video, distracting and addictive social media, same-day delivery of our impulse purchases and sleek, powerful computers that we carry around in our pockets and use to help the likes of Uber, AirBnB and food delivery companies to destroy established businesses and replace them with a void. Tech has, overwhelmingly, given us circuses rather than bread.

So, have the developments in tech over the past 40 years or so been a net benefit for the world? Probably, but it’s very difficult to be sure. It’s certain, though, that the costs have been greater than we collectively expected (otherwise we’d collectively have tried harder to control them). As far as I personally am concerned, I feel that 27 years is more than enough time for me to have spent on tech. Of course, it wasn’t a full 27 years. For most of it, I was working part-time, and doing other things in tandem with it. My doctorate, for example. (The fact that it took me 15 years to complete is entirely down to me, and I don’t regret not having finished it sooner.) At the very least, working in tech provided me with the means to pursue other activities. But enough is enough. It’s time to find something else to do with what’s left of my life.

I set out to write a post about my own personal disenchantment with technology and instead found myself revisiting politico-economic assumptions and arguments that I thought I’d left behind long ago. I’m more than a little surprised at how well those assumptions and arguments stand up, so many years later. I think I stuck with tech so long, apart from the usual reason of inertia, because I fetishized productivity. The belief that increased productivity of work would make it possible to free the majority of our species from the drudgery and tyranny of labour (always assuming that those gains could be distributed more evenly than they have ever been up to now), is another one of those fundamental assumptions that seem to have survived the demise of my revolutionary convictions. But perhaps we already have all the productivity that we need. Perhaps the world is already rich enough to free its population from the need to work in boring, unfulfilling, physically demanding, dangerous, health-destroying occupations.

I believe it’s time to stop pursuing gains in productivity and turn our collective attention to the problem of more equitably allocating those we have already accumulated. Who knows, maybe Bill Gates feels the same?

Posted by Art on 29-Jul-2020.