Economic history in the present Technology Workers

Uber and the Luddites

The fight against the sharing economy, and Uber in particular, can be disorienting. Opposition is often painted as techno-phobia. The good guys in this story are Uber and progress; on the other side are opponents afraid of flexibility and smartphones, kicking and screaming against a future already here. In many ways, this is like the fight of the Luddites (machine smashers) 200 years ago at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. While the Luddites were fighting the way technology was used to further exploit rather than liberate workers, they were and are misrepresented as simply afraid of and opposed to technology.

Just as power looms and other machines inaugurated a technological revolution that ultimately produced more work for the many and greater wealth for the few, so too modern technologies are enriching Silicon Valley’s billionaires at the expense of drivers, delivery folk and all manner of service workers. The sharing economy that is experienced by consumers as a friendly convenience is a low-wage, precarious trap for workers. It would sound all too familiar for the skilled cloth-makers who wanted machines to give them more leisure and continued control over their work, but instead found themselves subsidizing the profits of the machine owners in England’s “satanic mills.”

British Columbia Privatization Technology

No thanks Uber, I’m not signing your petition

So the ride-sharing app Uber is urging Vancouverites to sign a petition on its site to put pressure on the City to allow Uber to operate. An ad for the petition invaded my Twitter feed and I decided to take a closer look. Here’s the petition with my commentary. Spoiler: no, I’m not signing.

Uber begins by laying out “the situation”:

British Columbia and Vancouver are home to the quintessential winter playground, shining examples of liveable cities, and a launching pad for countless innovators and trailblazers across many industries.

That’s why so many residents are disappointed by Vancouver’s limited transportation options. To make matters worse, the Province of British Columbia, at the behest of the taxi industry, isn’t putting consumers first or thinking about how new innovations can create better transit solutions for all.

The ridesharing industry is a very new one, but cities all over the world are embracing it as a way to address the shortcomings of mass transit, reduce congestion and emissions, connect previously isolated neighborhoods, and overall bring cities together in a way never before imagined. These are benefits that people are experiencing right now in more than 220 cities around the world — but Vancouver isn’t among them.

Why thanks, we are quintessential innovators…wait a minute. Once we get past the sweet talk, Uber here points to a real problem, but offers a false solution. Transit shortcomings? Better transit is a worthy goal, only the natural solution would be more buses, lower fares and better service rather than deregulated taxis. The context for transit shortfalls is the systemic offloading of costs from the province government onto cities and an unwillingness to cover increased demand by taxes — at the same time as road infrastructure is rapidly expanded.

Isolated neighbourhoods? Granted, but again this is more a failure of urban planning than something that be solved by an app that helps people catch a cab. This is a perfect illustration of the hubris of Silicon Valley: the gap between pressing problems and technological quasi-fixes that enrich the Valley’s venture capitalists. The environmental benefits too may be overblown: ridesharing is certainly better than single-passenger driving but there is evidence that as Uber cuts prices, drivers have to spend more time driving looking for passengers. A car will always be much less environmentally-friendly than a bus or a subway and any system based on more cars will naturally push for more road infrastructure. Vancouver’s history at least has shown this can come at the cost of transit improvements.wpid-wp-1417653452329.jpeg

Uber isn’t interested in better transit or better public infrastructure: it’s interested in getting market share for its app. Its rationale for entering a city makes even more sense when other options are bad: the shittier the transit, the worse the regulated taxi industry, the better. And all the talk about a taxi lobby that has politicians in its back pocket is a bit rich for a company that hired its own prominent lobbyists in BC, likely only the beginning. In short, Uber is fighting a public funding shortfall with privatization, public policy failures with undersize techno-fixes, lobbying fire with lobbying fire.

Canada Technology Workers

Robots, migration and the future of work (Briarpatch Magazine)

I have a longer read in the newest issue of Briarpatch Magazine, which is dedicated to the world of work. If you don’t know Briarpatch, be sure to check out the other articles in this issue and consider subscribing; this is one of Canada’s oldest independent left publications and definitely worth supporting. My piece has the rather grand title “Robots, Migration and the Future of Work” but it’s really about trying to see how we are often pitted against one another and encouraged to see external threats, like machines and migrants, to our well-being rather than working together in solidarity against systemic causes.

The past several decades have not been kind to workers, as most of us know only too well. Those making minimum wage are making a penny more in real terms than they were in 1976, union membership continues to fall, and wage growth for most has been anemic – far outstripped by rising productivity. And this is to say nothing about how unfulfilling the jobs that swallow the waking hours of our lives can be. Yet when workers speak out, whether about our own crappy working conditions or the absurd enrichment of those at the top, we’re greeted by a familiar chorus that is often loudest inside our own heads: just be happy that you have a job at all.

For some, the implied culprit in the background of this story is the much poorer worker in the Global South, whether at a maquiladora in Mexico, a sprawling electronics factory in China, or a call centre in India. As Canadian workers have been integrated into a globalized economy, the story goes, they can be kept in check by what happens halfway across the world. Labour discipline isn’t just – or perhaps even mostly – a function of globalization, however. There are many domestic pressures keeping workers in line and the economy unkind.

Sports Technology

Big Data at the World Cup: Two economic aspects beyond the pitch

Yesterday’s World Cup final nicely completed the old line that football is the sport where 22 players chase after a ball, but in the end… In the era of high technology, however, it’s not just 22 players running after a ball of course but a whole support squad of coaches, trainers, physiologists, doctors, dieticians, sleep experts – the list goes on. In a piece that walks a fine line between advertorial and actual content, the Wall Street Journal adds Big Data to the cast of sport’s supporting characters:

The Match Insights tool is exclusive to the German team right now, but SAP has plans to sell it more broadly in the future. “We are all about supporting our home team right now,” said [SAP VP] Mr. Burton. “After this we’ll want to maximize what we think is a credible tool for sport.”

“Match Insights” is a high-tech, data-driven sports analysis tool that collects thousands of data-points per second from cameras and sensors around a football pitch and turns them into complex measures of performance, potential weakness and so on. While it is surely debateable how large an impact such a tool actually has on outcomes (if at all, I would focus not on individual games but on long-run differences), two not quite sport-related aspects of this piece and the quote above in particular stand out for me.

First, this is a nice illustration of the complex, but still-relevant, relationship between states and corporations.


Questions for robots

Eighty years ago, Keynes famously predicted that within a century people would need to work no more than three hours per day. High living standards aided by technological breakthroughs would give human beings satisfying, minimal work and plentiful leisure, while robots and machines took over menial and repetitive labour. Less than twenty years before Keynes’ prediction is set to expire, reality has turned out quite differently.

Across the global North and South, those lucky to have jobs are working long hours. Factories across the global South, in China, Bangladesh and elsewhere, run around the clock with workers often clocking in for shifts over 12 hours at a time. Even the average US worker today works more hours annually than a medieval peasant. Western European countries, long considered social democratic bulwarks against the regime of relentless work, are not far behind and legislation shortening working time is under attack, despite stagnant employment.

Despite these trends, the argument that robots are set to make workers obsolete is still here. The technology revolution that finally fulfills the promise of labour-saving technology is always just around the corner. It is thus no surprise that today there are those who argue that this time the changes are real: technology is finally ready to displace workers like never before. Move over, cheap labour from the global South, there’s a new competitor in town in the race for the bottom. The bogeybot du jour has a white collar, takes its subsistence wage in watts and won’t even think about signing a union card.


The more things change… Amazon’s “anticipatory shipping” and the village square

Media outlets recently publicized Amazon’s patent for what it calls “anticipatory shipping.” The premise is as simple as it is creepy: Amazon will charge and ship items before customers have the chance to buy them themselves. In other words, Amazon knows what you want and is happy to spare you the trouble and effort of actually buying it, simply delivering the item –and, of course, your bill.

Here is the fruit of the information technology revolution. A giant corporation with which a person might have no face-to-face contact has complete enough psychological profiles that it can anticipate wants. Mass media brought us the creation of wants without our knowing, now the internet takes it one step further: the item that you didn’t know you wanted shows up at your doorstep unannounced. Hooray.

One common critical reaction to such innovations involves a retreat into the past. For the very youngest generations, it might ironically involve a wistful look back at the anonymity offered by the megamall. For most, however, the argument is that things were once different: people knew each other and many everyday transactions were based on personal relationships. Sure, the butcher knew your favourite cut of meat – but it was your butcher, not a computer knowing what you wanted. “If only we could go back to a world where relationships mattered.”

The problem with this argument is that it does not challenge what is truly wrong with something like “anticipatory shipping”. Even personal relationships can be embedded in a problematic economic logic. In many ways, in fact, today’s information-based economy is becoming more and more akin to that of the village square of the past. The anonymity of the past several decades may have been just a brief interlude during which information-processing capabilities lagged behind production capabilities.