Of robber Barons and Corvo antics





A few days ago someone sent me a link to Robert Reich’s piece in Slate, “America is headed full speed back to the 19th century (on the dangers of on-demand jobs and our growing intolerance for labour unions). And somewhere in my head it joined a long list of jeremiads on the evils of [choose one or more]: AI and robotics; the share economy; social networks; smart mobile devices; search engines; open source; the Web; the internet.

As is usual with such articles, once you strip away the obligatory sensationalist headline, a “reasonable” core hypothesis remains. And as is usual with such articles, I feel a deep niggly feeling. Often it’s not what the article said that niggles me, but what it didn’t say.

Evolution is about change and about adapting effectively to change. When it comes to technology, it’s worth thinking about technological change in a similar way, that it’s part of a collective “evolution”. A wave that can’t be turned back that easily by the Canutes of the day. In this context I love Kevin Kelly’s approach to thinking about how technology “evolves”, and would commend What Technology Wants to anyone who hasn’t read it. His TED Talk is a worthwhile teaser to the topic.

If I’ve understood Reich correctly, his argument is that markets were organised for the benefit of a narrow few as the Industrial Revolution hit maturity, and that it needed state intervention to change that, in terms of labour and equality and antitrust, amongst others. This was readily visible by 1950 and continued to grow till around 1980. Since then, he argues, markets are reverting to being for the benefit of the few; unless something changes, we’ll be back in 1890.


Unless something changes.

When thinking about this, I found the construct used by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee particularly useful. If you haven’t done so already, go out and buy The Second Machine Age, it’s an excellent foundation for dealing with this issue.

Following their tack, there was a First Machine Age, the Industrial Revolution. Good things followed, and some bad things. Humanity’s challenge was to try and hold on to the good things while minimising the bad. And humanity managed to do that, through shifts in public policy.

Now we’re in the Second Machine Age. Good things are following. And some bad things. Humanity is challenged again to hold on to the good while minimising the bad. We’ve seen this movie before. If we want to stop Robber Barons from getting stronger and stronger, if we want to prevent the world from becoming even more unequal, some intervening actions are required.

What intervening actions?

It’s not that hard a question. The technological evolution that has been taking place for the last sixty-odd years, the Second Machine Age, is a digital one. One that is based around information. So perhaps we should start with public policy interventions that relate to that digital infrastructure.

Interventions to do with access, like Net Neutrality. If you want to know more, read Tim Berners-Lee’s recent post, the latest in a decade’s debate on the topic.

Interventions to do with access, like Intellectual Property Rights. If you want to know what’s wrong with the current picture, this piece, on the continuing criminalisation of the “not 1%”, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a good place to start.

Interventions to do with access, like education. We have to celebrate institutions from codecademy through to Khan Academy, techniques from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). We have to get behind institutions like the Web Science Trust and the Open Data Institute. We have to learn from, disseminate and act on the research available on things that go wrong in the digital age, from cybersecurity through to bullying, from privacy and confidentiality issues through to the right to be forgotten. We have to continue to learn, and to teach, about “literacy” in a digital world.

The maturity of the First Machine Age was to be seen in public policy shifts that reduced many forms of discrimination, that democratised access and that empowered connected communities.

The maturity of the Second Machine Age will be seen in public policy shifts that reduce many forms of discrimination, democratise access and empower connected communities.


Except this time it’s in a digital rather than physical context. A context of the abundance of digital rather than the scarcity of physical.

What hasn’t changed is that it’s still about people, about reducing inequality, about ensuring that markets function for the benefit of the many rather than the few.

When you look at the battlefield of cyberspace over the past quarter of a century, when you look at the skirmishes and engagements to do with access and property rights and culture in digital space, and you wonder which side is right, keep asking yourself this: Does this increase or decrease human inequality?

In every one of the battles to do with IPR or Net Neutrality, there’s a scenario where a few stand to gain, and one where many stand to gain. Ask yourself which scenario will ensure that the continuing “evolution” of digital infrastructure reduces rather than increases inequality.

Imagine a world where developed countries signed up to “equality targets”, promising to reduce inequality by a meaningful number of basis points every year. Most of the intellectual property law changes over the past twenty years wouldn’t have made it into a first draft. There wouldn’t have been any need for debates on net neutrality. Digital divides would have been prevented. Digital literacy would have been seen as a fundamental right on the road to equality.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably at the point where you say all this doesn’t matter, we’re all going to be taken over by robots anyway.

I’m not sure about it. Not until I can sue a robot, as I’ve said before. Follow the money.

Not until a robot can laugh at this Only Fools and Horses sketch, as I’ve said before.

Me, I’m going to wait until I read a headline that says “Roof-surfing robot caught on tape”

2 thoughts on “Of robber Barons and Corvo antics”

  1. You don’t need a society. Or even a village. Just one robot that understands the conversation between Trigger and Rodney.

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