The Influence of Technology, ICA London, Digital Talk

joanne_mcneil_ica

The Influence of Technology, ICA London, Digital Talk 
Feb 25, 2014

Transcript of my talk, (begins at 19:20 in the video.) Later in Q+A, we discussed Google’s role as sponsor of the event, including its recent controversial launch of “DevArt” connected with an upcoming show at the Barbican. Very much recommend this piece in The Guardian by Georgina Voss on the subject.

Thank you so much. I’m really happy to be here, especially since the exhibition here and at the Tate is just extraordinary. That piece downstairs, the 1955 Man, Machine, Motion, when I first took a look at it, my thought was well, the human is right there. There is a man on a bike, a man on a plane, a man in a submarine — but today that relationship is strained.

That’s postwar enthusiasm. When Hamilton made that piece, he was working at a time with something like 3% unemployment.* If there was talk of automation, is was talk of fear of losing ourselves, fear of losing our habits, because technology was associated with a boom and productivity. That’s not without exceptions. Kurt Vonnegut published Player Piano in 1952, that’s forecasting a lot of the income inequality that has come out of the digital age, but most of that criticism came much earlier like Chaplin’s Modern Times and Zamyatin’s We. Tech back then was associated with the future, a promising future of prosperity.

Now the question is more along the lines of how do we value the skills a computer does not have, how do we value the labor a computer cannot do? In 2011, there was a book that came out called Race Against the Machine. It was two MIT economists who pointed out that increase in jobs has decoupled from increase in productivity. Job creation no longer leads to economic growth, as it did years ago. There had been a relationship up until the digital age.

Just recently there was news that Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion. That’s 55 employees. And what kind of jobs can we even imagine? If 19 billion is something that only 55 people can build, well maybe they will hire a secretary, maybe they will hire a night guard, or a couple community managers, but it’s not conceivable of what kind of labor these immaterial products are going to bring. Human beings are a liability as employees. Let’s be honest here. Human beings get sick. We grieve. We get depressed. We have emotions. We aren’t necessarily loyal to our employers all the time. We have agency.

But let’s think about the kind of things a computer can’t do. A computer can’t teach a course—can it? Well, why are adjunct faculty struggling to make ends meet? A computer wouldn’t be a very good journalist but it’s journalists that are really struggling to find employment these days. Computers aren’t nice or friendly but we are replacing greeters with these holograms at trains stations and airports doing emotional labor because human beings can’t be expected to be that disposition at all times.

Another thing that concerns me is digital technology has made it much more vague when we are on the job and when we are not. Workers struggled very hard to get things like weekends, to get things like 9 to 5 hours, to make sure that their home and work were separate. And now, when you’ve got an iPhone in your pocket, you are always available.

Even if economic predictions are right that we can bounce back, we need to be talking seriously about the short run. We need to talk about things like why more than a million Americans saw their unemployment benefits cutafter the Christmas holiday unexpectedly. Why is something like that happening? These are exactly the sort of things we need to be protecting when low skill wages, low skill labor is so at risk. What happened to the travel agents, is likely going to happen to many different industries.

We are conditioning ourselves to expect exploitation to be the normal way of working. Look at services like Task Rabbit, look at GigWalk, look at these gig finding services, one in particular, Mechanical Turk was the subject of a recent story in The Nation. It said as many as 1 in 8 Turks use it as a full time job. They are making as little as $150 a week for 60 hours of work. This is because there aren’t jobs available to stay at home with your family, there aren’t jobs in general. And sometimes people are taking tasks from computer programs. To back up and explain what Mechnical Turk is, it sounds really dystopian. It’s a service that is giving human beings little tasks like describing an image, discerning ambiguity or discerning bias in an article, the kind of things computer programs can’t do. These are things people are doing for pennies a task. And some actually struggling to make ends meet while working as Mechanical Turks.

I want to draw attention to this because that is what digital technology is, that is what we need to make visible. We need to be aware that when we are talking about technology we are talking about Foxconn, we are also talking about the exploited labor overseas, the conflict minerals that our iPhones are made of.

There was an enormous push to get the iPhone 5 out on shelves. Something like 4 million phones were sold every week in the first few months after the launch of the iPhone 5. We see the iPhone, we see the apps. We don’t see is that there were laborers with their passports held, deeply in debt, just so this production cycle could move that rapidly.

In Hamilton’s time, there were no mega-corporations, of the sort like Facebook, of the sort like Apple, of the sort like Amazon, which is running Mechanical Turk. Amazon, ostensibly a bookseller, is also providing cloud services to the CIA, which runs the drone program. These are relationships that just were not happening years ago. Even Google. I’m very glad that they put this event together, but we had to log into google accounts to participate in it. It will be saved to Google’s servers. This is a sponsorship model we should be aware of. Any honest discussion about the future of technology has to be talking about worker protection and the decentralization of power.

*Actually, barely 1% of the workforce in the UK was unemployed in 1955.