What’s Happening To Freedom?

The machine’s order, and its impact on the people it utilises, is perhaps never more evident than in the factory: the human on the assembly line is little more than an accessory to the technology, her movement completely choreographed by its dynamics. The civilisation that now strives to create the human machine has given birth to the mechanical man: the one whose obedience, discipline and predictability can only be surpassed by a robot. The Industrial Revolution’s transformation of production conditions gave rise to a sharp increase in repetitive, monotonous tasks. Tasks of this type, however, are nothing new in human history – on the contrary, they have been around for as long as humans have existed. What was really new about industry’s mechanical work was its lack of obvious connection to a person’s physical survival, and its separation from every other part of her life; the work was done in a strange place and among strangers. She who peels nuts, picks berries and tans leather for hours knows that her husband should wear the leather, her daughter eat the food. She remembers the rain that fell on her neck and the smell of the earth in the hazel thicket, the sound of the elk’s heavy strides over rocky ground and branches that are broken. She who mounts the rear axle to the chassis frame knows that twenty seconds remain until the next mounting, four hours and eighteen minutes to the end of the working day. It is not principally in the monotony of the machine-like nature of the industrial worker’s business, but in the absence of context: the metallic parts that are joined together by gloved hands are not bearers of stories and memories, they do not maintain tradition and are not gifts from the gods – they are components of an industrial product. The factory’s basic conditions – human adaptation to the machine – have hardly changed since the industrial revolution. Instead, they have ceased to be merely factory conditions, and have increasingly become those of society: citizens exist in a strict regulatory structure of legislation, education and marketing. They navigate a landscape of traffic signs and stop lights, escalators and queuing systems, with one eye firmly attached to their cell phones. They place their bodies in the car, train compartments and subway cars, holding still, getting off at the right station or right address. They press the right buttons at the pay stations and parking meters, fast checkouts. They come to the office at eight-thirty, take lunch between twelve and one o’clock, go home at five o’clock. Maybe they will answer a few emails before falling asleep in front of a television programme. These are the citizens to whom the new technologies, if we believe Brynjolfsson and McAfee, will bring good luck. Machines may replace their professional functions, but, with the help of training, they can make themselves useful as complements. They surf the internet. They give tips on the best restaurants; hire a retiree who can help them pick up the laundry; order groceries to the door; inform themselves about politics and get in touch with an organisation that cares about the homeless. In the future, they might have a household robot that can take care of the laundry. Perhaps it can also pick up the children at day care, measure blood pressure, and give a reminder when it’s time to take medication.

And, gradually, as more and more aspects of their lives are mediated by technology, they undergo the same dislocation to which industrialisation subjected work: they are removed from their context. Communication becomes placeless. Care is released from relationship. Employment will be something with which to keep themselves busy. Information technology and robotics will eventually make human labour superfluous in many areas. They will specify how the resulting labour shortage should best be handled politically, how individuals should best act, and how high growth rates are to be maintained in the future. They realise that technology is not neutral. They realise that it will increase the privileges of certain groups, and the vulnerability of others. They believe that these dynamics can be countered with political action. They also realise that humanity, as a consequence of its technological quest, now possesses the ability to eliminate itself. They realise that self-replicating technologies, both electronic and biological, pose a serious threat. They realise that a technological society is centralised, and very vulnerable. They realise that technology can affect human integrity negatively, create dependence and concentration disorders, and in many cases cause virtually incomprehensible destruction of our natural environment. They seem aware that even seemingly unproblematic technologies may prove to have unexpected and deeply problematic consequences. And, finally, Brynjolfsson and McAfee know what achievement looks like: it looks like the replacement of people with machines. It looks like a driverless car; a mobile application that will help you avoid traffic jams. It looks like robots that teach, play chess, give medical diagnoses and perform operations.

At the same time, it happens to look like a steady increase in the number of cancer cases, pesticides in all rivers, air pollution, social deprivation and the elimination of all remaining wild nature, these ”unpleasant consequences that must be addressed”. These are technical problems of the same type as how the growth of GDP benefits all social groups, and can thus be handled by technical means. It is unclear whether the authors believe this may apply to even the most basic problems that are encumbering the technological project, namely its necessary limitation of human freedom. Just as the worker on the assembly line is controlled by the rhythm of production, a technological society demands as a whole that humans adapt to its needs. Advanced technology requires a globalised economy and a centralised political decision-making process to function effectively, leaving little space for a locally based democracy with real influence. It requires a stable supply of human labour with the right skills, so that the individual’s freedom of choice will never be freer than that it plays a role in the technological complex. The technology provides the human with food, clothing and housing, but has significantly limited her power to exercise authority over the fulfilment of these basic needs – above all, it has long since robbed her of the ability to independently cater to them. Technology has, in other words, had larger consequences for human freedom than perhaps any political force ever. When it takes us into what Brynjolfsson and McAfee choose to call the machines’ second era – ”The Second Machine Age” – the machines must not only be a hub for our physical security, but also our thinking, our society and our close relationships. Regarding what impact this will have on human freedom and autonomy, the authors choose to not take up the discussion.

Helena Granström

Författare, fil mag i teoretisk fysik och fil lic i matematik.

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