Saturday, June 3, 2017

The long, slow, rotten march of progress

From The Outline:

What I learned at a tech conference in New Orleans.
The new world, dragging itself sticky and stinking out of the swamps, has an answer for all your problems: you should learn to code. The old certainties are gone, the natural world is dying, and the sun that once looked down on us is being blacked out by an endless swarm of automated delivery drones. You can no longer expect forty years of drudgery and then a spluttering death from good old-fashioned blue-collar pneumoconiosis. You can’t make it through life hating your boss instead of yourself, not when new forms of labour discipline demand that you be your own boss. Your flesh is already obsolete. But there’s an answer: to survive in the coming era of automation, you have to bring it in faster; announce its apocalypse, learn to code, add yourself to the army of programmers building an appier tomorrow.

Kentucky has a startup training former coal miners as software engineers. Across the country, there are boot camps teaching computer languages to the long-term unemployed, with no fees until you land your first job. It can be grotesque — if the economic structure of society is failing to meet people’s needs, it’s quite a leap to blame the people affected for not having the right skills — but this is, at root, a utopian promise. All the prejudices and stupidities that churn beneath our vague, signifying human language will be wiped away by the world that’s coming, expressed in the blank mathematical intricacies of code. Your age or race or gender don’t matter; they belong to the age of objects. Just learn how to code, and you’ll be fine. But something’s missing. Code what? To do what? And why?

In New Orleans, at this month’s Collision conference — America’s fastest-growing tech expo, a vast temple for our infinitarian demiurge, frantically creating a world it does not understand — I discovered the answer: nobody really knows. At a roundtable I somehow ended up chairing, it was suggested that as a result of large-scale automation, coding would become universal; everyone would be “a chef and a programmer, a garbage man and a programmer.” But if all the work goes to machines, how do all these new programmers feed themselves. The unspoken answer: by going to Collision. Beneath the titanic upper reaches of the tech industry, where squat little moguls sit on their vast piles of money and ramble idly about how empowering it is for everyone, teems an underworld of tiny start-ups, all desperate to be the next Amazon or the next Uber, all knowing that if they fail it’ll be bankruptcy, penury, and death. And conferences like Collision, TechCrunch Disrupt, or Web Summit in Europe, are where the pre-dead make their bleating gasps for life.
Code what? To do what? And why?
Desperation is everywhere; exhibitors make lunging grabs for any passers-by wearing an “INVESTOR” lanyard, proffer stickers and goodies, scream for attention on their convention-standard signs. These do not, to put it kindly, make a lot of sense. “Giving you all the tools you need to activate and manage your influencer marketing relationships,” promises one. “Leverage what is known to find, manage, and understand your data,” entices another. The gleaming technological future looks a lot like a new golden age of hucksterism. It’s networking; the sordid, stupid business of business; pressing palms with arrogant pricks, genuflecting to idiots, entirely unchanged by the fact that this time it’s about apps and code rather than dog food or dishwashers.

None of these start-ups are doing anything new or interesting. Which shouldn’t be surprising: how often does anyone have a really good idea? What you actually get is just code, sloshing around, congealing into apps and firms that exist simply to exist. Uber for dogs, GrubHub for clothes, Patreon for sex, Slack for death, PayPal for God, WhatsApp for the spaceless non-void into which a blind universe expands. The constant recombination of worn-out elements. Companies that make useless products to help other companies make useless products that help other companies make useless products. There are start-ups that spend tens of thousands on names and branding before they even come up with a product or see if anyone might want it. This is called innovation, but what it actually represents is a culture that piles up the garbled detritus of the old in lieu of creating anything new, and a morbid economic order drowning in its own surplus liquidity and willing to invest in any bubble that comes along.

Capitalism doesn’t know what to do with its surpluses any more; it ruthlessly drains them from the immiserated low-tech manufacturing bases of the Global South, snatches them away from a first-world population tapping at computer code on the edge of redundancy, but then has nowhere better to put them than in some executive’s gold-plated toilet. This soil breeds monsters; new, parasitic products scurry like the first worms over the world-order’s dying body. The “Internet of Things” is meant to be the future, but it mostly looks like a farcical recomplication of what we already had: a juice press that needs to scan a QR code and connect to your wifi before it’ll exert functionally the same amount of pressure as a pair of human hands, a wine bottle that connects to the internet and only dispenses proprietary wines, light bulbs that burn out or flicker maniacally if you haven’t installed the drivers properly....MUCH MORE