It’s always the same song from Silicon Valley: “we are going to go to the Mars” or “we are going to build a space elevator” or “we are going to make AGI” but never “we are going to END SLAVERY” or “we are going to GIVE EVERYONE A HOME” or “we will make sure CHILDREN DON’T STARVE”
This post reminds me of an Uber passenger who, on reading the sign I have hanging for my passengers, wanted to assert the value of “innovation.” The final bullet point on my sign says,
No, this is absolutely NOT what I want to be doing with my Ph.D., but the job market has functions other than matching people with jobs, including ensuring that some are trapped in long-term unemployment or underemployment. Social inequality serves a purpose: Poverty and unemployment weaken workers’ bargaining positions and thus undermine wages and working conditions.
It is awfully interesting that my passenger perceived fair treatment for workers as incompatible with that “innovation.” And it is an ongoing source of cognitive dissonance for me that even with an alleged “labor shortage” that’s really about employer resentment at the very idea of having to pay anybody anything for anything, age discrimination is rampant and my job search continues to fail miserably. As a society, we are determined to discard human beings.
Instead, we have a space race among wealthy white men. I usually defend space exploration, mainly because I support self-actualization, the idea that humans should be supported in developing themselves to their maximum capacities in whatever direction suits them, as long as they aren’t hurting others, and because, frankly, I think we lose something important about being human when we constrain our curiosity for whatever reason.
But with wealthy white men, this development occurs at the direct expense of exploited workers’ self-actualization—they are hurting others—and, as Michael Hiltzik points out, this race more about developing vanity than it is about developing capability. Which when I’m sitting here with Uber driving as the only job I can get, even with a Ph.D., leaves me wondering where my self-actualization comes in.
And it’s not just my self-actualization. In Pittsburgh, I find a lot of poor people and a lot of workers rely on Uber for transportation. Driving conditions here are difficult with roads that take a heavy toll on vehicles, making driving expensive. Racist policing in an area with a wide intersection of race and class makes it even more expensive. So a lot of folks here never even learn to drive.
And these people aren’t like me. They’ve never had a job that treated them well and seemingly don’t expect one. They haven’t been to college where self-actualization is a value. Traveling between poor neighborhoods, distracted by their smartphones, they seemingly manage never to see how rich people live and aspire merely to housing that’s barely better than what they’ve got now. I take some to and from jobs at Amazon “fulfillment centers” (warehouses to the rest of us):
Mr. [Jeff] Bezos did not want an entrenched work force, calling it “a march to mediocrity,” Mr. [David] Niekerk recalled, and saw low-skilled jobs as relatively short-term.
And so it is:
The average Amazon warehouse worker leaves within just eight months – that’s an unmistakable sign that Amazon’s jobs are unpleasant, to put it kindly, and that many Amazon workers quickly realize they hate working there because of the stress, breakneck pace, constant monitoring and minimal rest breaks. Indeed, experts on the future of work often voice concern that Amazon’s vaunted algorithms and technologies treat Amazon’s warehouse workers like mindless, unfeeling robots – having them do the same thing hour after hour after hour.
I wonder what that average is in Pittsburgh. It’s like workers here expect to be abused. Certainly, their potential has been constrained beyond what I can even imagine.
There are, at this point, multiple points to be made. First, my passenger who adamantly cheers “innovation” embeds an assumption that little if anything is lost when people like me are discarded. But as John Asimakopoulos noted, “[c]ountless potential discoveries, innovations, and advancements are never made because most faculty and intellectuals have been discarded, living as coffee baristas and wait staff versus the alternative of a homeless existence in a McDonaldized contingent academia.
Second, that discourse assumes that my more ordinary passengers themselves are incapable of “innovation,” that they cannot contribute to society in a greater way than they do. I am reminded of friends I had in San Francisco when I lived in a residential hotel who worked in the residential hotel industry themselves, often as janitors, or as other low-end workers, but who, one night, took me along to a local bar where a few of them got on stage and played the Blues astonishingly well. These are the people who can’t quit their “day jobs.” They, too, are discarded in an assumption that anyone whom our society does not recognize as “worthy” to “innovate” or to “create” is in fact unworthy to do so and may be relegated to menial or robotic work.
Third, that discourse assumes that egregious social injustice is essential to “innovation,” that a massive class of exploited workers are needed to “free” “creators” to, well, shoot themselves off into space.
If we were ever on Jeff Bezos’ “march to mediocrity,” we have already long since arrived. We have a society in which that massive class of exploited, abused, and unemployed people are denied even a minimal standard of living, devalued as cannon fodder for our endless wars, and devalued through the active suppression of their potential. And even to the limited extent we recognize this mediocrity, even when this mediocrity stares us in the face, we do nothing about it.
The rationalization for our system of social organization, both political and economic, is often that it is the “least bad” system. We cannot, we are told, do better.
But if we indeed value “innovation,” then the tweet with which I began this article becomes relevant: Why are we not “innovating” better material conditions?
The obvious answer is that for those whom our society licenses to “innovate,” shooting themselves into space is more interesting.
- Edward Ongweso, Jr., “It’s always the same song from Silicon Valley, . . . Twitter, February 4, 2022, https://twitter.com/bigblackjacobin/status/1489718015793025031↩
- Eric Levitz, “5 Explanations for April’s Bad Jobs Report,” New York, May 7, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/05/jobs-report-explained-ui-childcare-seasonal-adjustment.html; Eric Levitz, “Letting the Economy Create Jobs for Everyone Is (Sadly) Radical,” New York, June 4, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/06/biden-full-employment-policy-labor-shortage-inflation.html; Heather Long, “It’s not a ‘labor shortage.’ It’s a great reassessment of work in America,” Washington Post, May 7, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/05/07/jobs-report-labor-shortage-analysis/; Jon Schwarz, “The Business Class Has Been Fearmongering About Worker Shortages for Centuries,” Intercept, May 7, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/05/07/worker-shortage-slavery-capitalism/↩
- Anneken Tappe and Allison Morrow, “Three key numbers that explain America’s labor shortage,” CNN, December 25, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/25/economy/labor-shortage-early-retirement-charts/index.html↩
- Christian Davenport, “Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic crew are safely back from space, ushering in a new era,” Washington Post, July 11, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/07/11/richard-branson-virgin-galactic-live-updates/; Franklin Foer, “Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan,” Atlantic, November 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/11/what-jeff-bezos-wants/598363/; Adam Gabbatt, “Bezos blasted for traveling to space while Amazon workers toil on planet Earth,” Guardian, July 20, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/jul/20/bezos-space-travel-blue-origin-amazon-criticism; Tristan Greene, “Here’s the stupid reason Elon Musk wants to nuke Mars,” Next Web, August 16, 2019, https://thenextweb.com/distract/2019/08/16/heres-the-stupid-reason-elon-musk-wants-to-nuke-mars/; Michael Hiltzik, “The Bezos-Branson-Musk space race is a huge waste of money and scientifically useless,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-07-06/jeff-bezos-richard-branson-elon-musk-space-race; Jasper Jolly and Gwyn Topham, “Richard Branson’s quest: to boldly go where no billionaire has gone before,” Guardian, July 10, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/jul/10/richard-branson-virgin-galactic-flight-billionaire-space-tourism-race-jeff-bezos; Rafi Letzter, “Why NASA’s Annoyed About Elon Musk’s Giant Rocket,” Live Science, October 5, 2019, https://www.livescience.com/starship-crew-dragon-spacex-nasa-bridenstine.html; Samantha Masunaga and Andrew Mendez, “Jeff Bezos launches new era of space travel with Blue Origin ride,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-07-20/jeff-bezos-launches-blue-origin-new-shepard; Daniel Oberhaus, “How did Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin fail to dominate the billionaire space race?” Guardian, October 16, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/oct/16/jeff-bezos-blue-origin-billionaire-space-race-sexism-safety-concerns; Samantha Rolfe, “Elon Musk’s Starship may be more moral catastrophe than bold step in space exploration,” Science X, October 2, 2019, https://phys.org/news/2019-10-elon-musk-starship-moral-catastrophe.html; Joey Roulette, “Space tourism rivalry gets extremely petty ahead of Branson’s spaceflight,” Verge, July 9, 2021, https://www.theverge.com/2021/7/9/22570287/space-tourism-virgin-galactic-branson-blue-origin-bezos; Erik Shilling, “Richard Branson Didn’t Go To Space,” Jalopnik, July 12, 2021, https://jalopnik.com/richard-branson-didnt-go-to-space-1847274538; Shannon Stirone, “Mars Is a Hellhole,” Atlantic, February 26, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/mars-is-no-earth/618133/; Shannon Stirone, “Space Billionaires, Please Read the Room,” Atlantic, July 7, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/07/space-billionaires-jeff-bezos-richard-branson/619383/; Derrick Bryson Taylor and Kenneth Chang, “Jeff Bezos Will Fly Aboard Blue Origin’s First Human Trip to Space,” New York Times, June 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/07/business/jeff-bezos-space.html; Sam Wolfson, “Metaverse, Mars, meditation retreats: billionaires want to escape the world they ruined,” Guardian, October 29, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/oct/29/metaverse-zuckerberg-mars-billionaires-escape-world↩
- Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).↩
- Michael Hiltzik, “The Bezos-Branson-Musk space race is a huge waste of money and scientifically useless,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-07-06/jeff-bezos-richard-branson-elon-musk-space-race↩
- David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/; David Benfell, “About that alleged ‘labor shortage,’” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/05/09/about-that-alleged-labor-shortage/↩
- Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise, and Grace Ashford, “The Amazon That Customers Don’t See,” New York Times, June 15, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/06/15/us/amazon-workers.html↩
- Steven Greenhouse, “Amazon chews through the average worker in eight months. They need a union,” Guardian, February 4, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/feb/04/amazon-chews-through-the-average-worker-in-eight-months-they-need-a-union↩
- John Asimakopoulos, Acknowledgements in The Political Economy of the Spectacle and Postmodern Caste (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2020), xiv.↩
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