Place, Work, Folk is a fortnightly column in The Hindu Sunday Magazine by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, which is inspired by Patrick Geddes and analyzes current urban issues in India and beyond.
Karl Marx thought that a ‘general intellect’ was embodied in machines, technical knowledge and the social relationships that sustain production. He believed this general intellect would one day replace labour as the main force of production.
The concept, which he formulated in a collection of unfinished notes published long after his death, has been resurrected by theorists of the robotic age who have elevated it to the status of prophecy. They see it as an early vision of the world to come — of automated production run by a hybrid assemblage of thinking machines, self-evolving algorithms and human intelligence.
Most of us believe that such a scenario is indeed unfolding — at an accelerated pace — and find ourselves divided in two camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The former hope that automation will free people from work, and that democracy will ensure the redistribution of wealth in the form of a universal basic income. The pessimists foresee a world where the vast majority becomes unemployed, and an ever shrinking minority of highly skilled operatives and capitalists rule the world.
We are collectively producing restructures our social relationships in a kind of self-reinforcing loop.
Needless to say, the pessimists’ camp has come to dominate the public sphere. And they seem to be proven right. People are willing to do whatever it takes to be part of the narrowing ruling elite, which of course accelerates social polarisation.
Marx argued that this giant automaton that we are collectively producing restructures our social relationships in a kind of self-reinforcing loop. We build the machine that builds us, so to say. The general intellect regulates our movement, our interactions, our function and rank in society.
The obvious question — if we accept this theory — is how much we control the machine we are creating? Is the general intellect something that necessarily surpasses our collective ability to discern and shape the things to come?
Tales of man-made doom in Western culture have prepared us for failure, from the Golem to Frankenstein, from Babylon to the Anthropocene. The creature always turns against the creator in the end, with little hope for redemption.
It is because we are part of the cyborg we are creating that it ultimately restrains our freedom and agency. Whatever we do seems to be geared towards the consolidation of the system that entraps us. Through our social interactions online, we feed the algorithm that shapes our digital environment; in our professional lives we spend all our creative energy designing products to be sold in the market; whichever government we elect seems to reinforce existing institutions rather than challenge them.
What could save us from our own creation?
If we side with the optimists for a moment, can we imagine anything that could save us from our own creation?
There is no doubt that humans are becoming incredibly good at using general intellect for productive purposes. We have never been better at working in multidisciplinary teams and using tools to produce new goods or to find technical solutions. Some day, big data and technology may even help reduce traffic jams and air pollution.
At some level this is tremendously empowering — the power of the internet is being used everyday by millions of micro-entrepreneurs to lift themselves out of poverty.
The challenge ahead is to reinforce our ability to use the general intellect for the common good, rather than as a polarising force. We must find ways to turn a dehumanising general intellect into a socially driven collective intelligence powered by empathy as much as rationality. Not-so-long ago we recognised the power of labour itself, or of the individual vote. They were moves towards greater agency for individuals to become a collective force.
It is when common grounds and differences are acknowledged that we can uplift our intelligence.
Today humanity has been carried into a global arena by technologies such as the Internet that empower us in many ways but which need to be complemented by something at once more basic and more elevated: emotional connection and social interaction. This kind of relationship is particularly important for individuals who may inhabit a common territory and share common challenges, but whose world-views may be miles apart.
It is when common grounds and differences are acknowledged that we can uplift our intelligence. Effort and investment are urgently needed in this area, too, if we want to own our collective future.
This article was first published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on January 6th, 2019.