David Carr: Hasta la victoria siempre, baby - choices for our automated future

CommonSpace columnist David Carr asks how we can use automation to deliver the post-work society that we want. Do we want fully automated luxury communism - or do we want Skynet?

I CAME late to the Terminator franchise. I was researching developments in robotics and friends said I should start with Terminator 2. Good call.

Automation has been gathering pace. I studied ergonomics - literally, the science of work - in the 1980s. We were interested in 'socio-technical systems' - how technology affects the way we work - and visited sites such as an industrial robot factory and the nearby British Leyland Longbridge factory which used those robots to replace people.

Some already predicted that automation would give us "more leisure than we’d know what to do with". Clearly, that didn’t materialise, but artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are increasingly sophisticated. The Bank of England’s chief economist predicts 15 million job losses in the UK.

Is our future Skynet? Just as the action in Terminator 2 takes place in the here and now, we can see how current automation might develop in the future. So what is its current trend?

There wasnae much leisure in Terminator 2. As you’ll know, it portrays a future in which all is subverted to the military goals of Skynet, a network of AI. Humans are expendable. A key line near the beginning is when the Terminator robot tells the biker: "I need your boots, your clothes and your motorcycle." Why would a human need them? Or their life? There is no space for human need, agency or emotion in Skynet.

This dystopian vision originated with the American sociologist, Lewis Mumford. He was pessimistic about the technological future. For Mumford, the rot set in with the mechanisation of time - clocks - which allowed people to say, "Work my power loom for X hours. I’ll give you enough money to live on and take the rest." 

As technology developed, people would potentially become more and more subservient to others’ goals, their lives shaped by the demands of mechanisation. As has happened since the start of the industrial revolution.

Mumford developed the concept of megamachines - large, hierarchical organisations with human and technological components. One example was the 'Eichmann' - a system of people, bureaucratic controls and physical components which served a single, controlling purpose. 

Well, there’s Amazon Dash, a wee button that you can push when you notice you are running low on toilet rolls. It sets in motion a chain of events which could - in the very near future - be automated. 

The people within the system performed atomised tasks - such as drawing up freight timetables for the Auschwitz-Birkenau line - which they had no control over and no moral engagement in. Evil became banal.

Is our future Skynet? Just as the action in Terminator 2 takes place in the here and now, we can see how current automation might develop in the future. So what is its current trend?

Well, there’s Amazon Dash, a wee button that you can push when you notice you are running low on toilet rolls. It sets in motion a chain of events which could - in the very near future - be automated. 

For example: a robotic tree feller enters a forest. A driverless lorry takes a tree to an automated toilet roll factory. Toilet rolls are taken to a warehouse. When an order is placed (this too can be automated - just send toilet rolls every couple of weeks), money is automatically taken from the customer’s account and a drone delivers it to their home. 

Even the customer is part of the megamachine - the Bezos - because their purpose is to work so that their bank account has enough money in it for Amazon’s shareholders. The customer is also responsible for providing the public infrastructure required to make all this happen - because Amazon sure doesn’t.

For example: a robotic tree feller enters a forest. A driverless lorry takes a tree to an automated toilet roll factory. Toilet rolls are taken to a warehouse. When an order is placed, money is automatically taken from the customer’s account and a drone delivers it to their home. 

Don’t worry. We’re not there yet. Human components have not yet been entirely eliminated. They still need people in the warehouse to work on zero hours contracts - described as "people as just-in-time inventory" - to collect the toilet rolls from the shelves, their actions controlled by GPS wristbands. There are refugees in Glasgow who travel at their own expense to Dunfermline for the privilege. 

I guess that ultimately the goal might be to eliminate humans altogether - but who would you sell toilet rolls to? Enter the crisis of capitalism, and the system falls down. 

But as they say in Terminator 2, there is no fate but what you make. The Terminator could be reprogrammed to look after humans, to behave ethically and to take account of our emotions. As Arnie says, "I understand why you are crying, even though I cannot feel it." We can make automation work for the people.

There is a growing school of thought that suggests that our future could be fully automated luxury communism. The machines will do all the work necessary to meet human needs. Networked together, they can plan and adapt better than the dictatorship of the proletariat ever could.

Marx and Engels - who wrote about automation - said that they had no idea what communism would look like. How could they? Imagining our automated society is for science fiction visionaries.

I guess that ultimately the goal might be to eliminate humans altogether - but who would you sell toilet rolls to? Enter the crisis of capitalism, and the system falls down. 

One vision could be Wall-E. Happy humans, their physical needs met, fed pap entertainment to keep them content. Fully automated luxury consumerism? Or maybe just jack people straight into the AI and they can live in some sort of - matrix?

There is no role for human agency or moral engagement here. That remains in the control of the automation. Neither does it address fundamental, evolutionary human needs. 

We are social animals who feel happiest in natural environments. We need an automated future that puts all of us first, in which we can discuss our collective needs as a community - things like how we share our resources without trashing the planet, as per Wall-E, but with all the technological benefits of human ingenuity.

Ergonomists talk about 'human-in-the-loop' automation, when people direct automated systems, are given choices and, at the very least, have a veto over what they do. To achieve that, people need to be equipped with information and the education to understand it. 

There is a growing school of thought that suggests that our future could be fully automated luxury communism. The machines will do all the work necessary to meet human needs.

They need to be networked with others to form a collective view. This - loosely speaking - is called democracy. They also need authority over the automation - they have to own it.

The future starts in the here and now. To make the fate we want, we have to start doing some things in preparation. Share the benefits of industry so that people can still lead fulfilling lives, even if they no longer have jobs - perhaps via a Citizen’s Income

Allow people to participate in deciding how production should work - industrial democracy. Educate people not for jobs - there won’t be any - but to equip them to engage in democratic decision making and participate actively in cultural life. 

Assuming we can collapse capitalism in a useful direction and emerge into fully automated luxury communism - what would we want? I was briefly seduced by something already available from a catalogue targeted at sufferers from affluenza - a robotic, self-propelled, sonar-equipped diving suit. One of those would be cool. Maybe to share.

We need an automated future that puts all of us first, in which we can discuss our collective needs as a community.

Without the need for work, our options would be endless. Engels wanted to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, criticise literature after dinner. 

We could sing, play, pray, learn, sculpt, garden, massage, write poetry, design spaceships. For other options - I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s 'Red Mars' series.

For me, what I’d really like to do is to bake my own bread. By hand.

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.