Post-Feudal Escapism

One of my earliest jobs in the wonderful world of ICT involved working for what was quickly becoming a leading local company providing cleaning services. Mediated by a temporary staffing firm the job involved being present while managers ‘in the field’ would dial in during the morning to exchange the latest updates between the central system and the trimmed-down local copy on their laptop. The IT manager was especially proud of a “modem carousel”, a little rack of twelve software modems that allowed multiple managers to dial in at the same time. When looking into the underlying code it turned out that it was a simple traffic light system that would block all active calls, all but one, while it would send such a little list back and forth to one particular laptop. Once done, the next phone line would be picked up and the same would happen. The most elaborate part of the construction involved all the possible errors and some forty irregularities had been identified. Yet instead of actually executing a corrective action during such an irregularity, it would pop up a little box that said “call the helpdesk”. Every one of the forty anomalies involved “call the helpdesk”, nothing else, not even a telephone number. The helpdesk in turn was an overworked guy in his mid-thirties who worked at an international systems integration company, where the local policy seemed to result in acting as just another temporary staffing firm. Although the work itself was minimal for reasons unexplained the poor guy worked some twelve hours a day. After a couple of weeks he snapped and disappeared into a paid sick leave arrangement never to be heard of again.
During the time spent there it became clear the atmosphere at the company had turned toxic, certain managers would try dominate those lower in the organizational hierarchy by thinking up diabolical requests, unreachable goals and arrange things in an obvious sneaky way so that problems would always seem to be someone else’s fault. Most people would go through their daily routine in a robotic fashion while others seemed quite desperate. It turned out that during the rapid growth phase upper management had struck a deal with a large temporary staffing firm and sold them all 50.000 cleaning ladies, and hired them back with easier labor conditions, with fewer rights and cheaper, especially concerning sick leave and early pension which now were on the cost of the people themselves and society as a whole. Some years later the company was acquired and nowadays over 530.000 people work for, or via, them in more than 50 countries.
About a year ago this cleaning services company was nearly acquired by a “facility management” firm, employing some 657.000 people. Both these companies had grown fast during the last two decades, yet looking at the revenue figures it was a mystery what they were actually paying their employees and still make a profit. They must have arrangements that allow them to pay below minimal wages.
The temporary staffing I had worked for has grown to the second largest in the world, “deploying” some 500.000 people every day in more than 40 countries. The second largest, as the largest ‘deploys’ some 700.000 people a day.
Adding these figures together it appears that during the last twenty years a new phenomenon has emerged, mega-employers. Supermarket chains, retail services, postal services, food services, cleaning services, security services, healthcare services, temporary staffing services and military services, the largest two employers are the US Army and the Chinese Army.
In my liberal home country of Holland, slave trade was abolished in 1814, although it took an additional fifty to one hundred years to spread throughout the Dutch colonies. 1863 saw the “emancipation” of Suriname, and although the directly governed parts of Indonesia were “emancipated” in 1859, for the indirectly governed island slave trade lasted until 1910.  During the several centuries of slave trade some eleven million people had been traded and transported from one continent to another, first from the domestic European pool of slaves and serfs, later on from Africa and Asia. Up to Napoleon’s introduction of the civil code in the early 19th century, Europe had a socio-economic and political system that was based on the interests of landowners, with a nobility class, clergy and peasants. Despite guilds and unions, or mercantilist capitalism, these were new “ideals” built on top of the existing societal order. The civil code did not replace feudalism but embraced it and gave it a new direction. Before the reintroduction of ideas like citizenship most people were simply “serfs”, a sort of slave but then with a certain minimum of rights, such as shelter and food. The “serfs” belonged to the land, while a slave could be sold either way. A few steps higher than serfs were the freemen, paying for their freedom with rent or taxes.
With the demise of the owned labor, of serfs and slaves, contract workers started replacing it. The transition was fairly easy as in return for their freedom slaves were placed under state supervision and expected to work for the previous owner for some additional ten years. During these years they were forced to sign an employment contract, in order to avoid the entire workforce leaving en masse.  The first large-scale employment agency system appears in 1863 with “The American Emmigrant Company”, which was set up to secure laborers and skilled workers for a number of American employers, and it would collect varying amounts of fees from employers and a small registration fee from European job-seekers. While covering the worker’s transportation cost, it would recover these expenses by deducing them from the worker’s wages.  This was becoming a wide-scale commercially organized version of “indentured servitude”, fixed-term contracts in exchange for food, shelter, work and transportation to the colonies. Most immigrants however had to negotiate their contract on arrival at the colony, which didn’t leave much difference from regular slavery except that their “indenture” contract had an end date and they were merely misinformed, tricked into this arrangement, and not forced.
Nowadays, even in a country like the USA where labor agreements are by far not as restrictive as in most European countries some 12.9 million people are “deployed” on a yearly basis, 2.8 million per day. Outside the US Army, the five largest US employers employ 5.4 million people.
Converging trends in different technological branches, bio-tech, nano-tech, robotics, artificial intelligence and information technology fuse and accelerate each other. Current forecasts predict machines equivalent of human intelligence within a 5 to 10 year time-horizon. Not just a smart chess program, but a self-aware learning machine, a conscious virtual organism. As most simple manual labor tasks have already been automated, increasingly complex human tasks will gradually be replaced. Such as chatbots which are already replacing helpdesks, with customer satisfaction ratings outperforming regular off-shoring. Designed in a modular way with impromptu cohesive congregation (instant plug & play) such virtual organism can gather knowledge by connecting with a pre-defined ontology of some domain. As adaptive learning machines they will replace front-, middle- and back-office functions, such as administrative secretaries, accounting, and project managers.
Enter 2015; imagine a virtual accountant, as-a-Service, so you can use it by simply going to it its internet address. Working 24×7, 130 IQ, a redundant array of 100 brain-halves of which half are sleeping, day-dreaming, learning, and the rest is working, and always online. Subscription fee for a virtual FTE costs at a quarter of employing a human. AI generations do not take twenty years, due to positive feedback loops of the converging and cross-fertilizing technologies they may realistically be just four months, three generations per year, with a capacity doubling every generation, which gives an eight-fold on a yearly basis. If in the first year it could replace one FTE, the next year it can replace eight. Yet also CPU power doubles every two years and network capacity slightly faster, which gives a capacity increase of about sixteen per year.
In 2015, for the price of one average accountant, you get 4 virtual in return. In 2016 that is 64 bots, 2017 gives 1024 bots, 2018 16.384, 262.144 in 2019. By 2020 you can have 4.194.304 virtual accountants working for the price of one real. How about a virtual analysts, virtual managers or virtual management consultants?
We have become so efficient at what we do with ongoing automation, mechanization, robotization, computerization and digitization, the prospect is that the global workforce needs in 2030 involve 2 billion jobs less, while many of the available jobs can be addressed by our virtual brothers and sisters.
Today, some hundred million people are living in pure slavery conditions. An unknown number is living in modern-day versions of “indentured serfdom”.
Not only will machines require civil rights, so will humans…
The democratic ideal is a wonderful paradox, as Plato remarked; “Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.” Liberty is the fundamental principle in a democratic way of government, as Aristotle described. In order for the “rule of the many” to work, it must realize self-determination as people are equal according to number, not worth. Yet to realize self-determination people will need to refrain from ruling others.
Western governments are not democratic, but polyarchic, and by using a system of representatives with clear oligarchic tendencies. That doesn’t mean the democratic ideal should not be a goal, like the Taoist notion of “wu wei” it cannot be enforced unto others, just like the moral of this story is left for you to conclude yourself. Maybe “call the helpdesk”, but who’s going to be there on the other end of the line?

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