Tag Archives: inventing the future

Future Sailors: Notes on Inventing The Future (ii)

What does the “full” in “full automation” mean? Does it mean the automation of literally everything, or the automation of everything in some class of presumably-automatable things? We can rule out the former immediately, because of the halting problem. This is a more abstract, and much less interesting, reason than “what about care work?”; but it also shows that “full automation” can’t interestingly be assumed to mean the automation of literally everything: it must mean the automation of some class of presumably-automatable things, and that immediately opens up the question of how that class is to be specified. (Again, for abstract and not very interesting reasons, it can’t be specified automatically: it’s impossible to have an automatic procedure for determining whether or not something is automatable, at least if we assume that “automatable” implies “computable” in some sense).

Without totally dismissing the idea that some kinds of automation might make some kinds of care work easier to do (in the manner of “labour-saving devices”), I think we can rule out robot mental health nurses, childminders, or other kinds of looker-after-of-vulnerable-human-beings. That human beings are recurrently vulnerable in ways that require looking after, and that this looking-after isn’t amenable to automation, ought to frame our understanding of the ways in which automation can expand our capacity for action, or relieve us of the necessity of having to do certain kinds of work for ourselves. Lyotard makes the point that all human beings pass through a kind of neoteny, which we call childhood, and that this is as much “the season of the mind’s possibilities” as it is a kind of impairment. Childhood is a condition under which the things we want to do, and the things we need doing for us, are complex and dialogical, and we remain substantially under this condition as adults even if we have managed to find transitional objects to tide us over. Automation can do very little to relieve us of the work of childhood (although psychoanalysis is often concerned with a kind of automatism that takes hold in these processes, replacing dialogic tension and release with monologic fixation).

So, the Universal Abstract Subject that finds its opportunities for self-and-other-actualisation enhanced and amplified by technology is in a sense a subject separated from its childhood, a grown-up subject, with relatively stable needs and purposes. I am playing a game, and I want to be more successful at it; I script a bot to execute efficiently some of the combinations of moves I commonly have to make, or to evaluate the state of play and suggest winning strategies. Or: I have been given a well-specified and repetitive task to do, and it occurs to me that something much less intelligent than me could do it instead. Or: I offload part of the cognitive burden of detecting patterns in sensory information to a machine-learning system that has become superlatively good at noticing when something looks a bit like a cat, so that I can concentrate on something the machine-learning system isn’t quite so good at doing. What do these scenarios have in common? That the goals to be achieved are specified in advance, and that technical means exist through which they can be accomplished by a proxy agent with less and less involvement from the agent (me) whose goals they originally were.

“Full” automation, then, means that things we already know we want to do, and already know how to do, should be done less and less by us, and more and more by proxies, so that we can spend more time on things we don’t already know we want to do, or how to do. There isn’t actually any specifiable endpoint to this process: we’ll never know when we’ve finished, when we’ve automated all the things. The argument of ItF, as I understand it, is that we’re lagging a long way behind: that there are still a great many things that human beings are doing unnecessarily, because capitalism (like Sports Direct) will happily use cheap labour rather than even quite “low” technology for as long as it can get away with it. The demand for full automation is then a (perfectly reasonable) demand to “catch up” with what technology has already made possible. But the dynamic I’ve been describing here suggests that this will mean not so much the elimination of work as its ongoing transformation.

Future Sailors: Notes on Inventing The Future (i)

Neoliberalism, as ItF narrates it, was neither a social movement (“politics from below”) nor, initially, a state project (“politics from above”), but a kind of conspiracy which aimed to capture both state power and social energies and turn them to its own ends. Its effective cunning, its ability to transform “contradictions” into “productive tensions”, was in part due to the fact that it had no identity to uphold: no fixed allegiance, no-one in whose name it was to speak. If neoliberalism was finally a class politics, it was a politics of the owners of capital qua owners of capital, whoever they might happen to be. We must understand Hayek’s “individual freedom” not only negatively, as freedom from state intervention or bonds of collective allegiance, but also positively, as freedom to act as a certain kind of abstract agent: a receiver and emitter of pricing signals. I alone must be able to say what the value of something is to me (deregulation), and I must have as many occasions as possible to deliver evaluations of this kind (marketisation).

The universal abstract subject (UAS) of neoliberalism is a transducer of price signals, a node in a massively distributed information system the global goal of which is to become more efficient. The role of producer is secondary: there must be inputs from labour in order for the system to have priceable things to regulate, but from the point of view of the system labour itself exists only as another priceable thing. As a counter to this, ItF proposes an alternative UAS, a self-and-other-actualising producer of values (to give it a slightly Nietzschean accent) whose “synthetic freedom” is the freedom to invent new things to do, and new means by which it can become more free to do them.

Politics in the name of a UAS, i.e. a vision of generic human capacity, is politics in a different register to politics in the name of justice, rights or equality. It is only interested in the ways people can be wounded, stigmatised, humiliated or excluded insofar as such injuries impinge on their ability to exercise the capacity by virtue of which they qualify as instances of the UAS. To many people this will seem weirdly amoral. Neoliberalism can be moralised, if we posit property rights as in some way fundamental to human dignity rather than simply as necessary preconditions for the exercise of liberal agency, but it has no real need of morality to motivate its defence of strong property rights: they are functionally indispensable, that’s all. ItF’s modernist UAS, liberated from work and empowered by technology to mould reality to its individual and collective wishes, has (increasingly) complex needs, but once again the reason why these needs should be met is not that suffering cries to the heavens for remedy, but that synthetic freedom requires us to be constantly levering ourselves further and further away from the precarity and waste of subsistence-level survival. (An open, and troubling, question for ItF’s whole project is how this “ourselves” can be properly inclusive of all humanity, and not merely codify the entitlement of its wealthiest part to all the resources they can lay their hands on).

In some quarters, access to the internet is now being discussed as a universal human right. From the point of view of ItF’s UAS this is exactly as it should be, because internet access is functionally necessary for certain kinds of projects which a subset of humanity is now able to undertake (creating open source software, for example, or arguing about books on blogs). But this is then a conception of “rights” which is contingent on the ongoing elaboration of human powers and freedoms, rather than grounded in human nature or motivated by a ceaseless ethical vigilance over human vulnerability.

What ItF wants to have in common with neoliberalism, then – besides its demonstrated effectiveness as a hegemonic strategy – is a certain detachment from morality, a sense that moral concerns are politically secondary. (This sense is also present in some, but by no means all, formulations of revolutionary politics). There is a deliberate break here with what we might call pastoral politics, politics which proposes an ideal moral order and looks for ways that this order can be established so that we can all live peacefully within it. Modernist Prometheanism is decidedly anti-pastoral, because its demand for openness about possible human goals and purposes is incompatible with any scheme in which everyone has and knows their place in a global moral order. Its strongest critique of neoliberalism, then, is not that the latter is amoral and destructive, but that it, too, constitutes a premature and drastically limiting decision in favour of a singular vision of human purpose.