Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Futurological Stain on the State of the Union

From the President's State of the Union address this evening:
Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming. But there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn't even exist ten or twenty years ago -- jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla. So no one knows for certain which industries will generate the jobs of the future.
I'm no fan of America's ruinous and idiotic car culture -- which arose out of the postwar futurological cheerleading of "The Greatest Generation" -- but comparing the titans of Fordist manufacturing with SillyCon Valley's celebrity-CEOs and techbro VCs is patently ridiculous. It is notoriously the case that firms in the IT sector with market capitalization comparable to large retailers or manufacturing companies employ fractionally as many people than these traditional sectors do.

About those tech giants name-checked as exemplars on whom the President means to pin our jobs future? Well, Google employs between 37,000 and 52,000 people; eBay employs about 32,000 people; and Tesla motors employs about 6,000 people. That's far from the kind of stunning employment contribution these enterprises were made to symbolize in tonight's State of the Union.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the Construction and Manufacturing sectors employ over 12% while the Information Sector employs under 2% of US jobs. And this is despite the recent decline in manufacturing, which has resulted from race-to-the-bottom trade policies rather than some irresistible digital destiny in any case, and hence could be reversed should our policies come to reflect fairness and sustainability priorities as they should on Obama's own terms.

It seems a bit odd, I must say, the way the speech corralled Tesla with Google and eBay, really, since elsewhere Obama's speech (in the snippet quoted above, for example) takes pains to distinguish "new" IT from "old" manufacturing. I guess it makes a difference when the auto manufacturer is making marginal publicity-hogging boutique-green electro-Edsels. All that hype just has the zing of new now next! Indeed, what all these companies actually share most of all is the techno-transcendental coloration imbued by our own generation's futurological flim-flam operators, peddling digitality and AI and cartoon-tech like Musk's LEO amusement park rides and Hyperloop stunt.

Even Obama's much-anticipated and discussed proposal to make two years of community college much more widely available was freighted with futurological framing. While I am heartened by any commitment to a real public investment in our capacity for collective problem-solving, I was disheartened again to find this proposal unexpectedly framed in the speech as a way to "train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding... and robotics." As if coders and roboticists can overcome jobs lost to downsizing and outsourcing and financialization -- downsizing, outsourcing, and financialization indispensably enabled and abetted by, that's right, coders and automation!

And although I strongly favor the President's call for public investment in a faster and more open internet -- I must say that for one thing I am far from assured that the President's panoptic sorts comport with a sense of openness worthy of the name; and for another thing I am well aware that the reason Europe has an incomparably faster and cheaper and more reliable internet than Americans do right now has everything to do with regulations and nothing to do with "the digital innovators and entrepreneurs [who] keep reshaping our world" to whom Obama genuflected in his speech. I have a song in my heart for fact-gathering social workers and labor economists with clipboards like good Democrats are supposed to do, but the upward-failing skim-and-scam operators of the "new economy" Obama praised over and over again in the big speech tonight -- so many of whom slurp up government cash while crowing about their libertechbrotarian cyborg-individualism and hostility to Big Government -- just make me want to ralph.

Like the Clinton and Gore embrace of the irrational exuberance of the fin de siecle dot.bomb, Obama's embrace of digi- nano- AI- nonsense reveals the profound susceptibility of the partisan Democratic left to assimilating reactionary politics through uncritical "technology" discourses that rationalize corporate-military budgetary priorities and conduce to mass consumer-complacency and circumventions of democratic deliberation by self-appointed technocratic and designer elites. It is enormously important that the Democratic Party has embraced macroeconomic literacy, climate science, Darwinian evolution, public healthcare, safer sex eduction, medical research, renewable infrastructure spending, fact-based harm-reduction policy-making, and so on against the outrageous anti-intellectualism and science-denialism of today's GOP. But these Democratic commitments must be informed and not simply fetishistic.

I am a champion of real public space programs for discovery and research toward the public good -- which is why I refuse to celebrate the displacement of this vision by the Vegas dreams of for-profit space hucksters foisting low-earth orbit planes and orbital love motels on us while promising to colonize the solar system and mine the asteroids in an imperial gold-rush get-rich-quick future re-run of manifest destiny. I am a champion of real public investment in renewable, resilient energy, communication, and transportation infrastructure and of real investment in medical research and access -- which is why I refuse to celebrate the displacement of this vision by greenwashing geo-engineers or hucksters of enhancement and longevity moonshine for superannuated boy-band Boomers.

Democrats have to take care not to fall for pseudo-science nor for reactionary policies with a "tech" patina: like MOOCifying education "reformers," like budget hawks who pretend miracle medicine justifies raising the retirement age, like suave Big Data miners and masseurs treated more and more like wizards in electoral and marketing campaigns (which are becoming less and less distinguishable) at the risk of substance, like drone cheerleaders who want to make illegal war and assassinations on the cheap while we sleep, like venture-capitalist "disruptors" peddling the usual right-wing de-regulation, looting of common goods, and valentines to makers-vs-takers wealth-concentration.

Look, I enjoyed the President's attitude and ad libs as much as the next guy. There were edifying passages on fairness and sustainability and diplomacy (most of them contradicted at other points in the speech not to mention by reality). It wasn't a terrible speech, and it had the benefit of being pretty forgettable. As an opening move in the long campaign to put Hillary Clinton with an Elizabeth Warren inflection into the White House the speech wasn't half bad. But as somebody who takes progressive technoscience seriously, I must say the whole speech was stained by a futurology that has no future if we are to any. Hell, by the end I felt it was a mercy we weren't subjected to a paragraph on 3D-printing delivering post-scarcity and the Internet of Things!


Roald said...

You mean we can't STEM the tide of financialization after decades of being sold out?!

With no chance for the return of "old" manufacturing, it makes me wonder where any broad prosperity-driving growth would originate from*. The hot deep fryer grease that this low-wage recovery slowly slid in on can only cool*. And, like you said, contradictions or tensions, fated or no, are hard to ignore. For example, the community college proposal is great, but our economy is still dealing with cutbacks to government staff, so many of which were absorbed by local education systems. That positions us poorly regardless of which century we are living in.

I see hope in focusing on transportation infrastructure and renewable energy efforts. Mass public investment. That is why my dream lame duck/untamed bear Obama SOTU speech is the word "infrastructure" on loop.

Thanks for your post. This blog has been my main window into futurological discourse and critiques thereof. Probably expectedly, now that I can recognize the discourse, there seem to be very few places where it does not show up...from car rides with my brother to the marble chambers of D.C.

*Not to say that being fit for a particular economic sector pushes out the importance of high(er) earned wages


Elias Altvall said...

Is there any surprise about liberals being pursuaded by techno-transcendentalist talk? I mean they have always had that idea in their fringes from Keynes insisting that at the year 2000 every industry would be automated to Isaac Asimov being a large degree moderate futurist. Liberalism generally needs transhumanism because it is built around concept of human nature that is static and that parliamentary democracy and capitalism are a result of it. The only ones who do not agree with this are generally better describe as demoractic socialist.

Dale Carrico said...

I see hope in focusing on transportation infrastructure and renewable energy efforts. Mass public investment.

Me too. Hell, think of all the folks we could employ simply ruggedizing our energy grid by burying wires across the country so a snowstorm doesn't send whole states into blackout! We've reached Peak Soil degradation/ erosion (although people were talking about Peak Oil and Peak everything elsee therre for a while, Peak Soil, a real crisis, remains largely neglected) and the reforestation and regrading of the land, not to mention a resubsidization of modest agroforestry/ permaculture farms to shift from ruinous BigAg industrial monoculture could also employ huge numbers of folks. Meanwhile, the country needs to be training, hiring, and organizing so many teachers and nurses! How about more government employees doing safety inspections and overseeing corporate malfeasance? Once we manage to end the anti-tax anti-civilizational fever dream and break up anti-democratizing wealth concentration with a steeply progressive tax system we can fund a real recovery with real jobs with a real living wage.

Dale Carrico said...

Is there any surprise about liberals being pursuaded by techno-transcendentalist talk? I mean they have always had that idea in their fringes from Keynes insisting that at the year 2000 every industry would be automated to Isaac Asimov being a large degree moderate futurist.

I see what you mean, but I actually do feel somewhat surprised by at least some of the partisan left vulnerability to techno-transcendentalism. Really, the secular skeptical left is usually better at distinguishing science from pseudo-science than they are when it comes to futurological nonsense, so too there is a pretty widespread critique of both marketing hype and unsustainable unsatisfying consumerism in the left that somehow hasn't quite made the connection of these very phenomena in their prevalent techno-fetishistic forms. Your point about Keynes is very well taken, and to your observation I will add that Keynes's productivism (in for example Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren) was profoundly irresponsible in light of ecosystemic limits, and that Marx's techno-determinism and triumphal techno-utopianism are a match for the worst extropian transhumanoid hyperbole! About Asimov, did you know that liberal icon Paul Krugman became an economist because he wanted to get as close as possible to the psycho-historical wet-dream of Asimov's Foundation novels?

Your point that liberalism and transhumanism are complementary because both assume a static human nature is interesting, but of course most people woud find the claim counter-intuitive to the point of incoherence, since both are so invested in a self-image of dynamic fluid innovation and change. Of course, so much that passes for radical transformation in public discourse just amounts to reassuring fantasies of status quo amplificaion, just as so much rugged individualism amounts to bed-wetting upward-failing conformism. My only quibble would be to say that liberalism as a historical category has enough contrary strains that it probably isn't quite reducible to stealth reactionary corporate-militarism tho' I am quite happy to agree that neoliberalism is, and I have identified futurology with neoliberalism quite directly much as you do. I'll admit that as terms go, given how so many Americans freak out at the mention of socialism, I personally don't care if the result is called "capitalism" if it is sustainable, truly consensual (through the provision of healthcare, education, basic income, equal recourse to law, franchise, and office), and equitable-in-diversity. Socialist, liberal, progressive, capitalism, we need to just get there before environmental catastrophe and war-making finish us off!

Elias Altvall said...

Yeah! Marx's own teleology and very triumphal techno-utopianism is things you really do not hear about from marxist that much even though it really makes it ridiculously close to techno-transcendentalism. I really can not stand teleology and things that imply it. It makes the whole world seem more meaningless then meaningful. This is also a reason why (even though I am influenced by anarchism) I do not identify as an anarchist because the way most anarchist nowadays talk about "anarchy" makes it seem to imply that it is this end point utopia, rather then just coopting a word once used to disparage popular resistence to plutocractic and aristocratic interest, to instead mean something positiv.

I personally find liberalism as a historical category to be somewhat confusing. To give what I think is a good example, John Stuart Mill. He spent his entire life writing on many different subjects and trying to further liberalism but the more he had to admit that the current (for his century) system was unjust and oppressive and more and more became to appreciate and like popular solutions like trade unionism and the cooperative movement and even went to say that economic democracy was the best answer.
I gave this example to try show that liberalism as a historical category is complex because unlike many other movements and ideologies it is diverse and more often then not in modern times somewhat reactionary since it want to keep the current system operating yet improve it. This is way you keep hearing liberals defending the virtue of representative democracy because then people are allowed to compete from there leaders. Which for me seems weird and just reinforcing the current system without trying to continue to democratize it. And Yes, NEoliberalism is a reactionary ideology anyone denying this must read more.

I really do not give a shit what the result is called as long as people are happy, healthy, free and with plenty of diversity. I try not to get bogged down in terms. But I will say that I see a benefit in pointing out how our current system is called Capitalism and how is operates and why the opposition in all of its diversity can be classified as Socialism.

Elias Altvall said...

And I knew about Paul Krugman being influenced by Asimov's psycho-history, which has always made me wonder, why economy? I mean the whole idea is absurd but if I would become something based around psycho-history then I definitely go more for sociology rather then economics. Bourdieu or Durkheim (is more apporpriate) are way more "predicting" human societies than Kenneth Galbraith or Milton Friedman. Also I always kinda took the interpretation that the Foundation books were more about how in the end you can not predict the acts of free willed individuals considering what the Mule did. But Perhaps I am giving Asimov way to much credit.

Elias Altvall said...

I am really sorry for the massive misspellings a mixture between english being my second language and it being like three at night here right before bed.

Dale Carrico said...

Don't sweat it.