Bowing to the God of Productivity

This week, Walmart talked to Reuters about one of its plans to reduce costs: convince in-store customers to deliver its online orders to other customers.

Tapping customers to deliver goods would put the world’s largest retailer squarely in middle of a new phenomenon sometimes known as “crowd-sourcing,” or the “sharing economy.”

A plethora of start-ups now help people make money by renting out a spare room, a car, or even a cocktail dress, and Wal-Mart would in effect be inviting people to rent out space in their vehicle and their willingness to deliver packages to others.

Is that really “crowdsourcing?” Is it really the “sharing economy?” Or is it just a corporation doing what corporations do – trying to eliminate as much paid human labor as possible? Sticking trendy labels on the plan doesn’t change the facts: it would eliminate drivers and shipping facility workers, replacing them with customers willing to do the work for store credit.

As annoyed as I am at Evgeny Morozov’s blustery critiques of everything digital, he’s consistently right about one thing: companies love ideas like this because they reduce or externalize costs – period, full stop. The dividing line between good corporations and bad corporations generally boils down to a simple question of foresight. Some companies realize that trashing a local economy or paying its laborers slave wages will cost them money in the long term, while others prioritize the short-term boost that comes from cutting staff and squeezing the survivors.

Yeah? So What?

While the former is certainly preferrable to the latter, both companies are ultimately making economic decisions with economic goals in mind. This kind of thinking appeals to economists, and it’s also popular with technologists who build systems to replace inefficient workers. We measure their success at a national level with things like the ‘GDP’ and talk about ‘worker productivity,’ often forgetting that productivity is simply a measure of how much value we can extract from each person without hiring anyone else.

Even public services like libraries, postal service, and unemployment benefits are subjected to the same metrics. Canny defenders of a functioning society have learned how to defend these expenditures in purely economic terms. They talk about the accrued economic benefit of food stamps versus tax cuts for the wealthy, for example; or the cost of a private education versus publicly subsidized classes for workers displaced by new technologies.

It’s easy to blame this shift on conservative opposition to social spending, or on the pernicous influence of greedy companies. Both are symptoms of an underlying problem that I’ve ranted about for years: as a society, we’ve settled on economics as the shared language of decision making. It’s all well and good for balancing the books, but at a macro-scale it’s a Sapir-Whorf black hole that leaves moral and ethical considerations out in the linguistic cold.

Thus Have We Made It

The Mission is an excellent 1986 film starring Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Now. This post will be here when you get back.

Time Passes…

For those of you who didn’t just watch the movie, I’ll summarize. Set in the 17th century, it follows a tribe of South American natives caught in a power struggle between Spain and Portugal. A Papal emmissary, Altamirano, is given the task of visiting South America and deciding the fate of a Jesuit mission that lies in disputed territory. If the territory (and thus the mission) is abandoned to the Portugese, the tribe will be slaughtered or enslaved. The film ends with a sucker-punch decision: the mission is closed to keep the political negotiations on track, and the priests are called home. The tribe, the priests and the converts who stay behind against the Vatican’s orders are killed by Portuguese troops.

In the closing scene, Altamirano receives an account of his decision’s predictable consequences. He’s tormented by the outcome, and his personal assistant attempts to brush aside the guilt. “We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus,” says his assistant. After some thought, Altamirano replies: “No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world… thus have I made it.

The line is delivered with a long, fourth-wall-breaking stare. Altamirano makes eye contact with the audience and confesses: “Thus we have made the world; thus have I made it.”

Wait, What About Walmart Again?

The same easy cop-out is often used when we discuss the dominant role that business and economics has in our society. We must optimize our nation’s efforts to achieve an ever-increasing GDP. We must accept an ever-outsourced workforce and an ever-reduced social safety net. We must cede core social services to private industry and the optimized mechinations of the free market, because that’s where efficiency and profit comes from.

But this, as Altamirano admitted, is not simply the way the world is. It’s is what we’ve made the world. The most important challenges we face have nothing to do with increasing our productivity or building more efficient engineering solutions. Instead, the task before us is fighting to reintroduce and preserve our society’s moral and ethical vocabulary.

This is not easy: in a pluralistic world, there’s no single religious text to appeal to. The problem is worth our energy, though: we need words to articulate principles beyond the pocketbook, or we’re doomed to an eternal downward spiral. Inefficiency may be costly, but the only way to eliminate it entirely is to eliminate humans.

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