Watson, Robobuses, and the Division of Labor

22 05 2014

I hate to seem like a Luddite, particularly one who defends professional cartels. It’s not a good look. But I once had a back-and-forth with a popular neoliberal type about robot buses. He was arguing that even though introducing robot-driven buses would lead to massive layoffs of bus drivers, it would be a net gain because it would mean cheaper public transit–and thus more efficient and swifter public transit. His point was that supporters of public sector unions like those of transit workers often defend wasteful cartels that work a net negative on society. This is a pretty thought provoking point.

But as with much of the current economic consensus, it breaks down once you stop thinking about it in the abstract. In reality, cheap buses are meaningless if you have a largely under- and unemployed population with nowhere to go and no cash even for the bus. If the fired bus drivers were able to get comparably paid work to build the buses–if they weren’t built with parts manufactured using quasi-prison labor in third world countries–bring on the robots.

Similarly, you have futurists cheering on the development of advanced Watson-like computers as replacements for a good portion of the legal and medical profession, since it has shown a proficiency in diagnostics and even legal rule synthesis.

More and more, the professions that once required expertise and discretion are finding themselves replaced by algorithms, or being sub-specialized such that non-professionals and non-experts can perform this work.

If something can make access to health care and law cheaper, that’s good; but at the same time, if those professions, and the satellite professions that rely on them, are automated, and not replaced with comparable work, it’s the guy who invests in and owns the automatons that will reap the rewards; the distributed benefit of marginally cheaper services is good, but you still have an aggregating under- and unemployment.

This is one of those phenomenon that is worrisome because even though it looks new–LawBot!–it also seems to be eerily forecast by ol’ doom-and-gloom himself, Karl Marx.

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Discrimination and the Nice Guy

21 05 2014

Oops, I Racist’d Again (image via ABC News)

Is discrimination a feeling, or something else? In Slate over the weekend, Jamelle Bouie talked about research out of MTV (just…just keep reading don’t worry about that right now) that either proves something you already knew, or produces a peculiar result: “Millennials” hate racism, aren’t sure racism exists. They want to be colorblind, but in so doing, as Bouie points out, tend to dismiss the very fact that racism is a pervasive (structural) problem.

Bouie makes the point well that this is because “racism” should really be understood as “white supremacy,” not as a species of bad manners or poor attitudes:

The problem is that racism isn’t reducible to “different treatment.” Since if it is, measures to ameliorate racial inequality—like the Voting Rights Act—would be as “racist” as the policies that necessitated them. No, racism is better understood as white supremacy—anything that furthers a broad hierarchy of racist inequity, where whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least.

What was just as interesting to me however was this exchange on Twitter sparked by Gene Demby, Post-Bourgie founder, lead blogger at NPR’s Code Switch, and fellow bald-with-beard-er, based on an interview Demby conducted. The subject told him that while her father didn’t like people of color, she didn’t consider him racist because she equated racism with being a bad person.

This raised some very vexing questions for me. First, it looks like there’s a contradiction: the idea that somebody could sincerely hold opinions that are racist in content, but not themselves be a racist. How can someone believe something that appears to contradict itself? The contradiction requires some kind of rationale by the person who believes it; there has to be some reason they do not see a contradiction.

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