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Today we’re blatantly ripping off some work from one of the Economist’s throw-away graphs.  Here is a somewhat peculiar little chart which shows the correlation between the color of new cars sold and the national mood of Great Britain.  The teal line correlates with the number of voters who are most concerned about the economy while the sea blue line correlates with voters who are most worried about Britain’s relationship with the EU (and/or the “Brexit”).  The real takeaway would seem to be that car color veers back to conservative black when people are anxious or worried about anything.

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I wonder though how the car-color graph would look against a long term graph.  I saw another chart (lost to time and circumstance) which charted the top-selling car color in the United States by decade.  In the seventies people bought brown/orange carr.  In the 80s they bought blue cars.  In the 90s the top color was green, and in the ‘aughts it was silver or white.  Probably in the ghastly teens the top color here has been black too.  I don’t know if this data is true, since I don’t have a methodology (or even a chart).  But it stacks up well against my parents car buying habits: they had a maroon station wagon in the seventies, a navy Jetta in the 80s, a teal pontiac in the nineties, a bronze Subaru in the aughts, and a black volt for the teens (although let’s not talk about the trucks–which were pea-soup, goblin’s gold, almond, dark red, sage green, navy, and deep brown).

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Here in New York, I have noticed that when the market is roaring, men’s dress shirts are pretty colors like french blue, lavender, and salmon, but when the market tanks they become gray, white, and pale blue (this may have stopped being a useful index when men stopped wearing dress shirts–polo shirts tell us nothing).  the larger point is that I suspect a meta-analysis of color would tell us all sorts of things about other indices and statistics…but i wonder whether the color choices come from consumers or if they come from marketers and advertisers who decide that everyone will want black or silver and create inventory accordingly.

 

I need a job!  If any of you folk out there need a writer/toymaker/artist/analyst let me know.  I will work for you with unflagging fervor, intellect, and creativity.  I only need a smidgen of money for catfood and rent (and someone else to manage the spreadsheet)!

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Sadly, according to the want ads I have been looking at, the world does not want astonishing super creativity.  Right now, the market economy only wants these infernal i-phones and tablets which everyone is looking at all the time.   The majority of jobs available are for low-level sales-clerks and admins to staff humankind’s great transition into a fully functional hive mind (where we humans, the individual neurons, are all always networked together through our androids and blackberries).

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I’m no Luddite. I enjoy technology and I can imagine great benefits arising from the internet when it fully grows up into a vast colony-mind. Yet, so far iphones mostly provide a solipsist diversion—or, at best—a platform for buying and selling more unneeded junk or channeling resources to Carlos Slim and other anointed telecom winners.  Naturally, I exempt Wikipedia from this grumpy jeremiad—it is indeed an amazing realization of the great utopian dreams of the Encyclopedists.  I suppose I should exempt this very blog and you, my cherished readers, as well… but, after a day of looking at ads for junior marketing interns and assistant admin assistants, I can’t entirely.  Here I am creating “content” for free so some MBA higher up the tech food chain can point at an infinitesimal rise or fall on a bar chart while his colleagues clap him on the shoulder and talk of “synergies.”  I certainly don’t want to be that guy either! But what else is there? What are we supposed to do?

Workers at a Microwave Factory in Baotao China

Workers at a Microwave Factory in Baotao China

To escape these circular author-centric thoughts, let’s take a field trip around the world. To provide a more comprehensive vision of the smart phone revolution, today’s post takes us to Inner Mongolia—the vast landlocked desert hinterland of China.  There, amidst the lifeless dunes and the alkaline sink holes is a vast manmade lake—Lake Baotou—which reflects some of the complicated dualities of the globalized market and the technology revolution.  It has been said that each computer screen and cellphone window is a “black mirror” where we watch ourselves. Lake Bautu is a different sort of black mirror.  It is literally a layer of super-toxic black sludge which is left over when the rare-earth elements and heavy metals necessary for smart phones have been processed.

Waste draining into

Waste draining into “rare earth lake” Baotou, Inner Mongolia of China (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

Ferrebeekeeper has visited the world’s biggest lake, and we have dipped our toes into the fabled waters of Mount Mazama where the Klamath spirit of the underworld dwells.  We have visited Lake Lonar where a space object slammed into the black basalt of a long dead shield volcano, and we have even been to China’s biggest lake where the world’s largest naval battle took place.  However, Lake Baotou is a whole different manifestation of the underworld.  Sophisticated modern electronics require cerium, neodymium, yttrium, europium, and goodness only knows what else. These so-called rare earth elements are also necessary for wind turbines, electric car arrays, and next generation green technologies.

Giant sludge pond in Baotao China (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images)

Giant sludge pond in Baotao China (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images)

Yet the refinement process for these elements is unusually corrosive and toxic and the waste products are horrifying.  The raw materials tend to be found in great evaporitic basins (like those of Inner Mongolia, where an ancient ocean dried into vast dunes) but most nations are wary of processing these materials because of the unknown long-term cost. China’s leaders recognized the economic (and defense!) potential of becoming the world’s main (only?) supplier of these esoteric elements and the end result has been cheap consumer electronics, a communication revolution…and Lake Baotao, which slouches dark and poisonous beneath the refining towers and smokestacks of Baotao City.

On the plus side, Baotao (pictured here during rush hour) is evidently the bicyclists' paradise I was wishing for last week!

On the plus side, Baotao (pictured here during rush hour) is evidently the bicyclists’ paradise I was wishing for last week!

A former roommate of mine visited Inner Mongolia and walked the streets of Baotao City. He described a wild-west boomtown filled with brothels, bars, Mongolian barbeque places, and…cell phone stores!  Crime and excess were readily apparent everywhere as were prosperity and success—like old timey Deadwood or Denver.  I wonder if Baotao City will develop into a modern hub like Denver or Chicago, or will it disappear back into the thirsty dunes when this phase of the electronics boom is over (or when its effluviums become insuperable).

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In the mean time we all have to flow with the shifting vicissitudes of vast entwined global networks.  We must make ends meet in a way which hopefully doesn’t harm the world too much. Now I better get back to scouring the want ads!  Keep your eyes open for a job for me and please keep following me, um, on your computers and smart phones…

A supervisor overlooks Metorox's Chibuluma copper mine, near Kitwe, Zambia (image from Chinadaily)

A supervisor overlooks Metorox’s Chibuluma copper mine, near Kitwe, Zambia (image from Chinadaily)

Moving on in our flag tour across Africa we come to Zambia, a completely landlocked country. The economy of Zambia is almost entirely dependent on copper. When copper is expensive Zambia does well: when copper is cheap, the country falls apart (copper is expensive now due to China’s building boom, so the IMF lists Zambia as one of the world’s fastest improving economies). Of course most Zambians are subsistence farmers for who have relatively little to do with the world economy or even the larger Zambian economy, but to the Zambian elite (and to the world’s mining and construction magnates) copper matters greatly {ed’s note: and for us readers too—the computing device you are probably reading this on requires copper and copper wires]. The Zambian government hopes to someday diversify the nation’s exports away from overdependence on copper: which, in truth, is to say they hope maybe to also export nickel. All of this economics exposition also overlooks Zambia’s sometimes fraught trade routes across neighboring countries. Since Zambia is landlocked it must ship its metals and ores across other countries to reach the international market, and the neighbors have sometimes used this advantage to squeeze Zambia.

The current flag of Zambia

The current flag of Zambia

The flag of Zambia should probably just be “29” or “Cu”, but instead it is a bizarre off-center standard adapted after independence from the British (although admittedly it has a great deal of coppery-orange color in it). The majority of the flag is green, which stands for the nation’s fields, forests, and natural fertility. As in other African flags, red represents the nation’s bloody struggle for independence and black represents the Zambian people. Finally copper color stands for the country’s “mineral wealth”, and the copper color eagle stands for the people’s ability to soar above their problems. A cynical person might say the copper eagle represents the copper-rich merchants and politicians who control Zambia. The flag was adopted in 1964, but it changed slightly in 1996 to accommodate changed graphic sensibilities (the green became brighter and the eagle lost weight).

The Flag of Zambia from 1964-1996

The Flag of Zambia from 1964-1996

For unknown reasons, copper-hungry China has taken great interest in Zambian politics and welfare. A news report from today (which has appeared since I started writing this post) details a technical cooperation grant agreement in which China has agreed to provide $64 million dollars worth of infrastructural, vocational, and environmental aid to the Zambian people. How generous!

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Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi

Recently I have become a bit obsessed with beautiful Africa, humankind’s original home. I know a few things about the natural history of Africa (which, after all, plays a critical role in the dance of the continents and the history of plant and animal life), but Africa’s human history—particularly recently—is sadly opaque to me. To make up for my ignorance, I am going on a blog journey across Africa from east to west.

Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Cichlids of Lake Malawi

Of course I could never afford to go on a real African journey, so we are doing this symbolically—specifically through national flags, which change with the frequency of streetlights in Africa’s um, dynamic political landscape. We already began our journey in the Indian Ocean on the microcontinent of Madagascar. We then traveled across the Malagasy strait to Mozambique, which features one of the craziest flags in the world. Today we push on west into the Great Rift Valley which runs down across Africa from Syria to central Mozambique and is slowly ripping the continent into two pieces (which geologists have named the Somali and the Nubian tectonic plates). As the plates are pushed apart, the area between them sinks down and fills up with water. Someday the entire fissure will become a great shallow sea, but at present it is a series of spectacular lakes including Lake Malawi (pictured in the two images above).

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A millennium ago, various hunter-gathering peoples inhabited the plains to the west of Lake Malawi, but, in the 10th and 11th centuries AD, a great migration of farming Bantu peoples filled up these fertile lands. Great kingdoms burgeoned and fell. Then, in the early modern era, the entire area fell prey to horrors: the rapacious Portuguese appeared along the coast, and, worse, the Swahili-Arab slave trade captured people and funneled them north to Somalia, Turkey, and the Gulf kingdoms. In 1891, the British annexed Malawi after the frequently misplaced explorer, David Livingston, reported that it would be a fine site for European style farming (Livingston was also a devout Christian who despised slavery, so he may have also been dreaming of helping the African inhabitants of Malawi with his suggestion). Malawi gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 as part of a great wave of African independence, but sadly the nation fell immediately beneath the thumb of a totalitarian dictator, Hastings Banda, who clung to power until 1994.

Lilongwe, Capital of Malawi

Lilongwe, Capital of Malawi

Today Malawi is one of the most densely populated yet economically underdeveloped nations in the world. Livingston was right—the land is a great location for farming (and fish are available from Lake Malawi) yet there are few mineral resources, and the country is landlocked. People can survive, but not necessarily get ahead. The problem is compounded because the friendly and goodhearted people of Malawi are quick to offer sanctuary to refugees from nearby wars, political crackdowns, and disasters. Malawi has comparatively good relations with the great western democracies who have offered it great hunks of financial aid (with the usual terms and interests). The little nation is also friendly with rising China–and indeed the Chinese are rushing there to find new markets and set up shop (and are also welcomed with surprising good grace).

The Flag of Malawi (1964-2010: 2012-present)

The Flag of Malawi (1964-2010: 2012-present)

Oh, right, I was going to talk about the flag of Malawi. The first flag of Malawi was adopted in 1964 when Malawi gained independence from Great Britain. This flag (above) was a tricolor of black, red, and green modeled after the famous pan-African flag (which in turn was designed in New York in the 1920s as a high-minded response to a racist song). Unfortunately, the Pan-African flag has seen some low moments and has frequently been associated with extremist political movements or wrapped around tinpot dictators throughout Africa’s turbulent recent history (particularly by Libya, which harbored (harbors?) dreams of a Libya-led unified Africa).

Pan-African flag

Pan-African flag

The Malawi flag of 1964 placed the black bar at the top of the flag and set a red rising sun within it to celebrate the dawn of a new great era. In 2012, the president of Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika, decided that the original flag did not clearly represent Malawi and he pushed forward a new flag, which was a red, black, and green flag (with a white sun within the central black bar). The white sun was meant to represent economic progress (in lieu of actual economic progress, of which there was little). The citizens of Malawi regarded this as an irrelevant and egoistic maneuver by the president and they derisively labeled the new flag as Bingu’s flag. In 2012, after Bingu’s death, the parliament voted to re-adopt the old flag which is now restored to its official standing. All of this has caused dismay to model UN clubs and atlas publishers everywhere: it is unclear whether the pettifogging changes back and forth have done anything to help the likable yet impoverished citizens of Malawi.

Flag of Malawi (2010-2012)

Flag of Malawi (2010-2012)

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

My first job when I left college was working as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—“the nation’s attic” where great hoards of objects from our collective past have been (and continue to be) carefully squirreled away for the edification of future generations.  A miniscule percentage of the museum’s collection is on display and the rest gathers dust in enormous WWII era aircraft hangers outside Washington DC where all sorts of jackhammers, graphite urns, failed rocket cars, threshing machines, whalebone bustles, (and everything else) are stored.

I honestly couldn't find any photos of vintage machines that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw...

I honestly couldn’t find any photo of a vintage machine that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw…

On my first trip to the storage facility in Suitland, I eagerly ran up to the nearest Quonset hut to peek inside. The giant building was filled with pointy overly complicated machines which did not make any sense to the untrained eye.  One typical device had been hauled outside to be cleaned.  Looming in the sunlight, it looked like an extra from a Steven King movie.  It was about 8 feet tall and was made of gray steel with big dangerous foot pedals and alarming fly wheels.  A person operating the monstrosity would lean into a whirling maw of metal gouges, hooks, and razor sharp metal spikes.  Since it dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, there were no safety features: a moment of inattention would cause the machine’s operator to lose various fingers, hands, or feet.  I was transfixed—what amazing purpose did this hellish device serve?  The senior curator and I shuffled through the index cards till we found its acquisition/accession code:  it was a machine from a long defunct factory in Waterbury which was designed to make tiny metal buckles!

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Whenever I lament the state of the contemporary world economy, I think back to that hulking buckle-maker and I imagine what it would be like to work on it ten hours a day (pretty much like dancing a complicated quadrille with a demon).  Thank goodness that horrible…thing… is in a museum and my livelihood does not involve years spent slaving over it in fear and tedium!  Today, automation becomes more and more prevalent and the majority of the world’s goods are being made by fewer and fewer people.    Industrial jobs are being outsourced to poor workers in the developing world, but even in China, Bangladesh, and the world’s worst sweatshops, the excesses of the industrial revolution are gradually being tamed.

I am bringing this up because I want to look forward into the economic future.  Even today, we could work 15 hours a week and have the same standard of living, but we don’t because, well… nobody knows.  Your pointless job of ordering widgets, looking at meaningless spreadsheets, and pushing awful HR papers around will be gone in 50 years and belong in a museum’s never-looked-at storage room (along with that gougetastic buckle-maker of yesteryear).   But what stupid thing will we be doing instead?

Assuming history isn't cyclical...

Assuming history isn’t cyclical…

brain-storm

Lately I have been reading a series of science fiction novels which are set thousands (or tens of thousands) of years from now in the fictional world of the far future.  In this imagined future, humankind exists alongside of sentient computers which have stupendous quasi-divine intelligence, vastly greater than that of people.   The artificial minds regard humankind as a combination of parent, pet, and childlike ward–however, at the same time the supercomputers are controlled by (or at least work with) the world’s wealthiest citizens who use this considerable advantage to consolidate their hold on elite positions and rare resources.  The book’s writer was (is?) a lawyer so many of the books’ problems involve lawsuit-style disputes over who controls what property in the face of complex rules and circumstances (some of which are hilarious: for example when two entities merge, they literally integrate together as a hive-mind superorganism).  Many scenes involve the hapless human protagonists standing aside baffled as supercilious machines argue over their fate (in impenetrable jargon, of course)—a tableau instantly familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with lawyers.  The work is tremendously entertaining and already out of print—so you will need an e-reader or a used book store if you want to find out what happens.

Industrial-Robot-Hyundai-Heavy-installed-at-Kia-Motors-Slovakian-plant1

As with most science fiction, the series of novels reminds me not so much of the world of the far future (concerning which… who knows?) but rather of the present.  We are currently living through a great revolution: every year our machines become substantially more powerful and more intelligent.  Thanks to devices of all sorts, today’s world is ever more efficient which, in turn, makes the price of goods and services cheaper.   Although it sometimes seems otherwise, production costs for just about everything keep going down (even though many industries are coming under the influence of cartels and monopolies).  At first the growing utility of machines  was only evident in industry where machines and industrial robots started performing the tasks of assembly line workers (to make textiles, refrigerators, automobiles, airplanes or such), but now computer programs are taking over for accountants, librarians, stock-brokers, and bookkeepers.  Inhumanly precise robots can now even do the work of surgeons, sculptors, and pastry chefs.

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Ostensibly we are all beneficiaries of this revolution.  Economic and moral philosophers have talked about a “post-scarcity” society where all essentials are cheaply provided to everyone and the only premium is on luxury goods and services.  It is reasonable to argue that citizens of the first world (and even in parts of the developing world) are entering such an economic paradigm:  everyone has a pleather couch, a big screen TV, and all the corn-based junk food they can cram in their pantry.   Yet somehow Netflix and Doritos lose their savor when nobody has a worthwhile job. Technological change and attendant globalization are causing tremendous inequality as labor becomes irrelevant and capital becomes more important.   It is more than just a political canard that the middle class is disappearing.

(Source: Forbes.com)

(Source: Forbes.com)

Secretaries, factory drudges, and travel agents are beginning to seem archaic–like scribes and icemen.  If such trends continue oncologists, soldiers, writers, radiologists, and actuaries will begin to disappear as well.  Carefully combing the daily news, one increasingly reads about breakthroughs which allow computer programs and elaborate machinery to efficiently do white collar jobs.  Here is an example article about how stock traders are being replaced by cold inhuman computers (which, strangely, still contrive to be more likeable than the traders). Soon the only people who will be productive will be the super-elites who own robotic factories, proprietary software, and energy production facilities (and consequently everything else).

Billionairebot from Futurama

Billionairebot from Futurama

Of course the hollowing out of the American middle class and the rise of the super billionaires is not only due to more effective technology.  Globalization of world labor markets and the afore-mentioned cartels (and rent-seeking) are also factors.   Expensive machines do not have all the jobs:  it is cheaper to outsource light manufacturing overseas where inexpensive labor and minimal regulation ensure maximum profits.   Yet, it seems the day is coming when society becomes so stratified that there will be few ways to enter the top echelon of society.  Capital & equity will have meaning.  Labor and innovation will be worthless.

Of course maybe I am being paranoid.  Perhaps the machines will also usurp the leaders who stand at the pinnacle of social power/wealth (or the elites will otherwise be deposed) and we can all work two day workweeks and spend the rest of the time going to petting zoos and having online conversations with friends.  Maybe the supercomputers will just kill us all off like we did with earlier hominids.

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Again, who knows?  We are talking about the future.  But right now society is not keeping up with the pace of machine innovation.  As a consequence we face all sorts of alarming class ossification, wage stagnation, unemployment, and political gridlock.  Those of us who still have jobs should start to think about the ramifications of obsolescence in the face of ever-better machines–for that fate is coming.  In the near future, travel agents won’t be the only ones who have lost their jobs to the march of progress.  Unless you are the richest person in Venezuela or the Duke of Windsor, you will soon not have a meaningful job. Will you enjoy a life of empty leisure and fey entertainment like my housecat or will you be stuck working 65 hours a week doing some task which the economy deems to be beneath the dignity of machines?

Our glorious mechanized future?

Our glorious mechanized future?

The “ghost fleet” of container ships lies anchored and inactive off the coast of Malaysia.

Today we return to China, the incandescent heart of global world trade.  The Chinese economy has emerged from the mud, blood, & chaos of the 19th and 20th century to become a world-straddling giant. GDP has grown at rates of 5% to 10% (or more) per annum, year after year.  Entire giant cities are springing up, seemingly overnight. Roads, airports, canals, and railroads are being rolled out like carpet.  The Chinese are magnificent, invincible, beyond the ordinary constraints of destiny! Yet (as you might have noticed) outside of China, there is an international financial crisis going on.  One wonders how the Chinese economy, which is still based around selling socks, buckets, and cheap plastic crap goods to everyone in Europe and the United States is coping with the huge declines in demand from those sectors.

 

An inscribed walnut-shell snuff bottle (Ching Dynasty, ca. 1736–1799. photo Bonhams)

But let’s put such a question aside for now.  That was all back-up information to the real subject of today’s post: walnuts!  Walnuts are edible seeds from trees of the genus Juglans (a word which means “acorn of Jove” to honor the virility and fecundity of the king of the Roman pantheon).  Walnuts are interesting plants in all sorts of ways.  Both the wood and nuts are commercially important. The trees conduct extensive chemical warfare against other plants.  There are dark and captivating myths concerning walnuts in cultures from East Asia to the Mediterranean to North America.  However, we will have to address the fascinating botanical aspects of walnut trees in a future post, because right now there are more immediate concerns: a speculative bubble for actual walnuts has formed in China and the nuts have become the focus of intense price inflation.

 

Buying walnuts at Yayuan International Antique Market in Beijing August 26, 2012. (photo by REUTERS/Stringer)

In China, walnuts have long been a popular plaything.  Handling the seeds is thought to increase blood flow, and the wealthy have long regarded walnuts as a status symbol. An article from Reuters (which is apparently a real article rather than a satirical joke) underlines the Chinese affection for walnuts by interviewing an ardent collector and enthusiast:

The bigger, older and more symmetrical, the better, says collector Kou Baojun in Beijing, who owns over 30 pairs of walnuts, most of which are over a century old and have taken on a reddish shine from years of polishing in the palm. “Look how well these have aged. Playing with these kinds of walnuts isn’t for ordinary people,” Kou said.

Like tulips in 17th century Holland, Chinese walnuts (particularly ancient, symmetrical, or large specimens) are trapped in a speculative bubble. Chinese bankers, investors, and speculators have been pouring money into building up light industrial production capacity and driving exports to the rest of the world.  As international trade withers, it is unclear how to reallocate all this money.  Ordinary Chinese investors have been fleeing the Chinese stock market because of widespread economic uncertainty, flagging exports, and because all-too-familiar shenanigans have made it difficult to invest in equities without being fleeced.  As this great river of capital backs up and flows elsewhere, strange markets are created, such as the thriving bubble market for dubious and or mercurial cultural objects like special gourds, esoteric teas, rare tropicl hardwoods, and, yes, walnuts.  A pair of particularly fine antique walnuts was recently listed (on a walnut trading site) for a price equivalent to more than $30,000.00.

The Chinese central government is desperately trying to “cool” the economy, but, in the mean time, people see walnuts appreciating in value by 200% and they can not resist the lure of easy money (even if they are literally investing in common nuts which grow on trees).  Cynical economists have speculated that the central government does not care about such frothy markets, since the craze for esoteric cultural items is at least not causing rampant inflation in food or energy prices, but those with a historical mindset have to wonder how this bubble is going to pop.

The exact moment a bubble is burst (Photo: BARCROFT MEDIA)

Yesterday Ferrebeekeeper described the Luddite movement, an anti-technology workers’ revolt which occurred near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The revolt centered on the idea that labor-saving machines destroy jobs, a concept which economists decry as the “Luddite fallacy.” Most Neoclassical economists believe that, even if machines cause job losses in certain industries, such losses are more than offset by the attendant fall in prices for consumers.  The history of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution has borne this idea out, as more and more goods have become available to wider and wider markets.  The history of first world nations reflects a sort of anti-Luddite narrative:  farmers are not needed to plough the lands because of greater agricultural productivity so they go to work in factories.  Factories then become more productive thanks to machines and cheap competition so the factory workers become tertiary sector employees.  The tertiary sector consists of service jobs where employees do not necessarily make or produce anything tangible but instead offer support, experience, or knowledge—for example nurses, lawyers, waste-disposal professionals, casino employees, courtesans, financiers and such like (some economists posit that there is a quaternary sector of scientists, professors, computer geniuses, artists, and bloggers—the creative sector—but we needn’t get into that here).

Industrial Robots installed at Kia Motors' Slovakian plant by Hyundai Heavy Industries

Since the dawn of the Industrial era, this progression has worked admirably for creating economic progress.  And, during that time, machines have been constantly improving.  Whereas the horseless carriage once put horses, hostlers, and livery stables out of work but provided automakers with jobs, then robot arms and mechanized welding units came along to supplant those auto-workers.  The displaced autoworkers all had to go out and become radiologists, actuaries, sex-workers, and restaurateurs.  Now, however, machines are becoming sophisticated enough to invade the tertiary sector.  Subtle computer programs are proving superior to trained (overworked) radiologists at finding the tiniest nascent tumors.  Accountants are being replaced by Turbo-tax and Quickbooks. Weird Japanese scientists have built robots which…um make sushi and pour drinks. It seems like this trend is going to gobble up a great many service jobs in the near future from all strata of society.

A world where machines are able to replace white-collar workers would mean the hollowing out of the middle class.  The international corporations and plutocrats making software, robots, and automated factories would become extravagantly rich while the rest of would have to struggle to find niches the machines haven’t taken over. A huge economic slump would grip the developed world–as average consumers became unable to buy the goods turned out by those factories.  Hmm, that seems awfully familiar.

"But the Roomba is my friend."

So are the Luddites finally correct?  Should we go out and smash our computers and Roombas? Well… it isn’t like we can stop what we are doing.  To move forward in science and manufacturing we are going to need better thinking machines.  At some point these machines will be better at thinking then we are…and they will also be better than us at making machines.  That point will be the technological singularity and it seems that we are on that path, unable to turn back.  Perhaps we will end up with a race of omniscient omnipotent servants (yay!).  Perhaps we will combine with machines and become mighty cyborgs.  Perhaps we will end up as housepets or as a mountain of skulls the robots walk on and laugh at.  I don’t know.  Nobody does. Yikes! How did this essay about a nineteenth century protest movement take us to this destination?

Welcome to Utopia--Beep!

In the mean time, it would be useful if people would talk more about what we want from our technology and how we can get there.  The fact that having better machines is currently splitting society into some dysfunctional Edwardian plutocracy is disquieting.  It means we are not thinking hard enough or using our imaginations.  We should start doing so now…while we are still allowed to!

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