The law, the 4 day working week, and how come society doesn’t see the benefit of automation

20.09, Monday 6 Apr 2020

It strikes me that automation means that the kind of laws we have can really change.

First there are laws as deterrence.

If the state wants to reduce some action but it’s really hard to detect, there are a couple of possibilities – take for example, deterring people from driving dangerously fast. The state can make the penalty disproportionately large: so there might be only a 1 in 1,000 chance of being caught, but if you do get caught you might get banned from driving. OR: the threshold for penalty might be stricter, such as having the speed limit by 70 mph when the actual “safe” speed is 75-80 mph. (Or rather, we’re not actually trying to measure speed but danger, and speed is just a poor proxy for that.)

Multiple together the various numbers to get a deterrence factor.

Now imagine, in this era of mass surveillance and computer vision, that it’s easier to detect and prosecute. That means that the number of prosecutions can go up, but for the same deterrence factor the laws can be more lax and the penalty lighter.

Second: laws that make laws possible.

There’s an idea in cybernetics, from Ross Ashby in 1956. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety:

if a system is to be able to deal successfully with the diversity of challenges that its environment produces, then it needs to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems thrown up by the environment.

The complexity of the controlling system (laws, police, courts) must be at least as complex as the system being controlled (the public). Given we want the controlling system to be small, an easy way to achieve this is to somehow constrain the range of behaviours of the system being controlled – to simplify it.

That is, there are some laws that aim to make society simpler to govern, not to deter behaviour which causes self-harm. Perhaps those laws could be removed?

Using automation and mass surveillance, the control system becomes more fine-grained; more complex. This means the allowed complexity of society should also be allowed to increase – that is, become less regulated.

The police state and the dividend of automation

But when we think about mass surveillance and face recognition in cameras, etc, we don’t think about greater precision in enforcement and more freedom. We think about a police state. There are other factors at play:

  • paranoia: perhaps, even though mass surveillance might allow for great freedom, fine-grained laws might mean that they are impossible to understand before they are enforced. The result would be a kind of horrific paranoia or feeling of being trapped in an abusive relationship
  • oligarchy: even if greater freedom for society was made possible, perhaps the complexity or the “degrees of freedom” of a society is a bulk property, and needn’t be distributed equally. Some will be granted huge freedom, most of us not so much
  • history: when profit and power are able to maintain the status quo, whether society overall is allowed to improve or not is a consequence of history. If those in power today wouldn’t be in power tomorrow, tomorrow won’t be allowed to come.

So there’s a dividend of automation that could mean greater freedom, but other forces mean it might not go that way.

The 4 day working week

I’m reminded of the 4 day working week, which was in the 2019 Labour Party manifesto.

There is a trend towards greater productivity by replacing human workers with automation. We are used to thinking about this in terms of unemployment and re-training.

But the Labour manifesto framed this dividend of automation differently. Unemployment would be a result of the dividend going into the pocket of company owners. If instead it went to society, we could think about a better welfare state, more leisure time, wealth to spend during that leisure time, vocational second careers, and so on. The “4 day working week” is a way to imagine all of that.

How to direct the dividend of automation?

The problem is that we have been trained to hear “unemployment” as a problem that the state has to deal with, not an indication that efficiency has increased, and there is now surplus time and wealth. UNEMPLOYMENT MEANS WE CAN DO THE SAME WITH LESS EFFORT.

How come the dividend of automation doesn’t lead to greater leisure and greater freedom? How come we’re not even asking the questions about how this can happen?

I think it’s because there isn’t being painted a clear enough picture of a better future, and engaging everyone in a discussion about how to get there. Give me novels and movies of sci-fi almost-utopias. Make me ask, how do I live there. Make me ask and demand, how do we get there.

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