A Perfect Formula for the “Dark Side”

David Barnhizer

A Perfect Formula for the “Dark Side”

The Internet has become a key instrument in propaganda and dissemination of what we have come to call “fake news”.  This has proliferated to the point that we don’t know how to “unpack” the truth of what we see on the Internet even though we are increasingly relying on Internet sites for information and evidence far more than on traditional television, radio and print media.  The Guardian’s Olivia Solon describes Tim Berners-Lee’s concern that there is a compelling need for increased regulation of the WEB to prevent abuses growing abuses.  She writes:

[I]t is too easy for misinformation to spread on the web, particularly as there has been a huge consolidation in the way people find news and information online through gatekeepers like Facebook and Google, who select content to show us based on algorithms that learn from the harvesting of personal data.  “The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire,” he said. This allows for people with bad intentions and armies of bots” to game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/11/tim-berners-lee-online-political-advertising-regulation. “Tim Berners-Lee calls for tighter regulation of online political advertising:  Inventor of the worldwide web described in an open letter how it has become a sophisticated and targeted industry, drawing on huge pools of personal data”, Olivia Solon, 3/11/17.

Berners-Lee is not alone in his concern.  Glenn Chapman explains how Leonard Kleinrock, another pioneering figure two decades before Berners-Lee, who played a key role in the development of ARPANET has reached much the same conclusion about how the Internet and WEB have been abused.  Chapman explains:

On October 29, 1969, professor Leonard Kleinrock and a team at the University of California at Los Angeles got a computer to “talk” to a machine in what is now known as Silicon Valley.  The event gave birth to a network that later became known as the internet — hailed at first as a boon to equality and enlightenment, but with a dark side that has emerged as well. … ”To some point it democratizes everyone,” Kleinrock told AFP.  “But it is also a perfect formula for the dark side, as we have learned.”  So much is shouted online that moderate voices are drowned out and extreme viewpoints are amplified, spewing hate, misinformation and abuse… https://news.yahoo.com/50-years-internet-conception-dark-side-stirs-fear-093822748.html. “50 years after internet conception, dark side stirs fear”, Glenn Chapman, 10/29/19.

Kleinrock is trying to bring people together in an effort to counteract the worst abuses that have accompanied the expanded use of the Internet and WEB.  Kleinrock was central in developing ARPANET in 1969 (the Advanced Research Projects Agency), a Department of Defense project that saw Kleinrock and his team develop the ability to allow computers to share information and communicate with each other.  Ultimately, as its initial bugs were worked out that system provided the basis for the Internet.  https://www.livescience.com/20727-internet-history.html. “Internet History Timeline: ARPANET to the World Wide Web”, Kim Ann Zimmerman & Jesse Emspak, 6/27/17.

As part of his profound disappointment at how the WEB has been perverted, Berners-Lee has condemned how the incredible communications and information development and sharing system, one that he and others thought would our enhance intellectual growth and create shared learning opportunities and expansion of our Enlightenment ideals to all people, has been abused.  Even an abbreviated list of the abuses includes the lack of adequate regulation, violations of our personal privacy, and allowing companies like Google and Facebook to “mine”, control and commercialize individuals’ personal information while gaining immense profits.  The Internet’s “evolution” has also exposed the darker sides of human nature in the lies, threats, anonymous attacks, trolling and criminal activity that permeates the WEB.

The Devastation of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and His Response

Tim Berners-Lee is rightly applauded as the creator of the World Wide Web, building a hypertext linking system accessed through the Internet and the capabilities of the infrastructure that system provided.  His 1990 breakthrough in developing what is quite possibly the single most disruptive and creative technology in modern history occurred while Berners-Lee was working at CERN.  Berners-Lee’s contribution has produced a system granting governments, corporations, political interest groups, media and individuals unprecedented power that is arguably beyond what they are capable of handling with integrity and honesty.  It has generated unanticipated consequences, both good and bad. 

As positive as the World Wide Web has been in many dimensions we need to figure out how to regulate the system so that its negative and destructive aspects are at least mitigated.  Unfortunately, as proof of the fact that humans will inevitably abuse any powerful tool that comes under their control in ways that were never intended by their inventors, Berners-Lee has felt compelled to voice his dismay at what his creation has become compared to what he and other researchers sought to create. See, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/07/the-man-who-created-the-world-wide-web-has-some-regrets. “‘I Was Devastated’: Tim Berners-Lee, the Man Who Created the World Wide Web, Has Some Regrets.”  Katrina Brooker, 7/1/18.

Berners-Lee and Kleinrock share the concern about the harms caused our societies by the rampant abuses found on the Internet and the applications developed and used to achieve questionable goals through abuse of the WEB it enables.  A sense of how damaging the uncontrolled and unregulated Internet has become for our society is offered by the new owner of the Los Angeles Times.  He recently described social media delivered through the Internet as the “cancer of our time”.  See, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/26/billionaire-la-times-owner-calls-social-media-the-cancer-of-our-time.html. “The billionaire LA Times owner calls social media the ‘cancer of our time’”, Berkeley Lovelace, Jr., 9/26/18.  Lovelace writes:

Patrick Soon-Shiong … advocated for a change in how people consume news on social media, calling the platforms the “cancer of our time.”  “The short attention span we’re creating in this millennium is actually very dangerous” .… “It’s the unintended consequences of social media.” … [He added] Platforms such as Facebook’s News Feed have revolutionized how people consume media and how news organizations deliver content. But they have also been criticized for spreading so-called fake news and misinformation.

Zimmerman and Emspak provide a fascinating timeline of the key developments in ARPANET, the Internet building on that system, and the amazingly rapid developments since 1990 made possible by Berners-Lee’s WEB.  https://www.livescience.com/20727-internet-history.html.  “Internet History Timeline: ARPANET to the World Wide Web“, Kim Ann Zimmerman & Jesse Emspak, June 27, 2017.  The speed of the developments has far outstripped the ability of governments and international institutions to cope with the scale, impacts and nature of the incredible and diverse growth that has occurred.  Many of the changes have been vital and positive.  These include advances in medical research and treatment, business activity, research and communication.  But there is a dark side to what we are experiencing involving surveillance, privacy invasions, use of the Internet and Web to monitor and intimidate populations, criminal activity done on what is called the “Dark Net”, scams, fake news and messages that advance propaganda interests, military applications, and vicious anonymous “trolling”.

Berners-Lee is currently the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium.  The Consortium is a “Web standards organization founded in 1994 which develops interoperable technologies (specifications, guidelines, software, and tools) to lead the Web to its full potential.” Among his many activities and roles including research activities at MIT and Oxford he is a Director of the World Wide Web Foundation, an effort to develop and manage ways to improve the Web’s ability to achieve its original purposes and benefit humanity rather than tear our social and political systems apart.  https://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/.  

Sir Tim has strongly criticized the vast expansion in governmental spying and snooping on citizens as well as the proliferation of “fake news” and propaganda.  He argues that these proliferating abuses of the AI-driven Internet need to be brought under control.  In addition to surveillance and propaganda, a recent report on Berners-Lee’s concerns indicates:

The lack of regulation in political advertising online was one of three trends that threaten the openness of the web that Berners-Lee has become “increasingly worried” about over the past year. The others are the loss of control over our personal data and the spread of misinformation online.  Personal data is the price many of us agree to pay for free services online, but Berners-Lee points out that “we’re missing a trick” by letting large data-harvesting companies – such as Google, Facebook and Amazon – control that information.  “As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it,” he said.  

He went on to observe that the massive collection of information on everything we do is a dangerous threat to the integrity of democratic societies.

A more pernicious side-effect of this data aggregation is the way governments are “increasingly watching our every move online” and passing laws such as the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, which legalises a range of snooping and hacking tools used by security services that “trample our right to privacy”. Such surveillance creates a “chilling effect on free speech”, even in countries that don’t have repressive regimes.  

Newton Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” of Television

There is direct precedent for what has happened to the Internet in the context of the expected benefits that were to flow from the introduction of television.  Only a few years after its adoption by consumers, television was described as a “vast wasteland” that had already betrayed its expected benefits.  In a 1961 speech, Newton Minow, the new Chair of the FCC, stated: 

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.  But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. http://time.com/4315217/newton-minow-vast-wasteland-1961-speech/.

Although there are significant parallels, the AI-enabled WEB has penetrated our societies far more deeply and profoundly than television.  Coupled with the powers of AI and its myriad applications, the WEB has become a cesspool.  It has turned into a dark instrumentality far beyond the simple meaningless wasteland of the kind described by the FCC’s Newton Minow.  A disturbingly large percentage of the output  is raw sewage, vitriol and lies.  A tragically small amount of the information is intellectually substantive, honest, reliable or spiritually nourishing. One of the saddest facts is that the WEB’s uses and abuses have exposed the disturbing truths of aspects of our inner selves in ways that contradict the core ideals of our political and social systems.  

The ability of people to share information nationally and globally cannot be separated from politics and community.  If that information is honest, thoughtful, substantive, sensitive and balanced then we have interactions that make us better and more understanding and knowledgeable.  If that information is fake or false, hate-filled, inaccurate or warped in ways that enhance pre-existing biases, it creates a dangerous instrumentality that threatens the fabric of our basic political system.  

For many nations that operate under more authoritarian forms of government, information sharing is seen as a threat.  As was the case with the secretive 16th Century Court of Star Chamber in England, true and accurate reports on the misdeeds of government actors and the aristocracy were actually considered more serious than false accusations because they were true.  This was seen as undermining the monarchy more than falsehoods because they could be proved.  China’s approach to the Internet’s provision of WEB access and communication, including denial of access to certain sites and monitoring of citizens’ Internet searches and posts offers a version of how a government may choose to protect itself from the consequences of the Internet.  China, in fact, has been exporting its Internet and Web-site suppression strategies to other nations and has found a willing market.

China’s approach, though far too sweeping, intrusive and repressive, can at least be understood in the context of a government’s fear of its fundamental legitimacy being eroded due to the ability of groups and individuals to attack the established order through the Internet system.  Similarly, for those of us raised in traditions that elevate knowledge and free communication as core virtues it can be difficult to appreciate that open Internet access presents a profound challenge to nations that seek order and social harmony, or at least purport to be doing so.  Their concerns about the destructive power of the Internet’s communications capabilities are not unfounded.  We need only take an honest look at what the Internet has done to the political systems of Western democracies—including perhaps most dramatically the US—to admit what a threat the Internet and its applications pose to systems that do not share an equivalent openness about free expression and raucous debate.  

The odd fact lost in all the conflict is that in order to operate successfully and retain a semblance of legitimacy and fairness, our institutions require a degree of hypocrisy, faith, and positive assumptions.  We operate within what can be called the political equivalent of the literary device of “suspension of disbelief”.  This is necessary so that we can deceive ourselves, and others, about the “truth” of who we are and strive to seek something closer to a just and ideal society in which we overcome our worst impulses.  We are losing the battle because the WEB has developed as a mechanism by which we are stripping away the façade behind which humanity has long concealed much of its true nature.  The results are ugly, divisive and destructive.

Sir Tim’s “Magna Carta for the Web”

In November 2018 Laurence Dodds reported on how Berners-Lee was engaged in a movement to “fix” the Web.  See, https://www.yahoo.com/news/sir-tim-berners-lee-launches-214716734.html.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee launches ‘Magna Carta for the web’ to save internet from abuse”, Laurence Dodds,  The Telegraph, 11/5/18.  Dodds writes:

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has launched a “Magna Carta for the web”, warning that tech giants must change their ways to save the online world from the dangerous forces they have unleashed.  Sir Tim, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989, called for a “revolution” in how the internet is regulated and monetised in order to stem abuse, political polarisation and fake news. The … new “contract for the web” … asks internet companies to uphold a set of principles such as protecting privacy and being transparent about their algorithms.  Facebook and Google have backed the contract, which will be agreed in detail next year, despite both companies being mentioned by its creator as examples of how “the web we know and love” is under threat.  Sir Tim said: “For the first 15 years, most people just expected the web to do great things. They thought ‘there’ll be good and bad, that is humanity, but if you connect humanity with technology, great things will happen….  “What could go wrong? Well, duh: all kinds of things have gone wrong since. We have fake news, we have problems with privacy, we have problems with abuse of personal data, we have people being profiled in a way that they can be manipulated by clever ads.”

A year later, reports in November 2019 indicated some progress.  As reported by InfoWorld’s Paul Krill at https://www.infoworld.com/article/3481678/contract-for-the-web-wants-your-endorsement.html.  Contract for the Web wants your endorsement: Backed by the World Wide Web Foundation, Google, and Microsoft, the Contract for the Web seeks a free and open web that works for the public good”, Paul Krill, 11/26/19.  Krill reports:

[M]ore than 160 organizations including Google and Microsoft have officially launched the Contract for the Web, a pledge to deal with challenges facing the web including threats to online privacy and security and unequal access and service quality.  The contract, described as a global action plan, is intended to guide the digital policy agendas of governments and the decisions of companies building web technologies. Featured are nine principles, three each for governments, companies, and individuals. 

For governments, the principles include:

  • Ensuring everyone can connect to the Internet.
  • Keeping all of the Internet available all of the time.
  • Respecting fundamental online privacy and data rights.

For companies, the following principles are endorsed:

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  • Making the Internet affordable and accessible to everyone.
  • Respecting and protecting privacy and personal data to build online trust.
  • Developing technologies to support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.

For citizens, the principles include:

  • Being creators and collaborators on the web.
  • Building communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity.
  • Fighting for the web.

Undermining the Rule of Law

The New Contract for the Web is well worth attempting.  Whether it can overcome the underlying causes of the abuses being created by the combination of the Internet and Artificial Intelligence, by governmental and interest group power, corporate greed, competition between governments and between corporations, as well as the negative aspects of human nature—is entirely unknowable at this point.  My own belief is that it cannot and that, while corporations and some governments will give “lip service” to such efforts for public relations purposes, their actual behavior will continue much as before.  Whether this is so, or some marginal improvements to behavior and regulation are achieved, it remains likely that the Internet and AI—as critical generators of economic profit and political power and control—will continue to function in ways that undermine and erode the system and beliefs on which democracies depend for their integrity.

As my son Daniel and I wrote in Hypocrisy & Myth: The Hidden Order of the Rule of Law (2009), the Rule of Law has already lost a key part of its identity and underlying force.  A fact too many people ignore or do not understand is that the Rule of Law is a belief system and creed, not a set of legal codes.  The creed energizes, empowers and gives a deeper form to the specific laws that legislatures construct and courts interpret.  The problem is that many of the most important myths, principles and beliefs on which the Rule of Law in America and Western Europe is grounded have been scorned as forms of irrational or deluded faith, weakened or destroyed.  

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently addressed concerns about whether there is anything remaining of the core values we long considered essential parts of the American Dream.  Thomas admitted his fears about whether any core values still existed that held us together as a political community. If we lose those fundamental shared beliefs we lose the core that gives the Rule of Law its depth and power.  When asked whether he was surprised at the extent of the rancor that seems to accompany any dispute about foundational issues he explained:

No, I’m not surprised. I mean, what binds us? What do we all have in common anymore? … [W]e always talk about E pluribus unum. What’s our unum now? We have the pluribus. What’s the unum? … [S]ome people have decided that the Constitution isn’t worth defending, that history isn’t worth defending, that the [traditional] culture and principles aren’t worth defending. And, certainly, if you are in my position, they have to be worth defending. That’s what keeps you going. That’s what energizes you. http://www.breitbart.com/video/2017/11/01/justice-thomas-i-dont-know-what-we-have-as-a-country-in-common/. “Justice Thomas: ‘I Don’t Know’ What ‘We Have as a Country In Common’”, Ian Hanchett, 11/1/17.

Identity Politics and Fragmentation Made Possible Through the Internet

Several decades ago Peter Drucker described what is happening in our society as the “new pluralism”, explaining: “The new pluralism … focuses on power.  It is a pluralism of single-cause, single-interest groups—the “mass movements” of small but highly disciplined minorities.  Each of them tries to obtain through power what it could not obtain through numbers or through persuasion.  Each is exclusively political.” Peter Drucker, The New Realities 76 (Harper & Row 1989).   The language being used on the Internet by each collective movement (and counter-movement) is language of attack, protest and opposition.  It is language used as weapons to gain or defend power. To achieve our political ends we engage in rampant hypocrisy.  The underlying belief held by many of the disputing interests is that we are in a fundamental political and cultural war where the goal is to gain victory “by any means necessary”. 

The United States has continued to separate into fanatical fragments of identity groups. Unity, compromise and healing are becoming impossible because, as Justice Thomas notes, there is no “unum” that possesses sufficient power to bind us to a set of common principles.  US Representative Steve Israel indicated after a recent political campaign that people are angry about everything.  He added that respect for our basic institutions has largely disappeared and that, as local jobs on which they counted for decades evaporated, people feel helpless, frightened and outraged at what they see as their leaders’ betrayal. The situation is getting worse rather than better.  Within ten to fifteen years we could face a social explosion with rising criminal activity and violence, militaristic repression, warring militias, vigilante groups and, in some instances, urban guerrilla warfare.  

Where what is needed is reasoned justice-based advocacy in response to systemic inequities, we instead find demagogic, intensely activist, organized and vocal special interest identity collectives intent only on achieving their specific goals.  Anyone who does not affirmatively support the aims and positions of the identity collectives are condemned as bigots and enemies.  These groups are collapsed into camps we tend to refer to as “The Left” or “Progressives”, and “The Ultra-Conservative Right”, “Deplorables” or even “Nationalists”.  Rather than honest discourse we have vitriolic shouting matches and increasing violence.  A recent survey indicated that 70% of those questioned considered we faced the prospect of civil war. See, http://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/351432-fury-fuels-the-modern-political-climate-in-us. “Fury fuels the modern political climate in US”, Reid Wilson, 9/20/17.   

It is unlikely we can meet the challenges through reasoned discussion and compromise. We find ourselves in a situation of the kind C. G. Jung warned in asserting that intelligent discourse cannot exist in societies filled with anger and bitterness.  Jung explained: 

Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree.  If the affective [emotional] temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies. C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered   Self, 12, 13 (R.F.C. Hull trans., 1957). 

A key aspect of the problem is that our centers of power have become too diverse and divisive.  The actors are focused on their own singular concerns, and the underlying broad-based system of social beliefs, principles and creeds so corrupted and attenuated that there is no turning back from confrontation.  Compromise is seen by the competing interest and identity groups as weakness and betrayal, not as an essential element of interaction and governance in a healthy and complex community. 

As our political system has become increasingly complex it has become even more factious.  Adolf Berle in his book, Power, explained that gaining and consolidating control of institutions is how people extend their power pervasively and subtly beyond the limited reach of fists or guns. Adolf A. Berle, Power 92 (1967).  An analysis well worth reading on the intentions of the original Framers of our Constitution and the developments we are now experiencing has been provided by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America.  See, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/01/two-party-system-broke-constitution/604213/.  America Is Now the Divided Republic the Framers Feared: John Adams worried that “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.” And that’s exactly what has come to pass”, Lee Drutman, 1/1/20.  

In much the same vein, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts recently warned that we have come to take our rights, duties and privileges under democracy for granted and that such attitudes pose a threat to the system on which we depend. See,  https://news.yahoo.com/u-taking-democracy-granted-chief-230000519.html. destroyed or “U.S. Taking Democracy for Granted, Chief Justice Roberts Says”, Greg Stohr, Bloomberg, 12/31/19.

The U.S. has “come to take democracy for granted,” Chief Justice John Roberts said, urging his fellow judges to keep educating the public about the workings of the federal government and the Constitution. … “We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside,” Roberts wrote. “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”

Fanaticism, Factionalism, and the Thirst for Power 

Part of the “taking for granted” that Roberts warns against is that far too many of us have become narrow and obsessed fanatics.  Hate, contempt and an intolerant and aggressive rigidity defines us and we can’t seem to be able to step outside the “cage” in which we have locked ourselves.  In “Defense of Intelligence”, a speech given by Albert Camus in 1945, he warned of the need to resist being continually filled with hatred for past wrongs and mistreatments.  Camus remarked after many French citizens sought to regain some sense of normalcy after enduring four years of continual repression, atrocities, and significant collaboration with the Nazi’s by some of their countrymen: 

We were left with the rage that consumes our souls at the memory of certain images and certain faces.  The executioners’ hatred engendered the victims’ hatred.  And once the executioners had gone, the French were left with their hatred only partially spent.  They still look at one another with a residue of anger.”  [He added] In this situation: “it is essential that we must never let criticism descend to insult; we must grant that our opponent may be right .…  It is essential … that we remake our political mentality.” “Defense of Intelligence“, in Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death at 38 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1961) translated from the French and Introduced by Justin O’Brien.  

Camus also tells us: 

If you merely make an effort to understand without preconceptions, if you merely talk of objectivity, you will be accused of sophistry and criticized for having pretensions.  …. I know as well as anyone the excesses of intelligence, and I know as well as anyone that the intellectual is a dangerous animal ever ready to betray.  But that is not the right kind of intelligence.  We are speaking of the kind that is backed by courage, the kind that for four years paid whatever was necessary to have the right to respect.  When that intelligence is snuffed out, the black night of dictatorship begins. …. [T]here is no freedom without intelligence or without mutual understanding.” Defense of Intelligence, id.

When we succumb to rage and bitterness as we have increasingly done in America, it creates a climate of hostility and the potential for repression. The mixture of rage, fear, self-interest, and the quest to defend and attain power and opportunity means real discourse on any vital issue is virtually absent.   In fact, anyone who offers balanced and sane insights is subject to attack condemned by labels and slogans.  Each slogan and label is a preemption of discourse in an effort to acquire or retain power.  To the extent we use such tactics, we offend the deepest spirit of our traditions and damage our culture. 

What we are describing are the consequences of the rise of fanaticism in American society.  James Madison explains that the “causes of faction are … sown in the nature of man, according to the different circumstances of civil society.”  Federalist # 10, at 58. In warning of the dangers of factions, Madison described two admittedly impractical “cures” against the “disease”.  One is to “destroy the liberty” that allows the disputes to bloom, the other is to give “to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” 

Former US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist described in the capital punishment case of Furman v. Georgia what takes place when people with strong agendas acquire power.  Rehnquist quotes John Stuart Mill’s observation that:  The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power.” Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 467 (1972) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting) (quoting J.S. Mill, On Liberty 28 (1885).

Unfortunately, the tragedy is that the Internet and AI have given power to too many people and governments who are ill-equipped to handle its amazing capabilities and direct them in the positive ways intended by their creators.  We are experiencing a situation in which powerful political interest groups are attempting, and largely succeeding, to “impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others” and they are doing this through the power of the WEB and its host of AI applications and hyperlinks.  Tim Berners-Lee and Leonard Kleinrock are right to be dismayed at the ways their invention has been abused and turned to purposes they never intended.  We can only hope their efforts to mitigate the worst of the effects are successful.

Alienated, Alone And Angry: What The Digital Revolution Really Did To Us

We were promised community, civics, and convenience. Instead, we found ourselves dislocated, distrustful, and disengaged.

Joseph Bernstein

BuzzFeed News Reporter

Posted on December 17, 2019

In April 1997, Wired magazine published a feature with the grand and regrettable title “Birth of a Digital Nation.” It was a good time to make sweeping, sunny pronouncements about the future of the United States and technology. The US stood alone astride the globe. Its stock market was booming. Microsoft was about to become the world’s most valuable company, a first for a tech firm. A computer built by IBM was about to beat the world chess champion at his own game.

And yet, the journalist Jon Katz argued, the country was on the verge of something even greater than prosperity and progress — something that would change the course of world history. Led by the Digital Nation, “a new social class” of “young, educated, affluent” urbanites whose “business, social and cultural lives increasingly revolve around” the internet, a revolution was at hand, which would produce unprecedented levels of civic engagement and freedom.

The tools of this revolution were facts, with which the Digital Nation was obsessed, and with which they would destroy — or at least neuter — partisan politics, which were boring and suspicious.

“I saw … the formation of a new postpolitical philosophy,” Katz wrote. “This nascent ideology, fuzzy and difficult to define, suggests a blend of some of the best values rescued from the tired old dogmas — the humanism of liberalism, the economic opportunity of conservatism, plus a strong sense of personal responsibility and a passion for freedom.”

Comparing the coming changes to the Enlightenment, Katz lauded an “interactivity” that “could bring a new kind of community, new ways of holding political conversations” — “a media and political culture in which people could amass factual material, voice their perspectives, confront other points of view, and discuss issues in a rational way.” Such a sensible, iterative American public life contained, Katz wrote, “the … tantalizing … possibility that technology could fuse with politics to create a more civil society.”

Such arguments, that a rational tech vanguard would spark an emancipatory cycle of national participation, were common at the time. (Though they were not unchallenged.) Katz’s is notable for its relative restraint. “The Long Boom,” an infamous piece published in Wired just three months later, predicted the spread of digital networks “to every corner of the planet” leading to “the great cross-fertilization of ideas, the ongoing, never-ending planetary conversation” that would culminate, by 2020, in “a civilization of civilizations” that would set foot on Mars in species-wide harmony. (Instead, we got Baby Yoda.)

This evangelism had a profound influence on the next 20 years of laissez-faire policy toward and positive public opinion about the digitization of American life. A deeply felt, mostly unexamined, sense that tech would lead to a freer and more convenient existence was the midwife of our digital present. It allowed the creator of a website to rate the attractiveness of Harvard’s women students to build an advertising platform with $55 billion in annual revenue. It allowed an online shop created to sell books to build a $25.7 billion cloud computing network. It allowed a company that started as a way for rich people to summon private drivers to turn itself into $47 billion, well, whatever the hell Uber is.

It hadn’t tamed politics. It sent them berserk.

Though challenged at the edges, this sense lingered. As late as 2012, even as the vast platforms that now control the internet had assumed their current shapes, the bestselling author Steven Johnson argued the glass was half full in his book Future Perfect — that “peer progressives,” enlightened digital natives, would end entrenched social and political problems through crowdsourcing.

Looking back from the shaky edge of a new decade, it’s clear that the past 10 years saw many Americans snap out of this dream, shaken awake by a brutal series of shocks and dislocations from the very changes that were supposed to “create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace.” When they opened their eyes, they did indeed see that the Digital Nation had been born. Only it hadn’t set them free. They were being ruled by it. It hadn’t tamed politics. It sent them berserk.

And it hadn’t brought people closer together.

It had alienated them.

The longest-running measure of alienation in American life is the Harris Poll’s Alienation Index, which has been calculated annually for more than 50 years. It’s a simple survey that asks whether respondents agree with these five statements:

What you think doesn’t count very much anymore.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Most people with power try to take advantage of people like yourself.

The people running the country don’t really care what happens to you.

You’re left out of things going on around you.

Harris then averages the rates of agreement to reach an index, which is a rough proxy for how included Americans feel in their country and their communities. In 1998, a year after the “Birth of a Digital Nation,” was published, the score was 56%. In 2008, as the platforms became dominant, it was 58%. Last year, it was 69%, the highest it’s ever been. (The lowest level, 29%, came in the Alienation Index’s first year, 1966, the same year HP began selling the 2116A — its first computer.) It’s easy to speculate about the reasons for this increase: a financial crisis that awakened Americans to the widening gaps between rich and poor; an opioid epidemic caused by corporate greed; entrenched racism and sexism; bitterly divided partisan politics; and, of course, technological change — the prism through which Americans view all of these things, and the vector that brings Americans’ feelings about all of these things together into the same few spaces.

I’ve spent six years reporting on deeply alienated people on the internet, during which time I’ve come to see conditions of disconnection and frustration everywhere the Digital Nation touches: on social media, in search algorithms, in the digital economy. In myself. The feelings of powerlessness, estrangement, loneliness, and anger created or exacerbated by the information age are so general it can be easy to think they are just a state of nature, like an ache that persists until you forget it’s there. But then sometimes it suddenly gets much worse.

There is no legal recourse — only participation in a public system that abuses its users.

Much worse: The Americans who marked this decade most visibly with their anger and impotence are, of course, young white men. In the summer of 2014, I first reported on the jilted 24-year-old who started an unlikely social movement with a seething blog post about the behavior of his ex-girlfriend, an obscure game developer. Gamergate! It was so stupid and about nothing and quickly became so scary and about everything. An entire culture of alienated posters and clever scammers cohered around it, around the impulse that something needed to be protected and some people needed to be attacked. What you think doesn’t count very much anymore. Some of these young men were trolls, others neo-Nazis. Some got TV shows. Some got paid out by billionaires. Some made it to the White House. Many wanted media careers. A few stewed for so long in their own resentment and the deeply sad world they created that they broke with reality. Several killed. One committed one of the most horrifying crimes of the 2010s.

Many more made threats, one of the defining features of life online in the 2010s. All things considered, we barely heard from the people who received them — a failure I was a part of. Try to imagine every woman and every nonwhite, non-Christian and LGBTQ human who has been threatened with death, torture, rape, or worse, on a major social platform. Add up all of those feelings of anger and powerlessness, against the backdrop of a $24 billion company that wouldn’t take it seriously for the longest time. There is no legal recourse — only participation in a public system that abuses its users. What you think doesn’t count very much anymore. People say: “Ignore it. No one dies from internet harassment.” Or else: “I’m so sorry for what you’re going through,” like it’s a divorce or a death in the family. Both are alienating, and I write from experience. Sometimes, for reporting, I received messages over Twitter and Facebook containing images of my father, who is dead, superimposed in a gas chamber. The joke is that he was Jewish.

The truth is we don’t have the right language yet to talk about an entirely new constellation of alarming and negative interactions, from threats to dogpiles to friend requests that go unanswered for a bit too long to yes, sorry, cancellations. They’re both more and less serious than we can manage to express with words, and the gap between that and what they feel like is an alienation.

What is an information Superfund site?

Experts might call the pictures of my father pollution in my information ecosystem. This is the best metaphor available as of 2019 for media that is bad for us. What, then, is a pristine information ecosystem? What is an information Superfund site? How do you do toxic information cleanup on, say, a town that has been poisoned by the internet? For that matter, how do we even agree on what’s toxic? Every attempt to name the problem with bad information on the internet runs into the “fake news” dilemma: Anyone can use this metaphor at scale, including and especially people who have a vested interest in keeping things extremely toxic. The sense that shared language is impossible: an alienation.

Even when we get “good” information online, we can’t always be sure where it’s coming from and why we’re seeing it when we’re seeing it. A profit-driven information apparatus uses a huge and growing fake user base to juice the statistics it shows to advertisers. The incentive is not to show you true things, but to be able to claim as many people as possible are seeing something, anything. To be no different to the men with the money than a bot, that’s an alienation. To not know where the things you read and see come from, nor that they’re real, that’s an alienation. To labor to pick out true from false, and know that many Americans don’t bother to do the same, that’s an alienation.

There are people who thrive in this world, of course: certain kinds of strivers, grifters, presidents. People who are very tendentious and very persistent. I reported a story this year about two young scammers who’d spent their whole lives online, honing their skills. They fabricated an entire world on social media with nothing more than time and used it to lead a young woman to her death. Were they the exception or the example? I couldn’t tell. Seeing people like this get their way over, and over, and over: That’s an alienation.

The big social media platforms are trying very hard to address the problem of toxic information, they tell us. But the algorithms that they tweak — I personally always imagine an old Swiss watchmaker squinting through a loupe — are top secret stuff. Secret corporate formulas encourage conspiratorial thinking. You’re left out of things going on around you.

Creators, who depend on these algorithms for money, are thus alienated, as are the people who consume their creations, which are frequently conspiratorial. And the creators are the (relatively) privileged ones! Each major social network is a brutal hierarchy. The people who ascend tend to be teeth-grindingly obsessed with what works and what doesn’t. The people who don’t suspect the risen have achieved their status through a series of inauthentic poses. Or they feel grossly inadequate. Either response is alienating. What you think doesn’t count very much anymore.

To be alienated from one’s labor — that rings a bell!

These dynamics play out in a desperate theater of social media optimization that my colleague Anne Helen Peterson so memorably described in her viral story about millennial burnout. It’s almost always unpaid work, the product of which doesn’t belong to the person who makes it. To be alienated from one’s labor — that rings a bell!

Which brings us to the new economy of freelancers and gig workers, precarious, unprotected, and connected. Hourly workers fry their brains with images no one should ever see — information detoxification — working to meet bizarre and inconsistent standards handed down from a distant authority, and then melt down in filthy bathrooms. Harried subcontracted delivery drivers feel so desperate to meet overnight shipping deadlines they get in deadly crashes. Uber drivers, some of whom sleep in parking lots, have separate bathrooms than Uber corporate staff. These people, it stands to reason, might be alienated. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Meanwhile, the median home price is San Francisco is $1.4 million. This is where the Digital Nation mostly lives, in the most beautiful place in the country, profiting directly or indirectly off our participation in the alienating world they’ve built. Many of these people don’t want their children using the products and networks they build and sell. The people running the country don’t really care what happens to you.

Still, they’ll listen to you and spy on you for law enforcement. They’ll use that data, which they may or may not protect, to get richer. They’ll build special privacy schemes for themselves. Most people with power try to take advantage of people like yourself. Disempowered and unsure how to express it, you may take a strange comfort in the fact that there is another alienated human on the other end of your device. You’ll never meet them, but at least they will hear you.

Near the end of “Birth of a Digital Nation,” Jon Katz acknowledged that the new digital elite would have one natural division from the country they were bound to inherit: class.

“The digital world is often disconnected from many of the world’s problems by virtue of its members’ affluence and social standing.”

Membership in the digital nation as it exists today is a kind of class identity, of course. As Katz rightly predicted, its members’ “business, social and cultural lives increasingly revolve around” the internet. The luckiest of this group, high on meritocratic myths, have founded or found lucrative jobs with a handful of tech firms. The rest of us enrich them by using their platforms and their services. This is surely not the kind of participation Katz had in mind.

To his credit, Katz understood the harms that lead to alienation. “Alienation online — and perhaps offline as well — is not ingrained,” he wrote. “It comes from a reflexive assumption that powerful political and media institutions don’t care, won’t listen, and will not respond.” He just couldn’t conceive of a digital world that made them worse.

It seizes some of the best, noblest human instincts and harnesses them to a degrading system of profit. 

Here is the most alienating fact about the Digital Nation we live in: It incentivizes forms of engagement that make Americans feel less empowered and more alone than ever, to the benefit of very few. It seizes some of the best, noblest human instincts — to share, to know, to connect, to belong — and harnesses them to a degrading system of profit. Anesthetization to these conditions is dangerous. Cynicism and powerlessness are the hallmarks of another form of digital life, an authoritarian one Americans should badly want to avoid.

I wonder, as the US stumbles into a new decade, what kind of groups and communities we’ll form to deal with these feelings of alienation. Alienated people are especially vulnerable to the destructive forms of belonging promised by nationalism and racism. We know where those lead. Among those who can afford it, people may simply pay their way into less alienating online experiences. One thing that gives me a small amount of hope is the recent wave of tech worker organizing. Whatever becomes of it, it’s heartening to witness a group of people who are part of this alienating system attempt to build a movement around solidarity and direct action.

Or maybe we’ll relearn, as the writer and artist Jenny Odell suggests, to do nothing, its own form of action. That’s an American tradition, too. 

AI and the “Retail Apocalypse”: Online Shopping, and Stores Without Human Employees

David Barnhizer and Daniel Barnhizer 

https://fox40.com/2019/09/30/thousands-of-major-retail-stores-close-despite-strong-economy/.  Thousands Of Major Retail Stores Close Despite Strong Economy”, CNNWire, 9/30/19.

The retail apocalypse over the past several years has devastated America’s department stores, chains and mom-and-pops. Stores are closing at record levels. The number of people working in retail is on the decline.  And all of that happened at a time when the economy was strong.  But if the United States slips into a recession, as many economists fear it will sometime next year, the problems plaguing retail could get far worse. Store closings could accelerate and layoffs in the sector — a major provider of American jobs — could spread.  Brick-and-mortar retailers are already in recession,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “They’ve been laying off workers coming up on three years. And this is a time when consumers are out spending aggressively. If the broader economy is in recession, there is going to be blood in the streets.”  

Our message in The Artificial Intelligence Contagion: Can Democracies Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order? is much more a social and philosophical warning than classic economic analysis.  This does not mean that we ignore the realities of business and economic decision making, and we each have experience in the private sector, but in Contagion and in this blog we are focused on the critical function of human work in democratic systems of the kind we think of when dealing with the American ideal.  This includes the critical importance of preserving, protecting and developing human jobs in contrast to AI/robotic work forces.  The reason, in our view, is the deep conviction that the multifaceted opportunities, growth potential, discipline, collaboration and challenges that are part of human work are vital parts of sustaining the democratic system itself.

Generalized economic statistics that highlight overall productivity and job loss due to consolidation of production, service and sales activity do not capture the impact of the rapid and large scale shut downs of retail stores in the face of AI and Internet-enabled online shopping.  How does a person deal with projections that 12,000,000 or 5,000,000 or even 800 million jobs will be lost in the next 10 to 15 years due to AI/robotics?  The answer is we don’t.  We simply can’t get our minds around a problem of that scope even if it is only a possibility or probability rather than a certainty.  

For this reason we will be looking at trends within industries and areas of work in an effort to make the situation sufficiently concrete that we can start talking about specifics.  Looking at what is being described as the “Retail Apocalypse” is one way to achieve that in a specific context.  As the analysis below indicates, the retail sector is among the top three areas of work employment in the US, with 15.8 million workers. 

[R]etail is one of the biggest sources of employment in the US economy, with 15.8 million jobs, or more than 10% of all jobs nationwide. The only areas to employ more people are health care and all the levels of federal, state and local government.  It employs so many people in every community,” Zandi said. “If consumers pull back and store closings mount, no other sector of the economy will be able to pick up that slack.” https://finance.yahoo.com/news/retail-job-losses-mount-women-impacted-more-than-men-183738884.html. Retail job losses mount, women impacted more than men”, Krystal Hu, 3/8/19.

We are already experiencing rapid and dramatic changes in the retail industry that are resulting in significant job loss and store closings in the tens of thousands just in the past three years.  Andrew Challenger, Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, has described what he sees as the devastating impact e-commerce is having on jobs in physical stores.

Challenger … sees the layoffs as a continued shift from brick-and-mortar retail to e-commerce. The lag in total retail growth makes the changing retail landscape a zero-sum game — e-commerce grows at the cost of the traditional retail industry. UBS estimates for each 1% increase in e-commerce penetration, an additional 9,000 stores would need to close. And as fast-growing as the e-commerce industry is, research by The Conference Board finds that the growth in e-commerce jobs is not sufficient to make up for jobs lost in brick and mortar.  Retail job losses mount, women impacted more than men”, Krystal Hu, 3/8/19.

An early November 2019 report indicates how challenging is the accelerating collapse off retail stores, malls and associated jobs.  See, e.g., https://www.businessinsider.com/american-retail-apocalypse-in-photos-2018-1. “50 haunting photos of abandoned shopping malls across America”, Mary Hanbury, 11/8/19.  There were 7,000 store closings in 2017 and another 5,524 in 2018.  The lower 2018 figure relative to 2017 led some to believe the worst had passed, but as Hanbury indicates, with two months to go in 2019 there had already been 8600 closings.  Less than three weeks later on November 26, 2019 another report indicated the store closings had grown to 9300 stores, raising the total to 21,824 in less than three years.  

Moody’s Zandi said credit is likely to get tighter, both for retailers and for consumers.  “A lot of retailers are hanging on because the broader economic environment is strong, interest rates are low, credit is available,” Zandi said. “No sector is more dependent on credit. If a recession comes, credit will get cut off both to the consumers and the retailers. That is going to mean a rash of bankruptcies and a lot of lost jobs.”  Thousands of Retail Stores Close, CNNWire, 9/30/19.

We recently engaged in an interaction with an individual who praised Amazon’s job creation record.  While it is true that Amazon employs over five hundred thousand people we need to understand that, like Walmart, this employment is not “on top of” preexisting jobs performed by workers in other companies offering the kinds of products Amazon sells, but replaces or destroys existing work and stores and creates an economy of scale we have not previously encountered.  The reality is that even though Jeff Bezos brags about the number of jobs Amazon is creating, we agree with Linda Fickensher when she writes that Amazon is destroying more American jobs than the Chinese. Part of her analysis explains this point.

Amazon played a large role in eliminating more than 50,000 jobs in recent years from just three companies — Staples, Office Depot and Best Buy, public filings show.  In March, MarketWatch estimated that Amazon will destroy 1.5 million retail jobs in the next five years. And with its push into self-driving trucks, drone delivery, automated grocery stores and more, the site said the total number of lost jobs would likely be more than 2 million, concluding, “Could Amazon actually kill more American jobs than China did? It’s quite likely.” http://nypost.com/2017/04/25/amazon-is-great-for-consumers-but-is-it-great-for-america/. “Amazon is great for consumers — but is it great for America?, ”Lisa Fickensher, 4/25/17. 

The “apocalypse” has already begun.  A wide variety of store types make up the closings.  For 2019 they include but are not limited to the following stores.   Payless closed all its 2500 stores, Gymboree 800, Dress Barn 650, Fred’s 557, Charlotte Russe 512, Family Dollar 390, Tesla closed all its physical dealerships and moved sales online, Chico’s 250 planned, HH Gregg 220, Macy’s laid off 5,000 workers in 2018, Radio Shack shut 1,000 stores with only 70 stores remaining open, The Limited closed 250 stores in 2017 with 4,000 jobs lost, Sears 175, /KMart 160, The Kitchen Collection 160, A.C. Moore 145, Walgreens 200, Gamestop 200, Charming Charlie 261, Gap 230, Shopko 363, Avenue 222, JC Penney 138, LifeWay 170, Footlocker 165, Destination Maternity 250, Victoria’s Secret 53, Abercrombie & Fitch 69, CVS 68, Olympia Sports 76, Bed, Bath & Beyond 60, Pier 1 57, Party City 55, Office Depot and Office Max 50.  

Krystal Hu writes about the impact of store closings, particularly the fact that women appear to be more vulnerable to job loss than men.  She explains:

It’s not easy to keep a job as a retail worker, especially in the first two months of 2019. Retail store closures have been announced one after another, resulting in job losses.  In January and February there were 41,201 job cut announcements in the retail industry, 92% higher than the same period last year and the highest level since 2009, a report from placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas shows.  The layoffs are mainly a result of store closures. Retailers from Payless to Gap plan to shutter hundreds of stores. At Payless alone, 16,000 store associates will be let go due to the shutdown of all its remaining 2,589 stores. This week, Dollar Tree said it will close 390 Family Dollar stores, without specifying how many employees will be affected. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/retail-job-losses-mount-women-impacted-more-than-men-183738884.html. Retail job losses mount, women impacted more than men”, Krystal Hu, 3/8/19.

The US is not alone.  UK retail stores are experiencing similar problems.  A 2019 report indicated that 85,000 UK retail sector jobs were cut in just the past year as a consequence of economic uncertainty and the inability to match the prices of online retailers such as Amazon.  One reason for this is that physical stores are subjected to significant added costs and levies that online retailers do not bear.  Sarah Butler explains: 

The likes of Amazon have an unfair advantage because they have a lower business rate bill, which holds down costs and enables online retailers to woo shoppers with low prices. Business rates are taxes, based on the value of commercial property, that are imposed on traditional retailers with physical stores.” https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/oct/24/retailers-cut-85000-jobs-in-past-year.  Retailers cut 85,000 jobs in past year: Online shopping and Brexit uncertainty blamed for closures including Bonmarché”, Sarah Butler, 10/23/19.  In an ominous warning Butler adds: “The BRC predicted in 2016 that the number of people employed in retail – about 3 million – would fall by 900,000 by 2025 and that many would find it difficult to transition to new roles.”

The uncertainty that Butler cites is a key factor dictating the behavior of the owners of physical “bricks and mortar” stores.  A central consideration is the degree to which many retail stores and consumers are carrying large amounts of debt that is presently at very low interest rates.  Their concern is that if the US or UK economies go into a recession it will result in lower business revenues for stores, more job losses, higher refinancing rates, and tougher lender standards for rollover loans needed for refinancing.  This would have a highly negative effect on an economy that is doing reasonably well at this point but is nonetheless more fragile than many understand and subject to a significant downturn if its economic “fundamentals” change.  

Those fundamentals are not simply internal to the businesses themselves.  They include the ability of consumers to spend at the levels required to sustain their operations and satisfy investors.  They also relate to the degree to which e-commerce and online shopping increasingly become the preferred buying options for customers who formerly shopped at physical locations.   These factors involve unknowns and coalesce into a state of uncertainty that leads to apprehension that then generates a kind of “hunkering down” mentality among businesses and consumers that advances the very thing feared. 

It is reported that the expectation of two-thirds of corporate Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) is that the US will enter economic recession by the end of 2020.  Whether that actually occurs the apprehension that it could, or even might, become the reality inevitably affects the mindsets of people responsible for the economic decisions whether in private businesses or as consumers trying to figure out what they can afford to spend.  This injects what psychologists call “self-fulfilling prophecies” into the decision making equation by consumers and businesses.  

The following analysis suggests the difficulty of making decisions in the face of what “might” or “could” occur.  The hard reality people face who are responsible for making the decisions that involve the potential for success or serious degrees of failure is that they have to “hedge their bets” by taking risk into account.  This means that even if there is only a fifty percent chance of a serious downturn they need to include this in their decision making and this leads to cautionary approaches that collectively can help create the very conditions they fear.

https://fox40.com/2019/09/30/thousands-of-major-retail-stores-close-despite-strong-economy/.  Thousands Of Major Retail Stores Close Despite Strong Economy”, 9/30/19.

Consumers shifting their purchases from traditional stores to online are big part of the problem. In fact, consumer spending remains strong and unemployment is at about a half-century low below 4%.  But fears of a downturn loom. Other major economies are already in or near recessions. … A survey by Duke University found that two-thirds of chief financial officers expect a recession by the end of 2020.  [An important part of the problem is that] many retailers have borrowed heavily.  “If the economy were to struggle, it would accelerate the collapse of a lot more of the debt-financed retailers. And you would see an acceleration in store closures,” said Greg Portell, lead partner in the global consumer and retail practice of consultant AT Kearney.  … “Their future depends on them being able to find financing,” he said.

If large numbers of retail workers continue to be laid off, some workers will find new employment.  But it is often at lower pay, part time, and with greater uncertainty of future employment. An unknown but substantial number will, as Sarah Butler noted above in the context of UK job loss is that “many would find it difficult to transition to new roles.”  This transitioning to new roles is particularly challenging in an economy in which jobs of all kinds are disappearing and where many of the retail workers lack the skills and backgrounds for more advanced work situations.

An emerging and serious problem, as indicated above in Khrystal Hu’s report, is that the job cuts may harm women more than men.  The reason is that women tend to be found in sales clerk and cashier positions while men do more physical, warehousing and lifting as well as delivery work.  The physical ability typically associated with men transfers more easily to the needs of online companies with large scale warehouses, packaging and delivery activities making up a great part of their current employment portfolio.  

This is where the rapid developments taking place in AI/robotics “rear their ugly heads” again.  Greater physical capability for heavy lifting and the like is almost certainly only a temporary advantage for men.  Amazon, Walmart, China’s Alibaba and others are investing very large sums into developing robotic workers that are capable of doing all the kinds of warehousing, sorting, packing and delivery activities that at this moment provide an advantage for men over women.  The physical edge possessed by men in that type of work will be replaced by AI/robotics systems in the near future.  The robots already being produced by Boston Dynamics and MIT are advancing by leaps and bounds (literally) and they are only a small part of the robotics advances being made.

As to the sheer scale of what is occurring, Mary Hanbury explains.

American malls are dying out.  Retail complexes all over the US are being clobbered by store closures sweeping the country.  Retailers have announced more than 8,600 closings so far in 2019 and according to a report done by Credit Suisse in 2017, between 20% to 25% of malls will close by 2022.  A national retail apocalypse has crippled US malls as anchor stores such as Macy’s and Sears, which take up large retail spaces and drive foot traffic, have shuttered stores and left malls with enormous gaps to fill. For many malls, this is an impossible task.

Killing Local Communities

In the context of protecting retail jobs we need to think about the deeper meaning of the “retail apocalypse”. In the US, physical stores and shopping malls employ 15.8 million people in various types of work activities, with another 3 million in the UK.  The physical “bricks and mortar” stores not only “take” through earnings on the sales of products but “give” back by employing workers.  These workers are local consumers whose spending and tax payments are vital parts of sustaining dynamic and healthy social and economic environments for thousands of local communities throughout the US.  Shopping malls create clusters of retail sales activities centered on the attraction of large anchor stores that draw in consumers to other retail outlets.  

The economic dynamism created by these diverse “local” retail institutions not only supports workers directly employed in the jobs created by the retail outlets, but stimulates full and part time employment in a host of other work activities.  This is because, as consumers, the retail workers are not only purveyors but purchasers of goods and services.  The workers and stores provide a healthy tax base for the needs of local communities, including schools, police and fire security, and local government services. 

When that localized dynamism weakens or disappears due to the shutdown of critical centers of employment, as is now happening with growing speed with the prediction that 75,000 more retail stores will close by 2025, the economic health of an area erodes as stores lay people off, try to hang on in the face of an economic decline and ultimately close.  See, “‘Retail apocalypse’ now: Analysts say 75,000 more U.S. stores could be doomed”, Abha Bhattarai, Washington Post, 4/10/19.  https://www.lmtonline.com/business/article/Retail-apocalypse-now-Analysts-say-75-000-more-13755644.php.

As the varied reports below indicate, the growing dominance of online shopping is spreading rapidly.  One reason is that AI marketers are relentless.  Once we start a search for goods and services online, AI apps launch an online version of Chinese Water Torture.  This strategy is aimed at wearing us down and persuade us that we really want and need whatever they are selling.  For example, I (David) recently began searching for a deal on a plane ticket to Las Vegas.  Over a two week period I have received seven or eight hyped up e-mails each day informing me that I have received or “scored” a “great” new offer that can’t be matched.  But over two weeks and 80-100 “wonderful” offers that apparently are only available to me because of my special qualities, at best the price offered remained the same.  

By shifting our habits to buying things online we are destroying a significant part of the localized physical employment base on which our communities depend.  While companies like Amazon may employ large numbers of people in a very limited number of “Fulfillment Centers”, that handful of massive locations have no physical presence other than in the limited territory their very large warehousing, packaging and shipping operations are located.  Of course they have major impacts on the specific places in which they locate, but while their operations may employ a significant number of people, the benefits flow mainly to a very specific location rather than being broadly diffused to numerous local communities.  This takes away from those other communities critical job and tax benefits that their local stores and jobs provided.

In the AI/robotic context , there is an irony in the fact that Amazon’s working conditions in these massive operations are also being condemned by their workers as inhumane to the point that the workers often feel they are being treated like “robots”.  We continually ask, “where have all the jobs gone” or “why isn’t anyone shopping at the mall, or Sears, or Macy’s” and “why are there so many boarded up storefronts”?  While there are a variety of contributing factors, at the heart of the matter is our own consumer decisions and the fact that we prefer the ease and time savings involved in on-line shopping and are selling out our own future in doing so.  

In other words, the competitive retail market is using AI and the Internet to implement business models they consider the best means of earning profits and attracting market share.  For the moment that is true, but in a not all that distant future the underlying system from which profits are now being extracted is almost certainly going to collapse as companies like Amazon parasitically extract the “blood” in their search for the highest profits.  It is not sustainable.  

The abysmal stupidity of it all is that we consumers are suicidally complicit in this process.  This is because we are trading the health of our local communities and families for the ease of online shopping and the price benefits of dealing with an online retail system that sells goods at lower prices.  They can do this because, like Amazon, they have negotiated huge subsidies and tax relief from states and cities in exchange for locating their “Fulfillment Center” in their locale and have reduced costs of operation given the economies of scale their system allows.  They know quite well that “size does matter”.

The sellers of goods and services can’t help themselves.  They are doing what they need to do to compete and survive in the face of an industry that operates on narrow economic margins.  But workers and consumers in local areas whose livelihoods and futures depend on the health of their local stores and merchants are a main contributing part of the problem because they are willing participants in their own tragic downfall.  This is because the transition to buying through e-commerce and away from physical stores is being driven by the workers and consumers in the stores and localities most negatively affected by such decisions.  

Consumers Are Drowning in Debt

The desire for greater ease, a bit lower price and less hassle means what is really being “consumed” is the quality and sustainability of their own communities, including their scope of work opportunities and their quality of life.  This problem is also going to be relatively short-lived.  Data suggest that US consumers are close to being “maxed out” in terms of access to the credit that allows them to spend.  That topic is discussed in a forthcoming post related to public and private debt loads, but it poses a serious issue about consumers’ purchasing power.  

This is raised in the following reports related to the conditions being experienced by the American consumer.  It is not difficult after reading those excerpts to conclude that, whether the consumer activity is done in store or online or in a hybrid mix of purchasing strategies, in the end it probably isn’t going to make all that much difference.  The ability of consumers to buy products and services is going to be reduced dramatically as credit options are increasingly limited.  A sampling of what people are facing in incurring consumer debt is offered below.

https://www.nbcnews.com/business/consumer/americans-are-piling-credit-card-debt-despite-recession-warnings-n1052041.  Americans are piling on credit card debt, despite recession warnings: Credit card debt usually increases around the holiday shopping season — not in the middle of July”, Martha C. White, 9/10/19. “[A]nalysts who study consumer spending habits say there’s a real debt risk much closer to home: The amount and pace at which American consumers are racking up credit card debt.”

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-11/bottom-50-of-consumers-are-showing-signs-of-weakness-ubs-says. “Bottom 50% of Consumers Are Showing Signs of Weakness, UBS Says”, Claire Boston, 7/11/19.  

Lower-income U.S. consumers are showing signs of weakness despite the strong market, and if the economy enters a recession, any possible credit crunch could be “material,” according to UBS. … Debt burdens for many of those households have grown as credit card interest rates hit record highs and student loan borrowings surged. … “Given low real wage growth and limited financial asset exposure it is hard for the lower tier to improve savings,” the strategists wrote.

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/10/almost-1-in-5-americans-hide-cash-in-their-homes-fearing-a-recession.html. “Nearly 1 in 5 Americans are stashing cash at home in fear of a recession”,  Megan Leonhardt, 10/10/19.

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/21/consumer-debt-is-set-to-reach-4-trillion-by-the-end-of-2018.html.  Consumer debt is set to reach $4 trillion by the end of 2018”, Lorie Konish, 5/21/18.  “Consumer debt has grown since 2012 and is poised to reach a new high by the end of this year.  Individuals are spending about 10 percent of their income each month paying nonmortgage debts including auto loans, credit cards, personal and student loans.”

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/13/total-us-household-debt-soars-to-record-above-13-trillion.html.  The American consumer is loading up on debt: Total US household debt soars to record above $13 trillion”.  

Total household debt rose to an all-time high of $13.15 trillion at year-end 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data.  The report said it was fifth consecutive year of annual household debt growth with increases in the mortgage, student, auto and credit card categories.  Mortgage debt balances rose the most in the December quarter rising by $139 billion to $8.88 trillion from the previous quarter. Credit card debt had the second largest increase of $26 billion to a total of $834 billion. 

pastedGraphic.pnghttps://www.bloombergquint.com/business/2018/09/19/cash-strapped-americans-are-leveraging-their-homes-to-pay-the-bills. “Cash-Strapped Americans Are Willing to Leverage Their Homes to Pay the Bills”, Riley Griffin, 9/19/18. “As U.S. household debt rises and wages stagnate, millions of Americans are thinking about tapping into home equity to keep up with day-to-day expenses.  Twenty-four million homeowners believe borrowing against home equity is an acceptable way to cover regular bills, according to a Bankrate.com report released on Wednesday.”

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/1-in-4-americans-defaulted-on-their-student-loans-in-five-years/. “1 in 4 Americans defaulted on their student loans, study finds”, Sarah Min, 11/7/19, Moneywatch.  With total college debt at a record high $1.5 trillion, the findings highlight the challenges millions of Americans face in paying off their loans.”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/median-u-s-household-income-showed-no-growth-in-2018-11568126412. “Median U.S. Household Income Showed No Growth in 2018:

Median income was $63,179, essentially flat from a year earlier after three years of increases”, Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, 9/10/19.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-01/robots-are-hurting-u-s-workers-wages-regional-fed-study-finds.  Yes, Robots Are Hurting Your Pay, Fed Study Finds”, Simon Kennedy, 10/1/19.

“Automation has “contributed substantially” to reducing the portion of national income that goes to U.S. workers over the past two decades, according to a new study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Despite the lowest unemployment rate in around 50 years, the so-called labor share has fallen to about 56% from 63% in 2000 and the increased use of robots and other technology has been an important driving factor, the economists Sylvain Leduc and Zheng Liu wrote in the report published on Monday.  Businesses have more options to automate hard-to-fill positions now than in the past,” wrote Leduc and Liu. “With rapid advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, robots can perform more jobs and tasks that required human skills only a few years ago.”  The upshot is that workers become more reluctant to ask for significant pay hikes out of fear that their employer will turn to automation to replace them, the economists said. That potentially explains why wage growth has been relatively weak despite the tightening labor market.”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/families-go-deep-in-debt-to-stay-in-the-middle-class-11564673734?mod=searchresults&page=6&pos=10&mod=article_inline.  Families Go Deep in Debt to Stay in the Middle Class: Wages stalled but costs haven’t, so people increasingly rent or finance what their parents might have owned outright”, AnnaMaria Andriotis, Ken Brown and Shane Shifflett, 8/1/19. 

 The American middle class is falling deeper into debt to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Cars, college, houses and medical care have become steadily more costly, but incomes have been largely stagnant for two decades, despite a recent uptick. Filling the gap between earning and spending is an explosion of finance into nearly every corner of the consumer economy.”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/eyeing-that-sweater-its-yours-in-four-easy-payments-11569672000.  Eyeing That Sweater? It’s Yours in Four Easy Payments: Fintech firms pitch installment plans to consumers increasingly reliant on borrowing”,  AnnaMaria Andriotis and Peter Rudegeair, 9/29/19.

Gone are the days when special financing plans were mostly reserved for big-ticket purchases like TVs and refrigerators. Now, sweaters, makeup or other everyday items can be paid for in installments with loans or other payment plans offered at checkout with thousands of merchants in the U.S…. Merchants and lenders are tapping into the financial challenges many U.S. families are facing. Despite signs of a strong economy, like low unemployment, consumers are increasingly relying on borrowing to fund their daily lives. U.S. consumer debt is higher than ever, as cars, college, housing and medical care grow more expensive but incomes stay largely stagnant.

https://www.mysanantonio.com/business/article/Personal-loans-are-growing-like-a-weed-a-14852251.php. “Personal loans are ‘growing like a weed,’ a potential warning sign for the U.S. economy”, Heather Long, The Washington Post, 11/21/19.  

Americans are hungry for personal loans that they can use as quick cash to pay for anything from vacations to credit card debt, a potential red flag for the economy.  Personal loans are up more than 10% from a year ago, according to data from Equifax, a rapid pace of growth that has not been seen on a sustained basis since shortly before the Great Recession. … “Definitely yellow flares should be starting to go off,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, which monitors consumer credit. “There’s an old adage in banking: if it’s growing like a weed, it probably is a weed.” 

More on the Retail Apocalypse

In this post we are attempting to highlight the speed and scale of the “Retail Apocalypse”.  This is done by presenting reports below that reveal what is occurring.  This “Apocalypse” is being driven by the emergence of easy on-line shopping, and that is made possible due to the Internet and Artificial Intelligence applications that offer the ability to purchase goods and services with a simple click of a computer button.  The market share of online shopping has grown with incredible rapidity and is enhanced by the development of AI applications that use “Cookies” to track us and develop profiles aimed at convincing us they know what we desire.  

https://www.foxbusiness.com/real-estate/shopping-mall-vacancies-reach-8-year-high-amid-demise-of-department-stores. “Mall vacancies reach post-recession high as department stores vanish”,  Daniella Genovese, 10/4/19.

In February, Payless ShoeSource decided to close all 2,100 U.S. stores. Gymboree has shut down its remaining 750 stores, and fast-fashion retailer Forever 21. filed for bankruptcy this week and will close as many as 178 of its 700-plus U.S. stores.  Sears, the Amazon of the pre-Internet area, filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2018, after closing many of its U.S. stores, and Toys ‘R Us, hobbled by $5 billion in debt and more intense competition, did the same about a year earlier.  As of April 2019, store closures exceeded the total recorded for all of 2018, says Coresight Research, a global research and advisory firm.

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/15/malls-see-tsunami-of-store-closures-as-foot-traffic-declines-further.html.  Offering shoppers new experiences isn’t helping as malls see tsunami of store closures, falling traffic”, Lauren Thomas, 4/15/19.

https://www.shtfplan.com/headline-news/theres-no-end-in-sight-for-the-retail-apocalypse_09252019.  There’s No End in Sight for the “Retail Apocalypse””, Mac Slavo, 9/25/19.

[T]he argument could be made store closures are only pushing more people to shopping on desktop computers, tablets and mobile phones —which is usually a less profitable transaction for retailers due to free shipping costs and investments in building out digital capabilities.

https://www.businessinsider.com/stores-closing-in-2019-list-2019-3. “More than 9,300 stores are closing in 2019 as the retail apocalypse drags on — here’s the full list”, Hayley Peterson, 11/26/19.  “Retailers have announced more than 9,300 store closures so far this year, according to an analysis by Business Insider.”

https://www.freep.com/story/money/2018/10/01/empty-stores-threaten-metro-detroit-shopping-malls/1419217002/.  Epidemic of empty stores threatens more metro Detroit shopping malls”, JC Reindl, Detroit Free Press, 10/1/18.

An epidemic of shuttered storefronts and liquidating department stores continues to plague many of metro Detroit’s enclosed shopping malls, threatening the existence of some once-thriving properties that couldn’t keep up with retail changes or simply have too much empty space to fill.  This shopping mall shakeout is the result of nonstop growth in Internet shopping and more closures of traditional mall anchor stores such as Macy’s, JC Penney, Sears and Carson’s. The same phenomenon is happening across the country; some analysts have predicted that up to 25 percent of malls nationwide could close by 2022.  Numerous malls have lost one or more department store anchors that they haven’t replaced, including Eastland Center in Harper Woods, Westland Shopping Center, Laurel Park Place in Livonia, Lakeside Mall in Sterling Heights and Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn.

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/jul/04/in-big-tech-v-big-retail-the-real-losers-are-store-workers-sears-amazon.  “’It’s like the death of a loved one’: as stores close, retail workers lose out to big tech“, Joe Eskenazi, 7/4/18.  “It’s becoming a common story across America: the opening of an Amazon ‘fulfilment center’ hastens the end of local department stores, like this Sears in Sacramento.”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/mall-vacancy-rate-hits-six-year-high-1530588600.  Malls Vacancies Hit Six-Year High as Online Shopping Takes a Toll: Toll is felt across all types of brick-and-mortar outlets in the U.S. as iconic retail names close stores”.


https://1010wins.radio.com/articles/ap-news/merry-clickmas-black-friday-online-sales-hit-record-74b.  Merry Clickmas: Black Friday online sales hit record $7.4B”, Associated Press, 11/30/19.  “This year’s Black Friday was the biggest ever for online sales, as fewer people hit the stores and shoppers rang up $7.4 billion in transactions from their phones, computers and tablets.”

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/nov/29/black-friday-us-consumers-spend-2bn-online-store-crowds.  US consumers spend $2bn online but store crowds thin as Black Friday dawns: Shorter holiday season also puts pressure on retailers”, Reuters, 11/29/19.  “US consumers spent more than $2bn online in the first hours of Thanksgiving shopping on Thursday night but crowds were largely thin at retailers on the eve of Black Friday, reflecting the broader trend away from shopping at brick-and-mortar stores.”

https://www.foxbusiness.com/retail/walmarts-rise-e-commerce-retail-going-extinct.  Walmart’s rise in e-commerce: Is retail going extinct?”, Angelica Stabile, 9/13/19.

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/16/us-retail-sales-september-2019.html.  US retail sales unexpectedly decline in a sign that consumer economy could be cracking”, Thomas Franck, 10/16/19.

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-12-10/retail-jobs-growth-doesn-t-match-expansion-of-online-sales.  Online Shopping Is Growing, But Isn’t Creating Jobs:

Internet sales are still rising briskly. Employment in the sector is not”, Justin Fox, 12/10/19.

This has not been a great century for working in retail. The sector, which added about 5 million jobs from 1980 through the end of 2000, has added only 416,100 since. Since January 2017, retailers have shed 145,200 jobs even as overall employment growth has remained strong.  The obvious explanation here is the rise of online shopping. Nonstore retailers such as Amazon.com are included in the above retail employment totals, but with employment of 570,500 as of November they simply haven’t created enough jobs to make up for the stagnation in the rest of the sector.

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/retail-job-losses-mount-women-impacted-more-than-men-183738884.html. Retail job losses mount, women impacted more than men”, Krystal Hu, 3/8/19.

Women and men may not feel the same level of pain in the retail apocalypse. In the past year, women lost jobs in the industry overall while men had a net gain in retail jobs, according to the latest analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. … In 2018, 73.8% of cashiers, one of the most common jobs in physical stores, were women. While among truck drivers, a profession that is in high demand nowadays, only 6.6% were women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  And men could be in a more advantageous position to capture the job growth in the e-commerce industry. “The types of jobs that are going away are cashiers, salespeople, customer-facing roles,” said [Andrew] Challenger. “The jobs that are hiring for retail are back in the distribution and warehouses jobs, technical jobs have been traditionally been dominated by men.

“De-Humanized” and Robotic Stores: the Movement Toward Employee-Free “Cashier-less” Stores

https://www.bloombergquint.com/onweb/2018/09/19/amazon-is-said-to-plan-up-to-3-000-cashierless-stores-by-2021.  Amazon Will Consider Opening Up to 3,000 Cashierless Stores by 2021”, Spencer Soper.  

Amazon.com Inc. is considering a plan to open as many as 3,000 new AmazonGo cashierless stores in the next few years, according to people familiar with matter, an aggressive and costly expansion that would threaten convenience chains like 7-Eleven Inc., quick-service sandwich shops like Subway and Panera Bread, and mom-and-pop pizzerias and taco trucks.

https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2019/05/26/robots-becoming-more-normal-retailers-roll-them-out/NWKMrr1XyrDOUd8X9vSUZM/story.html.  “Robot in aisle 3: Retail turns more and more to machines”, Hiawatha Bray, 5/26/19.  

“[Marty] is one of about 500 robots that Stop & Shop’s owner, the Dutch company Ahold Delhaize, has deployed in some of its US grocery stores. And in the process, Ahold is doing its part to normalize robots in public places.  … Walmart … is deploying hundreds of machines to scrub the floors of its stores and take inventory by scanning the shelves. Companies such as Starship Technologies and Amazon.com are testing robots that roll down sidewalks delivering pizzas and soda pop in Seattle, London, Beijing, and other cities. [T]he rise of robots may threaten the jobs of millions of workers, such as those who went on strike earlier this year at Marty’s home base, Stop & Shop.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/01/robots-take-our-jobs-amazon-go-seattle.  “Robots will take our jobs. We’d better plan now, before it’s too late”, Larry Elliott, 2/1/19.  

The opening of the Amazon Go store in Seattle brings us one step closer to the end of work as we know it.  A new sort of convenience store opened in the basement of the headquarters of Amazon in Seattle in January. Customers walk in, scan their phones, pick what they want off the shelves and walk out again.  At Amazon Go, there are no checkouts and no cashiers.”

https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2019-automated-grocery-stores/. “ROBOTS IN AISLE TWO: Supermarket Survival Means Matching Amazon—The Amazon threat has forced the stodgy grocery industry to experiment with smart carts, dynamic price tags and in-store delivery warehouses”,  Matthew Boyle, 12/2/19.

Armed with algorithms, robotic warehouses and cashierless stores, Amazon.com Inc. is commonly seen as an existential threat to traditional grocers. In recent weeks alone, Amazon confirmed plans for a mainstream supermarket to complement its pricey Whole Foods Market chain, and the company plans to bring its automated checkout technology to full-size supermarkets.  … Animated by the threat … [other supermarkets are] rushing to out-innovate the Seattle leviathan before it’s too late.  The advancements—being tested by everyone from mighty Walmart Inc. to small regional chains—include shelf-scanning robots, dynamic pricing software, smart carts, mobile-checkout systems and automated mini-warehouses in the back of stores.

https://www.foxbusiness.com/features/stop-shop-owner-beefs-up-robots-ai-as-us-labor-market-tightens.  Stop & Shop owner beefs up robots, AI as US labor market tightens”, Jade Scipioni, 11/14/18.

The world’s eighth biggest food retailer and owner of Stop & Shop is upping its stake in the U.S. grocery war with mini robotic supermarkets.

Ahold Delhaize announced Tuesday it will roll out small, automated warehouses at certain Stop & Shops across the country to speed up ordering and delivery times to online shoppers and to help them as they struggle to recruit in the tight labor market.The Netherlands-based company said it has partnered with tech software company Takeoff to build the small warehouses that will use robot arms to stack groceries and assemble shopper’s online orders.  In addition to robots, Stop & Shops will also roll out “frictionless checkouts” so customers can use their mobile app to scan items as they’re shopping, without having to wait in line.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/spurred-by-amazon-supermarkets-try-swapping-cashiers-for-cameras-11562491800. “Spurred by Amazon, Supermarkets Try Swapping Cashiers for Cameras: More retailers are embracing product-recognition technology pioneered by Amazon”, Parmy Olson, 7/7/19.

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/05/booming-jobs-market-is-leaving-the-retail-industry-behind.html.  Booming jobs market is leaving the retail industry behind”, Thomas Franck, 4/6/19.

Since January 2017, retail has lost more than 140,000 jobs; the sector added to that in March 2019 with a loss of more than 11,000, according to Labor Department data. … “Broadly speaking, retail is a sector where automation has been particularly present. Self-checkouts are now common. If you’re not sure about a price, you scan the bar code rather than asking a worker,” Nathan Sheets, chief economist at PGIM Fixed Income.  Walmart announced earlier this year that it is expanding its “Scan & Go” technology to an additional 100 locations across the U.S. For consumer staples like groceries that customers still don’t feel comfortable purchasing online, Kroger’s new “Scan, Bag, Go” platform will allow shoppers to scan their items themselves and allow the chain to cut cashiers at 400 locations. The push toward automation checkouts comes as major retailers and supermarkets come under pressure to generate even more profit out of a razor-thin margin business while offering customers a unique shopping experience.  As a related point, the ongoing shift in retail from bricks and mortar to online very much reinforces this trend.

Conclusion: If All These Stores Are Closing How Can Job Statistics and the Stock Market Look Good?

https://fox40.com/2019/09/30/thousands-of-major-retail-stores-close-despite-strong-economy/.  Thousands Of Major Retail Stores Close Despite Strong Economy”, 9/30/19.

The retail sector has lost nearly 200,000 jobs since the start of 2017, with most of those jobs losses coming from traditional department stores and clothing stores. The job losses across the sector would have been worse had it not been for some new players moving into vacated stores. In a recession, those store openings are likely to slow, and store closings are likely to increase.  … If unemployment increases, as it does in a recession, it will be harder for laid off retail employees to find jobs. 

Even though data indicate that as of the end of November 2019 at least 21,824 US stores had been closed by the companies that operated them between 2017 and 2019 there are several reasons  employment levels and stock prices can appear so good in the face of those store closings.  The first is that in many instances the companies did not go out of business—although some did including Payless and Dress Barn.  But in many instances the closing represented the deliberate shrinking, redirection or consolidation of companies’ assets and operations.  In others, if the company was dependent on the foot traffic of mall consumers drawn in by one or more anchor stores that had moved out of the mall then the drop in consumers at physical locations dictated the individual store closing response.  

A third reason is that, given current economic conditions, companies sometimes need to make decisions about whether they have too much excess capacity and need to dump underperforming assets that are hurting the “bottom line”.  In numerous instances that surplus capacity was created by the consumer shift to e-commerce.  This realignment of capacity to fit within competitive reality relates directly to the valuations we now see on the stock market.  From a business perspective making intelligent strategic decisions to incur a short term loss by discarding underperforming assets shows investors that a company is headed in the right direction from the viewpoint of its economic health.  This generates an uptick in share value.  Done strategically, cutting corporate “fat” or eliminating underperforming stores results in improvements in share price and eliminates costs while freeing up resources for reinvestment or shareholder distribution.  

Another reason for closings and shrinkage of a company’s physical “footprint” is that companies are trying to figure out the best balance between in-store and online sales offerings.  This includes Tesla Motors that shifted entirely from physical sales locations to online sales.  It also applies to Walmart and many other larger stores that offer online search order product catalogs that allow consumers to order a range of products online with pickup in only a few days at a location near them.  Such a strategy also has the advantage of bringing consumers back into physical locations where they might decide they need additional goods and services.

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/05/booming-jobs-market-is-leaving-the-retail-industry-behind.html.  “Booming jobs market is leaving the retail industry behind”, Thomas Franck, 4/6/19.

[M]ost [analysts] agree that the downtick in the number of people working at big-box retail locations has to do with the rise of e-commerce and technology.  “Broadly speaking, retail is a sector where automation has been particularly present. Self-checkouts are now common. If you’re not sure about a price, you scan the bar code rather than asking a worker,” Nathan Sheets, chief economist at PGIM Fixed Income.

As an example the thriving shift toward automation at retailers nationwide, Walmart announced earlier this year that it is expanding its “Scan & Go” technology to an additional 100 locations across the U.S. For consumer staples like groceries that customers still don’t feel comfortable purchasing online, Kroger’s new “Scan, Bag, Go” platform will allow shoppers to scan their items themselves and allow the chain to cut cashiers at 400 locations. … The push toward automation checkouts comes as major retailers and supermarkets come under pressure to generate even more profit out of a razor-thin margin business while offering customers a unique shopping experience.

At this point some will respond “That’s Capitalism” or “Free Market” or “Survival of the Fittest” or “The Big Dog Gets to Eat the Little Dog” or some other inane comment aimed at rationalizing.  Daniel and I believe deeply in “The Market” as a beneficial force when done with an understanding of its limits. That belief includes the creative and economic importance of the private sector.  But we also recognize that when a handful of private sector economic actors are allowed to gain an operational scale so far beyond anything that could be considered within the range of “normal”, then the power and destructiveness of those dominant actors is far off the scale to the point the system needs to understand the importance for the political community of setting limits on the power of the monopoly or “quasi-government” of immense economic monoliths whose only loyalty is to themselves.

The Greatest Shift Since The Dawn Of Humankind

David Barnhizer and Daniel Barnhizer

This post begins a set of what will be quite a few blog posts containing analyses and links to a variety of events occurring with great rapidity. A core purpose for a number of the posts is to provide specifics on the job losses that are already occurring, as well as predictions of the job categories that will be increasingly affected.  We find that the various projections being made as generalities that conclude jobs will be eliminated in the many millions tend to leave people with either a sense of disbelief or a feeling of helplessness.  We therefore want to at least attempt to make the picture of what is and will occur sufficiently concrete so we can begin talking about specific steps to deal with what we face.

The posts are intended to present ongoing developments and reports that suggest the amazing speed at which changes are occurring, technology advancing, and human jobs being lost or threatened on a significant scale.  They also describe other extremely serious matters such as health care needs and costs, pension security, the  demographics of aging societies that have been called the “Age Curse”, governmental revenue loss as tax paying workers shrink in number, along with the challenges posed by of out-of-control public, individual and corporate debt loads.

Such matters are included because the ability to fund critical needs and otherwise support governments, institutions, communities and individuals depend on the health of our economic systems and the revenues and opportunities they generate.  That health also depends on the ability of nations to alter their methods of taxation given the reduction in labor-based tax revenues that will occur as the benefits of economic activity shift more from labor wages to capital.  The adjustment will require new strategies of taxation and achieving that will be an extreme challenge.  As is seen throughout the series of posts, and as developed at length in The Artificial Intelligence Contagion, those institutions, needs and capabilities are intimately related to the degree to which AI/robotics negatively impacts the economic, social and political health of the US and other nations.  

In describing what is happening as “the greatest shift since the dawn of humankind” in his 2016 presentation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Silicon Valley guru Vivek Wadhwa, a Distinguished Fellow & Adjunct Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Engineering at Silicon Valley as well as Distinguished Fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard, warned about the nature and scale of what we are experiencing.

“We are only just commencing the greatest shift that society has seen since the dawn of humankind. And, as in all other manifest shifts – from the use of fire for shelter and for cooking to the rise of agriculture and the development of sailing vessels, internal-combustion engines, and computing – this one will arise from breathtaking advances in technology. This shift, though, is both broader and deeper, and is happening far more quickly than the previous tectonic shift.” [He added]:  The distant future is no longer distant. The pace of technological change is rapidly accelerating, and those changes are coming to you very soon, whether you like it or not.” https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/08/technology-could-be-the-best-or-worst-thing-that-happened-to-inequality/.  Technology could be the best or worst thing that happened to inequality”, Vivek Wadhwa, 8/11/16. 

The Artificial Intelligence Contagion

Our recently published book, The Artificial Intelligence Contagion: Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order? (Clarity 2019), focuses on the ways AI/Robotics is affecting the human world of work, economics and social activity.  This orientation includes concerns about wealth distribution and inequality, resource sufficiency, growing health care needs and chemical and digital addictions, homelessness, and financial uncertainty.  Other core issues include invasions of privacy, the emergence of all-encompassing surveillance systems that expand governments’ power to monitor, propagandize and control their populations, and the weaponization of AI systems.  

Among the many things that must be done is changing our existing tax strategies to take into account the increased transfer of economic returns from labor to capital.  This poses an enormous methodological and political challenge.  The difficulty involves understanding realistic methods for extracting essential funds from a transformed economic environment without undermining the health of that generative activity.  Along with that are the political obstacles involved in tax reform.  These relate to being able to achieve the level of political will required to gain support even if we are clear about what is needed.

At the core of the analysis in Contagion is our strong belief—shared by many and decried by others—that AI/robotics development and implementation is in the process of undermining human employment in unprecedented ways that short circuit expectations.  Those others feel equally strongly that what we are experiencing is simply one more economic and technological cycle that will lead to a new and wonderful “advanced” world where everyone will be happy, nurtured, provided with all the necessities of life and cared for by a compassionate society. 

As suggested above, we believe deeply that the evolving transformation based on AI/robotics is fundamentally different from the cyclical dynamics described by political economists such as Joseph Schumpeter in his description of a cycle of “Creative Destruction” and Nikolai Kondratiev in his concept of “Long Waves”.  The most important reason for the difference is that AI breakthroughs are being created that will be capable of fulfilling the kinds of sophisticated tasks many assume would otherwise naturally represent the “brave new world” presented to us at the end of this ongoing technological cycle some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  

But even if this somehow turns out to be a cyclical phenomenon in the sense defined by Schumpeter or Kondratiev, the harsh reality is that it would be a matter of forty or fifty years before the system regains a healthy equilibrium.  During that period the US and other nations would be experiencing turmoil, violence, political breakdowns and suffering on a scale that would tear societies apart.  So whether we are talking about a long term cycle or the permanent displacement of massive numbers of human workers we are in the process of creating a tragic and fundamentally disruptive world with which we are ill-equipped to cope.

All Kinds of Jobs Are Threatened

Key analysts whose work focuses on job creation, economics and trends, have echoed Vivek Wadhwa’s concerns.  Their analysis includes the important fact that many of the jobs lost to automation will be in what we think of as unique or protected categories.  An excerpt from the Abstract of “Toward understanding the impact of artificial intelligence on labor” include the following warning.  Unlike previous technologies, examples of AI have applications in a variety of highly educated, well-paid, and predominantly urban industries, including medicine, finance, and information technology.”  The researchers explain:

“Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation technologies have the potential to significantly disrupt labor markets. While AI and automation can augment the productivity of some workers, they can replace the work done by others and will likely transform almost all occupations at least to some degree. Rising automation is happening in a period of growing economic inequality, raising fears of mass technological unemployment and a renewed call for policy efforts to address the consequences of technological change. … Unlike previous technologies, examples of AI have applications in a variety of highly educated, well-paid, and predominantly urban industries, including medicine, finance, and information technology.”  https://www.pnas.org/content/116/14/6531. “Toward understanding the impact of artificial intelligence on labor”, Morgan R. Frank, David Autor, James E. Bessen, Erik Brynjolfsson, Manuel Cebrian, David J. Deming, Maryann Feldman, Matthew Groh, José Lobo, Esteban Moro, Dashun Wang, Hyejin Youn, and Iyad Rahwan.  PNAS April 2, 2019 116 (14) 6531-6539; first published March 25, 2019 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1900949116. Edited by Jose A. Scheinkman, Columbia University.

An economics scholar at Dartmouth summed it up as a situation where: “Whether you like it or not what the global economy is delivering is that the productivity growth that has been realized has been earned by a small fraction of highly skilled people and returns to capital.”  While that “small fraction” of our workforce benefits to extraordinary degrees and the owners of capital even more, many others are being left out of the benefits of the economic developments and wealth creation produced by the AI/robotics phenomenon.  

Howard Schneider echoes this perspective in his observation that:

Employment growth at the largest U.S. companies has lagged far behind increases in revenue and operating profit since the start of the century, as firms reaped the benefits of globalization, technology, and other ways to operate more productively, according to a Reuters analysis of corporate data.  From 2001 to 2013, inflation-adjusted revenue at 100 of the largest publicly traded companies grew 71 percent and inflation-adjusted operating profit rose 150 percent.”   http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy-employment-insight-idUSKBN0GB0NF20140811.  Howard Schneider, “For largest U.S. companies, jobs growth has lagged profits, revenues”, Business News, 8/11/14. 

We Must Preserve and Create Jobs for People

Our commitment must be to the preservation and development of human jobs.  We firmly believe that nothing is more critical to protecting the health and well-being of people in modern societies than preserving, defending, developing and offering improved access to work for as many people as possible.  This includes the conviction that we have to change the view that, in terms of generating and sustaining work and ensuring the health of our society, the only standard to which we should adhere is reflected in the economic mantras of “productivity” and “efficiency”.  

Standards fixed too narrowly on a single element of economic return for investors cannot be allowed to be the sole or controlling virtue dictating our policy and actions.  Innovation, economic growth, inventiveness, entrepreneurial and creative activity are critical human attributes.  But from the perspective of healthy and sustainable communities they not only exist to create an environment that allows individuals to develop their talents, but because the society within which these abilities operate creates the rules and structures that allow such activity.  This is done both to unleash human creativity and energy and with the purpose of advancing the overall quality and sustainability of the society itself.  They are interacting and complementary elements in our social dynamic.  In that context, what we have too often ignored is the fact that economic “productivity” and “efficiency” are tools, not ends in themselves.  In the AI/robotics dimension we are well on the way to a destructive misuse and extreme over-emphasis of those tools.


David Barnhizer and Daniel Barnhizer


Our “bottom line” in The Artificial Intelligence Contagion: Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation in Work, Wealth and the Social Order? is simple.  It is that if we do not get a handle on the processes of change and make strong, fast and accurate decisions that at least slow down the transformation, Western society as we know it is going to collapse into a struggling, authoritarian, dangerous and rancorous set of divided pieces.  “Doom and gloom”, yes.  A warning about the “Coming Apocalypse”, absolutely.  But the signs are “on the wall” and we ignore them at our peril.  

Vivek Wadhwa, a Professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, set out a vital concern in a 2016 presentation at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  Wadhwa warned about the significant risk that the rapid technological shifts pose for income inequality.

[R]apid, ubiquitous change has … a dark side. Jobs as we know them will disappear. … The ugly state of politics in the United States and Britain illustrates the impact of income inequality and the widening technological divide. More and more people are being left behind and are protesting in every way they can. Technologies such as social media are being used to fan the flames and to exploit ignorance and bias. The situation will get only worse – unless we find ways to share the prosperity we are creating.

The ability to share in the financial benefits derived from the increasing use of AI/robotics systems that reduce the costs of human labor in production and services dramatically while wiping out extremely large numbers of human jobs is only part of the challenge.  The issue is not simply economics and finance although those are critical.  Even if we can somehow generate the kinds of revenues needed to support populations where fifty percent or more of the people capable of working rarely or ever actually work, how will we fill the vacuums of purposelessness and meaninglessness that will result?  

A 2013 study by Oxford university economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne put probable US job loss by 2030 at 47 percent.  Others since that point paint a picture that is as bad or worse.  No society is equipped to deal with such an economic nightmare, particularly extraordinarily complex systems such as in the US and EU with numerous expensive subsidy and safety net promises and obligations that cannot be met if predictions such as those of Frey and Osborne are correct.  The changes are occurring rapidly and the scale and diversity of the AI/robotics breakthroughs and applications are astonishing. A study by the management company McKinsey announced that 800 million jobs worldwide could be lost over the next 13 years across a wide variety of occupations.  

At the center of our dilemma is that AI/robotics is leading to the permanent elimination of a significant amount of human work.  The resulting “exile” of much of the human workforce will, as Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus, indicates, result in the creation of a class of “useless” citizens in developed nations.   This will disrupt the ability of Western nations to function as anything even approximating intelligent democracies and will continue our free fall into a state of fractured identity groups fighting each other over governmental scraps like dogs over a bone. 

Billionaire entrepreneur Warren Buffett voices much the same concern as Harari, emphasizing that AI/robotics will make many of today’s workers economic “roadkill” as human employment dries up. One result of this job loss, joined with the large-scale transformation of our society to one heavily skewed toward the upper end of age demographics as is occurring in the EU, US, Japan and China.  This shift has been called the “Age Curse”, and is a thread running throughout the analysis offered in Contagion.  The demographic transformation it represents is creating societies in which the needs of older and less healthy populations in Western Europe, the US and UK, Japan and China will overwhelm the financial ability of governments to support their citizens in need.  

Generalized Predictions of Job Loss

Predictions of job loss to AI/robotics range across a wide spectrum but even if only “mostly” correct they all pose serious concerns for human societies.  Taken together with other negative challenges such as the rapid and distorted age demographics of all developed economies, the large scale debt loads that have been incurred by governments, corporations and consumers, youth unemployment, authoritarian governments and vastly expanded surveillance activities, the disappearance of human work presents fundamental challenges to Western societies.  Some analysts are warning that the penetration of AI/robotics systems into all levels of human activity—work and otherwise–will go far and deep. A small sampling of those predictions, all of which are discussed in Contagion in greater detail, includes the following: 

  1. 50% of US jobs will disappear by 2030. [Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace] or 50% of US jobs will be gone by 2025.  [2 Billion Jobs to Disappear (Globally) by 2030]. 
  2. 5,000,000 US manufacturing jobs have already been lost since 2000. 
  3. 12,000,000 US jobs will disappear by 2026. [Robots Set to Disrupt White-Collar Work, 2016].
  4. 500 million jobs in the world’s 25 richest economies will be lost to AI/robotics. 
  5. 50 percent of today’s work activities will be automated by 2050—give or take 20 years.  Robots will take over most of the world’s jobs by 2045. 
  6. 4.1 million US driver compensated jobs (taxis, semi-trucks, delivery vehicles, busses) will be lost to self-driving vehicles. 
  7. Imposing a $15 minimum hourly wage in the US could eliminate between three to five million jobs. [Earned Income Tax Credit Is Better Tool to Raise Income than $15 Minimum Wage, 2016]. 
  8. Youth unemployment is threatening the future of millions of young Europeans. Black males in US have an unemployment rate of 17.5% and Black teenagers an unemployment rate of 41%.
  9. The unemployment rate in the eurozone reached 10% in 2009, “and has been stuck in double digits ever since. On average, more than one out of five young people in the labour force are unemployed, but in the worst hit crisis countries, almost half of people looking for work can’t find jobs.”  (From Nobel Laureate in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz). 
  10. The McKinsey Global Institute has warned that if the “slow growth” conditions of the past decade continue, up to 80 percent of people in developed economies could see flat or falling incomes.  MIT researchers echo such concern in reporting a large-scale “hollowing out” of the US middle class is already occurring with many Americans sliding down the socio-economic ladder. While working hours are at an all-time high human productivity has declined and earnings are flat or falling for many workers even as the cost of goods and services continues to increase.
  11. Half of US households over the age of 55 have no retirement savings.
  12. The US, EU, China and Japan are experiencing a demographic “Age Curse”. By 2050, if current longevity trends continue, the US will have 1,000,000 people aged 100 years.  Trends indicate that more than 50 percent of children born today have life expectancies beyond 100 years. 
  13. While Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are in serious financial trouble on the federal level, US state and local pension plans collectively have shortfalls in the trillions of dollars.  They are unlikely to be able to meet those obligations.  
  14. Significant numbers of large private companies have consistently underfunded their pension plans to the point of non-viability.  As a number of those corporations declare bankruptcy due to economic conditions, they will shed those pension promises and leave their workers high-and-dry.
  15. The US is bankrupt.  We are not only “between a fiscal rock and a hard place”– we are “being crushed beneath the rock”.  David Walker, a former US Comptroller-General has warned that an honest analysis of the US national debt, including large scale off-budget borrowing, makes that debt obligation closer to $65 trillion rather than the $18 trillion when he spoke in 2015 or the current official figure of slightly over $20 trillion.  The debt is expected to be above $24 trillion in Fiscal 2020.  Given that the US is adding between $1.2 and $1.5 trillion annually to its national debt when governmental borrowing beyond received revenues are factored in, there is no way it will ever be paid off.  
  16. Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University economist, has testified to Congress that when you apply what he calls the “Infinite Horizon” fiscal gap methodology to US debt obligations that still growing figure is $220 trillion, or more than ten times what is officially stated.  The Infinite Horizon budget gap approach takes into account all the already committed federal government financial obligations.
  17. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has warned repeatedly over the past several years that the US faces a serious fiscal crisis that will hit within the next decade if we do not make the hard decisions required to deal with our national debt.  The CBO warns that failing to make needed decisions in the next few years risks our fundamental economic health.

People who admit that AI/robotics will change society dramatically often fall back on analyses like Joseph Schumpeter’s cycle of “Creative Destruction”, one about which Schumpeter himself later remarked that he wished he had said “transformation” rather than destruction.  This stands for the idea that even though there will be serious problems for a time due to the technological disruptions that AI/robotics is bringing to us—once the “down time” has passed things will turn around and be even better than in the “golden age” Western societies have experienced since World War II.  That is a comforting delusion.  The “golden age” is ending and we face fundamental challenges for which there is no ready answer.

The AI/robotics-driven transformation we are experiencing is different. For as much as half the developed world’s population the Schumpeterian cycle of “creative destruction” and eventual economic and social “rebirth” will be short-circuited.  This will occur because AI/robotics systems are being designed and are evolving in ways that mean they will fill many of the positions human workers would normally occupy in the “new and improved” system that emerges after the transformation.  As we discuss in an upcoming blog post, human jobs up and down the entire spectrum of work, from manual labor to advanced categories, will either be eliminated or reduced in number to the point that there is a totally inadequate supply of positions available for human workers relative to the demand.

Consistent with the “short-circuiting” of the Schumpeterian cycle, in their 2013 study of the massive impacts of computerization on human jobs Frey and Osborne indicate that the AI/robotics technological shift is not like others we have experienced.  Their fear is that unlike what has occurred in connection with other transformations of our economic system, there may not be a significant employment recovery on the other side of the downturn.  They highlight this fact by observing:

This raises questions about: (a) the ability of human labour to win the race against technology by means of education; and (b) the potential extent of technological unemployment, as an increasing pace of technological progress will cause higher job turnover, resulting in a higher natural rate of unemployment.

An analysis by Joel Kotkin concludes: 

“Past economic revolutions—from the steam engine to the jet engine and the internet—created in their wake a productivity revolution. To be sure, as brute force or slower technologies lost out, so did some companies and classes of people. But generally the economy got stronger and more productive. People got places sooner, information flows quickened, and new jobs were created, many of them paying middle-and working-class people a living wage.  This is largely not the case today.”  

The “Sky” Is Falling

What is occurring is not an imaginary apocalyptic scenario. Jamie Dimon, the head of JP Morgan Chase, who is not a “sky is falling” idiot, predicts there will be large-scale economic and employment problems within ten years.  In that regard, Howard Schneider indicates that, as observed by the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank’s President, we are facing something outside human experience.  The result would be “a workforce based on large numbers of lower paid workers, with a few highly paid managers, professional and technology workers, and a permanent hollowing out of the middle class.”  This was brought home to me while listening to my car radio.  In an ad by a financial investment company the spokesperson proclaimed “you won’t have to rely on a person with us because we use algorithms to help you achieve better results.”  

Relentless forces and technologies are pushing us in the “Non-Schumpeterian” direction of job destruction where we will not experience adequate new job creation for human workers.  Even if people do not fully understand what is happening, events are creating a sense of uncertainty among investors and large companies. Uncertainty is an understandable state of mind in a situation where no one knows where things are heading, no one is in control, and the motivations and needs of the primary actors are in conflict.

The normally optimistic Jack Ma, who recently stepped down as CEO of the Chinese technological giant Alibaba, stated that Artificial Intelligence will cause people more pain over the coming decades rather than it will bring them happiness and a feeling of social and economic security.  Ma warned: 

“ ‘Social conflicts in the next three decades will have an impact on all sorts of industries and walks of life.’ Speaking at an entrepreneurship conference in China discussing the significant job disruptions that would be created by automation and the Internet, Ma added: ‘A key social conflict will be the rise of artificial intelligence and longer life expectancy, which will lead to an aging workforce fighting for fewer jobs.’ ”  

Note that Ma described the challenges as taking place over the next three decades.  Take a moment to think about the turmoil, social stresses, aggressive competition and hostility between and within nations as they try to deal with rising social and political conflict and costs.  Ma could as well be describing a version of a new “Thirty Years War” of the kind that devastated Europe several centuries ago.  

But we don’t even have to look out 30 years into the future.  Given the radical and accelerating changes in employment projected to occur over slightly more than a single decade leading up to 2030, the effects on human societies will be as if the bottom fell out of the system of employment on which we depend for our livelihoods.  We will be forced to rely on increased governmental expenditures at the time when in the US and China those nations’ budgets and economic activity have already been propped up by acquiring massive amounts of governmental and corporate debt, not to mention the more than $10 trillion in consumer debt owed by individuals. 

The “Age Curse”

With the dramatically age-skewed population demographics in Japan and China, it is not surprising those nations are world leaders in developing robotic workers. For those nations it is a survival strategy.  The US and Western Europe are facing the same dilemma with aging populations relative to those in their work forces although their problem is buffered to an extent by the entry of large numbers of migrants with higher birth rates.  In some instances, however, the cultural and value differences of some elements flowing toward those developed nations along the migratory chain present striking challenges both for the new hosts and the new immigrants.  Neither Japan nor China has been receptive to migrants and that dynamic is not going to change.

China is developing a robotic workforce that will send millions of humans to the employment sidelines not only in China but other countries as it slashes the costs of production, applies “stealth” subsidies and stimulates the exports on which that nation depends so heavily.  China has also begun downsizing its human workforce in the steel and coal industries, embarking on a plan to cut 1.8 million workers.  Foxconn has adopted robotics to the point that it was able to cut its workforce from 110,000 human workers down to 50,000.  

China has plugged robotic workers into its automotive and electronics manufacturing processes to the point that it will have the largest number of robot workers of any country as of 2017.  In a globalized economy, this means that while many of the displaced workers will be in China, others will be sidelined in other countries, including the US and Western Europe.  This is because the Chinese costs of production will become even lower due to the efficiencies of AI/robotic systems and that China is committed to maintaining its trade advantages by various strategies including extensive subsidization and dumping below honest free market prices. 

Japan needs robotic workers to deal with the demographic and health conditions that nation will be facing in its near future and this is driving Japan’s research activities.  Japan’s 2016 birthrate fell below 1 million new births for the first time since record keeping began in the 1800s.  It is also estimated that 20 percent of Japan’s population over the age of 65 will suffer from dementia by 2025.  As if that doesn’t put enough pressure on an economic system that has struggled mightily over the past two decades, Japan’s population of individuals over 90 years of age has doubled from 1 million to 2 million in slightly over twenty years, imposing large financial health care and other support obligations for that group.

One “good” thing about having an older population with health care and assisted living needs is that caregiver jobs are created in large numbers to satisfy the demand for help.  At least that has been the expectation.  In both Japan and China, however, it is increasingly probable that robotic caregivers will be providing many of the services we thought would provide work for millions of people.  Given the research that is going on in movement, humanlike skin, appearance, emotional simulation and other areas of research, such AI/robotics systems may unfortunately be able to provide better, safer, and seemingly more attentive and compassionate care to the elderly than they currently receive from many human workers.  

As suggested in discussing Japanese robotics R&D in Contagion, there is ongoing experimentation with robots as caregivers for the elderly in assisted living facilities.  This may initially seem farfetched, but if one has had to deal with a parent or grandparent in such facilities, even ones thought of as of higher quality, it is not that difficult to understand how with some further “tweaking” involving a robotic caregiver could be an upgrade to the quality of care received in many of the facilities.  

Extensive research is going into how to make the robotic caregivers seem empathetic, communicative and caring as well as efficient.  While some may sneer and argue that the robotic caregivers’ portrayal of compassion and caring might be phony, the reality is that the same conclusion can be voiced in relation to many human caregivers.  This means that while there is and will continue to be an increasing number of elderly in need of care, and people are being told that this offers a safe and secure career path for future workers, many of the jobs may be filled by “Roberta the Robot” rather than a human worker.

All Kinds of AI/Robotics Systems Are Being Developed for All Kinds of Jobs

Technological breakthroughs are coming upon us with stunning speed.  Companies such as Google are investing heavily into Artificial Intelligence research.  A recent report indicated that Google’s researchers are intently focused on constructing Artificial Intelligence programs that will be capable of writing new programs without human involvement.  This creates the very real possibility that there will be considerably less need or demand for human programmers and coders in the AI/robotic future than many are assuming in their belief that new types of jobs will emerge to replace those made obsolete by AI/robotics.  

It is not solely an issue of the absolute number of new jobs that become available. A special combination of intellectual, visionary and technical skills are required for the evolving workplace and there will be far fewer people who possess the unique blend needed to excel.  A New York Times analysis warns there is a shortage of humans capable of doing the kinds of AI development that companies need in their product development.  It estimated that perhaps only 10,000 people in the entire world have the abilities required to perform on the sophisticated levels that will be required in the AI/robotics dimension.

Another part of the challenge of the “good” is that AI/robotics systems are already better than human workers in many areas of activity. As they are further developed, AI/robotics systems will be faster, stronger, cheaper, more efficient and reliable, provide less hassle for employers, and in far too many instances, do a better job than the human workers they replace.  Faced with this fact, how can humans possibly argue against AI/robotics when such systems are better than us at a vast array of tasks?  If they are better, don’t the AI/robotic systems deserve to come out ahead?   Whatever the economic answer to this question might be, the political and social response must be a firm and resounding  “NO!” because otherwise we are corrupting the essence of our society.

Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace concludes: 

Artificial intelligence will transform businesses and the work that people do. Process work, customer work and vast swathes of middle management will simply disappear.

[One key conclusion of the Fast Forward 2030 Report is that] Nearly 50 percent of occupations today will no longer exist in 2025. New jobs will require creative intelligence, social and emotional intelligence and ability to leverage artificial intelligence…. The next 15 years will see a revolution in how we work, and a corresponding revolution will necessarily take place on how we plan and think about workplaces.  

One academic expert, an economics scholar at Dartmouth, summed it up as a situation where: “Whether you like it or not what the global economy is delivering is that the productivity growth that has been realized has been earned by a small fraction of highly skilled people and returns to capital.”  While that “small fraction” of our workforce benefits to extraordinary degrees and the owners of capital even more, many others are being left out of the benefits of the economic developments and wealth creation produced by the AI/robotics phenomenon.  

Although the 2013 landmark study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? focuses on the loss of repetitive low-skilled jobs, no area of work is sacrosanct. Work opportunities are being eliminated from the most “intellectual” activity down to the most basic areas of services and labor.  Some analysts predict that fifty percent of jobs currently done by humans could disappear in the next ten years. One US-based study predicts the loss of 12,000,000 American jobs in less than ten years.  Another projects a six percent permanent US job loss just within the next half-decade. That study also asserts:

Developments in robotics and technology mean more and more white collar jobs are being automated and performed by machines, according to experts, who also predict that this automation could solve the productivity gap. Estimates of the impact of robotic automation vary, but market research by Forrester forecasts that automation will replace 12 million jobs in the U.S. by 2025 …  The jobs most likely to be disrupted by automation will be roles in customer service, office and administration.    

It is not only elder care discussed above in the context of the Age Curse.  In China and Japan robot servers and order takers are being developed that could replace millions of waiters, dishwashers, bus boys and cooks.  Although those jobs may not provide lucrative compensation there are many people who may only be able to engage in that type of work activity.  They could soon be discovering that much of what they could work at has disappeared.  As we will discuss in a subsequent post, in the US we are also seeing robot fast food cooks, pizza makers, drone delivery systems that are replacing drivers, rapid development of autonomous self-driving cars, buses, delivery vehicles and even semi-trucks.  

These technologies will replace millions of human workers whose capabilities, qualifications, interests and training don’t prepare them for doing much else.  The result is that basic job categories we have been thinking are “safe” havens for human workers are under threat.  This is an absolutely critical development because it means that there will be no jobs of the kind that tens of millions of people are capable of doing. Many of those people will be young or reside on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum with limited education and few resources.

A report by researchers at the London Business School concludes there will be sweeping replacement of many human workers by robotic ones within the next twenty years. A summary indicates:  

Lawyers, doctors and accountants may be redundant in 20 years after scientists have claimed their jobs will be taken over by robots. A study into the future of human employment has predicted a surge in machine-led work such as robotic counsellors, body part makers and virtual lawyers. … The worrying research suggests that humans will be replaced because robots are able to produce better results.  

The problem is not only one of massive job loss with very large numbers of people permanently out of the workforce, but the effects of individuals growing “ultra-dependent” on governmental support.  This is discussed at length in the “Solutions” part of Contagion in the context of what is being called Universal Basic Income or UBI.  Along with these concerns comes the issue of identifying strategies that will allow us to obtain the revenues needed to support a massive non-working class and ultra-dependent groups who need and demand financial support.  These groups will strive to seize the political power needed to ensure continuing benefits as they seek to protect or advance their interests.  


One reason our analysis highlights the connection between AI/robotics and the “death” of democracy is that there is no reason to believe that democracies will be able to cope with the stresses, competition, social fragmentation, rage and violence that will occur as a result of intensified social struggles over scarce resources.  It is not only a financial issue but includes the increasing lack of opportunity and social mobility, growth in real and perceived inequality accompanied by jealousy and resentment, the evaporation of a sense of community, and the loss of any sense of meaningful and coherent purpose other than the pursuit of the power necessary to advance one’s preferred identity group against competitors.  

Though some philosophers have observed that the need to work is a “curse” that denies humans the opportunity to achieve full development of their talents, if we are honest about the behavior of the human race a more legitimate reality is that most people have little interest in the development of their highest “existential” being.  We are in fragmented societies in which the dominant emphasis is a quest toward what Freudian analysts describe as the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.  For many it is a shift from any sense of duty and community to a system of narcissistic entitlement or desperation in which the person expects to be taken care of by society. 

Moshe Vardi, Professor of Computer Science at Rice University, delivered a talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science exploring the critical question: “If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?”  Vardi is not alone in concluding half the world’s workers will be replaced by machines within the next 30 years. If anything close to that elimination of human jobs actually occurs it will wipe out jobs across a surprisingly wide spectrum and exacerbate income and wealth inequality. 

Vardi also noted that robots would take over in many spheres of life, including automated driving and [even] sex robots. He observed that this future is likely to mean humans will have much more leisure time to the point we may only work a handful of hours per week. Just what millions upon millions of under-educated and drifting unemployed humans will do to fill in the hours, days and years of pointless existence is open to question, although we already have enough indicators in the form of rampant opioid addiction, alcohol dependency, widespread emotional depression, rising crime and violence to have a sense of what will occur.



Artificial Intelligence, Internet “Gangs”, and the Cowardice of Anonymity

Internet anonymity, as practiced on much of our twisted social media, is the new form of the terrorizing robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan.  Anonymity and mob psychology are core causes of the malicious venom posted continually on what should have been an incredible tool for intelligent exchange and discussion.  Philip Hensher explains: “The possibility, and the dangers, of anonymity started to become apparent long before we all went online, and both have only continued to grow.” [Philip Hensher, “The bigger a community gets, the easier and more virulent anonymity becomes”, Guardian, 8/23/13; http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/23/bigger- community-easier-virulent-anonymity.]

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, considered the “Father of the Internet” in recognition of his algorithmic designs, has voiced his dismay about how his invention has evolved.  He offers: “For the first 15 years, most people just expected the web to do great things. They thought ‘there’ll be good and bad, that is humanity, but if you connect humanity with technology, great things will happen….  “What could go wrong? … We have fake news, we have problems with privacy, we have problems with abuse of personal data, we have people being profiled in a way that they can be manipulated by clever ads.”  [https://www.yahoo.com/news/sir-tim-berners-lee-launches-214716734.html, “Sir Tim Berners-Lee launches ‘Magna Carta for the web’ to save internet from abuse”, Laurence Dodds, The Telegraph, 11/5/18.]

As Berners-Lee and others intimately linked with the Internet’s development lament, over the past two decades the anonymity of the Internet has created a completely different sort of “connective tissue” than its creators anticipated. With a few exceptions, the granting of anonymity to Internet posters has been a serious mistake.  As a general rule, anonymity should not be allowed except in the most dire circumstances.  At least in countries such as the US and those of Western Europe and the United Kingdom, this includes whether it is in the context of Internet communications or Antifa face masks.

Cowards Wear Masks

Batman, Spiderman and the Lone Ranger are romanticized fictional heroes.  Internet trolls and mobs, on the other hand, are real and dangers to the essence of democracies.  At least in terms of political speech and protest in Western democracies as opposed to totalitarian states whose power depends on suppression of dissent, if you have the courage of your convictions you should not be allowed to hide behind a mask whether physical or electronic. Cowards who would never dare to utter anything in a face-to-face encounter have been “enabled” by the concealment offered by the electronic medium.  This has generated massive amounts of inanity, stupidity, pursuit of personal and interest group agendas, dishonesty, and the basest viciousness.  Anonymity grants a “free pass” and the avoidance of accountability of the kind that contradicts the spirit of the democratic ideal.

Whatever one feels about Donald Trump’s incessant string of tweets and the quirks and the frequent crudeness of his personal behavior and name calling, the fact is that the reader knows his identity and can evaluate the worth of his comments through that prism.  Whatever one might think for or against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez she is not a coward and is willing to present her positions to a host of millions, some of whom think she is fantastic while others see her as a moronic loudmouth.  Concealed identity prevents such evaluations.  It also removes a sense of discipline and accountability from the equation because, as Philip Hensher explains above, the “internal censor” of common sense and decency that generally controls our face-to-face communications has been eliminated. 

Like Aristotle in his explanation of the essential conditions of Athenian democracy, we [David and Daniel] believe that as a general rule it is legitimate and even vital that we know the quality and motives of those presenting information.  Otherwise, how do we determine the validity and worth of a person’s interpretations, opinions, formulas for reform and solutions if we cannot evaluate the biases and motives of those offering such analyses?  

Evaluating the qualifications and motivations of individuals speaking for themselves or representing groups is impossible when those offering the information hide their identity.  This includes those who hide behind what are called “whistleblower” regulations.  If someone working within a system has valid criticisms to offer, then the situation should be handled by strong rules and sanctions against any possible retaliation, not by the grant of anonymity.  Making it too easy to hide one’s identity gives rise to careless, overstated and biased attacks on others because there are no consequences.  

There should, in fact, be at least the potential for accountability for “cheap shots”, strategically-based partisan attacks such as being done by the “Anonymous” source who claims to be working in the White House who for all we know may be a hoax perpetrated by a major news source.  There should also be concern about biased sources whose prejudices almost inevitably lead to poorly thought out characterizations and interpretations of others’ actions.  A general principle suggested here is that we should all be willing to accept the potential consequences of our actions and errors and accept that it is wise or at least prudent for us to think carefully about the truth of what we are saying and the intention and integrity of those we are accusing.  Otherwise, anyone claiming some sort of “insider” knowledge about others’ actions can feel free to say whatever they want without consequences.

Anonymity Enables Criminality, Hatred and Perversion

There are other significant consequences of Internet anonymity.  Until now, people who harbored the worst, sickest or most contemptible thoughts, or who drew conclusions based on extreme biases and ignorance, confided only to their most trusted associates.  This was because they knew their values, beliefs and preferences were incompatible with those of the overall community. Until empowered by the Internet and its grant of anonymity, along with the ability to expand their reach through access to cyberspace and the phenomenon of the Internet’s “Dark Net”, most people were hesitant about communicating certain views.  They couldn’t be certain the people they were speaking to face-to-face shared their prejudices and didn’t want to end up labeled as vile, bigoted, or just flat out stupid.  

The problem is that the Internet has become a tool not only for those seeking reliable information and intelligent discourse, but for the perverse in society.  The “sickos”, zealots, fanatics, and ignorant have developed links to others who share their prejudices and visions—whether child pornography, race or religious bias, envy and class resentment, or some other volatile orientation.  For many others, the Internet has become their “weapon” of choice to the point of creating almost instantaneous Internet “lynch mobs” if anyone offends them.  A tragic result is that the Internet has dramatically intensified our social divisions by facilitating the links between people who would never otherwise be able to “find” each other.  This allows them to share their worst hates, perversions and fears.  Those who harbor inner darkness, dangerous perversions, hatred and vindictiveness discover they aren’t alone.

It isn’t only the perverts, “wackos”, pedophiles, drug gangs, scam artists and hate-mongers.  The Internet  is not only a communications and research tool but a weapon.  It has allowed us to create versions of our own “gang” in ways that enhance our ability to voice our agendas, preferences and our outrage in believing we have been victimized. Of course there are people and groups who have been ill-treated.  The problem is that the Internet not only connects us and provides a means of sharing experiences and aims, it multiplies and intensifies our anger and resentment against what we perceive as the cause or the beneficiaries of historical wrongs.  By doing so it separates us from each other and weakens our sense of community and democracy.  The Internet has given us a “voice”.  AI applications have provided the fuel for growing social discord. This has unleashed ignorance, bias and hate in a closed universe of true believers who create their own identity communities in which pathologies of hate and resentment are reinforced.  

True Believers, “Gangs” and Organizational Bias

The problem, as Yale professor Robert Dahl has written, is that special interest groups, “gangs” and the like always end up as closed systems with their own agendas and ways of thinking to the extent that others are “outsiders”.  Dahl describes how organizational behavior —and formal and informal identity groups and “gangs” are organizations—define us, limit our focus, and control how we view others in terms of their relationship to our “organization”.  

“Organizations … are not mere relay stations that receive and send signals from their members about their interests.  Organizations amplify the signals and generate new ones.  Often they sharpen particularistic demands at the expense of broader needs, and short-run against long-run needs.  …. Leaders therefore play down potential cleavages and conflicts among their own members and exaggerate the salience of conflicts with outsiders.  Organizations thereby strengthen both solidarity and division, cohesion and conflict; they reinforce solidarity among members and conflicts with nonmembers.  Because associations help to fragment the concerns of citizens, interests that many citizens might share—latent ones perhaps—may be slighted.” [Robert A. Dahl, Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control 45 (Yale University Press 1982).  Hereafter, Dahl, Pluralist Democracy.]

The organizational power granted by the Internet has had a profound impact on our culture on every level.  Access to the power of the Internet has stimulated communications that are vile, malicious, predatory and even insane. It has allowed criminals to expand their ability to harm, cheat and abuse. It has brought out the worst in humanity to the point where, even with all its incredible benefits, the Internet is the means by which we become untrusting and cynical about society and other humans.  Left to function in its current way, the Internet will cause the devolution of human society because it strips away essential illusions and ideals and allows us to see negative tendencies in humanity far too clearly.  

One obvious objection to elimination of anonymity arises from the phenomenon of “doxing.” Doxing is a form of cyber-attack.  It refers to the practice of identifying targets and publishing personal information about those targets.  This is done for the purpose of embarrassing or shaming others or motivating those who hold opposing views to be quiet due to harassment and intimidation through telephonic or electronic intrusions, staged protests outside their homes, demands they lose their jobs, stalking and confrontations, or other consequences.

This is an example of the fanaticism that has gripped our society.  Such behaviors should be recognized as serious threats against persons, property, families and honest communication.  The “doxer” fully intends that the targets should be harassed and intimidated and take that action of doxing hoping and intending to set those possibilities in motion even if from a safe distance.    There are numerous statutes that make threats and intimidation a crime so we are not inventing anything new as was done with the highly subjective and divisive category of “hate crimes”.  Doxing is a form of deliberate threat that should be criminalized and accompanied by serious sanctions.

John Gardner sums up what we are experiencing in his warning about the dangers of “true believers”. 

“[E]very line of behavior has its pathology, and there is pathology of dedication.  ….  [T]here is the “true believer” who surrenders himself to a mass movement or to dogmatic beliefs in order to escape the responsibilities of freedom.  A free society does not invite that kind of allegiance.” [He adds] … commitment to worthy goals becomes so fanatical (among the groups and organizations) that they destroy as much as they create.  And there is the “true believer” who surrenders himself to a mass movement or to dogmatic beliefs in order to escape the responsibilities of freedom.  A free society does not invite that kind of allegiance.  It wants only one kind of devotion, the devotion of free, rational, responsible individuals.” [John W. Gardner, Excellence: Can We be Free and Excellent Too?  at 180 (1987).]  

The AI-Enabled Internet is a Tool for Propaganda, Social Division, Identity Intimidation, and the Destruction of Intelligent Social Discourse

Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, has stated that he feels “tremendous guilt” about Facebook. Palihapitiya explains: “[W]e have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created [including the hearts, likes, and thumbs up of various social media channels] are destroying how society works.” He added, “[There’s] no civil discourse, no cooperation; [only] misinformation, mistruth.”1

The disintegration in community we are experiencing is being driven to significant degrees by the combination of the Internet and Artificial Intelligence systems.  AI-facilitated social media has intensified and accelerated the disintegration of our social forms.  Governmental and private sector surveillance and privacy breaches made possible through AI and the Internet have created a culture of intrusion, manipulation, misrepresentation, conflict and lying. 

Tim Berners-Lee, considered by many to be the “Father of the Internet”, has voiced his great dismay about how his invention has devolved.

“For the first 15 years, most people just expected the web to do great things. They thought ‘there’ll be good and bad, that is humanity, but if you connect humanity with technology, great things will happen….  What could go wrong? Well, duh: all kinds of things have gone wrong since. We have fake news, we have problems with privacy, we have problems with abuse of personal data, we have people being profiled in a way that they can be manipulated by clever ads.” 2  

Rather than narrowing, the gap between our increasingly complex world and the quality of our social and intellectual understanding of that world grows steadily wider.  The rapidly spreading inability to communicate substantively and thoughtfully with each other as opposed to shouting enraged vitriol makes serious analysis increasingly useless and the best efforts to “talk things out” in search of reasonable compromises impossibly unproductive.  

The result is that we are “preaching to our choir” and denigrating the positions of all others.  If we don’t “sing the same hymns” no one outside our own group’s ideological context is even listening.  Even if the “others” hear the words being written or spoken they are unable to understand or appreciate what others not of their specific identity group are saying.  This is due to the effects of confirmation bias, propaganda, rising individual and group ignorance, and interest group agendas that act as barriers to understanding.  The tragic result is that we have become splintered people in fragmented societies.   This makes us highly vulnerable to the actions of true believers, fanatics, ideologues, and almost anyone who offers us certainty in a confusing and frightening world. 

The Intelligentsia’s Betrayal of Their Social Duty

Today’s intellectuals—to the extent anyone actually deserves that label—are virtually all “attached” servants of power who have betrayed their purpose and identity.   This increasingly applies to journalists who are granted special Constitutional privileges so that they can bring us honest facts and unbiased analysis aimed at seeking truth through wisdom and fact.  Instead, far too many members of the “verbal” class have become sycophants politically attached to movements and in doing so betray their responsibility to seek truth.  This threatens the foundations of the ideals of free speech and inquiry that are the basis of their special privilege.  The same betrayal can be said of far too many university academics and “scholars” who are corrupting the university’s ideals of teaching and uncovering truth to each generation of our youth. 

Russell Jacoby, in The End of Utopia, notes that it is not only a problem of knowing what to communicate but being willing to accept the consequences of our communications should what we say is unpopular.  With all the claims by modern group-affiliated activists to be “speaking truth to power”, Jacoby describes our true situation as one in which if you write odes to the monarch, “you will be well received.  Enlighten men, and you will be crushed.”  He writes that Karl Mannheim used the concept of the “free-floating” intellectual during the 1920s to describe individuals of independent mind who possessed the courage to critique power wherever their journey led. In discussing the disappearance of the independent intellectual, Jacoby observes that: “Benda’s prescient Betrayal, which evoked the philosophes of the Enlightenment, might be seen as summarizing a tradition that was ending.3

Jacoby writes that even when first written: “Mannheim’s defense of independent intellectuals earned him the ire of both left and right.”  This outraged reaction is predictable.  Independent thinking and critique have always been a threat to the preservation and acquisition of power.  Honest critique shows the cracks and flaws in rhetoric and propaganda, and penetrates the illusions behind which power seeks to hide.  Jacoby goes on to argue that: “Since Mannheim, the structural shifts that affect intellectuals have become so obvious that few can deny them.  If Mannheim’s analysis of the “free-floating” intellectuals seemed questionable [even] in the late 1920s, almost 100 years later it is impossible.” 4 

One difference, however, is that we are not dealing with a traditional monolithic aristocracy in modern Western society but a kaleidoscopic tableaux of ideological groups seeking power for themselves and seeking to undermine and destroy anyone in their way.  The “monarchy” is now comprised of aggressive and colliding movements.  These movements are empowered by the Internet and AI as their primary tool of organizing.  The AI-enhanced Internet has become an intelligence gathering system that allows the tracking of “enemies” and a potent weapon for attacking those enemies through intimidation, threats, insults, lies and smears.  Anyone seen as an obstacle to a self-righteous and power seeking movement’s gain and use of power, or simply those who do not fully agree with identity and interest group agendas, falls into the category of adversary and must be attacked.

  1. Fast Company.com. 12/11/17.
  2.  https://www.yahoo.com/news/sir-tim-berners-lee-launches-214716734.html, “Sir Tim Berners-Lee launches ‘Magna Carta for the web’ to save internet from abuse”, Laurence Dodds, The Telegraph, 11/5/18.
  3. Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia, 105.
  4. Jacoby, The End of Utopia, 110.

Finn Murphy, The Long Haul

A presentation by Finn Murphy is offered below we titled “Dead Man Driving”. It is well worth reading by anyone and particularly so for those concerned with the impacts of Artificial Intelligence and robotics on work and economic systems as well as the harms those technologies are imposing on a wide range of societies including the US, Western Europe, China and Japan. Murphy is the author of the New York Times best-selling book The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road (W.W. Norton, 2017).  About two years ago I read in London’s Guardian newspaper a discussion of The Long Haul where Murphy penned an op-ed about what he saw happening to the world in which he had spent his professional life, one where many truckers would soon see their work and livelihoods disappear.  He wrote:

The only humans left in a modern supply chain are truck drivers. Today’s cutting-edge warehouses buzz with automated forklifts and robots that load and unload trucks while drivers stand around sipping coffee – and getting paychecks and health insurance. That’s the kind of thing that drives corporate finance types crazy. The best option is to eliminate drivers.

I’ve been driving big trucks since shortly after my 21st birthday in 1980 and I always figured I’d be able to stay on the road until retirement. Now I’m not so sure. Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Daimler, Tesla, Uber, Ford and Toyota are all investing billions of dollars in driverless vehicles. … [D]riverless trucks will be here before driverless cars because that’s where the early money is going to be made. With some of the world’s most aggressive and best capitalized companies racing to be first with a viable driverless vehicle, I don’t give myself very good odds on choosing when to hang up my keys. (Guardian, 11/17/17)

We strongly recommend The Long Haul to any reader who wants to experience being drawn into a richly-presented world offered by a master story teller.  For me, the book relates directly to the messages presented in a book co-authored with my son Daniel Barnhizer, The Artificial Intelligence Contagion: Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order (Clarity 2019).  Contagion deals with the rapid introduction of Artificial Intelligence and robotic systems into US society and the warning that as many as 47 to 50 percent of US jobs could be lost to these technologies over the next ten to fifteen years.  This incorporates the development of autonomous cars and trucks, including, believe it or not, the trucks and drivers that are at the heart of Murphy’s The Long Haul.  

Murphy offers a fascinating and unparalleled look at the life and times of big rig drivers including their independence and entrepreneurial spirit.  It is this attitude that sets many truckers a breed apart from the rest of us.  It is a type that is vanishing from the American landscape along with the true individualism in the process of being buried beneath the weight of a conformist society where, regardless of our rhetoric about diversity and difference, we are being told what to think, say and do.  

The unfortunate and growing truth of American and European culture is that if we violate any of the numerous webs of PC norms created to empower identity groups, then the forces of a strange Orwellian public/private 1984 police state operating through the power provided by modern information and Internet data mining, surveillance and communication networks in ways uncomfortably similar to lynch mobs descend on us with threats, sanctions, boycotts, insults and ostracism, and other forms of intimidation and punishment.  Democratic political systems long thought of as the means to empower each of us to develop our highest potential as free and free-thinking individuals and to enrich the total community by doing so, are being increasingly converted into instrumentalities of oppression, thought control and groupthink.

Murphy presents his message through a powerful and descriptive narrative of the diverse culture of the long haul trucker, one that is often raucous and crude but that operates according to its own conventions.  By itself Murphy’s perspective is worth a deep read.  The culture of the long haul trucker is complex, including conflicting levels of status that seem stunning to those of us who have considered the nature of the job even though we have no actual knowledge of its dynamics.  Murphy provides all this as he describes a life in which truckers who move heavy duty commodities such as steel consider themselves “better” than truckers like Murphy who spent much of his life packing, loading and then transporting 30,000 pound loads of commercial and residential furniture and possessions throughout the country.  

Such messages about the inevitable discrimination that emerges in all areas of human activity—bias driven by our need to feel superior relative to others—provide useful insights about the tragic inadequacy of being human and the damage our “dark side” causes in so many contexts.  But even more important in the context of the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence and robotic systems that threaten the future of human work is Murphy’s message that at the heart of the long haul truck driver is the need to be independent from the control of bosses and a rebellion against being trapped in corporate cubicles like rats in a maze.

Among the powerful messages of The Long Haul is that this is where the world of work is heading—not only with trucks, cars, busses, boats and even airplanes—but in an amazing array of activities from the most labor-intensive to professions such as finance, medicine, corporate middle management and law.  Among the central messages of The Long Haul is his understanding of the dignifying power of human work, not only as a means to “put bread on the table” but a warning that taking away the opportunity to test and prove ourselves against the challenges we face denies us the chance to develop and succeed that Murphy (and Daniel and I) consider a fundamental part of being human. 

The vital importance of preserving and developing human work experiences and opportunity is something that Dan and I wrote about in The Artificial Intelligence Contagion and we are “spot on” with Finn Murphy in that regard. Succumbing to a culture of endless ennui and becoming fully dependent on the gratuities and the inevitable stifling control of governmental actors regardless of how well-intentioned some of them might be must not be the future of human democratic societies. 

We are grateful to Finn Murphy for eloquently describing his fear that long haul truckers are a version of the “canaries in the mine” whose early demise provided miners with a warning of dangerous gas leaks with enough time that the worst consequences could be avoided.  We want to express our appreciation to Finn Murphy for his grant of permission to post the presentation set out below.  It is a wise, rich and poignant analysis that captures the rapid destruction of human work and opportunity that is now undermining the fabric of work, freedom and democracy essential to American and European societies.

“Dead Man Driving”

Finn Murphy

October 20, 2018

I received the request to speak at the Rocky Mountain Literary Festival only a week after the publication of The Long Haul. It was the very first communication I had from any organization asking me to appear. You’ve no idea how exciting that was. A week or two later I had a nice review in the New York Times, and then the New Yorker, the Paris Review and many more. I had the distinct honor of being a guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and have been invited to and attended more than 150 book events. It’s been a great ride for a first time author.

I know there is pent-up curiosity about trucking, truck drivers, and the moving industry. Here with me, you’ll have a reasonably tame long haul driver to help unravel some of the mystery. I’m a fun guy and I think we’ll have some fun in the question/comment section but this first part of our journey together is going to be serious. 

My book can certainly be read as a fun little ride inside the cab of a big-rig, but my intention was something more thought provoking than a mere romp down the highway.     

For openers, truck drivers are not a homogenous group of atavistic rednecks. We’re a diverse bunch with families, aspirations, and emotional lives. The fact that many drivers are lacking modern economy skills can’t be denied but that doesn’t make any of us less a human being or discounts our desire to participate in this economy. We’re mostly just regular folks who derive our livelihood, and a lot of our self-worth, through our work. In other words, we’re just like you.  

As a truck driver and furniture mover, my work reality can be difficult, occasionally life threatening, but also sublime. People are always asking me how a reasonably sentient guy like me does what I do. My answer is that moving families long-distance is highly gratifying and driving the country in a big truck for months at a time is a daily smorgasbord of the American cultural landscape. My pleasure mostly comes from doing the work, which requires specialized knowledge, a strong back, organizational skills, with a good dollop of diplomacy thrown in. Diplomacy is the key element in moving families. I have diplomacy. In fact with a name like Finn Murphy, I have Irish diplomacy. In case you’re wondering what that is, Irish Diplomacy is the ability to tell a man to go to hell so that he looks forward to the trip. That’s my last joke. 

The fact that my job is held in low esteem by society doesn’t cause me a twinge and never has. 

A lot of my book is about dealing with authority and a lot of it is about work. I like bringing my skills to work and I like watching other people work. In my leisure hours I read about work. In fact, I’m obsessed with work, especially manual work, and have been ever since I was a teenager, after actually having done some real work. Labor can be an internal world filled with all sorts of satisfactions. I’ve always wanted more work but it seemed like most people wanted less. Indeed the entire world around me has been taking away work since my youth with gadgets that continually increase their efficiency and speed. 

Make no mistake, I’m no proponent of the back-breaking, soul crushing labor of times past. Robert Caro in his masterpiece The Path to Power about the emergence of Lyndon Johnson, has several revealing passages detailing the domestic workday of a matriarch in the Texas hill country before electrification. That description had me fashioning a noose and nosing around for a handy ceiling rafter. Books such as How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewellyn, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and anything by Charles Dickens have all served to help me appreciate many aspects of the modern world. 

I‘m interested in how manual work can be a choice-worthy occupation and the notion that manual work, and what goes along with it, has been devalued over my lifetime. It was Matthew Crawford’s wonderful book Shopcraft as Soulcraft that crystallized my vague disquiet about all this. Crawford points out that working with tools and machinery allows a person to fail at their own pace and celebrates how someone can recover from failure using their mind. In physical work there are constraints that won’t yield to any fabrication of an undeserved self-esteem or self-serving narrative. In short, work is a reliable demonstration of reality

As anyone who’s done real work knows, it’s not mindless at all. It’s mindful. Crawford gets on a pretty high horse about what he’d no doubt call the infantilization of our relationship with machinery. He laments that many modern car models no longer have a dipstick to check the oil. Apparently such a sophisticated mechanical operation is now beyond the skills of a modern automobile driver. I’m not a fanatic on the point like Crawford, but I’ll vouchsafe that unfreezing a brake line with a burning flare, lying on my back in slush, on a freezing highway, will not diminish my self-confidence. 

Quite the contrary. With work I earn confidence, bruise by bruise, to the point where I might actually know something about something. That might lead to some independent thinking about other things. Crawford’s main point is that dumbing down our machinery and neglecting mindful work materially affects our capacity for critical and independent thinking. I agree with that, and this is where the authority part of my book kicks in. Independent thinkers are not easy fodder for charlatans, demagogues, or self-appointed guardians of some invented public good. Independent thinking creates solid citizens who can distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality.  

If you’re wondering where I’m going with all this. Well I know where I’m going. I always know where I’m going, because driving a big truck requires it, or I’ll end up under an overpass or in a ditch. Putting a tractor-trailer under a low bridge and cutting off the roof (What truckers call getting a haircut) may also be described as a reliable demonstration of reality. 

Being a trucker who’s also a mover means that I don’t drive a dark line on the interstates going from terminal to terminal. I go where the moves are which means private residences. A morning backup into a suburban cul de sac where landscapers have trouble operating a riding lawn mower much less a 75 foot tractor trailer is a typical aspect of my daily work. I’m proud of that. Unlike freight hauling truckers, movers drive smack into the middle of towns and communities and I get to have a short but intimate relationship with the places I’m in and the people I move. 

America has about 15,000 towns and I’ve been in or through a good portion of them. Over the decades I’ve seen hundreds of once thriving town centers decompose in the face of the big box retailers on the outskirts. I’ve watched Kansa and Nebraska become denuded of people. I’ve seen self-serving land use transform the prairies and valleys of Colorado, California, and Oregon into swaths of auto-dependent, low density housing. I’ve watched our roadways fall apart. 

The heartland is empty now except for meat-packing plants set well away from prying eyes, a corn mono-culture where I can drive for hundreds of miles and not see a sign of human habitation. I’ve seen the environs of almost every interstate exit infested with national chain restaurants and motels that clone themselves like anthrax spores. It’s happened everywhere but you only get to see the contagion in its contemptible saturation if you’ve crisscrossed the country over and over. That phase of the homogenization, or standardization, of America is now almost complete. But it’s not over. It’s just beginning. 

I’m a dead man walking. Pretty soon a machine will be supplanting me as a driver. Sooner than you think. Intel’s recent purchase of Mobileye and Alphabet’s purchase of WAYMO are only the latest grabs in the scrum to develop autonomous vehicles on a mass scale. Those two behemoths are joined by Amazon, Apple, Daimler-Benz, Tesla, Uber, Ford, and Toyota. The world’s most aggressive and well-capitalized companies are racing to be first with a viable autonomous vehicle. We haven’t seen this kind of capital intensive technological focus since the 1960s when we were hell-bent on beating the Russians to the moon. I don’t give myself very long odds against that kind of juggernaut and truck drivers will be first to go because that’s the where early money is going to be. 

The only humans left in the modern supply chain are truck drivers. Today’s cutting edge warehouses buzz with automated forklifts and robots that load and unload trucks while drivers stand around sipping coffee. The most efficient option is to eliminate drivers. Now I understand that global industry is constantly being reinvented to reduce inefficiencies. New technologies will not be denied because if we don’t do it here, they’ll do it in Shanghai or Singapore or Dusseldorf and we’ll be left behind. I also understand that human error is responsible for almost all vehicle accidents. One and a half million people are killed worldwide every year on roadways. 40,000 Americans are killed every year. There are over 3 million injuries in the US alone and let’s not bother calculating property losses. I’ve no doubt that when the technology is perfected and critical mass is achieved, those millions of deaths will be reduced to a trickle. 

But what’s the endgame here with all this technology? It’s not a new question. I’m sure it was asked 35,000 years ago by the cave artist who emerged from his workday to see someone drawing on a sheepskin with a piece of charcoal. He probably complained that this new technology would ruin their culture. Well, it did. Nobody draws on cave walls anymore. Nobody has phone calls put through by an operator. Nobody pulls a wagon with a mule. But the question of the endgame remains, and now that the pace of change is measured in months instead of centuries it’s a much more pressing question to answer. Are we supposed to resign ourselves to the inevitability of the march of progress and keep any concerns to ourselves? Where did this assumption that eliminating work is axiomatically beneficial come from? Does this assumption have a goal other than some blurry ideal of efficiency? Is it simply an evolutionary imperative? Wherefrom comes this Will to Efficiency and what is its ultimate objective? I think it’s reasonable to have some kind of answer to that before autonomous vehicles toss 2 ½  million truck drivers into idle penury. 

I’ve not yet encountered a satisfactory answer to any of the questions posed above. Nor have I seen any credible vision of what a healthy society might look like that is buffeted daily by runaway technological expansion. 

There’s certainly no shortage of what an unhealthy society that worships at the altar of technology might look like. Post-apocalyptic literature is bursting with any number of dystopian scenarios where the labor issue is solved by machinery but the human issue regarding purpose is not. There’s a lot of excellent and creative current literature out there on this but my three favorites are oldies but goodies, they being Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In these novels social order has no goal other than order itself. The role of humankind is to act as a kind of protoplasmic teletubby ingesting whatever consumer goods are on offer. In Brave New World when John the Savage tries to take away the Soma drug everyone is issued, he enjoins the mob:

“Do you like being babies? Yes, babies. Mewling and puking. Don’t you want to be free and men? Don’t you understand what manhood and freedom are?”

He receives no answer. 

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 and Bradbury’s depiction of the Fireman’s wife, addicted to interactive television, is chilling in its foresight. 

Another, and perhaps more important facet in these books is how societies deal with those iconoclasts who insist upon continuing with meaningful work. Huxley soaks these misfits with the soporific Soma and exiles them. Vonnegut puts manual laborers on public assistance and everyone calls them the Reeks and Wrecks. Bradbury’s police state violently purges outliers. Apparently hard work, especially lone work, is dangerous to totalitarian social orders. Indeed it is, and any budding authoritarian knows this instinctively, because lone work begets independent thinking.  

I’m not at all confused by the general surge in populism we’re seeing. I’m not one of them, but I have certainly noticed that the tail of technology is wagging the dog of the social contract. We’re leaving millions of citizens in poverty professions and out of any economic progress or upward mobility. It’s precisely this segment of supplanted workers where populist growth is happening. I see these people every day. As one truck driver said in the New York Times: “We’re throwaway people.” Another driver added: “I live and breathe and take up space. I have to be somewhere, but nobody wants me anywhere.” 

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a panacea for displaced workers but that misses the whole point of what I’m saying today and what I wrote my book about. People like me, peering into the abyss of ineffectuality, actually want to be responsible. We want to work and support our families. We want to hold our heads up high. We want to pay our taxes. We want to be a part of it all. UBI is just a nice way of telling us all we have no economic value. Well, nobody wants to hear that about themselves, nor should they, in any society worthy of the name. 

We need to examine our attitudes about technological change and labor. Where’s the private sector in all this? Can it toss a couple of million truck drivers onto the dole and then reap the financial benefits with no accountability at all? Apparently it can. It has before and will continue to do so unless the process is interrupted. I’m a solid American and I believe in work. I also believe in cleaning up after myself. That doesn’t make me a left-leaning softie or an unreconstructed Luddite. That makes me a responsible citizen. It’s long past time the private sector became one too. You only have to drive a few miles west of here to see the mess the gold strikes left with their slag heaps and chemical dumps. Maybe the days of leaving that kind of mess are behind us but there’s been no change whatsoever in how human beings are left behind. 

An even bigger idea is that we look ahead and actually think about what kind of society technology can help shape. Right now, it’s the other way around. This might help us navigate the social effects of the technological ocean we’re currently drowning in. Social order for its own sake is no place I wish to live and technological change for its own sake isn’t either. Without some kind of vision about where this is going we’re destined to be the slaves of technology not its masters. We already are. 

Automation is also running a parallel track in eliminating bankers, lawyers, accountants, indeed all sorts of professions. When that starts to happen in earnest we might see some push back about the social costs of technology. So long as it’s only truckers and factory workers getting sacked, well there’s always Walmart, McDonald’s, and food stamps for us. Well, my view is that we’re the canary in the coal mine. You’re next. If this trend continues, and I see no reason why it won’t, soon enough the ‘throwaway people’ will outnumber everyone else. Then we’ll see a real dystopia. 

I myself don’t have any answers to these questions but I don’t think enough people are asking them. In an automated world, what’s to be the role of human beings? To quote Cotton Seiler in his book Republic of Drivers, “The belief in self-directed motion as an agent of liberation is powerful and venerable in American culture.”

I don’t want to give another inch on that kind of freedom. The interstate highway system is a great example of what I’m talking about. It appears to be the road to freedom but, like runaway technology, it’s can also be an agent of social control. The limited access and homogenized services on the highways create an illusion of freedom in the same way a build-a-bear creates an illusion of creativity. Like in Brave New World, the options are broad to buttress the fantasy of autonomy, but it may turn out to be a prison, no matter how comfortable. 


The core theme of THE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE CONTAGION: Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order [CONTAGION][1] is that effective strategies demand a clear understanding of the interacting elements that taken together must be dealt with to mitigate the worst of the effects that we are producing through AI/robotics.  These include job loss, the “decoupling” of human labor and economic productivity, income insufficiency, age demographics, and the inability to meet the expensive promises governments and corporations have made to millions of people who have been counting on those resources. 

Homelessness cannot be separated from causative factors such as the elimination of jobs, the stress and uncertainty of a rapidly changing economy relative to future opportunities, drug addiction, serious health problems, aging, bankruptcy and foreclosure, and the rising costs of living that Americans are experiencing even to the point that many young adults are living with their parents.  CONTAGION details the significant impacts of AI/robotics on employment that have already been created and goes on to indicate the massive job destruction that numerous experts are predicting over the next five to fifteen years and beyond, with some estimates ranging up to fifty percent of current jobs by 2030.  The point is that we are already experiencing the “contagion” and rising homelessness is among the devastating consequences.

Growing homelessness in California, New York, the Pacific Northwest, Denver, many other urban areas and even rural settings.[2] In “America’s homeless population rises for the first time since the Great Recession”, Alastair Gee cites a government study finding 553,742 people were homeless, and that anti-homelessness “advocates lament a crisis that shows no sign of abating”.[3]  A 2017 report indicated that New York had 20,000 more homeless people than even Los Angeles.[4]  Although LA officials have spent huge sums on attempting to rectify homelessness, $619 million in 2018, the area’s homeless population increased by 12 percent.[5]  This is an early indication of what will develop as job loss and addictions increase.[6]  Estimates are that half of American families live paycheck-to-paycheck and can’t compensate for even a short-term loss of income.[7]  Many older Americans are dipping into their limited retirement savings to help support their adult children.[8]  Studies indicate an increasing number of Americans are working into their 70’s and many have no plans to retire because they can’t afford to. [9]

We are witnessing a steady increase in the numbers of homeless in the US.  Anaheim declared a “homeless emergency”.[10]  Portland, Oregon is facing a growing problem with an aggressive homeless population about which officials seem to be at a loss in figuring out ways to cope.  In fact, much of the homelessness problem in cases such as Portland, Oregon is actually caused by local command and control approaches to zoning and urban planing that sumultaneously limit new development, decrease the willingness of police and local officials to enforce the law, increase the cost of living, and lack of the political will to tackle tough problems.[11] A recent report argued that “Seattle is Dying” and that $400 million annually is needed to place that city’s homeless in housing and provide other essential support.[12]  The problem with such “solutions” is that there is already a dramatically reduced ability on the part of city, state and federal governments that are already cash-strapped to the point of bankruptcy.[13]  When future financial commitments are taken into account involving public pensions and health care the picture is dire across the board. 

Many have found themselves homeless due to the loss of employment, health conditions and overwhelming psychological stress.  Homelessness has become an epidemic visible mainly on the streets, parks and alleys of our cities.  We are in the early phases of the homelessness crisis and already have a serious problem of an inadequate social safety net, coupled with an unwillingness by politicians to create and enforce anything other than superficial “feel-good” policy approaches to the crisis.  From the perspective of societies that have the stark option of condemning a significant part of their populace to living “on the street” as jobs disappear, democracy simply cannot cope with the stresses.  Added to this homelessness crisis is pension insecurity and the prospect that our most vulnerable members of society will end up betrayed, bereft and ignored.  The provision of care for the elderly and the growing ranks of the less fortunate is vital if our society is to save its soul.

Rising homelessness is not only occurring in big cities.  Jake Bittle recently wrote in The Nation that rural America is experiencing a significant increase in “hidden homeless” in rural areas, noting that hundreds of thousands, including nearly 162,000 grade-school children, are lost in the cracks of a system of counting and support that often does not even realize their existence.  He also notes that the problem of the hidden homeless is growing at a faster pace than in the cities.[14]

Growing homelessness is an early warning signal.  What we are facing is real, extremely serious, complex and tragic.  As jobs continue to disappear—particularly but not solely at the manual labor and repetitive information management levels—very large numbers of people will find themselves without the means to provide for basic needs.  Some will find support from government programs, parents and extended families but many will find themselves on the streets, living in makeshift shelters, vans, cars, “squatting” in vacant buildings, or huddling under cardboard and newspapers trying to keep warm and dry.

Although sources are provided concerning the nation’s homeless crisis at the end of this analysis and in endnotes, a limited sampling of reports released just over in late-April to early June 2019 demonstrate quite clearly that the situation is getting worse.  Several reports are offered immediately below.

  • http://www.fox5ny.com/news/homelessness-at-record-highs-in-nyc.  “Study finds homelessness at record highs in NYC”, Luke Funk, 4/30/19.  “A new report gives the city and state an “F” grade for handling the homeless crisis in New York City as the numbers of people in the street continues to reach record numbers.”
  • “Officials at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) are evaluating how to best address the growing issue of homeless people taking shelter in the air hub, the latest challenge stemming from the northern California city’s homelessness crisis.”

Homelessness will be further expanded as an aging population experiences significant increases in health problems.  As discussed in CONTAGION, the US, China, Europe and Japan are all experiencing what Pope Francis called the “Age Curse” with births dropping dramatically and a significant percentage of the population in those nations skewing toward the upper age limits. Older Americans are experiencing serious health challenges that include dementia, Alzheimers and drug addictions.  Such diseases will result in millions of people falling into poverty, bankruptcy and dependency at the same time labor earnings on which many local, state and federal government institutions depend for the tax revenues that fund their assistance programs will decline as economic activity increasingly replaces human labor with AI/robotics systems.[15]

Many public and private pension systems are already significantly underfunded and this will become worse as returns on investment flow much more to capital owners than human workers. The interlocked complexity of US, European and Asian economies means that as they move into a downward spiral within the next decade, as numerous analysts predict as a result of the effects of AI/robotics, public pension funds will be forced to reduce or eliminate promised benefits.  Numerous private pension programs will disappear. 

Counting the Numbers and the Costs

California is facing an epidemic of homelessness that appears to be well beyond its ability to cope.  The increase in homelessness is partly due to people suffering from addictions to drugs or alcohol.   Others have serious physical or emotional health problems.  A recent report indicates that the Los Angeles area has at least 59,000 homeless.  The number is increasing year by year.  LA has voted to create a $1.2 billion program to build housing for its homeless population and a recent proposal advocated guaranteeing decent housing for all of LA’s homeless.  A proposal has been offered suggesting that Los Angeles homeowners could be subsidized for converting parts of their homes or garages into living quarters for homeless people.

Even though LA’s homelessness reduction efforts allegedly helped 21,000 people find ongoing shelter in the past year, the people working to reduce homelessness were stunned and “heartbroken” to find out that the homeless population continued to grow and is now estimated to be 59,000.[16] LA’s ability to provide even basic health, sanitation, and other humane services to such numbers is grossly inadequate.  The city has recently been condemned for its inability to even collect garbage, leading to an infestation of rats, fleas and disease.  In late May 2019 there was an intense debate over what to do with the homeless encampments surrounding Los Angeles’s City Hall, a situation creating conditions one critic stated would be an embarrassment to a Third World country.[17] 

Speaking of “gross”, a dangerous and growing outbreak of Hepatitis A is directly linked to LA’s homeless residents since many have taken to defecating on streets and sidewalks and lack sanitation.[18]  One “solution” that has been proposed includes expanding the number of restrooms including toilets and showers for the homeless population.  A recent study indicates that while it could help take care of some the problem if the homeless individuals actually used the facilities, it would cost the city $57 million per year to provide, monitor, clean and maintain restrooms for all of LA’s homeless encampments.[19]

Another aspect of the problem, one that is likely to expand dramatically as AI/robotics joblessness takes hold, is the emergence of what has been called the “voluntary” homeless.  This group is made up of people who will never be full contributing members of society but will require and demand assistance.  They will also impose negative impacts on the areas in which they circulate.  This brings Yuval Harari’s warning in Homo Deus about the emergence of a “useless class” to the forefront.  Unfortunately the phenomenon appears to be considerably more than being a matter of merely useless. Destructive behavior too often is the norm, and can be expected to increase.  This results in significant health care and policing costs as well as a sense of social insecurity.  A recent report indicates aspects of the problem.

“From the parks of Berkeley to the streets of Brooklyn, and in most every large city in between, they have become an almost inescapable part of urban life.  Known by many names – “crusty punks,” “crusties,” gutter punks,” “crumb bums” and “dirty kids,” to list but a few – this group of young adults has rejected a more traditional 9-to-5 lifestyle in favor of train hopping, panhandling and voluntary homelessness.  And while traditionally tolerated by police and urban residents, these transient groups of the unshaven and unwashed have been involved in a series of incidents in recent years … that has municipalities across the country puzzling over how to address the problem.” [20]

The problem of the homeless is not limited to urban areas or to the West Coast.  One report indicates an expansion from the cities into California’s rural areas and as Jake Bittle noted above, rural homelessness appears to be increasing more rapidly than in the large cities.[21]  Another analysis indicates the intricate and complex problems contributing to the growth in homelessness.  This includes the aging of that population demographic with a resulting increase in health issues.[22]  As jobs continue to disappear, the ranks of the homeless will swell even more dramatically.

The challenge in finding solutions is that we use an all-encompassing term such as “homelessness” and act as if it represents a single condition, that of not having a relatively decent place to live, rather than the diverse complex of causes and effects that more accurately describe the situation.  The idea is that if a “home” is provided the problem of “Homelessness” is solved.  Behind the general idea of homelessness are such things as economic homelessness, drug and alcohol derived homelessness, mental illness, health issues, rebellion and alternative lifestyle, natural disasters and more.  One critical form exists when homelessness involves entire families and young children. Another is created when children flee their families due to abuse or anger, or are failed by the bureaucratic systems of child welfare and foster care that created to save and nurture them.  Some forms are temporary while others are chronic or permanent. 

The core challenge is that lack of housing and shelter are outcomes and conditions much more than they are causes of homelessness.  The issue is how to deal with the array of underlying factors that end up leaving people in a state of homelessness and despair.  The reality is that we do not seem to have much of a clue in far too many of the contexts that drive the growing challenge of homelessness in America.  In a recent interview Dr. Drew Pinsky described his frustration with governmental efforts to deal with the homeless crisis.

“[T]he government is somehow insisting that housing is the problem when in fact we have chronic mental illness, we have addiction, we have people who don’t want to leave the streets,” Pinsky said. “They literally won’t take the housing if we give it to them. And that’s the population that’s vulnerable, and is going to get so ill this summer. It scares me for their well-being.”  Asked why the liberal politicians aren’t doing more to alleviate these conditions, Pinsky said they are “disgustingly negligent.” “[23]

Recent Reports on Rapidly Growing Homelessness

  • America’s homeless population rises for the first time since the Great Recession:  a new government study finds 553,742 people were homeless on a single night this year, as advocates lament a crisis that shows no sign of abating”, The Guardian, Alastair Gee, 12/5/17.
  • “ ‘America’s new Vietnam’: why a homelessness crisis seems unsolvable: Despite approving billions in funds to fight the problem, Los Angeles has seen its homeless population continue to grow.” The Guardian, Andrew Gumbel, 3/16/18.
  • “L.A. County’s homeless problem is worsening despite billions from tax measures”, Los Angeles Times, Doug Smith, 2/19/18.
  • “Homelessness soars on West Coast as cities struggle to cope”, San Francisco Gate, Gillian Flaccus and Geoff Mulvihill, 11/6/17.
  • “L.A. County wants to help build guest houses in backyards — for homeless people”, Los Angeles Times, Gale Holland, 4/11/18.
  • “LA Considers Ambitious Proposal To Provide Housing For Every Homeless Person”, CBS Local Los Angeles, 3/23/18.
  • “ ‘National disgrace’: Community fights back as California overrun by homelessness, human waste, needles”, Fox News, Tori Richards, 2/26/18.
  • “Deaths among King County’s homeless reach new high amid growing crisis”, Seattle Times, Vernal Coleman, 12/30/17.
  • “Bay Area cities face growing crisis as RVs become homes of last resort”, East Bay Times, Louis Hansen, 12/17/17.
  • “Columbia Sportswear may close Portland office over death threats, public defecation by homeless people”, Fox News, Travis Fedschun, 11/27/17.  
  • “Homeless people defecating on LA streets fuels horror hepatitis outbreak, as city faulted”, Fox News, Tori Richards, 11/22/17.
  • “The Silicon Valley paradox: one in four people are at risk of hunger: study suggests that 26.8% of the population qualify as ‘food insecure’ based on risk factors such as missing meals or relying on food banks”, The Guardian, Charlotte Simmonds, 12/12/17.
  • “California’s homelessness crisis moves to the country: California housing costs are spiraling so high that they are pushing the state’s homelessness crisis into places it’s never been before — sparsely populated rural counties.” San Francisco Chronicle, Kevin Fagan and Alison Graham, 9/8/17.
  • “More Homeless People Live in New York than Any Other City”, WNYC Report, Mirela Iverac, 12/6/17. The number reported by the federal government is 76,000 compared to Los Angeles’ 55,000.

[1] https://www.claritypress.com/product/artificial-intelligence-contagion/The Artificial Intelligence Contagion, Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order?  David Barnhizer and Daniel Barnhizer (2019).

[2] https://www.denverpost.com/2018/12/17/colorado-homeless-families-hud-federal-report/. “Colorado singled out in federal report for high number of homeless families with children compared to other states”, Elizabeth Hernandez, Denver Post, 12/17/18.

[3] The Guardian, Alastair Gee, 12/5/17.

[4] “More Homeless People Live in New York than Any Other City”, WNYC Report, Mirela Iverac, 12/6/17. The number reported by the federal government is 76,000 compared to Los Angeles’ 55,000.

[5] https://www.foxnews.com/us/homelessness-jumps-12-across-los-angeles-county.  “Homelessness  jumps 12 percent  across Los Angeles County despite  $619M in spending”, Louis Casiano, Fox News, 6/5/19.

[6] http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Homeless-explosion-on-West-Coast-pushing-cities-12334291.php. “Homelessness soars on West Coast as cities struggle to cope”, Gillian Flaccus and Geoff Mulvihill, 11/6/17.

[7] https://www.marketwatch.com/story/half-of-americans-are-just-one-paycheck-away-from-financial-disaster-2019-05-16.  “Half of Americans are just one paycheck away from financial disaster”, Jacob Passy, 5/16/19.  “Missing more than one paycheck is a one-way ticket to financial hardship for nearly half of the country’s workforce.”

[8] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/adult-children-are-costing-many-parents-their-retirements/.  “Adult children are costing many parents their retirement savings”, Megan Cerullo, 4/24/19.  “Half of American parents have cut back on their retirement savings to help pay their children’s bills, a Bankrate.com study shows.” 

[9] https://www.bnnbloomberg.ca/retirement-four-in-10-americans-don-t-see-it-ever-happening-1.1269777, “Retirement? Four in 10 Americans Don’t See It Ever Happening: Almost 40% of Americans lack confidence they will ever save enough money to retire. That number climbs even higher among older Americans, age 54 or more.” Alex Tanzi, 6/6/19. “On average, monthly benefits for a retired worker from the Social Security Administration are $1,468.39 or only about $17,600 per year.”

[10] http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-anaheim-homeless-emergency-20170913-story.html. “Anaheim’s emergency declaration sets stage for removal of homeless encampment”, Anh Do, 9/14/17.

[11]https://www.oregonlive.com/projects/portland-homeless/. “Our Homeless Crisis”, Anna Griffin, 1/17/2015.

[12] https://finance.yahoo.com/news/amazon-led-tax-rebellion-later-100002810.html.  “Amazon Led a Tax Rebellion. A Year Later, Seattle Is Gridlocked”, Matt Day and Noah Buhayar, Bloomberg, June 10, 2019. [This concentrates on Seattle’s homelessness crisis and argued that Seattle “needed to spend $360 million to $410 million a year to help people experiencing homelessness get a permanent roof over their heads.”]

[13] https://www.foxnews.com/politics/cities-drowning-debt-chicago-study.  “America’s largest cities drowning in debt, with Chicago leading the way, study finds”,  Frank Miles, 5/14/19.  https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-budget-deficit-grew-38-in-first-seven-months-of-fiscal-2019-11557511203.  “U.S. Budget Deficit Grew 38% in First Seven Months of Fiscal 2019: Federal revenues increased 2% from October through April despite lower tax rates, Treasury says”.  https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/terence-p-jeffrey/irs-50219667-tax-return-filers-paid-0-or-less-income-taxes.  “50,219,667 Tax Return Filers Paid $0 or Less in Income Taxes”, Terence P. Jeffrey, 4/15/19.

[14] https://www.thenation.com/article/rural-homelessness-housing/.  “The ‘Hidden’ Crisis of Rural Homelessness: Until the federal government tackles rural homelessness as a distinct issue, the problem will only get worse”,  Jake Bittle, 3/28/19.

[15] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/05/04/alzheimers-disease-rates-rising-baby-boomers/1106292001/.  “Aging baby boomers are about to push Alzheimer’s disease rates sky high”, Kristen Jordan Shamus, Detroit Free Press, 5/4/19.

[16] https://theweek.com/speedreads/845376/los-angeles-officials-say-are-stunned-by-heartbreaking-new-homeless-numbers“Los Angeles officials say they are ‘stunned’ by ‘heartbreaking’ new homeless numbers”.  Catherine Garcia, 6/4/19.

[17] https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-rats-homelessness-city-hall-fleas-report-20190603-story.html.  “Filth from homeless camps is luring rats to L.A. City Hall, report says”, Dakota Smith and David Zahniser, 6/3/19.

[18] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/11/22/homeless-people-defecating-on-la-streets-fuels-horror-hepatitis-outbreak-as-city-faulted.html. “Homeless people defecating on LA streets fuels horror hepatitis outbreak, as city faulted”, Tori Richards, 11/22/17.  Richards details the challenge.

[19] https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-homeless-bathroom-restroom-feces-skid-row-pit-stop-20190610-story.html.  “$339,000 for a restroom? L.A. politicians balk at the cost of toilets for homeless people”, Emily Alpert Reyes, 6/10/19. 

[20] http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018/06/11/voluntarily-vagrant-homeless-youth-crusty-urban-challenge.html.  “Voluntarily vagrant, homeless youth a ‘crusty’ urban challenge”, Andrew O’Reilly, 6/11/18.

[21] http://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/California-s-homelessness-crisis-moves-to-the-12182026.php. “California’s homelessness crisis moves to the country”, Kevin Fagan and Alison Graham, 9/8/17.  They report: “California housing costs are spiraling so high that they are pushing the state’s homelessness crisis into places it’s never been before — sparsely populated rural counties.”

[22] http://www.rawstory.com/2016/01/older-and-sicker-how-americas-homeless-population-has-changed/.  “What policymakers and the general public need to recognize is that the homeless are aging faster than the general population in the U.S. This shift in the demographics has major implications for how municipalities and health care providers deal with homeless populations.”

[23] https://www.foxnews.com/health/dr-drew-says-third-world-countries-would-be-insulted-to-be-compared-with-los-angeles.  “Dr. Drew says LA public health in ‘complete breakdown’: ‘No city on Earth tolerates this’”, Bradford Betz, 5/31/19.

The Internet, Artificial Intelligence, and the Destruction of Our Democratic Ideal

The AI-driven Internet has caused us to become more intolerant as well as committed to the use of words as weapons and slogans as propaganda.[1]  This has affected media and our behavior on other levels.  We have become a culture of lies. We lie a lot.  We lie in politics.  We lie in business.  We lie in our journalistic reporting.  We even lie in our academic activities.  At this point many of the worst offenders don’t even know they are lying because rather than think through what they are saying they rely on stereotypes and slogans chanted in unison with others who share their superficiality. 

We are increasingly creating illusions and delude ourselves into thinking they are actual truth.  Although many people have conducted themselves in this manner throughout history AI and the Internet has created a situation far worse and more pervasive.  With the coming of the Internet, along with its anonymity and the power granted by its ability to link similarly oriented people in collective movements that legitimate ignorance and bias, the lies have become worse and the ignorance and hostility far more prevalent. 

AXIOS just reported the results of a Pew Research Center survey highlighting the fact that at this point more Americans view “fake news” as a more serious problem than terrorism.  Sara Fischer writes: 

“Americans view made-up news and information as a bigger problem than other critical issues, including terrorism, immigration, climate change and racism, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.  Why it matters:The survey finds that Americans feel more worried today about fake news because it’s undermining their trust in key institutions, like government and the media. … [Fischer adds] An overwhelming majority of Americans (68%) believe made-up news and information has a big impact on their trust in government, according to the survey.” [2]

Joel Stein sought to explain what has happened with the rise of the phenomenon of Internet “trolls”.  He writes about how anonymity creates a destructive disinhibition effect that allows us to say things that we would never say in “polite conversation”.

“They’re turning the web into a cesspool of aggression and violence. What watching them is doing to the rest of us may be even worse. … Once it [The Internet] was a geek with lofty ideals about the free flow of information. Now the web is a sociopath with Asperger’s. If you need help improving your upload speeds it’s eager to help with technical details, but if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will try to goad you into killing yourself.

Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building. And it’s seeping from our smartphones into every aspect of our lives.  The people who relish this online freedom are called trolls, a term that originally came from a fishing method online thieves use to find victims. It quickly morphed to refer to the monsters who hide in darkness and threaten people. …” [3]

At the heart of the “problem” is that a look at the content of even a limited number of the billions of Internet-based messages sent daily demonstrates that many people should never have been empowered to speak. At least they should not be able to speak while hiding behind a mask of anonymity.  Concealed identity removes any real accountability because the “internal censor” of common sense and decency that tends to control our face-to-face communications has been destroyed.  Philip Hensher explains: “The possibility, and the dangers, of anonymity started to become apparent long before we all went online, and both have only continued to grow.”[4] 

A legitimate counter argument to the anti-anonymity concern is that the Internet has become such a poisonous cesspool that the individual trolls, fanatical ideologues, and intensely politicized identity groups who are newly empowered by the Internet are, in fact, not interested in any exchange of thought and evidence with those who have different views.  Doxxing involves obtaining documentary information about another poster including such things as addresses, telephone numbers, and work relationships and releasing that data onto the Internet with the intention that others conduct malicious attacks on the individual or organization. Legitimate defensive anonymity thus becomes understandable in an atmosphere of Internet lynch mobs and trolling “crazies” who will dox, “out”, condemn, threaten and otherwise attack anyone they disagree with.

The result is that we are pretty much “between a rock and a hard place” on this issue.  The other reality is that given corpus linguistics tools, you can match pretty much anyone with the text they write as long as there is a big enough sample.  Corpus linguistics has been described by the University of Essex and other sources as, “the study of linguistic phenomena through large collections of machine-readable texts”.  This means that a poster’s written statements incorporated into a format on the Internet, whether through original direct entry by the individual or loading from external sources can often be used to “unmask” a poster.  Plus in many instances some people have become quite skilled in spotting posters’ IP addresses and unveiling their identities through that method.

The individual “loner trolls” are not the worst problem even with their vicious and malicious behavior.  A worse form of “trolling” is found in the behavior of fanatical groups of true believers and activists who see themselves as part of heroic movements.  Anyone who opposes them, questions the accuracy of what they say, or even simply fails to support or agree with whatever it is they are advocating, is an enemy. 

No attack by these gangs of true believers on anyone who does not completely share their views can be too savage.  They are engaged in a “holy war” in which the demonized enemy must be destroyed.  This has converted our political sphere into instantaneous “lynch mobs” who mobilize at the speed of light to condemn, shame, humiliate and destroy anyone with different views.

One tragic result is that we no longer even attempt to have reasoned discourse but seek to control and dominate through propaganda, shaming and condemnation. Wikileaks editor Julian Assange put the danger in the following terms.

“Speaking about the future of AI, Assange told a panel … that there will be a time when AI will be used to adjust perception. “Imagine a Daily Mail run by essentially Artificial Intelligence, what does that look like when there’s only the Daily Mail worldwide? That’s what Facebook and Twitter will shift into,” he said.  The main concern in Assange’s eyes centers around how AI can be used to advance propaganda. “The most important development as far as the fate of human beings are concerned is that we are getting close to the threshold where the traditional propaganda function that is employed by BBC, The Daily Mail, and cultures also, can be encapsulated by AI processes,” Assange said.  “When you have AI programs harvesting all the search queries and YouTube videos someone uploads it starts to lay out perceptual influence campaigns, twenty to thirty moves ahead. This starts to become totally beneath the level of human perception.”[5]

In his classic pre-Internet book, Propaganda, the brilliant French philosopher Jacques Ellul noted that we function through the use of stereotypes, explaining how the process works and why it is so successful. Ellul wrote:

“A stereotype is a seeming value judgment, acquired by belonging to a group, without any intellectual labor…. The stereotype arises from feelings one has for one’s own group, or against the “out-group.”  [He adds] Man attaches himself passionately to the values represented by his group and rejects the cliches of the out-groups…. The stereotype … helps man to avoid thinking, to take a personal position, to form his own opinion.”[6] 

The impacts of our stereotypical culture are vastly multiplied when we put what was already occurring in Western societies, as warned by Ellul and others, together with the power and anonymity of the Internet and the growing powers of Artificial Intelligence and its vast range of applications.  Converting everything to stereotypes that prevent us from thinking and understanding creates greater vulnerability to oppression and uniformity.  Too many people consider that condition of certainty and true belief to be a blessing.  Certainty releases us from any obligation to even try to think deeply about issues.  It provides a comforting sense of security.  But even if we do seek to question assumptions and claims we will soon find ourselves condemned by angry and aggressive mobs of true believers, whether the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, pro and anti abortion advocates, or those who condemn as “phobic” anything at odds with their desires.  

Oppression is the result, whether done by governments through the development of hate speech rules or increasing surveillance of ordinary citizens, by the impenetrable “Community Standards” of the businesses such as Google and Facebook controlling the Internet platforms, or the subjective political correctness cultures of powerful identity groups whose members are provided certainty, meaning and security by submersion in a group of like-minded people thrilled by their sudden ascension to power over others and willing to savage anyone who offends or threatens them. Max Lerner brought this out this oppressiveness as a core principle warned about by JS Mill, writing: “Mill was a pioneer in seeing, with the growth of social egalitarianism and mass culture, the shadow of “an oppressive yoke of uniformity in opinion and practice.” [7] 

A result of the “trolling”, savagery, and various forms of mental illness and “groupthink” fanaticism that permeate the Internet is we are discovering, contrary to democratic theory, that many people should be quiet. I’m not saying they should be suppressed, although some should and others should suffer sanctions due to their threats of violence and deliberate attempts to cause mental suffering on the part of their victims.  For many others you can mostly wish they would understand their “voice” does not in any way enrich our dialogue. Self-repression has its virtues, but the anonymity and mob mentality of the Internet has removed all inhibitions from the speech of those who want to attack others simply because they can.  The problem with such an approach is that as we see with political correctness, discretionary Community Standards enforced by faceless censors with unrevealed biases and preferences, and hate speech rules, the overall effect is almost inevitably the elevation of subjective standards and choices that follow a version of “beauty” or “hate” are in the eyes of the beholders and the “beholders” are fully prepared to suppress the speech of anyone with whom they disagree.

[1] On such themes, see, Max Lerner, Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (1991). 

[2] https://www.axios.com/americans-fake-news-problem-terrorism-da565b6c-6ab3-42a1-ae08-3400d68ab99c.html, Sara Fischer, 6/5/19, “Poll: Americans view fake news as a bigger problem than terrorism”.

[3] http://time.com/4457110/internet-trolls/. Joel Stein, “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet”, 8/18/16. “A 2014 study published in the psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences found that the approximately 5% of Internet users who self-identified as trolls scored extremely high in the dark tetrad of personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and, especially, sadism.”

[4] Philip Hensher, “The bigger a community gets, the easier and more virulent anonymity becomes”, Guardian, 8/23/13; http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/23/bigger- community-easier-virulent-anonymity. He adds: “We are now much more anonymous than we used to be. We are less and less likely to know even our most immediate neighbours – one survey found that over 50% of us don’t even known their names. Robert D Putnam, in his celebrated 2000 study, Bowling Alone, found that everyday personal interaction had been on the decline in North America since 1950.”

[5] https://www.rt.com/viral/392119-assange-humanity-ai-propaganda/. “Future of humanity under threat from AI-controlled propaganda – Assange”, 6/13/17.

[6] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda 

[7] Max Lerner, Mill’s Essential Works, 250 supra, n.1.