Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Whatever is, is right. Yeah, right...

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

The great thing about David Graeber and his article Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit is that he makes you notice the bugs where the sales executives for our dominant ideology want you to see only features.

Look! More competition! More efficiency!
The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things:
Work smarter, not harder, with IT!
Computers have opened up certain spaces of freedom, as we’re constantly reminded, but instead of leading to the workless utopia Abbie Hoffman imagined, they have been employed in such a way as to produce the opposite effect. They have enabled a financialization of capital that has driven workers desperately into debt, and, at the same time, provided the means by which employers have created “flexible” work regimes that have both destroyed traditional job security and increased working hours for almost everyone.
Honey, we shrunk Big Government! Just ignore that colossal, camouflaged, government-issue blimp we built out of several million tons of pork...
In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development. Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns ... One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills.

The Bonfire of the Red Tape, or Human Potential Unchained! A modern fairy tale:
And so a timid, bureaucratic spirit suffuses every aspect of cultural life. It comes festooned in a language of creativity, initiative, and entrepreneurialism. But the language is meaningless. Those thinkers most likely to make a conceptual breakthrough are the least likely to receive funding, and, if breakthroughs occur, they are not likely to find anyone willing to follow up on their most daring implications.

What Graeber's demolishing here isn't some complex and abstruse economic theory, accessible only to experts, but the current iteration of the same dumb old Panglossian lie that's comforted the already comfortable and afflicted everybody else for centuries:
I don't think Graeber gets it right all the time; some of the constraints on innovation really are are technical, not ideological. Why don't we have a Lunar colony, giant wheel-shaped space stations and manned, nuclear interplanetary spaceships, like the ones in 2001 - A Space Odyssey? Arthur C Clarke himself lived long enough to give a more plausible account of why the real 21st Century looks different from the lots-of-people-in-space version he'd imagined.

Clarke's version is that, in the 1940s, when he was working on airfield landing approach radar and dreaming of geosynchronous communication satellites, he assumed that those satellites would have to be crewed. As, among other things, a technician working with cutting-edge, high-maintenance vacuum tube technology, he thought that you'd always need a human on site to fix, tweak and maintain the complicated, expensive kit he imagined people sending into space.

So his stories were filled with people who needed to be in space to get useful jobs of work done, from the everyday running and maintaining of communication networks to boldly exploring the final frontier. What he didn't anticipate was how quickly reliable, miniaturised electronics would replace the electronic Bertie Woosters of his youth, which couldn't get through the day without the intervention of some human Jeeves bearing a screwdriver (an actual one, not a reviving cocktail) to keep everything running smoothly.

In Clarke's imagined future and in his science fiction, most mindless human drudge work has been automated, leaving humans, (or at least ones with technocratic skillz), to do cool, fulfilling jobs, like being astronauts.

In the real Twenty First Century, there are plenty of humans doing machine-related drudge work, from assembling iThings in Chinese factories to data entry but, thanks to ultra-reliable miniaturised electronics, the vast majority of astronaut jobs have been automated. Which means that lots of things get done in space, but without the immense cool factor of humans actually being in those awesomely alien places.
Just keep banging the rocks together and you, too, could aspire to one of these!

Here's a bit from the novel version of 2001, where the last human survivor of the spaceship Discovery is about to become the first person to land on one of the moons of Saturn:*
The sun was now an object that no man would have recognised. It was far too bright to be a star, but one could look directly at its tiny disc without discomfort. It gave no heat at all; when Bowman held his ungloved hands in its  rays, as they streamed through the space-pod's window, he could feel nothing upon his skin. He might have been trying to warm himself by the light of the Moon; not even the alien landscape fifty miles below reminded him more vividly of his remoteness from Earth.
That sent shivers down my spine as a kid.

And here's how the real first landing on one of Saturn's moons happened, back in 2005. After travelling for over six years and two billion miles, an automated spacecraft was in orbit around Saturn. Human technicians kept it going, but they were sitting in front of screens on Earth, communicating over a data link with a one-and-half hour time lag. The mother ship released a probe, which landed on Saturn's largest moon and relayed pictures and other data back to waiting techies back in places like Pasedena and Darmstadt.

Or Milton Keynes, where the Open University team behind the probe's Surface Science Package was based. I remember my wife, who's an OU administrator, telling me that, on the day of the landing, the team put on an audio visual presentation in the lecture theatre, so that OU employees could see the fruits of their decade and a half of work.

It was a fantastic achievement and I'm full of admiration for everybody involved, but there's a huge dramatic gulf between the stark sci fi vision of the lone astronaut, floating in the black void a billion miles from home, looking back towards a tiny, shrunken sun and forward to the looming landscape of a frozen, alien world and a university administrator in a bland English new town, known chiefly for its concrete cows and traffic roundabouts, taking forty minutes away from thinking about tenders for photographic services at degree ceremonies to grab a coffee and catch up on the latest discoveries from the Saturn system.

It's less dramatic than sci fi, but maybe it's not lack of progress, just progress by less dramatic means. Although even 'less dramatic' is a relative term when you get an eyeful of this view of the Saturn system which I've shared before, but is well worth a second look (embiggen to full screen for enhanced awesomeness):

Speaking of administrators, I don't wholly take on board Graeber's anarchist view that all bureaucracy is a Bad Thing, or that all administrative jobs are necessarily bullshit jobs. I find it this bit too close to the prevailing right wing/libertarian orthodoxy that the human resources struggling to make large and complex organisations work smoothly must be mere dead weight, which needs shedding so that front-line staff can be "empowered" to break free from the bondage of red tape.

At least that's the theory. But when you get rid of all those terrible bureaucrats, somebody still ends up having to do the all boring admin - often those very front-line staff whose time could be far better spent doing other things:
...a study by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) which found the amount of time nurses spent away from patients, on non-essential paperwork, has doubled, with 2.5 million hours lost a week...
...Dr Peter Carter, General Secretary of the RCN said it was “vital” for the NHS to tackle duplication and free up staff so they could devote more time to patient care.
He said: “Tackling this burden requires smarter systems, proper admin support, well designed technology and better data sharing. [my bold]
The Telegraph

And some of Graeber's other thoughts sound, on first reading, like paranoid conspiracy theories 'There are many forms of privatisation, up to and including the simple buying up and suppression of inconvenient discoveries by large corporations fearful of their economic effects. (We cannot know how many synthetic fuel formulae have been bought up and placed in the vaults of oil companies, but it’s hard to imagine nothing like this happens.)'

But, even though he's not on the money every time, he probably has more of a point when he's sounding most paranoid. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The Phoebus Cartel was an actual thing and everyday scandals like Libor-rigging remind us that massive conspiracies against the laity are still being perpetrated whenever people think nobody's looking.

Sometimes it really is vested interests and power structures holding things back, rather than the inherent limitations and attributes of different technologies. The hard part is understanding when our failure to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire and re-mould it nearer to the heart's desire stems from the laws of nature, against which there really is no appeal process, and when we're only being held back by human cussedness, connivance and coercion. It's the grain of truth at the heart of that most clich├ęd prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

*They changed the setting to the Jupiter system for the film version.