Friday, 21 June 2013

REal Pitfalls of Theoretical Utopia

My interaction with what is known as the service sector does not always afford me a realistic sense of the lives of others. In many cases, I am awarded an indifferent smile from a cashier at the end of the final aisle. They don't imagine my walk or ride home from the market, and I rarely think about the rest of his or her shift, or interaction with the customer behind me in line. The experience is over and the cashier no longer exists.

This is one of the few things that is free about the free market: the freedom, once I got mine, not to give a serious shit about a cog in the works.

There exist supermarkets with self-checkout options. Just today I checked out my own books at the library. I've become inured enough to this reality and am less worried about the potential disappearance of the librarian than I used to be, but remain concerned about the reliability of the system by which my books are scanned and recorded; more recently the book return has been automated as well.

In any case, I realize that the meaningful difference is that it's my hands feeding the machine instead of the librarian's, and that the system is no more or less impeachable than it had been. The overnight dropbox is damn-near old as binding, after all, and therewith you got no short series of potential imperfections. Still.

Can the machines be a real improvement before we achieve full-unemployment?

Last week I inserted a book into the opening of the "returns station" whereupon it was belted through to its mysterious destination and acknowledgement of receipt appeared upon the touchscreen, immediately amended with the indication of a charge of 75 cents. It didn't say what it was for but I suspected that it was a late-fee, levied, I thought, because the extension I had completed on-line had not registered properly. I went to the librarian, who, I am thankful for all the wrong reasons, still occupies the information desk. She scanned my card and told me that the 0.75 was a trans-branch delivery fee; I'd forgotten that I'd gotten the book from another bibliothek.

A dystopian outlook might present a scenario in which there's never a person to tell us what the machines mean. Of course, there are plenty of humans incapable of being understood all on their own, but the utter removal of personality is uniquely nightmarish. On the other hand, to be brave about the brave new world means not to fret over matters as small as three-quarters of the standard currency unit, and not to think about the implications - or any amount - beyond that.

Indeed, the librarian certainly didn't fret about having to clarify my delivery-charge any more than a computer could have (though the computer did withhold that specific bit of info). And I was actually more disappointed that I had not remembered whence the book came than the charge for not remembering, though the charge itself was feeding back upon the disappointment of my absence of mind and needling it, and hence me. Okay, maybe the money was eating at me, too. Still, had I handed the book to the librarian to begin with, she could have given it right back to me if I told her that, in light of this revelation, I would be returning the book to the branch of origin myself. As things were, all I could do was make a joke, offering to return the book to the other branch for 75 cents.

Nope, too late. Whatever's involved at the mysterious location behind the returns station, the machine itself cannot verify anything but a barcode as it sucks the media into that place, ironically, of no return. The machine and its computer do not yet detect missing, ripped, or written upon pages, let alone is it designed to tell idiots like me that this doesn't come from here. Or maybe the last bit was a planned oversight, for which they'd more likely get paid, unlike my oversight, unplanned, for which I have to pay.

It all balances out in the end.

What also survives on symmetry, some have argued, is everything else in this world and the next. To take the free market as an example, and in my forever fallacious fashion: at any given moment, all this planet's issued currency is somewhere. Perfect balance. This, I imagine is how it works with the employment market as it relates to changes in how certain jobs are carried out. If a machine takes the place of an employee, as in the case of the bank teller, employment is shifted elsewhere. The extent to which it results in a net-loss of jobs is taken into account when you realize that, at any given moment, everyone is either employed or not.


I have wondered if this automation might someday be applied to all employ, freeing the workers of the world from daily labor while providing daily bread. Superficially supposed, we have here the solution to civilization's stridency.

The human condition, however, is a steadfast burden.

With any remaining effort theoretically unnecessary, people would be able to take on tasks of choice to fulfil the need which is not likely to disappear: The human sense of purpose. It would not be as before, a means to procure food & shelter, so'd have to be solely what it'd also been for so long, all-too-oft mired in seemingly meaningless and sometimes torturous drudgery: to be seen, to be felt, to feel seen and felt, to feel appreciated, to feel felt appreciated.

For, to confer value upon oneself, one needs the imagined appreciation of others; even the loneliest narcissist needs his mirror to grovel.

Evinced is self-worth's prerequisite in the common comment from self-deprecating blog authors that they have a mere few readers (it's never "one", which is perhaps too personal). Free-time authors squeezing ideas into phrases requires an enthusiasm stemming from brain chemistry spooged into motion by the assessment of the others of their imaginations; another personality in one's head dictates the action. Short a perceived judgement from without, the entire process is pointless.

Certainly, imagined value should be personally realistic. A tenuous sense of what is realistic is as responsible for wavering self-esteem as direct observation of one's own shortcomings, mistakes, or disappointments. I would argue, they're one and the same.

However flawed the daily grind might be in lending personal worth to the employed & working class, automated utopia amounts to a disabling of any remaining sense of human purpose, which would have to be replaced. In other words, the trade-off for this robot-afforded mass culture of leisure is a permanent re-imagining of what we are: toilers in search of an escape from the tedium, forever swapping one toil for the next tedium, without so-much as the benefit of regret at the loss of life's little rewards.

In this regard, even hindsight is myopic.

Ours is not evidence of what we're becoming, it's evidence of what we are: an inside job we're all in on, most involuntarily, for most unwittingly so.

Book Bank Blick - Berlin 2013