[Marxism] The Machines Are Coming

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 19 09:54:52 MDT 2015

(The author was part of the moderation board for the Marxism list from 
which Marxmail evolved.)

NY Times Op-Ed, Apr. 19 2015
The Machines Are Coming
by Zeynep Tufekci

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — THE machine hums along, quietly scanning the slides, 
generating Pap smear diagnostics, just the way a college-educated, 
well-compensated lab technician might.

A robot with emotion-detection software interviews visitors to the 
United States at the border. In field tests, this eerily named “embodied 
avatar kiosk” does much better than humans in catching those with 
invalid documentation. Emotional-processing software has gotten so good 
that ad companies are looking into “mood-targeted” advertising, and the 
government of Dubai wants to use it to scan all its closed-circuit TV feeds.

Yes, the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and 
more jobs.

Not just low-wage jobs, either.

Today, machines can process regular spoken language and not only 
recognize human faces, but also read their expressions. They can 
classify personality types, and have started being able to carry out 
conversations with appropriate emotional tenor.

Machines are getting better than humans at figuring out who to hire, 
who’s in a mood to pay a little more for that sweater, and who needs a 
coupon to nudge them toward a sale. In applications around the world, 
software is being used to predict whether people are lying, how they 
feel and whom they’ll vote for.

To crack these cognitive and emotional puzzles, computers needed not 
only sophisticated, efficient algorithms, but also vast amounts of 
human-generated data, which can now be easily harvested from our 
digitized world. The results are dazzling. Most of what we think of as 
expertise, knowledge and intuition is being deconstructed and recreated 
as an algorithmic competency, fueled by big data.

But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift 
the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal 
response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage 
workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the 
human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. 
But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have 
even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the 
looming crisis.

Machines aren’t used because they perform some tasks that much better 
than humans, but because, in many cases, they do a “good enough” job 
while also being cheaper, more predictable and easier to control than 
quirky, pesky humans. Technology in the workplace is as much about power 
and control as it is about productivity and efficiency.

This used to be spoken about more openly. An ad in 1967 for an automated 
accounting system urged companies to replace humans with automated 
systems that “can’t quit, forget or get pregnant.” Featuring a visibly 
pregnant, smiling woman leaving the office with baby shower gifts, the 
ads, which were published in leading business magazines, warned of 
employees who “know too much for your own good” — “your good” meaning 
that of the employer. Why be dependent on humans? “When Alice leaves, 
will she take your billing system with her?” the ad pointedly asked, 
emphasizing that this couldn’t be fixed by simply replacing “Alice” with 
another person.

The solution? Replace humans with machines. To pregnancy as a “danger” 
to the workplace, the company could have added “get sick, ask for higher 
wages, have a bad day, aging parent, sick child or a cold.” In other 
words, be human.

I recently had a conversation with a call center worker from the 
Philippines. While trying to solve my minor problem, he needed to get a 
code from a supervisor. The code didn’t work. A groan escaped his lips: 
“I’m going to lose my job.” Alarmed, I inquired why. He had done nothing 
wrong, and it was a small issue.“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

He was probably right. He is dispensable. Technology first allowed the 
job to be outsourced. Now machines at call centers can be used to 
seamlessly generate spoken responses to customer inquiries, so that a 
single operator can handle multiple customers all at once. Meanwhile, 
the customer often isn’t aware that she is mostly being spoken to by a 

This is the way technology is being used in many workplaces: to reduce 
the power of humans, and employers’ dependency on them, whether by 
replacing, displacing or surveilling them. Many technological 
developments contribute to this shift in power: advanced diagnostic 
systems that can do medical or legal analysis; the ability to outsource 
labor to the lowest-paid workers, measure employee tasks to the minute 
and “optimize” worker schedules in a way that devastates ordinary lives. 
Indeed, regardless of whether unemployment has gone up or down, real 
wages have been stagnant or declining in the United States for decades. 
Most people no longer have the leverage to bargain.

In the 1980s, the Harvard social scientist Shoshana Zuboff examined how 
some workplaces used technology to “automate” — take power away from the 
employee — while others used technology differently, to “informate” — to 
empower people.

For academics, software developers and corporate and policy leaders who 
are lucky enough to live in this “informate” model, technology has been 
good. So far. To those for whom it’s been less of a blessing, we keep 
doling out the advice to upgrade skills. Unfortunately, for most 
workers, technology is used to “automate” the job and to take power away.

And workers already feel like they are powerless as it is. Last week, 
low-wage workers around the country demonstrated for a $15-an-hour wage, 
calling it economic justice. Those with college degrees may not think 
that they share a problem with these workers, who are fighting to 
reclaim some power with employers, but they do. The fight is poised to 
move up the skilled-labor chain.

Optimists insist that we’ve been here before, during the Industrial 
Revolution, when machinery replaced manual labor, and all we need is a 
little more education and better skills. But that is not a sufficient 
answer. One historical example is no guarantee of future events, and we 
won’t be able to compete by trying to stay one step ahead in a losing 

This cannot just be about machines’ capabilities or human skills, since 
the true solution lies in neither. Confronting the threat posed by 
machines, and the way in which the great data harvest has made them ever 
more able to compete with human workers, must be about our priorities.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate future where advanced machine 
capabilities are used to empower more of us, rather than control most of 
us. There will potentially be more time, resources and freedom to share, 
but only if we change how we do things. We don’t need to reject or blame 
technology. This problem is not us versus the machines, but between us, 
as humans, and how we value one another.

Zeynep Tufekci is a contributing opinion writer and an assistant 
professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the 
University of North Carolina.

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