Thursday, 1 December 2016

General Ludd and Captain Swing

Something I hadn't known when I moved to Southampton  in 1984, following a new job, was that my grandparents had also moved here in 1939, also following a job. Unfortunately for them, the outbreak of war and the blitz of the Southampton Docks and surrounding area meant that they were bombed out of both their first home and that new job (my grandfather was a bookbinder, as was my grandmother, and his new employer, the Shirley Press, was an early casualty of the bombs). Their skills were still in demand, however, in the urgent business of constructing Spitfire fighter planes. So, when my father was evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, it was to their new home in Hamble – a bit further down the Solent – that he returned, and not to Letchworth in North Hertfordshire from where he had left to enlist.

Now, Southampton is a major port, for both cruise liners and cargo ships, although once you are a few streets from the actual waterfront you might never guess this. Modern containerized ports don't employ anything like the size of labour force they once did: ironically, Southampton survived as a port because the unions were weak here in the 1960s and could not resist the move to containerization and the associated job losses. In a sense, a modern port is a taster of the automated, job-free future that awaits us, or at least awaits our grandchildren. Behind fences and security cameras great wealth is being moved around, but is not being shared around much in the locality.

The town my grandparents knew only survives in parts. The modern town centre would be unrecognisable to them – it was more or less destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, then all over again by waves of planners in subsequent decades – but many of the streets of terraces and semis that radiate from the dockside are still there. I went for a long walk down through them this week, ending up near the docks at dusk. Those giant cranes do catch the setting sun rather well, and can be seen for miles dominating the skyline at the end of any street running down in the direction of Southampton Water. But where once at this hour crowds of men would have been bursting from the gates to get home in time for their tea, now there is just a steady stream of heavy traffic, and the odd dog-walker wandering the quiet dockside streets and parks. Unless certain minds and mindsets can be changed, it really is a glimpse of a future in which ordinary people (and in particular ordinary men) will have very little part to play. Even the truck drivers will be looking for something to do.

I'm beginning to think that some sort of targeted programme of assassination is the only hope for humanity. I'm not talking about the likes of Trump (though, you know, who will rid me of this troublesome president-elect, or however that one goes?). No, there are people out there who are intent on sucking out all the juice of life, who think the Smart Thing (or the thing that will best demonstrate how really smart they are) is to take away everyone else's jobs, and to simplify every skilled task to the point where it can be performed by anyone capable of pushing a button.

The main culprits, of course, are the advocates and developers of AI (no, not artificial insemination, fool, artificial intelligence; although, thinking about it, the two may not be unconnected). I find the motivation behind the drive to develop AI is at the same time both obvious and completely baffling.

It is obvious that, from a corporate point-of-view, people are expensive, unreliable, and inconsistent. Some person spends years acquiring the skills required to sew a pair of trousers to a consistent quality and size (have you ever stopped to think how complex an operation that is, even reduced to production-line efficiency?) and then goes and has a baby – what a waste! – or has some footling industrial accident, just because of some essential cost-cutting measures you introduced. From a "bottom line" perspective, a machine that can do a job – any job – 24/7 without significant breaks, faster and to higher tolerances, and without any significant recurring costs (like wages), is clearly vastly superior to any human. You know where you are with machines, and the fewer humans you need to pay, the more the money rolls in. Obvious!

What is baffling, however, is when you try to imagine what sort of world these AI people envisage. Driverless cars; robotic factories; machine-composed music; drone-delivered mail... What the hell are people supposed to be doing with their lives? Sitting around playing with their smartphones? Surely there's an app that could simulate all that time-wasting with apps rather better? I'm just reading how Adobe and University of California-Berkeley are working on an AI-powered image manipulation tool:
According to a newly published study detailing the technology, this tool involves a ‘generative adversarial neural network’ that works to modify images in near-real time. As one example demonstrated in the video below, drawing a general shape over a photo of a bag causes the software to automatically adjust the bag’s size to match the sketched shape without compromising its realistic nature. The software can also generate images based on crude user 'scribbles' – no artistic talent required.
Well, terrific. There's one more set of skills we won't be needing anyone to acquire. A machine operated by an unskilled person will be able to do it; not brilliantly or creatively, but well enough, and quicker and cheaper. Another one in the eye for those sentimental, elitist idiots who think that people find meaning in their lives by learning skills and earning the respect that goes with craftsmanship and pride in your work, whether it be laying bricks well, keeping accurate accounts, or diagnosing illnesses.

So, obvious but baffling. Other than standard drivers like, oh, greed (to enhance corporate profits), or One-Per-Cent-ism (to create an ever deeper divide between the hyper-wealthy and the rest of us), what can the motivation be? Having met some of these Techno-Enemies of the People, I suggest there may be a nerdish envy at work: "You think you're clever, with your tailoring, piano-playing, doctoring, and shit? Well, I can write software that makes all your so-called skills redundant! Now who's clever?" Hmm, make a few nerds super-rich, and make millions of decent, ordinary human beings redundant. It's a plan.

As I say, targeted assassination may be our only hope. And maybe some good old-fashioned machine-breaking!  Never mind Drake's drum – unless we play the Brexit thing very badly indeed we need never fear German bombers flying overhead again – now may be the time for General Ludd and Captain Swing finally to awake from their slumbers. Bring me my hammer of burning gold, bring me my spanners of desire...


Zouk Delors said...

Thomas Rink said...

Mike, I believe it's all connected to each other. Increasing automation and productivity means that the value of manpower, of "work" depreciates, and wages and salaries consequently decrease. This, in turn, leads to decreasing mass purchasing power, making production less profitable. How to overcome this? Right, by increasing productivity. A attempt to break this downward spiral of profits was to deregulate the financial sector (Reagan/Thatcher). Both trends (devaluation of work, generation of profits through the finance sector) in conjunction are responsible for the 1/99% divide we experience now. If our democratic societies aren't able to solve this problem, they will perish and turn into dictatorial regimes. We are currently experiencing the beginning of this.

In my late teens, I read "Eros and Civilization" by Herbert Marcuse and was quite impressed. Later, I thought that he was pretty naive. Nowadays, I'm wondering if he doesn't have a point after all ...

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Yes, I think in the light of recent developments a lot of us are dusting off the radical idealism of our youth and thinking, hmm, it's been a long time, but I've missed you...

The other idea with a lot of life in it currently, of course, is moving to Scotland.


Omer said...

I think the hoi polloi who voted for Donald are in for a rude awakening, if his appointments are an indication. Of course, it could go the other way; working folks have been tamped down consistently enough that a charismatic oligarch may just have the celebrity cache to keep them fantasizing of the greatness of their identity until their wings burn.

And unfortunately, Canada is not part of United States Kingdom.

Omer said...

I should also say that this is a very nice set of pictures. Those cranes are not easily put out sight, and they've reminded me of my years working in a shipyard. While work is nice don't romanticize the life of blue collar work. It can be oppressive and mean.

I'll just ask pointedly: What camera and lenses do you use? I notice also you like the vertical orientation, which I rarely use.

Mike C. said...


Thanks. These were taken with a Fuji XT-1 with the Fuji 27mm f/2.8 (roughly 40mm equivalent in 35mm terms).