Rewiring the machine

An essay written for the now discontinued Fabian Futures initiative.

During the long afternoon the office worker gazes at the drifting summer clouds and dreams of opening the window. Of fresh air. Natural light. She turns back to the insistent cursor in the spreadsheet cell.

When the boss has left and it’s safe to go she passes the cleaner working his second job to pay the rent for his shabby basement flat. It’s not all bad – he only needs to be half present, his headphones plugged into an app giving instant access to every track, by every artist, ever.

She walks home through the city streets marvelling as always at the sci-fi chrome, steel and glass towering above. Surveillance cameras wink as she passes. Nearby a delivery cyclist is beginning his shift. He has his thoughts to himself, the digital voice in his ear guiding his every turn through the labyrinthine streets.

When she gets home the ready meal is cooked in five minutes. It’s not bad. She had meant to read her book, even to return to her writing, but she’s just too exhausted – again. She collapses in front of the crystalline screen, and allows herself to be transported to another time, another world. When the box set is finished her subscription service will tell her what to watch next.

Before she switches off the light, she sees the moon shining, the red star beyond. On the other side of the world a billionaire is gazing at them too, dreaming of domed structures under strange new skies.

We live in a world of sublime and frightening machines that glimmer with utopian light, promising a common future of abundance, security and leisure.

We are developing solar technologies capable of channelling the fraction of the sun’s power sufficient for all our energy needs: enough sunlight is beamed onto Earth within an hour to meet global power demand for a year.

We are working out how to reconfigure the most fundamental building blocks of matter. Nano and bio technologies allow us to design precise systems at atomic scale, and to reconstruct life at the level of the cell. They are opening up a new wave of ever smaller and more powerful electronic devices, fantastic new soaring architectures, new breeds of resilient crops, and a multitude of possibilities for re-pairing – and re-engineering – the human body.

The immense databanks generated by our ceaseless interaction with digital devices open opportunities for continuous, exponential optimisation of the infrastructures on which we depend: more efficient energy use, better public transport networks, just-in-time supply chains spanning the globe.

Automation, 3D printing and the wealth of free information available online promise to radically reduce the cost of production, pushing the price of many goods towards zero, enticing dreams of post-scarcity communal luxury. 

And, 50 years on from the Apollo missions, we are finally entering a new era of space exploration. Our probes have explored the moons of Saturn, touched down on comets, and revealed the delicate textures of Pluto, five billion miles from Earth. We will soon return to the moon, this time to stay, and embark on the first crewed mission to Mars.

Technology is bringing us ever closer to realising the ancient dream of liberation from the fetters that have constrained human potential: hard labour, poverty, hunger and early death. It is giving us ever more power over the material world, ever greater capacities for transforming it to widen the scope of human freedom and expression.

And yet, for so many of us, our technologies frustrate as much as they fulfil, offering the shimmering promise of a freedom that remains out of reach. The machines, processes and systems we design have a chronic tendency to elude our control, to act as if with their own daemonic agency.

All the conditions for the long-dreamed of society of easy abundance are in place. But we feel our working lives accelerating out of control: long hours, stagnant pay, insecurity, multiple jobs. Software is opening marvellous possibilities for new forms of creativity: intricate movies, musical compositions, virtual environments and digital images can be created on a single laptop. And yet many of us have too little time and energy to use them to exercise our creativity, and fall back on passive entertainments. The information we share so liberally through our digital devices accumulates with handful of corporations, its possibilities for wider public good left unrealised. Powerful algorithms are locked up in proprietary software. The release of new medicines is controlled pharmaceutical giants. Biotechnology is available only to an elite. The development of next generation renewable technologies is constrained by a private sector unwilling to commit to long-term investment. Even the settlement of our solar system looks set to be dominated by a handful of private corporations.

We have little hope, it seems, that the wave of new technologies spearheading the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution can be directed towards the collective good, certainly in comparison with that which accompanied the ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ revolutions of the early and mid-twentieth century.

The rollout of technologies such as electricity, oil, steel and mass production at the turn of the last century inspired fervent futurisms. New industrial processes, guided by a beneficent state, would generate abundance for all. The squalor of the filthy old towns would be swept away, replaced by gleaming modernist cities. The new electrified world would move confidently into the future. 

That Prometheanism found its fullest expression in the early Soviet Union, where the Constructivists looked towards the advent of a ‘New Soviet Man’ who, as Trotsky put it, would ‘build people’s palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic’. That chilly, frequently instrumental view of the human was captured in vivid dystopias of the era such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

But by the middle of the century, humbled by two world wars, utopian aspiration typically took gentler forms, represented in Britain by the benign technocracy of the post-war planners. The hope that technology could be employed for the benefit of all was symbolised by the 1951 Festival of Britain, and realised through the building of the New Towns, the rollout of mass social housing programmes, the construction of a comprehensive welfare state, and the development of fiscal and monetary tools designed to manage economic cycles and maintain full employment. 

The 20th century social democratic optimism found classic expression in that most Fabian of publications, Anthony Crosland’s 1956 The Future of Socialism, which looked forward to ‘more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restauranteurs, brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafes, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model … and so on ad infinitum.’

Crosland’s ideal Britain was of its time, but his words still communicate a humane vision of a society in which technological advance is justified in terms of its capacity to serve, not dominate – to extend our opportunities for leisure, security and creativity. Today we need to begin to recapture that sense that the fruits of human ingenuity are a gift to us all, not just some. Doing so will require rebuilding faith in our capacity to design democratic mechanisms able to shape the future for our collective benefit. While such a task is far from straightforward, there are some clear starting points.

We need to radically extend cooperative models of production to give workers the powers they need to resist exploitative applications of technology. Labour has already proposed expanding employee representation on company boards, and the rollout of Inclusive Ownership Funds obliging firms to give employees own a meaningful share of the companies they work for. There is also sympathy for the platform cooperativism project seeking to bring cooperative ideals to the platform economy. In the United States taxi drivers in several states, for example, have come together to form their own platforms, which avoid the insecurity characteristic of private providers such as Uber and Lyft.

There is no simple answer to the tough question of how to begin to take some control over the immense quantities of data we have handed over to the corporations. Antitrust laws give governments the tools they need, but the primary challenge is finding the political will and necessary degree of international coordination to ensure some transparency and control regarding the employment of user data. We also need greater openness regarding the nature of the powerful algorithms constantly working to monitor and shape our digital – and analogue – interactions.

That process of democratisation must also be extended to the state. If we are going to demand that our governments use their power to direct technology towards public and not just private good, we need effective mechanisms for holding that power to account. If the state is going to play a critical role to ensure that digital data is used wisely, that artificial intelligence develops with due caution, to prevent the abuse of biotechnologies, and to manage the automation of the workplace justly – and so on, and on – we need robust democratic institutions to guide it: governments are just as able to bend technology to their own ends as corporations. Over and over again, we come back to the principles of transparency, democracy, and participation.

None of this is easy of course. The left, as ever, has to reconcile the desire to use the power of the state to constrain harsh capitalist logics with the need to ensure that power is itself tempered through robust democratic structures.

But we have to rise to the challenge. The alternative is to allow the radical new technologies that could transform our world for the good of all to be concentrated in the hands of a few. We need the courage to reach inside the machine, unravel its knotted circuitry, and rewire it to serve us, not enslave.