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  In the past those 15 minutes have party been replaced by other work, so instead of washing dishes you might be a computer programmer or man a call center .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.

Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

The quote on the cover is apt: “a staggeringly good book.” This is a cutting political dissection of Rwanda from before it was even conceived of to modern times, with the horrific genocide of 1994 the unfortunate climax in this story.  The salient point is that Rwanda and by extension Africa isn’t a hapless mess, but a complex web of competing interests. In the case of Rwanda the country didn’t succumb to barbarism, there is a clear party at fault which is the Hutu supremacists, the perpetrators of the genocide.

There’s a tendency to write off the continent altogether since it seems blighted by war, poverty, dictators and dysfunction. There’s truth in that, but the reality is that the people aren’t amoral savages destined to Hobbesian brutality; they just happen to live in places with a web of competing and conflicting groups and interests, not unlike a Europe of  500 years ago (or even 25 years ago in Yugoslavia). Even an insane situation like genocide can’t be attributed strictly to homicidal barbarism. There is a logic to it and a brutal pursuit of self-interest at play.  Rwanda is decipherable if you pay close attention and anything decipherable is also workable, which is the good news.

The unfortunate truth is that no country and even no individual person can rely on others to save them when in need. To quote The Streets:

“No-one’s really there fighting for you in the last garrison. No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.  You are the one who’s got your back ’til the last deed’s done.”

When staggering evil is unleashed and you assume that surely someone will realize this and do something, that something might not happen. In the case of Rwanda there was an assumption, or at least a hope, that individual Hutu’s might restrain themselves from killing, that other African nations, the United Nations or the USA would intervene.

Unfortunately it was not in the interest of anyone to risk anything to prevent the Tutsi from being slaughtered, aside from themselves. Individual Hutu found it safer to follow orders, even when it meant hacking your in-laws to death with a machete. The United Nations did not have members willing to fight for the Tutsi, nor did the USA, which was still reeling from the killing of 18 marines in Somalia. The French even sent in troops to aid the butchers as it was somehow calculated that it was in their self-interest. The only salvation for Tutsi’s were other Tutsi’s, as those exiled in Uganda were able to mount a successful invasion of Rwanda and come to their rescue.

The conundrum for Rwandans today is that they must cooperate and identify first as Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi, if the country is to function and anyone is to prosper.  This requires an enormous level of trust, especially when you know the other side has the potential to obliterate you and has tried to recently. If you can’t trust anyone else, how do you then build trust? The good news for Rwandans in all of this is that they at least know they can’t count on the USA, the United Nations or anyone else for guidance or salvation. If they want the country to work and to prosper, only they can truly figure it out.

Currently the country is a dictatorship run mostly by Tutsi’s, who form only about 15% of the population. The human rights record is poor, as opposition and free speech are not tolerated. However, the life expectancy rate has doubled, the economy is doing well and child deaths are much lower. It isn’t an ideal situation as people should be able to speak freely or run for office.

At the same time it’s a logical arrangement as it’d be asking a lot of Tutsi’s to cede power to Hutu’s, akin to Jews handing the reins to Germans in 1955, as would be the case if a free election were held. The objective is to create and instill a Rwandan national identity that supersedes an ethnic identity. When this project is complete and a level of trust is established, there’d be minimized risk that more freedom would lead to violence. In the meantime a Tutsi government ensures the Hutu, if tempted, can’t repeat their mistakes of the recent past.  As with Europe post-WWII the solution to unbearable violence is to expand the concept of who “us” is and hopefully there will be a realization that violence is in nobody’s interest. It isn’t perfect, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and it seems like a Rwandan solution from those who know best the realities of their own country.

I can’t rate this book highly enough if this is a subject that remotely interests you.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed

In this book the author descends from the upper class to play class tourist for a few months. She waits tables, cleans hotel room and arranges clothing at a Wal-Mart. Kind of like The Simple Life for the Sex and the City gals.  Couldn’t help but hum the peppy Pulp song Common People while reading this, as it’s about a woman wants to live like a commoner because it seems “cool”….and of course to have sex with Jarvis Cocker.

Unsurprisingly the working poor in the United States have it terribly. They don’t earn enough to cover the basic necessities of life, even if they work like animals. They are treated with disdain in the culture (“trailer trash”) and face daily humiliations in the form of drug testing and supervisors bent on degrading them.

The author herself was depressing as she does care about the poor, but is so obliviously classist that she demeans and classifies the poor as the “other” constantly. She points out a million times that she has a PHD, as though this implies some kind of superpower. When she shares a laugh with a co-worker, she is quick to point out that she laughs from a “feminist” perspective while the co-worker laughs from a “Christian” perspective. She mentions that an African American friend is an “educated feminist,” as though she wouldn’t befriend your average African American, only special ones.

The sad part is that even on the supposed left these are all euphemisms meant to denote a higher standing of class, when the emphasis should be that we are all humans. When working at Wal-Mart she mocks the distinction between brands on offer (Jordache – eww) and wonders why her co-workers show respect to their equally dim-witted bosses. She’s totally oblivious to the fact that, for the actual poor, their jobs matter and they have to submit to their superiors, the same as Ehrenreich would probably submit to her editor at the NY Times. I’m sure Jordache and Wrangler are every bit as different and make as much sense as Prada and Gucci.

It gets worse and Ehrenreich begins to imagine during her time at Wal-Mart that she is far too intelligent to simply do her job, so she starts directing her energy towards whipping up pro-union sentiments. She acts as though any average Wal-Mart employee is too stupid to think of this as opposed to the reality, which is that they are too exhausted and probably worry rightfully about being fired or punished. It perpetuates the myth that the poor are stupid and lazy, which the book is supposedly trying to eliminate.

I suppose if you are entirely oblivious to the poor or can only understand their plight if Samatha Bradshaw goes to live with them then this book accomplishes something.

I’ll let Jarvis provide the last word:

” ‘Cause everybody hates a tourist,
Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh,
Yeah and the chip stain’s grease,
Will come out in the bath.

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go.
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright,
Whilst you can only wonder why.”