Relentless pace of automation

It must have felt slightly odd when, at the Morreeb Dunes Festival 2017, United Arabs Emirates, robots substituted human jockeys in the camel race.

In his farewell speech, in Chicago, Obama explicitly said:

The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle-class jobs obsolete.

Those words were an apt reminder, if anything, of the interesting report that the White House commissioned to top experts in the field, “Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the Economy” (link|pdf). Quite unusually in the litany of experts works on the topic, the report borders on ideas such as universal basic income, the hollowing out of middle-class as a link in the erosion of the political center, the (education) measures necessary to accompany the transition – a stark reminder of the huge increase of public spending in education at the beginning of 20th century that eased the transition in US  from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

Further pointers in this previous post, on Human and Horses.

On Chomsky and Hobsbawm (cont’ned)


Upon visiting the splendid mosaics in Villa Romana del Casale (Piazza Armerina), one is reminded very clearly of the intelligent remark made by Karl Marx  according to which work had no social relevance in the ancient world. Because of oversupply due to slave labour, no place for the creative activity of man was on display in the ancient world – there simply was no place for it.

Take now another of Marx’ great insights (from the ‘Grundrisse’, as quoted in George Lichtheim, ‘A Short History of Socialism’ pp. 100-101):

What appears as surplus value on the side of capital, appears on the workers side as surplus labor … beyond the immediate requirement for the maintenance of his existence. The great historic side of capital is to create this surplus labor, superfluous labor from the standpoint of mere use value, mere subsistence; and its historic destiny is fulfilled as soon as, in the one hand, needs [wants] have been so far developed that surplus labor beyond necessity [subsistence] has itself become a general need [want] … on the other hand, the general disposition to work [industriousness] has, through the severe discipline of capital … been developed into the general property [possession] of the new breed of men [ des neuen Geschlecht] – finally, when the development of labor productive forces … has reached the point where the possession or maintenance of societal wealth requires a diminishing quantity of labor time, and where the laboring society takes up a scientific attitude to the process of its progressive reproduction … where consequently the kind of work man does, instead of letting it be done by things on his behalf, has come to an end.

Again quoting Lichtheim (loc. cit. p. 101) ‘from the standpoint of the mature Marx, capitalism appears as a historically conditioned mechanism for developing society’s productive power to the point where the subordination of labor to capital, of living people to dead matter, will become unnecessary’. A splendid contribution on this direction, focusing in particular on the changing nature of ‘time’ in the upcoming industrial society is in the influential article by Edward P. Thompson “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967).

The question is then: what can we do with Noam Chomsky’s remark about distributed, horizontal, vertically-free organization of social labour? The global supply chain that I hold in my hand when I use my Android – can we really do without the kind of pressure that capitalism extracts from the worker? the kind of productivity tyranny it imposes on the men and women composing the human mass it insists upon?

Feed-forward networks and teleology

Bertrand Russell, in “History of Western Philosophy” pgg. 86-87, writes:

The atomists, unlike Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, sought to explain the world without introducing the notion of purpose or final cause. The “final cause” of an occurrence is an event in the future for the sake of which the occurrence takes place. In human affairs, this conception is applicable. Why does the baker make bread? Because people will be hungry. Why are railways built? Because people will wish to travel. In such cases, things are explained by the purpose they serve. When we ask “why?” concerning an event, we may mean either of two things. We may mean: “What purpose did this event serve?” or we may mean: “What earlier circumstances caused this event?” The answer to the former question is a teleological explanation, or an explanation by final causes; the answer to the latter question is a mechanistic explanation. I do not see how it could have been known in advance which of these two questions science ought to ask, or whether it ought to ask both. But experience has shown that the mechanistic question leads to scientific knowledge, while the teleological question does not. The atomists asked the mechanistic question, and gave a mechanistic answer. Their successors, until the Renaissance, were more interested in the teleological question, and thus led science up a blind alley.

Is a feed-forward network (or any inverse problem) going to change this in a qualitative way? The mind goes again to Norbert Wiener, in his 1943 article “Behavior, purpose, Teleology”. McCulloch and Pitts, with their logical calculus of nervous system, were round the corner.

Deflation of human agency


One of the premier Art Deco buildings in London, the famed Senate House (above) keeps resonating in my mind every time I wander in it. Especially overnight.
Vastly different in concept but equally capable of impressing with its geometry, the Brutalist masterpiece by Ernő Goldfinger (Trellick Tower: below) gives a sort of shock on its first appearance.

Trellick Tower was an ideal-typical realization of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” concept but in “A Clockwork Orange” Kubrick placed Alex and his comrades in one of Britain’s most notorious environments, Tavy Bridge area of Thamesmead South: in the Brutalist architecture Kubrick sensed the scary vibrations coming from Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”. Who was right?

Norbert Wiener said that the fundamental assumption of 1930 dictatorships rested on a conceptual fallacy, i.e. the misrepresentation of the human nervous system:

[the] aspiration of the fascists for a human state based on the model of the ant results from a profound misapprehension both of the nature of the ant and of the nature of man. […]. The human individual, capable of vast learning and study, which may occupy almost half of his life, is physically equipped, as the ant is not, for this capacity. […] Those who would organize us according to permanent individual functions and permanent human restrictions condemn the human race to move at much less than half speed.
( The Human Use of Human Beings, pg.51-2)

Both the modernist utopia of the Swiss architect and the dystopia hinted at by Wiener rested on the same assumption: life is path-dependent, human being is intrinsically plastic, and can be cast in various shapes. In  “Variation of Animals and Plants” (1871),

Darwin had already found that the brains of hares and rabbits that grew up confined in boring hutches were 15 to 30 percent smaller than those of their wild counterparts. Conversely,  when animals are placed in an “enriched environment,” a large enclosure full of objects that are renewed each day and in which they can play with one another, their brains grow and develop more synapses. Children who are seriously neglected during their early development also have smaller brains […]; their intelligence and linguistic and fine motor control are permanently impaired, and they are impulsive and hyperactive.  (D. Swaab, “We are our brains”, 2014)

The question at stake in the dilemma above is really the interplay of freedom and necessity. This is the message that resonates from the Senate House and the Trellick Tower. We cannot escape this message:  we can only hope to be able to stand their presence, to endure their shadow.

The organization of society implied by those massive structures is a reminder that man is a social animal, thriving in the social organization of labor. At the same time their very conceptual and physical presence deflates human agency to the level of the ant: which corresponds in material terms to the epistemological pessimism of Dostoevsky’s “Great Inquisitor”, when he assumes that the elite has to control the common man as he is not able to discern good from evil for himself. Christ gave men liberty out of a misplaced thrust, the Inquisitor’s stance reads.

Truth is that today we cannot do without the towers and what they represent. We have to inhabit these imposing concrete islands. We have to pass through them, to rise to their level if we want to face our time. But we have to accomplish that without losing the touch with our uniqueness of human beings. We do not want to relinquish Enlightenment’s epistemological optimism, lest we end in Great Inquisitor’s trap.

There is no room to regress to previous modes of social interaction. We have to struggle for “the human use of human beings” while inhabiting the many towers of Modern times.

Ascesa & Declino: “All that is solid melts into air”

panorama 002

In his marvelous study of modernism All that is solid melts into air, Marshall Berman claims there is an idea which the human civilization owes to the Germans: the idea that economic development and human expansion are one and the same phenomenon. Quoting him:

“In order for people, whatever their class, to survive in modern society, their personalities must take on the fluid and open form of this society. Modern men and women must learn to yearn for change: not merely to be open to changes in their personal and social lives, but positively to demand them, actively to seek them out and carry them through.
They must learn not to long nostalgically for the “fixed, fast-frozen relationships” of the real or fantasized past, but to delight in mobility, to thrive on renewal, to look forward to future developments in their conditions of life and their relations with their fellow men.
Marx absorbs this developmental ideal from the German humanist culture of his youth, from the thought of Goethe and Schiller and their romantic successors. This theme and its development […]
may be Germany’s deepest and most lasting contribution to world culture” (see ASMA, pgg 95-96)

Take Italy. The time of Fellini & Antonioni, Burri & Fontana was the time of Natta pioneering plastic, Ferrari & Alfa Romeo triumphing in international car contexts, Olivetti inventing arguably history first PC, Piaggio building Vespa. In Pisa, the strongest PDE school in Europe was being created under the auspices of Ennio De Giorgi (of Hilbert XIX problem’s memory). In Milan, Berio & Maderna with the Studio di Fonologia Musicale were actively advancing the frontier of 12 notes agenda.

One must then be grateful to Emanuele Felice for his wonderful book on Italian Economic History (“Ascesa e Declino”, Il Mulino, 2015): a story that appears to reinforce the point raised by Berman. This article is a quantitative summary.
Italy had given birth to the modern world with Renaissance, and its lead went as far as Galileo, having progressed through the likes of Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo and Machiavelli (admittedly without cuckoo clocks). A remark is appropriate here, as the book is a bit reticent about the decline in the XVII century. One should not indulge in the idealistic fallacy of attributing that decline to whoever ordered to burn people at the stake for their ideas (although that did not help, of course): Cipolla (see: The Decline of Italy: The Case of a Fully Matured Economy) is exhaustive, here. Responsible for the collapse were economic causes, not encrusted geocentric ideologies.

Italy resurfaced from that ordeal  only at the beginning of XX century, had another dip into troubled waters under Mussolini and really took off after 1945. That was the time where we were strong again, leaders in the visual arts & cinema, strong in science, big in design.

Cultures and civilizations evolve, they are living systems: it is a delusion to think scarcity and material privation can engender systems of thoughts, scientific revolutions, deep art.

This is not an input-output analysis, for exceptions, i.e .heroes or geniuses capable of penetrating the core of the problem from afar, do exist: take Dostoevsky, thinking about the dissolution of the Western-christian Weltanschauung from the midst of S. Petersburg, or Kafka, perceiving the fall of Europe from the backwater of Prague.

But Marx needed the British Museum (i.e. London) to write ‘Das Kapital’. Late XIX Wien was the center of Europe when Freud, Schönberg, Klimt, Wittgenstein, Gödel, Musil and Mach were destroying every gradualist & deterministic conceptual foundation for XX century man and woman.

That was the center of the economy: hence of culture.
The rest is backwardness: hence –with Gramsci-  folklore (pgg. 626 ff).

Are we serious when we think we can escape this mirroring?

Uberize the economy and the social fabric

The Emerging Platform Economy is the new way to do business. Legacy business models are asymptotically doomed. But:
What shape will the elimination of the information brokering layer assume?
The p2p ubiquity – p2p credit, Hayek Money, p2p economy with a management function intermediated by technology- is already here: will it free the social fabric? The might of the owners of big servers (see J. Lanier’s You are not a gadget) may either pursue the direction of triggering a different welfare state or to shift shape the of the distribution of social wealth from a Gaussian (as it has been in the ‘Golden Age 1945-1973’ – see Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes) to a Pareto like, heavy tailed distribution. To be expanded and reformulated.

Relevant bibliography is here:

Chomsky & Hobsbawm or: Homage to Catalonia


Let’s start again with late Tony Judt’s comment about Eric Hobsbawm autobiography, where one can read the following:

Eric Hobsbawm is decidedly a man of order, a “Tory communist,” as he puts it. Communist intellectuals were never “cultural dissidents”; and Hobsbawm’s scorn for self-indulgent, post-anything “leftism” has a long Leninist pedigree. But in his case there is another tradition at work. When Hobsbawm scornfully dismisses Thatcherism as “the anarchism of the lower middle class,” he is neatly combining two anathemas: the old Marxist abhorrence of disorderly, unregulated self-indulgence; and the even older disdain of the English administrative elite for the uncultivated, socially insecure but economically ambitious service class of clerks and salesmen, formerly Mr. Pooter, now Essex Man. Eric Hobsbawm, in short, is a mandarin—a Communist mandarin—with all the confidence and prejudices of his caste.

At the beginning of the seventies, there was a remarkable confrontation on those topics among Noam Chomsky and Eric Hobsbawm.
The former, along with a piece on Anarchism during the Spanish Civil War (pdf), contributed a second one where the basic idea was that, with respect to theorization about the social fabric, the apparent void in the anarchist camp was not so, for

One might […] argue rather differently: that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to—rather than alleviate—material and cultural deficit.

Amongst other things, Chomsky stressed that a generalized rise in the intellectual and moral conscience of the mass of the population is a necessary condition for any society which is meant to advance on the current one and delegation will simply perpetuate the usual gap.
Hobsbawm contributed two pieces which are also freely available online on, respectively, the role of anarchists in the Spanish Civil War (as a reply to Chomsky’s first) and on general reflections on anarchism (as a reply to Chomsky’s second I believe).
The first (pdf) stressed the usual “primitive rebels” argument which he had already expounded in “Primitive Rebels (1959) in force of which

Spanish anarchism is a profoundly moving spectacle for the student of popular religion — it was really a form of secular millennialism — but not, alas, for the student of politics. It threw away political chances with a marvellously blind persistence. The attempts to steer it into a less suicidal course succeeded too late, though they were enough to defeat the generals’ rising in 1936.

In the second piece (pdf) he argued that a minimal level of organization is a necessary condition for any social movement that intends to be effective, hence the spontaneous flowering of workers and peasants communes in 1936-1937 Catalonia could not have possibly worked – and it didn’t, any more so than the Paris student rebellion of May 1968.

The problem with Hobsbawm’s argument is that he tends to theoretically magnify a historically contingent accident – technology had not yet reached the stage of today’s peer-to-peer ubiquity – into an insurmountable fallacy of every movement that attempts at reorganizing the social fabric without a stratum of apparatchik.

The problem with Chomsky’s argument –at that time – was that technology had not reached a level of sophistication high enough to cut off the managerial stratum which acts as the information broker. But Noam may have been hinting at our time when in his celebrated discussion with Michael Foucault in 1971 (here a transcript) he presciently spoke  about information networks, data processing etc to the effect that

It seems to me that modern technology, like the technology of data-processing, or communication and so on, […] implies that relevant information and relevant understanding can be brought to everyone quickly. It doesn’t have to be concentrated in the hands of a small group of managers who control all knowledge, all information and all decision-making. So technology, I think, can be liberating, it has the property of being possibly liberating; it’s converted, like everything else, like the system of justice, into an instrument of oppression because of the fact that power is badly distributed. I don’t think there is anything in modern technology or modern technological society that leads away from decentralisation of power, quite the contrary.

This is the usual Norbert Wiener’s argument, on “The Human Use of Human Beings”, but there is more. There is the idea of the possibility to “uberize” the social fabric, turning it into a peer-to-peer arrangement where the brokerage functions previously intermediated by an ad hoc stratum are now accomplished by technology.

The main point is not about raising the level of consciousness of the average man (certainly a noble attempt if the Leninist trap of “What to do?” is to be avoided) but about the direction that technology has taken or could take from now on. Briefly, it can be instrumental at reducing labor bargaining power  in the direction of more managerial strata, or can be a wedge that reduces the necessity of the intermediation/brokerage function itself.

That was analyzed, in the sense of a study of industrial automation, by US scholar David Noble, in “Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation”.

Things have indeed changed since the time Noam and Eric wrote their articles – probably in a qualitative way, to the effect that those pioneering suggestions seem closer home.  See this related post.