Yesterday, I moderated a discussion called ‘Outsourcing: Live Our Lives,’ at the symposium ‘Until recently I only had a voice,’ organized by Adam Faramawy and Cecile B Evans.
Before the event, in the semi-august library of the Royal Geographical Society, I looked up ‘outsourcing’ on Wikipedia (where else but that triumph of crowd/outsourcing knowledge labour itself).
It said that the term dates at least to 1981.
Even if this isn’t true, I want it to be.
Because, it would fit so perfectly in a narrative that claims the era we all fully succumb to now (deregulated, free-marketeering, financial capitalism) starts with the symbolic marriage of Margaret Thatcher (elected 1979) and Ronald Reagan (elected 1981).
‘Outsourcing’ is one of the central instruments of profit engineering. You keep production in an agitated state of perpetual displacement, shifting it to the next cheapest location.
Cally cited a scene in Madame Bovary, where a ‘fake tear’ is proffered by the emotionally lazy male protagonist. She said she got interested in this scene because of her interest in the history of ‘credit.’
Sixteen years before Flaubert’s novel, ETA Hoffman wrote ‘The Sandman,’ in which the lead has tragically ambiguous feelings towards Olympia, who is an automaton. Freud builds his theory of ‘unheimlich’ (The Uncanny) around the story of Olympia, and that queasy feeling of not knowing if she is human or non-human. And furthermore the possibility of it not mattering to whether or not you can be sexually aroused by such an ambiguous entity.
We are outsourcing more and more of ourselves to machines.
Our memories can remember less as long as there are hard drives and APIs that make remembering something we call upon from somewhere else.
Does it matter where? Does it matter what the server farm looks like? Whether the cleaner there gets a decent break? If the rain water is used to cool the heating computers that mindlessly give us the sense of our minds today?
It struck me that the basic quality of outsourcing is distance. Not any distance. A distance that removes the thing not only from your physical view but also your conceptual view.
This distance creates remove.
Remove creates distanciation.
Distanciation (thank you Brecht) allows us to suspend certain qualities that proximity simply would not.
If someone was about to kill themselves in front of you, there is every chance you would try and do something, even if you couldn’t actually stop them.
The workers who killed themselves making the parts that go into our Apple gadgets were not in front of us.
Distanciation provides us with an alibi for our ethics.
Outsourcing is this chain of remove in exchange for something that makes us feel better, smell better, earn better.
Yuri described his research with Amazon Mechanical Turks, that new class of invisible workers who Jeff Bezos describes so poignantly as, ‘Artificial Artificial Intelligence.’
Because, in the interim time that computers can’t figure out every aspect of automation, humans are needed. But they’re needed to not be humans per se, but humans carrying out the tasks of computers.
Being algorithm like.
Whereas once, the Industrial Revolution and then Fordism brought the shock of machines doing human work, now, we have the non-shock of humans doing machine work.
Not in order that machines can take more time off, accompany their kids to soccer matches, take a cruise round the world, and do more charity work.
But because the smupid machine can’t do everything it is predestined to do. Yet.
I can’t quite put it into words or even a succinct image, but, it feels like there is a story of distanciation and remove that has happened and is happening to outsourcing that mirrors or makes the story of globalization, then late-globalization, and now, the story of aspatial acceleration that ubiquitous computing has unleashed.
The non-visibility of outsourcing’s original rubric continues in the Amazon Mechanical Turk. Except he/she – it? – doesn’t have to be on the other side of the planet anymore. They may live underneath you, in the same apartment block, the same street, struggling to find work as a middle-class employee in labour landscapes that decimate the middle-class (Greece, Spain, anyone?)
I wanted to know if a Amazon Mechanical Turk – and those like them – earn more or less than a beleaguered construction worker in Doha or Dubai.
There’s every chance they earn less. Similar.
But they will not garner the same moral outrage or disdain. Or sympathy.
And yet, something is also exploiting them. Quite hideously, even, and is allowed to do so, not because these workers are not afforded the citizenry rights of a non-Third World state, but, rather, because they’re not, biologically speaking, considered to be truly or fully human.
We do not pay our machines wages.
We do not give them time off.
We do not let them form unions.
So why should the ‘AAI’ be that much more different?
Maja Pantic asked me if it would be useful for computers to cry. She asked me in a tone I associate with Ayn Rand: cool, assured, from a position of greater insight than me. I said, ‘Well it depends what the computer or robot would be used for.’ I then asked Cally if she were given the choice to outsource her unhappiness and her crying to a machine, would she? She said no, she would not. Maja described crying for women as ’emotional cleaning’ and for men, ’emotionally devastating.’
There is probably some way of approaching the complexity of outsourcing, its ethics, its imperils, through the subject of tears.
I would like to read something about that.
For now, I hesitantly offer you this:
Outsourcing is distance times remove.