Revue du Mauss permanente (http://www.journaldumauss.net)

Christophe Petit

The impact of technology on employment, economy and society. Interview 2 : Nick Srnicek.

Texte publié le 5 mai 2018

This interview is the second interview of a serie of interviews in french and in english with experts from different fields (philosophy, entrepreneurship, economy, scientists,...) about the impact of technology on employment, economy and society’.
Nick Srnicek (1982) is currently lecturer in Digital Economy at King’s College London and the author of Platform Capitalism (Polity), Inventing the Future : Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso, with Alex Williams), and the forthcoming After Work : What’s Left and Who Cares ? (Verso, with Helen Hester).

If you are interested to participate in this project, you can contact Christophe Petit : petit758@gmail.com. From C.Petit in Le journal du MAUSS : 
http://www.journaldumauss.net/?L-avenement-de-la-societe-de-1217

First interview with Martin Ford : http://www.journaldumauss.net/?The-impact-of-technology-on

Your first political book was a manifesto entitled “Accelerate : manifesto for an accelerationist politics”. Could you describe the philosophy and the politics of accelerationism ?

When Alex Williams and I wrote the Accelerate Manifesto it wasn’t really a term that was well known. It had been coined by Benjamin Noys as a critical term when he set a philosophy of negation against the accelerationist affirmation that he found in thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. But when Alex and I took up the term it was meant to be a very Marxist project – it was building upon the basic Marxist belief that capitalism was not something that you would try to destroy and reverse away from. Instead, capitalism was building the basis for post-capitalism, for the movement beyond itself. And this is what accelerationism meant for Alex and I : this simple idea. In more concrete terms, this meant taking an interest in the latest technology, thinking about how exactly they can be used as technologies for liberation rather than tools of control, and thinking about the ways in which we can build a world of abundance and experimentation beyond the strictures of capitalist society. So we ended up with a lot of focus on technology, thinking about “What does it really mean to be human ?”, trying to get beyond the essentialist idea of the human and integrating this with recent ideas around artificial intelligence, on the nature of reasoning, and collective rationality. Effectively, what we were trying to grasp at was a post-human and post-capitalist vision of the future.

After these two books, could you tell us what you are currently working on ?

I am currently writing a book with Helen Hester, called After Work : The Fight for Free Time. It’s an attempt to bring together anti-work politics with the insights and emphases of social reproduction theory. The vast majority of anti-work politics has been, and remains, focused on male waged labour, while neglecting female waged labour and the vast expanse of unwaged labour. In part this neglect has been because male waged labour has been more often subject to automation (for a variety of reasons). But the result is that unwaged labour often remains untouched even in the most utopian of post-work thinkers. Our book is trying to rectify that and to outline how it’s possible to apply anti-work principles to this other sphere of labour.

In your book “Inventing the future”, you describe the mechanisms that produce a secular trend towards a larger and larger surplus population. However it seems that the actual economical system proposes an alternative to this larger surplus population which is precarity. Do you think that the banking and monetarist ideology has become so powerful that even the leftist thinkers seem to be incapable of imagining a future in which the monetary and the economical system could work in another way ?

I don’t see precarity in opposition to the surplus populations thesis : I think both are expressions of capitalism’s dwindling ability to produce well-paying stable jobs in sufficient numbers. To put it perhaps too simply, there’s an aggregate amount of labour that capital is willing/able to put to profitable use. At high levels of wages (i.e. decent jobs), the number of workers will be less ; while at low levels of wages (i.e. precarity), the number of workers will be more. In effect, we can either have more precarity to stave off unemployment ; or we can have some decent jobs at the expense of significantly more being pushed into surplus populations. That’s the choice that capitalism forces upon us right now, and it gets worse as automation proceeds across the globe. Of course, we don’t – and shouldn’t – accept the terms posed by capitalism, and instead need to press for alternative approach. That will undoubtedly include transformations to the monetary and financial systems, but it’s not my area of expertise.

In your book “Platform capitalism”, you write that tax evasion, austerity and extraordinary monetary policies are mutually reinforcing [1]. Would it not be more accurate to say that these are consequences of a top-down monetary system managed by commercial banks that is becoming less and less adapted to the new economical paradigm of information technology ?

I don’t think so. I’m not convinced that the right approach to our problems is try and pinpoint particular actors in the capitalist system that, with some efforts, could be reformed in order to make the system function. I think it is the system itself which leads to these perverse outcomes. We undoubtedly see expressions of it in the financial system, but it can also be seen in the rise of these platform monopolies today too, which are trying to extricate themselves from the economic imperatives that predominate today. I think we really need a systemic perspective that includes elements like changes in production, changes in the state, changes in social reproduction, and changes in technology.

You wrote that “today, many of the transformations that the welfare state is undergoing can be understood as an attempt to revive the disciplinary function of the unemployed [2]”. Do you think that we have reached a crossroad where we can see two roads ahead of us, the society of control described by the philosopher Deleuze and the universal basic income described by the philosopher Van Parijs ?

I don’t think it’s that simple, and while Deleuze’s work remains insightful, I’m hesitant to believe it fully gets at what’s going on today. Both Foucault and Deleuze constantly emphasized the overlapping nature of regimes of power – the disciplinary coexisting with the sovereign and the biopolitical, for instance. And I think today that regimes of power that once seemed outmoded are now increasingly prominent (e.g. the management of the unemployed often takes on qualities of 19th century unemployment ; the control of black urban poor is more often than not a return to outright violence ; and of course digital technologies are enabling new ways to establish hegemony). All of these tendencies have to be thought together, and strategic points found in order to change out path.

What do you think of Mason’s book ? Do you agree with Mason when he writes that information technology shows a tendency to dissolve markets, destroy ownership and break down the relationship between work and wage ?

There is plenty to agree with in Mason’s book, and his dramatization of the development of Kondratieff waves is unparalleled. There are perhaps two key areas where I disagree with his book, and both have to do with over-optimism to my mind. First there is his broad belief that capitalism is falling apart and that something better will, seemingly necessarily, emerge out of the wreckage. I think there’s not enough credit in his account given to the abysmal futures that might occur. We may find ourselves in situations worse than capitalist exploitation, but I don’t think he pays sufficient attention to that possibility. There’s also room to argue that the tendencies he points out may in fact be quite easily recuperated by existing firms. The argument around zero marginal costs is one example. We see zero marginal costs in music distribution – we can all download MP3s from the internet for free. Yet the music industry has seen significant growth in revenues because they’ve managed to recapture the distribution mechanisms through companies like Spotify. So we shouldn’t be blasé about capitalism’s abilities to recuperate problems.

The second key area where I think Mason is too optimistic is in his account of the networked individual as the political subject that will lead the way forward. This account makes some sense in the immediate wake of the Arab Spring and the digitally-mediated revolts that spread around the world in its wake. There was a real moment of optimism then, and it seemed like digital technologies had a key role to play in it. But as we’ve seen since then, these revolts have hardly turned out the way it was hoped, and the dark side of digital technology has become increasingly prominent. So while digital technologies will have a key role to play in any future struggles, I don’t think they are nearly as beneficial to political action as Mason seems to believe.

There seems to be a consensus among economists and according to this consensus, the third industrial revolution (computer, internet, artificial intelligence, 3D printer, solar energy) is characterized by a zero-marginal cost of production. Another characteristic of the new economical model seems to be a blurring line between production and consumption. For example, with a business model such as Amazon, the consumers are also the producers as they add value to the market capitalization of Amazon when they buy products on Amazon or when they add comments on Amazon. In this view which is Paul Mason’s analysis, the most adapted business model to the third industrial revolution seems to be open-source projects such as Wikipedia. Another characteristic of this economical paradigm is the tendency toward monopoly as these business models are platforms which benefit from a network effect that leads to a “winner take all” economy. There is only one Facebook, one Google, one Amazon and so on. Do you agree with these principles of the economy of information and are there others principles that you would like to add ?

I don’t quite agree with the analyses which see a blurring of production and consumption. They point to some changes in the economy, but I don’t think it’s nearly as significant as many people believe. In particular, from a traditional Marxist perspective, it’s highly questionable that ‘prosumption’ creates value. There is no abstract labour, there is no socially necessary labour time, there is no competitive market-mediated pressure, and so on. The key social conditions for wage-labour, and hence value production, are missing from presumption. So I think we need a new analysis of what is occurring in these fields.

I do think monopolies, network effects, and winner-takes-all markets are a much better characterization of the present information economy. This seems to be the general consequence of platforms, which generate network effects, rely on data extraction, and produce monopolies. This is an analysis which is pitched at the level of the firm though, rather than at the level of the production process. I think we still need an adequate account of the latter in the information age.

There is a famous productivity paradox formulated by the economist Solow according to which “you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”. There are probably explanations for this paradox such as rent-seeking economy, externalities and so on. What are according to you the best ways to measure the economic transition toward the “information economy” ?

Productivity is of course a pretty poor measure for the efficiency of producing wealth. Basing it upon GDP and monetary values means that a load of things are missed, and numerous other aspects are included that really shouldn’t be. So we really need to move to an alternative measure of wealth. We’ll never reach a perfect measure, as though one could aggregate all the different forms of wealth into a single homogeneous figure, but there are clear problems with GDP that could be rectified rather easily. With information/data though, this can be incredibly difficult. The value of data is so context-dependent that it’s not clear how to give it any consistent valuation. What may be incredibly valuable data to me (say, a memory of my grandparents), can be worthless to Google. Or what is nearly worthless to me (a small economic transaction), can be incredibly valuable to Google when aggregated with others. So while we don’t have an answer as to how to measure the transition to an information economy, I do think we can agree that GDP is an outdated measure unfit for purpose.

The debate regarding the impact of technology on work has been frozen for decades if not centuries. The main reason is the luddite fallacy which is a historical observation that technological progress always creates as much work than if destroys. Although economists insist on the fact that there is no economic law according to which technological progress can create as much work as it destroys, it is understandable that this makes the works regarding the risks of the impact of technological progress on work and on the economy sound naïve and alarmist. Could you explain the reason why this time, the impact of technological progress on work and on the economy could be different ?

I think there’s a number of key reasons why this time is different. First, previous periods of automation often saw a significant reduction in the working week and the introduction of child labour laws. The result of those was to reduce the supply of labour, even as the demand for it was also arguably decreasing from automation. So on balance these worked out to maintain decent employment levels. Second, the postwar period of rapid economic growth – and hence, rapid job growth – was a one off. Today we face a situation of secular stagnation, and the rapid pace of job growth seems much more difficult to maintain. Third, for much of the capitalist period, women were excluded from the labour market, which meant that nearly half of the labour force was not seeking a job. Today that situation has changed, and we now have a much higher proportion of the workforce that requires a job. So we have an increased supply relative to historical periods. Lastly, we have the demise of full employment policies that were widespread in the postwar era. Rather than trying to do everything to generate jobs and guarantee social cohesion, governments today are more often concerned with austerity and government debt. The result is that the government efforts that might maintain high levels of employment are mostly gone.

The interview will be published in the revue of MAUSS which is an acronym for anti-utilitarism movement of social sciences inspired by the sociologist Mauss and his social paradigm of the gift. The MAUSS revue is also inspired by the work of Polanyi who showed that in non-market societies, economic activities are embedded in non-economic kinship. Do you think that automation could lead to a non-market society thanks to a universal income ? To be more precise, it would obviously not be the end of the market but the market and its values such as growth would be embedded in others values (ecology, equality, creativity, care, art and science…) ? Do you think that an economy of the gift with a gift such as a universal basic income could be the key to this embedment ?

One of the key changes initiated by a universal basic income is that it is a significant move towards decommodifying labour markets – a market that Polanyi pointed out was always overtly artificial. By removing the compulsion to sell our labour, we would no longer be forced to sell our time to another, and instead, we would have the free choice of when and how we wish to take on wage-labour. So, yes, I do think a UBI has an important role to play in bringing about a non-market economy.

The economists McAfee and Brynjolfsson have insisted recently on the great decoupling between the median income and the real GDP. I do think that this great decoupling is a consequence of the exponential nature of technological progress and the monetary policies which concentrate money at the top of the economic pyramid. Do you agree with this analysis or do you have another analysis ?

I think the explanation is perhaps a simpler and more traditional one : in the rich economies the workers’ movement and its organisations were systematically attacked and destroyed starting in the late 1970s and onwards. The end result was that workers have had less and less capacity to fight for their interests, and that the dwindling gains of the economy have instead been channeled towards the owners of capital rather than workers. That explains how productivity can increase, GDP can increase, and wages can stagnate. The situation was only maintained by massive increases in private debt which enabled workers to see increasing living standards – but in an entirely unsustainable way.

The paradox of our society seems to be that technology is providing us with possibilities to focus more on art and science and less on work but the ideology of work seems to be stronger than ever and the incentive to work is also greater because of the rising inequalities (therefore the incentive to go from the top 50% to the top 20% through work is greater than 50 years ago. Do you think that the recent books about the topic of automation have changed the way people think about work ?

I think there is an increasing sense about the futility of work and the opportunities afforded by automation. These are now widely popular ideas and the focus of numerous debates across the political spectrum. But it’s worth remembering that the 1990s saw a similar fascination with work, particularly the notion of being overworked. There were plenty of bestsellers by people like Juliet Schor and Arlie Hochschild who were making the case that we were working unprecedentedly long hours. Yet policy-wise this seemed to have relatively little impact. A similar thing may yet happen with the current fascination with automation and work, though it remains to be seen.

What can we learn from the past in order to have a smooth transition to this technological evolution ?

One key thing to learn from the past is that even if the optimists are right – and this new wave of technology ends up creating more jobs than it eliminates – then the end result can still be misery for most. The first wave of automation created many new jobs in the long-run, but in the short-run it meant stagnating wages, rising unemployment, and growing crises. It was only really solved in the massive state-led war economies of WWII, but was preceded by decades of high inequality and social strife. And that’s the optimistic case !

What will be the line between automated jobs and not-automated jobs and how will this automation process affect white-collar and blue-collar jobs ? What kind of skills will be the most immune to this automation wave ?

According to most experts in machine learning and robotics, the tasks that machines have difficulty doing tend to be emotional and/or social labour, as well as tasks that take place in unstructured environments. So we have industrial robots which can put together a car (in a highly structured environment), yet a seemingly simpler task like folding clothes is still an immense challenge for machines. So for the foreseeable future, jobs involving these sorts of tasks are likely to remain. (Though in the long-run, I think machines are likely to be able to accomplish anything that humans can do, so I think any limits today are temporary rather than essential.)

NOTES

[1Srnicek – Platform capitalism – page 38.

[2Srnicek – Inventing the future – page 101.