«Окей, бумер»: ForbesLife Russia interview, December ’19

Pursuant to my recent trip to St Petersburg, the cats at ForbesLife Russia wanted to chat with me about “my attitude to some controversial urban technologies.” Herewith the results.

What is the future of e-cars and self-driving cars? How soon they will replace regular drivers? Would it change the transport system in cities?
It’s pretty well-known by now that the first estimates of when autonomous vehicles would replace conventional ones were wildly optimistic, and at the moment even the best autonomous guidance systems can evidently still be fooled by rain, or fog, or light coming from an unexpected angle. I think autonomous vehicles will eventually be the norm, but the word “eventually” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.

When they do become the norm, though, I very much hope they’re imagined as collective means of mobility, rather than a fleet of isolated, individual, private pods taking up as much space as conventional cars do now.

How do you feel about Uber?
I don’t think they have much of a future as presently constituted. Personally, I would be very surprised if they’re still a going concern by mid-2021.

Are smartphones and smartwatches helping to collect data from citizens. Is it new possibilities for city and technology development or danger?
It’s both, obviously. The trouble is that most of the danger has already been realized, while, as ever, the new possibilities remain endlessly deferred.

Do we really need smart houses?
No. We need decent, actually affordable houses, and many more of them.

Will the increase of the AI-robots use influence the economic growth?
Well, look — I’m a degrowthist, which is to say that I believe that prosperity and the growth of the economy as conventionally measured are two entirely different things, and that unlimited growth is civilizationally untenable. So let’s be clear that if AI and automation drive growth, that’s a bad thing — a terrible thing, in fact, as they can only increase the efficiency with which we strip the planet of its final remaining organic resources and transform them into plastic in the landfills and oceans and waste heat in the atmosphere. AI-driven automation might well have been designed as formal proof of the Jevons Paradox.

Now there is a general trend towards automation of production. Is it possible that humans and robots will complement each other, or will robots inevitably replace humans?
That very much depends on the task in question, as well as the political economy and type of society in which that task is embedded. A just society would be more likely to make choices around automation that tended towards producing complementarity. You may have noticed, however, that we don’t happen to live in a just society.

What do you think about work automation? How do you think automation is likely to reshape our economy and society?
You know I don’t use the word “inevitable,” because very little is inevitable other than change and death. But some degree of automation certainly does seem overdetermined at the moment, and I don’t think you need to be any kind of a genius to predict that the consequences when deployed at scale will be economically and socially salient.

Lots of new technologies collect and monetize citizens data. What do you think about governance of this huge about data?
“If you can’t protect it, don’t collect it.”

What is the future of mass media? Will be they replaced by news aggregators and AI writing news reports?
I can’t see how that would be particularly worse or any shallower than the situation we contend with right now. The concentration of corporate and billionaire ownership in the media sector means that honest, accurate reportage about the circumstances of our lives is increasingly vulnerable to suppression, from the mass, mainstream outlets right down to niche outlets like Gawker, Deadspin and Splinter.

You have said that technical feasibility is not key to the development, and [that it is] more important to change politics. How do you see the future of digital governance?
As far less important than the collective task of becoming what the geographers Danny MacKinnon and Kate Driscoll Derickson call “resourceful.” We desperately need to recover our competence for being public, for being civic, simply for being together. The means via which we enact that being-together could be the human voice or pencil and paper every bit as much as some elaborate, digitally-mediated delegation network — the mechanics of implementation matter much less than the fundamental skills and attitudes necessary to self-determination and collective stewardship.

Are there any others controversial technologies that are overestimated? Could you please list and briefly describe them?
Blockchain in particular seems like a mass exercise in hype and self-delusion, in which the grifters and scam artists are hard to tell from the willing sheep (and neither cohort is particularly comprised of people I’d want to have a drink with). Cryptobros gonna cryptobro, I guess.

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