An automated loom is a wonder- but who owns the loom?
July 18, 2019 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Everybody I talked to at my McDonald’s — along with the many other fast-food workers I interviewed — had had food items thrown at them.“ (Vox) “My body is grudgingly adjusting to the job, but my brain isn’t. I’ve started dreading the monotony even more than the pain. There is literally nothing to do out in the mod but pick. ” (Lit hub) Excerpts from On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger. “The app, in its eagerness to appear streamlined and just-in-time, had simply excised the relevant human party in this exchange. Hence the satisfied customer could fantasize that his food had materialized thanks to the digital interface, as though some all-seeing robot was supervising the human workers as they put together his organic rice bowl.” The Automation Charade: The rise of the robots has been greatly exaggerated. Whose interests does that serve?
posted by The Whelk (30 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am equal parts furious and scared.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:44 AM on July 18, 2019


Considering the author’s leg was broken by a flash mob rather badly, maybe a job that requires a lot of standing would be more stressful for her than for other people.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:47 AM on July 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


I feel like I would enjoy reading On the Clock, but maybe I shouldn't buy it from The Rainforest.
posted by Zudz at 11:09 AM on July 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


You'll never be a billionaire but it's not too late to see what they taste like! --NOT A WOLF
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:22 AM on July 18, 2019 [21 favorites]


I've found myself coming back to "Above the API" vs. "Below the API" quite a bit recently. (I think it originated in this article, in 2017, but maybe it goes back further. That's the first place I encountered it, anyway.)

Real automation isn't something to be feared, broadly. There are times when it can displace people, and it would be the job of a sane government to insulate people, perhaps via social insurance, from locally destructive economic disruption (but good luck getting people who've themselves been right fucked by globalization to support that now). Real automation occurs in conditions of high labor costs, not low ones, so when you see automation and big, expensive machines being deployed, it's a good sign for the labor economy.

Really, we ought to be living in a world of machines, where nobody has to hand-pick strawberries in the hot Arizona sun all day, unless they're doing it recreationally at U-Pick with their kids or something. (Which, slight tangent, always struck me as kinda weird. Like what other menial stoop-labor jobs do people regularly pay to do for an hour? Can I pull a Tom Sawyer and get people to weed my garden for funzies?) That these jobs are stubbornly resistant to automation is because using people is, unhappily, cheaper than building a machine to do it. That's bad, and it's a derailment of what was a steady, almost monotonic increase in automation and decrease in manual labor inputs since the Industrial Revolution.

What we actually have are APIs stretched over other people, to create the appearance of machines, when the reality is terrifyingly manual. Amazon is oddly honest when it calls its service the "Mechanical Turk", given what that name refers to—a chess-playing 'robot' that was actually just some guy squeezed inside a box—but Amazon is hardly the only offender. We've created a whole economy that's full of people squeezed into boxes with limited inputs and outputs, all so we can pretend they're machines. It's literally dehumanizing.

There is a legitimate sense in which American expectations were made artificially high after WWII; the single-earner, two-adult, 4- or 5-person family as an independent, autonomous economic unit is ahistorical, and probably not economically sustainable. But the degree to which we have fallen off the increasing-labor-value path and into a low-labor-cost death march is still pretty shocking, or would be—if it wasn't hidden behind APIs.

I really like "fauxtomation", incidentally. Maybe we can also have "fauxbotics"?
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:23 AM on July 18, 2019 [26 favorites]


> (Which, slight tangent, always struck me as kinda weird. Like what other menial stoop-labor jobs do people regularly pay to do for an hour? Can I pull a Tom Sawyer and get people to weed my garden for funzies?)

Fresh fruit is expensive! For families willing to can and freeze fruit, Pick-Your-Own farms are nearly the only way to make it affordable on a regular basis.

Additionally, many fruit crops that do machine harvesting, like grapes, leave a lot of fruit behind on the plants. Letting people collect it for cheap is extra money that can help keep an independent family farm afloat.
posted by at by at 11:34 AM on July 18, 2019 [9 favorites]


well you know when the robots don't work we can just use biorobots right.

the capitalism dosimeter reads 3.6 röntgen... not great, not terrible...
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:47 AM on July 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


We've created a whole economy that's full of people squeezed into boxes with limited inputs and outputs, all so we can pretend they're machines. It's literally dehumanizing.

I must admit that this is on my list of anecdotes I've probably already offered up too many times on MeFi, but here we go:

I'm in software development, and for many years I worked specifically within speech recognition (on the application side, not the research side that handled building the frankly much more complex part). One of the products my company sold was voicemail-to-text capabilities, which they sold to telecoms. Someone leaves a voicemail, you get a text with the contents. A perfect use of speech recognition!

Here's the thing: at release time and right up until I left many years later, it did not use speech recognition. Speaker-independent speech recognition (i.e. understanding speech without building a model first based on knowing who the speaker is and having a corpus of prior audio with correlated text) is really, really hard. Added to this, speech recognition is really sensitive to audio quality -- for years, cell phones were too low quality (compared to landlines) to even be used for many speech recognition applications.

So how did it work? Well, people in a call center in India listened to the audio and typed it up, because people are comparatively cheap, particularly if you hire them in a part of the world with a lower cost of living than your market.

For all I know that's still how it works. It wouldn't shock me, because the low cost of paying people elsewhere to do it put a pretty aggressive target on how cheap you'd have to get the fully automated version before it would be viable.
posted by tocts at 11:55 AM on July 18, 2019 [23 favorites]


marx has a bit in capital where he talks about how much of the industrial machinery developed in england would end up only being used in the united states, because the cost of labor was higher in the united states than in england. IIRC the specific example he used was hauling barges through canals; whereas in the united states this was most often done using machines built in birmingham and manchester, in the uk it was done by men or (ideally) by women, since the labor of men came cheaper than the labor of machines and the labor of women came cheaper than the labor of men.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 12:04 PM on July 18, 2019 [7 favorites]


It's hard to credit an article that embraces so flawed a concept as "capitalism is dedicated to ensuring that as much vital labor as possible goes uncompensated."

At the most basic level of critique, the capitalism that allocates scarce goods, like the natural selection that drives evolution, doesn't have anything that parses as "intention."

And, of course, as an observation of organizations under capitalism, it is grossly false.

Much of capitalism worldwide is the capitalism of the working proprietor, in other words, the critical vital labor, and perhaps the only vital labor, is that of the capitalist himself, or herself, and the entire purpose of the organization is to maximize compensation of that vital labor.

And of course the capitalism where ownership is separate from "vital labor" is rife with organizations that lavishly compensate vital labor. Capital providers in some spaces regard high compensation to vital labor as inherent necessity of return on the related capital (Wall Street, Hollywood, tech companies). But there's a core area of business economics (traveling under the "principal-agent problem" label) concerns itself with the idea that vital laborers capture and subvert firms for the purpose of overcompensating themselves at the expense of profits due to capital.
posted by MattD at 12:44 PM on July 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


The excerpts from Guendelsberger's book are both really good, especially mentioning how shitty it is of Paul Ryan to frequently mention his summer of flipping burgers in the mid 80's as though it qualified him to speak authoritatively on the issues of low-wage workers and the lack of upward mobility. She also hits on a related issue that needs to be repeated more--unlike back in Ryan's day and before, these low-wage jobs are not dominated by high school kids anymore, and for most people working there now, they are not temporary positions that last a year or two.
posted by skewed at 12:51 PM on July 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


Science fiction has often considered the idea that building artificial intelligence upwards from machines would prove impossible, and instead we would damage the human brain downwards. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri gave us:

My gift to industry is the genetically engineered worker, or Genejack. Specially designed for labor, the Genejack’s muscles and nerves are ideal for his task, and the cerebral cortex has been atrophied so that he can desire nothing except to perform his duties. Tyranny, you say? How can you tyrannize someone who cannot feel pain?

—Chairman Sheng-ji Yang,
“Essays on Mind and Matter”

That is a very scary thought, in the way only an idea where your brain says "makes sense" and your stomach wants to barf can be.
posted by BeeDo at 1:12 PM on July 18, 2019 [13 favorites]


Man, I love Alpha Centauri.
posted by snwod at 1:26 PM on July 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


There is a legitimate sense in which American expectations were made artificially high after WWII; the single-earner, two-adult, 4- or 5-person family as an independent, autonomous economic unit is ahistorical, and probably not economically sustainable.

Why, though? The output of a single person today, amplified by machines and computers, is substantially higher than the output of two persons back in the day.

One person should absolutely be able to care for a family in a moderate lifestyle, and it's only America's commitment to stagnating wages and profits funneling to a select few that prevent this from happening.

The Jetsons is 100% realistic (yes, even the sassy, useless robot vacuum cleaner) if only we committed to giving Mr. Spacely the modest lifestyle he enjoys on The Jetsons instead of the disgusting Zucc/Musk lifestyle business owners get to enjoy.
posted by explosion at 1:43 PM on July 18, 2019 [22 favorites]


Considering the author’s leg was broken by a flash mob rather badly, maybe a job that requires a lot of standing would be more stressful for her than for other people.

Most of my working life has involved standing a lot, and it sucks no matter how good your legs are. Sometimes you get a sore back or knees, sometimes your feet hurt. You can get used to it, but if it’s not painful it’s still tiring, especially as you get older.

The other thing is that people work the jobs that are available to them, not the ones that best fit their needs. Plenty of people with muscle and joint problems take on these jobs because they need the work. It just means they hurt more or wear out faster.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:18 PM on July 18, 2019 [15 favorites]


Great post, thanks
posted by mumimor at 2:48 PM on July 18, 2019


> It's hard to credit an article that embraces so flawed a concept as "capitalism is dedicated to ensuring that as much vital labor as possible goes uncompensated."

At the most basic level of critique, the capitalism that allocates scarce goods, like the natural selection that drives evolution, doesn't have anything that parses as "intention."


this is such an interesting point, mattd, and I'm glad you brought it up. often we use words that appear to ascribe intentionality or consciousness to systems, i.e. the phrase "capitalism is dedicated to" appears to treat capitalism as being something like a person. it's common, for example, when using computer systems to ascribe intentionality to entities that have no such thing; to say, for example, that a client "wants" to connect to a server.

when we're discussing economic systems like capitalism, socialism, feudalism, palace economies, etc., it's probably better to avoid confusion by talking in terms of tendencies and outcomes of systems rather than in terms of psychologizing or anthropomorphic concepts like intentionality. to use your example, it's easy to see that the processes of evolution and natural selection establish certain tendencies, even though there's no intentionality present within the system — there are a range of successful strategies that a species can carry out ("live fast have as many babies as possible, without regard to how many live", "live long and have a few babies, but do your best to make sure those babies survive," etc.), but no conscious entity "decides" that these strategies are preferable. what's interesting is that you can find living creatures that are carrying out strategies that are against the tendencies established through evolution and natural selection, but those (of course) tend to be the exception rather than the rule. for example, you can find creatures like the koala, that have evolved to occupy a tenuous ecological niche wherein they only consume one particular food (eucalyptus leaves) that leaves them relatively unhealthy (as i understand it, koalas are basically always drunk off of the poison in eucalyptus). tendencies aren't rock-solid rules — you can find counterexamples like the koala that live lives that swim upstream from the strategies that tend to be successful — but on the whole creatures with strategies for living that match the tendencies established by the blind processes of evolution and natural selection will tend to thrive more than creatures that follow other strategies.

likewise, capitalism — a human-created system rather than a natural one as in your example — establishes certain tendencies. one of these is the tendency to drive down the cost of labor time to match the price of supporting one laborer at whatever the societal minimum standard of living is, since capitalists who pay more than the minimum will ceteris paribus tend to be outcompeted by capitalists who don't. another is the tendency toward the establishment of monopolies, since economies of scale and the advantages of vertical and horizontal integration (and, of course, the ability of large players to influence the regulatory environment in their favor) tend to ensure that small proprietors tend to get squeezed out by bigger players. another is the tendency toward wealth concentration, since after a certain point money in a capitalist system has a strong tendency to breed more money — if you have inherited wealth, you can hire people who are very good at managing your wealth for you, you have access to profitable business opportunities that people without wealth don't have, you have the opportunity to network profitably with other wealthy people, and as a result over time most of the money tends to concentrate in a very small circle. there's no intentionality behind this, any more than there's intentionality behind the tendency for natural selection to "prefer" creatures that follow (for example) ratlike strategies rather than koalalike strategies.

what's nice is that because capitalism is a human-created system rather than a natural law, we can adjust the rules (or change the system altogether) if we don't like the tendencies it establishes — if we realize that it tends to result in general immiseration rather than general prosperity, for example, or if we realize that the short term rewards for people who literally or metaphorically eat their own seed corn tend to result in more long-term prudent strategies becoming unviable because of their tendency to produce lower yields in the short term, and decide to change that in order to avoid the general catastrophe that will happen once everyone eats every last kernel of their seed corn.

thank you so much for your participation in this thread, mattd. you've got some interesting — if somewhat underdeveloped — ideas, and I'm glad you're sharing them!
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:56 PM on July 18, 2019 [11 favorites]


Tendencies are sweet-meat for the petite- bourgeois.

YUM.
posted by clavdivs at 4:04 PM on July 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


Real automation isn't something to be feared, broadly.

I know your post was not implying this, but I wish folks would stop leading with this. People are not dumb. The entire history of automation is scarce when it comes to results of fully automated luxury robot space communism, and rife with how the savings filtered up to the 1%. People are being historically accurate when they fear automation. One of the greatest tragedies of popular history is the idea that Luddites hated technology - no, they hated the introduction of automation to enrich the capitalists.

Until someone shows that automation will only be accelerated with a strong safety net in place first (and preferably reverting the means of production to something with substantive worker control), the fear is legitimate: promises that robots will help spread the wealth somehow never materialize.
posted by mostly vowels at 4:08 PM on July 18, 2019 [13 favorites]


hence the title, and Upton Sinclair

“Private ownership of tools, a basis of freedom when tools are simple, becomes a basis of enslavement when tools are complex.”
posted by The Whelk at 4:25 PM on July 18, 2019 [11 favorites]


"The entire history of automation is scarce when it comes to results of fully automated luxury robot space communism, and rife with how the savings filtered up to the 1%."

Well, it fits that a robotic space program is good for an economy. Not very luxurious.
posted by clavdivs at 7:09 PM on July 18, 2019


How many blocks do you have to walk to get from tends to intends?
posted by tummy_rub at 8:14 PM on July 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


Why, though? The output of a single person today, amplified by machines and computers, is substantially higher than the output of two persons back in the day.

Fair point, and that's a good question to which I don't have a complete answer. But I think if we look throughout history, it's pretty rare to only have one member of a family engaged in economic activity. Even if the work is informal and takes place in the home, there's almost always other people working in addition to a primary breadwinner. True single-earner household-dom just doesn't seem to happen very often, and I question if there's a steady-state economic model that works that way.

What I think tends to happen is that you get a few people willing to go against the grain and have a two-income household, and bid the prices of rival goods (especially housing, I'd imagine) up, until eventually it becomes difficult to live in a desirable area on a single income.

Even if you had strong rent control, which would probably go a long way towards not making two-income households de facto mandatory, I still think you'd drift that way over time. There are just too many rival / zero-sum status goods in the economy, which power the hedonic treadmill / keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effect and encourage bidding wars. But in the ideal case it would at least be because people are choosing to be dual-income, not because they have to.

But yeah, to your general point, I agree you should be able to buy a lot more stuff with a median income today than with a median income in 1955, and in some respects you can (adjusted for inflation there are things that are cheaper today), but there are too many areas where rentierism (and Cost Disease) have soaked up the increases.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:41 PM on July 18, 2019


>> the single-earner, two-adult, 4- or 5-person family as an independent, autonomous economic unit is ahistorical, and probably not economically sustainable.

> Why, though? The output of a single person today, amplified by machines and computers, is substantially higher than the output of two persons back in the day.

I don't know, here's a grab-bag of possible explanations, most of which are probably nonsense:

Rising standards of living? New gadgetry, cars, big houses, electricity, whitegoods engineered to need regular replacement, throwaway fashion, takeway food, nespresso pods, home delivery, cloud computing, MRIs, IVF, air travel, holidays abroad ...

Massive human population growth [1], and growth in resource consumption per capita, versus a finite pool of resources driving up resource prices due to competition?

Picketty style rich-get-richer-faster-than-economic-growth-creates-opportunities dynamics in recent decades of societal stability? No recent large scale events have caused massive redistribution of wealth.

Automation means fewer people are actually necessary for cheaply automatable work, and chunks of population are surplus to the needs of the economy?

Economic growth starting to grind against physical constraints that limit growth? E.g. peak oil -- declining EROEI since the jackpot days of early fossil fuel extraction [2] . It takes more energy investment to extract stored energy now.

The whole global warming thing? Running out of space in the atmosphere to safely store pollution. Although most of us aren't really feeling the cost of this mess yet...

[1] here's some trivia: 50% of nitrogen in human tissue is estimated to be due to the Haber–Bosch process. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process#Economic_and_environmental_aspects

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513003856

> Thus society seems to be caught in a dilemma unlike anything experienced in the last few centuries. During that time most problems (such as needs for more agricultural output, worker pay, transport, pensions, schools and social services) were solved by throwing more technology investments and energy at the problem. In many senses this approach worked, for many of these problems were resolved or at least ameliorated, although at each step populations grew so that more potential issues had to be served. In a general sense all of this was possible only because there was an abundance of cheap (i.e. high EROI) high quality energy, mostly oil, gas or electricity. We believe that the future is likely to be very different, for while there remains considerable energy in the ground it is unlikely to be exploitable cheaply, or eventually at all, because of its decreasing EROI.

See also https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/647942.The_Limits_to_Growth & https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/02/limits-to-growth-was-right-new-research-shows-were-nearing-collapse
posted by are-coral-made at 4:17 AM on July 19, 2019


"Considering the author’s leg was broken by a flash mob rather badly, maybe a job that requires a lot of standing would be more stressful for her than for other people."

Consider that low wage workers are in fact disproportionately likely to suffer from injury and disease compared to the population as a whole.
posted by mikek at 5:32 AM on July 19, 2019 [5 favorites]


I feel like the automation article is missing what about automation is getting people so antsy now. As many people have pointed out, automation for low-paying jobs have had a long history, and largely what it's meant is that some jobs disappear but the surplus production eventually opens up new jobs. It's only in recent years that automation of high-paying, well-respected jobs has been conceivable. Journalists, translators and paralegals are all facing the prospect of being replaced by machines, all at once. That's new - the only comparable example was when VisiCalc threatened to replace bookkeeping (but actually made businesses more ambitious, which drove demand for more accountancy). It's not clear the same thing is going to happen again.
posted by Merus at 5:57 AM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


Much of capitalism worldwide is the capitalism of the working proprietor, in other words, the critical vital labor, and perhaps the only vital labor, is that of the capitalist himself, or herself, and the entire purpose of the organization is to maximize compensation of that vital labor.

That is not capitalism. What you've just described is the basics of peasant (aka owner-occupier) market economies that date back to before Sumer. I know that in popular usage, people will use "capitalism" to mean "trading goods in a market", as opposed to other means of distribution. But this is a vague and useless and not used in history or economics. Otherwise, you could say that we invented capitalism sometime around the same time as farming - or earlier.

For one, "capitalism" needs to have "capital" that is invested. A capitalist is someone who invests in and then owns the means of production (land, machines, supplies) and who then hires worker who trade their labour to produce value. It's this split of capital and labour that is the big economic change that everyone (from Marxists and Capitalists alike) agrees took place over a long period of time between the medieval and modern periods. (In western Europe, that is; everywhere else has their own pattern of development).

A self-employed person without labourers working for them is not a capitalist. They are investing their labour, not just their capital.
posted by jb at 2:02 PM on July 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


An automated loom is a wonder- but who owns the loom?

Before they were automated, most looms were owned by the weavers. But in the putting-out system, the raw materials (the other part of the means of production) were not owned by them, and thus the profit mostly accrued to the capitalist merchant who contracted them to do the piece work. English weavers' families in the 17th century were notoriously poor.
posted by jb at 2:11 PM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


The author of the first two excerpts is on the most recent episode of the Trillbilly Workers’ Party Podcast
posted by The Whelk at 8:10 AM on July 20, 2019


My life as a Doordasher (NYT)
posted by The Whelk at 8:23 AM on July 21, 2019


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