Magazine article New Internationalist

The Case against the FUTURE

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Case against the FUTURE

Article excerpt

Buying a new phone to load with the latest, greatest apps is like buying into a vision of the future in which every interaction is personalized via technology. Eventually, following this appealing vision, each of us will live in a hyper-individualized, virtually enhanced bubble. Our devices - in a cybernetic loop with a totality of internetconnected- things - will know what we want before we do.

To get to this future, we have first to go through what's become known as disruption. 'The 19th century had evolution,' wrote Jill Lepore in The New Yorker. 'The 20th century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption.'1 But this disruption is couched in the realm of emerging possibility. We are drawn to it; possibility projects us into a future in which all our problems - from the mundane to the mortal - are swept away. So we accept that disruption is an inevitable, if occasionally concerning, consequence of the arrival of the perfect future. As JeffBezos once put it: 'Amazon is not happening to book selling. The future is happening to book selling.'2

The future - digitization, virtualization, ultra-personalization - happened to book selling and then it happened, is still happening, to us. But the details are blurry, shrouded in the mystique of technology. Sometimes it gets hard to see who or what is being disrupted.

The sacrificed

In the course of researching the rise of this new future, I met with a group of warehouse workers living in the southern California region known as the Inland Empire. Only 12 hours' drive from Silicon Valley, these mostly Mexican migrants do the heavy lifting of getting your devices from the Asian factories where they are assembled to the glittering stores where, it seems, our destiny awaits. I spoke to 37-yearold

Juana Ibanez, originally from Oaxaca, who was working in a giant warehouse unpacking and repacking boxes and getting paid $8 an hour, 40 hours a week. She told me that 'it's a good job' though it's tiring and many co-workers have been injured. She didn't mention that, despite working full time at a backbreaking pace, there isn't enough money to liftherself and her daughters out of poverty.

Juana seems like a holdover from another era, lured to the big city only to find herself chained to a sewing machine. But, in fact, Juana is as much on the cusp of our new future as a venture capitalist barking orders from his Bluetooth headset and surfing the web via Google Glass. Juana's work is increasingly controlled by software systems that apply the same logic of optimizing one's life via self-actualizing, perpetual data collection, except in this case from the perspective of the employer. An entire array of scheduling, tracking and monitoring applications is being brought to bear on how to get the maximum out of each Juana, whether she's working in a warehouse, a Walmart or a Starbucks. Fed into the algorithms designed to maximize productivity, the system tells a worker like Juana via headset which boxes to unload, while warning her if she falls behind her timeframe for performance of the task. If she falls behind too much, she'll be replaced by another Juana. Juana, who has no smartphone or home internet access, is becoming virtualized, turned into a data set. When the final future arrives, her job will be handed over to a robot.

Okay, so migrant workers with no education are being abused by the system. That's nothing new, is it? Restated in the blunt terms of global (i)commerce, an Apple executive puts it this way: 'You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards.'3 Juana and her counterparts in Chinese factories are sacrificial lambs, unfortunate but necessary victims of the urgent need to get to the future we want as fast as possible.

Juana tells me that her main hope for the future is that her daughters will go to college and one day join the middle classes who, having enthusiastically embraced the personalized digital future, await their rewards. …

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