Dystopia Friday

By Dan Kervick

Chris Bertram, reflecting on cyborg technologies in a possible robot-human future, points to a potentially dystopian outcome for this technology: employers could make the willingness to undergo human technological enhancement a condition of employment contracts.  Bertram sarcastically quips, “Oh well, I expect someone will be along to explain how such contracts would be win-win.”  Matt Yglesias responds, “It seems pretty obvious how they would be win-win: They’d be agreed to voluntarily by two mentally competent adults.”

Noah Smith properly notices that voluntary contracts need not be mutually beneficial to the people who make them, even if these people are ideally rational.  Ideal rationality does not imply omniscience.   Uncertainty and risk are present in the world.  A contact that has a high expected value for some agent ex ante, might turn out to have detrimental consequences ex post, depending on how things in the world turn out.

But I think there is something more to be said here, because Smith’s point still leaves open the suggestion that an ideally rational agent would only make a voluntary contract if the contract is at least beneficial ex ante for that agent – that is, if the expected value of the contract is positive.  But one way in which a contract could be rational ex ante for one of the parties to that contract is if its expected value is negative, but greater than the expected value of any alternative action the agent could perform instead.

Suppose you only have three alternatives: not making a contract, making contract A or making contract B. And suppose the expected values of the alternatives are -1000, -100 and -10 respectively, as measured according to some standard of value.  Then it is indeed rational for you to make contract B.  But I don’t think we would say contract B is beneficial for you simpliciter: in this case you have no beneficial alternative. Contract B is only beneficial in a relative sense.

Turning now to our cyborg descendants, imagine a future in which most people have been technologically enhanced with various cyborg prosthetics.  These human enhancements are typically installed by one’s employer, who retains ownership of them and has the option of removing them from your body at any time.  (If you change jobs, the new employer buys the enhancements that are already installed in your own body from your previous employer.)  Most of these enhanced humans now lead lives that are just this side of miserable.  Many would even kill themselves if they could.  But the enhancements also include devices that read one’s thoughts, and administer severe electric shocks when they detect the presence of suicidal intentions.  But living without the enhancements is not a viable option, because the standard enhancements provide a baseline of productivity and social acceptability without which a non-enhanced human cannot earn an income or engage in normal human society.

Your employer now offers you three alternatives:

A: You will be dismissed from your job and your enhancements will be removed.

B: You will undergo the installation of a new muscle enhancing device.

C: You will undergo the installation of a new brain enhancing device.

Alternatives B and C will make you more productive and more valuable to your employer.  But neither one will bring you any greater personal rewards.  In fact, each will degrade your quality of life, the first by a lot and the second by a little.

Your preference would be to stand pat, and continue your current, barely tolerable, state of existence.  But you are not offered that option.  The only employment opportunities available in this world are provided by other employers who offer their employees similar options.  In this situation, the rational alternative for you is C.  Although the expected value of C is negative, it delivers less expected harm than A and B, which are your only alternatives.

Is this an argument against human enhancement and cyborg technologies?   No.   My dystopian example only brings out considerations about the way in which rationality interacts with power relations, and with the alternatives one has available for living out a life in a world controlled by other people.  These issues are already present in our pre-cyborg world.

16 Responses to Dystopia Friday

  1. I do not want to believe that those who control jobs acces would be able to manage trends that are leeding to such dystopian future you described there without provoking a revolution. I do not want to believe that even tough it is possible.

  2. This is awfully theoretical for this blog. With all the assumptions you just made, you might as well be writing fiction. There are a myriad of other ways this is more likely to play out in the future, though the truth is always stranger than fiction, and dystopian, as a genre, was always typically bland, overdone, and largely unimaginative.

    • I didn’t really make any assumptions. It was just a thought experiment aimed at making the point that just because it might be rational to make a given contract, it doesn’t follow that the contract is beneficial. In a world where options for employment and earning income are determined by the private ownership of the means of production, it is always possible that all of one’s options are bad ones, and the most rational choice is simply the one which is the least bad of a bad lot.

  3. Yglesias’s response indicates to me that he hasn’t had to look for work that doesn’t involve writing in quite some time. The standard neo-classical assumption that labor contracts are entered into by equal parties strikes most manual-labor workers as facially ridiculous. And it is. Employers, even in our actualy-existing dystopian scenario, always have more power in employment negotiations than do potential employees. Most people who are applying for low-skill, near-minimum-wage jobs are living, literally, paycheck-to-three-days-before-paycheck. They do not have the resources necessary to hold out for what they would consider a “good wage,” and so are forced to take the best of the available bad options.

    I offer myself as example. After recieving my degree and returning from an overseas volunteer teaching trip, I had to find a job fairly quickly in order to make rent and security deposit payments. I applied for around a dozen jobs. The “good” ones inevitably had 50+ applicants (I always asked) and the only ones I got called back on were for 1) a convience store clerk and 2) phone survey caller. I had no choice, so I took both. The next time I applied for a “good” job, the fact that I was currently working at low skill jobs meant my resume immediately got tossed in “the round file” in favor of people with better experience and qualifications (did I mention I graduated with honors?).

    The dynamic that Kervick describes is already a reality for many, many people in our society, although it’s easy to miss if you reside firmly in the middle-class. There aren’t any sci-fi body enhancements required, but having to select between the best of bad options and, therefore, entering into employment contracts that are rational though not especially beneficial is what a lot of us live with every day.

    Good post, Dan.

    • Thanks Josh. Yes, that was my point. Rational people can make contracts that are rational for them only because accepting the contract makes them better off than any of the alternatives to that contract. But if the alternatives are all shi**y, then that’s not saying much.

      • The alternatives are shi**y for workers because business has been built with the workers’ own stolen purchasing power via unethical endogenous money creation. Otherwise, the workers (or their parents) would be co-owners of the businesses or would have at least received honest interest rates for their savings. Instead, interest rates have been artificially suppressed for the benefit of businesses and anyone else with a little equity, a credible business plan and a friendly bank.

        Well, the businesses and real capital have been built but to what good? A few have way too big a share in the profits and far too many have none at all. Proud of the financing plan that produced that, Dan?

        • Coming from a Marxist-Mises perspective, Kevin Carson is one guy who suggests a MUCH longer tail than “banking”. Unethical endogenous money creation, afaik, IS banking.

          In other words, someone would have to put a BAN on the business of banks issuing NOTES based on double-entry bookkeeping. Who would that someone be? Hmmm … oh, the GOVERNMENT, which libertarians don’t want.
          Banks in the past have issued private-label Notes. Libertarians — at least the Misean ones — want ONLY private-label Bank Notes or else gold bullion … and zero Govt money. The problem was getting those private-label Bank Notes accepted by anyone beyond local users, even other banks didn’t trust other banks, because there were no enforced rules. This made commerce difficult and expensive.
          Ironically, it has been leading “Austrian” economists have been pushing to eliminate enforced rules on banking and independent credit creation, even within the context of current modern money systems which are DEFINED and kept Fraud-free ONLY by rules. This means a Free-for-All for looters … as we experienced.

          I also understand now that the reason Gold coin developed *AS* money is there was no FOREX and Kings who wanted to start a war didn’t send their own huge armies, they hired distant mercs. Mercs had to be paid in metal *commodities*, with or without the King’s seal.

          I “get” the double-entry bookkeeping thing about actual banking. I “get” it that today we have a system where floating FOREX and *laws* (aka Govts in agreement) makes the hard-link *govt regulation* between metal and money a moot point.
          I understand that “Gold-backed” state money is simply “fiat” money OR credit as we have now, but with one simple, big, one-size, inflexible Govt Regulation imposed upon it, the “must have lots of shiny rocks in storage” standard.
          I understand that modern “fiat” money has it’s relative price and value determined by FOREX markets.
          I also understand that there have never been historical examples of actual functioning markets that were not created by some form of “government”, even bef0re modern nation-states.

          Warren Mosler suggests that base interest rates SHOULD be zero. There is no public purpose served by the Fed using it’s monetary management powers to prop up interbank lending rates above zero. Mosler would also ban interbank lending as an unnecessary process and privilege that serves no public purpose.

          As someone on this forum pointed out, “fiat” money is NOT “counterfeiting”, but HAS been “usury”. Nearly all agree that the prices they charge to “rent” money (issue credit) to non-bank participants constitutes Usury, or what Hudson calls “economic rent”, price devoid of value.

          In the progressive econ era views Hudson refers to, Simon Patten and others, a govt with a commitment to BROAD public purpose would BAN or else tax away ALL forms of excess profits far exceeding the costs of creating and providing those products. Exceptions exist for short-term excess profits arising from innovation, with the mixed-benefits of patent protection — monopoly price supports — being either eliminated or shortened. As far as patents, intelligent people can determine whether a given patent application serves a useful purpose of promoting innovation or simply a way for a corporate conglomerate to block other innovators and get long-term artificial price supports for minor or useless fake innovation (pharma).

          Again, Kevin Carson describes EARLY capitalism and “free markets” in England as an insanely and very-tilted system of State Domestic Repression of workers and independent labor, in the service of favored State-Partner capitalists, on a level comparable to Stalin’s police state. Then how that “evolved” into new property relations and “rights” based on pre-existing force and/or fraud.

          That is, if we want to take a moment to look at a critique of capitalism from an ultra-libertarian anarchist viewpoint from the LEFT (a mode of anarchism which *probably* can’t work, or work very poorly):
          THE IRON FIST BEHIND THE INVISIBLE HAND
          Corporate Capitalism As a State-Guaranteed System of Privilege
          Mutualist.Org: Free Market Anti-Capitalism
          http://www.mutualist.org/id4.html

          The DISEASE extends FAR beyond the mere issue of “artificially cheap” lending to “good” credit risks.

          I would say —- MMT would agree —- that inexpensive “Soft” money is far more democratic than artificially-expensive “Hard” money. The proponents of “Hard” and “Sound” money meant “artificial scarcity of credit to prop up high prices and profits for bankers” …. THAT was what was “Sound” about it, the high profits.

          Modern MMT money *should* and *would* be LOW-profit i.e. LOW-cost i.e. an “efficient” market process, not a bloated high-cost credit-liquidity machine … except that Austrians (or “Austrians”, named by Bill Black) have “gamed the system” by applying their own strange “libertarian” template on top of the existing “Fiat money” system!!!!

          • Don’t get me wrong. Commodity money is silly and “fiat gold” is an obomination. But what allows the banks to create money unethically is government priviledge such as government deposit insurance, the lack of a government provided risk-free storage and transaction service for its fiat and a legal tender lender of last resort.

            As for interest rates, I would let the “free market” decide those. But by “free market”, I mean a market where people would be free to create their own private money (good for private debts only) if they found renting someone else’s money supply (including fiat) too expensive.

            • Gary Goodman

              As Keynes noted, the problem is not creating money. The problem is getting it accepted.

              Some examples of (semi) “private money”:
              I write you a check. Do you trust it? When someone is selling something like a used car, how likely are they to sign the title over on a check or other IOU when most stores don’t take checks unless they are hooked into Chek Systems or some similar guarantor that can approve the check.

              The check happens to be denominated in USD, but the check itself is a private-issue IOU.

              A private bank with no govt backing or insurance issues Notes to customers based on some alleged levels of reserves. Do people trust those Notes and accept them?

              In the “free banking era”, competing banks charged as much as a 30% discount to accept Notes from other unknown banks. That’s a bit higher than typical $3.00 ATM fees.

              Banks and hedge funds NOW create private “money” in the form of private-issue securities (securitized debt obligations) and other derivative bets. Those assets are used to trade for other assets and as collateral to borrow sums of US Dollars, so these are technically “money” in a certain sense.

              Would you expect a gas station or grocery store to accept a securities certificate or derivatives contract as payment for food or gas? You would first have to convert that “private money” to actual Dollars, before a commercial industry or person would accept them.

              What makes money actual “money” is the sovereign Issuer has the means to demand a small portion BACK in taxes. It does not even have to tax everyone … as Adam Smith upheld progressive taxation and Henry George sought only to tax rich land-assets. So long as some people at the top of the economic food chain are required to give BACK a portion of govt-created money as a payment for the privilege of participation in the State-organized economy, there will be a Demand for the Govt currency that imparts it with value.

              Otherwise, people could use “Ithaca Hours” or similar local barter money, if Dollars were not required for anything. We might conduct commerce in Yen or other foreign currency, in the absence of sufficient US taxation. THAT is the source , not mere “legal tender” laws.

            • Gary Goodman

              The idea below is not that the Govt creates EVERYTHING or for that matter ANYTHING that is tangible. The only thing the Govt has the sole monopoly on is the Unit of Accounting.

              I agree that for our economy to run on dollars which are 97% created as bank credit, that is a travesty and usury.

  4. Machines have certainly stolen a ton of jobs away from humans. And a recent study showed that millennials have wholly bought into “we need better technology so we can service our own needs with vendors” instead of “we need to employ our neighbors to deal with our service needs from vendors.” Service jobs were pretty good paying jobs, and an entry level to better ones. To paraphrase the song “It’s time to bring sexy back” it’s time to bring service back. It will be a long while before SIRI can intuit what someone’s problem is—who doesn’t even know themselves.

    • And, we need a universal Job Guarantee program —- it need not necessarily be some massive federal-national bureaucracy at the local level —- it must be created with 100% federal money, state and local tax support would defeat the point of adding sufficient money to the system.

      It need not be 40 hour jobs, but jobs would have to pay sufficient wages for decent survival (within the context of current state-corporatism, UNLESS that were also “progressivized” to cut out economic rents in the Michael Hudson sense.

      That is to say, if Mr. Market does not need or want laborers, then a democratic (public purpose) Govt should have every right and justifiable reason to hire them. Instead of paying people “welfare” to NOT work, because they can’t find work, pay people TO work and contribute.

      This also sets a FLOOR on pay and working standards. It prevents an artificially SLACK market in demand for Labor … pushing Labor’s price way way down, and desperation way way up. People could QUIT terrible jobs without fear of destitution and starvation.

      Right Wingers who stand in the way of a Job Guarantee program should be seen as saying “we do not want those people working for us, we REJECT them based on age or competence or simply because they are excess labor for our shrunken needs, so they are expendable and useless breathers to us, but we also don’t want govt to hire them to serve humanity, and we also want them to have sufficient spending powers to support aggregate demand — magically.”

      That attitude should be exposed and critiqued to be like a jealous person who says “I don’t wanna date him/her anymore, but I won’t let you or anyone else date him/her either.”

      • A Basic Income Gaurantee is much more just than a JG. The population has been systematically looted by what is essentially a government backed counterfeiting cartel. Why should they have to work for restitution?

        Besides, people can find their own (by definition) meaningful work to do with sufficent resources.

    • REWORKED — I would delete the previous post(s) if I could.

      Society needs a universal Job Guarantee program —- it need not necessarily be some massive federal-national bureaucracy at the local level —- it must be created with 100% federal tax-free money, state and local tax support would defeat the point of adding sufficient money to the system.

      It need not be 40 hour jobs, but jobs would have to pay sufficient wages for decent survival (within the context of current bloated state-corporatism of price-gouging, except to the extent that current prices also “progressivized” to cut out economic rents and “free lunch” for the privileged, in the Michael Hudson sense as he describes it.

      The Job Guarantee proposal esentially states, if Mr. Market does not need nor want all avaiable laborers, only a tiny fraction of the whole pool, then a democratic (public purpose) Govt would and *should* have every justifiable reason and power to hire them to serve various needs of overall social good.

      Instead of paying people “welfare” to NOT work, as we do now, because many people cannot find work, pay people TO work and contribute.

      This also sets a FLOOR on pay and working standards. It prevents an artificially SLACK market in demand for Labor … pushing Labor’s price way way down, and desperation way way up. People could QUIT terrible jobs without fear of destitution and starvation.

      (In abstract conjecture, everyone today theoretically maybe can find work somehow and somewhere, but it might be illegal “black market” work, or they might have to travel many many hours to get there, or the pay and working situation might be extremely poor, the equivalent of “slavery” in the context of “free market labor”, and the job might not even afford them an opportunity to stay alive … not without Govt handouts on top of wages. These conditions in an era of HIGH “efficiency” of labor and ULTRA-HIGH corporate profits at the top.)

      Right Wingers who stand in the way of a Job Guarantee program should be seen as saying “we do not want those people working for us, we REJECT them based on age or competence or simply because they are excess labor for our shrunken needs, given automation and robotics, so these masses of people are expendable and useless breathers to us.

      But we also don’t want govt to hire them to serve humanity. At the same time, we also want and need these masses to have sufficient spending powers to support aggregate demand and high profits— magically.”

      That attitude should be exposed and critiqued to be like a jealous person who says “I don’t wanna date/marriage with him/her anymore, but I won’t let anyone else date him/her either, and I don’t wanna pay any child support or spousal support, but I oppose giving them govt welfare support as well.” The only reasonable response should be [insert vulgar command].

  5. Forget about futuristic cyborg speculation. How about some current leave-your-brain-behind-when-you-resign claims to in perpetuity “intellectual property” ownership? — i.e., “we invested a lot in training and sustaining you, so our employee non-compete/non-disclosure agreement extends to anything you produce after leaving the company. You just can’t un-ring the ‘proprietary information’ bell.”

    Narrower example here (current employer assertion):

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2012/04/03/doctor-sues-mgh-bosses-over-control-inventions/eouHwWHz13Mm0CiHnpEOZK/story.html

  6. “Most of these enhanced humans now lead lives that are just this side of miserable. Many would even kill themselves if they could. But the enhancements also include devices that read one’s thoughts, and administer severe electric shocks when they detect the presence of suicidal intentions.”
    Thanks Dan this made me laugh! This nightmare future is perhaps not so far fetched. Surely we have to question why in an age of plenty folk are increasingly buying into the idea of austerity. Many people are choosing a childless life of comfortable slavery rather than risk becoming inadequate providers for offspring. But humanity is a species and all species want to multiply. How can so many individuals be choosing to forgo what they are designed for?
    In a sense most humans already lead lives just this side of miserable. Many are taking a lifetime to kill themselves. To exist in the mainstream and speak against austerity would be to attract hostility. Rather than suffer the metaphorical electric shocks folk make the rational choice and tow the established line. The many are being enslaved by the few. Rather than suffer a large amount we choose to suffer a small amount then a large amount instead of a huge amount.