Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Jobs, productivity and inequality

June 30, 2015

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David Rotman, writing in MIT Technology Review, made the case that advances in technology and growth in productivity have not paid off for working Americans.

He considered whether there is something in the nature of technology that rewards highly-trained employees and eliminates the jobs of unskilled employees.

I think the problem is the priorities of the people in charge, not the nature of technology.

It is not technological progress that leads to public libraries having shorter hours, or public utilities have deferred maintenance, or customer service centers keeping people on “hold” for endless minutes.  Rather it is the priorities of the people in charge.

To the extent technology is the cause, I think the reason is that the impetus has been to develop technologies that eliminate jobs rather than technologies that provide better services and improve the quality of life for the majority of Americans.

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How Technology Is Destroying Jobs by David Rotman for MIT Technology Review.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it

June 29, 2015

jobs.5x650I can remember 50 and 60 years ago when people worried about what Americans would do with all the affluence and leisure time that would result from automation.   Today that seems like a cruel joke.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it.  Applied science primarily benefits those who fund it, or at least reflects what the funders are interested in.  There can be spillover effects that benefit everyone, but these don’t necessarily happen of their own accord.

I came across a good article on this topic in Technology Review.  The lesson I draw from it is (1) technology is not a substitute for social and economic reform and (2) there is a need for scientific and technological research outside the domains of for-profit corporations and the military.

LINK

Who Will Own the Robots? in Technology Review.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism}

‘Why spy? It’s cheaper than playing fair’

March 13, 2015

The French economist Thomas Piketty believes that if the gap between rich people and the majority becomes as wide as it was before the French Revolution, there could be another such revolution.

But Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian, says the financial elites are aware of the danger of revolution and their response is to press governments to spend money on the police, the military and government surveillance, rather than on measures that would allow a more broadly shared prosperity.

technology police statePiketty is trying to convince global elites (or at least the policymakers beholden to them) that it’s cheaper to submit to a redistributive 1% annual global wealth tax than it is to buy the guards to sustain our present wealth disparity.

There’s an implied max/min problem here: the intersection of a curve representing the amount of wealth you need to spend on guards to maintain stability in the presence of a widening rich/poor gap and the amount you can save on guards by creating social mobility through education, health, and social welfare is the point at which you should stop paying for cops and start paying for hospitals and schools.

This implies that productivity gains in guard labor will make wider wealth gaps sustainable.

Improvements in military and surveillance technology tilt the balance against economic reform.

Why spy? Because it’s cheaper than playing fair.

I think Doctorow is right.  I think the reason so many known suspicious characters are able to commit acts of terrorism is that the U.S. government and other governments are more concerned about putting down social unrest.

LINKS

Technology should be used to create social mobility – not to spy on citizens by Cory Doctorow in The Guardian.

Why salaries don’t rise by Harold Meyerson for the Washington Post.

 

Why doesn’t technology make us all better off?

March 11, 2015

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We Americans long enjoyed the world’s highest material standard of living, and we were told that was because of the superior productivity of American industry.  That sounds like common sense.  If you want more, you need to produce more.  Obviously.

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But about 30 or so years ago, this changed.  Our productivity continued to increase, but our wages and salaries didn’t increase along with it.

Why?

Some say that the problem is technology.   Automation means that fewer wage-earners are needed, and our work had less value.   So naturally there are fewer jobs, and employers generally don’t have to pay as much to find people to take these jobs.

Fewer wage earners are needed.  Needed by whom?  Our work has less value.  Value to whom?

They are less needed, and of less value, to the corporate boards and wealthy stockholders who own the technology.  Or, to put it another way:  Capitalists, not workers, own the means of production.

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It’s true that the average factory worker or retail clerk did not personally create the technological innovations that made it possible for them to do more with the same amount of work.  But neither did the average corporate executive or corporate stockholder.

If technology is owned and controlled by a small financial elite, then the applications of technology will be such to benefit that elite.

It is possible that, in acting in their own interest, the elite will do things that are good for society as a whole.  It also is possible that they will do things that are bad for society as a whole.

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When that happens, we the people need to understand that their power and ownership is not based on divine right or impersonal economic laws.   It is the result of corporate structures and legal rights established by law, and laws can be changed.

Some radical thinkers, such as Stanley Aronowitz, David Graeber, Richard D. Wolff and Gar Alperovitz, are reviving the idea of worker ownership and public ownership of the means of production, which is not the same thing as government ownership.

More moderate reformers think it is just necessary to change the balance of power within society.

The important thing, as I see it, is to stop letting priorities be determined by the “job creators,” the ones who own the machinery, the research laboratories and the so-called intellectual property.   The question is not whether they need us.  The question is whether we need them.

LINKS

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit by David Graeber for The Baffler.

Why Wages Won’t Rise by Robert Reich.

The Great Decoupling of the U.S. Economy by Andrew McAfee on his blog.

Global lessons on inclusive growth by Jason Furman for Policy Network.

The Most Important Economic Chart by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi for House of Debt.

The wedges between productivity and median compensation growth by Lawrence Mishel for the Economic Policy Institute.

 

 

David Graeber on postmodernism

September 24, 2014

Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened?

The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies.  The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects.

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation.  [snip]

The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.

Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this.

The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

David Graeber on the lack of flying cars

September 21, 2014

David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist-anthropologist, wrote about possible reasons why technological progress seems to be slowing down, and why the science fictional dreams of his boyhood did not come true like the dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

David Graeber

David Graeber

One is that American institutions are reshaping themselves on the model of the for-profit corporation, where everything has to be justified on its potential for short-term profit.  If you have to show in advance what you intend to invent, and its guaranteed cash value, you’re not going to invent anything very new.

Another is that the government and corporate elite is not interested in radical new technologies that will disrupt the power structure.  So research is focused on high-tech automated weapons, on surveillance technology, on psychiatric drugs to keep us calmed down, and on special effects, virtual reality and electronic gadgets to keep us distracted.

Yet another is that the payoff from technology, in terms of profits, is reaching a point of diminishing returns, which, by the way, is something Karl Marx predicted.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.  Click on Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit to read it.

Is progress in technology winding down?

September 16, 2014
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Is technological progress winding down?  I think it might be.   And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.

I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater.   They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.

Technological20progress20640x480What have I seen that is comparable?  Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel.  I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.

I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative.  The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still.  The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious.   Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.

Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made.   As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit.  It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.

The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas.   It is amazing to me that this is possible at all.  Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.

Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.

electricity_illustrationThis is all speculation.  I could be wrong.  This is not a subject about which I have deep knowledge.

I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent.   And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.

Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic?  It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.

The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality.   A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.

I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS].   This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.

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The passing scene: Links & notes 12/1/13

December 1, 2013

The latest health issue for the elderly: ‘observation purgatory’ in hospitals by June McCoy for The Guardian.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Medicare’s payment structure gives hospitals an incentive to designate elderly patients as “observations” rather than “admissions.”  This means less care for the patient and higher bills for their families.

23andMe is Terrifying But Not for the Reason the FDA Thinks by Charles Seife for Scientific American.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered a genetics testing company to stop selling its products until it can prove its tests are accurate.  But the writer says the real danger is creating a genetics database on millions of Americans that could be tapped by Big Brother.

Activist Malpractice by Michael Donnelly for Counterpunch.  Hat tip to Mike Connelly.

The writer slams Democrats, liberals and fake environmentalists who facilitate the Alberta tar sands mining, mining by mountaintop removal in Appalachia and clear-cutting of forests in Oregon.

Canada to file Arctic seafloor claim this week by the Canadian Press.

As the Arctic icecap melts, Canada, Russia and Denmark (which owns Greenland) are mapping their northern continental shelves and staking claims to the floor of the sea.  Canada’s claim will be the size of the provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba combined.

Nicaragua canal boosts China power by Arnie Seiki for Asia Times.

China and Nicaragua have signed an agreement that would give China the right to build a canal across Nicaragua rivaling the Panama Canal.  While it’s long way from signing an agreement to actually building a canal, it is a sign of China’s emergence as a global power, and not merely an east Asian power.

Wal-Mart arrests could fuel “a new political movement of the disenfranchised,” Grayson tells Salon.

Weird science: links & comments 9/16/13

September 16, 2013

The natural world is a source of beauty, awesomeness and knowledge, but we human beings have to seek justice, mercy and the means of survival within ourselves.

They’re Taking Over by Tim Flannery for New York Review of Books.

This review of Stung! Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceans by Lisa-ann Gershwin tells how the rich ecology of vast areas of the world’s oceans are dominated by jellyfish.  That is because much marine life is sensitive to pollution and climate change, while the jellyfish can survive almost any conditions.  Flannery sees nothing to prevent jellyfish displacing all other surface marine life.

Evolutionary fitness is different from being high on the food chain.  Jellyfishes and cockroaches may be better able to survive radical changes in the environment than whales, dolphins or humans.  I hope Flannery and Gershwin are wrong, although I don’t know any facts that prove them wrong.

Stop pretending we aren’t living in the Space Age by Annalee Newitz for io9.

The Space Age is already here.  We depend on space satellites for communications, global positioning and much else and, at any given time, there are scientists, engineers and technicians working in interplanetary space.

The First Gear Discovered in Nature by William Herkewitz for Popular Mechanics.

Wheels were not thought to occur in nature, but scientists of discovered a tiny insect with biological gears that increase its jumping power.

Architect in London Accidentally Builds Solar Death Ray by Sam Webb for London Daily Mail.  Hat tip to Bored Panda.

The curved reflective surface of a London skyscraper focused the sun’s rays so as to partially melt a businessman’s car.  Nobody actually was killed.

The Radical Challenge of Building a Dorm for the Deaf by Liz Stinson for Wired magazine.

Gaullaudet University in Washington, D.C., is the largest U.S. educational institution for the deaf.  This article tells how its new residence hall was designed to create the equivalent of good acoustics—to minimize the occasions in which deaf students would not be able to face each other.  There is much more to this than I would have thought.

As Humans Change Landscape, Brains of Animals Change, Too by Carl Zimmer for the New York Times.

Scientific studies indicate that the sophisticated city mouse may have a larger brain than the old-fashioned country mouse.

Preventive maintenance, the price of civilization

August 20, 2013

The 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke said that human society was based on a contract between the present generation, past generations and generations yet to come.

He was speaking and writing about social institutions, but the same is just as true of the physical infrastructure of our society.

When I was a boy, electricity, telephone service and running water were not things that everybody had, and there were living people who could remember when these things are unusual.   I enjoy a higher material standard of living than my parents did, based on technologies I did nothing to create, from my Internet connection to my thermostat-controlled furnace.   I can’t repay my debt to previous generations, but I can pay it forward to the next generation.  That’s what I think Burke meant.

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These thoughts were prompted by an article I read in The Washington Post on-line by Brad Plumer about how electric power outages are becoming more common.   He noted that the U.S. electrical transmission system is aging and not being replaced, and wondered if there would be fewer outages if there were a more modern system.

Of course the expense of upgrading the transmission lines will have to be paid by someone—the utility stockholders, the utility customers or both.  The cost of neglect may be greater in the long-run, but the decision-maker won’t be around to face the consequences.

I think this is part of a larger problem—neglect of the preventive maintenance that is needed to keep our technological systems going.

grid-constructionThere is a lot of political support for gee-whiz technologies such as high-speed rail, but not so much for mundane work such as inspecting and upgrading the existing track system so that trains can proceed safely at normal speeds.

I don’t see this as an economic or governmental question as a question of attitude.  No matter what the system, there will be a temptation to put aside long-range concerns and focus on the next quarterly profit statement or the next election.  We live in the present and forget the generation yet to come.

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Terrorism, the Internet and free speech

August 14, 2013

I’ve posted a good bit lately about abuses of power by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies.  My friend Daniel Brandt recently e-mailed me some links to articles by a UK news service called The Kernel which are a good reminder that there are Islamic terrorists who really should be spied on.

islamic-awakeningThe articles describe how terrorists are recruited through Islamic jihadist discussion forums.  Typically there will be an open forum which argues the radical Muslim jihadists are justified.  People who post on the forum and have someone to vouch for them are then admitted to closed forums which discussed actual terrorism.

I don’t believe the NSA and the other Homeland Security agencies should spy on all Americans.  I don’t believe they should spy on peaceful protesters.  I don’t believe they should encourage and then entrap people into terrorists plots.  But they do have a right and duty to monitor pro-terrorist web sites so they can nip plots in the bud.

Here are links to The Kernel series.

The scariest sites on the Internet by Jeremy Wilson.

The hosts keeping radical Islamic forums online by James Cook.

CloudFlare: ‘terrorists little helper’ by James Cook.

Chaos on campus: Islamists and social media by Jeremy Wilson.

When ‘free speech’ means defending evil murderers by Milos Yiannopoulos, editor-in-chief.

The Kernel is especially concerned about an Internet company called CloudFlare.  Daniel Brandt also is critical of that company.  What CloudFlare purports to do is to provide services by which web sites can product their anonymity, survive denial of service attacks and optimize their efficiency.

cdn-hosting-cloudflareThe Kernel writers criticize CloudFlare for protecting radical Islamic web sites against denial of service attacks by US and UK intelligence services.  Daniel Brandt’s criticism is broader.  He says CloudFlare also provides a shield for malicious hackers, cyber-bullies, hard-core pornographers, copyright pirates and other kinds of lawbreakers.

Here are links to statements of CloudFlare’s position.

CloudFlare and Free Speech by Matthew Prince, chief executive officer.

Ceasefires Don’t End Cyberwars by Matthew Prince.

Here are links to statements of Daniel Brandt’s position.

Web watchdog’s new site: CloudFlare Watch.org

CloudFlare Watch

What it all comes down to is which you fear more, abuse of freedom or abuse of power.  This is not an easy question.  What Milos Yiannopoulos fears most is abuse of freedom.  What I fear the most is abuse of power.

Yiannopoulos thinks Twitter, YouTube and CloudFlare should be regarded as publishers, like Huffington Post, and exercise pro-active responsibility to take down dangerous content, based on their own judgment.  He doesn’t think this is censorship, but what else would you call it.

I think Twitter, YouTube and the like should be regarded as public utilities, like Rochester Telephone, which provide services to all members of the public unless there is a specific legal reason not to do so.

What do you think?

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An end to progress? Arguments pro and con

August 6, 2013

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An economist named Robert J. Gordon, and Erik Byrnjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, had an interesting debate at a TED forum on whether the days of rapid economic growth are over.

Gordon said improvements in world living standards are the result of two historical events that may not be repeated—the first industrial revolution, based on coal, iron and steam, beginning in the late 1700s in Britain, and the second industrial revolution, based on oil, electricity and the internal combustion engine, beginning in the late 1800s in the USA.

Both these revolutions have run their course, he said, and there’s no reason to think that the current technological revolution in information technology will have the same impact.  The i-phone is nice, but it will not change society in the same way that Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone did.

Byrnjolfsson said computer and information technology are in their infancy, and will have as great an impact as the earlier technological revolutions.  Human beings haven’t as yet learned how to work most effectively with the new technology, he said.

Much depends on which one is right.  With rapid economic growth, it is possible for all classes of society, rich, middle and poor, to improve their condition without hurting the others, except maybe in relative terms.  With flat or declining economic growth, the struggle for economic and political power becomes much more of a zero sum game, a sorting of society into winners and losers.

I think the videos are interesting and worth watching, but I also think both speakers fail to emphasize an important thing—that improvement in the material standard of living requires not only progress in science and technology, but public policies that make the fruits of science and technology available to the wider public.

Improvements in public health, for example, are based not only on discoveries about vaccination, antiseptics and antibiotics, but also from public water and sewerage systems, food inspections and mass vaccinations of school children.   Universal telephone service is based not only on a technology, but also on a commitment by AT&T as a condition of maintaining its monopoly position.

Advances in technology don’t automatically abolish poverty.  George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, which is about unemployed British coal miners in the 1930s, pointed out that every miner’s family owned a radio, a technological wonder unavailable to kings and emperors 50 years before.  And yet these same miners had difficulty putting food on the table.  Not having radios would not have enabled them to pay for it.

Brynjolfsson could be right.  Factory automation could produce a world of leisure and well-being for everyone.  But, depending on who is running things, it could produce a world like that imagined by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his 1952 novel Player Piano.

I can easily imagine a future USA with amazing information technology, communications technology and virtual reality entertainment technology, not to mention science-fictional war-making and surveillance technology.  And along with this, growing shortages of affordable housing, medical care and higher education, and a deterioration of public services and the physical environment.

I’m neither foolish enough nor brave enough to attempt to predict the future.  I don’t think decline is inevitable.  But all it requires is for us to continue on our present path.  We’re halfway there now.

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The Saturn V rocket explained in common words

August 3, 2013
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The Saturn V rocket explained in the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

Source: xkcd: Up Goer Five.

If you like this, you might like Short Words to Explain Relativity.

Hat tip for both to kottke.org.

After 33 years, a human-powered helicopter

July 13, 2013

Click on this article in Popular Mechanics for details.

Hat tip to kottke.org.

We’re already in the middle of a cyber-war

June 13, 2013

Evolution of Warfare

The United States is in the middle of an undeclared war with Iran, a cyberwar that is a much greater threat to the nation and its institutions than Al Qaeda ever was or could have been.   Nations depend on computer systems and Internet communications for everything from electrical distribution to banking.   Computer viruses and malware that disrupt these systems could be devastating.

nsaThe nature and seriousness of the cyberwar is revealed in two new articles, one by James Bamford in Wired magazine and the other by Michael Joseph Gross in Vanity Fair.   Bamford, who has reported on the National Security Agency for more than 30 years, profiled General Keith Alexander, who is director of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, which gives him command the Tenth Fleet, the 24th Air Force and the Second Army.  Alexander’s aim is full spectrum dominance of cyberspace, equivalent to U.S. military domination of the air and space.

The cyberwar with Iran was begun in the mid-2000s with the launching of the Stuxnet malware system to shut down of the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.   As with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Stuxnet took warfare to a new technological level, and it was the United States that led the way.

 Since then there have been other computer attacks on Iran and Iranian interests, and what appear to be counterattacks.   A computer virus wiped out the memories of the Aramco computer system in Iran, and there was a “distributed denial of service” attack on U.S. banks in May.  Both of these are a foretaste of what may happen.  Somebody hacked into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers records on 13,991 high-hazard dams—dams whose failure could result in loss of human life.

In parallel to this, the NSA has conducted a massive and highly successful electronic espionage campaign against China, according to Matthew M. Aid in Foreign Policy magazine.   This is spying, not sabotage.   But it may explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping probably isn’t impressed with President Obama’s complaints about Chinese espionage.   And it also may explain why Edward Snowden may think he can get political asylum in Hong Kong.

The significant thing about all this, for me, is that the United States has been plunged into virtual war in secret, without any public knowledge or debate until after the fact.   We have a visible government and an invisible government, and the invisible government is the more powerful of the two.

Click on the following for more.

NSA Snooping Was Only the Beginning.  Meet the Superspy Leading Us into Cyberwar by James Bamford in Wired.

The Changing and Terrifying Nature of the New Cyber-Warfare by Michael Joseph Gross in Vanity Fair.

Inside the NSA’s Ultra-Secret China Hacking Group by Mathew M. Aid in Foreign Policy.

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