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Science fiction, nostalgia and dystopia

This post is prompted by a question that was posed in a Linkin group I follow. The question was basically about the way ‘robots’ have developed in the last half-century or so and whether it’s been a good thing. The term ‘robots’ was meant in a pretty generic way to include all kinds of cybernetics, but the question was largely directed at industrial production and its effects on employment.

Now this was of interest to me for a couple of reasons. One was to do with SF magazines in the 1960s when I was growing up, along with films such as 2001: A Space Odyssy and the ultimately-flawed HAL computer that pretty much ran the spaceship. the other was a series of seminar discussions and informal stuff when I was taking my degree, which revolved around the idea ‘what are we all going to do when robots do all the work?’ Even though cybernetics was in its infancy at that point, it as pretty clear it was going to become a huge part of life.

You’ll have to forgive me for not remembering all the names and all the stuff we read, though it included people like Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler, Ivan Illich, and a small blue book with white writing and a diagram on the cover, the title of which I can’t now remember and I can’t spot the book on my shelves.

Among the predictions were that:

1. Robots would mean the same goods could be produced by massively fewer people, so we’d all be on five-hour weeks (or something like that) for the same real wages we were on before the robots were used (that wasn’t an option I mentioned in my Linkedin reply and I don’t think many people thought that was a realistic scenario)

2. We would necessarily live in a socialist society because cybernetics would mean unemployment for 90% of more of people. Unemployed people would nonetheless receive state benefits as a reward for acquiescing to this mode of production, and nonetheless live productive lives through following creative pursuits largely for their own and others’ pleasure. Alternatively, given the way the demographics were going, the majority of human jobs would be in  care for the elderly.

3. There would be a two-tier society where a proportion of the population would cease to live in a robot-centric money economy. Instead we’d learn skills in informal Ivan Illich style free universities (he founded such an institution, CIDOC, in 1961 though it subsequently turned out to be quite a complex little place, as the Wikipedia article in the link makes clear). Or there would be free forms of education provided through labour unions (if anyone remembers what they were) or the workers’ education movement, or places like seminars run in pubs (which have happened at times) plus the Cafe Culturel and Cafe Scientifique setups (these tend to be regionally organised: examples include the UK North-east CC and the American CS main website). Some people might also use redundant, hand-me-down or military surplus equipment repurposed for their own needs to make specialist stuff to distribute in a barter-style economy. That just made me think of the kind of performance art created by people like Survival Research Laboratories, but a more mundane example would be the way some vintage car clubs have bought the original production machinery from the car factories when they were closed, so they can continue to produce original components for vintage cars. And I’ll just mention we’ve recently had a gear linkage component for our ageing campervan replaced by a semi-retired guy who works out of a small workshop and specialises in manufacturing gear linkage components for campervans – the kind of thing that’s a niche market no big business would want to touch, but literally keeps the wheels moving.

4. We’d all move to a Chinese-style economy circa 1980, in which large numbers of people would be allocated to work groups from which they’d draw a salary even though their job was a sinecure. There’s another book somewhere on my shelves about this but I can’t find it; it was written by a Western manager sent to China in the 1980s to run a Western/Chinese joint enterprise making cast-iron goods. Suggestions for what it might have been called are welcome and as another clus, my copy had a brownish cover.  The Chinese economy as a whole has, if I understand it correctly, moved away from this kind of model since that time.

5. There would be a new type of feudalism in which most of us would use robot-made goods while the rich would have the rest of us on retainers or as servants, producing handmade and bespoke craft goods and carrying out roles that robots could not fulfil or that some people preferred to have done by a person.

6. The rise of robots would reach some sort of plateau because we would discover a point at which it would be uneconomic or unfeasible to use robots for a range of tasks, and where for some purposes people actually prefer to be served by other humans.

Coupled with neoliberalism since the 1980s, and the increasing number of people living on low wages and supplemented by benefits of various types (in the UK, for example, tax credits) we seem to be moving towards a society that has characteristics of models 2 and 6 above – at the cost of producing, by this point, at least two and possibly three generations of people who are ‘surplus to labour requirements’ and for whom there isn’t an alternative workable social model that looks remotely like the other models I mentioned.

The discussions I had in the 1970s didn’t really take a global view because at that point the globalisation processes of the 1970s were only just beginning (though I guess we’d seen them before, during the era of colonial and empire trading in the 1800s!). So at that point we didn’t take account of the fact that robots could manufacture but not assemble electronic items (as in mobile phone components) and the assembly work would be done by an army of cheap labour in China. Nor did we take account of the argument that using robots would be economically viable with some goods but not others, which would be too cheap to warrant anything other than low-paid human labour (or high-priced enough to command handcrafted work such as setting diamonds in watch faces). But the idea that you’d have a dual economy in one country or city was part of the discussion, because again, we could all see even then that it was staring to happen with sweatshops using imported labour in the UK and so on.

I don’t have a real conclusion to this post, other than to say that the more I’ve seen Blade Runner the more it looks like it describes the way we’re headed: many people unemployed or on low pay or in casual work, all of the kind that it’s not economic to automate for one of two reasons – people are cheaper, or the goods and services are sold at a premium as handcrafted or individualised things. The more I look at our current economic ills the more it looks to me like the juggernaut of international capitalism is running on flat tyres and with a missing cylinder, and though it will go on in some form it may actually become less relevant to the way we lead our lives. And it doesn’t surprise me that the government has a lot of issues with legalising cannabis because (remembering I’m a criminologist and study these things) I’m aware of small subcultures in the UK and where for the last 20 or so years the basic unit of currency hasn’t been the pound but the teenth, ten-wrap, or ounce. I once met a career criminal who sold stuff he’d stolen in exchange for cannabis, in quantities that meant he either resold it for cash or traded it for many of the things he needed on a more everyday basis. That’s the more dystopian take on the multi-tier society I guess. But as to robots – in many respects we had opportunities to use them positively and in many respects we have used them positively; but we’ve done it in the context of an almost 19th-century attitude to industry and economics, a fixation on consumer society and without any long-term planning for their multiple social impacts. Which, I guess, is something we could have predicted back in the seventies. But we were a little more optimistic back then.

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