Strap in — it’s the rise of the machines

Posted on January 21, 2020


We have entered not just a new year, but a new decade. And one that promises to be even more turbulent than anything since World War II.

With increasing tension over Iran, the already suppurating sores and boils on the global body politick are unlikely to subside at any time soon. In fact, they may grow worse unless the cause of the disease is widely accepted and dealt with.

But while a future of horrendous inequality on a polluted, over-heated planet beckons, there is still hope. Although none of it stems from the wooly platitudes mouthed last weekend by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

What optimism exists should stem from the fact that the elites of this world no longer largely control the flow of information. The internet and social media have changed that.

One consequence in the past decade was the Arab Spring and, in particular, the events in Cairo’s Tahir Square. These illustrated how popular power can be marshalled by modern, democratised communication. Hong Kong is a more recent example.

But these and other mass protests also illustrate a recurring problem: rebellion against an aspect of society, with no idea of a comprehensive alternative. This tends to dissolves into nihilism, rejecting all institutions, authority and ideology.

Even where alternatives are proposed, they are usually focussed narrowly on one symptom of the disease that afflicts the overall body politick. So while it is feasibly — and desirable — to lance the boil of accelerated global warming by reducing reliance on fossil fuels, this will not eradicate the underlying cause: the competitive, profit-driven system.

Rebellions against established authority can also open the way for populist demagogues to fill any vacuum created by essentially negative political protest. Or, as in the case of Egypt, invite the emergence of an even more draconian military regime.

But the spread of protests, including those in South Africa, often with xenophobic intent, are examples of the popular use of technology. So it is obvious that it is not technology that threatens us: it is the use to which it is put. And that depends on who controls it and toward what ends.

In previous columns about technology I have quoted the “father of cybernetics”, Norbert Wiener as having warned in 1949 about the economic inequalities and growing joblessness we now face. He noted — at a time before the massive growth of artificial intelligence (AI) — that automation, “machines”, could usher in “an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty”.

He added: “These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price.” Today, the threat to jobs extends well beyond the manual worker in any factory.

But Wiener also saw that the age of the machine could liberate humanity. It could. And it might still do so if, to again quote Wiener, “We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.”

Humility in this context means accepting the inherent equality of all humanity; of democratic control, rather than the arrogance of the rulers over the ruled. And that means the radical transformation of the existing order. This starts with the dismantling of an economic system based on the exploitation of the many by the few.

Perhaps this is the decade in which working people — employed and unemployed — can unite to ensure that technology works for all. Mass communication provides an organisational means, the Bill of Rights a sound political platform.