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.

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A few more thoughts about self-driving cars

The two Steves behind the Freakonomics franchise have just released another book, in which they apparently criticize self-driving vehicles. Unfortunately I currently have neither the time nor the money to read their book, so I’ll have to rely on this blog post from the Wall Street Journal, which seems to sum up their argument pretty well:

“Driverless cars could turn out to be a scourge on humanity.

They may lead to a worldwide surge in binge drinking since drunk driving would no longer be a worry. They also could be vulnerable to hacking by terrorists who send every self-driving vehicles in the western U.S. plunging into the Grand Canyon.

And by making car travel easier, driverless vehicles could lead to more congestion and pollution.”

They also cite the potential for self-driving cars to eliminate jobs (something I’ve addressed here) , though they also apparently admit that self-driving cars could reduce the number of car accidents.

I’m going to criticize the freaks’ approach to the issue, but I want to make clear at the outset that I don’t mean for a second to suggest that their predictions are implausible. They could be right. While the terrorism thing seems a little bit far-fetched, the result of this technology could be a world full of long-distance commuters in self-driving vehicles. This would contribute to vastly expanded urban sprawl, congestion, pollution, climate change, and oil resource exploitation. That is a plausible scenario, and it is a bad one.

Despite this, however, I think that the freaks’ logic is badly misguided. To illustrate why, it helps to point out that at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the most common destinations proposed that somebody would drive to with the newly invented automobile was the railway station. Cars, it was assumed, were mainly for local transportation or transportation through areas too remote to have their own rail lines. But if you wanted to go to a big city, then the train was your best bet. What this illustrates is that people always understand new technologies in terms of old ways of doing things. Historically, very few people have been able to accurately grasp the real implications of a radical new technology at such an early stage. That’s like trying to predict what the political landscape will look like in fifty years: It’s simply too complicated to accurately assess in advance. The best you can do is a lucky guess.

Levitt and Dubner, then, have probably made a mistake in assuming that the self-driving cars of the future will be used in same way that people use manually-driven cars today. This is not necessarily the case, however. Self-driving cars, in fact, open up a whole new range of possible behaviours. I’m going to explore one possible scenario, which I think is predominantly a good one, using two short speculative vignettes. The idea is to illustrate how everyday habits and lifestyle choices could be completely transformed by autonomous vehicles. Here’s the first one:

Julie was tempted to buy a car. That was, after all, what you were supposed to do when you got your first salaried job, and she did need to commute 20 miles every day to the office where she worked. But the autonomous taxi service that she had been using for the past year already served that purpose just fine. It meant that she didn’t have to drive or maintain a car. And the self-driving taxis were cheaper to boot. She decided she would rather spend the extra money on travel.

A huge part of the price of a taxi ride is the labour. That makes perfect sense, as taxi drivers need to make ends meet. But when you take the driver out of the picture, then suddenly taxis become a whole lot cheaper. This is especially the case if the self-driving taxis are electric, which will save considerably on fuel costs. I don’t pretend to know exactly what the price per mile of a self-driving taxi in the year 2040 will be, but it is plausible that it will be cheaper for the average person to rely on them than drive their own car. Self-driving taxis will be used far more efficiently than private cars could be; will be maintained by efficient, cost-optimizing businesses, and won’t have to pay for downtown parking.

This could start to make car ownership far less compulsory, even for those of us who live in the farthest-flung suburbs. Even if reliance on a self-driving cab is slightly more expensive than owning a car, it could still be a very attractive option due to the added convenience. And that means fewer cars on the roads.

“Alright, Andrew. We’re done predrinking. It’s time to go to the bar. I’m calling a cab”, said Stephen.

“Ugh. A cab? Do we have to? I’m kind of broke, and that’ll cost me like two beers”, replied Andrew. “It’s only three blocks away. We can make that in like half an hour”.

“Yeah, okay. Screw it”, said Stephen. “Let’s just walk.”

People who own cars tend to use them. Once you’ve paid the very substantial cost of a car, the marginal cost to use it to drive half a mile to the store becomes insignificant. So even if driving to the store is on balance a more expensive way of getting there than walking; this doesn’t translate into any direct perception of expense by the person deciding to drive to the store.

If, on the other hand, people rely on self-driving taxis, then the marginal cost of driving to the store suddenly goes up. Even with the vastly decreased price of a trip compared to a normal taxi, the fact still remains that the traveler has to pay upfront. And that means that many people will look to save money by walking or cycling for shorter trips. That means fewer cars on the road in total.

The ultimate outcome of these trends could be fewer cars on the street, more efficient use of the cars that remain on the street, and more electric cars. That would also mean more use of active transportation; more incentive to build high-density, walkable cities, and a more sustainable transportation system in general. As soon as you start to reduce the rate of car ownership, you reduce the incentives for car use. The neat thing about self-driving cars is that they allow a reduction in car ownership while allowing the same rate of car use to be maintained, at least temporarily. That makes them an ideal lever for changing the makeup of our transportation system and our cities, in addition to their recognized benefits in reducing drunk driving and accidents, and offering more travel options for the disabled.

Of course, my scenario is just as uncertain as the one proposed by the Freakonomics guys. Most likely, the way this will actually play out is completely different from either of our predictions. But my scenario suggests a few takeaway lessons. Firstly, it illustrates the value of a transitions perspective, which uniquely takes into account the complex ways that new technologies can interact with society. Secondly, it suggests a program for action. We can, to some extent, control the way that self-driving cars are introduced, through government policies and social advocacy. Self-driving cars could be good or bad in the end, but for the moment they’re an opportunity to change our transportation system. And we should think about how to take advantage of that.

Some Thoughts on Automation and the Future of Labour

In my last post, I alluded to some problematic implications that Amazon PrimeAir might have for workers and the economy. I didn’t have time to give the matter full consideration then, but I think these issues are going to become extremely important in the coming decades, so they deserve a post of their own. My thesis is that while PrimeAir and other automation schemes might appear threatening, they can actually be highly beneficial if we are willing to make dramatic changes in our economic values.

These experiments with driverless trucks could herald big changes to how our economy works.

To illustrate this, I’m going to consider the case self-driving cars, which have a much better shot at widespread commercialization than drone delivery. Google’s self-driving car has an impressive record, and Volvo has just released a huge test fleet of the vehicles onto the roads of Sweden. More and more governmental bodies are legalizing the testing of autonomous vehicles, and a recent study predicts that self-driving cars will overtake manually driven cars by 2050.

This is all a little bit exciting. Self-driving cars are, after all, something that we have been promised in science fiction for decades. But one thing that I don’t think is being adequately considered is the fact that if you can have a self-driving car, then you can have a self-driving truck. The aforementioned study predicts that a self-driving car will cost as little as $3000 more than its manually-driven counterpart by the time such cars become commonplace-a cost that pales in comparison with paying a driver. Self-driving trucks will also be able to make faster deliveries and reduce costs by driving without rest, and may well save trucking firms on insurance payments. Some of the first motor vehicles on the roads were commercial vehicles, and we could see a similar pattern with self-driving vehicles.

You can probably see the problem here. Truckers make up a pretty big chunk of the blue-collar workforce. There are 3.5 million of them in the United States alone. Self-driving vehicle technology, when combined with other forms of automated logistics, will put many of these people out of work. While some vehicles and some roads will probably continue to need human drivers into the foreseeable future, it seems likely that there are going to be a lot fewer jobs available for professional drivers in the second half of the twenty-first century.

This seems pretty scary on first glance, but I think there might be some reason for optimism. The fear of losing jobs is based on an economic ideology originating in the industrial revolution that made jobs essential for well-being. For the last few centuries we have needed people to work to produce essential services, and so we created an economy and a set of economic values that required people to contribute materially to society in order to have access to its material products of that society. The thing is that this set of values becomes completely obsolete in a society where we can rely on robots to provide most of our basic goods and services. In such a society, we will no longer need to make paid labour a prerequisite for material comfort.

Of course, transitioning to such a society will be easier said than done. Labour unions will probably fight to block automation, while those who own the robots will likely fight to keep any of their profits from going to support the workers they have replaced. It’s difficult to predict how these battles will go, but I I don’t think either one of these groups is likely to completely achieve their goals. Labour unions fighting against automation might win a few victories, but automation only has to win out in one area or sector to provide a niche from which it will expand. Displaced workers, meanwhile, will be both numerous and (justifably) angry, and will have to be placated somehow.

One possible outcome would be the imposition of a guaranteed minimum income. This would in effect alter the economic social contract from “You must contribute your labour to the society that helps you survive”, to “You have an absolute right to a share of the products of society”. There would still be jobs, as not every task can be automated and some people would (fortunately) prefer to work, but such people would have to be very well-paid in order to persuade them to give up eight hours of every day. Meanwhile, people without jobs would be free to pursue political action, volunteerism, parenting, or art without worrying about finding a way to monetize these activities. It could also be good for business and innovation, by making it far less personally risk for inventors and entrepreneurs to start companies.

If this sounds utopian, it’s because we don’t yet know what kinds of problems will arise in a society with a guaranteed income. And, of course, my speculation above could be totally wrong and automation could facilitate a whole different set of social changes. The outcome I described above is only one of a number of possibilities. But even if the struggle over automation turns out differently than I have predicted, I think that there’s a wider point to be made here about the relationship between technology, ideology, and culture. Our ideologies and our technological systems are interdependent. Our current set of economic values focus on the moral and economic value of hard work. But such values were crafted at a time when hard work was absolutely necessary. Different systems generate different values. Greek philosophers, for example (who generally had slaves), disparaged any manual work. If we recognize that such values are not absolute, then we can start to seriously consider what it might mean if new technology has made them obsolete..