Automation will make capitalism obsolete

Automation NotesAbout the future of homo sapiens

Repetition of a broadcast from November 22nd, 2020

This socio-technical evolution increased the power of the species over the conditions of survival in a hostile environment over the millennia. Life has become safer and more comfortable - but the individual human specimens' control over the conditions of their lives is shrinking. When homo sapiens is freed from his tools, his gestures, his muscles, his memory and his imagination - what is left of him? Is he at the end of his career - or does he still have the freedom to remain sapiens? When wishes come true - Mathias Greffrath brings together facts and thoughts on automation in his essay.

Mathias Greffrath, Born in 1945, is a sociologist and journalist. He lives in Berlin and works for taz, ZEIT and radio, among others. In recent years he has dealt with the social and cultural effects of globalization and climate change in essays, radio plays and commentaries.



"Why are cashiers still sitting at the supermarket checkout? Why are human robots still walking through warehouses? Why are smart people still filling out boring tables?"

I put these two lines in my laptop. In English. Hit the return key. In a matter of seconds, the algorithm of the text generator GPT-2, a pilot project in artificial intelligence development funded by Elon Musk and Microsoft, automatically continues my text:

"Why have these puzzles remained unsolved for 30 years or more? This post will help shed light on some of these things, but it may also raise some questions. 'Where can people go to work?' I mean, how many non-tech jobs? We’ve seen an increase in the number of self-driving cars, but have we not gradually come to realize that these are actually inefficiencies rather than advantages? And they don’t really have jobs made…"

Elon Musk at the Tesla plant in Fremont, California (imago / Jim Gensheimer)

It's a game, of course, but it's a bit scary. When GPT-2 offered me this text - on request it offered three other versions in which I could also find myself - once again I had the feeling that for 20 years I hadn't really noticed that something was moving is, the consequences of which I have not yet understood - but who has that?

The Corona year, after all, has lifted the fog a little over the future. My word of the year, but I'm probably not alone there, is "fire accelerator". The virus has accelerated the understanding of the connection between the negative developments of recent years: climate change, the global economy, migration, the gap between rich and poor, the new nationalism. Above all, however, the lockdown has accelerated the business of delivery services of all kinds, mail order companies, video-on-demand providers, producers of hardware and software for teleconferencing, company operating systems, tracking apps - all these services that are provided on the servers, run in the clouds of the major economic infrastructure powers of the era: Microsoft, Google, amazon, Facebook, Apple.

The lockdown brought them gigantic profits and drove medium-sized companies into bankruptcy. Without the logistical services of the platforms, the lockdown would have been uncomfortable and exhausting, but the home office, the short-time work and the announced layoffs gave rise to the suspicion that this could only be a foretaste of what has been called Industry 4.0 and Work 4.0 for a few years .

A break in an era

Industry 4.0, work 4.0 - the buzzwords sound like evolution, like progress on a previously chosen path. That sounds harmless. But there is every indication that this development is part of an epochal break that will be just as decisive as the two previous changes in the aggregate state of humanity: the transition to sedentariness and the industrial revolution. A break in an epoch that will be inscribed in human history with two major events: on the one hand, the dramatic environmental changes - climate change, the extinction of species, the exhaustion of earth and water. And on the other hand, the new, powerful tools that digitization gives us.

At anthropologists we, the members of the genus homo, subspecies homo sapiens, have two names: on the one hand, animal laborans, the animal that struggles with work, on the other hand, homo faber, the human being who can make tools - and who is shaped by his tools . And the animal laborans has always dreamed that one day the tools would take the plague out of it.

"If the weaver shuttles wove by themselves and the plectrum strikes the kithara, the builders need no assistants and the masters no slaves."

So it is with Aristotle. If there were machines, slaves would no longer be needed, hierarchies would be up for grabs. Technology frees us from hard work and domination, the machine enables everyone to have a master's life. Your borderline case is the automat - or more correctly: the largely human-free production. The history of tools and technology is a history of increasing liberation from the constraints of nature, and with it increasing freedom from domination. But it was a long story; and both, the advances in technology and that of freedom - both of them repeatedly needed obstetricians.

Life without the hardships of work: It remained a dream of the lower classes for 2,000 years - and that was nine tenths of the people. In the utopias of the Renaissance, bold technical inventions supported the idea of ​​a society of equals. But it was not until the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that progress in control of nature and progress in freedom began to combine.

A replica of Douglas C. Engelbart's first computer mouse in the computer museum in Mountain View (picture alliance / dpa / Christoph Dernbach)

Industry 1.0 - that was the connection between coal and machines.
Industry 2.0 - that was the introduction of mass production powered by electric motors.
Industry 3.0 - that was the beginning of data processing and process control by computers.

With each stage, humanity decoupled more from what grows back year after year and this culture - some call it capitalism - spread around the globe and increased prosperity, albeit unequally. But this success story has now put us in a tight spot that is depriving us of the land - and the air - for what grows back year after year. But at the same time, the new, revolutionary tools of digitization are at the preliminary end of the history of technology: the network of computers, software, the Internet, smartphones and Industry 4.0.

The introduction of industrial robots, the computerization of office work, the software-supported work of architects or engineers in Industry 3.0 could still be understood as a linear further development of mechanization - it is still about the liberation from routine work. Only the platform economy and the "Internet of Things" signal a break or the transition into a new era.

Who does not "perform"

Industry 4.0 and work 4.0 are still pigeonholed. Different authors fill in different content. Where is the revolutionary thing about her? The Ministry of Labor's white paper Work 4.0 calls "digitization" the "secret main character" of the new world of work. This is more than a metaphor and it is also about more than the world of work, because this secret main character changes the conditions in almost all areas of life, puts production, consumption, distribution and enjoyment on a new basis. Digitization interweaves society as a whole.

In the factories, it drives the process of Taylorization and rationalization to its end: algorithms calculate whether it is not minimally cheaper if the assembly worker does not turn around to get the screws out of the box, but rather a low-paid handover them to him Hand gives. Artificial female voices give warehouse workers the next job, the software recognizes who is currently underemployed and where the next crate has to be picked up. Smart gloves, wearables, emit small impulses if a mistake is made when scanning barcodes, process control software installs systems of collegial evaluation that increase competition among workers or register them with the help of sensory networks, whether the way to the toilet or in the development department was completed in the target time. In this way, corporate governance is decoupled from the people in middle management and made anonymous, and this middle management tends to be made superfluous. Technology frees people, but the equation doesn't work automatically.

At the inter-company level, platform companies such as Uber, Lieferando or amazon no longer hire drivers, deliverers or messengers, but rather place them as bogus self-employed, as contractors with a network connection, at Uber with their own car and for their own account. But if they don't "perform" or don't feel like working enough, the platform refuses to provide them. Uber directs the driver in every respect like an employee, pays neither wages nor social benefits and often collects more than 30 percent of the fare for the mediation - and the whole thing is sold with the slogan: Be your own boss, organize your work yourself.

An Uber driver in Ciudad Juarez on the border with the United States. (ARD / Anne-Katrin Mellmann)

Digital service providers split complex work processes into thousands of small orders that can be processed in hundreds of locations, at home, anywhere in the world. In Venezuela, families at the kitchen tables evaluate millions of photos with traffic situations - and thus lay the foundation for the development of so-called autonomous driving.

A company, as the place where workers work together, meet one another, talk to one another, demand something together, does not exist anymore with these forms of work. That weakens the bargaining power of the propertyless. The clocking of factory work by robots, the simultaneity of networking and isolation in the worlds of the home office and the gig economy, the new misery of home work - all this reminds Munich law professors Jens Kersten and Richard Giesen of the characteristics of early factory work in the Analysis by Karl Marx:

"In the modern factory system, the automaton itself is the subject, and the workers are only assigned to their unconscious organs as conscious organs and are subordinate to the central motive force ... as living appendages."

And it makes you wonder

"Who works independently here, who is dependent? Who is instrumentalizing whom? People the machines or the machines the people? Are we humans and still act as autonomous actors in this digitized world of work? Is this new world of work still our world?"

But the question of "who we are" and whether "we" still "fit into this world" can no longer be easily answered in a world society in which there is no longer an all-encompassing and binding image of man. The demand is increasing and there is a gap in the market for scientific gurus, who tell us where we are headed, as reliably as possible.

"Unleashing Technology"

At the end of this development, so wrote the historian Yuval Harari a few years ago, Homo Deus could stand, who first tuned up with electronic prostheses, then changed them with chemistry and DNA surgery, became smarter and more beautiful and finally his brain content on a chip downloading, with a frozen or cloned body and thus potentially immortal and populating the universe and thus God-like human beings. Harari's concentrate from the silicon-soaked dreams from Silicon Valley was terribly creepy, but somehow familiar, if only because everything that is not Western world actually plays no role in this dystopia. Because of this, and because the white cover with the golden letters was so beautiful, the book made its way around the world - in the end, of course, Harari dismisses the reader with a somewhat convoluted variant of the sentence: I don't know whether it will come this way either.

Rarities in the computer museum in Halle (dpa central image)

"The unleashing of technology," wrote the French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan around the beginning of the computer age, "undoubtedly leads to a reduction in the technical freedom of the individual". In the history of the species, from Australoanthropus to mechanization, the operative behavior of individuals has become richer and richer. But with the exteriorization, i.e. with the increase and displacement of all human organs and capabilities in machines, machine systems and computers, human society finds itself ...

"... back to the organization of the most perfect animal societies, those societies in which the individual only exists as a cell. [...] A cell in an organism that has perhaps even - and most admirably - gained planetary proportions Machine can enter without having to worry about anything, and in the end a standard parquet board comes out, which is then automatically packed, undoubtedly means a very important social gain, but it leaves people no other option than to do without it, a homo to remain sapiens in order to become something else. So we have to "

... so wrote the anthropologist in 1964 ...

"… Take a look at a completely transposed homo sapiens, and it seems that today we are faced with the last free relationships that man has with his natural environment. Freed from his tools, his gestures and muscles, from the programming of his actions and His memory, freed from the imagination, which has been replaced by the perfection of television, also freed from the animal and plant world, from the wind, the cold, the microbes and the unknown of the mountains and seas, is probably at the end of homo sapiens of his career. [...] How is this antiquated mammal with the archaic needs that once formed the driving force of his ascent continue to roll his stone up the mountain when one day only the picture of his reality remains? [...] Nevertheless there is there is no turning back on the way we have traveled. [...] It would be against nature if we no longer put any trust in him, but the imagination has a hard time. "

The evolution of man is the story in which the community and the apparatus become more and more perfect, but the individual shrinks. That's how we read it, in the culturally critical writings of the fifties and sixties, whether by Günter Anders, more on the left, or Friedrich Georg Jünger, more conservatively. And his brother, Ernst Jünger, notes melancholy:

"Human and technical perfection cannot be reconciled. If we want one, we have to sacrifice the other."

The fossil society and the synthesis of science, technology and production, wrote Arnold Gehlen in 1961, spread across the globe:

"And that already indicates where the journey will lead in any of the coming centuries: to a form of earth government and administration that is not yet imaginable to us."

In the laconic words of André Leroi-Gourhan:

"The collar is the price for freedom in relation to the natural environment."

Fatalistic techno-determinism

Here I leave the level of the grand ideas of the great thinkers of our generation of grandfathers, even if their sober grief pretty much marks the point at which we are still standing. But I think both the individualizing view of Harari, who sees the future in the chemical, digital and genetic engineering of the individual specimens, as well as the melancholy-heroic images of the future of the anthropologists, who say goodbye to the humanistic ideal of the universally educated individual, and a kind of ant colony paint on the horizon - I think both pictures owe to the determined will to come to a contoured picture of the future in confusing times.

Both perspectives, however, are linked in the thought that technology follows its own logic that cannot be controlled by anyone because it is deeply anchored in people. And this fatalistic techno-determinism is not dissimilar to the fatalism of the computer nerds from California who, at their PR-conscious conferences, conjure up the coming of a superintelligence, an artificial intelligence that unites all the knowledge in the world and all the abilities of mankind, after all Can gain consciousness and can then no longer be controlled - which is why they are preparing for the exodus on other planets or galaxies. In all seriousness?

Science fiction or threats - in all three evolution scenarios there is the image of a homo sapiens who does not want to have been and therefore delegated his will to the inevitable development of technology. And all three ignore the economic fuel of this development: the compulsion of capital to multiply. The result of such a "biologization" of technological development is then the horror of the day after tomorrow instead of looking at the next decade, the rigid image of a distant future instead of looking at the historically changing relationship between individual and species.

"The human being is not an abstraction inherent in the individual individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations."

Industry 4.0 - where are people? (www.imago-images.de)

The thesis of Marx and Engels draws the conclusion from the fact of the social division of labor, through which all members of a society depend on one another. There is therefore, as the lawyers Jens Kersten and Richard Giesen write in their treatise on "Work 4.0":

"In the cultural-technical evolution of the relationship between man and machine, there is no permanent anthropological constant. Even in the digitized world of work and life, the relationship between man and machine is in flux. where its relationship to machines can be determined and then simply 'translated' into law. Rather, it is [...] more important to legally accompany the development of people in the digitized world of work and life in order to discover new opportunities for individualization and potential for solidarity. The constitutional starting point for this is the guarantee of human dignity in Article 1, Paragraph 1 of the Basic Law. It is intended to ensure that we can also see ourselves as subjects in the digital age. "

Unions need new strategies

In their study, Jens Kersten and Richard Giesen are looking for new legal forms and procedural rules in dealing with the phenomena of digital work. Health protection, working time regulations and co-determination must not be given up and must therefore be regulated by law. But the rules of the old economy do not fit the realities of crowd and clickwork, the new home work or seemingly self-employed activities. The authors ask how the interconnection of private life and work is to be regulated legally, what problems there are with social security, whether digital work does not require a changed concept of the company and further ask what labor disputes against a company that does not have a "company" could look like. educates more because its employees work decentrally in hundreds of locations, have no formal employment and are therefore difficult to mobilize. The legal treatise is exciting to read, also because of the details - so I find out that the highest German labor court legalized the flash mob, the blocking of a company by a swarm-shaped gathering of external parties, as early as 2009. The legal treatise is important above all because new types of phenomena are only accepted in society when they have found a place in legislation and case law.

Not only the lawyers have to check their terms. It is high time for trade unions to find strategies with which the new workers can fight for rights and represent interests. The defensive will not be enough. And certainly not if you take seriously the postulate of human dignity in Article 1 with a view to the European history of technology and freedom. Then it is not only, and not even primarily, a matter of protecting against digitization and automation, of limiting them, but of accelerating them.

Instead of blocking automation with works councils or protesting against plant closures, unions should pursue the "final metamorphosis of work" and fight for complete automation, for a radical reduction in working hours and a new work ethic. According to the thesis of the so-called accelerationists, it is the accelerator that it is not so much a question of abolishing capitalism, but of accelerating it, forcing it to fulfill its historical mission, the development of the productive forces, to the end. Or in the paradoxical words of Dietmar Dath: It is about ending the "machine storming" of capital, which allows technical progress only as a dependent variable of the increase in money.

Striking workers (imago / F.Boillot)

So why are cashiers still sitting at the supermarket checkouts? Are human robots running through the warehouse? Do smart people fill out boring tables? Because full automation doesn't pay off. Technically, it could be sped up in many places; and humanistically speaking, people could gain time and dedicate themselves to what money can no longer pay for: upbringing, care, nature, the arts, politics, the joy of life. IG Metall's renewed demand for the introduction of the four-day week is once again a small step on the winding path of civilization.

What is in Homo sapiens is not even rudimentarily developed. And a trade union movement that not only wants to be defensive but also wants to inspire them, which must "strive for a world that is more modern than capitalism would ever allow". This is how the social scientists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams write it in an English-pragmatic way in their book "Inventing the Future". In doing so, they tie in with the 2000-year-old tradition that saw technology as a way to liberation. Technology has something to do with human dignity: people should only do jobs that machines cannot.

But there is a second, much bigger reason why we cannot let digitization take over, but rather pay as much attention to its design as we do to climate change.

"The future fate of the planetary environment depends to a great extent on the progress of the digital revolution. breaking through the planetary guard rails. "

Powerful tools

This is how the 500-page report "Our common digital future" begins, which the Scientific Advisory Council on Global Change, WBGU for short, presented to the Federal Government last year. It is a detailed agenda for shaping the digital turnaround. The report thinks the two great developments of recent modernity, the global threat to livelihoods and the explosive advances in information and communication technology together. According to the findings, despite all the beautiful names - smart home, smart cities, smart agriculture - digitization is mainly used to increase conventional growth. It is the great tool that could organize and accelerate change in the relationship with nature:

In decarbonisation, in environmentally friendly agriculture, the efficient use of matter, in the monitoring of forests and seas, in the spread of global awareness - and last but not least, and always last: in the development of technologies and infrastructures that allow it to develop the poorer world in such a way that the planet does not run out of air.

Observation satellites, intelligent power grids, marketing systems for regional economies, monitors biological diversity, networks for new forms of political participation, support for educational processes, techniques of medical self-care, apps with which I can check the soundness of messages - computers and the Internet are tools in all of these areas who are so powerful that we cannot do without their commitment - if we, well, don't want to save the world, but still want to shape an Anthropocene in which we can still recognize ourselves - as homines sapientes. And that also means: All algorithms are political. So what is needed - as reading this report suggests - is that digitization should be geared towards the goals of climate change, global compensation, and the global management of human resources. That is the great mission of this century to politics and administration.

I am now almost tempted to end this essay with the somewhat generous hope that the simultaneity of climate catastrophe and digital revolution is not a historical coincidence, based on Hölderlin's long-running quote: "But where there is danger, what can be saved also grows."

But GPT-2 should have the last word. So I enter:

"It was a foggy morning in November. I was sitting at my desk and was easily stressed because the deadline for my essay on automation had expired."

And GPT-2 continues to write:

"My brain turned on the television. A nice journalist said some nice things about the innovation economy and job creation. Then the D-word came up - the D-word. 'The D-word is starting to slide,' I heard. Lazy I thought. That's not a good thing, because the more we use this word, the more it becomes a reality. "

The D word. What does the algorithm mean? Digitalization? Democracy? And what is slipping, and who is using what and how? The future is open, but… by the way, there is now GPT-3. It is a hundred times as powerful as GPT-2.

Repetition of a broadcast from November 22nd, 2020