Autonomous Themes (con’t)
Let’s just keep going on the themes of the novel. We’ll jump back to Wednesday’s page and discuss Academia vs Industry or school and “the real world.” We should be able to cover everything in class…like always, right?
As with many cyberpunk science fiction novels (Neuromancer and Snow Crash, specifically), the governing bodies of the world appear to be corporations. This is a comment on the global reach of companies that might have a “home base” in a particular country, but they do business outside that host country. Globalization has been in the news for quite a while, but it has become a hot-button topic with the rise of nationalism. Free Trade agreements, such as NAFTA, are common targets of those who feel they have been hurt by opening markets to foreign competition. As a brief summary, opening borders to free trade means companies can make products cheaper elsewhere and ship them to the United States without tariffs imposed on goods coming into the country, where the products are sold at a discount. Many manufacturing jobs were “lost” over the past 50 years in the United States, and many nationalist/populist proponents blame free trade.
However, much like all issues, the story is more complicated. Free trade agreements bring in cheaper goods, which saves Americans money, which gets spent on more goods, which drives our consumption economy. Also, and no surprise to this class, automation—technological advancement—reduces a factory’s need for as many workers previously employed, so that reduces jobs.
There is no getting rid of globalization. There might be tweaks here and there with policies, but, unless there’s some major catastrophe, we will be directly and indirectly affected by foreign markets and US policies on trade. Another related aspect to losing jobs because of globalization is “offshoring,” a term I don’t hear as much these days. Here’s an article about the differences between offshoring and outsourcing.
The African Federation, Asian Union, and Free Trade Zone in Autonomous reflect the assumption that globalization, if this continues long enough, will bring about corporate governance that has no need for states (nations). This situation is a prediction based on the contemporary power multinational corporations have. In the novel, the International Property Coalition—IPC (p. 24)—is the legal arm for corporations and enforces intellectual property rules. Big Pharma owns them, and they’re essentially a corporate police force.
Questions for Autonomous
- Why does IPC vehemently track down pirates?
- What repercussions are there for Big Pharma companies, such as Zaxy, that sell harmful products?
- Ever heard of the Ford Pinto and the cost-benefit analysis they did? The Pinto kept exploding, but it was financially better to settle lawsuits than to make safety changes. One thing I didn’t know was that Ford rushed the Pinto into production to try to cut into Volkswagon’s small car market. At least Volkswagon’s never done shady things with their cars…
- What might Zacuity’s addictiveness allude? Was there ever a company trying to make their products more addictive in order to hook users?
The profit motive. Just as there’s no getting around globalization, there’s no reasonable way individuals can avoid capitalism. Capitalism is the key to most world economies. The United States is a capitalist country, and all institutions support the profit motive of capitalism. Supply and Demand; Buy Low/Sell High; Investments. Don’t let ANYONE tell you they’re not a part of the capitalist system. Even if they hate it and espouse communist ideas of worker liberation to overthrow the 1%ers, every member of this culture is part of this system. Furthermore, don’t be fooled by accusations that politicians from one party are communists or socialists (even Bernie Sanders is part of capitalism). You might hear that welfare and government healthcare are socialism creeping in to destroy American capitalism. Capitalism needs people to spend money. Healthcare keeps people healthy, so they can work and make money to spend. Welfare helps people without jobs spend money. Consumption drives the American economy, so these so-called socialist programs support corporations because people can spend money on their products. While we’re on the subject, the Affordable Health Care for America Act (aka Obamacare) is in no way socialism. Nowhere in reading about socialism have I ever come across a program that requires citizens to purchase healthcare from insurance companies, so those companies have a big enough enrollment base to ensure they maintain a profit. It might not be a “free market,” but it isn’t socialism.
Autonomous is asking us what’s not for sale. Following the Science Fiction theme of “if this continues,” Newitz is probably commenting on the fact that we have slowly commoditized many aspects of our lives. In the novel, people are not born citizens; they are born servants. The idea of being a “franchise” in the novel means you can work and accumulate wealth. Those indentured people have to fulfill their “contracts” before they can be free to work. We learn in the novel that robot indentured servitude paved the way for human indentured servitude. After all, why can’t humans enter such a contract? Shouldn’t we be “free” to enslave ourselves?
A note on Capitalism and surveillance: Paying to make sure our identities are safe and secure. What do these apps tell us about our world online?
Questions for Autonomous
- Why are robots automatically indentured upon reaching consciousness, but humans don’t (usually) become indentured until 18?
- How is the system of indentured servitude stacked in favor of or against people and robots?
- What might the author be alluding to when we read that one must pay “franchise fees” in order to own property, go to school, get a job, or be able to move (p. 166)? What comparable system exists today?
- Why are you motivated to work?
- How many autonomous keys did Lee, the repair bot, install at the base?
Of course, nobody here would violate the intellectual property of others and pirate materials via file-sharing software, but you’ve probably heard of such activities. One of the key factors for our economic system and set of laws is protecting private property. As subjects of a monarch, an individual had no rights and lived in servitude to the monarch. Classical Liberalism (governments protect civil liberties and economic freedom), which emerged from the Enlightenment, is the foundation of American Democracy and espouses the assumption that the State cannot encroach upon the rights of individuals without cause. As a citizen of the United States, one is afforded protections against violations to private property.
The State also steps in the protect intellectual property in order to provide incentives for innovations. Governments award patents to individuals, which allow the individual to profit from a discovery. For X number of years, a patent holder is the sole proprietor of a work of art, invention, or medicine. If another tries to use someone’s idea without getting permission, that person can be sued for violating the patent rights or copyright of the creator. Notice that laws are in place in order to foster competition and incentives to develop new ideas, products, entertainment, etc. This is why many argue that capitalism is the base of society and institutions are built to support it. In this case, the State passes laws to protect intellectual property.
In Autonomous, the IPC is the agency that enforces Intellectual Property (IP) rules (I don’t think “laws” is the appropriate term for the novel). Contemporarily, there are treaties the US and other nations agree upon to protect the intellectual property of citizens and corporations across borders. Various law enforcement agencies in the respective countries agreeing to the treaty are supposed to go after violators. Eliasz used to have a different job in law enforcement, working in Las Vegas. However, he seems to prefer IPC’s approach:
- p. 266: “When it came to intellectual property, justice was simple and clear.”
Eliasz and Paladin go to Casablanca to track down Jack and overhear a debate on public domain vs IP: “some people arguing that a free lab would be better for social progress, and others taking the view that nobody would have any incentive to invent things without patents” (p. 186).
Questions for Autonomous
- Who/What is the agency in the United States that enforces copyright laws and goes after violators?
- Besides competition, what economic benefit do copyright and patent holders provide? Their profitability does what for whom?
- In the novel, there is a group that pursues “open source” solutions to medicine. What situation does that parallel in our time?
Keep on it! Get your reading done. We’ve got more Autonomous fun to come this week. Frankenstein and Autonomous will be VERY important for Test #3.