Technology and Communism

Thoughts on socialism and leftism generally

Technology and Communism

Postby Elliott » 20 May 2012, 15:06

I think that Communists rely for solace and hope on the idea that society, sufficiently advanced, will inevitably become Communist. They think it becomes more "inevitable" as it becomes more possible.

These people believe that welfare goes hand-in-hand with "civilisation"; that organised charity is a necessary trait of civilisation. This is the idea that if a society is advanced, it must have a welfare programme. Taking that further, they see Communism as the inevitable face of a really advanced society - all jobs done by automated systems and all things effortlessly provided for everyone.

It seems to me that advances in technology make this Communist paradise rather more feasible than it was 50 years ago or even 10 years ago.

Computers are, of course, perfect slaves, able to repeat the most mundane tasks trillions of times and never make a mistake (all factors remaining the same, of course). We even have computers that can intelligently solve problems, devise schedules and organise resources. As if that wasn't enough for the budding Communist, we are now on the verge of creating computers that can emulate the mental operations of the organic brain, able to understand speech and recognise patterns etc. These are digital creatures, without emotions or demands, utterly predictable in their needs (electricity), and able to work like slaves, compute like geniuses and speculate like intelligent people.

All this prompts the question: "why are humans doing anything at all?"

I honestly think this is a question we are going to be faced with at some time, possibly in this century.

One of the main things is 3D printing, which could potentially eliminate the need for all manufacturing jobs. A 3D printer is a machine that prints, layer by layer, a real 3D object. These machines are not toys and the things they "print" are not rubbish. They can produce engine parts out of titanium particles and these parts are now being used in Formula 1 cars.

A variant of 3D printing is "food printing". This technology is not nearly as advanced but, if successful, it will allow the creation of edible food out of base materials. There is no reason to suppose this food will be any less tasty than the real thing. So, again, we eliminate entire industries and put many millions of people out of work. Anyone involved in creating food, transporting food, or even growing ingredients, could become surplus to requirements.

The ultimate 3D printer would be a machine, rather like the machines in Philip K. Dick's dystopian story Autofac, capable of reproducing itself. This would require several different raw materials whereas current printers can only work with one, but that is a fairly small hurdle.

Taking this to its logical conclusion... if each house had a 3D printer capable of creating food and any imaginable object, the only "consumer product" people would need would be the raw material(s) for 3D printing. If that material could be sourced and distributed by a centralised system, we could probably all live like kings and nobody would ever have to work.

Of course, it is tempting to scoff at dreams of technology. The old chestnut is "the paperless office" which never came about. But I'd wager that technology could eliminate 90% of paperwork in a truly efficient office - in fact I increasingly wonder what the point is of having an office when people can be "linked up" via cheap technology, records being stored on a server.

But leaving aside our own personal feelings about technology (I do think it has a great power to dehumanise a person's work, especially if they are not au fait with it and feel overwhelmed by it)... what about the main question, which is:

If computers and machines are doing the jobs that unintelligent people (and, increasingly, intelligent people) used to do, why shouldn't we abandon economics and institute Communism?

For conservatives that may seem an over-optimistic question, and ghastly in its implications for normal daily life, but for the Left it will be irresistible. They will say:

Okay, the Soviet 5-year plans didn't work, but they were devised by humans. A computer can digest more information and be more fair and intelligent in the solution it devises. Plus, it can continually monitor its solutions and tweak them accordingly.

You might complain about the manual workers being put out of jobs by robots. The Communist would say:

Robots are more efficient, make fewer mistakes, require no wages, and are totally predictable and selfless. In addition, their doing the job means that manual workers can join the elite, composing music and discussing Renaissance painters all day.

You might say that being unemployed will leave people rudderless.

People will have new things to do, pleasurable things, unlimited leisure time, all facilitated by the Machine.

But the ultimate objection would be:

What happens when it all messes up?!

To which the Communist could easily respond:

We improve the Machine. If there's no-one around who remembers how to do that, because it's been going for decades without problems, then we'll use the Machine's own tools (ie. interactive digital learning tools) to teach ourselves how to fix it.

And that last is an important point. We are very familiar with the idea of "the machine messing up". It's a cliche in science-fiction and I think we are increasingly designing technologies with that danger in mind - debugging tools, etc. There's also the possibility of two (or more) systems that work entirely independently of each other and monitor each other, so when one breaks another fixes it and humans never have to do, or learn, anything in order for the utopia to keep going.

I won't go any further into the details of this hypothesis. The important thing is that Communism may enjoy a revival at some point in the (not too distant) future and I don't know if there'll be any way to resist it. But more importantly, if a computerised Communist utopia could be created, perhaps it would be silly to resist it? Does there come a point when objecting to Communism is actually mere Luddism?
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Re: Technology and Communism

Postby Michael » 22 May 2012, 17:03

I would expect an organized resistance from the productive and entrepreneurial, those who enjoy striving and achieving, and believe that the successful and striving deserve acknowledgment.

You have imagined the response of the Communist to the question of what would occupy the manual labourers very well. Marx had a similar response when asked what life would be like after the dictatorship of the proletariat. Trotsky had (frankly insane) visions of the new form of man after the Communist revolution, where each member was mproved in all his faculties beyond even the greatest geniuses of the past.

This is what happens when thinkers deny that human beings have internal essences which respond to, but cannot be permanently altered by, their environment. They believe that by changing the environment you can change the man. The problem, of course, is that such thinking is a perfect example of the Ishmael Fallacy - how, given their theory, do they propose to alter their society, given that they should be just as shaped by external circumstances as their interlocutors. How they propose to stand outside the system in order to change it is never really specified. If such deformed thinking was not wide spread it would be hilarious. Instead it is worrying.

Consider your Communists response to the failure of the Soviet Union and other attempts at planned economies:

Okay, the Soviet 5-year plans didn't work, but they were devised by humans. A computer can digest more information and be more fair and intelligent in the solution it devises. Plus, it can continually monitor its solutions and tweak them accordingly.

Friedrich von Hayek gave what I think is the refutation of all such arguments for central planning. He called it the "Knowledge Problem". It does not matter how smart your central planners are, or how efficient they are at sorting information. They will always lack knowledge about local circumstances, because reporting can never be 100% efficient. There will always remain local knowledge that is possessed only by people situated in particular circumstances, who can see opportunities that no centralized system ever could. Hayek did not envision the use of computers for economic planning, but the same problem of local knowledge remains. The computers, even assuming have no faults in their programming (an unlikelihood even with self-debugging machines) will always be interacting with an "invisible world" beyond their immediate acquaintance, and prone to making vast mistakes. The more complex they grow the more they are prone to Black Swan Events, perfect storms of disproportionate feedback and noise that will lead to disasters vaster than those that could be experienced by decentralized economies, those capable of self-adjustment and individual maintenance.

But let us put aside questions of feasibility. Would it be desirable?

I hold that it would not. Here I have to enter into some very contentious issues about values, but please bear with me. Lenin described the Communist utopia he desired as a world so perfect that no one would need to be good. First of all, I do not believe that such a world is possible for human beings as I know them. A world without the need to be good is a world of automatons, not freely choosing responsible human beings. Contrast man as described by the Communists and man as described by the Western religious tradition - an automatic creature driven by pleasures and pains alone, a complete slave of his cirucmstances, against a being possessed of reason and ethics, torn between his higher and lower nature, striving ever to find a balance, capable of great evil and tremendous good. The beings for whom the Communists wish to build their utopia would not deserve it. The being the religious tradition (and conservative tradition, whether religious or secular) describes is, in a way, already dwelling in his heaven, the place that gives the greatest range for his powers and the stage for his rise or fall. Such a creature is lessened by the removal of obstacles, and improved by their presence.

I apologize for getting a bit carried away rhetorically in the above paragraph, but it is something I feel passionately about.
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