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Myth and Reality About Technology, Skills and Jobs

Luddism for the age of robotics

By Simon Pirani - The Ecologist, May 7, 2021

Climate breakdown is driven by industrial production, production by machines controlled by people. But can those very people demand a new, low carbon production?

Are the technologies developed by giant capitalist corporations – Walmart’s logistics or Elon Musk’s driverless cars – the foundation on which a post-capitalist society can be built? No way, argues Gavin Mueller in his latest book, Breaking Things At Work: the Luddites were right about why you hate your job (Verso, 2021).

He challenges “Marxist theoreticians” who see “the capitalist development of technology as the means for creating both abundance and leisure”, to be “realised once the masses finally [take] the reins of government and industry”.

Against these technocratic illusions, Mueller proposes “a decelerationist politics: of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organisation and cultivating militancy”.

Fully Decelerated Carbon-Neutral Luddism

By Dr James Muldoon - Verso Books, April 26, 2021

Gavin Mueller wants us to hit the brakes. Tech companies have amassed enormous financial and ideological power and are driving society towards a future of surveillance and algorithmic management. We are enthralled by a vision of technological progress that has blinded us to the reality that new technology in the workplace is often implemented to control workers, rather than to make our lives easier. In his new book, Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job, Mueller revives the misunderstood legacy of the Luddites in the service of a new decelerationist politics, one which calls bullshit on the promises of automation. Inspired by the history of workers’ struggles against scientific management and factory discipline, the book offers a vision of how we could develop a militant opposition to new technological interventions in the workplace that threaten workers’ autonomy.

The book is part of a growing movement on the Left that is critical of the idea that the ideas and practices of Silicon Valley could simply be adopted for progressive ends. Read alongside Aaron Benanav’s Automation and the Future of Work and Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work, we can see the tide turning on a techno-optimist tendency which sees the glimmers of a communist future in the “sharing” economy and Amazon’s capacity for central planning. Mueller “wants to make Marxists into Luddites” and has this segment of the pro-tech Left squarely in his sights.

Before we invent the future, Mueller calls on us to rethink the past. Marxists, he claims, “have not been critical of technology, even when that technology is deployed in the workplace in ways that seem detrimental for workers.” Technology is too often seen by the Left as a neutral force that could be reclaimed and used for emancipatory purposes. For Mueller, many Marxists – from Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg to Lenin and the Bolsheviks – fall prey to an economic determinism and fatalism that views the development of capitalist production and organisation as leading inevitably to a socialist society. This view of technology carries on into the twentieth-century’s organised labour movements, and from there to contemporary post-work theorists. In light of these failings, the book turns to previous workers’ struggles and “heretical strains of Marxism” for a profound reconceptualistion of the role of technology in a post-capitalist future.

The Impacts of Zero Emission Buses on the Transportation Workforce

By staff - Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, April 21, 2021

TTD and our affiliated unions recognize the serious impacts from climate change and the severe consequences we face if we fail to respond with responsible measures that reduce our carbon footprint. Like automation, however, discussions about reducing our carbon footprint often focus on the potential benefits from new technologies, without looking at the entire picture and taking intentional steps to ensure that the impacted industries’ workers and the communities they live in benefit from technological change.

Advocates of automation and mobility-on-demand services, for example, often tout the exciting new job opportunities created by the technologies while turning a blind eye to the impacts those technologies have on the incumbent workforce, including job loss and life-long wage suppression. TTD’s views and concerns about the impacts of those technologies are detailed in our past policy statement, Principles for the Transit Workforce in Automated Vehicle Legislation and Regulations; comments on the Trump administration’s ill-advised AV 3.0 and AV 4.0 policies, as well as its so-called Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan; our report on the disastrous anti-worker policies and efforts to undermine public transportation by ride-hailing companies; and testimony by former and current TTD presidents Larry Willis and Greg Regan before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Federal and local policies have long ensured that expanding public transportation access plays a key role in greenhouse gas reduction strategy. CO2 emissions per passenger mile are significantly lower on the existing fleet of diesel- and natural gas-powered bus transit vehicles than single occupancy vehicle trips. However, as the entire transportation industry seeks ways to continue reducing its carbon footprint, the move to zero-emission vehicles will continue to become a focus of federal, state, and local policies.

While the adoption of zero emission vehicles stands to make the transit sector an even stronger tool for reducing carbon emissions, years of underinvestment in workforce training combined with unfocused and sometimes non-existent policies on workforce support and training place tremendous strain on the incumbent workforce who may soon be asked to maintain complex electric infrastructure and vehicles. By way of example, at one major transit agency it was estimated that only 15% of bus mechanics have been trained to use a voltmeter, a basic diagnostic tool for electric engines. Without investment in worker training programs as a prerequisite for government support, transit agencies are likely to contract out this work leading to a large number of our existing mechanics seeing their jobs outsourced to lower-paying, lower-quality employers.

Furthermore, electric engines require fewer mechanics to maintain than their diesel and natural gas counterparts, which currently make up more than 99 percent of the domestic U.S. bus fleet. Policies that encourage or require a rapid transition to an all-electric fleet without an accompanying increase in transit service (which will serve to further reduce greenhouse gases) paired with strong labor protections will put tens of thousands of workers on the unemployment rolls.

For over 100 years, transportation workers, their unions, and their employers have worked together in the United States, bound by labor protections, to adopt and implement the extraordinary technological changes that have been the hallmark of this sector. Good, middle-class, union jobs must continue to be the focus for policymakers in the context of environmental technology, just as it has been for other innovations.

Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries

By Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello, et. al. - Earthworks, March 31, 2021

It is critical that the clean energy economy not repeat the mistakes of the dirty fossil fuel economy that it is seeking to replace. The pivot from internal combustion engines towards electric vehicles provides an unprecedented opportunity to develop a shared commitment to responsible mineral sourcing. We can accelerate the renewable energy transition and drive improvements in the social and environmental performance of the mining industry by reducing overall demand for new minerals, increasing mineral recycling and reuse, and ensuring that mining only takes place if it meets high environmental, human rights and social standards.

This report is designed to inform downstream battery metal users of key environmental, social, and governance issues associated with the extraction and processing of the three battery metals of principal concern for the development of electric vehicles and low-carbon energy infrastructure—lithium, cobalt and nickel—and to offer guidance on responsible minerals sourcing practices. This report reflects and summarizes some of the key concerns of communities impacted by current and proposed mineral extraction in hotspots around the world: Argentina, Chile and the United States for lithium, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Russia for nickel, and the Democratic Republic of Congo for cobalt.

Read the text (PDF).

Ecosocialismo: Envisioning Latin America’s Green New Deal

The work-technology nexus and working-class environmentalism: Workerism versus capitalist noxiousness in Italy’s Long 1968

By Lorenzo Feltrin and Devi Sacchetto - Theory and Society, March 5, 2021

This article traces the trajectory of theory and praxis around nocività or noxiousness – i.e., health damage and environmental degradation – drawn by the workerist group rooted in the petrochemical complex of Porto Marghera, Venice. While Porto Maghera was an important setting for the early activism of influential theorists such as the post-workerist Antonio Negri and the autonomist feminist Mariarosa Dalla Costa, the theories produced by the workers themselves have been largely forgotten. Yet, this experience was remarkable because it involved workers employed by polluting industries denouncing in words and actions the environmental degradation caused by their companies from as early as 1968, when the workerists had a determining influence in the local factories.

The Porto Marghera struggles against noxiousness contradict the widespread belief that what is today known as working-class environmentalism did not have much significance in the labour unrest of Italy’s Long 1968. The Porto Marghera group’s original contribution was based on the thesis of the inherent noxiousness of capitalist work and an antagonistic-transformative approach to capitalist technology. This led to the proposal of a counterpower able to determine “what, how, and how much to produce” on the basis of common needs encompassing the environment, pointing to the utopian prospect of struggling for a different, anti-capitalist technology, compatible with the sustainable reproduction of life on the planet.

Read the text (Link).

A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals

By Andy Whitmore - War on Want, March 2021

There is an urgent need to deal with the potential widespread destruction and human rights abuses that could be unleashed by the extraction of transition minerals: the materials needed at high volumes for the production of renewable energy technologies. Although it is crucial to tackle the climate crisis, and rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, this transition cannot be achieved by expanding our reliance on other materials. The voices arguing for ‘digging our way out of the climate crisis’, particularly those that make up the global mining industry, are powerful but self-serving and must be rejected. We need carefully planned, lowcarbon and non-resource-intensive solutions for people and planet.

Academics, communities and organisations have labelled this new mining frontier, ‘green extractivism’: the idea that human rights and ecosystems can be sacrificed to mining in the name of “solving” climate change, while at the same time mining companies profit from an unjust, arbitrary and volatile transition. There are multiple environmental, social, governance and human rights concerns associated with this expansion, and threats to communities on the frontlines of conflicts arising from mining for transition minerals are set to increase in the future. However, these threats are happening now. From the deserts of Argentina to the forests of West Papua, impacted communities are resisting the rise of ‘green extractivism’ everywhere it is occurring. They embody the many ways we need to transform our energy-intense societies to ones based on democratic and fair access to the essential elements for a dignified life. We must act in solidarity with impacted communities across the globe.

This report includes in-depth studies written by frontline organisations in Indonesia and Philippines directly resisting nickel mining in both countries respectively. These exclusive case studies highlight the threats, potential impacts and worrying trends associated with nickel mining and illustrate, in detail, the landscape for mining expansion in the region.

Read the text (PDF).

Ecosocialism is the Horizon, Degrowth is the Way

Jason Hickel interviewed by Samuel Miller-McDonald - The Trouble, February 11, 2021

“Degrowth” means many things to many people. To most, it probably doesn’t mean much beyond an antonym to “growth,” the process of getting larger or more complex. To some detractors, the term represents a scary violation of the imperative to increase GDP annually, what’s now a holy sacrament to policymakers and economic pundits (though less so to actual academic economists, who are more ambivalent). To its less pedantic and more hysterical detractors, it’s a ploy to take away everyone’s Hummers and return to a mushroom-foraging-based economy. 

At its most distilled, “degrowth” refers to a process of reducing the material impact of the economy on the world’s many imperiled ecologies, abandoning GDP as a measurement of well-being, and forging an equitable steady-state economy.

Although the concept of placing limits to economic growth is not very new, having been articulated by environmentalists several decades ago—most famously by the Club of Rome in 1972—the more recent iteration, only just over a decade old, emerges from the French décroissance. Given that the community and scholarship is so young, there’s still a lot of debate around some of the fundamentals of what the term means, and what it should mean. Some who believe in the principles recoil at the term itself: Noam Chomsky has said “when you say ‘degrowth’ it frightens people. It’s like saying you’re going to have to be poorer tomorrow than you are today, and it doesn’t mean that.” But many degrowth defenders, one of the most prominent being ecological economist Giorgos Kallis, stand by it and see value in such a unifying notion. 

Even so, there lurks some danger in all such terms and political communities, like socialism or democracy, as I have warned elsewhere of the perennial risk of being co-opted and ill-defined by bad-faith actors. If the degrowth critique goes only as far as targeting economic growth, or even general anticapitalism, there’s little intrinsic to it to stop a right-wing authoritarian program from co-opting degrowth rhetoric to justify imposing authoritarianism, or giving cover to cynical Global North states to demand degrowth of the Global South while continuing to disproportionately consume and pollute. Degrowth, if it is to get traction and if that traction is to be desirable, needs to be abundantly clear about what it stands for and what it rejects. Luckily, we have just the book to offer this much needed clarity. 

Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel is among the most eloquent advocates of degrowth, and has been intimately involved in the community’s attempt to stake out a useful, clear meaning for the term and pathway to integrating its principles into a coherent program. Hickel’s latest book, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World published in August 2020 (with a paperback edition released this month), offers an abundance of facts, concepts, and research alongside a passionate defense of ecocentric and humanistic values. Hickel has achieved something many writers of popular nonfiction seek in vain: a high density of ideas and data delivered in a light, enjoyable narrative prose. The book makes a very strong case for a topic in need of strong cases. And Less Is More arrives in good company: degrowth advocate Timothée Parrique counted 203 essays, 70 academic articles, and 11 books on degrowth published in 2020. 

Some bad-faith commentators have attempted to paint degrowth as dressed-up primitivist austerity, intrinsically harmful to the Global South, but Hickel does a persuasive job emphasizing that degrowth actually means the opposite. He musters an army of historical and contemporary data, anecdotes, and theory to argue definitively that an equitable degrowth scenario is more likely to increase material abundance and resource access. If the ideology of growthism offers an ethic of constant amoral expansion and exploitation, degrowth(ism) offers a more restrained ethic that values an abundance of time, leisure, love, and equality over concentrated wealth and distributed waste. 

While the book explores the moral imperative for controlled degrowth, Hickel is equally comfortable arguing for degrowth from a standpoint of a purely rational approach to fundamentally shifting an economy that is currently heating the world to death, guaranteeing centuries of mass death and destruction. The only way to slow the rapid race to collapse civilization and accelerate extinctions is to stop the omnicidal political economy that rules the globe. Given the natural limits that thermodynamics and terrestrial ecologies impose on human economies and non-human populations, degrowth is inevitable: it’s just a matter of deciding whether human agency will play a positive, benevolent role in the process, or continue to maximize the chaos and violence involved. I asked Dr. Hickel via email about some of the major challenges to achieving degrowth reforms and some important peripheral issues. Here is our discussion:

Canada’s net zero future should include policies to support technology “wild cards”: report

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, February 10, 2021

Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition is a policy document released on February 8  by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, the national research network created by Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2020. The report provides a simple definition of net zero: “shifting toward technologies and energy systems that do not produce emissions, and offsetting any remaining emissions by removing GHGs from the atmosphere and storing them permanently.” Based on technical analysis by Navius Research which examined more than 60 modelling scenarios, the report is announced as “the first in-depth scenario report to explore how Canada can reach net zero emissions by 2050”. It concludes that the goal is doable, using two pathways: “safe bets” and “wild cards”.

Most impact will be made by “Safe bets—commercially available, cost-effective, existing technologies like electric vehicles, heat pumps, and smart grids” which they estimate can generate at least two-thirds of the emission reductions required. In the longer-term, to reach the 2050 target, the authors rely on results from unproven “wild cards”— “high-risk, high reward technologies like advanced biofuels, zero-emissions hydrogen, and some types of engineered negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available”.   The conclusion: “To scale up safe bets, governments should continue to steadily increase the stringency of policies such as carbon pricing and flexible regulations. To advance wild cards, governments should spread their bets—supporting a portfolio of emerging technologies, without delaying progress on existing smart bet solutions over the next crucial decade.”

Of the four formal Recommendations, #4 is “Governments should work to ensure that the transition to net zero is fair and inclusive”.  ….. “It is vital that governments understand the full range of implications the transition will have on all of Canada’s regions, sectors, workers, communities, and income groups. This is necessary to ensure that policies successfully address adverse impacts and work to lift up groups who have historically been left behind, instead of exacerbating those inequalities. This will require direct engagement with all of those groups.”

The lead author of the report is Jason Dion, Mitigation Research Director at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, but the report is a “consensus document” involving many advisors who compose its Mitigation Expert Panel Working Group, as well as expert external reviewers.  Two accompanying blogs condense the message in “What puts the “net” in net zero?” (regarding three means of negative emissions) and “Net zero is compatible with economic growth if we do it right” (emphasizing the importance of likelihood of GDP growth through the recommended policies.) 

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