One of my favorite people, Nick Ford, wrote a charitable and thoughtful response to my latest FEE article about, as he put it, “overthrowing capitalism and abolishing jobs through machine learning and automation.”
Nick: “If that sounds weird to you, well that’s Cathy.” He knows me. (And he loves me anyway.)
My argument is essentially that arguing against artificial intelligence because it will allow capital holders to exploit labor even more than they already are is not smart because we’re all being exploited by scarcity and AI will help us kill scarcity.
Nick does not agree with me. Nick’s argument, if I understand him correctly, is that it’s not scarcity which creates the conditions necessary for exploitation, but power imbalances. Bosses aren’t able to exploit workers because workers have to work to eat. They’re able to exploit workers because bosses need the workers less than the workers need the bosses.
Nick takes pains to define his terms, which is awesome. He defines exploitation as “person A taking an unfair advantage of person B.” He uses a person dying of thirst on a dessert island giving up their life savings for a bottle of water as an example. I also like that Nick takes pains to clarify that this transaction is both technically voluntary and absolutely mutually beneficial.
But it’s also… kinda shitty.
The problem with Nick’s definition of exploitation is that it raises more questions than it answers. What is “fair?”
This is important as we move to his conception of power differentials under post-scarcity.
Even if we had a society in which we (somehow) abolished scarcity through technology I can still imagine those who have better access to non-scarce resources to dominate those who don’t have those same abilities. We could still see an upper class form and solidify on the basis of better understanding of technology or stronger forearms or finding certain particularly lucrative combinations of technology first.
I completely agree that under my conception of fairness, this doesn’t pass muster.
What I have to ask though, is this. Who the fuck cares?
Going back to his dessert island example, the horror is pretty clearly in the direness of the situation, not the disparity.
Nick: “I’d rather make a little more money at my job, I’d like to be able to read The Picture of Dorian Gray at my leisure when there isn’t anything pressing I need to do, etc. But I can’t adequately bargain for any of these things from my position of authority.”
I mean, I have trouble calling the fact that Nick doesn’t get to read in his downtime at his job “exploitation.” Is it FAIR that Nick’s boss gets to set the terms of their relationship? Probably not. But is it something I’m going to get up-in-arms about? No. Because I’m a heartless bastard.
No, it’s actually because I don’t much care about equality. I do care about fairness. To me, part of fairness is that what people give and receive somewhat line up. So if I own capital, it should be, in a “fair” society, because I worked hard and provided value for other people in exchange for that capital. In reality, it’s likely because my grandparents took advantage of the FHA’s home loan program which enabled them to send their kids to college and so when my parents had me they valued a degree and so on and so forth. Racism, sexism, cronyism, etc. all conspire to separate the distribution of capital from positive contributions to society.
I agree with Nick that power disparities will likely persist in post-scarcity. If today’s power disparities result at least in part from racism, sexism, cronyism, etc. there is no reason to believe that tomorrow’s won’t either. And for that reason they are unfair. But the power disparities themselves aren’t unfair. They’re amoral. The reasons for them are.
But either way, they’re not going away. So the best we can do is to raise the floor of power. Which is to say, right now there are people, millions, who live very close to the edge of survival. They are the metaphorical person on the dessert island, only instead of a bottle of water for their life savings, they will hours of their lives doing horrible work to avoid starvation.
If we take away the threat of starvation, suddenly the power disparity doesn’t matter as much. The goal, my whole fucking life, really, is aimed at a reality in which the person with the least power says, “Oh, no. If I don’t do this work I have to settle for a Coach bag instead of Prada.”
That might not be possible. But it seems like it’s worth trying to get there to me.