Noah Smith had me going for a minute there

by Chris Bertram on December 27, 2012

I just love econobloggers, with their capacity for Swiftian satire. Dry as dust, yet clearly having a laugh, they aim to reel in the poor saps who are take them seriously, but they are big enough to continue to play along, making as if they really mean it. Until now, I’d thought of Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan and, perhaps, even Arnold Kling as being the true masters of the genre. But I’m pretty sure that Noah Smith surpasses them all with a new blog on The Rise of the Cyborgs. Smith does a really excellent job of pretending to be keen on the robot-human future he imagines. So, for example, we get


artificial eyes and ears would replace all input devices [i.e. actual eyes and ears]. You would never need a television screen, a phone, Google Goggles, or a speaker of any kind. All you would need would be your own artificial eyes. You could play video games in perfect, pure augmented reality. Imagine the possibilities for video-conferencing, or hanging out with friends half a world away! And why stop there? If you wanted, you could perceive the buildings around you as castles, or the inside of a spaceship. The whole world could look and sound however you wanted.

But understandably, he feigns enthusiasm most successfully about the prospects for the economy:


… cyborg technologies have the potential to improve human productivity quite a bit, as my examples above have hopefully shown. Humans who can store vast amounts of knowledge and expertise, who can directly interface with machines, and who can make themselves more well-adjusted and motivated at the touch of a (mental) button will be valuable employees indeed, and will prove useful complements to the much-discussed army of robots.

Indeed, employers could make it a condition of employment that workers undergo the necessary cyber-modifications! Actually, I think Smith missed a trick there, by failing to imagine how this might affect workplace dynamics. Oh well, I expect someone will be along to explain how such contracts would be win-win. Brilliant.

{ 226 comments }

1

TallDave 12.27.12 at 4:53 pm

I remember when people scoffed at the notion most workers would be forced to use computers. Now, scant decades hence, many of us are little more than slaves to these glowing rectangles. Oh sure, “increased productivity,” “higher living standards,” Facebook — does any of that matter when we’ve forfeited our very souls?

Just try getting a job after telling employers you won’t use a computer for moral reasons. Workers have no rights at all in this regard.

2

Henry 12.27.12 at 4:54 pm

I’m going to defend Noah Smith here – he’s someone who in general is much more sensitive to power issues than yer average economist.

3

Scott P. 12.27.12 at 5:14 pm

As far back as the Neolithic, we find skeletal evidence of repetitive stress injuries caused by frequent use of grinding stones. There may be Paleolithic evidence that I am unaware of. Pointing out that adoption of technology comes with costs as well as benefits ceased to be trenchant around 2000 B.C.

4

Sandwichman 12.27.12 at 6:18 pm

Uncanny. As in: “Among all the psychical uncertainties that can become a cause for the uncanny feeling to arise, there is one in particular that is able to develop a fairly regular, powerful and very general effect: namely, doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate…” (Jentsch)

5

Noah Smith 12.27.12 at 6:38 pm

Hey!

Well, I actually wasn’t intending to write a Swiftian satire, but I obviously did ignore most of the dangers of cyborg technology. I figure everyone will be thinking very hard about those, and in addition, lots of sci-fi books are already painting pictures of cyborg dystopias, so I figured I didn’t need to duplicate their effort… ;-)

It is interesting to think about how this would affect employment contracts…that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post…

But by the way, note that many of the new cyborg technologies are non-invasive. Those won’t require people to get any “modifications”, any more than learning to use a lathe is a “modification” of your brain.

6

rea 12.27.12 at 6:46 pm

Learning to use a lathe is a modification of your brain.

7

Noah Smith 12.27.12 at 6:59 pm

Exactly my point…

8

Matthew Yglesias 12.27.12 at 7:28 pm

“I expect someone will be along to explain how such contracts would be win-win. Brilliant.”

It seems pretty obvious how they would be win-win: They’d be agreed to voluntarily by two mentally competent adults.

9

Barry 12.27.12 at 7:34 pm

“It seems pretty obvious how they would be win-win: They’d be agreed to voluntarily by two mentally competent adults.”

Ah, the Econ 101 fallacy. Or in this case, Mankiwism.

10

John David Galt 12.27.12 at 7:39 pm

Direct brain-computer interfaces have been a staple of science fiction for decades. But at least in their pure form, they would have several serious drawbacks. I’m sure you can come up with more than these, but off the top of my head:

* If the thing is a good enough simulation of all five senses, how can you tell when it’s on? You wouldn’t want to walk out a window because you “see” a floor where there isn’t any.

* Suppose a hacker gets control of the computer side of your implant. Unwanted spam projected inside your head, where closing your eyes won’t get rid of it (HT: Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age) is the least of your problems. They could cause you to “witness” a crime that didn’t happen, or the wrong person committing one. Or they could fool you into making bad investment decisions from which they can profit. They could even provide you with a totally fake “visitation from God” and turn you into a disciple who will do anything they tell you.

So you couldn’t pay me enough to install the darn thing.

11

Chris Bertram 12.27.12 at 7:45 pm

Can I just say how pleased I am that Matthew Yglesias himself turned up to make the point that he did. Though pretty much any representative of the clan (or even McMegan) could have voiced it, Matthew speaks with a kind of savant-like authenticity about such things.

12

Noah Smith 12.27.12 at 8:06 pm

I will leave the Yglesias-rebuttal to the locals…

…anyway, Chris, glad you enjoyed the piece…

13

William Timberman 12.27.12 at 8:09 pm

And God us keep
from single vision
and mentally competent adults

No, it doesn’t rhyme. Nor reason, for that matter, and I am done forever with Matthew Yglesias. I know he won’t mind.

14

Chris Bertram 12.27.12 at 8:13 pm

Noah, you’re making me feel mean!

Seriously, though, I think that insofar as these technologies are viable, they have the potential to enslave us without improving our real well-being very much, or even at all. But I hope to write a more comprehensively Luddite post soon.

15

Substance McGravitas 12.27.12 at 8:29 pm

16

Chaz 12.27.12 at 8:39 pm

Yglesias’ statement has been rebutted in previous discussions. Here is my version:

There is no solid line between voluntary and involuntary. It all seems very clear when we’re talking about home invasions and slavery and strangers popping out of alleys to rape you. But we live in a society with strong social pressures and people are subject to those pressures. If you want to earn a good salary and live among “respectable” people then you have to go to college and agree with your professor, get a job and agree with your boss, wear an overpriced suit, get it pressed, pretend you’re not a Communist, tell everyone you love Jesus as much as they do and you certainly don’t kiss other men, and work 10 hours per day. No one in particular is forcing you to do these things, but you have to do them anyway. If you were a peasant at the end of the Roman Empire, you didn’t have to give yourself into serfdom, but if you wanted food and protection you did it. If you are a working class person of the new world order perhaps you won’t have to get implants, you’ll just have to get them to get a job and be accepted.

And there is also no solid line between being a mentally competent adult or a rather stupid child. When an 18-year-old goes off to college or work, he does not know which career he will like best. He does not know if the sacrifices he is making will be worth while or which path he should walk down. He makes his best guess and he jumps. Then twenty years later he thinks he got it wrong and he tries to switch careers at a great price. Or he wants to switch but can’t, because he’s just been released from prison and has tattoos across his face. Even when he ask a 70-year-old if they chose the right path, they might answer but they don’t know. There are thousands of paths they still know nothing about.

17

Liberty60 12.27.12 at 8:39 pm

I am not an economist, so I enjoy reading blogs to learn more.

Today I learned that a free market can exist simply by virtue of two mentally competant adults, nothing more.

Who knew?

18

Mao Cheng Ji 12.27.12 at 8:43 pm

There is a good argument that a virtual reality, as described in the first quote, is not possible. Simply, out of reach.

Throw a skeptic a dubious coin, and in a second or two of hefting, scratching, ringing, tasting, and just plain looking at how the sun glints on its surface, the skeptic will consume more bits of information than a Cray supercomputer can organize in a year. Making a real but counterfeit coin is child’s play; making a simulated coin out of nothing but organized nerve stimulations is beyond human technology now and probably forever.

http://www.wwco.com/religion/studies/brain_in_vat.html

19

Liberty60 12.27.12 at 8:44 pm

@Chaz:

The line between coercion and consent becomes most interesting when applied to cities, taxes, and local businesses.

For example, if a city enacts a new tax, is that coercion? Or a free echange between mentally competant adults?

Certainly, compliance is not mandatory, enforced with a gun; or is it?

A property owner can easily sell his land and move to another city, or negotiate with the city over the rate. We see stadium owners do this all the time. So really, there is no coercion involved, whatsoever.

Viewed in this light, the negotiation between a property owner and city, is no different than the negotiation over wages between a Wal-Mart greeter and Wal-Mart.

Win-Win!

20

RSA 12.27.12 at 8:51 pm

One of Noah’s updates is this: Noninvasive methods of brain-computer interface definitely count as “cyborg” technology; you don’t have to have robot parts in your head to be a cyborg.

The challenge, which I don’t know can be resolved in the near future, is that non-invasive brain-computer interfaces are very slow. (I don’t do research in this area, but I work with people who do.) To my knowledge the best non-invasive BCIs allow users to control an external device like a keyboard, a cursor, or a robot at a rate of about one bit per second. That’s not enough to handle the kind of applications described in Noah’s post, such as playing video games. Great for ameliorating some disabilities, but it’s harder to to see applications for non-disabled people.

21

Adam Calhoun 12.27.12 at 9:17 pm

RSA, noninvasive methods are slow mainly because they’re bad; there is too much noise, and we don’t know how to extract the signal without a lot of data. Fortunately, people are working on that problem and they’re becoming faster all the time (especially in the prosthetics realm.)

22

nnyhav 12.27.12 at 9:23 pm

23

Neville Morley 12.27.12 at 9:25 pm

William Gibson has presciently touched on this issue, as on so many others: the reference in Count Zero to the fact that a simstim actress’s Zeiss-Ikon eyeballs belonged, according to her contract, to the company. Clearly necessary to have such things implanted in order to play such a role in the medium; obviously that’s wholly consensual and not at all troubling.

24

Walt 12.27.12 at 9:31 pm

Chris, I’m going to put a chip in your head that will give you the desire to have a chip in your head. Voila! All problems solved.

25

ponce 12.27.12 at 9:35 pm

@11

“Though pretty much any representative of the clan (or even McMegan) could have voiced it, Matthew speaks with a kind of savant-like authenticity about such things.”

Matthew Yglesias really has turned into the David Broder of the paleobloggers.

26

Noah Smith 12.27.12 at 10:43 pm

Chris:

I look forward to that post…

I tend not to be a Luddite, because the bad guys almost never are, and we can’t let them have the future…

27

Brett 12.27.12 at 11:08 pm

@RSA

The challenge, which I don’t know can be resolved in the near future, is that non-invasive brain-computer interfaces are very slow. (I don’t do research in this area, but I work with people who do.) To my knowledge the best non-invasive BCIs allow users to control an external device like a keyboard, a cursor, or a robot at a rate of about one bit per second.

That’s why I think they’ll be slow in spreading out for non-medical purposes. The implants would be competing with attachable and mobile devices that might not be as fast or capable, but are probably cheaper and easier to use/repair. Those augmented reality glasses that Google is making might not be as capable as a hypothetical implant into your eyes, but the glasses can be easily taken off if they break. Your augmented eyes are another story.

Then there are the rejection issues . . .

28

Brett 12.27.12 at 11:08 pm

You’d think people would be happier about the potential for Desire Modification. It could make large-scale communist societies actually work, without the corruption and free-riding.

29

RSA 12.27.12 at 11:38 pm

@ Brett:

That’s why I think they’ll be slow in spreading out for non-medical purposes.

That’s my thought, too. My impression is that the vast majority of changes we ask doctors to make to our bodies (some even cosmetic) we expect to be permanent. Cyborg technology would be as complex as any consumer technology we have today, and I don’t expect any of the gadgets I have right now to last the rest of my life. Not to mention the idea of planning some downtime for the firmware in my artificial eyes to be upgraded… Let’s see, what was the help desk number again?

30

Noah Smith 12.27.12 at 11:57 pm

BTW, I decided to go ahead and write a post about whether voluntary contracts are always mutually beneficial in a perfectly rational, free world.

http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2012/12/are-voluntary-contracts-always-mutually.html

31

Phil 12.28.12 at 12:14 am

I tend not to be a Luddite, because the bad guys almost never are

I tend not to be a free-marketeer, because the bad guys almost always are. Saying “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” presupposes that you can’t beat ‘em.

32

Hermenauta 12.28.12 at 12:27 am

@Mao #18,

Not so fast. There is at least one “machine” that makes perfect simulations of reality: the brain. Our dreams, after all, are indistinguishable of “reality” until the time they breaks down.

This means that simulating reality isn’t transcomputable. Probably, it also means that in some way the human mind actively produces reality that finds acceptable.

33

Ross Smith 12.28.12 at 12:54 am

John@10: You’ve covered the plots of most of the episodes of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex there.

Mao@18: Not true. The bandwidth of the human eye is about 10 megabits/second. That’s not even as fast as my internet connection, never mind the ridiculous claim about “more than a Cray can organize in a year”. Simulating the local environment well enough to generate that amount of information is beyond the ability of present-day hardware, but certainly not outside the limits of plausible next-few-decades hardware.

34

Fu Ko 12.28.12 at 1:07 am

Noah Smith does a great job of missing the point in his essay.

Matt Yglesias knows enough not to respond at all.

Here’s a question for us all to ponder. Why do these guys always go on about voluntary contracts? Aren’t involuntary contracts mutually beneficial in exactly the same way?

“Your money or your life” — whichever choice you make is surely the one that benefits you most.

35

PJW 12.28.12 at 1:13 am

Those interested in these ideas and issues might also enjoy reading R. Scott Bakker (Neuropath) at his blog Three Pound Brain.

36

absurdbeats 12.28.12 at 1:13 am

Resistance is futile.

37

Soru 12.28.12 at 1:15 am

Replace ‘cray supercomputer’ with the equivalent ’4 year old mobile phone’ for proper understanding of the context in which that statement was made.

38

RSA 12.28.12 at 1:19 am

@ Adam:

noninvasive methods are slow mainly because they’re bad; there is too much noise, and we don’t know how to extract the signal without a lot of data.

So latency isn’t a significant issue? (This is an honest question–I don’t know very much about neuroscience.) I’ve seen the noise, though.

39

Noah Smith 12.28.12 at 1:43 am

Saying “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” presupposes that you can’t beat ‘em.

Good luck winning the fight for Luddism, hoss.

40

mdc 12.28.12 at 1:48 am

Yglesias’ “point” was that undergoing procedures that turned one into a robot as a condition of employment could be a “win-win”, if both parties were mentally competent adults. Can people here really not hear the irony there? Chris, you seem to have responded rather humorlessly in the thread of your own humorous post.

41

shah8 12.28.12 at 1:48 am

As a hearing aid user, I myself am a cybernetic organism in the sensory sense, and I myself am potentially at risk for some of those issues suggested by John David Galt at 10. Any ole bluetooth capable hearing aid could be hacked–HACKED, I tell you! Meanwhile, I suffer from the perception that I’m not as fully capable a worker as the next guy without visible imperfections.

The fucked up part about the direction of this thread is that most cybernetic projects require training on the part of the user to in order to gain that extra productivity. Even when it comes to just learning how to hear again with new hearing aids with newfangled gizmos and programs. Sometimes, surgical solutions like cochlear implants do not succeed such that everyone hears normally, because how the brain interprets the new, improved, datastream can be pretty variable. Everyone with good nerves hear, but auditory processing can be an issue. For all of *that* though, cochlear implants are aggressively promoted for very young deaf children because deaf people can have serious difficulties with the technology of language, even the hearing unrelated stuff of reading and writing. Militating against a universal program of cochlear implantation is a concern for all of the living deaf people who communicate through ASL and the value of the culture that is preexisting.

Just understanding about the cybernetic issues and productivity when it comes to deaf people would make anyone think that Chris Bertram is being fundamentally unserious when it comes to additional cybernetic issues. The class issue. Poor people get analogue hearing aids. If they happen to have state support, they get digital hearing aids, and *hopefully*, they get real training and help from the audiologist in creating a good fit. This class divide will be the same for virtually all future technologies that work best as “second nature”, from the art and artifice of thinking and rhetoric, to the Internet, to apnea devices, to biofeedback techniques, to advanced sensory input/output, to medical tags and aid algorithms, so forth and so on. You all are thinking of the all the glamorous shit, when what’s more likely are smart knee braces and advanced artificial lenses for eyes, for old people and combat pilots alike. Plus the complete missing the point about the probably existence of a substantial extra support infrastructure for anything like an equitable distribution of any cybernetic regimen. Badly fitted cybernetic devices are going to be a far more critical problem than hearing a crime that didn’t occur or some idiotic permaspamming.

42

StevenAttewell 12.28.12 at 1:49 am

Doesn’t this boil down to the question of the social organization of technology rather than technology itself? E.G, the introduction of the power loom didn’t have to impoverish the weavers; it could have led to weavers’ working ten hours a week and enjoying dramatically improved living standards, but instead property and labor market laws ensured that the benefit went to the owners. Hence the Luddites, who (as social historians have been pointing out for 50 years now) only broke the machines of employers who were cutting wages.

I’m both a social democratic and fully in support of cyborgization – as long as the state is acting to ensure that the benefits of cyborgization are distributed universally and with due regard to the civil and human rights of the individual. Because I could see Bertram’s scenario having the opposite impact class-wise: if access to cybernetic enhancement is rationed by wealth, then anyone who couldn’t afford those cybernetic enhancements could be systematically shut out of access to economic opportunity because their bodies/brains aren’t capable of enhanced levels of performance.

@35 – I don’t think Neuropath, a novel which I truly dislike despite enjoying R. Scott Bakker’s “Second Apocalypse” series, is a good example, given its rather obsessive focus on determinism vs. free will.

43

StevenAttewell 12.28.12 at 1:50 am

*social democrat

44

Michael Harris 12.28.12 at 1:52 am

Fu Ko @34

Do we apply this logic to abortion law and consent to have sex, too?

A woman carries a foetus to term because the alternative is prison has made a “welfare increasing” choice?

Someone “having sex” with someone else who has a knife to their throat is doing so consensually (they’re not resisting, at least), because it’s better than having their throat cut?

If there is no useful distinction between “voluntary” and “involuntary”, I guess that simplifies a bunch of otherwise thorny problems.

45

Brad DeLong 12.28.12 at 2:08 am

‘m hlf srprsd nt t s dnnctn f th rlrd nd cndmntn f Nt Slvr ncldd n ths pst. s thr ny rsn tht Brtrm’s rgmnt ds nt pply t ltrcy, stn tls, r clthng?

“Crzy ld mn yllng t clds” s rl tht nly Clnt stwd cn vn hlf pll ff sccssflly.

46

JW Mason 12.28.12 at 2:12 am

Is there any reason that Bertram’s argument does not apply to literacy, stone tools, or clothing?

Declining marginal utility of consumptionl

47

Fu Ko 12.28.12 at 2:30 am

Michael Harris, there is certainly a distinction to be made between voluntary and involuntary.

But voluntary choices are no more guaranteed to be “mutually beneficial” than involuntary choices.

The “mutually beneficial” characteristic is a property of choices — voluntary or not.

Pointing out the “mutually beneficial” nature of involuntary choices just shows how shallow the claim is that voluntary choices must be mutually beneficial.

48

Fu Ko 12.28.12 at 2:47 am

PS. It is also true, of course, that “voluntary” is not a binary, but a relative attribute. Nothing is totally voluntary, since one’s available choices are always more or less constrained by others. It’s those who treat “free trade” interactions as unequivocally voluntary who are oversimplifying reality.

49

Michael Harris 12.28.12 at 2:55 am

I don’t know. It seems to me that a potentially useful discussion is degenerating into alternative estimates of angels on pinheads.

Each mutual transaction presupposes a counter factual — can you NOT enter the transaction? If the status quo is not an option because of something beyond either party’s control, that’s one thing. But if the status quo is ruled out by the other party, that’s different (I don’t get to keep my money AND my life). I don’t see the sense in describing the net effect as mutually beneficial.

50

Michael Harris 12.28.12 at 2:58 am

PS: we can keep pretending we’re having a discussion where we assume that Noah or Yglesias are standing in for Steve Landsburg.

Or, you know, we could have a more useful discussion and see where that goes.

51

choncan 12.28.12 at 3:01 am

@50 Michael Harris,

This your first visit to a Bertram thread? Everyone to his right (in other words, roughly everyone) is a fascist wolf in hyena’s clothing, and he won’t be fooled by it, not one bit.

52

Michael Harris 12.28.12 at 3:10 am

Choncan: my bad. We’re about to have a big family lunch here so I’ll be usefully distracted for a while.

53

JW Mason 12.28.12 at 3:13 am

Everyone to his right (in other words, roughly everyone)

Some people have a very limited idea of the political spectrum.

54

Lee A. Arnold 12.28.12 at 3:24 am

Noah Smith writes, “cyborg technologies that affect the mind are going to be far, far more important than ones that affect mainly the body,” but I tend to think it will be the other way around, for quite a long time to come. First we will fly with flapping cyborg wings, attached to bone and muscle, as in an old Samuel R. Delaney novel.

The basic problem with jacking facts and figures directly into (or out of) the brain is that we don’t yet know what neuronal pattern they are in. So I think we are a long way from “just think words, and they appear on the page.” (Of course, at that point, you won’t bother with “pages”.) Until then, the interface for facts is going to remain our stodgy old language, either written or auditory, coming through our sense organs: e.g. Google glasses will display writing or make verbal sound, even in 3-D game environments.

The most interesting sentence is from the Nature article on stimulation by direct current: “They learn more quickly but they don’t have a good intuitive or introspective sense about why…” More evidence that consciousness is not mechanistic?

55

choncan 12.28.12 at 3:28 am

@53 JW Mason,

Indeed.

56

Fu Ko 12.28.12 at 3:29 am

Michael, this isn’t about pins and angles. The whole point of the “mutually beneficial” line is to support a certain ideological position: that the “mutual benefit” of a transaction implies that regulating any transaction harms both parties. Or, more simply, that the fact that somebody “voluntarily chose” to accept a deal, means that our courts ought to enforce it.

However, it does not take a game theorist to understand that outlawing certain types of transactions strengthens the bargaining position of those with minimal negotiating strength, who would otherwise be forced into accepting bad deals.

As far as counter-factuals about not entering transactions — understanding the situation requires dropping the myopic perspective that looks at single transactions in isolation. No one employer is singularly responsible for your fate, but all employers taken together may collectively (without coordination) deny you the very means of survival (by holding it for themselves as their property). In this case the “status quo” of being alive is ruled out — not by any one party, but certainly by the combined actions of a large number of them. The “net effect” is not beneficial.

57

Colin Danby 12.28.12 at 6:02 am

The link @22 is brilliant!

I miss John Emerson.

58

Kenny 12.28.12 at 6:10 am

I’ve heard of people auditioning for acting roles being asked to get plastic surgery as a condition of the contract. And surely there are plenty of other roles where the surgery isn’t explicitly required, but is already pretty forced. I’m not sure how to compare the forced exercise that military members have to do to keep their body in the right shape and size demanded by their employer. Is the worry just that office workers will have to suffer the indignities already faced by people who work with their bodies?

59

Mao Cheng Ji 12.28.12 at 7:19 am

@Hermenauta 32,
very good. The chapter of Consciousness Explained where the quote in 18 is from, the very first chapter of the book, is actually about the dreams and hallucinations. Here, I found a page with a longer excerpt:
http://konyv.uw.hu/consciousness_explained.htm

If you think about it, it seems pretty clear that simulating all realistic details of any, even the most trivial real life experience of an active, free-willing agent, has to be an impossible task.

60

Chris Bertram 12.28.12 at 8:25 am

Whoah. Lots of ad hominem in the thread now. Including from DeLong, who I’ve disemvowelled in order to show that new technologies do have some benefits. According to him, being somewhat sceptical about the benefits of cyborg technologies commits me to doubting the value of literacy also. Ah well, I guess we all know he isn’t much of a thinker.

choncan: not even close.

61

Noah Smith 12.28.12 at 8:41 am

Ehrmahgerd, erd herminerm!!

…sorry, just had to say that. Carry on. ;-)

62

pat 12.28.12 at 9:58 am

Chris, isn’t the onus on you to demonstrate why the technologies of the future will be qualitatively more appalling than the technologies of the past, e.g. spectacles, vaccinations, or touch typing? Couldn’t an employer reasonably insist on my adopting any of these technologies as prerequisites for certain jobs? I’m afraid i don’t understand the distinction you’re making, or how disemvowelling is supposed to substitute for a defense of it.

63

Chris Bertram 12.28.12 at 10:02 am

pat: this post was a dig at generalized uncritical tech-enthusiasm, a more nuanced post is in preparation.

64

ponce 12.28.12 at 10:40 am

Will individual body parts soon have rights?

65

Teafortwo 12.28.12 at 12:58 pm

I’m with Pat @62. I can see that in some obvious respects, cyborg modifications are different from wearing glasses or using a PC.

But I would be interested to hear which of those differences are in your view the most significant.

To pick up one of your points, literacy is now a condition of employment for many (most?) jobs, and has had a huge impact on dynamics in the workplace and beyond.

Looking forward to your more nuanced thoughts.

66

roger gathman 12.28.12 at 1:06 pm

Is a win win supposed to be a tie? Or is it that the two players are playing different games? Because otherwise, the win win seems to equal the lose lose – both are ties.On the other hand, if one of the winners is a bigger winner than the other one – say you have the absurd situation in which one player has 1000 times the wealth of the other player, and the voluntary contract will lead to that player having 1020 times the wealth of the other player – then it is clearly a win -lose, with the loser consoling himself that he or she won something – for instance, survival. Too many of those win-wins and the second player will become a permanent loser. You know, the type forced to put a chip in his brain in the cybergeddeon.

67

Hermenauta 12.28.12 at 1:19 pm

@Mao #59

If you think about it, it seems pretty clear that simulating all realistic details of any, even the most trivial real life experience of an active, free-willing agent, has to be an impossible task.

I agree. My point is, precisely, that maybe you don´t need to simulate “all realistic details” to develop a “reality” that your brain can accept without suffering any “uncanny valley” effects. Actually, the “reality” we experiment at any moment in time is far from “realistic” or accurate _ for example, we are endowed with sensors that only allows us access to a very small window of the eletromagnetic spectrum.

Also, a lot of experiments with the physiology of vision seems to corroborate the theory that we actively create some of the aspects of what we see. Because of phenomena like this, it´s very likely that the more we dwells into the mechanisms of perception, the more we will be capable of building virtual realities that need not to be an “exact” representation of the real world.

68

Substance McGravitas 12.28.12 at 1:26 pm

Also related:

http://www.gizmag.com/virtual-body-technology/25547/

Despite improvements in telepresence, most virtual “traveling” amounts to little more than staring at a screen and listening to headphones. In an effort to provide a more immersive sensory experience, the Ikei Laboratory at the Tokyo Metropolitan University Graduate School of System Design is developing what it calls “virtual body technology.” Unveiled at the Digital Contents Expo 2012 in Tokyo last October, the system claims to use all five senses to provide a virtual experience akin to inhabiting another person’s body.

69

Chris Bertram 12.28.12 at 1:46 pm

Those of you who think employers have the right to insist that their employees get advertisments tatooed on their foreheads may continue to muse thoughtfully on where the line should be drawn.

DeLong: until you acknowledge that the words you have attributed to me were not written by me (or provide a link so that your readers can see my actual words), don’t bother trying to comment here.

70

mds 12.28.12 at 2:34 pm

DeLong @ 45:

s thr ny rsn tht Brtrm’s rgmnt ds nt pply t ltrcy, stn tls, r clthng?

Re-emvowelled:

As thor any raisin that aBortroom’s regiment does a ant poopily at lautrecy, austin atlas, are u coolthong?

Whoops, hang on:

Is there any reason that Bertram’s argument does not apply to literacy, stone tools, or clothing?

Oh well, at least Professor Krugman seems willing to engage with the notion that applications of new technology aren’t an automagical net benefit to the working class. I wonder if he also knows what the Luddites actually did and why (see, e.g., StevenAttenwell @ 42), since many economists rather obviously don’t.

71

Robert 12.28.12 at 2:35 pm

By the way, I think I should be permitted random Yglesias-bashing, if I feel like it. I have never met him in the flesh, nor am I related. Yet I bought a hard copy of Heads in the Sand when it came out.

72

Dave 12.28.12 at 4:06 pm

Anyone with a pacemaker is a cyborg, including Dick Cheney.

73

tomslee 12.28.12 at 4:32 pm

I love the singularity video at #22, and it highlights one of the major differences between the next round of technologies and previous ones, which is that the new ones will be pervasively governed by license agreements. The ways in which they benefit and harm us will depend more on the terms of those agreements than on the engineering aspects of the technology.

74

Bill Gardner 12.28.12 at 4:49 pm

Chris hasn’t yet fully sketched out his concern with the cyborg future, but I gather that he worries about (industrial?) workplace coercion, where we are forced to accept implants as a condition of employment. Although I share Noah Smith’s enthusiasm about cognitive enhancement, we need to be vigilant about how these technologies could be used for social control.

But consider a future in which we are mostly freelancers. In this future you have to implant yourself to even qualify for a job. You or your parents are on the hook to buy the implants and acquire the training to use them. Then the egalitarian concern is the familiar one between the haves and have nots. And we are back to something like the predistribution discussion.

The 21st century egalitarian cause may be universal free implant services, based on open source implant tech.

75

Satan Mayo 12.28.12 at 5:16 pm

Good luck winning the fight for Luddism, hoss.

Not that you’re wrong, but “Good luck beating back whatever bosses want to do to their employees, losers” isn’t a very appealing argument.

76

Colin Danby 12.28.12 at 5:27 pm

aeiou

77

Bill Gardner 12.28.12 at 5:32 pm

I hadn’t registered StevenAttewell’s comment @42, but he and I agree. Egalitarians should also worry that “if access to cybernetic enhancement is rationed by wealth, then anyone who couldn’t afford those cybernetic enhancements could be systematically shut out of access to economic opportunity.”

78

Cris Sheridan 12.28.12 at 5:45 pm

The financial markets are the epitome of cybernetic experiments and human-machine interaction. Consider http://www.financialsense.com/contributors/cris-sheridan/sci-finance-great-cybernetic-experiment

79

Noah Smith 12.28.12 at 7:04 pm

Not that you’re wrong, but “Good luck beating back whatever bosses want to do to their employees, losers” isn’t a very appealing argument.

If you see any and all technological change as an opportunity for bosses to exploit workers in hitherto impossible ways, then it’s a fair comment.

But I don’t see the world that way. I think that there is some nonzero amount and configuration of technology that maximizes workers’ bargaining power. I do not see technological progress as one straight line from fairness to slavery.

80

shah8 12.28.12 at 7:05 pm

Cotton gin, Noah, cotton gin…

81

dsquared 12.28.12 at 7:07 pm

Surely a better comparison than clothes or literacy would be something like the steam-powered weaving frame? Which was, in fact, a bit of a total disaster for the British working class when it was brought in with no regulation or legal safeguards, on the easy free-market assumption that everything would be all right and that nobody would sign up to any contracts that weren’t advantageous to themselves. Eric Hobsbawm’s famous essay on the Luddites makes it pretty clear that they were objecting to the easily-forseeable political and economic consequences of the steam-frames being introduced into the (already hardly utopian) English factory system, rather than to technology itself. Within fifty years, the failure of the Luddites had resulted in making places like Salford as close as you like to hell on earth.

Or to put it in a “shorter” form, the neoliberals and any other lovers of capitalism present might want to consider before they get too starry-eyed about cyborgs, that the last big step forward in man-machine interaction brought us right to the brink of Communist revolution in Europe.

82

dsquared 12.28.12 at 7:10 pm

But I don’t see the world that way. I think that there is some nonzero amount and configuration of technology that maximizes workers’ bargaining power. I do not see technological progress as one straight line from fairness to slavery.

I am having a hard time, right at present, thinking of a major technological change in any labour-intensive industry that didn’t have pretty awful consequences for workers up front (in most cases with the balance reasserted by later legislation after things had got really bad). Maybe nitrate fertilisers or minimills. Other than that I’m coming up pretty short.

83

Noah Smith 12.28.12 at 7:14 pm

I am having a hard time, right at present, thinking of a major technological change in any labour-intensive industry that didn’t have pretty awful consequences for workers up front (in most cases with the balance reasserted by later legislation after things had got really bad). Maybe nitrate fertilisers or minimills. Other than that I’m coming up pretty short.

Hmm, I’m not sure, but it seems to me that the IT revolution and automation have allowed lots of people to switch from physically difficult, dangerous factory work to more comfortable desk jobs. Remember how common industrial accidents used to be, even with safety laws and worker’s comp?

And the industrial revolution itself moved people from farms to cities. That seems to have been a good move.

84

Fu Ko 12.28.12 at 7:16 pm

mds tried to link to an article by Krugman but the HTML failed. Is this it? http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/26/is-growth-over/

This?
http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/rise-of-the-robots/

BTW, I wonder if the first person to publish this idea in the NY Times was Ted Kaczynski?

85

Noah Smith 12.28.12 at 7:18 pm

Really it seems to me that any technology that increases workers’ value to firms increases workers’ bargaining power vis-a-vis firms. Maybe it doesn’t always increase it as much as it should, but it does seem to increase it.

Workers have made incredible gains in the last 100 years, in real wages, in working conditions, in benefits, in work-life balance. Some of that was due to legislation, but I think a huge chunk of it was due to the simple fact that technological progress made workers more valuable, and so increased their bargaining power.

86

Harold 12.28.12 at 7:22 pm

Jacob Bronowski thought cotton underpants were among the world’s greatest inventions.

87

Fu Ko 12.28.12 at 7:23 pm

Noah Smith, the last 100 years? You’ve decided to start your trend analysis before the invention of the transistor?

As Krugman pointed out with his graphs, the last 30 years — you know, since the integrated circuit — have reversed this trend.

88

dsquared 12.28.12 at 7:27 pm

Hmm, I’m not sure, but it seems to me that the IT revolution and automation have allowed lots of people to switch from physically difficult, dangerous factory work to more comfortable desk jobs.

I think you have to be prepared to yaddayadda China in order to get that one away.

89

dsquared 12.28.12 at 7:33 pm

Workers have made incredible gains in the last 100 years, in real wages, in working conditions, in benefits, in work-life balance. Some of that was due to legislation, but I think a huge chunk of it was due to the simple fact that technological progress made workers more valuable, and so increased their bargaining power.

Also whoa whoa whoa here – why do you start the clock in 1912???? And even if we do decide to do that, is the distinction between “legislation” and “technology increasing the bargaining power of workers” tantamount to yaddayaddaing things like The General Strike?

Seriously, Noah, if you’re just going to say that “the bargaining power of workers” is just something to do with “their perceived value to employers”, then you’re not exactly going to change the minds of people who don’t like economists because they think we’re profoundly ignorant of really elementary historical, social and institutional facts.

90

Noah Smith 12.28.12 at 7:39 pm

Fu Ko – Maybe. I’m not entirely sure. wages have fallen but benefits have increased and working conditions have improved. I agree that things have changed, but I suspect that globalization could be more of a factor than technology here.

Dsquared: Agree about China. Didn’t start the clock in 1912, I was thinking of the first industrial revolution. And no, bargaining power doesn’t equal perceived value to employers, but it obviously depends on it a lot. I’m just thinking of econ models of Nash bargaining in labor markets, in which employers and workers fight over the “surplus” of an employment contract.

91

Fu Ko 12.28.12 at 7:42 pm

[...] then you’re not exactly going to change the minds of people who don’t like economists because they think we’re profoundly ignorant of really elementary historical, social and institutional facts.

Economist or not, I like you, dsquared.

But as for Noah — I don’t think he’s trying to change those people’s minds, so much as he is trying to propagate exactly that profound ignorance of which you speak. After all, he has a political point to make.

Homo economicus will choose to say (and even believe!) whatever makes him the most money to say.

92

dsquared 12.28.12 at 7:44 pm

I’m just thinking of econ models of Nash bargaining in labor markets, in which employers and workers fight over the “surplus” of an employment contract.

Yeah, that’s what I mean though. In actual fact, the development of the Factory Acts, the progress of trade unions, the implementation of the welfare state, the working class getting the right to vote (if we’re actually going back to the first industrial revolution, ie, well before 1830) etc don’t really look much like any sort of Nash bargaining game though do they?

93

Noah Smith 12.28.12 at 7:44 pm

Fu Ko, what are you talking about? What do you think my “political point” is?

94

Fu Ko 12.28.12 at 7:56 pm

Noah, aren’t you standing in for Steve Landsburg?

Well, alright — you have been called “much more sensitive to power issues than yer average economist.” Maybe you are. I should admit that I don’t know anything about you personally and I apologize for jumping to conclusions which might be mistaken.

But from what I see, you’re propagating the standard right-libertarian blindness of power-relations and the complexity of “voluntarity,” with respect to the immediate issue at hand — leading me to suppose that this is your regular schtick.

95

peep 12.28.12 at 7:57 pm

I am having a hard time, right at present, thinking of a major technological change in any labour-intensive industry that didn’t have pretty awful consequences for workers up front

Do you have any idea how boring routine office jobs were before the invention of email and the web? The only thing to do was hang out by the water cooler and hope one of your coworkers had a good story.

96

Liberty60 12.28.12 at 7:58 pm

“… a huge chunk of it was due to the simple fact that technological progress made workers more valuable, and so increased their bargaining power”

Technology, by itself? Absent legislative and organizational intervention?

Asserting that technology autonomously does this or that is fallacious, since it assumes that the new tools are not seized upon by actors looking to improve their lot at the expense of others.
This view ignores existing priviledge and intervention, and tries to make illegitimate, new claims for intervention to level the new playing field.

97

shah8 12.28.12 at 7:59 pm

What has value to workers such that they can negotiate with capital is free will. That means that it’s typically when labor shortages that you see in a strike or during wartime (or when most everyone else is dead of plague) that one sees greater claims to society’s bounty by workers. The number of industries with highly non-fault tolerant standards, for safety or other reasons, such that they need committed workers, can capably employ only a small fraction of the workforce. Even then, a government sufficiently sociopathic will disregard tofu houses and rickety nuclear plants, in favor of more control over labor by virtue of their commitment to having a desperate and underpaid labor force.

We already have the broad outlines of cybernetic issues. Think about that woman who died in Ireland, for example–from the perspective that she is a machine for making babies, to the legal and practical mechanisms of evading the fetal heartbeat nonsese (and neonatal ICUs), to the medical profession that didn’t go far enough for her, since she wasn’t white.

Cyberization isn’t really distinct from any other tools that might be created for human use or utilized for the workforce.

To the extent that it has distinct issues, I would say that it’s primarily:

1) It’s generally a statement that some individual is worth putting capital within–from George W Bush getting a good education to Dick Cheney getting a heart transplant. It’s usually all about being at the expense of outsiders.

2) Embedded intelligence and assumptions–this is about design. Everything around us has embedded thoughts, from cars fitting roads to bank analyzing whether certain transactions are truly authorized by the accountholder. The new cyberization, epitomized by the Pill, is able to have a higher order relationship with the surrounding social infrastructure. There will be conflicts, both in how the cybernetic tool predetermines lifestyles, such as heart pacers having to be away from certain devices, and in how people with new cybernetic adaptations could take advantage of what were once fringe activities–think the broadening of the Internet in the Middle East and portable telecom devices.

3) And of course, how you see yourself, like gender reassignment surgery–or psych meds.

98

dsquared 12.28.12 at 8:04 pm

Do you have any idea how boring routine office jobs were before the invention of email and the web? The only thing to do was hang out by the water cooler and hope one of your coworkers had a good story.

I actually had an office job before email and the web, you whippersnapper. We used to drink at lunchtime! And have sex in cupboards! And amuse ourselves with a stick and a piece of string!

99

peep 12.28.12 at 8:09 pm

And amuse ourselves with a stick and a piece of string!

This part does conform to my recollection.

100

Dr. Hilarius 12.28.12 at 8:33 pm

You had a stick? And string? Pretty plush.

101

Noah Smith 12.28.12 at 8:34 pm

Noah, aren’t you standing in for Steve Landsburg?

Them’s fightin’ words…

But from what I see, you’re propagating the standard right-libertarian blindness of power-relations and the complexity of “voluntarity,” with respect to the immediate issue at hand — leading me to suppose that this is your regular schtick.

Sounds like you just wrote those words down because they kind of felt truthy…got any evidence? Can you quote something I’ve written which supports this thesis?? Have you actually read my blog at all??

102

ben wolfson 12.28.12 at 8:47 pm

To my knowledge the best non-invasive BCIs allow users to control an external device like a keyboard, a cursor, or a robot at a rate of about one bit per second.

The keyboard itself is a brain-computer interface, numbnuts.

103

Fu Ko 12.28.12 at 9:05 pm

Noah, again, I apologize. I only jumped to a conclusion based on what I read here and in the one blog post you linked here. I do think that that blog post constitutes evidence, but it isn’t conclusive proof of anything. I do apologize for treating it as if it were — and more importantly for making the issue personal (especially since I’m not using my real name here, and you are). Of course, if you do want to clarify your political position explicitly, I will certainly believe whatever you have to say for yourself rather than my own weak intuitions.

(BTW, it isn’t what you said, but what you avoided talking about. So I can’t demonstrate it with a quote, except to quote someone who replied to you: “If the scenario was that a person could get a implant and a higher wage, or keep his old wage, your post would make sense – but I think you are missing the point.” But really, I don’t want to defend my impression, just to explain where it came from.)

Also, I’m sure you realized the Steven Landsburg comment was totally 100% a joke (alluding to Michael Harris @50).

104

Barry 12.28.12 at 9:21 pm

Noah: “I’m not entirely sure. wages have fallen but benefits have increased and working conditions have improved. “

I’d like to see evidence of the last – for all workers, not just the top half.
From my casual knowledge, the bottom half (at least!) has seen lower wages *and* lower benefits *and* lower job security.

105

RSA 12.28.12 at 9:42 pm

@ ben wolfson:

The keyboard itself is a brain-computer interface…

“Brain-computer interface” is a term of art. One well-known definition: “A brain-computer interface is a communication system that does not depend on the brain’s normal output pathways of peripheral nerves and muscles.”

106

Neville Morley 12.28.12 at 10:05 pm

@Noah Smith: Speaking as one of those pedantic historians who get periodically frustrated with idealistic economists (to put it in the nicest possible way), I don’t think you’ve yet given an adequate response to dquared’s pretty reasonable characterisation of the Industrial Revolution or its consequences. Two specific points: how do you address the obvious point that, insofar as automation and the IT revolution have improved working conditions for those still employed at the expense of significant numbers of people who, for various reasons, them find themselves unemployed or in deeply insecure, casual and unskilled employment as a direct result of the same process? And in what possible way was mass urbanisation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, absent the massive (and still insufficient) investment in urban infrastructure that followed later on, a good thing?

107

Neville Morley 12.28.12 at 10:07 pm

Oops, middle sentence got lost somewhere in the middle. “…insofar as automation has improved things for some people, it’s done so at the expense of lots of others…”, or words to that effect.

108

ponce 12.28.12 at 10:56 pm

@101

“Them’s fightin’ words…”

109

Noah Smith 12.28.12 at 11:05 pm

Neville: Regarding unemployment, I know it’s a problem, but it’s also the case that the percent of people in the U.S. who have jobs is higher than it was in the 1950s or 1960s. There is higher long-term unemployment – 4% of the labor force now, compared to maybe 1.5% in past decades – but it is not clear that technology is the culprit there. I’m certainly open to the idea, but I want to see some evidence.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that the increased societal wealth generated by technological advancements have made it easier, both politically and practically, to ensure a basic standard of living for the unemployed through government benefits.

Regarding the impact of urbanization, it is not clear to me that we should take infrastructure investment out of the equation. More people in cities = more political demand for urban infrastructure investment. Over time, that seems to have led to durable, long-lasting, significant improvements in the standard of living of workers, including poor workers.

Barry: I don’t have data on the distribution of nonwage compensation, I only know that the median has gone up. Of course, that’s in dollar value, and a lot of that may simply reflect declining health care productivity (more dollars spent for worse outcomes).

Fu Ko: If you want to divide the intellectual world into competing teams by a knee-jerk intuitive classification system, and then launch vigorously into a condemntation of anyone who doesn’t immediately seem to be on the team you’ve chosen for yourself, be my guest, but I’ve always thought that people who do that sort of thing are silly. Just go read my blog if you want to know about my ideas.

110

Cranky Observer 12.28.12 at 11:13 pm

= = = Hmm, I’m not sure, but it seems to me that the IT revolution and automation have allowed lots of people to switch from physically difficult, dangerous factory work to more comfortable desk jobs. Remember how common industrial accidents used to be, even with safety laws and worker’s comp? = = =

Speaking as a person who has spent much of the last 25 years doing business process improvement, industrial engineering, IS, and IT work in North American manufacturing, and a little bit in Northern Europe, I’m not as convinced by this as professional economists and econobloggers seem to be.

I understand that Mr. Yglesias, as an example, finds factories to be unpleasant places. People who work in factories often find them interesting, challenging, and engaging places to work (some of us even find some of them quite beautiful). Worker health and safety have often been an issue in the US (noting as per previous discussions that many of the people who are attracted to these jobs prefer a bit of uncertainty and danger over perfect nanny-safety), but were solved by 1980 at the better US firms and essentially all German ones (ex-FRG that is; the former GDR was a bit different).

And there is a substantial percentage of the US population (primarily, but not exclusively, male) that finds the idea of spending their lives sitting [1] in a cubicle pecking away at SAP or Microsoft Word to be a horrifying prospect. My high school generation was probably the last one in the United States for which a capable, hardworking male who preferred to use and develop skills at manual occupations [2] had a reasonably high expectation of finding a job where he could do that and making a decent living throughout his life (which dates me I guess). Exactly what was supposed to happen to those people when we “improved” their production processes right out of a job was never clear to me, but the examples of Pakistan and Egypt are not encouraging.

I suspect many of my high school classmates would reword that paragraph as:


- – Hmm, I’m not sure, but it seems to me that the IT revolution and automation have forced lots of people to switch from physically and manually challenging, satisfying factory & production work to dull sedentary desk jobs with no union production or works council to protect us from doughnut-eating managers and rapacious MBAs – -

Cranky

[1] The negative effects of long-term chair sitting on human health are discussed in Neal Stephenson’s essay Arsebestos

[2] Many of which require very high levels of capability and skill to carry out – just not the same skills that people who chose to purse a Ph.D path tend toward

111

Walt 12.28.12 at 11:58 pm

Noah, if someone apologizes for misreading you — which happens approximately never on the Internet — it seems churlish not accept the apology, and say something snarky in reply.

112

engels 12.28.12 at 11:59 pm

We used to drink at lunchtime! And have sex in cupboards! And amuse ourselves with a stick and a piece of string!

String? Cupboards? Luxury! We used to photocopy our arses and play ‘Three Blind Mice’ on tone dial phones.

113

Michael Harris 12.29.12 at 12:17 am

I am happy to stand in for Steve Landsburg in this discussion, and save Noah from being smeared by such an association, as long as someone is prepared to hose me down afterwards.

114

Michael Harris 12.29.12 at 12:25 am

And Fu Ko, yes, thanks, got it.

I still worry that these arguments about economic liberties have unpleasant analogies with regard to civil liberties e.g. Gay people aren’t really making a FREE choice so much as they are being influenced by The Gay Agenda.

We seem to want to rely on, in civil liberties discourse, on the idea of autonomous adults making voluntary decisions. It just seems to me we’d better be careful in how we then engage in thinking and talking about consenting adults making transactional agreements, for standard baby/bathwater reasons.

/Landsburg

115

PJW 12.29.12 at 12:28 am

A timely post over at 3 Quarks Daily: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7277

116

Cranky Observer 12.29.12 at 12:46 am

= = = PJW 12.29.12 at 12:28 am
“A timely post over at 3 Quarks Daily:” = = =

Fascinating essay. Thanks for the link PJW.

Cranky

117

Bernard Yomtov 12.29.12 at 2:06 am

Very interesting discussion here. I’m following it intently, using technologically enhanced vision – which is to say, reading glasses.

118

shah8 12.29.12 at 2:09 am

The author empathizes with Ted Kaczynski.

Reading the essay, it seems that he has that millenialist edge to his thinking. I read his bit about “progress traps”, and remember the food fight about land registries in Kerala on this blog. There is a degree of fascination of the politics of environmentalism, with zero conception of what politics and societal decision-making genuinely entails, with about as much true charity to the thoughts of the men within (oh, was there a woman environmentalist? forgive me, I did not notice…) as Ted had for the normal denizen of the technological world. Forget the listing and disavowal of the big K’s crimes, I’m left with the impression that he’d paint his face blue and go up against that bag of cowardly offal, Bruce, mano á mano.

The shtick with the sickle, man…it’s like he doesn’t really understand why we ditched the whole longbow thing in favor of crossbows or muskets.

Interesting read, in a negative sense.

119

Henry 12.29.12 at 2:15 am

People who work in factories often find them interesting, challenging, and engaging places to work (some of us even find some of them quite beautiful).

Depends on the factory of course, but I did a fair amount of hanging around packaging machinery factories when I was doing my dissertation research. If I ever become a reclusive multibillionaire, I’ll have a room in my mansion with a tea-bag making machine kept working 24-7 – they are altogether wonderful to watch (a little like the Rube Goldbergesque machine in Edward Scissorhands, if rather more practical).

120

faustusnotes 12.29.12 at 3:34 am

What’s this? There’s an economist on the internet who has ignored the entire history of labor organization, and thinks technology magically made everything better for workers? Wow! I’m shocked!

I’m surprised at how many people commenting here seem to have missed the truly noxious part in the quoted text, where we read about workers

who can make themselves more well-adjusted and motivated at the touch of a (mental) button will be valuable employees indeed

That’s so many kinds of disgusting. Why don’t we instead invent a mental button in the boss, that stops them being a bullying, small-minded little arse?

121

parsimon 12.29.12 at 4:03 am

Indeed; I thought that Chris’s initial presentation of Noah Smith’s piece as a bit of dry satire was meant in earnest, so I was surprised to see Smith show up to suggest otherwise.

122

Peter T 12.29.12 at 4:27 am

Noah: “Over time, that seems to have led to durable, long-lasting, significant improvements in the standard of living of workers, including poor workers.”

That “over time’ is doing a lot of work. Is this kind of reasoning legitimate if one is committed to methodological individualism? After all, the people who suffered through the worst of the industrial revolution were not the same people who later benefited from improved living conditions. Or are Pareto improvements the best kind only got the present day, leaving the other, nastier kind for history?

123

Patrick Caldon 12.29.12 at 5:00 am

In the year of eighteen and two – Peg and awl
In the year of eighteen and two – Peg and awl
In the year of eighteen and two – Peggin’ shoes was all I’d do
Hand me down my peg, my peg and awl

They invented a new machine – Peg and awl
They invented a new machine – Peg and awl
They invented a new machine – Prettiest thing I ever seen
Throw away my peg, my peg and awl

Pegs a hundred pair to my one – Peg and awl
Pegs a hundred pair to my one – Peg and awl
Pegs a hundred pair to my one – Peggin’ shoes it ain’t no fun
Throw away my peg, my peg and awl

In the year of eighteen and three – Peg and awl
In the year of eighteen and three – Peg and awl
In the year of eighteen and three – New machine it set me free
Throw away my peg, my peg and awl

[ song probably has it wrong, the machine was invented in the 1860s, but this scans better ]

124

phosphorious 12.29.12 at 5:14 am

I’m no luddite, but is there a weird sort of reverse slippery slope on the anti-luddite side? Something like “You wear glasses? Then obviously you have tacitly consented to giving PearlVision the right to replace your eyes with cyborg electron microscopes and particle beams, and only a technophobe has any quibble here”

Of course, I wouldn’t have signed that agreement if I had read the fine print. . . which I couldn’t do until the cyborg eyes were installed. . .

125

ajay 12.29.12 at 8:20 am

Dsquared 82: the steam turbine. The Davy lamp. The pneumatic drill. The steam shovel. The oil fired boiler. Electric lighting. Come on, you’re Welsh. Think of the miners FFS.

CB: you’ve got the definition of ad hominem wrong again.

126

Chris Bertram 12.29.12 at 8:57 am

DeLong has now modified his original post to include a link to what I actually wrote. He’s also referenced a tweet (part of a series) and interpreted it to mean that I believe musical instruments bring no benefits in terms of well-being. Needless to say, this is malicious. My point was simply that changes in music reproduction technology (LPs to CDs) may bring a quick bounce, but don’t really represent much (or any) gain. Obviously YMMV. Why a man who has blocked me on twitter spends his time obsessively reading my feed so he can pounce on whatever he finds is a matter for the psychiatrists, I guess.

127

Hidari 12.29.12 at 9:05 am

“Do you have any idea how boring routine office jobs were before the invention of email and the web? “

I think you will discover that boring routine office jobs (a three word tautology) are just as boring and routine as they ever were. It’s just that the amount of effort that employers have put into dıstracting workers from the reality of the boring routine work they do has increased.

128

ajay 12.29.12 at 10:20 am

CDs are smaller, lighter, more robust, mechanically stronger, more tolerant of vibration, can be recorded at home and can be played by a much wider variety of devices than LPs. No significant gain, indeed.

129

Chris Bertram 12.29.12 at 10:40 am

All true ajay, but whether the user experiences a long-term increase in musical enjoyment as a result of the switch is a different question.

130

Phil 12.29.12 at 12:04 pm

I actually had an office job before email and the web, you whippersnapper.

In 1999 I wrote a series of ‘top tips’ for the back page of one of the computing magazines I edited* (remember ‘computing magazines’?), based loosely on contemporary plugs for Bill Gates’s book about business computing. Here’s one:

Working Web-style. Go into any large company, ask twenty different knowledge workers what they’ve found on the Web recently, and you’ll probably get thrown out by Security. Not only that, but you’ll have wasted the best part of a morning. And they’d all lie to you anyway, so what would be the point? Give people Web access, and you’ll find that from then on they’re working in a different way – a more secretive way, very often. Take their Web access away, on the other hand, and they’ll leave. The Web, in today’s business world, is a chaotic strange attractor; in other words, it’s a quantum leap which will transform the working environment for generations yet unborn, probably. I expect it’ll work out all right.

*To clarify this phrase, there were two, they both went out free to un-audited circulation lists and you won’t have heard of either of them. Still, literally true.

131

faustusnotes 12.29.12 at 12:09 pm

vinyl is an elitist and snobbish obsession. The only way to “enjoy” vinyl was on a machine the average person could not afford. Everyone else had to put up with crackling, warped sound, the hiss of the needle, and regular loss of purchased goods as the records warped and decayed, or got scratched because you can’t afford a halfway decent needle.

I don’t think the issue here though is Chris Bertrams “luddite” tendencies vis a vis LPs, god rest their vinyl souls. It’s the awful shallowness of economists’ view that every step in human progress has been due to technological advance rather than social organization. Plus, cyborg buttons to make workers compliant. Surely that’s an innovation that will make a motzah in a certain adult-oriented section of the entertainment industry…

(also I’m surprised ajay that you didn’t mention databases in your list – you’re a librarian aren’t you? Gone are the days of the card file…)

132

Chris Bertram 12.29.12 at 12:19 pm

faustusnotes: I’m not a vinyl obsessive myself (though I have a child who is). What you say isn’t true, though. A decent turntable was pretty affordable in the 1970s, and records were fine if you looked after them. Plus, as John Peel said, life has scratches. Given the quality of some of the digital remastering (awful) it isn’t obvious that the CD listener has a better musical experience (and I’m pretty sure the iPod user doesn’t). Of course, for may people (including me much of the time) convenience trumps audiophilia.

133

faustusnotes 12.29.12 at 12:24 pm

perhaps if we could install a button that enables us to enjoy scratched music at the flick of a (mental) switch, the eternal cd vs. vinyl debate would become irrelevant …

134

Walt 12.29.12 at 1:06 pm

Get the frickin’ lasers upgrade, phosphorious. It makes cyborg eyes all worth it.

135

Donald Johnson 12.29.12 at 5:33 pm

“If you want to divide the intellectual world into competing teams by a knee-jerk intuitive classification system, and then launch vigorously into a condemntation of anyone who doesn’t immediately seem to be on the team you’ve chosen for yourself, be my guest, but I’ve always thought that people who do that sort of thing are silly.”

Spoken like a man who won’t accept an apology. Also, this sounds exactly like someone who divides the world into competing teams–one team being those who divide the world into competing teams, and the other team which does the same thing while condemning the practice. I’ve always thought people who condemned other people for condemning people were sort of silly, except when I do it.

136

Hampus 12.29.12 at 5:37 pm

Reading Yglesias’ cretinous opinions gives me worse bowel movement than eating a bag of cement.

137

Hampus 12.29.12 at 5:52 pm

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of consenting mentally competent adults.

138

PJW 12.29.12 at 6:15 pm

I read or saw where Tarantino used some of his own records for the Django Unchained soundtrack and insisted the “popping” sound of the stylus needle settling down onto the record be used. I played my Houses of the Holy album, my first one, and various eight tracks rather obsessively on my $40 Sound Design “stereo system” in the mid-1970s and I was always envious of those who owned Pioneer systems and more envious yet of those cutting-edge audiophiles with their reel-to-reel set ups. No eight-track cartridges for them.

139

Bloix 12.29.12 at 7:07 pm

” The only way to “enjoy” vinyl was on a machine the average person could not afford.”

If you could have seen my friends and me in 1975 jumping around to “Born to Run” cranked up on my crappy all-in-one radio-phonograph-cassette player with the speakers the size of cinder blocks, or my girlfriend and me lying in bed in 1979 on a Sunday morning with the Ricky Lee Jones album I gave her for her birthday on the same shitty machine, you would never say such a stupid thing.

140

ajay 12.29.12 at 11:15 pm

But all the advantages of CDs I listed are part of “musical enjoyment”. If your LP breaks or warps, it will produce zero musical enjoyment from then on. If you have a Discman, you can experience musical enjoyment in places other than your home. And so on.

141

ajay 12.29.12 at 11:18 pm

131: good point. Go on, dsquared, explain how the poor librarians suffered when their card indexes were wrenched brutally from their hands by Teh Terrible Technocrats.

142

Tom Bach 12.30.12 at 12:16 am

Card catalogs, as opposed to date bases, where the a hard copy of institutional memories. Amended by hand in many cases the card catalogs represented lot of work by trained professionals to understand and assess the books under their care. Large electronic databases do not represent the same level of engagement nor are they as useful to readers, which is not to say that e databases are useful but they are not hands down better for librarians and their patrons.

Nicolas Baker wrote about this years ago in the The New Yorker.

143

Tom Bach 12.30.12 at 12:18 am

My comment is moderation because, I think, I misspelled my email. here a a repeat feel free to delete one or the other

Card catalogs, as opposed to date bases, where the a hard copy of institutional memories. Amended by hand in many cases the card catalogs represented lot of work by trained professionals to understand and assess the books under their care. Large electronic databases do not represent the same level of engagement nor are they as useful to readers, which is not to say that e databases are useful but they are not hands down better for librarians and their patrons.

Nicolas Baker wrote about this years ago in the The New Yorker.

144

ezra abrams 12.30.12 at 12:26 am

Technology can be good (polio vaccine) or bad (Napalm)
The “freedom” enjoyed by average people can vary over time; right now, in the US and western europe, the intelligensia is under attack

I think it is this sense of attack – a university degree is not worth much any more – that accounts for some of the negativity toward technology; that is, the balance between good and bad uses of technology has been usurped by the 1%; we don’t see cyborg eyes as relieveing us of blindness – surely agreat good, but rather as a tool for the the rich – call them waltons orkochs or jobs or dimones or what ever – to further enslave us to the cash nexus…

145

ezra abrams 12.30.12 at 12:34 am

re CB @126 and following vinyl/cd
I agree with Chris – CDs web etc are no advantage at all.
the key to understanding this is to look at the mind of the person at each point; at any point, people are more or less the same – they have the same satisfaction and problems;
eg vinyl : my records get scratched, they are heavy (hey, yeah – how many of you lugged cases of lps around, etc)
CD: they get scratched, stuck in the player
Mp3s: I have to pay (gasp) for what i want, etc

the point is, each person, from the 60s 70s today, lp cd mp, has the same happiness in the moment

the only exception to this is medical progress
and, if i may as a PhD in the biz, the amount of medical progress we are going to have in the next 50 years is going to make W Gibson and Neuromancer look tame.
thats my prediction

146

Peter Murphy 12.30.12 at 1:17 am

Ezra@143: Technology can be forced top-down, or embraced bottom up – and it’s generally the former which causes more harm than the later. Steam powered weaving frames were promoted by capitalists, not workers – but it was the workers who suffered the most industrial accidents. CDs has supplanted Vinyl because consumers found CDs more convenient in a lot of ways: they don’t scratch, you can play them in your car or your computer, you can make them yourself, and you need less place for storage than LPs.

147

Michael H Schneider 12.30.12 at 1:26 am

Given the quality of some of the digital remastering (awful) it isn’t obvious that the CD listener has a better musical experience (and I’m pretty sure the iPod user doesn’t).

Given the quality of some books written today (awful) it isn’t obvious that the reader has a better reading experience than before Gutenberg.

I think there’s something wrong with this form of argument.

I have a few acres that were heavily logged in the 1930s and haven’t burned since. They have far too many very scrawny ponderosa pines which I’ll either cut or they’ll eventually burn catastrophically.

I have a hand saw and a gas powered chain saw. The hand saw provides a much pleasanter experience. It’s quieter, always starts, doesn’t stink, and stores more easily. However, I surely do cut a lot more trees more quickly with the chain saw.

I’m not sure that ‘user experience’ is always quite the proper measure of the advantages of one tool over another, at least without more unpacking.

148

Teafortwo 12.30.12 at 2:34 am

Exactly.

I am guessing that by “a better musical experience”, Chris means “a recording that sounds more like the original performance, if recorded live, or more like the master tape if assembled in the studio by the producer.”

In that sense, it is trivially true that vinyl is usually better than CDs and MP3s. But that definition implies a radically curtailed understanding of the varieties of musical experience. Some people, for example, like to entertain their friends by playing the latest tracks on their phones on the way to school in the morning. And vinyl just isn’t much good for that.

149

bianca steele 12.30.12 at 2:50 am

I grew up using a library system where all the branches and regional libraries, instead of card catalogs in drawers, used printed books with photographs of all the cards that had been in the catalog at the time the book was printed. There were two series, plus supplements, apparently randomly overlapping, and supposedly a secret code at the bottom of the “card” to say which libraries were supposed to have each book on the shelf. Certainly I think of this system with nostalgia.

150

faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 2:50 am

Bloix:

If you could have seen my friends and me in 1975 jumping around to …

Let’s chalk that up to the stability of your floorboards, not to the quality of your record player. And don’t you find getting up every 20 minutes to change the music kind of spoils the mood?

Another aspect of vinyl that sucked (and CDs to a lesser extent) was its unavailability. If it wasn’t shipped to your local music store you were stuffed. Growing up in a dusty country town in South Australia (through no fault of my own!) this limited my musical choices considerably. A kid living in the same town today can get almost anything from almost anywhere. Sure, maybe it’s been compressed up the wazoo or whatever, but at least they can listen to what they like, instead of whatever rubbish the local record store happens to stock. There’s a “listening experience” I would have loved to have had available to me back in the 80s.

Plus of course now, your girlfriend can bring her iPod to your house, and you can spend the whole day listening to each other’s music, and you can use something like spotify or pandora to find other bands that are similar to the ones your girlfriend showed you that you liked. And you can sample them first to be sure you like them, and buy them even if they aren’t available locally. And when you move countries you can take the whole lot with you in your carry-on luggage, instead of paying a fortune and waiting three months to receive them… on my iPod I have an obscure Korean synthpop band who produced one album a few years ago, there’s no chance I would ever have been able to find them or listen to them if we were still stuck in the vinyl age.

There really is no comparison.

151

ponce 12.30.12 at 3:18 am

@148

“And don’t you find getting up every 20 minutes to change the music kind of spoils the mood? “

A small quibble, you could stack hours of records on a turntable.

152

engels 12.30.12 at 3:50 am

This thread was doomed from the moment vinyl vs CDs was mentioned.

153

faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 3:59 am

well then we definitely shouldn’t introduce the debate about the merits of the Dewey decimal system …

154

bianca steele 12.30.12 at 4:24 am

And yet, I remember now, the “no more than two people looking in A-D at a time” system was actually made worse when it was replaced by a single touchscreen terminal that was usually malfunctioning. Of course nobody needs to look things up in the library anymore, one terminal is more than enough . . .

155

Nine 12.30.12 at 4:40 am

Tom Bach@143 – “Card catalogs, as opposed to date bases, where the a hard copy of institutional memories.”

Why can’t this be true of a database ?A database is or can be exactly the same thing and without all the tedium that caused Philip Larkin to complain about foreigners, wimminfolk etc. I suspect you are conflating spidered-up raw corpus and curated presentation – whether curated by wunderbar algorithm (no such thing atm, despite tall claims) or wunderbar human librarian.

156

Bloix 12.30.12 at 4:43 am

#150 – thanks for introducing me to the 21st century.

I don’t think I was arguing that vinyl is better. I think I was saying that it was possible to obtain an enormous amount of pleasure from a cheap stereo and a stack of LP’s.

157

Peter T 12.30.12 at 4:55 am

Aside from “better” or “worse”, where the balance is pretty subjective, one often unnoticed aspect of new technologies is the extent to which they trade some notion of efficiency (usually wage savings) for flexibility and adaptability. A roomful of clerical workers can be redirected, split, added to, trained in a new task all pretty quickly. Making any large change to a big database is an affair of years of planning, lots of tooth-sucking consultants explaining why its going to cost you an arm and a leg, invisible technical problems and (usually) a god-awful mess as the change rolls over the users.

158

Bloix 12.30.12 at 5:08 am

But to be serious for a moment. Let’s look at the most important scientific invention of the 20th century: the artificial fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. Discovered by Fritz Haber in 1909 and made commercially viable by Carl Bosch in 1913, it greatly increased the violence of warfare. Before 1913, high explosives were made from guano, literal mountains of dessicated bird shit found on islands off the Pacific Coast of South America. After 1913, explosives could be made almost literally out of thin air. Germany would have been defeated by 1916 if it had not developed the ability to manufacture munitions without guano. The level of violence of WWII would have been unthinkable without the Haber process.

Yet the Haber process is also the foundation for modern fertilizer. It broke the iron Malthusian law of population increase, famine, and collapse. Most of the people in the world today would be dead of starvation if it were not for the Haber process.

Of course, maybe that’s a bad thing, too. Without the Haber process, the world population would be perhaps a billion or two. No global warming, no devastated rain forests, no mass extinctions.

Is the world a better place because of what Haber and Bosch brought into it? Not at all an easy question.

159

Harold 12.30.12 at 5:15 am

Recording music erases harmonics and overtones. Nothing can better the unamplified human voice. It is like water from a mountain spring. Every instrument aspires to it.

160

Hidari 12.30.12 at 8:55 am

“: I’m not a vinyl obsessive myself (though I have a child who is). What you say isn’t true, though. A decent turntable was pretty affordable in the 1970s, and records were fine if you looked after them. Plus, as John Peel said, life has scratches. Given the quality of some of the digital remastering (awful) it isn’t obvious that the CD listener has a better musical experience (and I’m pretty sure the iPod user doesn’t). Of course, for may people (including me much of the time) convenience trumps audiophilia.”

As a friend of mine recently pointed out if you look at the situation objectively in terms of the way that people actually use music, for most people the sound quality of the music that people actually listen to has gone down. In my experience, nowadays people listen to music (often badly copied on/from youtube) on their laptops, using tiny speakers not meant to play music loudly to groups, or else with cheap “booster” speakers to their laptops or tablets which are again inadequate to give decent sound quality, or else on cheap headphones in the gym or as they go running.

The idea that you are going to get as good sound quality from the ipod you listen to in the gym, listening to MP3s you downloaded for free from the net, as opposed to an expensive vinyl set up with good speakers, is risible.

161

Teafortwo 12.30.12 at 9:23 am

Engels @152: “This thread was doomed from the moment vinyl vs CDs was mentioned.”

True, but it’s not entirely inappropriate. The debate is a pretty good synecdoche for the general argument: “This new technology is great / terrible.”

162

etv13 12.30.12 at 9:23 am

It seems that everybody has (and why not?) a different view of what a “quality musical experience” is. One of the quality musical experiences of a CD, for me, is that I can play a track again and again, to learn the song or admire the quality of the horn-playing or whatever, without ruining it. Many of the LP’s I listened to on my early-1970′s Panasonic turntable are not playable/transferable now. My audiophile husband played his LP’s on a much better turntable (and didn’t repeat them again and again, not being particularly interested in learning to sing them), and they are still OK. Which of us got the most pleasure out of them when we were 16 is an open question. He cared (and cares) about the quality of the sound, I cared about something different, but for both of us, the CD is, on the whole, a better option than the vinyl LP. And even though I’m not an audiophile, particularly, I buy CD’s rather than MP3′s.

And a vinyl LP is one of the things our daughter asked for, and got, for Christmas.

163

Alex 12.30.12 at 9:51 am

I suspect that if CDs, or MP3 files, or whatever, were the expensive and space-consuming option, people would construct rationalisations for why they sounded better in support of their status content…

164

Michael Harris 12.30.12 at 9:51 am

This thread got amazingly, um, self-indulgent (being as nice as possible about it), not to mention several shades of snooty, since I was last here, but thanks Bloix @158 for the Haber-Bosch stuff. I think I heard a nail being hit hard on the head there.

165

engels 12.30.12 at 10:02 am

I’m just glad no-one mentioned valve amps.

166

Chris Bertram 12.30.12 at 10:02 am

Alex: no doubt they would. But it isn’t necessary to my claim that one sounds better than the other (as if there were a single dimension of betterness encompassing warmth, clarity, accuracy etc), Rather the claim is just that the switch from one of these technologies to the other provides no long-term increase in enjoyment (though there may be a short-term bounce).

167

Michael Harris 12.30.12 at 10:58 am

ENGELS! Hush your mouth. Nobody talk about solid state or digital modelling! Nobody!

168

soru 12.30.12 at 11:10 am

@166: except that the switch isn’t from one to another, but from one to _both_.

Pretty much every quanta of aural pleasure experienced by a vinyl junkie since the heyday of the CD should be placed in the plus column for the newer invention. I doubt many would honestly prefer and enjoy scratches when they are not optional.

169

Chris Bertram 12.30.12 at 11:18 am

soru: you’re making a mistake there. The claim that switching from A to B provides no long term experiential boost does not entail that removing the option of B and forcing everyone back to A would not bring about experiential loss.

170

Keir 12.30.12 at 12:31 pm

Hidari: er what? The thing is, iPod + 128kbit/s mp3 + headphones doesn’t replace traditional hi-fi set ups It replaces cheap radios, crappy tapes, etc. You need to compare apples to apples (ahem): an iPod playing FLAC feeding a decent set of speakers vs a mid-range record player feeding a decent set of speakers. And that’s definitely a move up. Or else an iPod vs a cheap portable radio, or a tape deck, or wevs. And again, step up, I think.

171

Hidari 12.30.12 at 12:36 pm

I wonder if the article linked to below which has been attracting some attention (ironically) on the interwebs is of relevance to the OP.

“(Between 1870 and 1970) life …had… utterly changed. The interstate highway system was almost completed. Air conditioning was universal in commerce and widespread in residential homes. Air travel by 1970 had been completely converted to jets with no further increase in speed. Consumer appliances were universal in the United States, with only the microwave oven still waiting to be invented and diffused.

A common feature of this innovativon revolution was that many of the improvements could only happen once.

Speed of travel was increased from that of the horse to the jet plane in a century but could not happen again. The interior temperature that in 1870 alternated between freezing cold in the winter and stifling heat in the summer reached a year-round 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22C), and that could not happen again. The U.S. was transformed from 75 percent rural to 80 percent urban, and that could not happen again. “

Compare this with now.

“Attention in the past decade has focused not on labor-saving innovation, but rather on a succession of entertainment and communication devices that do the same things as we could do before, but now in smaller and more convenient packages. The iPod replaced the CD Walkman; the smartphone replaced the garden-variety “dumb” cellphone with functions that in part replaced desktop and laptop computers; and the iPad provided further competition with traditional personal computers. These innovations were enthusiastically adopted, but they provided new opportunities for consumption on the job and in leisure hours rather than a continuation of the historical tradition of replacing human labor with machines.

A thought experiment helps to illustrate the fundamental importance of the inventions of Innovation Revolution (IR) #2 compared to the subset of IR #3 inventions that have occurred since 2002. You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002.

Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

I have posed this imaginary choice to several audiences in speeches, and the usual reaction is a guffaw, a chuckle, because the preference for Option A is so obvious. The audience realizes that it has been trapped into recognition that just one of the many late 19th century inventions is more important than the portable electronic devices of the past decade on which they have become so dependent.”

http://www.nber.org/papers/w18315.pdf?new_window=1

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Chris Bertram 12.30.12 at 12:47 pm

Not convinced that the thought experiment is an entirely fair one, Hidari, but I agree with the general point, which is also Ha-Joon Chang’s “Thing 4″ in his 22 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.

173

Hidari 12.30.12 at 1:30 pm

@172 Krugman has also been discussing this. I got the link to the Gordon paper from one of Krugman’s NYT columns.

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/26/is-growth-over/

174

tomslee 12.30.12 at 1:51 pm

Despite engels’ warning, I’m going back to the vinyl/CD/digital thing (but staying away from libraries) because nothing in the debate about sound quality and musical availability fits into my musical experiences as a yoof in the 1970s (and no, this is NOT a “things were better in my day” thing) or, I’m pretty sure, most other people’s.

The main function music served for most of us was as one aspect of signalling group membership, along with clothes, hair, and attitude. As a very uncool teenager I tried to catch on to what the cool kids were listening to, and my music purchases were as much driven by what I thought reflected well on me — by what I thought I should like, if I was to be the kind of person I would like to be — as to what sounded good. Yes, there were some kids who could carry off a taste for mainstream (Elton John and Rod Stewart) if they were sports stars, but that was like a peacock’s tail: I can carry this and still be cool. The rest of us had to seek out subgenres of krautrock or “progressive” (wince) bands in order to find and fit in with peer groups.

And once buying music is a signal, then it has to be costly. Part of the thing about finding the crappy little record store where you could actually buy the band of choice was taking the trek to find it, discovering a place where other people were, getting exposed to other potentially cool things. The difficulty was part of the thing. If a friend of mine got hold of a badly-recorded Pink Floyd bootleg, well that was a big deal. If the bootleg was available to everyone at no cost, there would have been no point even downloading it.

Thinking that cheap, high quality music is an improvement over rare, crappy quality music is the Wizzard fallacy: we don’t actually Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day because then it just wouldn’t be Christmas: the rarity is what matters. Making music free and widely available is a bit like making membership at an exclusive club free and widely available: it just robs the whole enterprise of its point.

Now I don’t actually know what Kids Today use to structure their social hierarchies, but I suspect it isn’t music because cheap, widely available music can’t serve the same purpose. But I’m sure there’s something because it’s the social hierarchies that matter, not the tunes.

On a related note, earlier this year my son and I watched the rollicking Norwegian thriller “Headhunters”. Over Christmas I picked up the DVD so we could share it with the rest of the family (do yourself a favour: it’s great) and we were both surprised that it was subtitled: we had both forgotten that. It turns out that it really doesn’t matter, just like the quality of music reproduction.

175

Chris Bertram 12.30.12 at 2:41 pm

@174 [like!]

176

faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 3:00 pm

I’m sorry but I’m not on board with this subjective mumbo-jumbo. Unless you were rich, LPs afforded you a very poor listening experience. This is an objective fact, not a matter of personal taste or acculturation. Vinyl skipped, hissed, and made horrific scratching noises. Albums became unusable because of scratches. Sometimes music sounded like it was coming from the bottom of the sea. You had to delicately remove dust from the stylus, which anyway was a waste of time unless you had a small fortune to spend on special needles – and spare me the claims that anyone could afford those needles, they were advertised in specialist magazines for music “connoisseurs.” Here’s a hint: any technology which requires a “connoisseur” to enjoy is elitist, and vinyl was right up there with computers as a toy of the elite back in the 80s. The rest of us used these thing called “cassettes” which were also crap, but could be played on an affordable machine, and only occasionally required mechanical intervention.

I’m sure we also all remember the phenomenon of the skipping cd, the cheap cd player that couldn’t read discs, or would only do so after you tapped it a few times “just there.” The discs that suddenly seemed to always skip on your favourite song. Everyone’s been in a restaurant where the atmosphere suddenly gets borked by the cd chuckling a wobbly. Actually, come to think of it, I wonder where that phrase comes from? These things all had in common the problem of moving parts, a barbaric idea now fortunately missing from decent music systems.

Tomslee, I wasn’t trying to signal anything with my musical choices when I was a teenager. I liked the music I listened to and I wanted more of it. Sadly, the restrictions of the mechanical-equipment-based music market meant whole genres I might have enjoyed passed me by because I couldn’t get them in my little town. Ten years later I found them and never looked back (well, I kind of had to since some of the music I liked was dead by the time I discovered it). Strangely enough, though, I discovered that music after vinyl was replaced by CDs. Could there be a relationship? Surely not …

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tomslee 12.30.12 at 3:14 pm

faustusnotes: I wasn’t trying to signal anything with my musical choices when I was a teenager. I liked the music I listened to and I wanted more of it.

If you say so :). Do you mind if I ask whether you shared your musical discoveries with others? Or if your distinct musical taste was a way of distinguishing yourself from your peers? Speaking from my own little-town experience, you must have been an exceptionally self-contained, un-peer-pressured, un-status-conscious teenager.

178

Chris Bertram 12.30.12 at 3:25 pm

faustusnotes: you are talking nonsense. My turntable, a Rotel RP820, was introduced in 1982. The US retail price was $115, I seem to remember paying about £100. It afforded (and continues to afford) a high quality listening experience. Sure, I could have paid *a lot* more. But the claim that only rich people got better than “a very poor listening experience” is just false. As for the “specialist magazines” … well yes, there was a big (mass) market for those in the 1970s. Hi-Fi was a bit of a craze. (I suspect you are too young to know about this stuff first hand.)

179

faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 4:07 pm

Chris, spare me “a high quality listening experience.” Did your LPs jump? Did they scratch? Did you have to replace the stylus, and if so how much did it cost? Did your records warp and die? Records are shit. Objectively shit. Because of all the obvious flaws in their operation. These aren’t subjective experiences like Harold’s harmonics – they’re obvious examples of inferior tech, like records being permanently wrecked by a skipping needle, or sounding like someone is singing through a sack. Similarly with CDs, which were better than vinyl but perennially dodgy – do you claim they’re not? Modern technology solves all that. MP3s don’t degrade, skip or die, and you can flush your iPod down the toilet and still listen to the music. Try that with an Iron Maiden picture disc and see how far you get.

Tomslee, no I didn’t tell my friends about my music. In my dusty country town the only music that was accepted by my friendship group was thrash metal. I kept the rest to myself. In fact, I didn’t like Metallica (something of a cardinal sin in my friendship group) until I had a near-magical experience falling asleep on a hot summer’s day listening to Master of Puppets (not on vinyl, obviously, or I wouldn’t have been able to make out the voices through the hissing). I had the good fortune to catch some alternative radio stations from a bigger city (an unusual event) one christmas eve, and discovered some new bands – but it took two years to track them down physically. Let’s hear it for big clunky discs, eh? The modern equivalent of me (poor bastard!) would hear the name, go straight to youtube to check out some examples, then download a slab of new music. But hey, it’s not vinyl, so that kid must be some kind of barbarian with no musical sense, right? How can they handle that compressed shit?!

180

Harold 12.30.12 at 4:12 pm

Harmonics are objective!

181

Harold 12.30.12 at 4:17 pm

Is there anyone here who knows anything about music?

Wiki:

Many oscillators, including the human voice, a bowed violin string, or a Cepheid variable star, are more or less periodic, and so composed of harmonics.

Most passive oscillators, such as a plucked guitar string or a struck drum head or struck bell, naturally oscillate at not one, but several frequencies known as partials. When the oscillator is long and thin, such as a guitar string, or the column of air in a trumpet, many of the partials are integer multiples of the fundamental frequency; these are called harmonics. Sounds made by long, thin oscillators are for the most part arranged harmonically, and these sounds are generally considered to be musically pleasing. Partials whose frequencies are not integer multiples of the fundamental are referred to as inharmonic. Instruments such as cymbals, pianos, and strings plucked pizzicato create inharmonic sounds.

The untrained human ear typically does not perceive harmonics as separate notes. Rather, a musical note composed of many harmonically related frequencies is perceived as one sound, the quality, or timbre of that sound being a result of the relative strengths of the individual harmonic frequencies. Bells have more clearly perceptible inharmonics than most instruments. Antique singing bowls are well known for their unique quality of producing multiple harmonic partials or multiphonics.

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faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 4:19 pm

As proof of the elitism of vinyl: Rotel’s website contains turntable prices ranging from $380 to $3300. iPods range from $200 to $300, and have a crapton of functions outside of “playing scratchy music.” Why does a turntable need to cost $3300? It’s not DJ kit, this is something you’re supposed to put in your house for the purpose of enjoying music. And note that if you had enough records to fill 64 Gb worth of records, you would need to rent a bigger house to contain the music – we’re talking a whole room full of records, here. iPods are a huge force for equality in music appreciation, while records are an elitist distraction.

(I bet people will be saying this about paper books vs. ebooks in future – my kindle app has certainly already improved the speed at which I can read Japanese texts considerably – and mobile phones are the only reason I can read Japanese at all).

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Harold 12.30.12 at 4:51 pm

Music played on an AM car radio sounds fine to me because I like music. I also like ketchup, cassette tapes, and CDs.

I am not really qualified to discuss physics but I can hear the extra overtones and harmonics in live (and also in analog) music and can tell that their presence make for an incomparably different experience. Just as a fresh-picked tomato is superior to a cold-storage one. Metaphorically speaking, it has more overtones and harmonics. This is not “elitism” but quantifiable fact.

The gains achieved by technology are real, but so are the losses.

http://performingsongwriter.com/t-bone-burnett/

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Chris Bertram 12.30.12 at 5:03 pm

faustusnotes is wrong on the internet, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over that.

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faustusnotes 12.30.12 at 5:13 pm

Harold: I think Slayer’s early live performances would offer a counterpoint to your claims.

Chris: are you saying you have never been in a public facility where a cd has skipped? Never experienced the staff rushing over to the cd player to stop the horrible sound of a cd getting jammed? This has never happened to you or anyone you know with vinyl either? But *I’m* the one who is wrong on the internet?

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Watson Ladd 12.30.12 at 5:27 pm

Chris, hedonic adaption is a real phenomenon. But that doesn’t make penicillin any less valuable today then it was when it was discovered. As for music, discovering new composers has been easier then ever before. Regardless of whether teenagers can find the hip new thing to exclude about in it, it’s a boon for everyone who takes music seriously as art because it makes it accessible. Or are we only socialists until we can become elitists?

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PJW 12.30.12 at 5:28 pm

I’ve always been a fan of album cover art and particularly the work of Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley and the iconic work they produced for the Grateful Dead. I consider it to be a real loss because I don’t believe this form translates well in the CD format.

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Harold 12.30.12 at 5:51 pm

Cover art, and also liner notes.

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Harold 12.30.12 at 6:08 pm

The elitism of Illuminated Manuscripts:
Traditional “Slow Reading”, as described by Anthony Grafton, who writes that the “distinctive approach to texts” of the Benedictine monasteries might be called ‘slow writing and reading’ ” and:

—contrasts as sharply with contemporary practices in reading and writing as Slow Food does with McDonald’s. The Benedictine rule allowed each monk to borrow one book a year from his monastery’s collection. This he was to read and meditate on, slowly and with concentration, in his few free hours. Public readings from the Bible and other central Christian texts, held at mealtimes, reinforced the instruction drawn from the carefully chosen Christian classics in individual cells. So, even more powerfully, did a central Benedictine task: that of copying the canon of sacred texts and their Christian commentators, precisely and accurately, on sheets of skin that would last for centuries, when bound into codices, and serve generations of Benedictine readers in their turn.

The Renaissance Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius argued, in a famous screed against the printing press, that this Benedictine way of engaging with texts was uniquely valuable because it eliminated all the slippages that can come between books and readers. Those who adopted this regime would be transformed by what they read:

He who copies accepted and holy texts will not be burdened by vain and pernicious thoughts, will speak no idle words, and is not bothered by wild rumors…. And as he is copying the approved texts he is gradually initiated into the divine mysteries and miraculously enlightened. Every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds since we have to take our time while writing and reading. The repeated reading of Scripture will inflame the mind of the writer and carry him happily to total surrender to God.

–Anthony Grafton, “Jumping Through the Computer Screen”, a review of Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton’s Reinventing Knowledge, from Alexandria to the Printing Press, New York Review of Books (December 23, 2010).

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chris 12.30.12 at 7:20 pm

the point is, each person, from the 60s 70s today, lp cd mp, has the same happiness in the moment

Yes, clearly, when I go jogging and bring an iPod along, my enjoyment is no different than if I were carrying a turntable for the same purpose.

If this were anything remotely like true, one technology would never have supplanted the other in the first place.

As for the original topic, clearly a line must be drawn between what an employer can demand of an employee and what they can’t, and drawing that line is always going to be a contentious political process.

But the case for why a cybernetic modification (however exactly the boundaries of that category will be drawn) MUST be on the opposite side of the line from clothing and eyeglasses (and literacy, which as pointed out upthread, actually is a modification of your brain) is not so clear. Mainly it seems to be an argument from “this is new and scary, therefore illegitimate”, which isn’t much of an argument when you haul it out and look at it.

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bianca steele 12.30.12 at 8:31 pm

I know where this crowd would come down on the question whether I should replace my Advent Legacy speakers, with their weight and placement issues, with mini-speakers and additional toy storage.

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parsimon 12.30.12 at 8:38 pm

faustusnotes at 131: vinyl is an elitist and snobbish obsession

God help me, I haven’t read past this comment, but this gave me a very good laugh. Thanks!

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.30.12 at 8:39 pm

“Yes, clearly, when I go jogging and bring an iPod along, my enjoyment is no different than if I were carrying a turntable for the same purpose.”

It seems possible that, by listening to your ipod 16 hours a day every day, you weaken, dilute your enjoyment. In the end, you might just kill it altogether. It might become a habitual noise. You’ll suffer if it’s taken away, but you won’t enjoy it. Like breathing.

It seems likely that enjoyment as a function of abundance and convenience is not monotonic…

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Hidari 12.30.12 at 8:47 pm

Incıdentally the idea that MP3 players never go wrong is self-evidently bollocks, and I know this because currently my Ipod (which is the most user unfriendly device I have ever owned) has corrupted software and refuses to sync properly with my laptop, and I can’t reboot it because I am away and don’t have access to any of the original CDs which I filled it with and as the smug little text box that pops up informs me, reformatting it will mean I lose all the data on it.

Incidentally if ıt is sound quality you are interested in then MP3s just are objectively shit.

http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/02/why-neil-young-hates-mp3-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/

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engels 12.30.12 at 8:52 pm

Some of the CD bashing on this thread is seriously OTT. CDs don’t scratch CDs. People scratch CDs. Put them back in the flipping cases.

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Harold 12.30.12 at 9:23 pm

In real music the singer’s voice or instrument plays around but does not exactly hit the pitch. There are also expressive variations in rhythm — and (often large) expressive variation in dynamics.

In today’s mechanized music, pitch is autotuned, rhythm is mechanically regular, and there is one dynamic: loud. GACK!

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Harold 12.30.12 at 9:25 pm

Variations in dynamics (loud and soft) not only within a phrase or section but also within single notes, I should have said.

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StevenAttewell 12.30.12 at 9:59 pm

Regarding the vinyl/cd thing, I think there are both subjective and objective factors at play. Consider the controversy over 48 frames per second looking “cheap” and vaguely “daytime soap opera” even though it’s a much clearer image than 24fps – a lot of that has to do with the fact that 24fps has been the standard for movies for the last eighty years so we associate the way 24fps look with “movieness.” Likewise, the fact that artificial hiss and pop has been added on to mp3 reproductions of old-school blues and jazz records suggests that the vinyl thing has as much to do with nostalgia and sensory cues in our memories.

On the other hand, you can’t walk around with a vinyl record, and CDs are superior to cassettes on a number of logistical levels, and mp3s don’t skip.

Michael Harris @114:

I have a real problem with that analogy. The coercion that exists as an inherent part of the wage labor system is right there at the foundation of liberal thought – “What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour. It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms…A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.” (Wealth of Nations, Book I, Ch 8)

In the real world, there is a difference between two consenting adults deciding to have sex and the employer-employee relationship: the two consulting adults have an equal amount of power (or at least they are supposed to, which is why we view sexual harassment in the workplace as so problematic, and why we have age of consent laws and “romeo and juliette” laws), whereas the employer has more power than the employee by virtue of the fear of unemployment.

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bianca steele 12.30.12 at 10:21 pm

Anyone who bought rock LP’s with tracks remastered for CD in the mid- to late eighties knows perfectly well that the ultra-bright high registers were recognizable enough as a hallmark of the new technology that cymbals and such were enhanced on the new recordings to make them sound “right.” They sounded ultrabright on phonograph, too, as they hadn’t sounded when they were first released. But this isn’t inherent in the technology. I have an early CD of piano solo music that I hate because it sounds tight and dead, showing off the ability of the technology to be noise-free, but I also have a 78 of Pablo Casals remastered onto CD that has the qualities of the earlier recordings (as opposed to the qualities that were expected on new string solo recordings at the time).

I’ve never tried listening to an MP3 on the Legacies. I wonder what it would sound like.

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Matt 12.30.12 at 10:32 pm

Chris, hedonic adaption is a real phenomenon. But that doesn’t make penicillin any less valuable today then it was when it was discovered.

Right, it’s evolved bacterial resistance that makes penicillin less valuable than when it was discovered, not hedonic adaption.

I think Smith is speculating about a future that won’t come to pass, one of those retro-futures that we’ve seen in old movies. Hal 9000:Google :: Cyborg workers:???

If there’s a productivity revolution actually coming, it will be one of autonomous machines rather than cyborg workers. Machines are much better than humans at optimization problems, once the problem has been expressed in abstract form. They don’t experience fatigue or boredom. They “eat” electricity, which is even cheaper than the near-starvation compensation floor set by the Iron Law of Wages. They’re still lagging on fine manual dexterity, but capable enough that huge swaths of work could be automated given good enough perception.

There are many reasons we don’t already have robots doing most of the work that’s currently in human hands, but the biggest seems to be perception: interpreting sensory input so that it can map to mathematical abstractions. Scientists of yore thought that playing world-class chess would be far harder than (e.g.) buying a chess set at a store and taking it back home. But machines reached chess-champion parity way back in 1996, while producing machines that can navigate routes, interpret speech, and identify different objects in their environment is an ongoing challenge.

I think the challenge is one that machines will mostly meet in the coming decades. It’s already happening, with little fanfare or visibility. Something else interesting happened in 1996: Chinese manufacturing employment peaked at 125 million. 12 years later it was down to 98 million. Some of those jobs left chasing even lower wages. Some of them were eliminated by machines and won’t come back no matter how far wages fall, because the machine is so much better than the most skilled and least paid corresponding human worker could ever be.

Imagine replacing instrumented computer control in oil refineries with workers making manual adjustments and gauge readings like they had back in the 1940s. Even if the labor were free refineries couldn’t achieve such high throughput and uniformity if they gave up computers. Putting lots of humans back to work in refineries, even at zero wages, actually destroys economic value. Broader swaths of economic activity will hit this dead end over time. Reducing regulation, eliminating minimum wages, unionizing workers, giving everyone better education… None of these traditional suggestions are going to increase long-term prospects for productive employment.

We’re balancing on a knife edge here: on one side is mass misery not seen since the early part of the first Industrial Revolution. On the other is that shared bounty and leisure that improved production “should” have started delivering when my grandparents were infants. Democracy and voting are far better distributed now than during the first Industrial Revolution, but techniques of persuasion have also improved tremendously. How long will people believe paid messages instead of their own lying tongues about the merits of the shit sandwich?

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Charrua 12.30.12 at 10:38 pm

Trying to return the thread to its original point, it seems to me that there are two different bur related issues: the desirability of new technology and its impact in the workforce. It seems to me that it’s pointless to talk about the desirability of a technology not yet invented and the impact of a given technology in the workforce it’s not easy to predict.
As Dsquared says, working conditions in early industrial age were terrible, but they also enabled the creation of trade unions strong enough to challenge the system and achieve substantial gains. Absent the kind of geographical concentration of workers and better communications that the industrial revolution made possible, the kind of political organizations that fought against these working conditions would not have been possible.
We live in an age were these kind of union-friendly environments are dissappearing (the service sector, with its dispersed workforce, is an example), but we should not assume that every technological advance will be union-unfriendly.
Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but the impact of it should be analyzed with an eye towards the political-organizational angle, whose consequences may be large.

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Michael Harris 12.30.12 at 10:52 pm

StevenAttewell @ 198,

I’m not trying to be Steve Landsburg for the purposes of this thread, or even Matt Yglesias for that matter. I can accept arguments for regulating/restricting certain kinds of transactions, or at least that sound arguments can be made.

I’m just a little troubled by relatively glib short statements, the subtext of which is “consenting adults making mutually beneficial transactions? don’t make me laugh!”, which is kind of what was going on upthread. A little bit of nuance and detail would help.

That said, we’ve moved far away from all that and onto which sucks more: hissy vinyl or lossy digital formats.

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pat 12.31.12 at 12:03 am

I’m just a little troubled by relatively glib short statements, the subtext of which is “consenting adults making mutually beneficial transactions? don’t make me laugh!”, which is kind of what was going on upthread. A little bit of nuance and detail would help.

I think this is worth re-emphasizing. Comments like Chaz’s (#16), in their efforts to dismiss the ‘generalized uncritical tech-enthusiasm’ that so plagues us, seem to also reject the most vanilla small-l Millean liberalism in order to do so. Individuals may not always choose wisely, let’s grant, but that is a far cry from establishing that some other authority is likely to choose better for them, especially on fundamental questions like “to what extent should I (further!) augment my natural abilities through technology, broadly construed?” Perhaps mutual consent is not sufficient for justice as you conceive it, but certainly there’s a strong prima facie presumption against overriding mutual consent that has to be argued for case by case?

@Phosphorious #124,
I don’t think anyone’s arguing that the bespectacled have implicitly consented to electron microscopes for eyes, but inasmuch as those in this thread who are vaguely unsettled by technological enhancements are content to issue wisdom-of-repugnance-type arguments instead of specific concerns about the merits of specific technologies, I think it’s perfectly pertinent to point out that technological augmentation is a human practice whose history spans millenia, some of whose myriad benefits are quite literally right over one’s nose. At the very least, it would be remarkably improbable if this moment were the precise moment in human history that augmentation turned bad on the whole for us. Isn’t it much more likely that we consider the past benefits of technology to be familiar whereas the future benefits are definitionally uncertain, and therefore scarier? If I were a critic of human augmentation, I would want to ensure that my views were easily distinguishable from mere status-quo bias.

I’m made a little uneasy by the observation that the self-styled Luddites in this thread apparently find themselves obliged to deny any net benefits from technological progress whatsoever (!). That point seems so obviously settled to me (I invite you to tour a modern hospital, laboratory, university, factory or home if you are uncertain) that I would think King Ludd’s camp should be worried about one person’s modus ponens becoming another’s modus tollens. (The Luddites find it necessary to deny the CD to make room for their political economy. I accept the CD, therefore…)

Make whatever arguments about economic justice you would like (and I am likely to agree) but it still seems unavoidable that in order to distribute wealth justly you need some wealth to distribute: comparing the world economy of 2012 to the world economy of 1712, have industrial technologies made us more capable or less capable of meeting human needs? Many of the opposing arguments in this thread seem to be variations on the plight of the buggy-whip maker, without an explanation of why the standard rebuttal to that argument does not apply. Preventing efficiency-increasing innovations in order to sustain workers in inefficient industries seems tantamount to kicking an economy in the shins so that you may feel sorry for it. Grant whatever retraining programs and other elements of the social welfare state you want, but making people do the jobs of machines is the only actually dystopian vision that has been seriously suggested so far.

I regretfully admit that this thread seems so vulnerable to Poe’s law, literally from comment one, that I am unsure how to proceed respectfully. So now, if you will excuse me, I literally must go finish a paper which we hope will ultimately have applications in reducing the cost of recombinant genetic technologies, e.g. synthetic insulin.

/eppur si muove

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StevenAttewell 12.31.12 at 12:11 am

Charrua – I don’t agree that “working conditions in early industrial age were terrible, but they also enabled the creation of trade unions strong enough to challenge the system.” The guild system was pretty damn strong before the advent of the industrial age, and arguably had it not been destroyed, working conditions might not have been so terrible.

Michael Harris – I understand, but you also need to take into account that part of the reason why short glib statements on that topic pop up is that there are equally glib short statements that are absolutely hegemonic within economics and/or libertarianism that ALL transactions are voluntary and therefore no coercion exists.

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Michael Harris 12.31.12 at 12:41 am

Steven,

2 wrongs, etc. I first responded to “Why do these guys always go on about voluntary contracts? Aren’t involuntary contracts mutually beneficial in exactly the same way?”, which I still think is invalid, not least based on the “exactly”.

To rebut the short and glib statements you point out exist, a glib short statement contra the original isn’t going to help. We end up in the realm of ‘Tis! / ‘Tisn’t! / ‘Tis! / ‘Tisn’t!

(Or: An argument isn’t just contradiction.
-It can be.
-No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
-No it isn’t.
-Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.
-Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
-Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’
-Yes it is!
And so on.)

Pat @203 gets it. If we haughtily dismiss voluntary contracts between consenting adults as ridiculously Landsburgian (or Yglesian), we’re presuming that there is some authority (and some policy process) that will make better choices. I’m kind of inclined to go with minimal restrictions on autonomous, voluntary actions as a default setting, while allowing for more serious and extensive restrictions based on well-defined justifications. That’s a glib short statement for space considerations, but it deliberately leaves lots of room for negotiation.

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faustusnotes 12.31.12 at 1:17 am

I think there’s quite a bit of sly misrepresentation going on in the critical responses to this post (or not so sly misrepresentation if you’re deLong). For example Pat says:

inasmuch as those in this thread who are vaguely unsettled by technological enhancements are content to issue wisdom-of-repugnance-type arguments

and demands instead specific concerns about specific technologies, which is I think a misreading of Chris’s point. He chose those passages for a reason, because through satire he can point out the specific technologies that he has concerns about. I think this is called “humour.” Also, I don’t think the objections in the OP should be dismissed just as someone being “vaguely unsettled.” Noah’s post refers specifically to cyborg technology that will render people docile. That is not something about which it is wrong to be “vaguely unsettled” and it certainly is something that can be criticized at no greater level of engagement than “wisdom-of-repugnance type arguments.”

Perhaps pat missed that.

Then Steven makes similar allusions to “short and glib statements.” There are a lot of short and glib statements that can be given in response to the suggestion that we cyberengineer people to be docile. None of them seem particularly inappropriate to me.

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Consumatopia 12.31.12 at 1:27 am

Each mutual transaction presupposes a counter factual — can you NOT enter the transaction? If the status quo is not an option because of something beyond either party’s control, that’s one thing. But if the status quo is ruled out by the other party, that’s different (I don’t get to keep my money AND my life). I don’t see the sense in describing the net effect as mutually beneficial.

For purposes of deciding whether a transaction is “mutually beneficial”, once the status quo has been ruled out, I don’t think it matters whether that status quo is ruled out by the other party, some third party, or a force of nature. That’s particularly true in a situation like this–if I choose not to become a cyborg, I can no longer make the same income I do now because other people will choose to become cyborgs. Other people’s “mutually beneficial”, “voluntary” choices have ruled out my status quo.

But I do appreciate the lucid way you put things above. What divides “voluntary” from “involuntary” choices is not anything to do with freedom, liberty, or autonomy, but whether or not the status quo is an option. But the status quo itself was not a voluntary choice.

If we haughtily dismiss voluntary contracts between consenting adults as ridiculously Landsburgian (or Yglesian), we’re presuming that there is some authority (and some policy process) that will make better choices.

Voluntary contracts have many virtues, but there is a very good alternative policy process: democracy. People can vote for legislators to decide what kind of contracts are permitted and what kinds are not. This gives voters the option of preserving some kinds of status quo that the market would otherwise take from them.

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Keir 12.31.12 at 8:22 am

If CDs were so shit, why was the first big rush onto CD audiophiles? 196.last is simple get-off-my-lawnery, and worth about as much attention. CDs reproduce sounds with greater fidelity than vinyl. Fact. Now, greater-fidelity-of-reproduction is like, not an unalloyed boon to mankind or whatever, but it is a fact.

iPods using lossless compression are pretty much just as good as CDs.

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Hidari 12.31.12 at 10:03 am

@203.

I don’ t think there are any Luddites on this thread, self-styled or otherwise. The distinction is between quantitative and qualitative changes in technology and unrepeatable “breakthroughs”.

Say, for example, you wanted to record someone’s voice, or music, before 1857. You simply could not do it. It was impossible. Then, in that year Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph. After that it became possible. This was a quantitative breakthrough. Something that was literally impossible… became possible. What some commentators seem to be getting confused about is that all the events in the history of recording techniques after 1857 are qualitative changes… not quantitative. MP3s are phenomenally more advanced phonautograph’s. But that, essentially, is what they are.

And please note that this breakthrough,once made, cannot be made again.

Or take flying. Before 1783, if you wanted to fly, starting from the ground, you simply could not do it. It was impossible. After the Montgolfier brother’s flight in a hot air balloon, you could. There is a huge leap in technology between Concorde and a hot air balloon but for the passenger ıt’s in terms of speed and comfort. The difference, in other words, between the Boeing 747 and the hot air balloon is qualitative not quantitative.

And this breakthrough, once made, cannot be made again. You cannot reinvent manned flight. Likewise you cannot reinvent the cooker, the fridge, the TV, the radio, the submarine etc. You can refine them, yes, but not reinvent them.

The OP presupposes that the human race can continue to make quantitative breakthroughs in technology more or less indefinitely. But common sense suggests otherwise.

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Hidari 12.31.12 at 10:04 am

Sorry I should have made clear: the article linked to in the OP presupposes etc.

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Harold 12.31.12 at 11:34 am

208, You are right, my comment at 196 was a generalized (and futile) complaint about amplified music. Not musical reproduction. Obviously, there is no going back, however. The possibility of reproduction had begun to standardize performance from the very first, even before the invention of the flat or even cylinder recording. The tempered as opposed to natural scale (eighteenth century) standardized as opposed to variable tuning (nineteenth), ideal of fidelity to the written score as opposed to improvisation and ornament inserted at libitum (twentieth) are all pretty recent developments.

However, CDs do have obvious advantages. Fidelity of reproduction is not one of them, however.

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bks 12.31.12 at 1:47 pm

So when will we give a thumbs-up to performance-enhancing drugs for athletes?

–bks

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Nick Barnes 12.31.12 at 2:08 pm

God only knows where faustusnotes grew up, but it must have been a strange place in which only the rich people listened to vinyl, and yet vinyl was shit. ["The only way to “enjoy” vinyl was on a machine the average person could not afford.", "Records are shit. Objectively shit."].

In contrast, in generic English suburbia in the 70s, pretty much every family had a record-player. A lot of teenagers had their own. Once cassettes got popular, people started buying cheap-ass “integrated stereo systems” with dual tape decks, tuner, amp, speakers, and a turntable on the top, priced from maybe £100. They were crappy, but the sound from the turntable was certainly no crappier than that from the tapes (which had usually been recorded from someone’s vinyl in the first place: Home Taping [Was] Killing Music). Millions of people of all income groups enjoyed vinyl – Bloix nails this – and faustusnotes’ denial of this obvious historical fact marks him as an idiot, or possibly a troll. Maybe he’s never heard of the 1960s?

For the record ["Did your LPs jump? Did they scratch? Did you have to replace the stylus, and if so how much did it cost? Did your records warp and die?"]: No, no, maybe three times in my life, about £20, and no, not really. I still have almost all the vinyl I ever owned, and my share of that once owned by my parents, and it still plays fine, and it still (with a very few exceptions) doesn’t jump or scratch. I bought my turntable in about 1995, second-hand, for about £40, after the previous one suffered some sort of permanent electrical borkage. God only knows what faustusnotes was doing with his records to fuck them up so badly. Using them as oven mitts?

Surely the crowning glory in faustusnotes’ long train of idiocy is this: “These things all had in common the problem of moving parts, a barbaric idea now fortunately missing from decent music systems”. Happily, the idea of a music system without moving parts (and therefore incapable of generating vibrations) brings us full circle to the actual subject of the post. Discuss.

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Nick Barnes 12.31.12 at 2:30 pm

(none of which is to assert anything about the relative sound quality or convenience of vinyl, CDs, MP3s, etc).

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StevenAttewell 12.31.12 at 6:24 pm

Michael Harris @205 – agreed that mutual glibness doesn’t get us anywhere.

However, I think if we step past the libertarian a priori assumption that all legal contracts are entirely voluntary transactions between equal partners and that coercion only exists in its strong form, we could perhaps agree that agreements in the labor market exist on a spectrum from revolutionary expropriation (where the workers have all the power and the employer none, with worker cooperatives existing as it were off the spectrum) to slavery (where the employer has all the power and the workers none), and the question before us is where in the middle the status quo lies – and it’s this status quo that should inform the default setting on our labor market regulations.

And that status quo can be ascertained – there’s plenty of labor economists, labor relations experts, labor historians, even a few labor journalists out there who could help us pin down what the relative balance of power is between the average worker and the average employer so that policy can be built around that.

Moreover, I wouldn’t agree that we necessarily are “presuming that there is some authority (and some policy process) that will make better choices.” The technocracy is not the only model here. Arguably, all that needs to happen is for policy is to adjust the power differential so that free agreements can resume on equal footing – the collective bargaining approach favored by the National Labor Relations Act. Alternatively, one could think of “bright line” regulations that rather than deciding the precise detail of agreements instead act to set floors and ceilings so that the negotiations between one worker and their employer can’t be undercut by a second worker who’s willing to compromise not only their own health, safety, or living standards, but those of the first worker.

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Keir 01.01.13 at 1:10 am

Say, for example, you wanted to record someone’s voice, or music, before 1857. You simply could not do it. It was impossible. Then, in that year Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph. After that it became possible. This was a quantitative breakthrough. Something that was literally impossible… became possible. What some commentators seem to be getting confused about is that all the events in the history of recording techniques after 1857 are qualitative changes… not quantitative. MP3s are phenomenally more advanced phonautograph’s. But that, essentially, is what they are.

This is inanely idiotic, and ignorant of the actual history of the technology. It wasn’t until 1877 that you had playback, which is a massive “breakthrough” (if we want to think of there being “breakthroughs” which is I think quite dumb). So there’s one super obvious “breakthough” after 1860.

Why do so many people run their mouths on the internet without checking basic facts?

217

Fu Ko 01.01.13 at 2:30 am

Michael Harris –

You brought up sexual consent a couple times now. I’m not sure what kind of point you’re making. Compliance with “fuck me or you’re fired” is not considered sexual consent. So if we’re going to apply the standards of sexual consent to employment, then the demands of employment are simply, unequivocally, involuntary.

In the ordinary employment relationship, the employer has a total monopoly over the entire dollar income of the employee, and total discretionary power over the working life of the employee. I don’t think much nuance is necessary here. This is not a power-situation in which consent is meaningful. Employers and employees are as inequal as teachers and students. Sexual consent law already recognizes this.

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matt w 01.01.13 at 12:33 pm

To digress back to the audio debate for a moment (and yes, it is a digression):

Keir@170/208: But who listens to lossless formats on iPods? I don’t have one myself, but it took a fair bit of work to find an application that plays FLACs on my laptop (finding an application that does it and that doesn’t have a ridiculous interface counts, especially since the one I used to use stopped working when I upgraded my OS). And it seems to me that it’s not an apples to apples if you’re not comparing things that are used with comparable frequency; I imagine that many fewer people are using their iPods to play FLACs on a decent set of speakers than were playing mid-range turntables into decent speakers for a similar experience. Why this is is an interesting question, perhaps (I suspect the answer is going to be somewhere in the area of vertically integrated monopolies).

Anyway I suspect sound quality doesn’t really affect how much most people enjoy music that much. The increased convenience of CDs is certainly nice, and MP3s perhaps more so, though on the other hand there was increased cost for CDs (driven partly by price-fixing).

219

phosphorious 01.01.13 at 3:38 pm

Pat @203

Fair enough; status quo bias is deeply entrenched and hard to overcome, and certainly the world is better off for technology. I find the “Vinyl is better than CD” argument tedious and wrong-headed. But you say:

” At the very least, it would be remarkably improbable if this moment were the precise moment in human history that augmentation turned bad on the whole for us”

This is exactly my worry: that we are in an era where global corporations wrote the laws that define what “consent” is. And “property”. And “fair.” Do you honestly think that CyborgCorp wouldn’t spy on you through your cyborg eyes if it could? Or that it wouldn’t attempt to enforce copyright by not allowing you to see certain things without paying a subscription fee?

The worry. . . perhaps as you say, unfounded. . . is that this time it is different, the next round of technological upgrades will be a world apart from what we are used to. This is what the techno-boosters would have us believe, if we are to take their talk of the Singularity seriously.

Again, I’m no luddite, but the argument “Glasses good therefore chip implants containing proprietary software good” strikes me as somewhat glib.

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Harold 01.02.13 at 7:12 am

221

jrb 01.02.13 at 5:20 pm

matt w @218

Apple has its own lossless codec, known as ALAC (sometimes ALE according to Wikipedia). See

http://www.mcelhearn.com/2011/10/28/apple-lossless-codec-goes-open-source/

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engels 01.02.13 at 6:59 pm

So can Ipods play ALACs out of the box? Useful for know, not that I’ll be selling my 1961 McIntosh MC275 anytime soon:

http://www.mcintoshlabs.com/us/Products/pages/ProductDetails.aspx?CatId=Amplifiers&ProductId=MC275

223

Bucky F 01.02.13 at 9:01 pm

Hidari, mp3s are very different qualitatively from phonographs. The difference is the ease with which they can be copied. Everyone can copy them, instead of the copying technology being held by a small class of publishers. They can be copied over copper wires, copied from one end of the world to another, copied infinitely without marginal cost and without loss of quality. You can also delete an MP3 to make room for a different one, on the same medium, with no loss of quality.

(That is the difference in terms of functionality; the differences in the underlying techniques are also qualitative. Also, other less significant functional differences include the ability to embed text, graphics, and video, and the ability to compare one copy to another to determine whether they are identical.)

The difference between the Boeing 747 and the hot air balloon is also qualitative: the air balloon cannot travel against the wind, or even cross-ways to the wind. Thus, for most points A and B, the balloon cannot make the journey from A to B. For those which it can make, it cannot make the round-trip from B to A.

I really don’t like the vinyl/mp3 debate. It’s a rathole. (But look at me, falling into it like everyone else.) And it’s not really about the technologies at all: people are conflating digital recording/playback technology with the particular audio standard of the Compact Disc. Optical media itself is capable of encoding vastly more information than vinyl media, for the same cost in space/money/material.

C.f. DVD-Audio (on the market since 2000). DVDs are optical media with ~10x the resolution of CD media. BluRay is optical media with ~100x the resolution of CD media. If people aren’t encoding audio at 100x the resolution of CDs, it’s certainly not because optical media technology doesn’t let them.

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pat 01.03.13 at 2:01 am

Phosphorius @219,

I appreciate this reply. Imprimis let me just mention that I don’t intend “Luddite” as an epithet. Plenty of folks in this thread have embraced the term outright or sympathized with the movement, so I find it useful as a catch-all for the folks who think that there was something seriously wrong with Noah Smith’s post.

I think we share a lot of common ground over questions of privacy and proprietary software: I write free software (arguably for a living), run a free operating system, and am changing my distribution because the people in charge of it recently got caught up in privacy shenanigans. I do assume that CyberCorp would spy through my SEM eyes if they could, and contra some others in this thread I don’t assume that a democratic state will restrain itself from similar or worse acts, let alone check corporate malfeasance. (The electronic surveillance record of the US is objectively terrible and has been since electronic surveillance became an option. Neither are things much better, unfortunately, in many social democratic Western states.)

To offer another example, I find it appalling that an entire generation is already growing up in a culture in which it is taken for granted that one can’t execute a program on one’s own [sic] machine without asking permission from, say, Apple. I remain unsure, though, how legislation is supposed to address that: what explains the popularity of the iPad except that most people just don’t share my preferences? Should the law enforce the judgment that Apple should not be allowed to sell people computers to which they do not have (or apparently desire) root access? I think iPad users have got it profoundly wrong (and acknowledge that some of them are probably reading this through the touchscreens of their sleek white cages…), but I don’t understand how such a law would be welfare-enhancing. How many of them think that a democratically elected legislature should be allowed to confiscate their devices because they detract from the social good, pitting consumer against consumer by refusing to boycott machines that lack compilers by design? What’s the qualitative difference between the hypothetical scenarios you mention and this actually existing one, which many CTers are enthusiastic about? Are their choices false, subject as they are to social pressures?

Laws preventing CyberCorp from spying on your SEM eyes already exist, just as the 4th Amendment also exists, and neither have a very impressive track record at preventing state and non-state actors from engaging in illegal surveillance. (Per your hypothetical, cyborg eyes which censored copyrighted materials would be complying with existing IP law enacted by a formally legitimate government, not subverting it—which kind of illustrates my point.) Given that history, the least bad solution seems pretty clear to me: give individuals the tools to make their own decisions about the technologies they use. I don’t get the sense that the same state that harasses cryptographers, tried to ban email encryption, and vies with China for the world-historically largest internal surveillance program is likely to make good decisions for me about whether I get that bionic implant. I would like a Fourth Amendment with teeth, but I would also like a pony.

At the risk of misinterpretation, let me reiterate: I am extremely pessimistic about any law of the form ‘you’re not allowed to use __ technology’. I support legislation preventing our corporate overlords from doing things to you that you don’t consent to, but I also just assume that they will try. Hence I’d like to ensure that the very technologies which can safeguard against that are not, themselves, illegal. To that end, I’m very wary of legislation that would categorically restrict entire classes of technologies, especially those involving one’s own body, because (1) altering your body as you see fit is a human right, and (2) such laws beg to be misused. What I find far more likely than a law preventing AT&T from wiretapping your bionic eyes is a law that actually prevents you from disclosing the secret algorithm that AT&T uses to wiretap you. Analogous examples are not lacking.

I’m not sure how much disagreement there really is between us, but I hope that clarifies my view.

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Fu Ko 01.03.13 at 4:35 am

I just saw this:

If we haughtily dismiss voluntary contracts between consenting adults as ridiculously Landsburgian (or Yglesian), we’re presuming that there is some authority (and some policy process) that will make better choices.

The issue isn’t about “better choices” at all. We don’t have inalienable rights of tenants, or judicial standards of substantive unconscionability, or minimum wage laws, because these constitute “better choices.” We have these things because without them, the “best choice” for the powerless is to submit to unconscionable exploitation by the powerful.

When a judge throws out a contract because its terms are unconscionable, I do not for a second need to believe that the judge is capable of making “better choices” than the people who signed the contract, in order to support the judge having that power. The judge’s choice isn’t better than the choice made by the powerless person who signed the contract — the judge’s choice is unavailable to the person who signed the contract.

The judge can command that the more powerful person forgive a debt, or release an asset, or provide reasonable time to allow compliance with terms, or strike this or that line-item from the contract, and so on. A person offered a bad deal can be told “take it or leave it,” but if you say that to a judge…

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lemmy caution 01.04.13 at 3:00 am

I am with Matt at 200.

The rise of cheap AI has the possibility of devaluing human labor in a scary way. When the free market prices the value of a human’s labor at about a year’s worth electricity for some AI, obtaining food and shelter is going to be a real pain in the ass. Socialism is going to be looking pretty good.

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