Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pathfinders: 'Smart' is the New Black (2013)

The Pathfinders Column from the October 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Put the word ‘smart’ in front of just about anything these days and you are describing the techno-savvy reality of the 20-teenies. We have, or will soon have, smart cars, smart traffic lights, smart houses and smart cities like Songdo, or maybe even the Venus Project (see ‘Tomorrow’s Cities’ ). Now schoolkids can dictate essay questions into Google on their smart phones (unless they’ve got strong regional accents which the speech algorithms can’t cope with). Pretty soon they’ll be dictating into their smart watches instead, and not long after that, via their smart Google Glass lenses. It surely won’t be long before the next horizon technology, wetware, creates reliable bio-interfaces to allow subcutaneous and perhaps even cranial smart implants, and who wouldn’t want the knowledge and communication power of biblical gods? The 20th century pioneered cyberspace, but the 21st century will pioneer cybernetics. Better, faster, smarter, cheaper, Human version 2.0, or rather Worker version 2.0 is set to superheat capitalist technological development, each individual cocooned inside an artificially-tailored personal reality, and each a uniform functioning component of the global hive.

Well, that’s one possible view of the near future. The technology news right now is breathless with excitement about smart watches, but Google Glass is just round the corner and third-party developers are secretly beavering away right now to come up with ‘killer apps’ which are supposedly going to persuade today’s young generation of early adopters to start wearing spectacles even though they have perfect vision. No more embarrassing encounters with people whose names you can’t remember – just silently run a facial recognition app while you’re standing there chatting. Can’t find that obscure little café? Pull up an on-lens GPS streetmap. Unimpressed with the forlorn pile of old stones in a famous historical site? Get an artist’s reconstruction superimposed over the real thing. Want to leave a message for your friends that that obscure little café was overpriced? Dictate a piece of rude graffiti and leave it on the front door of the café, invisible to anyone but your friends, similarly glassed-up.

Socialists and other people who are accustomed to reading beneath the hype will of course ask the obvious question: does all this smart stuff make us any cleverer? The answer is equally obvious:  no. The difference between smart and clever is the difference between technology and science. Smart is having good tools. Clever is knowing how to use them. Smart will win a war, but clever knows how to avoid the war.

There is no question that capitalism is smart, far smarter than any type of society that’s gone before. Classical antiquity was a time of remarkable sophistication in many ways, but it was rigidly obtuse in its slave-based economies and as a consequence never able to see the point of science or technology. But that doesn’t mean modern society is especially committed to science or that modern populations understand much about it or its methods. But they can appreciate the labour-saving devices and the toys. Where old societies were swamped in myth and the supernatural, we are swamped in gadgets and technobabble. We congratulate ourselves that we invented reason, and yet we’re probably no better at logical thinking than a Cro-Magnon cave painter, and probably significantly less artistically talented. But hell, we have smarts, so it doesn’t matter.

Smart is also an acronym, used a lot in businesses as a shorthand mnemonic for evaluating steps in a project. The letters are usually made to represent the following: S – Specific; M – Measurable; A – Achievable; R – Realistic; T – Time-delimited. If a step or course of action does not satisfy all these conditions, for example if it is too vague, or over-optimistic, or there is no failure condition or there’s no deadline, it is not ‘smart’ and therefore it is not worth doing (you could reverse the acronym and use ‘Trams’ instead, to stop your project going off the rails).

Capitalism is ‘smart’ in this sense as well. It doesn’t do things that don’t seem achievable within a short time period. It doesn’t do things that are not measurable with ‘hard outcomes’, which generally translates as money profit. It’s always specific in its boardrooms and vague in its parliaments. It’s realistic in its assessment of where the next profit is coming from. And its bottom line is always a deadline, the month-end, the quarterly profit statement, the annual report.

There is something fundamentally wrong with ‘smart’ targets. You can be perfectly smart and still do the stupid thing. Capitalism ‘smartly’ ignores the long term problems of climate change, resource-waste, war, global hunger and deprivation. Things that aren’t specific or measurable, like quality of life, fulfilment, self-realisation, democratic freedoms, simply don’t count. Pollution is not a measurable cost to anyone specifically, and there is no deadline to stop causing the damage.

Maybe this is why a lot of workers, forced to put up with managers at work wittering constantly about ‘smart’ targets, have learned to hate the very mention of the word. Not only are these smart targets invariably designed simply to extract more and more work out of the hard-pressed minions, suffering like crushed olives getting their third pressing, there is a strong sense that there is an overall dimension missing from the concept. If they were truly smart, these targets would make the workers happy too. And so with capitalism. If it’s so smart, why is everyone so miserable in it?

What the world needs is more swots.  SWOT is another of those acronyms, only it doesn’t evaluate a step, it sizes up an overall situation, assessing the pros and cons of a big picture. It stands for S – Strengths; W – Weaknesses; O – Opportunities; T – Threats. Before you get smart, you should be a swot. Socialists aren’t always smart, worse luck, but they are good at being swots. We recognise, sometimes better than capitalism’s own defenders, what its strengths are and have been, a global smart machine that has brought us almost to the point of expansion into space. We recognise its weaknesses better too, because we don’t dismiss them immediately as unavoidable. We see the enormous opportunity of a globally-connected, smart and (yes) clever working class to drive society forwards beyond class division, and we understand better than most what will happen to the world if we don’t. That’s why we would say, if you want to get smart, swot up on socialism.
Paddy Shannon