Technologies that multiply inequalities

December 18, 2017

Review: The Bleeding Edge: why technology turns toxic in an unequal world by Bob Hughes (Oxford: New Internationalist, 2016)

How is it that the internet – a technology with such powerful, democratic potential – hovers over us like a monster that intrudes and spies, interferes in our collective interactions and thought processes, force-feeds us corporate garbage and imposes new work disciplines? What happened?

Bob Hughes, by thinking both about how computers work and how society works, offers compelling insights about these and other questions.

One of Hughes’s riffs on technological themes starts with the Forbes web page about Marc Andreessen, one of the world’s richest men, who in 1994 released the first version online-spying.jpg.size-custom-crop.0x650of the Netscape Navigator browser. Microsoft distributed Netscape with the Windows operating system, making Andreessen an instant multi-millionaire.

When Hughes visited the page, he found 196 words of information about Andreessen (last week, when I looked, there were only 81). Hughes found (and so did I) about another 1000 words of promotional and advertising material.

Behind those words lay a HTML page with 8506 words, or 88,928 characters. The promotional material multiplied the capacity required by the page 88 times – and that was not including the graphics. Including these, the page took about three-quarters of a megabyte of memory.

In the mid 1990s, Netscape Navigator made such advertising displays easy. It allowed web pages to create “cookies” on users’ machines to monitor the information that they enter, and enabled Read the rest of this entry »


China: collective resistance against iSlavery

October 23, 2017

Review of Goodbye iSlave: a manifesto for digital abolition by Jack Linchuan Qiu (University of Illinois Press, 2016)

When 15 young workers jumped or fell from the upper floors of Foxconn’s factories in China in five months of 2010 – 13 of them to their deaths – it made international headlines. People across the world felt outrage at the oppressive working conditions in which iPhones and other high-tech products are made.

Much less well-publicised were the collective resistance movements that flowered at Foxconn and other big Chinese factories in the years following the “Suicide Express”.

In April 2012, 200 Foxconn employees at Wuhan took pictures of themselves on the factory rooftop, and circulated them on social media, along with threats to jump if the company kept ignoring their demand for a wage increase. The company backed down.

This action “differ[ed] qualitatively from individual acts of suicide. Instead, it became a collective behaviour that successfully pressurised Foxconn to increase wages”, the Hong Kong-based activist and university teacher Jack Linchuan Qiu writes in Goodbye iSlave (p. 134).

Qiu describes a world – our world – in which the latest technological devices are made by workers who are subject to dehumanising super-exploitation, and are also used by those workers in organising collective resistance to their conditions.

The main focus of the book is Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer. Its workforce of 1.4 million, mostly in China, make most i-products for Apple – including iPads, Read the rest of this entry »

Interrogating digital capitalism

July 10, 2017

The ways that capitalism uses technology as a means of control was discussed on Thursday evening in London, at a meeting organised by the Breaking the Frame collective.

The meeting was called “Interrogating Digital Capitalism”. Ursula Huws, who researches technology and labour at the University of Hertfordshire, started her talk by arguing that terms such as “digital capitalism” and “biocapitalism” are unhelpful. “I prefer to talk about capitalism”, she said.

Capitalism uses technology at each stage of its restructuring, after recurrent crises, Huws argued. She pointed to three main ways that it uses technology for social control.

■ Technology is used to “simplify and standardise work processes” and sometimes – but not always – to substitute for labour.

■ Technologies are used to control work processes, and for surveillance.

■ Technologies are used to “create new commodities, bringing new areas of human activity into alienated, commodified relationships”. This included Read the rest of this entry »

We need to talk about the Anthropocene

January 16, 2017

Working out the time-scale of the Anthropocene epoch can not be left to natural scientists, a group of researchers argued in Nature journal last month. Historians, anthropologists and others who study human society need to be brought in to the discussion, they said.

“The Anthropocene” is a now widely-used term, signifying that human welcomeactivity is changing the natural environment so profoundly that it has brought a new geological era into existence.

Among scientists, it is accepted that any precise definition would best be
rubber-stamped by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, an organisation of geologists that has overseen definitions of all geological eras.

It has an Anthropocene Working Group that has since 2009 coordinated discussions of the issue among scientists. In August last year, the group reported to the 35th International Geological Congress that it collectively Read the rest of this entry »

The Lucas plan and the politics of technology

October 26, 2016

This guest post by DAVID KING of Breaking the Frame looks back at how workers at Lucas Aerospace championed socially useful technology. It is a shortened version of a two-part article on the Breaking the Frame website, and feeds into a debate we’re holding this Saturday at the Anarchist Bookfair.

This year is the fortieth anniversary of The Lucas Plan, the pioneering effort by workers at the Lucas

The original pamphlet cover

The original pamphlet cover

Aerospace arms company to propose alternative socially useful applications of the company’s technology and workers’ skills, whilst retaining jobs. It was an inspiring model of industrial democracy and has played an important role in showing that traditional trade union concerns about jobs losses arising from closures in harmful industries such as arms, nuclear power, etc., can be met. The Plan was hugely influential in the 1980s peace movement, during the crisis at the end of the Cold War.

But although younger generations of leftists, environmentalists and peace activists may never have heard of it, the ideas of the Lucas Aerospace workers are crucially relevant for the challenges we face today, including climate change, militarism and automation/artificial intelligence. A conference in Birmingham in November will both celebrate the achievements of the Lucas workers and, we hope, reinvigorate movements for socially just solutions to those crises.

The plan

In the early 1970s the workers at Lucas had organised themselves into a cross-union Combine Read the rest of this entry »

Technology and the future of work: a debate

October 24, 2016

A debate on “technology and the future of work” will be held this coming Saturday, 29 October, at 4.0 pm, at the Anarchist Bookfair in North London. The discussion will be started off by Nick Srnicek (author, with Alex Williams, of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015)) and Gabriel Levy (who writes this blog).

What role does technology play in our ideas about a better world? How could it affect the nature of work in the coming decades? With mass automation looming, is anti-work politics the best solution? The discussion will examine these and other questions around technology and communism, attempting to think through what a future society could look like.

Here are a couple of articles I wrote in response to Inventing the Future, mentioning some of the points that we will talk about on Saturday: ■ Technological utopias: the nuts and bolts. ■ Networked socialism: back to the future.

And here are some more articles discussing Inventing the Future, on the Communism in Situ and Mute sites.

The Bookfair is being held at Park View School, West Green Road, London, N15 3QR. There are plenty of other important discussions on Syria, Brexit, communist and anarchist ideas, and so on. Hope to see you there!

Robots at the Kia car assembly plant in Slovakia

Robots at the Kia car assembly plant in Slovakia


Technological utopias: the nuts and bolts

September 23, 2016

The “utopian potentials” of 21st century technology are imprisoned by a “parochial capitalist imagination” and must be liberated by “an ambitious left alternative”, write Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in Inventing the Future: postcapitalism and a world without work (Verso, 2015). We need an “an alternative vision” of a high-tech postcapitalist society, they argue (p. 3).

This review responds to some points raised by Inventing the Future, with a view to developing such a vision.

Srnicek and Williams were motivated to write the book partly by frustration with what they call “folk politics” in the “Occupy” movement of the 2010s – meaning tendencies to “reduce politics to Read the rest of this entry »