A digital crop

I spent the holiday weekend sitting in the sunshine reading digital economy books of varios types (in between cooking for the family and playing with the 10 week-old). First up was Steffen Mau’s The Metric Society, one of the slowly expanding genre of sociology of economic measurement books. The underlying theme is the use of metrics to quantify the qualitative, and the consequences of the appearance of objectivity: “By assigning a number to the thing observed, we take a step toward objectivizing it.” At the same time, measurement ‘disembeds’ phenomena from local context and knowledge. “Numbers not only isolate information from its original context but also place it in extended comparative contexts.” The added spice in this book is the ever-growing scope of the use of data as digitalisation marches on. And, like other similar books, The Metric Society is pretty pessimistic – this implies, it suggests, a panopticon society with entrenched structures of inequality. After all, “Categorical systems, once established, become extremely hard to overthrow.” However, I decided the power of numbers gives some reason to be cheerful. As Mau writes: “The nomination power invested in indicators, data and measurements can potentially restructure whole areas of society and impose new logics of action.” As Lenin said (quoted here): “We must carry statistics to the people and make them popular.” My new motto. While people might find an obsession with economic statistics a bit – nerdy – in fact it’s a revolutionary programme!

41sQCo09PuL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social

The second book was a proof copy of Democratic Capitalism at the Crossroads by Carles Boix, out next month. I probably shouldn’t give too much of a preview before its publication date, but this is about the interplay between the economics and politics of digital – as the subtitle puts it, ‘technological change and the future of politics.’ The first half of the book compares three modes of capitalism, the 19th century Manchester variety, the 20th century Detroit variety and the 21st century Silicon Valley one. The second part discusses the interaction between digital technology, especially AI, and the labour market. Quite a lot of this covers the economic literature on the issue of the skill bias of technical change, and the resorting of jobs into tasks in extended supply chains, so this is familiar territory. The polarisation of jobs and wages is linked to populist politics and the prognosis is somewhat gloomy – the author is a bit techno-determinist, taking the ‘half of all jobs’ to be taken by robots line as more of a forecast than a thought-experiment. The book ends with some rather generic recommendations – enhance skills, pay a universal basic income. I’m sure it’s right to draw the link between the economic and political polarisations, but I’m more in the territory of taxing multinationals, capping CEO pay, enforcing competition policy etc.

415Rzs1j8qL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Democratic Capitalism at the Crossroads

The third was How to Be Human in the Digital Economy by Nicholas Agar. It advocates ensuring there are ‘human’ jobs as more and more activities get automated – in effect, the book takes Baumol’s well-known prediction about the growing share of employment in the least productive sectors, and, labelling this the ‘social economy’, argues against seeking ever greater efficiency in these jobs. Although I agree – and hence it means interrogating what we mean by ‘productivity’ in different types of job – I found the book rather rhetorical. Eg, “AI is the digital superpower that thwarts traditional human responses to technological unemployment.” Whereas Boix has rather too many numbers and charts, Agar has too few. The latter’s suggestion for paying for the “less productive” social economy is the Lanier/Weyl data-as-labour idea, but otherwise it is not very specific about how to create the desired social economy.

51MF72+uFHL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_How to Be Human in the Digital Economy (The MIT Press)

Anyway, it’s quite interesting to see this crop of books on AI/digital and the future of the capitalist democracies. No doubt there are many more to come.


What counts?

After hating the book of the moment, Shoshan Zuboff’s much-praised Surveillance Capitalism, perhaps it underlines my contrariness if I tell you how much I loved my latest read, a book about classification. It was Sorting Things Out by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star, quite old now (1999). I can’t remember how I stumbled across it, but it absolutely speaks to my preoccupation with the fact that we see what we count & not the other way around.

The book investigates the confluence of social organisation, ethics and technologies of record-keeping as manifest in the establishment of systems of classification and standards. The examples it uses are medical systems such as diagnostic manuals, but the arguments apply more broadly. The point it makes about the role of record keeping technologies reminded me of a terrific book I read last year, Accounting for Slavery by Caitlin Rosenthal, which explored the role of commercially produced record books in the managerialism of large slave plantations in the US. The argument that a classification system lends the authority of something seemingly tehnocratic to highly political or ethical choices echoes Tom Stapleford’s wonderful book The Cost of Living in America.

As Bowker and Star point out, classification systems shape people’s behaviour. They come to seem like natural rather than constructed objects. They also fix perceptions of social relations, as a classification framework or set of standards, “[M]akes a certain set of discoveries, which validate its own framewor, much more likely than an alternative set outside the framework.” To switch frameworks requires overcoming a bootstrapping problem – you can’t demonstrate that a new one is superior because you don’t yet have the units of data on which it relies. People can’t see what they take for granted until there is an alternative version not taking the same things for granted.

And, although this book was written early in the internet era, the authors note that “Software is frozen organisational and policy discourse” – as we are learning with the burgeoning debate about algorithmic accountability. The essential ambiguity of politics is impossible to embed in code. The big data and AI era will force some of the fudged issues into the open.



An unpopular confession

It isn’t often I give up on a book, still less one that has arrive garlanded with praise, and which I’m predisposed to agree with. However, I can’t manage another word of Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

From what I’d gathered from early reviews, her argument is that Google and Facebook have become too big, deploy great power unaccountably, pose grave threats to democracy and accumulate for profit masses of data about all the individuals using their services. It’s rather hard to disagree with this, and indeed legislators and regulators around the world are gearing up to respond, albeit more slowly than would have been ideal. Only this month Germany’s Bundeskartellamt banned Facebook from connecting data about individuals from different sources, and India forbade Amazon to sell its own products on its platform. Those with powers to fine and to put people in prison are coming for the digital usurpers.

Having read a few chapters, this is still what I take the argument to be. You just wouldn’t know it from the extraordinarily impenetrable language. For example:

“Surveillance capitalism rules by instrumentarian power through its materialization in Big Other, which, like the ancient tyrant, exists out of mankind while paradoxically assuming human shape.”


“As for the Spanish Data Protection Agency and the European Court of Justice, the passage of time is likely to reveal their achievements [with regard to the right to be forgotten] as stirring an early chapter in the longer story of our fight for a third modern that is first and foremost a human future, rooted in an inclusive democracy and committed to an individual’s right to effective life. Their message is carefully inscribed for our children to ponder: technological inevitability is as light as democracy is heavy, as temporary as the scent of rose petals and the taste of honey are enduring.” [italics hers]

There are over 500 pages of this, and it was too much when I found myself having to read everything several times to work out the meaning. What’s more, there are some analytical lacunae – no Bentham, no Foucault in a book about surveillance? And Zuboff clearly believes what the digital titans claim about the effectiveness of their data gathering in selling us; yet we’ve all had the experience of being followed by ads for the thing we just bought or being creeped out by evidence of such joining up in a way that will make us never shop at a certain outlet again. They have become conduits for alarming shifts in people’s beliefs and behaviour, for sure, but in an accidental way. I don’t know if it would be more or less scary if they were actually in control of the social trends they’ve unleashed.

Mine is a minority view, as all the reviews of the book I’ve seen have been almost adulatory. No doubt you should believe those who had more patience than me and read the whole damn thing.


The globots are coming

Richard Baldwin’s latest book, The Globotics Revolution, is a terrific primer on two trends promising to disrupt the world of middle class work in the rich economies. One is competition from ‘Remote Intelligence’ or in other words a tidal wave of talent in countries such as China and India increasingly well able to compete with better-paid professionals in the OECD. The other is comptition from AI, increasingly well able to compete with etc etc. Combine more globalisation and robotics and you get the ‘globotics’ of the title (a terrible word, but never mind). The book argues that the combination is something new and significant in scale, more than just a bit more of existing trends.

The bulk of the book considers each of the two elements in turn, providing excellent, accessible summaries of the economic research and the projections of the likely impact on work. Some of the forces identified may not manifest as fast as expected –  the spread of autonomous vehicles, for instance. The book is also more gung-ho about the continuation of Moore’s Law than many others who pay close attention to the computer industry.

I’m also a little sceptical about the extent to which remote workers will substitute for highly paid professionals, mainly because there is something separately valuable in the know how and experience gained from face to face contact in specific places. With hindsight, it was a mistake for so much manufacturing to be offshored because of loss of engineering know how (see for example this great article by Gregory Tassey); this will be truer in services. Mancur Olson’s point in Big Bills Left on the Sidewalk – that an immigrant to a rich country from a poor one becomes more productive overnight because of the social and physical capital around them in their new environment – applies.

Even so, the bottom line is that job disruption at the lesser and slower end of the range of possibilities will still have a profound impact on people’s livelihoods. We should be getting prepared. Baldwin argues that there is no mystery about the policies needed. He argues for Denmark-style flexicurity, with ease of being fired compensated by significant transitional funding and training – or even for slowing down the pace of change by making it harder to fire people (despite the evidence this contributes to high unemployment rates). With the need to prepare – and to implement far more effective policies than was the case in the earlier phases of deindustrialisation and automation – it’s surely impossible to disagree.

The book ends on an oddly positive note, given the jobs-ocalypse it predicts: “I am optimistic about the long run.” In the very long term it forsees an economy where the things machines (and I guess offshore workers) cannot do: more local, more human and more prosperous (thanks, robots!) society. “Our work lives will be filled with far more caring, sharing, understanding, creating, empathizing, innovating and managing …. The sense of belonging to a community will rise and people will support each other.” This is wonderfully upbeat, a world where machines do all the drudge work and humans brew craft beer and care for each other. It’s hard to see how to get there from today’s fractious world where the absence of a sense of community is pretty manifest in many places and only the few can afford the craft beer. I hope he’s right, though.

Agree with the book’s rosy long-term vision or not, it’s a thorough introduction to the economic debates about globalization and automation, and the forces that are going to change our world in the next few decades, populist backlask or no.


Vision and serendipity

As the year hurtles toward its end, and what looks sure to be a tumultuous 2019, I’ve been retreating under the duvet with Mitchell Waldrop’s The Dream Machine, published in a handsome edition by Stripe Press. The book is a history of the early years of the computer industry in the US, centred around JCR Licklider and his vision of human-computer symbiosis.

It has therefore quite a narrow focus, being a detailed history of the people involved in a small slice of the effort that went into creating today’s connected, online world. Licklider played a decisive role at DARPA in prompting and funding the creation of the Arpanet and hence ultimately the Internet. I got quite caught up in the detail – the triumphs and setbacks of particular researchers, their job moves, who fell out with whom, and so on. (Better than the painful minutiae of our Brexit humiliation, for sure.)

One of the striking aspects of the tale is how serendipitous the outcomes were. There are some popular Whig interpretations of digital innovation, as if the creation of the personal computer, GUI, Internet etc were purposive. It wasn’t like that at all. Licklider for sure had a vision. It might or might not have worked. It was sort of chance that he ended up in DARPA with his hands on a suitable budget to fund the networking. It certainly wasn’t an intentional US government industrial strategy, as some accounts would have it. The Dream Machine was a Heath Robinson contraption. There are lessons in such histories both for scholars of innovation and for would-be industrial strategists.