Wednesday, October 2, 2013

2H2K - March 2050 - Automation & Feminization: An Introduction

Interior of Amazon’s giant "fulfilment centre" (Photo by Ben Roberts) via James Bridle

Besides the trends of population growth and urbanization that have defined modernization - that perhaps are modernization, two other trends have ghosted the swelling of our global population and our cites; automation and feminization. Trends that started very gradually in the later Middle Ages and in the past fifty years have flowered into the promise of Artificial Intelligence and Feminism. That may sound to some like an arbitrary matching as well as a horribly mixed metaphor (to flower is to deliver on the promise of the bud, after all), but I'll argue that it's neither. Automation begins with relieving workers from drudge work. Though we see Hollywood images of oiled, muscle bound slaves, pulling things with ropes, the greater burden of drudge work has always been borne by women. We have both AI and Women's Liberation, and both remain a promise yet to be fulfilled.

Let me begin by admitting that my use of the word "feminization" is an odd one. For starters there is no way to reasonably project the term Feminism back on the gains made by women in the 15th and 16th Century. (Gains were made that raised women above chattel, but only slightly above, and those gain often slipped back before being retaken and holding firm.) Additionally, "feminization" calls to mind bellicose old men hand-wringing about the softening state of civilization.

I suppose at the deepest level I don't disagree with that, but like a growing number of men, I just don't find it as a cause for alarm, instead, I see it as cause for celebration. For too long masculinity has hinged on violence. When silver whiskered observers complain of feminization and decadence they are usually worrying about young men's unwillingness to go to war. In his book, Better Angels, Steven Pinker argues that counter-intuitively, as a species we are becoming less violent.
In their article “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Chattel,” Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have documented that traditional laws all over the world treat women as property of their fathers and husbands. Property laws entitle owners to sell, exchange, and dispose of their property without encumbrance, and to expect the community to to recognize the their right to redress if the property is stolen or damaged by others... rape was conceptualized as a tort for damaged goods... rape of a wife by her husband was an incoherent notion, like stealing one's own property.
Pinker goes on to point out that marital rape wasn't a considered a crime in any US state well into the 1970s (about the same time as women were first allowed to get credit cards under their own names in the US). Rape is one form of violence that Pinker tracks trending downward over time. He convincingly argues the trend is due to a constellation of factors. And while many people think of rape and other violent crimes are phenomena of the city, Pinker argues otherwise:
Is it your conviction that small-town life centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is the best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.   
The exponential growth of cities is a modern trend that undoes a disaster that began in the prehistoric era. The author Jared Diamond has called farming, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," and in his book The Third Chimpanzee, he explains that the disaster of agriculture was unevenly distributed:
While giving rise to class divisions for the first time, farming may also have exacerbated sexual inequality already in existence. With the advent of agriculture, women often became beasts of burden, were drained by frequent pregnancies (see below), and thus suffered poorer health.  
Diamond, who is a biologist by trade who worked for decades in the field, goes on to explain that the archaeological evidence agrees with his own experience: "In New Guinea farming communities today I often see women staggering under loads of vegetables and firewood while the men walk empty-handed." Treating women as coolies is in no way limited to tribal peoples. The stories that Diamond tells line up nicely with what I know of my own ancestors.

My father used to tell the story of his maternal great grandfather arriving in New York from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. His great grandmother was the daughter of a wealthy peasant who hadn't approved of the marriage. Like a lot of German immigrants of that era, the couple had ended up on the losing side of the "European Spring" and had come to the new world to start over. The story is that as disembarked and were walking down the dock my great-great grandmother carried all their belongings, while my great great grandfather walked two steps before her. The reasoning, my father explained, was that his fists needed to be free in case he needed to defend the two of them. As the story goes they were stopped there on the dock by a German speaking cop, who told the immigrants that things were different in the new world, that my great great grandfather was to help his wife to carry the load, and that he (the cops) would defend them both.

That is of course a great "coming to America" story, but it is more accurately a coming to the city story. My German ancestors were peasants, country people. Less than 2% of American workers are employed in agriculture today. I say less than 2% because the US government doesn't track numbers smaller than that, so they estimate it at 2%. That number as part of trend that, according to Kevin Kelly, in his book, What Technology Wants, began in the waning years of the premodern period:
By the European Middle Ages, craftiness manifested itself most significantly in a new use of energy. An efficient horse collar had disseminated throughout society, drastically increasing farm acreage, while water mills and windmills were improved, increasing the flow of lumber and flour and improving drainage. And all this plenitude came without slavery. As Lynn White, historian of technology, wrote, "The chief glory of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on non-human power." Machines were becoming our coolies.
Yokes and waterwheels gave way to steam and industrialization, gave way to Internal combustion and computers. The reason such a small number of Americans do agricultural work is because the project of the 19th and 20th centuries was to automate those jobs with cotton gins, diesel tractors and massive combines.

Today the drudge work of the legal profession is being automated. Soon driverless automobiles will transform our transportation industry. The "Transactive Sector" of the economy - that is, the costs of making exchanges - includes everything from legal fees to transportation costs to government regulation. This has changed over time. At points the change has been dramatic. According to Edward Glaeser's book, Triumph of the City, "In 1816, it cost as much to ship goods thirty miles over land as it did for those goods to cross the Atlantic." In a study, measuring the change the Transactive Sector of the US Economy, the authors found it grew from 26.09% in 1870 to 54.71% in 1970. Today it may make up as much as 70% of our GDP.

According to Tom Mitchell, chairman of the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, “We’re at the beginning of a 10-year period where we’re going to transition from computers that can’t understand language to a point where computers can understand quite a bit about language.” Add to that the expectation that driverless automobiles will be on the road, en masse, by the end of the decade. (One of the expected road blocks slowing implementation is expected to be legal: Who will your automated lawyer sue when your driverless automobile has an accident?) By 2070 automation could shrink the Transactive Sector back to the portion it was in the 1870s. That's a lot of jobs that are going to disappear.

These economic trends, driven by progress on the thorny issues of AI, will be coupled with upward trends in the lives of women. We can imagine women's gains in legal rights, access to education, and economic self-determination as moral progress, but we can also see it as the same sort of story that my great great grandparents arrival in New York tells: A story of moving to the city and escaping the violence and oppression of traditional peasant life. The progress women have made in the past 40 years are the story of an increasingly automated agriculture and therefore urban population.

The progress women are projected to make in the next 40 years, will also be closely tied to automation and urbanization, and have enormous impact on how all of us live and make our livings; men, women, and otherwise. But it will also have an enormous impact on how we treat each other, as family, as friends, but also as companies and nation states. In trying to imagine the world of 2050, I tried to imagine the political changes that automation and feminization might bring. Rather than wring my hands over the "hollowing out" of the economy I found myself wondering what profession will supply America's political elite as the number of working lawyers begins to dwindle (game designers?). I also found myself wondering how soon we might see a congress in which both the House and the Senate have a majority of member that identify as female (based on college enrollment trends that increasingly favor young women, I am predicting that in 2049 the US will swear in the 131st congress, with 52 female Senators and 240 members of the House).

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