Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The world has become an uncertain and ugly place

Several things I have read recently have impressed upon me that, despite developments (particularly in the field of technology) that are bound to excite some people, in some respects the world has become more uncertain and “ugly” than ever before. To be sure, it has always been uncertain in an existential sense – no one can predict what tomorrow holds. And as far as ugliness goes, I agree with the character of Sabina in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that we have been witnessing the progressive “uglification” of the world. Sabina was using the term in an aesthetic sense, however, while, in contrast, I don’t want to restrict it to this, but extend it to something more or less equivalent to “nasty”.

Regarding uncertainty, it is well-known that, since the invention of the spinning jenny in 1764 during the Industrial Revolution, people have been losing jobs to machines – a process that repeats itself each time new technology is introduced which can produce more copiously what workers used to produce. On the positive side, the new technology usually itself gives rise to new skills on the part of workers to operate the new machines – case in point: the invention of computers. But is this always the case?

In a recent article tellingly titled “What to do about jobs that are never coming back” (TIME, August 1, 2016, p. 17), Rana Foroohar touches an economic “uncertainty nerve” where she states (referring to a book by Andy Stern, a former head of an international employee union): “Stern tells a persuasive story about a rapidly emerging economic order in which automation and ever smarter artificial intelligence will make even cheap foreign labor obsolete and give rise to a society that will be highly productive – except at creating new jobs. Today’s persistently stagnant wages and rageful political populism are early signs of the trouble this could generate”.

In the light of the evidence that, as Foroohar puts Stern’s conclusion, “We can’t fight the machines”, she reports on his “solution”, which is to introduce a “universal basic income” in the US – something that has featured in discussions here in South Africa, too. For Stern this would be the only way to effect a “dignified” transition for people to a future economic dispensation where fewer and fewer people will be able to work. As Foroohar reminds one, the idea of such a “universal basic income” goes back to the 18th century, and unsurprisingly several countries are in the process of experimenting with it.

Stern’s view (referred to by Foroohar), that this would help jobless people today to cope with the bleak economic outlook, as well as encouraging them to “spend more time on creative leisure activities”, reminds me of a science-fiction novel by Edward Bellamy published in 1888 – Looking Backward: 2000 – 1887. It is a kind of Rip van Winkel story about a Bostonian who wakes up after more than a century’s deep sleep, to discover that society has been transformed into a veritable socialist utopia – one where most of the tough work is carried out by machines, and workers get equal pay for jobs that they get to choose after school and being trained for manual labour.

The utopian part is this: workers can retire when they turn forty-five to devote themselves to whatever strikes their fancy – art, architecture, participation in democratic duties of governance, religion, journalism, or whatever. The point is that automation makes possible this combination of socialist work and leisure utopia – BUT, on the basis of optimal productivity, mainly through technology, providing in the needs of everyone. Hence the problem facing us today seems to be that of optimal productivity that would satisfy all needs. If that could be achieved, the imperative of a basic income would be considerably ameliorated.

Turning to the “ugly” or “nasty” face of the world, it manifests itself across a broad spectrum, from the atrocious uglification of the physical urban environment to the behaviour of so-called “trolls” on the internet. Every time we drive to a beautiful nature reserve and wilderness area near us, appropriately called “Groendal”, we are appalled by the glut of plastic bags and other trash littering the road just outside the suburb closest, ironically, to this natural refuge. It is truly obscene, and merely confirms the behaviour one witnesses daily when people chuck plastic bottles, empty soda cans, cigarette butts and an assortment of other trash out of their car windows in full view of other motorists.

“Trolling” has, of course, become one of the scourges of the internet; perhaps the worst, judging by a recent article by Joel Stein in TIME (August 29, 2016 – http://time.com/4457110/internet-trolls/?xid=newsletter-brief ), titled “How trolls are ruining the Internet”. On the cover it is announced by the caption, “Why we’re losing the Internet to the culture of hate”. These are strong words, but reading the piece confirms that they were aptly chosen. Stein argues that:

“…the Internet’s personality has changed. Once it was a geek with lofty ideals about the free flow of information. Now, if you need help improving your upload speeds the web is eager to help with technical details, but if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will try to goad you into killing yourself. Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building. And it’s seeping from our smartphones into every aspect of our lives.

“The people who relish this online freedom are called trolls, a term that originally came from a fishing method online thieves use to find victims. It quickly morphed to refer to the monsters who hide in darkness and threaten people. Internet trolls have a manifesto of sorts, which states they are doing it for the ‘lulz,’ or laughs. What trolls do for the lulz ranges from clever pranks to harassment to violent threats. There’s also doxxing – publishing personal data, such as Social Security numbers and bank accounts – and swatting, calling in an emergency to a victim’s house so the SWAT team busts in. When victims do not experience lulz, trolls tell them they have no sense of humor. Trolls are turning social media and comment boards into a giant locker room in a teen movie, with towel-snapping racial epithets and misogyny.”

If you want to get a sense of how this general description of trolls’ behaviour plays itself out in concrete detail, read Stein’s article, which – unless you’re a troll yourself, in which case it would probably give rise to more trolling – should outrage you. Perhaps you have experienced trolling yourself; I certainly have, particularly by people taking exception to my criticism of neoliberal capitalism, and I’m willing to bet that many of you, or your children, have, too. You would recognise the pattern in what Stein writes, for example about the deputy newspaper editor who felt obliged to quit Twitter after an avalanche of anti-semitic messages, or the feminist writer who left social media after receiving a rape threat against her five-year old daughter. Or Leslie Jones, the black actress of the new Ghostbusters movie, who was savaged relentlessly with sexist and racist threats on Twitter.

The really bad effect of trolling, it appears, is that people growing up today experience this as normal, and understandably it affects their behaviour accordingly. It is ironic that the internet, which has often been hailed as one of the most democratising inventions in history, has created the space where what Stein appropriately calls “a culture of hate” can flourish. It seems that my early choice, not to use social media of any kind is justifiable. At least the e-mail messages of hate I have received could just be deleted.

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    • Richard

      I highly recommend Sam Neilson’s slim volume, “Robot Nation: Surviving the Greatest Socio-Economic Upheaval of All Time” which presents scenarios of economic domination by robots, and the prospect of AI. I read it about five years ago and found its handling of the way in which things like social benefits will be managed to be fascinating.

      By the way, sometimes comments take a week to appear on this forum. One I posted to a piece you wrote took at least as long as that to appear.

    • Doom

      I love how many of the people now agitating for or at least considering in earnest the initiation of a universal basic income, once frowned upon the idea of feeding surfers (van Parijs) on the grounds that able bodied persons ought not to get a free lunch.Why the sudden change? Why cant able bodied person without any cognitive defects (malfunctions) acquire new skills, skills that are not amenable to automation so that we avoid free lunches?

      This sudden change is also indicative of the uglification. What people never really understood was that a universal basic income grant was intended to eliminate or reduce inequality and not encourage laziness. By its very nature the universal income grant was meant to inoculate people from low paying dangerous jobs that they wouldnt do save for trying to make a living. Yet the ugly components or proponents of ugly resisted that argument until recently, why?

      In a word self-interest! What is uglier than self-interest, nothing? How are trolls any different from self-interested politicians and public policy practitioners? It was well and good when the poor were losing jobs and in the process becoming poorer. Now that this prospect is threatening the once inoculated it must be dealt with.