Alain Kessi

Technology as an attack against people's lives

Communication Front is part of an effort both to develop the access of Eastern European artists and net activists to new technologies and to critically assess what these technologies do to art and to society as a whole. The former is of outstanding importance given the considerable difficulties, financial and other, of artists in countries like Bulgaria to get acquainted and work with technologies that are becoming increasingly important in the lives of people, including in Bulgaria, whether they have control over them or not. It is my aim in this contribution to show that it is absolutely necessary, even while working with high technologies, to keep a systematically critical approach to these technologies and to develop an analysis of how technologies are designed to strip people of the control over their lives and to destroy their autonomy, to create conditions in which an elite benefits while other groups of people are reduced to useless mouths this same elite will then consider too expensive to feed. Never mind that they were feeding themselves, before technologies destroyed their livelihood.

There is no doubt that under certain circumstances, technological means can make (some) people's lives easier. Washing machines and vacuum cleaners can substantially reduce the time their users need to devote to reproduction work and that they may prefer to free for activities they consider more rewarding - although of course a fundamental change in the division of labor that assigns reproduction work to women would have a more radical impact in increasing options for women. Computers can provide artists and others working with text and images with an array of attractive possibilities which they may not want to miss. E-mail and web pages open up financially relatively accessible means of keeping in touch on an international level, of exchanging ideas with others who have common interests but do not happen to live next door.

And yet, it would be deceiving to say that technologies as such are neutral, and that questions of ethics revolve only around whether a given technology is used, in any specific case, to improve people's lives or to perpetuate power relations. The mode of production and legitimization of new technologies, as a system with historically grown relations of power, cannot be ignored when discussing the social role of these technologies and their effect on people's lives. In fact, the mode of producing and imposing new technologies is one of the most fundamental questions that needs to be looked into if we are to understand the economical and political relations between Western and Eastern Europe.

The Industrial Revolution

In order to illustrate the impact of new technologies on people's lives, I would like to take a step back and look at a period that lies sufficiently far back in time that a number of careful studies by historians are available, which cut through the fog of ideological contention. It seems appropriate to pick for this purpose the Industrial Revolution and to follow the British historian Eric J. Hobsbawm's description of its human consequences.

"The question of whether the Industrial Revolution, in absolute or relative terms, provided most British with more and better food, clothing and housing is of course of interest to every historian. But it misses the central point if it forgets that the Industrial Revolution was not just a process of addition and substraction but a _fundamental social change_. It changed people's lives beyond recognition; or, to be precise, it destroyed in its initial phase their old way of life and left it up to them to discover and create a new one for themselves, if they were able to and knew how this could be done. But it did not give any hints on where they should start." (Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire; unfortunately translated back from German, sorry!)

For the British aristocracy, who had control over land and government, the industrialization brought obvious material benefits. Likewise, a new elite of merchants and factory owners - some coming from poor, but almost none from very poor backgrounds - climbed up the economic and social ladder, some getting accepted into aristocratic ranks, others working towards strengthening, ideologically (cf. utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham) and politically, the position of the newly forming capitalist class. Radically different was the effect on poorer classes, whose autonomy was systematically destroyed to create the dependency on wage labor that alone would guarantee that they would not follow their own interests elsewhere, that they would have no alternative but to continue competing for jobs in factories even in times of famine rather than rely on the subsistence economy that had previously secured their survival.

Workers were uprooted from the environment that they knew and had a relative degree of control over - the manufacture workshops tightly linked to subsistence agriculture - and relocated in cities around stinking factories, in the sort of hygienic conditions that continuously exposed them to typhoid fever and cholera, with wages so low that in order to make the bare minimum of a living, they had to work so many hours that there was no place for anything else in their lives. I refer to Charles Dickens for vivid descriptions of the living conditions in British cities of the Industrial Revolution.

The loss of control over one's own life was closely related to the introduction of new machines, new technologies. Hobsbawm describes how the rhythm of life was replaced by the rhythm of machines: "Secondly, industrial labor - and especially mechanicized factory labor - meant regularity, routine and monotony that are completely different from preindustrial working rhythms. The latter depended on the sequence of seasons or on the weather, on the multitude of activities still untouched by a rational division of labor, on the mood of other people or animals or even on the wish present in all human beings to play rather than to work. [...] The industry brings with it the tyranny of the clock, the machine that defines the pace and the complex and precisely timed workflow - life measured not in seasons ("Michaelmas" or "Lent") or at least in weeks or days, but in minutes, and especially a mechanical regularity of the work that contradicts all inclinations of life."

Detlef Hartmann in his 1979 classic of political theory "Leben als Sabotage" (Life as a form of sabotage) insists in addition on how the introduction of machines, and especially later the introduction of simplified workflows as designed by Frederick Winslow Taylor and others, have replaced the rich logic of life with a simplistic machine logic based on algorithms. This impoverishment of the working environment and increasingly also of other spheres of the society (shopping malls, innercity pedestrian zones carefully planned for business needs, rationalized hospitals, etc.) must be considered as an all-out attack on people's lives, and it comes as no surprise that the more consistently an algorithmic logic is imposed on them, the more people are alienated from their work and, simply by seeking to ascertain islands of life, tend to sabotage the system of production.

The Fordist compromise

"Why do you leftists from the West want to strip us of the possibility to live well like the people in Switzerland? I don't want to fight against the European Union. I want to join it and enjoy the benefits that people there enjoy." (R. S., philosopher and publisher)

One of the strongest ideological weapons of "the West", of market capitalist propaganda, is the fact that until recently, a large portion of the population of Western industrialized countries had a comparably high standard of living. In Bulgaria, I frequently come across people who think that if the Bulgarian government is successful at introducing Western-type capitalism, their standard of living will rise to match or at least gradually approach that of their Western European neighbors. Implicit in this expectation is the notion that such capitalism and its apparently higher standard of living could in principle be available to any country, if only governments understood what has to be done, and ceased being corrupt.

Such an assumption ignores at least three key factors in how the Fordist social state came into being. I am speaking about the colonial system of exchange, the atomization of workers through Taylorist engineering of workflows, and the powerful workers' struggles in the countries of the center that forced employers to reconsider their policy of maximum exploitation and to seek a compromise with trade unions - on the back of people in the periphery.

The colonies, and later the post-colonial order with its structural bias in favor of industrialized (center) countries, allowed a number of goods to be offered to the working class in the center countries, ensuring that even the working class in the privileged countries would have an interest in maintaining an imperialist order. The class compromise of the Fordist era was thus also a cooption of one part of the world's working class into supporting an exploitative order. The question, then, seems to be which people, where in the world, would have to be increasingly exploited in order to raise the living standard of people in Bulgaria. Where could the funds come from that would allow the Bulgarian working class to be bribed into accepting an exploitative order?

The Taylorist engineering of workflows, geared at efficiency at the expense of turning the worker into an algorithmic machine, has been rather effectively imposed by the state capitalist structures of the pre-1989 regime. This means that a large part of Bulgarian workers are rather well prepared to be exploited by the new, market capitalist, system. They are not only highly skilled, but also trained to accept boring routine work. They have been taught to discard their original rejection of machine logic and to function as an extension of the machine they work on. And yet this training can never be completely successful. The famous Eastern European saying: "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend that we work", reflects a refusal to be exploited that is reminiscent of workers' strategies of absenteeism or work to rule that were quite effectively used in Northern Italy in the seventies, by Autonomia Operaia and other organizations.

To be worked out in more detail:

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