“Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death.” Ayn Rand
Shame on me! I am quoting Ayn Rand, whom I not only contemn for her lack of litarary style, but who’s cynicism against social wellfare is something I very personally condemn.
Today I stumbled upon an article in Salon.com, that caught my attention: it showed a pic of Marc Andreessen, montaged right between F.D. Roosewelt on his left and Ayn Rand on his right. The article draws conclusion on Marc Andreessen’s presumed ideology from several tweets he had posted recently. Andreessen is known for advocating social disruption via technology. Many companies Anreessen-Horowitz is invested in, are set to turn over whole industries. And Andreessen also vitriolously rants against legal hurdles that are built to support the status quo, like NYC’s ban on Tesla’s sales, Berlin’s prohibiting AirBnB, or Paris’ denying Uber cabs. I would ad copyright, “intellectual property” (what a riduculous term!) and patent laws to the list of protectionist restrictions to change.
Why is there a discussion if protectionism is good or bad, at all? Isn’t Marc Andreessen right, when he postulates, that in the long run, people have become better off through technology in the end, always? I have sympathies with techno-determinism. I am a tech entreprenneur myself, because I believe that what I do is good. And I have even written utopian manifestos to promote techno-disruption.
I will tell a nice story about what technological disruption really means. Humans are virtually immune to many copper compounds, which are poisonous to most other higher animals. How that happend, is an impressive prove of evolution, too. The discovery of bronze manufacturing was one of the pivotal points in human history. Bronze was the first truly artificial material. It obviously had such overwhelming advantiges that people didn’t care about the downside: food would get poisoned. Our insensivity to copper is the result of a most crual selection process. Only humans that could eat from copper pots would have survived, the others where doomed not to propagate there genes to the next generation, dying as children.
Although only very few of the technologies, Marc Andreessen talks about, will have such deadly impact, the notion of “In the long run, all will profit, so sacrifices have to be made” is certainly no longer acceptable, seven thousand years after the discovery of bronze; and we should not forget that a good proportion of our contemporary seven billion people could definitively pose significant resistance to change they would not see as immediately beneficial. Ayn Rand’s quote thus is right and wrong at the same time.
But beware of the poverty-argument! Would-be luddite publishers demand governmental subsidiaries for their crap papers, right with the argument, the jobs would be lost otherwise (yes, earnst, I have heard that in a parliamentary hearing brought up by the representative of local newspaper publishers!). This is the business elite still in power, trying to maintain it by biting away new competition. And this kind of reactionary demands from lobbygroups are ubiquitous: I have heard it in market research (“we have to exclude data science methods via our statutory rules …”), television (“of course youtube cannot be regarded as proper video content …”), and worst, food (“we have to protect people from the dangers of raw milk and thus outlaw cheese imports”).
The example of agro-protectionism is the most severe. The French farmer-revolutionary José Bové, of McDonalds demolition fame, blamed governmental regulations, allegedly set up to protect farmers, to in fact just protect unhealthy agro-industrial crap, that consumers would never buy if they had the choice.
The steam-powered Jacquard loom liberated people from grave exploitation, indeed; but it did so only in the perspective of generations. At first, weavers became unemployed, empovered, starved to death; they were tossed from the pan into the fire without any chance to bootstrap themselves into freedom. So, in short terms, Marx’s observation, that economy tends to exchange labour for capital (i.e. machines) seams to hold true. And hasn’t the industrial age ploughed its bloody path through two world wars, waged at industrial scale, too?
We should be able to do better. We do not want to step into the same trap again with our next tidal change that we are promoting. When quantified-self-technology disrupts healthcare (and I am convinced that it will), when p2p payment like Bitcoin will bring down banking (I am sure that this will take place in time, too), when self-driving cars, car-sharing and other contemporary concepts of mobility will have torn down the dinosaur car manufactioners, we should care about those who had worked there.
Machines do not destroy labour, but change it. This change need not come as catastrophe. We should to take provisions to smooth out inequality, to prevent neofeudalism, abelism, and discrimination in any form, so that we give people the chance to participate. Thus we need public education, give the disenfranchised the possibility to recover. In this aspect I am clearly leftist. I support the initiative for an unconditional basic income, I support public healthcare, and I support free education, from primary school to university. We have to maintain a political public, that can decide outside the narrow economic frame.
Also there should be no room for luddites, neither Una-bomber-minded machinoclasts, nor even more dangerous, the above mentioned industrial dinosaurs, trying to keep things as they are, disguised as Robin Hoods. I am a convinced advocate of free trade, but only under the condition of unrestrected movement of labour (i.e. people), and only if social regulations imposed on businesses by local government are not treated as unfair competition (like Philip Morris was able to sue the EU for their losses because of the tobbacco regulations). True free trade has nothing to do with copyright protection, with forcing farmers to use certain pesticides, or making it illigal for them to grow their own crops. “Those who live from disruption will die from disruption”, saith Bruce Sterling. I do want change to happen. I believe in the blessings of technology. But we want no-one left behind.
(Originally published June 7th 2014)