October 12, 2015

A Nuclear Ghost Town

Photographer Arkadiusz Podniesinski stands on one of the main streets of Futaba, Japan, one of the towns evacuated after the meltdowns at the nearby Fukushima nuclear plants in March 2011. 

The banner reads: “Nuclear energy is the energy of a bright future.”


Photo: Arkadiusz Podniesinski, The Guardian 

September 26, 2015

Benjamin Franklin on manufactures and poverty

“Manufactures are founded on poverty [because] it is the multitude of the poor without land in a country and who must work for others at low wages or starve that enable undertakers to carry on a manufacture.”                          
                                               Benjamin Franklin

Quoted by Steve Fraser, “The Age of Acquiescence”

September 19, 2015

Saul Bellow, listening to the essence of things

Wordsworth warned that we laid waste our powers by getting and spending. It is more serious than that now. Worse than getting and spending, modern distraction, worldwide irrationality and madness threaten existence itself. We may not make it. Under the circumstances I have no advice to offer other writers. I can only say, speaking for myself, the Heraclitean listening to the essence of things becomes more and more important.
                        Saul Bellow, "A World Too Much With Us," 1975

August 23, 2015

Amazon.com: Apotheosis of Technique

I’ve taken it as something of a mission in life to speak out in opposition to technology’s absorption of contemporary culture, and I’m aware that my relentlessly negative commentary on the subject strikes some people (my wife, for example) as somewhat over the top.

For that reason I go out of my way on occasion to celebrate technologies that are making positive contributions to the world (the development of super advanced prosthetic devices, or the accessibility of obscure journal articles via the Internet). I also make a point of confessing that I’m as dependent on technology as anyone else. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a shiver of satisfaction when I read the New York Times piece last weekend on working conditions at Amazon.com.

For those who missed it, reporters Jodie Kantor and David Streitfeld interviewed more than 100 current and former Amazon employees to document what it's like to work at the world’s largest retail company. The article focuses on executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers, which ignores the experiences of thousands of warehouse workers, whose treatment would presumably be at least as demanding as those of the company’s white collar employees. In any event, what’s revealed is a chilling picture of labor relations policies that are brutal indeed. “Purposeful Darwinism,” one former executive called them. Survival of the fittest, in other words. 

This is a place where 80 hour weeks are routine, where mountains of data are collected to measure employees’ every move, where ruthless evaluations by fellow workers are encouraged and used to justify terminations, where texts from superiors regularly arrive and are expected to be answered in the middle of the night; where having a miscarriage is no excuse for canceling a business trip the next day.

Jeff Bezos, in a letter to employees after the article appeared, complained that it portrayed “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He denied that’s the case, and urged any staff member who sees the sort of “shockingly callous” treatment reported by the Times to immediately “escalate” the matter, to the Human Resources department or to him personally.

The reason I found the Times article so satisfying is that it perfectly illustrates and affirms arguments I’ve been making for years about the fundamental nature of technology. The fundamental nature of technology can’t be seen by looking at one company, although Amazon comes close. Amazon is noteworthy because it represents an unusually advanced and unapologetic instantiation of qualities that pervade the technological project as a whole. Seeing technology from that perspective reveals that Amazon is a massively complex technological system that is itself encompassed in an infinitely larger web of massively complex technological systems. It’s not just the company’s labor policies that matter, or its obsessive collection of data. It’s Amazon’s combined application of an entire constellation of technologies and techniques. In that sense the company is a microcosm of the thoroughly technicized environment we inhabit.

In my book I describe four fundamental elements that define the nature of technology. They are:

1. Technology is by nature expansive.
2. Technology is by nature rational, direct and aggressive.
3. Technology by its nature combines or converges with other technologies.
4. Technology by its nature strives for control.

Anyone who pauses for a moment to ponder the scope and style of Amazon’s operations will have no trouble recognizing how thoroughly the company demonstrates those characteristics. Such a consideration would take into account not only Amazon’s labor policies and data collection, but also the incredibly sophisticated computer systems that display and sell the company’s vast array of products and services; its vast network of fulfillment centers and the incredibly sophisticated procurement, retrieval, packaging and shipping systems they employ; the massively complex public and private transportation and delivery systems it uses to get millions of purchases to millions of customers around the world; the credit card orders processed and billed through massively complex international banking systems; the stock exchanges around the world where Amazon shares are traded, etcetera, etcetera. 

The leviathan has many other arms; I could continue the list indefinitely. And of course, all those machines and systems are aimed at selling unprecedented quantities of consumer goods that are themselves the products of massively complex technological systems. Leave us not forget that Amazon, as huge and intimidating as it is, is essentially a middleman. It would be nowhere if it had nothing to sell.

The perspective on technology articulated here is not my own invention. Rather it is a summary of ideas garnered from scholars who have spent their careers studying the history and philosophy of technology. Chief among those scholars is the late Jacques Ellul, who would have had no trouble recognizing Amazon as the predictable fruition of drives inherent to technology, drives that have been gaining momentum since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Two themes in Ellul’s masterpiece, The Technological Society, published in France in 1954 and in America a decade later, stand out as especially relevant to Amazon. One is the holistic view of technology I’ve described above. Ellul used the word “technique” to underscore his conviction that technology must be seen not merely as a collection of devices but as a way of thinking and a form of being. Technique for Ellul includes the methods and strategies that put technological systems into motion as well as the quantitative mentality that applies those methods and strategies. Machines, Ellul said, are “deeply symptomatic” of technique; they are “the ideal toward which technique strives.” The central goal and overriding value of technique is efficiency. Amazon is the embodiment of technique.

The second Ellul theme that Amazon embodies is how poorly prepared human beings are to keep pace with the machines they tend. “Technique demands for its development malleable human ensembles…” Ellul wrote. “The combination of man and technique is a happy one only if man has no responsibility. Otherwise, he is ceaselessly tempted to make unpredictable choices and is susceptible to emotional motivations which invalidate the mathematical precision of the machinery….Eliminate the individual, and excellent results ensue.” 

Automation hasn’t yet achieved that goal, although the roboticists are working on it. In the meantime, Amazon uses every possible technique to ensure that the workers who remain are pushed to their limit. A former employee told the Times that the company “is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff.” Employees are expected not only to comply, but also to believe. The notion that some degree of balance should be maintained between work life and private life is taken as a joke, said one former staffer interviewed by the Times. Others said they were told that their only option when they hit the wall is to climb it. Those who do become what’s known within the company as “Amabots,” proud soldiers in Bezos’ march to world domination. Those who can’t or won’t climb the wall leave, if they’re not fired first. The Times article documents that Amazon’s rate of turnover is remarkable, though Amazon — despite the mountains of data it collects — declines to say what it is. The constant monitoring and measurement of employee activity and the ruthless evaluations that serve to weed out the less dedicated are manifestations of technique.

I must stress again that Amazon’s methodology and ideology are unusual only in the brazenness of their application; its basic approach will be all-too-familiar to workers in hundreds of corporate environments. It’s hardly unrelated that three trends have dominated national labor reports in recent years: flat or declining wages, eliminated benefits and increased productivity. All serve to further the efficiency of the enterprise.

Several commentators who wrote follow-up pieces to the Times article noted that Amazon’s policies are hardly unique, as did the Times’ authors themselves. Amazon, Kantor and Streitfeld wrote, “is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.” 

Being in the vanguard means being in the lead; it does not mean being alone. Amazon may be ahead in some respects, partly because it’s less tied than older companies to traditional work-place convention (new recruits are told to forget the “bad habits” they learned on previous jobs), partly because of Bezos’ fanatical focus. Still, plenty of other companies in plenty of other businesses are using the same playbook and the same tools in pursuit of the same objectives.

“The question Amazon’s culture raises,” said Times columnist Joe Nocera, “is whether it is an outlier — or whether it represents the future of the workplace.” The answer is neither. The culture in general and capitalism in particular have been heading in the same direction as Amazon for a long time. At this point “the future of the workplace” that Amazon represents is well established and deeply entrenched.

The question isn’t when we’ll get there, but how far we still have to go.

August 8, 2015

Eyewitness: De Facto Technological Autonomy in Greece

In my book I argue that people who live in developed countries live in a state of “de facto technological autonomy.” While it is theoretically possible for them to get by without technology, practically speaking, they can’t. A refusal or inability to use technology results in exclusion from meaningful participation in the culture.

The fiscal crisis in Greece provided a powerful example of that exclusion recently when the government ordered the banks closed and set limits on the amount of cash that could be withdrawn from ATM machines. Those who had been foolish enough to think they could get by without ATM cards were out of luck.

The Guardian ran a series of photographs depicting the chaos that ensued when the government relented and told the banks to open for one day to let those without ATM cards (“desperate pensioners,” the Guardian called them) withdraw up to €120 (about $132). 

Photo by Lizzie Tucker, the Guardian

Saul Bellow on the Great Noise

But isn’t there a branch of the wonderful into which wonderful technology cannot lead us? If there is, how shall we know it? Why, we shall recognize it at once by its power to liberate us from the tyranny of noise and distraction….To be free from this would indeed be wonderful. It would mean nothing less than the restoration or re-creation of culture. Indispensible to such a restoration is the recovery of significant space by the individual, the reestablishment of a region about every person through which events much make their approach, a space in which events can be received on decent terms, intelligently, comprehensively and contemplatively….The destruction of significant space, the destruction of the individual, for is that is what it amounts to, leaves us helplessly in the public sphere. Then to say that the world is too much with us is meaningless for there is no longer any us. The world is everything….
 Am I proposing, then, that we should take refuge from crisis and noise in a contemplative life? Such a thing is unthinkable. I am saying, rather, that there is a mode of knowledge different from the ruling mode. That this other mode is continually operative – the imagination assumes that things will deliver something of their essence to the mind that has prepared itself and knows how to listen. I am saying also that full immersion in the Great Noise will kill us.
                      Saul Bellow, "A World Too Much With Us"

Paul Valéry on virtual reality

“The fabulous is an article of trade. The manufacture of machines to work miracles provides a living to thousands of people. But the artist has had no share in producing these wonders. They are the work of science and capital. The bourgeois has invested his money in phantoms and is speculating on the downfall of common sense.”
                                             Paul Valéry