Writing long before Mark Zuckerberg was born, and anxiously gazing towards the computer dominated future, the social critic Lewis Mumford tried to understand why people would willingly (even eagerly) embrace technologies with severe downsides. To Mumford there were two types of technologies: democratic ones (such as bicycles) that strengthened personal autonomy; and authoritarian ones (such as computers) that ultimately came to exert total power over their users. In seeking to explain why people, and a society, would opt for authoritarian technologies over democratic ones, Mumford argued that authoritarian technologies (which he also called megatechnics) operate as a wonderful bribe. What this bribe represented was a way in which these technologies, in exchange for acquiescence, offered people a share of the impressive things these technologies could produce. Writing in 1970, Mumford warned that accepting the bribe gradually led to the elimination of alternatives to it, and he noted that for those who accept the bribe, “their ‘real’ life will be confined within the frame of a television screen” (Mumford, 331) – though today we might just as easily say “within the frame of a computer or smartphone screen.” And as he glumly continued, “to enjoy total automation, a significant portion of the population is already willing to become automatons” (Mumford, 332). Granted, as Mumford also noted, it was not that everything offered by the bribe was rubbish, rather “if one examines separately only the immediate products of megatechnics, these claims, these promises, are valid, and these achievements are genuine” but what Mumford highlighted was that “all these goods remain valuable only if more important human concerns are not overlooked or eradicated” (Mumford, 333).
Facebook is an excellent example of this bribe at work.
Platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and the like are all the bribes that convince people not to war against computerized control by offering them a little share of the goodies. A turn of phrase that Mumford returned to repeatedly throughout his oeuvre is the difference between “the good life” and “the goods life” – and he argued that things such as the bribe were the tools by which people came to mistake “the goods life” for “the good life.”
Behaviorism and surveillance at school. Behaviorism and surveillance at work.
The making of the automatron class.
“And that, increasingly, is the dividing line in modern workplaces: trust versus the lack of it; autonomy versus micro-management; being treated like a human being or programmed like a machine.”
And that, increasingly, is the dividing line in modern workplaces: trust versus the lack of it; autonomy versus micro-management; being treated like a human being or programmed like a machine. Human jobs give the people who do them chances to exercise their own judgment, even if it’s only deciding what radio station to have on in the background, or set their own pace. Machine jobs offer at best a petty, box-ticking mentality with no scope for individual discretion, and at worst the ever-present threat of being tracked, timed and stalked by technology – a practice reaching its nadir among gig economy platforms controlling a resentful army of supposedly self-employed workers.
There have always been crummy jobs, and badly paid ones. Not everyone gets to follow their dream or discover a vocation – and for some people, work will only ever be a means of paying the rent. But the saving grace of crummy jobs was often that there was at least some leeway for goofing around; for taking a fag break, gossiping with your equally bored workmates, or chatting a bit longer than necessary to lonely customers.
The mark of human jobs is an increasing understanding that you don’t have to know where your employees are and what they’re doing every second of the day to ensure they do it; that people can be just as productive, say, working from home, or switching their hours around so that they are working in the evening. Machine jobs offer all the insecurity of working for yourself without any of the freedom.
The debate about whether robots will soon be coming for everyone’s jobs is real. But it shouldn’t blind us to the risk right under our noses: not so much of people being automated out of jobs, as automated while still in them.
…he divides his colleagues into three different types:
The first group suffer burnout, he said. The second group survive but are “lousy”. It’s the third group that cope, as they “care for patients without sacrificing themselves on the altar of professional vocation”.
What we need to be focusing on in education is preparing young people to be compassionate human beings, not cogs in the capitalist machine.