Martin Ford: Rise of the Robots

Lets say you can wash the dishes twice as fast as you used to. You finish in 30 minutes instead of the old 15 thanks to buying a dishwasher. That extra 15 minutes you can now spend watching television, going to the gym or just about anything. Fantastic.  But what if you are a dishwasher and those 15 minutes are time that you’re paid for.  In the past those 15 minutes have party been replaced by other work, so instead of washing dishes you might be a computer programmer or man a call center . You don’t get free time, you simply free up time to do a new type of work and most importantly get paid.

This book posits that for the past 30 years or so this balance has been out of whack and increasingly our dishwasher can’t find new work, he just works far less than he used to and has a smaller income. As Ford notes productivity has skyrocketed, but real wages have declined precipitously. Offshoring and globalization have contributed, but the real enemy isn’t people in China, it’s your computer.

Computing and information technology have improved at an exponential speed, roughly doubling their abilities each year, which continues unabated. We aren’t at the end, we’re arguably at the beginning. This is the cue for a million dystopian sci-fi plotlines, which I’m sure we’re all aware of, but the main question Ford asks is what happens when we have far too few jobs?

For me the main question that Ford doesn’t much attempt to answer is how efficient would robots be compared to a human employee? Let’s say a human gets paid $7/hour, what would the equivalent robotic alternative cost? If it is cheaper but still relatively high, say $5/hour (parts, updates, fixing or replacing robots), then productivity will increase, but not exponentially.  If it is 0.1/hour then it’s an entirely different ballgame and productivity would skyrocket.  If Ford’s law of IT expansion (double every year) holds true then this is the probable end-state. The difference, to me, is that the cost of goods would plummet to match our diminished incomes. If the robots replace us, but are only marginally better in a big picture view of things, then goods wouldn’t be any cheaper. That’d be a big problem as nobody, save the owners of robots, would have much of an income to pay still high prices. That’d be economic catastrophe. If there’s a middle stage where robots are cheaper to employ than humans, but not drastically so, the economy would be in ruins and we might never reach that end state or at least not without mass poverty.

The biggest hypothetical benefit that I can foresee from increased automation would be helping out our beleaguered environment by way of increased efficiency.  If we can’t last another hundred years because the planet is destroyed robots will be the least of our worries. One tiny example would be eliminating commutes to and from work.

Freeing up more time is of course a double edged sword as many people would feel liberated, even if they didn’t have substantial incomes, not to have to slog it out at a job they hate and would have enough hobbies to fill their time. I’d wager though that over 85% of us would feel directionless and lose any sense of value of purpose. Our own minds would eat away at us. Evolution didn’t prepare us for lethargy and I’d picture us like an animal in a zoo going crazy from boredom and being removed from our natural environment (physical and mental exertion). The biggest antidote to depression is often “action over inaction.”

I’ll insert some song lyrics that I think capture this better than I can. Here’s Titus Andronicus’ Ecce Homo:

I heard them say the white man created existential angst
When he ran out of other problems
Cause the thing about those problems was
Typically, more money would solve them
We’re breaking out of our bodies now
Time to see what’s underneath them

 

 

 

Stewart Bell: Bayou of Pigs

Legend has it that when he returned to Europe Christopher Columbus was asked to describe the small Caribbean island that he named Dominica, picked straightforwardly for the day of the week, Sunday, when he found it.  As an answer Columbus supposedly took a piece of paper, crumpled it up and threw it on the table.

This description of the island’s steep cliffs and mountainous jungles, which rise to a height of 4747 feet, despite only a total size equal to two Central Park’s, provides an explanation as to why, in 1981, a rag tag group of neo-nazis, criminals, dirtbags and (self-declared) mercenaries thought they could invade the tiny island and set up a criminal’s paradise.

Unlike its more developed neighbours in the Lower Antilles, Dominica has dark volcanic sand, few beaches and the steep cliffs are hostile to large plantations of sugarcane or virtually anything else. If you travel just a bit further East to Barbados you’ll find a miniature Britain with bustling restaurants, packed beaches of tourists and cruise ships, loud music and high-end stores of all kinds. Even the occasional traffic jam. Likewise nearby Martinique, still a part of France, feels like a slightly warmer version of the mother country.  Absent beaches, profitable crops or dodgy banks, the country today is the poorest in the Eastern Caribbean. It remains a largely rural country of 70,000 and well into the eighties much of the island lacked conventional roads, with locals still travelling to neighbouring villages by hiking through the jungle. Many people still make do by simply eating whatever fruit, yams or coconuts grow in their immediate vicinity.

In 1981 the little nation of Dominica was newly independent of Britain, flipping between democratic governments. Most important to this story its distant neighour four islands to the South is Grenada and a coup in 1979 put Leninist-Marxists in charge of the island.  In the Cold War, despite being utterly irrelevant, this represented a big problem to the U.S.A Cubans and Russians were flooding in to help out and the domino theory held that, were nothing done, communism would soon take over the entirety of South America and the Caribbean. In 1983 this problem would be stamped out by a U.S.A. invasion, but in the intervening four years America viewed the Caribbean with anxiety.

Some, however, saw opportunity. Enter Mike Perdue, a Vietnam vet and self-styled soldier of fortune with connections to the Ku Klux Klan and the far right. Perdue imagined that his government wouldn’t exactly be adverse to a change of government in Grenada. Why not put together a mercenary force, topple its tiny government and then live there as a quasi-ruler enjoying all the Caribbean has to offer? He’d be living the high life and doing his own country a favour at the same time. The idea was put in motion, but as it developed Cubans began flooding in to help preserve the communist government. John Rambo himself wasn’t going to be take out Soviet trained Cubans, so the invasion had to be shelved. Perdue’s Pandora was out though and he didn’t want to go back to just being a poor nobody.  The plan had been to invade Grenada by boat from Dominica, but what if he just invaded Dominica instead?

The story gets stranger as Perdue taps his far-right connections, namely former Grand Wizard David Duke and the Canadian Nazi Party to raise the capital and men to mount his invasion. The plan is a testament to stupidity, with a rag tag group assembled to invade for reasons entirely nonsensical. The white supremacists intended to work with local rastafarians and the ex-Prime Minister, all black, to govern.  There was no pretext for invasion since Dominica wasn’t remotely communist and as far as pillaging is concerned a hurricane ravaged island that has only bananas, yams and handmade soap isn’t much in the way of booty.  Most the men talked in to the invasion barely knew where Dominica was or ignorantly thought they were somehow fighting on behalf of the CIA. You get the sense that most of them just had nothing better to do and this was their lottery ticket to being a somebody.

I won’t ruin the story, but this is foremost a story about a con. A big convoluted and moronic con, but one that was almost pulled off and managed to ensnare a good many people. Someone acting confidently playing on the fantasies or insecurities of others can put together something nuts touching an entire continent. Kinda impressive. It’s a good thing that the plan didn’t go into action, but I wish I could know what on earth would have gone down if either a) neo-nazi losers reenacting a Frederick Forsyth novel invaded the island  OR b) what the heck they would have done if they won.

Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle

I swore that I’d read more fiction and as this blog shows, I’ve failed miserably.   I was at a used book store when I came across this book, an alternate reality to WWII where the Allies lose and the United States is occupied by the Japanese and Germans. Seemed like a good way to dip my toe in the water after a lifetime of reading about actual wars.

The first hundred pages were all I’d hoped for. Himmler, Goebels and Gorring competing for power, Africa destroyed by Nazi genocide, the Japanese colonizing the West Coast. Just as Americans picked over the cultural corpse of Native Americans by collecting trinkets like dreamcatchers or feather headdresses, the Japanese create a market around kitschy relics of a lost American civilization in the form of Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War muskets.

What would it be like to be on the other side of history? The vanquished instead of the victor, learning some other language, worshiping a foreign God and having to carefully show reverence to your new superiors and their customs. Something as simple as handshakes replaced with bowing would constantly irritate me I’m sure. What if the West were obliterated? I felt a bit queasy just reading about it, which naturally gives way to empathy for any conquered or oppressed people.  I’m as self-absorbed and unimaginative as anyone so it’s easier to empathize when the hypothetical scenario involves me or people like me.  So far so good.

This book was like eating a five star restaurant, beautifully decorated, impeccable service, top flight chef, but then the food comes out and it’s a Big Mac. That’s what the story felt like to me, a long winding intricate road to nowhere in particular. Or in this case to the High Castle.  An A+ concept and setting, with a D- narrative thrown on top.

The literary equivalent of the Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie with near perfect actors, scenery, casting, music and costume, but a story that doesn’t ask the viewer to give a damn about Tom Ripley or any of the other characters, much less the outcome (if there even is one)?

Back to real wars for a little while.