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The crooked timber of history

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From Peter Radford I was lucky enough last week to meet a few friends for the first time in person since the pandemic swept all before it.  We are an eclectic group with more than a fair influence of Wall Street.  Given all that is going on, and has gone on since we last met face-to-face, I expected to be drawn into endless political discussions.  But no, we spent a majority of our time talking about how the pandemic has accelerated the current wave of technological change.  At one point someone asked whether there were lessons from the Industrial Revolution that we could apply to where we are now.  Our conversation evolved from there. Near the end of the introduction to his history of the British experience between 1700 and 1850 Joel Mokyr gives us his abbreviated perspective on the

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from Peter Radford

I was lucky enough last week to meet a few friends for the first time in person since the pandemic swept all before it.  We are an eclectic group with more than a fair influence of Wall Street.  Given all that is going on, and has gone on since we last met face-to-face, I expected to be drawn into endless political discussions.  But no, we spent a majority of our time talking about how the pandemic has accelerated the current wave of technological change.  At one point someone asked whether there were lessons from the Industrial Revolution that we could apply to where we are now.  Our conversation evolved from there.

Near the end of the introduction to his history of the British experience between 1700 and 1850 Joel Mokyr gives us his abbreviated perspective on the key ingredients of what he calls the “economic game”:

“The economic game is played at two levels: the level of a game against Nature (technology), and a game of interacting with other people (institutions).  Stripped to its barest essentials, the game against nature is not a social game — though in any practical historical situation it was of course mixed up with social elements. Technology is always and everywhere about utilizing natural phenomena and regularities to extract from Nature something she does not willingly give up.  Production involves harnessing these regularities to further human material needs.”

This is on page twelve of a book that then goes on to span nearly another five hundred pages, but the meat of the discussion is all there.  Somehow a combination of technology and institutional evolution created the conditions for the extraordinary acceleration in human well-being we associate with the industrial era now ending.

Any graphic depiction of the two hundred years or so since are extraordinary for the suddenness of the change.  We are living at the vertiginous end of a series of changes that eradicated the prior way of life and re-ordered society to accommodate itself to its new technological milieu.

There is, of course an endless scholarly debate about whether social change begat the technological change or vice versa.  Like all such debates there’s merit on both sides.  The reality, as experienced by those living through the revolution, was surely a bit of both.  Simple things like timekeeping became much more urgent and pervasive than they had been.  Old Medieval towns took a great deal of pride in the clock in the town square.  Wealthy households had clocks as novelties.  But after the revolution the factory whistle became the familiar organizing principle for the vast horde of newly created industrial workers.  We have not looked back since.

Back in the early days of the revolution what became known as the “machinery question” swept its way through influential debating and discussion parlors the length and breadth of Britain.  Clearly something was going on.  Quite what was uncertain.  Machines loomed large both in the new industrial landscape and in the mental images observers had of the world ahead of them.  What we now call economics was invented in the midst of the storm to try to make sense of the suddenness of the changes.  Millenia of relative calm were being displaced by who knows what?  The social order was being re-written.  Both the landed gentry and the workers flooding into the smoke ridden world of the new cities were, for different reasons, resisting the change.  And national political agendas were being shaped to favor the rising industrial class.  Power was shifting.  Everyone sensed it.  No one quite understood it.

The immediate impact on the mass of the new working class was to reduce their standard of living.  Life expectancy dropped.  Health deteriorated.  Urban poverty replaced rural subsistence.  And the rigors of a lifestyle dominated by the rhythm of machinery overtook the entire prior social system.  Nonetheless the change took place.  The politicians ensured that it did.  And, eventually, society melded into the new world. We embraced industrialization so firmly that we now decry its passing as digitization takes over.

The arrival of new technology does not simply re-write the workplace.  It can, if it is general and useful enough, re-write everything.

So, the question my friends and I were asking ourselves is not a new one, but it is still pressing: is artificial intelligence, and its coterie of related digital instances, a general enough technology to do what the various industrial technologies did a couple of hundred years ago?  Are we in the midst of a total reconstruction of society?  If so, who is in charge of that reconstruction?

One of our frustrations is the glibness of economists who simply argue that in the long run the current dislocation will be justified by the gains in prosperity.  They rely on history.  Or, rather, a particular reading of history.  They tell us that in the end the entire population will benefit from the bounty bestowed on us by the digitization of everything.  Productivity and efficiency will rise beyond currently imaginable levels.  The need for irksome labor will fall away.  Factories will be hives of robots attended by a handful of highly paid technicians.

And if we ask about all the other workers who are no longer needed in the factories?  Silence.

This is, naturally, an old question too.  Our economy has long since been dominated by employment outside of factories.  Our obsession with robotic production lines is a reflection of our slow realization of the changes that went on years, if not decades, ago.  Digitization is upon us.  And like our forbears we have no idea where it is leading us.

The depth of the change is abundantly clear.  Our language is adapting to the digital world.  So is our workplace.  The unscrupulous pursuit of shareholder value lurks behind the early manifestations of the new technologies.  Perhaps we can give some of the “disrupters” — that pompous self-aggrandizement is sickeningly indicative of their intent — some element of the doubt.  Perhaps they feel that the technologies that they foist upon us are genuinely socially improving.  Ride-hailing for instance allows us to avoid the wait for a taxi.  That sounds nice.  Until we realize that it is a stalking horse for “dis-intermediating” a well established livelihood and is intended to separate taxi drivers from the costly benefits that their old workplace gave them.  Those drivers are now “subcontractors” not employees.  Only employees need benefits.  Sub contractors are self employed entrepreneurs, so it’s up to them to provide their own benefits.  And the saved cost flows uphill to the investors who prop up the ride hailing business and its technological marvels.

Inequality widens as a result.

The utopian visions of the technology proselytizers, who seem to congregate at institutions of either high education like Stanford and M.I.T., or high finance like our forest of hedge funds and banks, tell us that change is inevitable.  Job transformation is the way of the future.  We need to embrace the new technologies or risk being labeled as “Luddites”.  Workers will need to educate themselves to remain “relevant” in the new workplace.  Otherwise they will be swept away by the tide of bits and bytes streaming from Silicon Valley and other hives of disruption.

As you know, I am deeply skeptical of expressions of utopian perfection.  There is no such thing.  Kant’s reference to crooked timber resonates too clearly as I contemplate our moment.  I am left to ask questions.

Is the tide of technological change inevitable?  We have been trained to think it is.  The machines of the late 1700s threw us into a turmoil that took two hundred years to absorb.  Entire social and political systems had to be re-cast to accommodate the technology.  Society had to be trained to accept change.  Once it did, change became the norm.  Yes, we are better off because of industrialization and its consequences, but the struggle to spread the gains was long and hard.  We had to create modern democracy in order to assure ourselves that the owners of technology would not plunge us all into feudal subservience.

Are we going to have to re-fight those wars?  Of course.  This new wave of technology has been unleashed on the back of the mid-twentieth century turn to unfettered market capitalism.  Democracy was diminished purposefully to free up the flow of profits rising to the top.  The natural alliance of right wing economics, corporate interests, and conservative politics produced the current inequality.  A new layer of technologic upheaval will only make matters worse.

Unless.

Unless we recognize the lessons of history.  Our advantage this time is that we have seen this before.  We know what to expect.  Society will need rebuilding to absorb the technology.  Technology will need amending to fit into society.  The old debate about which is more influential on the other, technology or society, needs to be brushed off anew.

As for artificial intelligence: it isn’t a technology in itself.  It is a catch-all phrase that references a number of digital avenues of innovation.  It is more an ideological identity than an economic one.  It is a pronouncement of an intention to re-alter society and the precarious balance of power between the citizenry and the owners of the technology.  We will have to guard against the excessive self-belief and fiscal might of its owners, and refurbish our defenses against their inevitable attempt to seize social and political power.  We can outsource the development and exploitation of technology to the disrupters.  But we must retain the apportionment of the gains from their efforts to ourselves.  Democracy must win.

The machinery question is back with vengeance.  This time we ought to be ready, for, if I remember my Kant correctly: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”.

Peter Radford
Peter Radford is publisher of The Radford Free Press, worked as an analyst for banks over fifteen years and has degrees from the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School.

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