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Spearhead: 1

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight

– Karl Marx

On Slave Societies

I was asked, to begin at the beginning.

How far back?

The clay tablets recollect the day more than four millennia back when the corrupt tyrant of Lagash, Lugalanda, was dragged through the streets. Perhaps I can imagine that crowd, cheering the ascension of Urukagina, witnessing the primeval and eternal act of the human drama, rebellion.

Lagash didn’t see more than seven years of a better life, it was destroyed by the city state of Uruk, which in its turn was swallowed by Akkad, ruled by the legendary Sargon.

That story is too old for your memory. Imagine how many such stories of the eternal struggle got lost in those first few millennia of recorded history. And “civilised” human history is at least twice a long, starting from around 10,000 BC.

Let us talk of more comprehensible times. Do you remember that day fifteen hundred years from the Sumerian city states, when the last tyrant of Rome Eternal, Tarqin, was driven out dishonored? The Republic was established. The tale of how it all happened is dramatic but what exactly did the founding of the Roman Republic mean for the Roman peoples who were now ruled by a room full of patriarchs, and not one priest king?

However, what I remember fondly is that glorious day fifteen years later when the plebeians walked out of the Sacred City en masse. Do you remember, standing with them on the summit of Mons Sacer overlooking the city, observing the first successful strike in human history? Imagine the horror of the perfumed patricians, waking up to find no citizens to order around, no labour to expropriate. They capitulated quickly. That day was a victory. The right to vote for a Tribune of the People was won.

Things were not that easy elsewhere. Let us go forward thirty years to a Greek tragedy.

Assuredly you remember the Helots? Those peoples who were the slaves of the cruel, thrice-cursed Spartans? The Helots were treated like animals, unsurprising for a “culture” which fetishised brutality, unceasing war, and killed their own kin it deemed imperfect. But the Helots got theirs the day that earthquake hit Sparta. The devastating slave revolt aside, those events made the unfortunate Athenians think they had a chance to craft a better reality, and after long debates, as the Athenians were wont to do, the thirty year string of atrocities and counter atrocities known as the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens started. By its end, Persia had somehow allied with Sparta, Athens was devastated, had lost its facade of a moral high-ground via a string of escalating war crimes, Athenian “democracy” was substituted by the rule of the Thirty Tyrants and the Glory that was Greece was hurtling towards ignominy.

The memories of those times are wearisome. Let us go ahead two hundred years into the future, and on the other side of this miserable rock we call home.

Qin the first had succeeded in forging an imperium out of China, after destroying all its constituent nations, killing its philosophers, burning their books, and demolishing their Hundred Schools of Thought. On this graveyard of cultures Qin built a state unparalleled. Qin thought that on the bones of hundreds of thousands he will build a thousand year empire. Qin’s creation lasted fifteen years.

(Interestingly, Lord Shang Yang, the legalist who was primarily responsible for creating a horrible proto-totalist philosophy which regarded the ordinary citizen as scum, advocated for a total coercive ‘meritocratic’ State where virtue is banned, and made the regimented militarist empire of Qin possible, fell victim to his own brutal laws and was executed along with nine generations of his family, himself being torn into four pieces by chariots)

A peasant by the name of Liu Bang would end up overthrowing this empire within a generation of its founding. I will not go into his story here, for great men do not make history, but the peasant turned sheriff, sheriff turned outlaw, outlaw turned “Duke of Pei”, did become History’s chosen, and he did harness the anger of the peasants, did beat Xiang Yu in the race to Guanzhong, and later did backstab Xiang Yu in the Chu-Han contention. Han was birthed that way.

Was the establishment of the Great Han, perhaps not a nightmare like the Qin but itself a brutal empire with a Confucian garb and a legalist soul, which will last almost four hundred years, any kind of victory for us? Many tales from the Han, for the next two centuries we will recollect here. The Yellow Turbans, the Red Eyebrows, and the Green Forest. But those are future tales.

Back to Rome, seventy years from the founding of Han, two great events are of recount.

The first was the events around two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Tiberius Gracchus was elected as the Tribune of the People in the Eternal City. He understood that the root cause of the misery of the Roman plebeians was because the ruling classes had cornered all the agricultural land for a song and by the use of fictitious tenants. Tiberius Gracchus then attempted something revolutionary, the first political attempt at land redistribution. The patricians, aghast that the Tribune actually is doing their job, conspired and had him beaten to death. This atrocity was the first civil strife in Rome.

His brother Gaius Gracchus wanted to finish his brother’s life work and was also elected a Tribune of the People. He legislated far reaching social reforms like first right to recall and laws to prosecute elected magistrates, an idea unthinkable at that time. He continued his brothers work on land reforms. When he proposed that all citizens should be allowed to vote, the patrician Senate lost its mind. Using anti immigrant rhetoric the Senate incensed a mob which started a killing in which three thousand Romans were butchered without trial. Gaius committed suicide in a grove.

Did Gaius die alone in despair? Could he have imagined that what Tiberius and he started will be a struggle which is still being fought?

The second great event was external to Rome, but equally revolutionary. It was the first Servile War, in which slaves of Sicily waged a full scale war against the Roman Republic. A Syrian named Eunus was their leader who as a slave was a magician entertainer in theatre. And during his performances he would insert into the humour, revolutionary sentiment. Somewhere between seventy to two hundred thousand slaves joined this rebellion, making it a force many time greater than anything earlier, for example the Helot rebellions in Sparta. It lasted three years before it was brutally suppressed. It also inspired two more slave wars against Rome in the next sixty years.

In the third and last Servile War, the rebel army of a hundred and twenty thousand slaves and gladiators under Spartacus,  a Thracian gladiator, held out against Roman military might for two years and won unprecedented military victories for a slave army. Rome had to field eight legions to suppress it. Thirty thousand slaves were killed in the war, and after the fighting ended eleven thousand more were crucified.

In history, it is remembered often that Pompey and Crassus created their military and political careers in the Servile Wars. What has been forgotten is the lessons learnt by the people in their attempts to win freedom from tyranny.

In a few years, the vile genocidaire Julius Caesar will crush the rebellion of Celtic Gauls and cross the Rubicon.

These are the tales of peoples and societies struggling for millennia towards their liberation. We will continue this story from this point in the next chapter.

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Hello world, 2.0

After one year and a few months I write here again.

I really have no excuses for not writing for such a long time. After a point, due to someone’s prodding, prodding I am sincerely grateful for, I unsuccessfully tried for a week to start writing on various topics. It didn’t work (I sort of half wrote on a dozen different ideas) so all else failing I will begin by first listing in bland prose what was happening in the interval, and hope that once I am done writing this it will be easier to write on other things.

Last February to August was my final semester of PhD, and thus writing my thesis involved almost all of my time. And my PhD ended (one of the things Sumegha had commanded me about), successfully. I attempted to get into east coast academia for Fall ’18 and failed in that endeavor, it is hard, the complications involved can make its own post some other time, there is certainly interesting material there. So, like many other AI PhDs, I joined a corporate organisation as a research scientist. How do I square joining a corporation with my politics? I do not think there is any real political contradiction there, getting paid by a corporation or getting paid by a university is the same, I am a worker and it is not a company directly engaging in imperialism for example. Then again, all first world labour aristocrats like me are embedded in exploitation if one really thinks about it. My boundary is that I will never expropriate someone’s labour.

Corporate life is strange, especially after a large time in a PhD. I was used to being the master of my own time and fitting into the constraints took a while. I also, at one point, changed cities. I have been successful, within reason, of resisting lifestyle creep.

A lot happened in those few months, politically, and I found myself getting to know and talking to a lot of people in the Indian Left scene, with very diverse viewpoints, and I didn’t limit myself talking to socialists either. Liberals, reactionaries, I would talk to anyone, especially if they wanted to know why AI is political. The specter of Sumegha Gulati (haha!), her commands to engage with the masses, they were in my head during this time. The news from India every day since the last few years was motivation enough as well. I have talked to more people and more politically active folk in the few months following my PhD than the last eight years. I started organisation work too, and learnt many useful lessons there. I also re-read a lot of the classics carefully, and I don’t meant just the Capital. After a point reached the conclusion that yes, my internal politics is coherent, and I can engage with the outside world with it. So, I did.

In October, I visited UK for a small public discussion on the politics of AI, my stuff was received well. It was a surreal thing, the audience was entirely composed of artists, and I had never spoken to an artist in my life before, let alone on AI or Marxism. I met a few comrades in London and for the first time felt that my line is substantial and can be delivered to diverse kinds of audiences. I kept refining my own thoughts and did dialectics with many people, and in February, visited India for a couple of weeks, and gave eight talks in various academic campuses, on the politics of AI. Hilariously, my talk at IIT and JNU were on the same day, February 9th.

One of the India talks can be seen here: Talk on the politics of AI

An interview I gave to a news portal on the same thing can be seen here: Interview on the politics of AI

Also, by that time I had broken another self imposed ban, and now a handle of mine exists on Twitter. I was initially dragged to Twitter kicking and screaming but soon found it a useful pulpit of sorts, once you develop a bit of a thick skin and get over the initial shock. Social media has proven to be, interesting to say the least and not as poisonous as I was afraid it will be. I did encounter some interesting people there.

My winter India trip effected my political work in earnest, and that work goes on, with a great deal of urgency as the three and a half persons who are the audience of this blog post would know about. It is not merely despair at the current condition of the motherland, that was always there, and nor is it just ideology, which I have been working on for a decade at this point. It is the material reality of AI and automation, its relation to labour and capital, the potential for a real movement, here and now, which will change the current state of things in addition to the opposition to fascism. The idea that we will be the one who grapple with these conditions is deeply alluring. So, I practically have two jobs and over the last three four months am straining my capacity. I want nothing less than the introduction of criticality and political thought centered around the question of automation and labour in hitherto apolitical reactionary science-technology campuses of India, a new front marrying leftist thought and AI in the Indian context with its myriads of oppressive constructs. I know how absurdly ambitious this desire is but it is not impossible. The slow plodding forward has yielded quite a few fruits from February to now.

While doing my job and my job, in whatever time remains, I also decided to pick up the abandoned project of learning a few languages after many years. That goes on, with some success. And now I have decided to write again in earnest. Banal my prose may be, I’m too old to care, I will write!

Hope to see you around.

We live in a politically charged and polarised world. And one way people combat each other or express differences is by using language. Words. This rant, which will be short and full of run-on sentences, is out of the desire to preserve the dignity of this potent weapon of language.

Words and phrases mean things. And unfortunately, these days in the areas of philosophy, politics, and culture (though I can name a few more), many phrases are aggressively co-opted to mean something else, till they do, and not only is that a blow against good discourse, good politics, and good manners because no one knows which concept they are arguing against any more, it also makes my inner linguaphile sad. The paranoid part of me suspects that a lot of fault might be deliberate.

Why should one care? One should care because politicians abuse language to further insidious goals. Remember the Nazis? The full form of the word “Nazi” is “National Socialist”. A right wing corporate funded (enthusiastically) aristocrat supported (reluctantly) party with the stated aim of crushing Marxism, which not just tolerated but collaborated with German industrialists, which put all socialists and communists in concentration camps, called itself “socialist”, even had a party “left-wing” which it promptly purged after getting power. The ridiculous gall of it aside, this wasn’t accidental, this was deliberate policy for them to take away Marxist voters from Marxist parties by stealing Marxist verbiage and waving around a red looking flag, and altering what words mean. It was an effective tactic.
 
Stealing and mutilating words is dangerous business done by the lowest of the low. And we are seeing the rise of that again.
 
Some of the worst offenders these days are the following. “Artificial Intelligence” does not mean what most think it means, even some of its powerful proponents, “feminism” is the most ill-understood word per capita, “evolution” is hardly understood by many professing a scientific bent, “bourgeoisie” has a very specific meaning ignored by most (I’m looking hard at you artists!), “classical liberalism”, classically, was nothing like what the phrase is used to mean these days, it has now become a byword for market fundamentalism. (Rule of thumb: Any phrase classical-___ should be scrutinised carefully). “Libertarianism” again has lost all meaning and has started to mean essentially “anarcho-capitalism”. Also, you cannot be both an anarchist and a capitalist. That phrase is as meaningful as saying something like “socialist-capitalist”, “spiritual-materialist”, “polytheist-deist”. God, where are all the good old fashioned capitalists gone?
 
Oh course the most abused word is still, “socialism”! A very specific ideology has been reduced to meaningless babble by both the American and European conservatives and liberals (I’m not being snarky by not mentioning American socialists, they exist, really all ten of them). I blame cold war era propaganda. What irks me is that most people who vehemently want to debate it have no idea what they are so passionately arguing. No China is not socialist, nor are Scandinavian nations, nor Best Korea, and not Bernie Sanders. Gah!
 
Words mean things. For anything to mean anything, fight against linguistic abuse.

So it has been a while. Let us write a little.

How have you been, dearest reader? Has the change of season been kind? Did you perchance read my last, rather disorganised and largish post written in frenzy, and fury, and despair, and weirdly enough, hope? I surprised myself that day. I have no such intent tonight. Tonight, all I feel is solitude, and a disinclination to indulge in my usual fires. Perhaps because tomorrow I go on a journey to a land of sea lions. There are no dragons to slay this time, it is more of a mutual backslapping exercise among dragon killers. For the lack of a coherent theme or any sense, blame time, or my lunch.

The last month saw me quite energetic. More so than usual, as the world distressed me by being so bent, empty of joy, and devoid of one person quite dear to me. Action after all is the only thing that truly defines us in such times. And goodness, was I full of drive and intent. I was told in no uncertain terms about how much I lack chill. But such energy has consequences. A dark reaction is inevitable when languor and ennui do overcome such outbursts. This always dulls the mind and makes reality feel like equine excrement. To compound that I am again separated from friends, both new and old, by the tyranny of distance and time. Fortunately, I have had the foresight to buy a couple of very interesting books in these past travels, and the company of my beloved after a month was salubrious. And there was good food. Of all the various misfortunes this year has shown fit to reveal, at least there is that. Heavens save us from a world without love or the possibility of biryani. As for the immediate future, I am aware of the impending doom of congruent paper deadlines I have planned for, what with my unreasonable desire for this Fall to make 2013 look like it was spent in idleness. Work beckons and it will not be pleasant. I will weather this impending storm, and emerge to a place of peace if nor prosperity, that I am certain of. In any case, by this time next year, I will be done with this infernal doctorate!

I would like to mould this reality to my will. Every breath these days reminds me of Ghalib’s gem of a couplet

Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikle
Bohat niklay mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle

On the edge of finishing the third decade of my life, I have never felt as alive and yet as despondent. As driven and yet as alienated. The potential for victory and disaster of every little thought and act needs some tempering. The act of writing all this drivel was metaphorically to wash my face with cold water.

It seems it is dawn already.

Let us prepare to see some sea lions.

“When in despair, write.” – Me. Today.

Prologue

One of my dearest friends is dead. She died yesterday. Not passed away, not resting in peace, not departed, and definitely not expired. She is dead. I have known death before. It is cruel. Many years back, my father died similarly, separated by twelve thousand kilometres, I neither talked to him at the end nor was able to go to the funeral. One day, I too, will die. They bury my friend today I hear. Or rather, the body of what used to be her, for she is dead.

Going through every single memory my brain faithfully recollects over the last day and reading our ten thousand messages, mails, chat logs, etc. etc. I come to this realisation that what was, and not is, will never be again.

I am not taking this well am I?

This post will not be about despair, for no one who reads it can (or ought to) feel the kind of horror fuelled by a vacuity of sense I’ve experienced since yesterday. This post is the fulfilment of an old promise. It will be written in stages over the course of the day, perhaps be rather long. My friend you see, asked something of me a while back.

Well she did ask a lot of things, things I readily promised, like cooking fish for her family. Or going to Al Jawahar (I don’t even know where or what that is). Or going on a biryani pilgrimage. Or inviting her to my future marriage. Or giving her my first interview which will lead to a Pulitzer for her apparently. Many of those things I cannot fulfil now. This particular one, I can.

This promise started materialising in part during one long conversation over chicken in Zaffran more than two years back, and over time we would talk on this topic in parts. But it was finally set down in words over a phone call in April during and after the JNU protests in Delhi recently,  during my friend was washed away by the heady potency of youth in revolution (“I’m always a journalist first”. Right. Not when you are in love with an idea you aren’t.)

“Ek longform article likh, jo keh raha hai mujhe use likh, abhi likh”

We had been talking on many things, but the central theme was the evolution of political systems and political economy over time, and how it is almost deterministically related to quantum leaps in science. The revolutions of the nineteenth century were a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. The economic consequences of that had repercussions leading to the two world wars. We had been talking about how removed from each other the worlds are of the JNU student-workers on one hand and the scientific ivory tower dwelling intelligentsia living in the West, on the other, but they are natural allies. Because material conditions and political action should be in dialectical lock-step. We had been talking about Artificial Intelligence, and how that will fundamentally change the nature of politics, economy, the working class, and the human condition. And were expressing horror that no one around us, not even us, realise the full consequence of what the future brings. Perhaps, for the first time in human history, the obsolescence of not just human labour but human thought. She wanted me to write on this. Write I shall.

This will be rough, something I would have normally written in over an year. It will be written within 24 hours and hence will aim at breadth, not depth. She wanted me to write something like a journalistic piece which would be published for wider dissemination, but that was her realm, something I am ignorant of. She wanted me to write in order to educate those who are quite removed from my world and not aware of how different theirs might become within their lifetime. That I will attempt. A word of caution, this will not be a rigorous scholarly piece. As a rough approximate though, this is what I think the future will be.

Chapter 1

Humans as horses

As an introduction for the uninitiated, let us begin with this extremely interesting video. It is a good starting point for anyone who would like to understand how automation and potentially AI would end up effecting politics/society/economy (I often use these three interchangeably).

 

This is by CGP Grey, in my humble opinion one of the best channels on youtube for science and society related topics, up there with Kurzgesagt. The video makes in its essence makes a few points, summarised as,

  • A second economic revolution is coming, one when automation would become universal
  • The first one, the Industrial Revolution, among many other things, for example made horses irrelevant.
    • “The other reminds him that everything so far has made their lives easier — remember all that farm work? Remember running coast-to-coast delivering mail? Remember riding into battle? All terrible. These city jobs are pretty cushy — and with so many humans in the cities there are more jobs for horses than ever.Even if this car thingy takes off you might say, there will be new jobs for horses we can’t imagine.”
      – Some hapless optimistic equine, CGP Grey
  • “There isn’t a rule of economics that says better technology makes more, better jobs for horses. It sounds shockingly dumb to even say that out loud, but swap horses for humans and suddenly people think it sounds about right.– CGP Grey

Universal automation, one of the many early rungs of ladder which will lead to the inevitable road to AI will make most of the physical labour force, from farmers to drivers, from mechanics to masons, irrelevant.This video doesn’t mention a lot of the details, but look up construction via 3D printers, farming via machine-craft, entire factories being made automated with minimal human supervision required. These things exist, and over time these technologies will get cheaper and the methods refined. And like CGP Grey states

it isn’t about how automation is bad — rather that automation is inevitable. It’s a tool to produce abundance for little effort. We need to start thinking now about what to do when large sections of the population are unemployable – CGP Grey

What is often misunderstood, or ill-understood, is the quality of human creativity. It is neither unique nor irreproducable. The fact of the matter is, the majority of human mental work is not creative, or even intelligent, it is perfectly procedural. As a PhD student in my final year, even research is 99% grinding and 1% brilliance. And the Sciences are a fraction of a percent of human endeavour. The Arts even less. A lot of these things don’t even need true AI. Deep Learning (look it up, a subset of Machine Learning) methods, which I work on right as they are relevant to my thesis, and which are nowhere near powerful what popular imagination makes them out to be, are quite adequate for a lot of tasks in the office and on the field, specially those involving vision or language. Within the next decade AI academia (and I hope I will be among these) will produce work which will, for example, produce works of art comparable or superior to anything a human can, will read and then generate sophisticated literature, answer complicated questions, etc. Lawyers, authors, poets, engineers, programmers, and yes, journalists, none of these are immune professions. Eventually, as the above video states, humans really need not apply. For it will not just be human labour that will be obsolete and expensive, but also human creative thought.

All of what has been stated above is nowhere near original and is not meant to invoke sentiment or fear. These ideas have been repeated by respectable, nay, stodgy technology commentators for a while, and will not be considered outlandish in many social settings I might find myself in. But outside of those settings which primarily consist of PhD students, post doctoral scholars, or younger AI enthusiasts, it will be a different story.  My dead friend, in a conversation last February, reacted with incredulity at first and then with  horror when we discussed this topic in detail. Later, in the context of the JNU protests she realised how this all directly affects the working class, and how ignorant and thus vulnerable the working folk (and most students) are in relation to the future. What does it mean for the skilled blue-collar factory worker, let alone the unskilled labourer in a country like India with practically no social net, when 3D printing becomes ubiquitous and labour even cheaper. Machines don’t need food. What does it mean for the intrepid reporter for that matter in such a society when all productive power is even further concentrated? Even the smug STEM undergrad, immune in the knowledge that someone will be needed to program all the drones, is not really immune in the long run. My friend, who loved humanity with an unequalled intensity, extracted a promise from me for a written piece where I summarise all of this and index enough resources for a lay reader to do their research. To educate, if possible about a possible future.

A millennia from now, some AI Mind might tut tut at my inability to write this as fluently and brilliantly as it will. So, what is to be done?

Chapter 2

Three visions: Neo-Godkings, the Basic Income Welfare Society, and the Culture

Most scientists refrain from speculating further than this point, partly because going from the realm of theoretical (future) AI to that of (future) economics and worse, (future) politics, is dangerous for members of our trade, and also because we are not trained in these disciplines with the rigour that is second nature to us. It is just inelegant bad manners to go stomping off into the fields belonging to others. But I believe, have believed for the past few years, that such merging of realms is vital and imperative for the world at large. To stave off opprobrium, and to preserve good humour, I will invoke the ancient Greek rhetorician, Lucian of Samosata, and hereby claim that all of what I am writing is not to be taken for what will be but what might be.

A practical consequence of automation, in the fullest sense of the word, in the short term future (say, half a century?) will be even more concentration of capital into fewer hands. This is a fairly historical trend with technology and economics, and after all every petty building contractor to every feudal-lord-in-all-but-name will try to cut costs. Now, this is a fundamentally unstable system, because it will slowly wither away the consumer class. For a while, this will not be noticed, because the purchasing power of markets differ, but slowly and surely all markets will have been exploited and production costs will keep on relentlessly being cheaper, while the percentage of unemployable or under-employable workforce ever expanding. This, as is obvious will Not Be A Good Thing.

What then? If we keep obstinately following our current system of economic distribution of wealth, ownership, property, this will only lead to a somewhat dramatic increase in that part of the population with nothing to lose. And our current obsession with jobs, property, and wealth is kind of fetishistic. And history has taught us the consequence of such arrogance. Nor will this stage in technology come uniformly everywhere. Developing countries will have way more manufacturing jobs in this time period because of the number of potentially prospering people increasing a bit, even if that increase is from absolute mind-numbing poverty to that of the working class. A few hundred million to a billion say. This will lead to even more attempts by the now not-dying class to emigrate, educate themselves, have the gall to essentially live. And the world has never been kind to sudden waves of the absolute poor trying to gain a toehold in relatively better societies. Is insurrection and war inevitable then? Do read up on the concept of resource wars. To make all this fun, climate change (which nicely coincides with our timeline) might force the hand of many fleeing populations.

The worst possible conclusion from this will be the further entrenchment of hierarchy. Which is already extremely entrenched. As this article and many others have repeatedly figured out over the last decade, social mobility is a perverse myth in the macro scale. To the discerning urban Indian the obviousness of this myth is sometimes clouded by heavy doses of ideology, which does not work once you leave city borders. It is a useful myth for our betters, the thought that we are all temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Ubiquitous automation will shatter this myth. To clarify this vision, those who like me live in the US, think, Silicon Valley property prices on steroids. I call this vision of the future, that of the Neo-Godkings, and please do forgive this bit of purple prose. A society of gated communities and bare naked “I’ve got mine”-ism. As everything from manufacturing AIs to space craft to automated truck fleets to automated farms will belong to a few gentlemen (and ladies) (gender binary and that parentheses deliberate) of wealth,  what use pray tell will the working class, always a barely tolerated nuisance will have to these fine folks of leisure? As it is, there is a gigantic computer coolie force (offence, not dated use) in the Asian countries, the so called IT industry. It will collapse at the automation of basic software maintenance. The sweatshops too, even they will be too much unprofitable. Violence will not be tolerated of course, and the ownership of potent social media discourse (a lot of it automated too!) will keep the proles bickering on infantile topics. Media and “serious” journalism will of course be even more curated, and even rudimentary AI will far improve the quality of State intelligence to root out subversion than already exists. All of this, again, has already been thought of, predicted, discussed, made science fiction novels about (for a primer into this kind of literature, start with Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson), etc. etc.

Is my rage obvious enough at this point?

Right. Let us move on to a slightly less cruel alternative.

Suppose we realise all of this before time. Suppose the captains of the industry are potentially worried about the torches and pitchforks. Suppose that society comes to term with the fact that jobs, property, and wealth is kind of fetishistic and wishes to do something about the fact that a large percentage of it is unemployable. It might want to implement then, what will be a streamlined expanded version of a thing western capitalist societies already have. Welfare. Or as I like to call this second vision, the one of the Basic Income Welfare Society. My choosing such a pompous and inelegant, almost bureaucratic looking phrase was completely deliberate.

Basic income is not a new idea. It entails giving everyone in society some free money by the State, obtained via a rational flat or progressive tax. The idea is, since there will be a lot of unemployable poor, but a few fabulously rich in this automated AI future of ours, the taxed will not begrudge the fraction of their income used to feed most of humanity. Everyone from Thomas Paine to John Stewart Mill to venerable socialists (harangued by Marx for being naive simpletons) like Charles Fourier have thought of this in some form or scale. Basic Income sometimes throws in Free Education!, that wonderful panacea, to make the deal sweeter. It has a lot going for it even among the capital owning class, a pragmatic acceptance of the fact that all people are not employable in our vision of the future (and Free Education! will choose the best of the best among the wretches and elevate them to one of the Job Creators!, the Free Market! deciding which), and letting them all starve will be so inelegant, of doing away with a lot of public services, of streamlining welfare and taxation, of legitimising the essentials of the economic system by keeping the consumers extant, the pitchfork wielders mollified, the labourers healthy, the parasites happy, and the State with a job. Is my sneering at what all I just wrote evident at this point?

What basic income does not do is address the essential problem of imbalance of who owns what. It keeps the AI in the hands of those who can afford it. It just reduces the actual “meaningful” economy to the small fraction of a fraction of humans who now do not need much of the rest as employees, and leaves the rest with essentially a generous pittance, with the job of dutifully buying the goods produced by the former. This is still an improvement of galactic proportions on my former vision. There might be actual social mobility. Perhaps everyone with some ambition in this society will end up getting a PhD and them somehow manage to crawl their way up the futuristic ladder to walk around in shiny overalls while their happy subjects buy shiny toys. This is probably where we all are heading anyway. But we can do better. As a species we owe it to ourselves to do much better than this. A society where the majority do not contribute because they cannot own any meaningful means to do so, and if they desire to, have to contend with odds of such a nature which would make any such attempt laughably futile is not much of an improvement to current developed nations (It is still an improvement, a vision of paradise compared to, say, my own India or China, and I will take this fully automated global Scandinavia to anything else we have right now).

When we are on the road of questioning the fundamentals of modern economy due to the potential changes AI will bring, when we are close to discussing outrageous things like free money to the poor, the victims of an age of universal automation, why not go one step further? Why not do away with all this bureaucratic nonsense and aim for  a world where AI enables all owning all? And all can contribute. No more producers and consumers separated by a false void. No more ultimately useless calculations of “merit” and “profit”. Eventually, with enough automation and energy we will be able to produce enough to make leisure a virtue, a time for autonomous self growth not shackled by hunger, why keep those processes in the current model of keeping valuable things? This is what is called a post scarcity idea. This can happen, time willing, and provided we do not blow ourselves up for a few centuries.

My final vision, the one I want for our species, the one my dead friend wanted in her own way has been thought on in many facets by thinkers and writers way better than me. My best rendition of those kind of thoughts for that kind of a world was put into paper by my favourite author (now regrettably dead) Iain M. Banks in what are called The Culture series of novels.

Here is an excerpt from A Few Notes on the Culture

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what- -works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is – without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset – intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual [immaturity and] – through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others – a kind of synthetic evil.

Please, do yourself an immense favour and read these books. They are fiction, utopian, almost fantastical. But we are so used to thinking in mechanistic terms, in terms of necessary-evil-ism, in terms of resources and tools, that we often ignore the potential future of science and society. There exists a real, material, doable, chance for the actual liberation for our species in the future of automation and AI (also, the true potential of oppression, we have to choose). Post Scarcity should at least be a dream.

Chapter 3

On Truth and Optimism. Conclusion.

Let us climb down from the clouds of Utopia and Dystopia (and mildly irritating boringly realistic fully automated bureaucrat-opia too). Let us go back to the students protesting and my dead journalist friend worrying about the world, as was her wont. What is to be done? What, in this world, is the duty of the scientist, the student, the academic?

The first, obvious duty, is to the truth. A truism, but it is so hard. The Scientist must seek out the Engineer, Politician, the Journalist, the Worker, the Student. And educate. This is a tall order considering we do not even talk to people working on a different paper let alone a different lab let alone anyone else. I have tried doing so in my limited capacity, and the answer to the question “why are we working on this?” is often lacking. It is very hard to explain things to people not in your field. It is horrible that what many take for granted, most do not know about. What is artificial intelligence, let alone its impending arrival? What is automation, let alone a driverless car? What will that mean for the friendly neighbourhood driver? What will be the future of law enforcement and armies (as in automated drones)? What of the future of the internet? How does the student, so full of zeal for justice, help? How is this all conveyed to the farmer who will starve next season or the victim of forest strip mining (this isn’t meant to be easy)? Science education and propagation is a must at this point in any case. Don’t do it, or don’t coordinate with others in society, and there are enough carrion eaters waiting to use the ignorant. Look at the ridiculous climate change “debate”. Why is it a thing? Look around you and see the waves of anti-intellectualism which will swallow our times if not fought with vigour. It has to be stopped. Now. Or the nonsense will consume us all. And yes, we need to stop avoiding politics. Because the technology we create affects everyone, we have a responsibility to prevent harm, especially when we can change lives for a better. A sort of secular good-works. Thus, all science is political.

The second duty is more of an attitude one. We need to stop dismissing things using phrases like “human nature”. Defeatism has become too much fashionable. Why must misery be our future? We have, as a species, dug ourselves into a series of holes but we do have the potential to dig ourselves out. With shiny SCIENCE. And a healthy dose of scepticism, critical thought, and cooperation with other seekers-of-truth like my friend was. This, my dead friend believed.

For a long time, I refused to consider the possibility I would like to write here again.

This blog has never been well maintained. Being somewhat of an online journal, with the audience of less than a half dozen folks (some of the best people on this miserable rock) the blog has waxed and waned with my personal fortunes over the last decade, reaching a point of crisis in 2014 when my caprice had a fatal encounter with the then Indian political climate.

For India, 2014 was an election year which makes the current US presidential election look reasonable and the commentary on it informed, balanced, and pacific.  It was a year which left me bitter to the core at my own land and people, with vows of never to care as much. I was disappointed not only at the overwhelmingly jingoistic electorate which desiring a comically regressive nation made a thumping far-right victory possible, but also by the hypocrisy of a few reformists and “liberals” who had at first admirably resisted that but soon descended to the same level of pettiness, malice, bad faith, histrionics, and eventually sycophancy as their much larger opponents. When that was over, my faith in the eventual goodness of democracy was at its flimsiest, and my desire to write anything ashes.

From then, quite a few things happened in quick succession, not all of them salubrious, and all of them draining. After a long slog, my research finally started becoming somewhat coherent from the Summer of ’15. In the months following that, certain upheavals on the personal front dealt a few solid kicks to my spirit. By October, while my general despondency had abated and I was no longer a wet rag, I felt no desire to engage meaningfully with the world, let alone write. This had to end in December with me penning the proposal for my thesis. I forced myself to write, and work is something I understand. I advanced to candidacy. That, and a consequent trip to India saved me. I am never as vital as when translating thought to words to speech. This would be a theme which would reoccur in the next four months till now.

In the month I was home, I got involved with making a quiz at my alma mater (yes, embarrassingly, that old madhouse is still a part of my life), after ages. There playing the act of the stern but fair quizmaster among the overtly enthusiastic undergraduates, I was alive. I negotiated family paperwork, met friends, now impressive men and women in their own rights, and made a few new ones, and I was alive. Also, after eight years of a relationship, I finally met the family of my SO (that deserves its own post someday). I was alive. When I was back I teamed up with someone to write a fellowship research proposal, a certain company liked it, flew me to the West Coast, where we gave a talk among an audience of peers. And I do not know if we will get the fellowship money, but when I was speaking that very well choreographed talk, I was utterly, painfully, gloriously alive.

(EDIT: I won that fellowship :D)

My girlfriend once quipped that my morphing into your stereotypical angry old drawing room socialist uncle would be complete the day I only critique the world, but not write much about it. Three days back, at some infernal hour, with the AC not working properly, the thought entered my head that I feel too much alive, and would like to write. I spent many hours in these three days grinning internally like a child, making lists of things in my head to write about. Ha!

Thus, I will write. Not because I’m a particularly good writer (I’m not), not because it helps me articulate things which assail my mind (it does), and definitely not because it gives me joy every time (sometimes the opposite). It just is something I can never really stop doing.

So, egalitarian naivety lost. We lost. This post (and this will be a proper post) is dedicated to the sort of folk who are passing around the song ‘Hum dekhenge’ by Iqbal Bano, in the last 48 hours, a lot. It is meant to be an uplifting post. Yes, things are dire, but the problem needs to be defined first, almost cold bloodedly. It will still be a borderline incoherent post, more passion than poise, the sort of post you write at 3 am in the night because a storm is in your head and your fingers ache to type.

Firstly, and this is something important to digest, the ‘Big Idea’ of direct democracy (one of whose facets is what the people call swaraj in India, and no, not that Swaraj) has been emphatically rejected by the electorate which still cares very much for the idea of all centralized power in one individual. This is something that needs to be fully accepted. There will be many who will be making all sorts of comforting false analogies to other movements and thinking ‘but we have 4 seats’. Trying to comfort yourself is absolutely the wrong thing to do, for that clouds objectivity. The vote was not merely against the rulers, it was for one individual, not his party. This is rare in any democracy, let alone one like India. That individual has no opposition in the parliament, and could conceivably alter the constitution. That individual for now has the loyalty of at least a hundred million, a number which is a fraction of those who stand by the idea of the cult of personality, and for whom all of this was akin to a presidential election. Is this an acceptable state of affairs? No. But this is the reality and if one chooses to even attempt to slightly change it, one must be completely aware of what they are getting into, that they will be against the incomprehensibly large behemoth of Indian society itself which is in love with personality cults. The Indian likes to worship, and it often does not matter who or what. Caring to change this reality is to firmly stand against what soon will become the de-facto social position. The alternatives to the obvious madness of caring is to not care, but aside from THF, a gentleman who has elevated not caring to an artform (he considers writing huge, incredibly well articulated posts about stuff as not caring), I have a sneaky suspicion that the readership of this blog (all three and a half of them) will care most obsessively.

Secondly, the problem here is somewhat greater than the political results of an election. The problem is of dominant ideology. The ruling class, which by all measures of decency had long ago lost the mandate of the masses, and was being perceived as an illegitimate entity governing the nation, has been replaced by an entity from the same class which is adored by the masses. This adoration though is the result of a decade long long-con which has finally paid off. Perhaps the grandest con job in the history of humanity, it used the media, social and otherwise, and for over ten years played on the ignorance, delusion, sentiment, ambition, resentment, insecurity, and dare I say cupidity of the public, till it had not only created a new leviathan of a persona, cut and dried and ready for adoration, but also moulded the social intelligence subtly, pervasively, and completely. In this of course it was aided by the extreme incompetence and characterlessness of the erstwhile rulers, but there were many other factors like a huge corporate stake, reactionary backing, a stranglehold on the prevalent cultural norms, especially among the urban youth, and a systematic breakdown, sometimes literally, of any dissenting ideology or ideologues, leftwing or otherwise. The biggest problem with the direct democratic movement was that it was too late to counter any of this and in desperation, spread itself too thin. The results are rather impressive if incredibly scary to the thinking observer. Social discourse is not a discourse any more but a monologue among sounding drums, and we may be witnessing the single most successful echo chamber effect in human history after 1933 which snowballed out of control. For now, the dominant ideology is the ideology of the ruling class, as well as a cultural meme, something which has never happened in India before.

One good thing about this is, this will wash away all the dilettantes, charlatans, and hanger ons from the direct democracy movement. If any kind of a movement survives, and I’m certain it will, both as a political movement and an ideology, it will grow stronger. Right now the only way is up.

In the language of CK2, India went from feudal politics of loads of squabbling vassal states to a popular absolute monarchy overnight. But the monarch will take some time to settle in to start monarch-ing properly. The horse I’m backing is reduced to a one province minor with four baronies, landlocked in an immensely large proto empire which intends to finish the job as soon as possible and has 5 years of guaranteed uninterrupted rule to do whatever it wants. But as soon as possible is still not that dangerous. When the cheers die down, there is only so much that our new monarch can do overtly. While theoretically the constitution can be altered (using well fed urban terminology of course, ‘uniform civil code’, ‘article 370’ are always the best sellers), doing so requires about two dozen more supporters from outside the government to get to a two third majority. Right now that is impossible, because even the lowest rat will fight tooth and nail to preserve existence. Siege mentality is a beautiful thing. The same will happen in the intellectual front. Nothing gives an intellectual worth their salt more romantic impetus than dreams of an apocalyptic struggle against a society completely against them. Well, we have reached the godzilla threshold now. Once the direct democracy movement realizes that their prime ideology of swaraj is something the random Indian doesn’t give two farts about, they will learn to improvise. What happened in those four seats was very simple, the local folk were fed up with the rampant drug problem of their state and had lost patience with their local government. But such grievances are nowhere near rare. And as choked up with absolute victory as it is, I do not see the victors of stooping down to address the peasant level issues any time soon. That is the in. It looks difficult, but the last thing for folks to do right now is run around squawking like Fox News commentators after the american 2009 elections. All is not lost, and the war is far from over.

The biggest task will be the slow and careful chipping away at the dominant ideology, or to force the monologue to morph into a dialogue. I do not see how it can happen in the near future, but someone will figure out a way. In the market of ideas we will have to show results before we can show arguments, in order to be not laughed away right now. This will be the largest take away lesson for those who still hope. To end this post, I’ll post that song which everyone seems to be getting inspiration from. And it seems to be sunrise now. Jaago mohan pyaare. A very good morning to you.