Imagining Alternative Presents: On Alternative History and the Politics of Technology

Earlier this year, Amazon’s streaming service released a pilot for a TV adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel. The Man in the High Castle. It takes place during the 1960s after an Axis victory in the Second World War, and the subsequent occupation of most of the United States by the Germans and Japanese. You can watch the pilot for free, and you should, because it’s amazing

By now, the movie-going, book-reading, video-game-playing public is pretty familiar with alternative history. Over the last few years, it has gone from being a niche genre just a few years ago, limited to obscure web forums and a few niche novelists like Harry Turtledove, to something that is commonly featured in mainstream pop culture. Video games, as a medium, are a bit ahead of the curve, and have been using alternative histories as settings for players to shoot up for some time now. There are even strategy games which allow players to shape their own alternative history through the game pla;. The Civilization and Total War series, to take two examples, are incredibly detailed global history simulators.

I think that this is a good trend. It’s useful, for a number of reasons, to have an understanding and a discussion about what might have been. Of course you can’t predict exactly what a Nazified America or a Europe conquered by Ögedei Khan might have looked like, but that’s besides the point. The point, as stated by Noam Chomsky, is that “there is nothing inevitable in history“. It is a politically salient fact that things could have turned out differently. We need to understand that many of the problems we currently experience can be traced back to specific decisions in the past, rather than in the inevitable unfolding of a pre-ordained modern world. Furthermore, many of the good things we enjoy today were the result of very concerted efforts, or just lucky occurrences, in the past. If we are aware of this, then we are more motivated to try and bring about a better future. Inevitability breeds complacency.

You might wonder why I’m going on about this on a technology blog. The reason is this: For all its popularity and all its appeal, the alternative history genre is pretty terrible when it comes to questions of technology. Generally, alternative histories simply have slightly different versions of the same technologies that existed in that time and place in our own timeline. In the pilot of The Man in the High Castle, for example, a jet airliner looking distinctively like the Concorde ferries a Nazi delegation from occupied New York to meet with their counterparts in Japanese-occupied San Francisco. In reality, the development of such planes was far from inevitable, and the first jet airliners in the late 1940s were in fact the outcome of a very specific commercial struggle between the United Kingdom and the United States. Would the Nazis have developed their own high-speed civilian jetliners had they won the war? Maybe. But there is no reason to assume it. The uses of jet aircraft in that timeline could have turned out completely differently from what we now take for-granted.

Strategy video games make this technological determinism more explicit. through the well-known game mechanic of the “Technology tree”. For those who do not play strategy games, a technology tree is a set of branching paths which link up different technologies in a series of consequential relationships. In Civilization V, for example, researching steam power and dynamite allows you to develop the first railroads. Railroads, in turn, are prerequisites for research on combustion. The Total War series, Europa Universalis, and other similar strategy games use the same approach.

An example of a tech tree from Civilization V. From civfanatics.com.

There is some wiggle room in these tech trees. Generally the player gets to choose which technology to research next; a choice that has strategic consequences. But, as pointed out by video game scholar Turr Ghys, there are no genuinely branching paths. Choosing to research ironclads rather than fertilizer might influence your strategy, but ultimately you or somebody else on the map will wind up researching fertilizer, and you will inevitably be using chemical fertilizers that were in fact very historically contingent in the real world. The implicit message that you can rewrite the political and military history of a continent or the entire world to your heart’s content, but technologies are set in stone.

I think that this is a big gaping hole in the project of alternative history, because it suggests that technological development follows an inevitable path, when in fact it is political and subject to all the same struggles and uncertainties of any other element of society. Technological determinism implies that the environmental problems caused by, and power relations embodied in, our current set of technologies were simply an inevitable outgrowth of history. This undermines the sense that our technological systems are amenable to change, which in turn makes people less likely to try and change them. That’s bad.

The first thing I woudl like to see, then, is more variation in the technology we see in alternative histories in pop culture. What if a German victory in the First World War led to a global transport system based primarily on airships? What if worker movements had curtailed the development of containerisation, fundamentally changing the way goods are moved today? What if the Luddites had won, and brought in a completely different set of social, economic, and political relations around production technology? What if there had been no First World War, which gave cars a major boost while undermining competing technologies such as the railroads?

In the casse of video games. I would like to see a a reinvention of the technology tree. Suppose you are given the choice at one point between researching heavier-than-air aircraft or airships, and at another point you rare given the choice between a transportation system based on railways or highways? Each of these choices would open up a completely different set of capabilities and future technologies to research, and, if you were the first player to reach that junction in the tech tree, your choice would partially determine the choice of other players. (No nation is an island, technologically speaking, so perhaps they would incur a penalty for choosing a different branch on the tech tree than you did.)

You’d have to ask people like my friend Jedrzej if such a game would be feasible and if it would be fun. Video games, however, are a legitimate art form, and so, like TV shows and Philip K. Dick novels, they can do more than merely entertain us. Entertainment is political, and technology is political, and the past and future are both political. So entertainment about the past and future is…you get the idea. From that perspective, I think it’s clear that if we are to foster an understanding of the reality that technology is a political act, we should promote stories about the capacity to act differently. That means games, TV shows, movies, books, and all other forms of entertainment that show technology as a series of forks in the road, and that which one we choose is far from pre-tetermined.

On Entrepreneurs and Activists

If there’s one core message that I have wanted to convey in this blog, it is that. Not just in the sense that there is politics that takes place over technology, but also in the sense that technology is a way to do politics.
Let’s take an example from the news recently: Elon Musk has promised that Tesla will market partially autonomous vehicles in the United States as early as this summer. This is  major political moment in addition to being a technological one. As this article  points out, Musk’s plan opens up a lot of legal questions. There will be court cases about the political struggles over the legality of self-driving cars. The same thing happened during the early history of electricity: Proponents of alternating and direct current went to extraordinary measures to get support for their own system, even to the point of pushing the electric chair as a method of execution.

There will be the huge questions about labour Uber has already made substantive plans to introduce self-driving cars into its service. Taxi drivers, truck drivers, and other people who are threatened by this, will also be watching this, for obvious reason, and will probably find themselves in some kind of legal or political struggle with Tesla and Uber before too long. There will be studies and counter-studies, and the question of whether or not Tesla’s cars are legal will become a referendum on the career prospects of everybody who drives a car for a living.

The account I just gave isn’t very novel. There are others who have thought of all this before me. But it focuses too much on the single question of whether or not we should have self-driving vehicles? There’s no discussion of exactly what form the self-driving vehicles might take. That, it is assumed, is the business of engineers and other people working in large and impenetrable technology companies, who are ultimately accountable to capital. If you make this assumption, then it seems pretty obvious that self-driving cars will take a form, and be implemented in a way, that is most useful for private capital intersts, and most destructive for workers.

What if, however, this was not the case? What if activists had just as much involvement in the development of technology as capitalists did, and could influence the actual form of new technologies to be more conducive to social, economic, and environmental justice? It would certainly change the discussion around self-driving cars. Rather than simply making it a yes-or-no debate, we might ask what degree of autonomy is acceptable. We might ask questions about who should own and control the self-driving units: Individual drivers, or scummy companies like Uber. We might ask what kinds of ethics your self-driving car should implement on your behalf. We don’t have these conversations right now because we assume that those who develop our technologies will always and only pay attention to the needs of their investors to turn a profit.

Here’s the thing, though: Any company pushing a new kind of technology is already a bit like an activist group. No new technology fits into society perfectly, and often the people whose interests are aligned with that new technology have reason to try and make changes to laws, or social practices, or infrastructures in order to be successful. That’s why car lobbyists re-defined the street as a place for cars during the 1920s. It’s why Tesla has had to fight a bunch of legal battles, not just over self-driving cars, but over its business model. The first railroads could not be built without a revolution in British property law which allowed the government to force landowners to accept the fact that trains would be running across their land.

This provides an opportunity for cooperation. Entrepreneurs pushing new technologies could use activists as allies, because activists can help them make the changes they need in order to better embed their technology into society. In return, the activists can make some demands about the form the technology will take, and the way it will be implemented.

So here’s my proposal: Let’s have activist groups get involved with entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs get involved with activist groups. For example, a coalition of environmentalists and labour unions could offer their support to Tesla in the upcoming fight over self-driving cars, but only if the cars are a) sustainable, and designed to be used in a way that minimizes vehicle-miles travelled; and b) licensed to companies that give a fair deal to cab drivers. This could be important for new start-ups, which are often desperate for publicity and support. If, say, Greenpeace started endorsing kickstarters for new technologies that promise to reduce our carbon footprints, it would be very good both for the people developing those technologies, and for Greenpeace’s goal.

There’s a lot of vagueness in the model I’ve proposed. That’s intentional. I don’t run any activist groups, and there are people who are better qualified than me to turn this vague idea into a specific program. Either way, though, it’s better than how we do the politics of technology right now. Currently, when we see a new technology on the horizon whose implications we don’t like the best response we can muster is a resounding ‘no’. Unfortunately, that is only effective if anybody cares what we think. Often, they do not. Automation, to take the most frightening example, will be a big deal in the next few decades. No amount of protest is going to make the robots go away. It’s much better, then, to try and direct technological change, and *manage* form the robots, and other new technologies will take. To do that, we need to see technology not just as something that politics acts on, but as an act of politics in and of itself; just one part of the same tool-kit that is currently limited to petitions, marches, and the odd city council meeting.

Challenging our High-Carbon Narratives

It has become trendy among climate activists to focus their efforts on the production, rather than just the consumption, of fossil fuels. This has a pretty solid rationale: If we take oil out of the ground, then somebody is going to burn it. If we want to save the global climate, then we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The implications of this are radical, but hard to deny: Most major fossil fuel extraction projects have to be phased out, and we should absolutely not be initiating any new ones such as fracking or drilling in the Arctic. This is not an idle proposition, either; it has motivated a worldwide divestment campaign, as well as some very brave protesters taking on the fossil fuel industry wherever they try to frack some shale gas, dig up some bitumen, or build a new pipeline. These people deserve your support.

We can’t afford to completely forget about fossil fuel consumption, however. Consumption and extraction are very closely linked. Just as somebody is going to find a use for all that surplus oil we’re digging up; if we don’t address high rates of fossil fuel consumption then we can also expect a massive backlash from people who are still dependent on fossil fuels to threaten our progress at keeping oil in the ground. We need both approaches.

Beyond its immediate usefulness, the “leave the oil in the ground” also contains a broader philosophical and strategic implication that we should consider; namely that on any environmental issue, we should resist the temptation to focus on proximate causes, such as people heating their homes, and make sure to take account of the root causes, such as fossil fuel production and the lack of renewable home-heating infrastructure. There are social, economic, and political drivers for every environmentally destructive practice from littering on city streets to nuclear weapons testing. The actual act that harms the environment is often merely the last step in a chain of events that was set in motion in some disparate time and place. Often it would be better to tackle the first link in the chain, rather than the last one.

It gets a bit more complicated than that, because fossil-fuel extraction is not the only thing thing that sets in motion a chain of events leading to fossil-fuel combustion. Another one, which I want to address here, is our narratives of consumption. Think about the last major purchase you bought. Were your reasons for making that purchase completely rational? If you’re honest with yourself, and you’re not a Vulcan, then the answer is probably ‘no’. Our lifestyle choices are, at least on some level, performative. We do things, spend money, and, yes, emit carbon, because doing so allows us to align ourselves with certain cultural story-lines. One of my favourite examples of this is travel. If you’ve any kind of overseas backpacking holiday, then I would wager that you did so at least partly because you bought into story-line that says that such travel experiences will change your life. Unfortunately, they also emit massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

I don’t mean to shame anybody with this post. The fact that we base our life choices on cultural narratives is perfectly okay, and is probably a fundamental part of how culture and society works. My point here is a more positive one: The fact that these narratives can be a major driver of carbon emissions gives climate activists an in. Because these stories are always at least a little bit arbitrary. Particular narrative exist for a reason, of course-each one is probably a complex combination of historical and psychological factors, but there is more than one potentially compelling cultural story-line about any given thing. In other words: Our high-carbon narratives, like fossil fuel extraction, are just one of the many root-causes that we can tackle.

At this point, I have to turn to British Comedian David Mitchell’s rant about climate change:

The basic point of Mitchell’s rant is that we should stop pretending that climate mitigation will be fun, because we will never be able to compete with people like Jeremy Clarkson if that is our strategy. But I’m not so sure. To take one of Mitchell’s examples, who says driving a 4×4 to the North Pole while drinking gin is actually that much fun? To me, it sounds cold, dangerous, hangover-inducing, and mostly monotonous once you’ve been doing it for a day or so. Of course, very few of us actually drunk-drive large vehicles to the planet’s polar regions. But we can similarly re-frame the discussion around more everyday driving. Our myths about driving tell us that it is the ultimate freedom, because it allows us to go wherever we want completely autonomously.

I don’t deny that there are some specific cases in which driving fits this description. Despite my frequent anti-motorist killjoying, I am in fact familiar of the sense of freedom and fun that comes with a good road-trip with friends. But that’s a tiny subset of the driving that people do. Lots of things about driving are the opposite of freedom. Drivers are saddled with the responsibility to find parking spots and feed the meter, to fret over the price of gas at the nearby station versus the one in the next town over, and to ensure they remain sober enough to get themselves home safely and legally. As a non-car-driver, by comparsion, I am perfectly free to jump on a train to the other end of the country whenever I want. Once I have arrived, I can step right off the train into a city centre with no need to look for parking, and I can go to the pub without worrying about whether I will get a DUI on the way home. I enjoy a similar freedom in local travel: My bicycle can be locked up almost anywhere, and can be safely left there overnight if I decide to take the bus home instead. So while you can tell a story in which driving is something that gives you the freedom to go where you please on your own schedule; you can tell a different one in which driving imposes a whole set of extra responsibilities on you that severely restrict how you can live your everyday life.

The choice between the two narratives I just presented is somewhat arbitrary. There is no scientific experiment or logical argument that could actually determine whether cars embody freedom. Furthermore, the freedom I experience as a non-driver is contingent on having public transit options and cycle infrastructure available to me. The point I want to make, though, that there is a cultural battle here that climate activists should be fighting. It is, thankfully, already being fought in a few places. And not just in terms of transportation, either. Financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache, in particular, is doing a great job dismantling some of the myths driving consumption, and replacing them with a very appealing narrative about frugality and a life of leisure and autonomy. We should do more of this. We should be challenging the adventure narratives that make people carbon-intensive holidays to other continents, the personal fulfilment narratives that make people buy a bunch of useless and environmentally-destructive stuff, and the health and fitness narratives that make people feel like they have to eat meat every single day of the week. Because ultimately, asking people to live more sustainably while continuing to perpetuate myths of conspicuous consumption is about as sensible as digging up a bunch of fossil fuels and asking people not to burn them.

Be afraid, be very afraid: The robots are coming and they will destroy our livelihoods!

This box is the seventeenth-century equivalent of a quadrotor drone. From spacebridges.com

In 1642, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal built a little brass box, with a handful of dials sticking out of it. Each dial would select a number, and by a clever mechanism, another dial would display the sum or the difference of all the numbers selected. Pascal had invented the world’s first calculator. This freaked people out. Math, at that time, was synonymous with reason, which was the main qulality separating human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. Pascal had taught minerals, which were lower than any animal, to reason. Pascal’s contemporaries anxiously asked what place would be left for humans in a world where metal could think.

We never really got over this anxiety. We’re all familiar with the Hollywood flims in which robotic exterminators with the faces of Arnold Schwarzenneger or Hugo Weaving hunt down humans in various robot-dominated post-apocalyptic wastelands. Lately, our science fiction robots are a bit friendlier. Think TARS from Interstellar, or the protagonist of Pixar’s latest, Big Hero 6. Friendly or not, however, the robots are still threatening our place in the world. The friendliness of helper-robots almost makes them scarier than the Terminator, because it is that very quality which is increasingly threatening our ability to earn a living.

This is a topic that terrifies me, but also makes me a little bit hopeful. So last night I took a train to London to see an Intelligence Squared debate on the subject. The proposition was appropriately ominous: “Be afraid, be very afraid: The robots are coming and they will destroy our livelihoods.” What follows is an account of that debate.

The first speaker, Andrew Keen, is a bit of a contrairian about the internet. The moderator, journalist Zainab Badawi, called him “The Antichrist of Silicon Valley”, his latest books are titled “The Cult of the Amateur”, and “The Internet is Not the Answer”. I wonder what he would think of me, an amateur who uses the internet to write optimistic things about technology. Keen’s opening statement, in any case, set up the debate quite well. He introduced the Morovich paradox: Computers tend to be very bad at simple tasks, like welding and folding clothing, but quite good at complicated ones, like analysing market data. This means bad news for the various educated professionals in the audience, he argued. Robots are diagnosing illnesses, marking essays, and doing research for law firms. And, as I’ve pointed out, they will also be supplanting human taxi and delivery drivers in short order. That means that we face an unsavoury future with even worse economic inequality than we have today: There will be a small upper class of programmers and entrepreneurs, a huge underclass, and nothing in between.

The first speaker against the motion was Walter Isaacson, who has written a biography of Steve Jobs, among a few other things. He started off with the rather unfortunate statement that “the industrial revolution wasn’t that bad”. One wonders if he has ever seen Oliver Twist. His argument that the total number of textile workers increased during the industrial revolution might be accurate in a strictly factual sense, but does not account for the quality or geographic distribution of the new jobs. That’s why the luddites (with whom he naturally compared his opponents) were so concerned about technology: There might have been jobs in cotton mills, but they didn’t provide the same quality of life that the cottage textile industry had.

The second speaker against the motion was Pippa Malmgren; a former economic advisor to President Bush. I must confess that a bit of a pigeonhole started to form when I heard that, and that it rapidly began filling up with pigeons when she started rattling out cliched platitudes about how “most innovationis coming from small groups of a few people working out of a garage somewhere”, and how anyone willing to pull themself up by their bootstraps can be one of those people. Alternatively, she said, people can become welders, because apparently there will also be a shortage of skilled tradespeople. “In my experience”, she said, as she waved a quadrotor drone in the air, “robots create jobs”. As with Isaacson, there was little discussion about the details: How many jobs, exactly, will the robots create?

The best speaker by far was the second speaker in favour of the motion: economist George Magnus. His argument hinged on one fact: That while the automation of the industrial revolution was largely about replacing human muscle power, the coming revolution will replace human brainpower. The difference, he argued, is crucial. Now that we have robots that can mimic our mental capacities, we are unlikely to have very much left to do.

There was a bit of wrangling over the details of Magnus’ argument. The speakers against the motion made a few vague and unconvincing arguments about creativity and interpersonal skills. Isaacson made a good point that it’s a lot harder to teach a robot to do some tasks than it is to teach a human, but he neglected missed the fact that you only have to teach one robot, after which point its expertise can be replicated indefinitely. And robots are already painting and composing music. In the question and answer period, Malmgren made some clichéd arguments about the power and promise of technology, which elicited an applause from some of the audience. Magnus’ blunt but honest reply, which got a much bigger applause, was that “that’s a very romantic view, which I would applaud as well, but I just don’t think it’s true”.

In the end, I think, the question of whether the robots will take our jobs comes down to a few pretty basic questions:
1) What will there be left for humans to do?
2) How many such jobs will there be?
3) What wages and working conditions will the majority of these jobs offer?

The answers, I regret to say, seem to be as follows: Not much; not very many; and bad. The speakers against the motion had every opportunity to disabuse me of this view, but consistently failed to do so. Repeated assertions that automation has always created more jobs in the past simply miss the fact that history does not necessarily repeat itself, and we count on it to do so at our own peril. Even if things will work out in the long run, that won’t necessarily help the next few generations. As George Magnus said, quoting John Maynard Keynes, “In the long run, we’ll all be dead.” If Walter Isaacson and Pippa Malmgren were really making the best case that could be made for our economic security, then I’m afraid to say that our jobs are probably doomed.

I’m not letting Keen and Magnus entirely off the hook. Their solutions to the problem sucked. Magnus proposed various band-aid measures such as wider use of labour-intensive construction. Try selling that one to a property developer. Keen, when asked by an audience member whether this meant we should rethink the purpose of work, replied with a pithy response of “We need jobs to earn a living!” This, of course, entirely missed the point of the question, which was presumably that we should find a way to arrange our economy so that we don’t need jobs to earn a living. Both of the speakers supporting the motion saw the fear in automation, and skilfully dismantled the opposition’s arguments, but they failed to produce any hope. Maybe I’m just naive, but as I argued yesterday, automation could be good news if we can manage it right.

At the end of the debate, the speakers against the motion had 52% of the audience in agreement, but the speakers for it had won over more people to their side, so they were declared the winners. I think the real verdict appeared during the question period, when a mother or teacher who had brought five schoolboys to the debate asked the speakers what career they should be working towards. Isaacson and Malmgren said they should follow their dreams and get working on their own entrepreneurial projects in their backyard shed (or become welders), while the speakers in favour were more pessimistic: Magnus pointed out that tech firms today only hire very few people, while Keen argued forcefully that they should NOT follow the entrpreneurial dream, because that would be like staking their future financial security on a lottery ticket.

I’m inclined to agree with Keen. Because if our only hope for the future is to become successful entrepreneurs, then most of us are doomed. You can’t have an economy where everybody is a tech entrepreneur. Malmgren and Isaacson’s insistences otherwise are dangerous, because they offer an appealing palliative for those 5 boys and their classmates. Kids of that generation will soon have a fight on their hands over the structure of an increasingly automated economy. I hope for their sake that we are not taken in by vague and illusory promises that we can all be the next Steve Jobs. Nice though that might sound, ultimately it stops us from getting down to the tough business of adapting our society to a world in which robots are increasingly sophisticated, and there is less and less for humans to do.

Technological Momentum, Automation and the Cooperative Movement

I found this while looking for a picture for this post, and I just couldn’t help myself. Created by Zort. Go upvote this design so that the good folks at Queertee will put it on a T-shirt!

There’s a concept in my field of study called technological momentum. It’s a nice compromise between the overly simplistic positions that technology shapes society, or that society shapes technology. According to historian and theorist Thomas Hughes, technologies in their earliest stage of development are a bit like a ball that has just been nudged off a ledge: It’s only starting to speed up, and it’s comparatively easy to stop it or redirect it, as often happens. Technologies in a later stage of development, however, have begun to amass a collection of related technologies, infrastructures, policies, consumer habits, and cultural connections. They are like a ball at the bottom of a slope: It is moving much faster, and is thus much more difficult to stop or redirect, and can in fact knock into other things and move them around. What this means, in a nutshell, is that in the early history of an important technology, its development is influenced by society; while in the latter stages, society is influenced by the technology.

This has interesting implications for techno-utopians like myself: If we want new technologies to be a force for good in the world, then we have to get at them early, when we have a better chance of influencing the form and path that they will eventually take. It means that activist groups wanting to use technology as a political strategy need to get out ahead of it, adopt it, and consciously shape it into something that can have a positive social influence once it gathers more momentum. Imagine, for example, what might have happened if the Luddites, rather than breaking the new industrial machines, instead adapted them for their own purposes could use so that they, rather than wealthy capitalists, could benefit from the increased productivity. It might not have been possible, but had they pulled it off, the last two centuries of history might be a lot less miserable.

With that thought-experiment in mind, I’d like to turn your attention to the subject of cooperative grocery stores. Personally, I’m a big fan of them. I am an enthusiastic customer of Unicorn Grocery-a very middle-class organic grocery shop in my part of Manchester. It’s a bargain compared to most other organic grocers, and it’s generally a much more pleasant place to do one’s shopping than in a gigantic supermarket. Plus the produce is fantastic, and they’re the only place I’ve found where I can buy tempeh.

Don’t worry: I haven’t been captured by Big Grocery Cooperative, and this is not going to be a 1000-word glowing review of an organic grocer in South-West Manchester. But I had to introduce them because I’m interested in here is the conspicuous lack of technology that has become nearly ubiquitous in British grocery stores: automated checkout machines.

The phrase “automated checkout machine” might give you a bit of a shudder. The machines are still pretty flawed, to the point that the sentence, “unexpected item in the bagging area” has become a minor internet meme. So I don’t really miss the presence of checkout robots at Unicorn. The opportunity to talk to a human cashier is generally worth the slight loss of convenience. And of course, eliminating jobs through automation doesn’t exactly fulfil the mandate of a worker’s cooperative very well.

But sometimes when I’m waiting in the queue to pay for my groceries, I find myself wondering what Unicorn’s end-game is on this matter. The big supermarket chains, and indeed most businesses, are going to be pursuing more and more automation in the coming decades. Other businesses, such as fast food will probably follow. It’s not implausible that cashiers could be phased out altogether in some places. The rage-inducing problems with the checkout machines will eventually be ironed out, the machines will look more and more like a time and money saver, and less and less like a malfunctioning nuisance. Customers will adjust their habits accordingly, and come to expect to interact with a robot when they buy their groceries. They might even become uncomfortable with the idea of a human cashier. In other words: Automated checkouts are about to gain a whole lot more technological momentum.

This prediction might make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. But while it’s not guaranteed (I’ve never claimed to be a technological oracle), it’s definitely plausible. If it does come to pass, what will become of the grocery workers’ coops that have thus far eschewed automation? They might be able to hold on to enough of their old customers to stay in business. I personally don’t expect to be wooed away from Unicorn by automated checkout machines. A growing mass of consumers, however, who are becoming more and more more accustomed to the automated approach, will start to become more hesitant to use cooperative grocers. This will make it hard for the cooperative movement to grow, which would be fine if the goal of the movement was to establish a few sustainably and cooperatively run grocers in local neighbourhoods. Cooperatives, however, are often presented as a model for a kinder and more just economy, and this can only be the case if the movement expands its appeal. Can we expect that to happen if these businesses intentionally keep themselves behind the technological curve?

There’s a pretty compelling counterargument to what I’ve just said, of course. What good will it be for the cooperative movement to gain the world but lose its soul? We can’t continue to see cooperatives as ethical businesses if they start firing their staff wholesale in order to embrace automation. My answer to this is that automation does not necessarily have to be a destroyer of livelihoods. That’s where technological momentum comes in. The people who have shaped automation technologies in the past have typically been aggressive capitalists, with no interest in the welfare of the workers that their technologies displace. But what if somebody else, with more of a conscience, took a more proactive role in deciding what automation looks like and how it is used? Could there be a different outcome?

Suppose, for example, grocery workers’ cooperatives introduced a few automated checkout machines into their stores, but did not lay off any employees. Instead, with some workers freed up from the need to man the till, they could use the same number of employees to do less work. That means easier work for the same pay. The time savings, meanwhile, could attract more customers into the store, resulting in more dividends for the workers as well as a little extra boost for the cooperative movement. I’m not an economist, and I’ve never worked in a cooperative, much less managed one, so there are probably serious flaws in the plan I’ve proposed above. Coming up with a real, socially just plan for automation has to be a job for people with more business and technological expertise than me. What I’m saying is that it’s not a discussion we’re having, and that needs to change. The best business minds of the cooperative movement should be thinking about this question. Maybe I’m wrong, and automation is inherently bad for workers. If that’s the case, I’d like to see a detailed argument as to why.

It’s actually quite a bizarre thing that our society is so skeptical of automation. If we lived in small communities based on local economies and cooperation, then any way to automate our daily tasks would be hailed as great news, heralding less work and more stuff. It is only because of the social and economic institution of employment, in particular the view that it is necessary as a precondition for survival, that makes us want the business of running our society to consume more person-hours, rather than less. If, as I have argued previously, the very idea of jobs is going obsolete, then we might be able, once again, to see automation as good news. We just have to find the right way to implement it. Automation isn’t going to go away. Too many powerful people are actively pursuing ways to eliminate more and more human workers for that to happen. If, however, we can find a way to make automation happen on our terms, then it could actually be good news.