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.
It’s just an odd thought I had a while back, looking at the street names of places near my home – but it was also reinforced by watching part of a TV programme on the Welsh mediaeval story collection, the Mabinogion (for the next few days it’s on the BBC iPlayer system if you want to watch it and the content works in your country).
Some of the stories were ‘onomastic’ or ‘toponomastic’, meaning that they explained place names and geographic features. They provided a (perhaps fanciful) explanation for natural features the audience could go and see. This had an advantage for the storyteller that the story could be embedded into locations the audience probably already knew, while the audience having heard the story would always associate it with that place.
However, near where I live there are several estates of new houses. So you have, for example, Monarchs Close. The name is onomastic to an extent, not because of what’s there now but because (I’m told) it memorialises an event many people have forgotten – it apparently was a field in which monarch butterflies were found, and that’s significant because they’re native to North America and only ever appear in the UK as accidental migrants in years where they’re carried across the Atlantic by weather systems (1995, for example). However, since the place is now a housing estate the name simply memorialises the fact that the butterflies are unlikely to ever be seen there again.
So when you walk city streets (or indeed any built environment) it’s worth noting names because they might tell a history that would otherwise be hidden by the current built environment, and which may not be quite what you’d expect. But given the often random choices of housing estate developers – for example naming new streets after members of their family, famous cricket grounds, or whatever, it also seems we’re in the process of covering up and confusing any relationship we may have with the landscape and our own histories.
And the same is true of buildings like stadia, often now named for some corporate sponsor and changed every few years. These names are projections of (brand or corporate) identities that have no intrinsic association with the place beyond the money nexus, but in their own way they’re usually just another layer on a history of power and control, including the control over names, that might go back decades or centuries. And yet… in the future, they might become the seeds of new onomastic stories.
By the way – if you’re interested in names and into horror, there’s a flash fiction piece on creepypasta.com, ‘The Name of One‘, you might find amusing. I don’t know why I came across this yesterday, but it’s perhaps a little bit of synchronicity going on.
A few days ago I went to a local supermarket. One of the things I intended to buy was meat. Avoiding the freezer section (where many meats are clearly labelled as containing water, maize flour, maltodextrin and various other things) I went to the butcher’s counter, where meats that have been jointed in-store are packaged and displayed.
As you may have picked up from previous posts here, I have to be careful about my food shopping habits because I have a partner with multiple food allergies – gluten, dairy and eggs being the main ones.
So I picked up some pork. I always check the food labelling, even for products I’ve bought many times before, because manufacturers occasionally decide to change food ingredients or refresh their product line. Packaging flashes like ‘New and Improved!’ often mean something she’s been able to eat before needs to come off the shopping list because suddenly, there’s a source of gluten in the ‘improved’ product.
There was a new, though very small, label on the pork that said ‘Contains or may contain traces of allergens’. I checked all the meats on offer and they all had that same label.
OK. Which allergens?
I asked at the butcher’s counter. He couldn’t tell me. His supervisor couldn’t tell me, because apparently the meat arrives from a distribution centre without any specific markings as to whether it’s had any kind of preparation that would involve allergens. He called the area manager who didn’t have any information sources on which meats might contain which allergens. I haven’t bothered to phone the head office because I somehow doubt they’d have detailed tracking of all meats they buy in – or at least, not the level of tracking that would include this information.
The best explanation the butcher could give was that the labelling about allergens is a blanket policy, and the meat ‘probably’ doesn’t contain any allergens. I observed that if someone has a gluten allergy that causes a five-day bout of IBS, ‘probably’ doesn’t cover it. I didn’t mention that if someone has a peanut allergy, buying meat that ‘probably’ doesn’t contain peanuts means buying meat that ‘probably won’t result in anaphylactic shock or death’.
So it’s not good enough. And the labelling means I won’t be buying any meat from that supermarket any more.
Imagine, for the sake of argument, some alternative scenarios. You go to the supermarket to buy vegetables and every packet or display of vegetables is labelled ‘Contains or may contain meat products’ – or ‘Vegetables are treated with meat-derived sprays’. It wouldn’t just be vegetarians who avoid those vegetables; members of several religions would be more than a little concerned. You go to the supermarket to buy… no, wait – anyone who has an allergy will know that huge numbers of products, from air fresheners to chocolate to ready meals to over-the-counter medications, often do contain one or more allergenic products (paracetamol, aspirin and so on are often sold in tablets formed using either lactose or gluten-based carriers). If you have an allergy, huge swathes of the supermarket will be off-limits and you do have to inspect all the labels carefully because the least likely things can contain substances you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
The numbers of people with food allergies is at an all-time high and is increasing. The need for accurate and detailed labelling is acute. I’d guess a lot of people who actually read food labels would have the same reaction as me – so this pork/beef/chicken may have allergens in it, but which ones? I’d guess that a proportion of the people in the supermarket who were involved in labelling, product sourcing and so on are themselves allergy sufferers. And yet they manage to produce a screwed-up labelling policy like this. I don’t get it – unless of course they don’t shop in their own supermarket.
We already use a local independent butcher for a good proportion of our meat. He buys form local farms, and often goes out to check on the animals he buys in when they’re still on the hoof. In future, I guess, he’s going to be the one we get all our meat from…
This is a kind of a late review because the States of Independence event was a couple of weeks ago, on 15th March. It’s a free annual one-day book festival in Leicester that I went to for the first couple of years it ran, then missed it for a couple of years, and got back to it again this year.
First impressions: lots of stalls, and there are clearly still plenty of people out there wanting to be independent publishers. Some are producing full-sized paperback books, some are selling short collections of flash fiction and poems in a pamphlet-type format. But there are a lot of them.
Many are the same ones I remember from 3-4 years ago, though some have started to find different niches to fill. For example one is now busy doing political nonfiction, looking at the background to recent scandals and documenting the extent to which the police and other security services have been involved in dubious practices. None of that’s particularly ‘news’ – a great deal of it has been admitted to and debated in parliament in the last year or two, and some of it has emerged in a ‘look, I told you so’ way when Cabinet papers were published in January having reached the end of their 30-year period of being kept secret (and essentially proved that the government of 1984 was in the business of provoking a miners’ strike in order to break the trades union movement, of which more below).
But there are plenty of other niches to fill and ‘tribes’ to satisfy. I’m really not sure how a market research company would classify all of them, but you could have a go at ’20-something students into horror fiction’, ‘people interested in poetry by local poets’, or ‘people from immigrant or minority communities who want to read stories based on their own cultural history, in English’.
I went to three seminars.
The first was on the 1984 miners’ strike, seen from 30 years on. This was interesting for a range of reasons. The wounds created at that time have still not healed, and because the police were in the front line in breaking the strike it’s pretty clear that there’s still a bitter aftertaste and a complete lack of trust in the police in many areas. There’s also a sense of outrage that some of the senior figures in the union ‘sold out’ and were, by their own later admission, giving information to the police Special Branch and MI5. Which also, incidentally, suggests that the remit of those agencies had a lot of grey areas that were rapidly redefined as areas where they should be quite active. That opens up a whole can of worms about the idea of the ‘police state’ and the way we should approach security issues in a democracy, but that’ll all have to wait for another blog. I will say, though, that I was active in police research in the 1980s and I can remember many very senior police officers in 1984-5 were extremely unhappy about the way they felt policing was being politicised. And what happened around that time, now we have some of the government papers published, does tend to reinforce the notion that if you’re feeling paranoid it’s because they’re coming to get you.
The pity of it all was that the basic problem the government faced was this: why have a coal industry in the UK if globalisation meant we could import coal more cheaply from China? How could coal produced at relatively high cost in the UK be run as a profitable industry? The government response was pretty brutal – close down the mines (and the hidden agenda was there too; smash the unions because they stand in the way of ‘progress’). And the union response was old-school and straight out of the 1800s. No one involved in any of this seemed to be prepared to talk sensibly about the wider context and find more constructive solutions.
The second seminar was about Indian writing today being published in English. From this I got some insights into the regionalism of Indian writers, since many are published in languages other than Hindi or Urdu; and the continuing influence of the caste system, with people often reading about the culture of their own caste. This segued for me into a bunch of issues about what the caste system really is and does, but if you need a quick rundown of this one starting point is Wikipedia. Plus it’s a little alarming (given how poorly my own horror collection sells) to hear about a country where an author is considered a failure if they haven’t sold at least 100,000 copies of their latest novel…
The third one I went to was about digital literature. I walked in late, at the point the speaker was (I think) quoting someone else. I caught the end of their sentence: ‘…if it doesn’t use random numbers it’s not literature’. That said, it was thought-provoking on areas such as ‘what counts as avant-garde?’, ‘to what extent can code be read as literature?’ and ‘are there parallels between the market for computer games and the market for fiction?’.
I won’t go into details. But if digital fiction or e-fiction interest you, a useful place to start is probably this collection at eliterature.org.
Overall, I had a good time. Once of the independent publishers is about to open its own bookshop (and also sells coffee); the masked booksellers were there and I bought stuff from them. The only thing that struck me as odd was that I didn’t see any of the people who are normally active on the local literary scene. Doesn’t mean there weren’t there, and while I went to three seminars there were another 20-odd running. Never mind, no doubt I’ll catch up with them another time.
Oh right. So it’s been about 4 months since I was on this blog. Time goes quickly, huh? I’ve been busy instead doing the kind of writing that earns me an income. But I thought I’d just do a roundup of a few things that have been occupying my headspace recently.
Personal goals for 2014: be irascible and swear more. Why not? I’m old, or feel old anyway, and I don’t have the time to mess around.
At New Year I caught Jools Holland’s New Year TV thing and it wound up, as I think it usually does, with the Guy Lombardo song ‘It’s Later Than You Think’. If you want the full lyrics they’re on Metrolyrics.com, and the 2013 Jools performance is on Youtube (the elderly trombonist, incidentally, is Rico Rodriguez – one of the living legends of ska, if you don’t already know that. He’s a bit shaky on the performance but dammit, the guy deserves respect). The song’s a hurry-up call to do the things you want to do before you’re no longer in a state to do them. And for all I know it’s later than I think.
Apart from that, Christmas Eve was somewhat spoiled by this:
When I first saw it in our local woods, I wondered if it was the result of some occult rite. The woods local to me do have a few people from time to time who are prone to marking out pentagrams and such, and doing late-night ceremonies. On the other hand, as best I can gather from the cans they leave they’re mainly doing them while drunk on cheap lager and (probably) trying to emulate stuff they’re seen in horror films. They’re essentially harmless (because I, erm, know other people whose take on pagan beliefs is rather more effective).
When I got close, however, my dog wouldn’t touch the meat, which seemed to be ox or cow livers and hearts. Some other dog walkers came along and their dogs wouldn’t go near it either. Dogs have a sense of smell, you see, and they probably figured it smelled funny. Someone else who came along had a sniff and reckoned it smelled of arsenic. One of us who had a carrier bag gathered the stuff up and took it away to be disposed of. I keep a good lookout now in the woods for anything that looks like this, hidden under trees. We all have some suspicions about who might have done it, and also figure they’d thought no one would find or disturb the stuff over the Christmas period. But dogs need walking every day… And if they were after foxes, which have a sense of smell similar to dogs, they’d have been unsuccessful anyway. They’d probably have killed the local owls and some woodland birds, though. And, yes, poisoning wildlife is a serious offence in the UK. If you come across any suspected incident of an attempt to poison wildlife, Natural England has a dedicated helpline and and a Wildlife Incident Unit whose inspectors will investigate. To report the suspected poisoning of wildlife or pets call: FREEPHONE 0800 321 600. The RSPCA also has a useful website with contact details.
Oh, and dog walkers – you know the thing in murder mysteries about how dog walkers are often the people who find bodies and such? That’s because our dogs need to be walked and in a big chunk of countryside, dog walkers are the people who are out there from early morning to late evening. So the chances are, anything from dead bodies to poisoned meat or flytipping, it will be a dog walker who first finds it.
There are plenty of other things locally to get irascible about, and plenty in the national and international news that also make me want to puke, preferably over those responsible for various government stupidities. But there’s also this, which made me scratch my head. Under the headline ‘Destruction of ancient woodland “highly unlikely”‘ it turns out ancient woodlands probably won’t be destroyed by changes in planning and development laws. Or at least, lost trees could be replaced by planting more elsewhere in a process known as ‘biodiversity offsetting’. Don’t get me wrong – offsetting is a decent enough policy, but in relation to ancient woodland?
A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment is quoted as saying the idea of using offsetting to replace destroyed ancient woodland is ‘very hypothetical’. What does that mean, exactly? That ancient woodlands won’t be destroyed in the first place? Given local experience with the way developers seem to be able to get their way through threatening to bankrupt local councils due to the legal costs of fighting a planning appeal, I’d say ‘very hypothetical’ probably means no one is planning to build on ancient woodland for at least a couple of months.
And what part of ‘ancient’ woodland, and the biological significance of it, is not understood by government people who deal with offsetting policies? Using offsetting in this situation isn’t ‘very hypothetical’, it’s impossible.
I’ll find more to be irascible about shortly.
A couple of days ago I was out walking the dog. We were on a main road, heading towards the meadows where I usually let her off-lead to chase sticks. And we found a slightly hysterical woman with two small dogs and a toddler. The reason for her hysteria was that her toddler had just tried to pick something up off the ground, and then she’d seen what it was: someone’s shooting-up kit – a couple of used syringes, one with a needle that looked like the end of it had been seared with a cigarette lighter or something.
Yes, of course there are places where heroin users leave their old needles and such, but it doesn’t happen round here – or at least that’s the first one I’ve come across in a couple of years of living here. And the neon green of the plunger inside the syringe did make it the kind of thing a toddler could be attracted by.
Long story short: since I have a dog, I carry plastic bags with me. So I carefully picked up the kit without touching it, took it home and found a tin to put it in so I could safely carry it for disposal. But yesterday, disposal was surprisingly difficult. The local pharmacy said, disingeuously I thought, that they don’t have sharps disposal. I can’t imagine why any pharmacy shouldn’t have sharps disposal since they issue and accept needles for people who have a range of medical conditions. My doctor’s surgery did take it, but only after I explained the whole situation to them and they finally accepted that removing a used needle from a public place where a toddler had been at imminent risk and other people and dogs could hurt themselves on it wasn’t an unreasonable thing to do.
Then I asked what I should have done. Their reply was that I should phone the local council street cleaning department, identify the location to them and they’d send out someone with a sharps box and armoured gloves. But it might take a day or two. My thought was that in that time, either someone else (or a dog) could injure themselves on it, or it could just get kicked around by careless passers-by and be lost.
It wasn’t so long ago that advice on finding used needles was to do pretty much what I did; pick it up safely and dispose of it at any pharmacy, surgery, or any other place that had a sharps disposal facility. True, I initially picked it up and carried it in a plastic bag – in an ideal world I would have had something more secure, like a plastic or metal container, though it was in one of those within a couple of hundred metres.
I’ve just checked online and the current official advice is, actually, what the surgery said: not touch it and inform the local council’s street cleaning or waste management team. I can see the logic of this in terms of health and safety for the person finding the needle; and I guess any council that says ‘Just pick it up safely’ could open themselves up to legal action. But this seems to be a situation where doing the ‘right’ thing also seems to create risk for other people in the meantime. It seems to be a small example of the way everyone is increasingly treated as incautious infants rather than responsible adults who can recognise and deal adequately with risks at their own discretion.