The Convenient Death of Control
While we, in my family, go out of our way to avoid Amazon with some measure of success, many of our progressive friends effuse over the cool stuff they get through their Amazon Alexa. When we ask why they don’t go to a store and compare prices and select the best product, the response is understandable and practical: work takes sixty to eighty hours a week, the world has become unbelievably complex and there simply is no space in the day for doing what needs to be done.
This is entirely reasonable, but it obscures the fact that these in-home devices are engaging in an all-too-common process in today’s environment. The essence of the problem may be summarized as follows: There are actual problems to be solved which we, as a community, could do if we could just focus. Unfortunately those in power seek to distract us because the solutions would threaten their wealth.
The problem would be obvious without the confusion of convenience. Our friends are over-worked and under-paid. Some are teachers. Some are postal workers. Some are restaurant workers. Each one is providing essential value to the community but, in this economic construction, none of them are paid in a manner commensurate with their contribution.
Each of those people is trapped in a world where the wage is not sufficient to satisfy needs; and, the responsibilities are beyond what should be expected of any competent person. Two people must work for some company or institution in order to support a family which leaves little to no room for home maintenance, after-hours child support activities, personal development, needed recreation or participation in politics. At this point, going shopping is just a joke.
The problem is that there is another problem — a meta-problem, actually. The problems have been summarized above, but the complete understanding of the whole problem requires us to see that it derives from an exploitation of those underlying problems by privileged individuals who seek to leech value from society rather than contribute value to it. Rich sociopaths look at the growing gloom of the human condition and realize that in the growing gloom lies profit. One could solve the underlying problems by advocating for a universal living wage and universal health care which increase the wealth of the middle and lower classes. As a result, the upper class must see to it that these things do not happen.
Monopolies in the U.S. have provided “solutions” which actually serve to cement the problem in place as a permanent font of profits. These corporations promote the specious notion that the world is inexorably accelerating towards an incomprehensible future and average people must practice extraordinary skills and use extraordinary means in order to keep up. Plummeting wages and longer hours reinforce this view as if it were simply a natural outcome of the human condition. Working unfathomable hours for meager wages, a convenience will look like the solution. It is not.
Amazon is not selecting those products that would best serve this household. To do so would require an understanding of these individual’s basic human needs that far exceeds Alexa’s program. It would require that Alexa compare prices and features from a wide array of suppliers with an understanding of what may delight and inspire or, with any luck, continue functioning after end-of-warranty. It would have to do what humans do when they engage in that creative activity we call shopping. Alexa appears to do that but it cannot. Only certain select products are promoted by Amazon based upon Amazon’s profit calculations and not upon what best serves the consumer. For that reason the actual options are severely constrained. Outside of Amazon, and inconsistent with Amazon’s corporate goals, is a stimulating festival of useful, interesting and innovative products in a marketplace that is not convenient in the Amazon sense. Despite this, the world generally assumes that Amazon is the marketplace. Even Consumer Reports passes members to Amazon as a main source of merchandise.
Amazon compensates for the lack of variety and the mismatches between need and product by making it very easy to return a product that is not acceptable. This is not “training” Alexa, it is training its customers. By letting Amazon or some other wannabe monopolist do our shopping, we let them select for us those goods that make them the highest profit. The selection algorithm tunes itself to reliably provide the least objectionable product at the highest possible price to the exhausted customer who is merely a component of this algorithmic system.
It is an old story amplified by modern technology. The wealthy present their desires to the impoverished for fulfillment by a system in which the labor of the serfs enriches only their masters. In this environment, the serfdom doesn’t end with the employee. This corporate strategy brings serfdom to the customer as well, as the in-home interlopers collect data, provide goods and insinuate themselves intimately into the very heart of the household as malignant agents of their corporate controllers.
Does this sound like an airy-fairy, bleeding-heart liberal complaint? Consider further. This is a system that threatens capitalism by making investment contingent on a handful of approvers within a narrowing monopsony; it threatens competition by eliminating the crucial role of the consumer in selecting between rivals; and, it threatens innovation by isolating the consumer from the process of selecting the ideal product for the need. It mechanizes the crucial interaction between the producer and consumer assuring the most shallow possible economic transaction. It converts the familiar interaction between economic actors of “I’m looking for something that does this sort of thing” into “I accept this” or “I send this back”. It turns a rich human economy into a binary true/false process. True/false seems simpler but it is the language of the machine, not the human. It draws the human into the machine’s world. As with all confidence jobs, this system provides the illusion of control while it exploits the mark. Capitalist or neo-Marxist Progressive, this destroys economics as we know it.
Can the Solution Be Solved?
Let us assume that no one will allow us to solve this problem. How might the current problematic solution be merely improved? What if the federal government were to socialize such a service. In that case, this We-the-People central authority would take on the task of selecting not the goods that yielded the highest profit but, perhaps, the goods that provide the most value to the consumer based upon some scholarly formula. At this point, no matter how disciplined and sincere the developer of the formula, new and innovative products will suffer since they will introduce variables incomprehensible to the algorithm. We have merely moved the problem from one that enriches one company to one that enriches no company. Innovation and competition are still quashed while capitalism becomes subservient to government rather than a monopoly.
What if the government were to crowd-source this solution? What if people all over the world were to sign up as creative product-selection advocates. The consumer’s request would be passed to one of many people skilled in selecting products for consumers. From groceries to furniture to clothing, the busy, over-worked laborer would ask the open-source personal-assistant for three work shirts and five pairs of socks and a real human would respond by placing the order. In fact the real person might even interact with the consumer by asking, “There’s a new fabric that’s lighter and sturdier than the cotton you’re used to. It may be a better fit for a professional plumber. Would you like to try it?” At this point, at least the decision is being made by a random human with human frailties and human creativity. There is a certain somewhat more real market interaction but the decisions of hundreds of consumers are still being filtered through a handful of selection specialists which, human or not, restrict the number of consumers who control the market.
The real meta-problem remains: Some isolated mechanism is making choices for people who should be free to make their own choices. The problem remains: People, in order to work for low wages and put food on the table, have given up control to a complex system for reasons that make sense only if actually solving the problem is not an option.
Making the Solution Irrelevant
So the solution is not a solution. If we review the original problems we see that the actual solution, untainted by the greed of the wealthy, is easily addressed. In fact many nations have already addressed them. Other countries, with universal health care, free parents of much of the technical and administrative burdens of caring for a chronically ill child. People who lose their jobs are well-supported while looking for a new job. There are even countries where the actual happiness of the citizens is assessed and taken fairly seriously in the form of a Gross National Happiness index.
From the standpoint of labor, the U.S. is a third world country. People starve in the wealthiest country in the world. People despair and turn to drugs. People reach their psychological limit and kill family and friends. People fall to hopelessness and commit suicide in the wealthiest country in the world. Meanwhile these tortured souls are declared the rightful prey of the pampered rich. This embedded lack of freedom, this manipulation that codifies dependence and lack of control is characteristic of what we call decadence.
There have been other decadent nations, falling to fragility and faltering in the withered old age of an expired philosophy. One was recounted by Juvenal in his tenth Satire:
[T]he People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
These were not happy, thriving people working for their own good and that of the community. Juvenal is describing a lost and failing community. People who have given themselves over to an escape from a world without meaning. The responsibilities of politics and personal growth have been abandoned; and, within decades of its writing, the great state of Rome was in decline.
As to the United States, this is not the inevitable end of our great experiment in democracy. The people may still rise up and restore actual freedom. We may redouble our efforts to separate ourselves from the devices that would control us. We may demand enforcement of our anti-monopoly laws. We may advocate for those rights that sustain true freedom: a living wage, universal health care and a well-regulated competitive marketplace. We may demand privacy in our economic transactions and we may begin again to practice those behaviors that manifest our true humanity.
It may begin simply as a visit to a local thrift store or a used book store. We may organize salons and book clubs to revel in our unique human interactions. We may, if very busy, form a neighborhood shopping cooperative wherein a different neighbor each week shops for the rest of the neighborhood. Our goal for the foreseeable future must be to assure that one forty-hour work week will support a family and yield plentiful opportunities for personal development and recreation. Meanwhile, we may exercise the newly-formed leverage that we Progressives now have in such organizations as Indivisible and Our Revolution. We must establish a relationship with our representatives in Congress. We must telephone them and make our views known. We must advocate fervently for real freedom.
Our control will not be voluntarily returned. We must demand it.
Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen the new book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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