Breaking Smart by Breaking Work

Lots of paths to choose from to “break smart” (taken from the Breaking Smart series)

One of my biggest Patrons, Eben, pointed to this series called Breaking Smart which focuses on many different technological, societal and alternative culture issues. It focus on hacker ethics, some consensus based processes, uses anarchism as a positive word once or twice and other great things.

Sadly, it’s still not as radical as I want. Even with the aforementioned direct it concludes that to “Break Smart” we need to stay trapped within liberal democracy. Their caveat to that is that liberal democracy should simply work a bit more freely and more open. So, for example, patents and copyrights should have their powers significantly lessened…but not abolished.

Still, there are plenty of good things in here. Just for a sense of time, it’d likely take you much less than a day of even inconsistent reading to finish the first season. But if you’re feeling adventurous and wanna read through it from top to bottom, it’d likely take you anywhere from two to three hours. It’s not terribly long but it does get a bit repetitive in its themes of techno-optimism at times.

That said, it was refreshing to see something that was unapologetic in its optimism and without dipping too much into the alluring waters of utopia (in the pejorative sense). Well, if you exclude their political conclusions anyhow.

The series focuses a lot on change and whether people can actually get to a better state of living. As you’d guess from my earlier comments about their unyielding optimism they tend to see change as something not only possible but inevitable:

People change, then forget that they changed, and act as though they always behaved a certain way and could never change again. Because of this, unexpected changes in human behavior are often dismissed as regressive rather than as potentially intelligent adaptations.

There are many times throughout history one could point to this.

One of my favorites (especially seeing how I love talking political philosophy) is how democracy used to be thought of as utopian. People simply didn’t thnik it’d work and thought it would be some sort of short-term fad. And here we are more than two hundred years later and most countries in the world are democratic.

Now, is that a good thing?

Well, if you’re an anarchist like I am, not particularly.

But, it’s certainly better than having aristocratic governments, autocratic governments, monarchical governments, etc. I’ll take a majoritarian democracy over those sorts of systems any day.

I’m well aware there are some who would (somehow) argue otherwise and think it’d be great if we went back in time (either pre-industrial era or pre-enlightenment era, take your pick of awful). But I’m going to ignore that for now and get to some more of Breaking Smart.

The series also (thankfully) addresses the topic of work every now and then as well:

The gist of a robust answer, which we will explore in Understanding Elite Discontent, was anticipated by John Maynard Keynes as far back as 1930,1 though he did not like the implications: the majority of the population will be engaged in creating and satisfying each other’s new needs in ways that even the most prescient of today’s visionaries will fail to anticipate.

While we cannot predict precisely what workers of the future will be doing — what future wants and needs workers will be satisfying — we can predict some things about how they will be doing it. Work will take on an experimental, trial-and-error character, and will take place in an environment of rich feedback, self-correction, adaptation, ongoing improvement, and continuous learning. The social order surrounding work will be a much more fluid descendant of today’s secure but stifling paycheck world on the one hand, and liberating but precarious world of free agency and contingent labor on the other.

I’ve talked about Keynes before on work and he certainly didn’t think highly of the future that would look like this:

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me-those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set them.

What Keynes ignores here is cultural changes.

How would these economic effects come without a corollary change in the way that we also think about work itself? It seems unlikely that all of these economic developments would happen to the inner-workings of how things are produced in an economy and this somehow wouldn’t change how we feel about leisure. There’s much (ahem) work to be done, culturally speaking, when it comes to how we view laziness, sure. But I don’t think we can really increase the economic facet without doing the cultural one too.

Well, at least if we want to be efficient.

Another reason why I say that goes back to a different quote by Breaking Smart and how technology has, for example, shaped how we see transportation:

As the ridesharing sector took root and grew in city after city, second-order effects began to kick in. The increased convenience enables many more urban dwellers to adopt carless lifestyles. Increasing supply lowers costs, and increases accessibility for people previously limited to inconvenient public transportation. And as the idea of the carless lifestyle began to spread, urban planners began to realize that century-old trends like suburbanization, driven in part by car ownership, could no longer be taken for granted.

Indeed, as the series repeatedly stresses, smartphones, once an accessory to a car, made the car an accessory to it via apps like Uber.

And, just so it’s clear, I have my criticisms of Uber. But I still will take them any day over the horrid medallion cab system that is currently in place. The latter has gigantic barriers to entry, often aggravating bosses, lackluster conditions, unhappy coworkers and poor incentives for the organization to improve etc.

While Uber has mild (relatively) barriers, theoretically less bosses if any at all, better conditions (again, relatively) and most of the Uber drivers I’ve spoken to (at least those who did it part-time, which was most of them) are content with their job. Plus the rating system seems to be working pretty well for them and able to keep the drivers accountable, at least in my experience. I recognize others have had bad experiences and part of that is coming from me being a cis dude.

Even so, there’s plenty of romanticizing technology and specifically app technology. There were more nuanced thoughts on Silicon Valley than I expected but past that the series isn’t saying too much new there.

Lastly, another interesting comment on work from the series:

As the hacker ethos spreads, we will witness what economist Edmund Phelps calls a mass flourishing2 — a state of the economy where work will be challenging and therefore fulfilling. Unchallenging, predictable work will become the preserve of machines.

The goal of Breaking Smart, ultimately isn’t the smartest thing I think we can do with work.

If we want “work” (whatever that may mean) to be useful, we need to radically challenge things like IP and liberal democracy. These two concepts radically hold down the worker from remaining autonomous. Liberal democracy by leaving the individuals ideas and actions up to majority rules and IP by restricting how and when they can produce.

Even in their half-way reforms of IP which, admittedly, are surely an improvement over the present, Breaking Smart doesn’t do much the same for liberal democracy. Which I suppose is understandable given the series isn’t about political philosophy but technology and how it impacts our world. But it still would have been nice to see more engagement with why liberal democracy allegedly meshes (no pun intended) with a better vision of the world.

Even one of my anarcho-transhumanist friends was happy enough about the author, Venkatesh Rao, to call Rao a “fellow traveler”.

That said though, the things on hacker ethos, history and application are fascinating, well researched and well written. They’re definitely worth your time if nothing else, especially if you’re an anarchist (like me) who is interested in alternative subcultures as well as programming, webdesign, etc.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend this series.

I would also like to thank my friend (and loyal patron!) Eben for recommending it to me!

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