Technological Unemployment and the Search for Meaning: Should we retreat from reality?


One of the slides from my talk showing various books on the topic of technological unemployment

[Note: what follows is, roughly, the text of a keynote talk that I delivered at the W-Jax conference in Munich on the 8th November 2016 — an evening that will now live in infamy thanks to the election of Donald Trump. I hesitated in posting this as a result of that momentous event. I had intended the talk to be a somewhat provocative thinkpiece, not a well thought-out argument, and its discussion of technological unemployment and utopianism seemed inapposite in light of what happened. Upon reflection, however, I think that technological unemployment, workforce polarisation, and rising inequality can explain, at least in part, the rise of Trump and similar anti-establishment political movements, and so that the issues raised in the first two thirds of this talk are important at this moment in time. Now, more than ever, we need politics and politicians who are willing to address the changing nature of the work and who can articulate a hopeful and optimistic vision of the future. I’ve added some quick reflections on this toward the end of the post. These did not appear in the original talk.]

I want to start with a story. The story is about Danny Izquierdo. Danny is a young man, in his early 20s, from Maryland in the U.S. He is one of a growing number of young men who spend large chunks of their time playing video games. Danny has a degree. He has worked at a few odd jobs but finds them frustrating. He prefers games: He is attracted to the sense of community and meritocracy he finds in them. When interviewed by the Washington Post reporter Ana Swanson (in September of this year) he had this to say:

When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded… With a job, it’s always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward.

(Swanson 2016)

Now, I don’t want to dwell too much on Danny. He is just one man chosen, probably unfairly, to be emblematic of a more general problem: the retreat of young men from the workforce into virtual worlds. This is a trend that is worrying a number of social commentators. The psychologist Philip Zimbardo (famous for his work on the Stanford Prison Experiment) and his co-author Nikita Coulombe wrote an entire book about it called Man Disconnected. They think modern society is failing men. They worry about excessive time being spent in virtual worlds, including both video games and online pornography. They think this retreat from reality is wreaking havoc on young men’s cognitive development, concentration and social orientation.

It’s also something worrying Nicholas Eberstadt (of the American Enterprise Institute). He published a widely-discussed book earlier this year entitled Men Without Work which documented the startling withdrawal of men from the US workforce. By his estimation, some 7 million men aged between 25-54 are ‘missing in action’. It’s not that they can’t find work. It’s that they aren’t even looking. He laments the effects this is having on the economy and on social order, claiming that:

The male exodus from work also undermines the traditional family dynamic, casting men into the role of dependents and encouraging sloth, idleness and vices perhaps more insidious…

(Eberstadt 2016)

And it’s not just an American phenomenon. High youth unemployment rates are common across many European countries. Indeed they are startlingly high in countries like Greece, Spain and Ireland. Furthermore, people are withdrawing from reality across the world. Screen time and video game time are on the increase. The apotheosis of this new paradigm comes, perhaps, in the shape of the Japanese hikkomori, a new breed of hermit-like people, uninterested in work, uninterested in sex, enclosed within a reality of their own creation.

And yet, for all their hand-wringing there is something missing from the analysis of these cultural critics.* Recent research from Aguilar, Bils, Charles and Hurst suggests that although young men are working less and playing more, they are also happier. Indeed, the self-reported happiness of those in their 20s and early 30s has risen from the low to high 80%s in the first decade and half of the new millennium. What’s more, the fondness for video games is not limited to men. Research from Andrew Przybylski found that in a sample of approximately 5000 chilrden aged between 10-15, about 40% of boys and girls were playing between 1 and 3 hours of video games per day.

In this talk I want ask two questions: is this retreat from reality in general, and from the world of work in particular, inevitable due to the rise of technological unemployment? And if so is it to be lamented or welcomed? In response, I want to argue in response that it probably is inevitable and that it might be something to be welcomed. This is because our most plausible conceptions of utopian worlds presume the preeminence of the ludic life.

I’m going to make this argument in three stages. First, I’m going to look at the technological unemployment debate and give you all an idiot’s guide to the arguments being made by a number of economists and technologists about the future (or lack thereof) of work. I’ll argue that there will probably be much less work in the future and that it is only a matter of time before the robots come to take your job.

Second, I will argue that this increase in unemployment is going to kick off a crisis of meaning. For better or worse, people derive meaning, satisfaction and self-worth from their jobs. If their jobs are taken away from them, they may struggle to make sense of their place in the world. I will be subtle in making this argument. I will suggest that typical laments about the loss of work are misplaced: work is not that pleasant for many people. Nevertheless, I will argue that improvements in automation do threaten sources of meaning more generally. It is important that we, as a society, address this crisis.

Finally, I will argue that if we are to solve the crisis of meaning, our best hope may lie in the virtual world. This is because two of the most philosophically plausible theories of utopianism put games and virtual reality in the centre of the frame.

Before I do all that, however, I must issue a health warning. I’m a philosopher and theorist. I’m big on concepts and arguments. I like to precisely define terms and reduce popular debates to logical syllogisms. I’m going to be doing some of that in what follows, but I’ll probably be less formal and less precise than I typically would be if I was presenting to an academic audience. I appreciate that the goal of these keynotes is to provoke and entertain, not to lecture and bore, but if you do happen to find what I’m saying interesting, and you would like the more formal and precise version, can I suggest reading my blog Philosophical Disquisitions? There is plenty more there about the arguments and ideas that I present here this evening.

1. An Idiot’s Guide to the Technological Unemployment Debate
I’m sure you have noticed the hype about robots, automation and the future of work in recent years. A spate of books and reports and op-eds have been written predicting the rise of the robots and the demise of paid employment. To give you a flavour of this, here are just a handful of the books that happen to adorn my shelves and which have been published in the past five years. There is: Frederico Pistono’s Robots Will Steal Your Job and That’s Okay; Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age; Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots; Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over; Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply; Susskind and Susskind’s The Future of the Professions; Calum Chace’s The Economic Singularity; and Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans.

While each of these books has their merits, and while you may have read some of them, I’m going to try and do you all a favour by condensing them down into an ‘idiot’s guide’. If you follow along for the next 5 minutes, you’ll be able to bluff your way through any conversation about this topic and impress your friends and colleagues with your logical rigour.

Let me start with some definitions (I did warn you that I like this kind of thing!):

Job: Any collection of tasks (physical, emotional, cognitive) performed in return for economic reward (or in the hope of receiving an economic reward)

Technological Unemployment: The widespread replacement of human task performers with machine task performers, resulting in many fewer jobs.

The ‘many fewer’ is deliberately vague. No believer in widespread technological unemployment thinks that machines will eliminate all jobs; they only think they will eliminate lots of jobs. How many they will eliminate is hard to say. Some people tout figures like a future where only 10-20% of the adult population works for a living. If that happened, then we could definitely say that we have widespread technological unemployment.

So will it happen? What’s the argument in favour of it? In abstract terms, it looks at little something like this:

  • (1) If machines can perform more and more job-related tasks at a cheaper cost than human workers, there will be technological unemployment.
  • (2) Machines can perform more and more job-related tasks at cheaper cost than human workers.
  • (3) Therefore, there will be technological unemployment.

The authors of the books mentioned above spend a lot of time defending the second premise of this argument. They often start by pointing to historical examples of widespread technological unemployment. Their favourite is the shift in employment in farming in America over the course of the 20th Century. In 1900, approximately 40% of the American population was employed in agriculture. Back then, working the farm required a lot of human (and horse) powered labour. By the 2000s, only 2% of the American population worked in agriculture. Much of this change has been attributed to the efficiencies made possible by modern machinery (changes have been similar around the much of the developed world). Of course, this is just one historical example. But it provides proof of concept. The defenders of technological unemployment then shift to listing examples of current and nascent technologies that seem like they reducing (or are on the cusp of reducing) the amount of human labour needed to keep the economy rolling. Examples include: robot fast-food workers; self-driving cars (set to displace 5 million jobs in the US); newer more flexible and intelligent industrial robots like Baxter; Amazon’s Kiva Robots (set to obviate the need for warehouse stockers and pickers); and machine learning systems like IBM’s Watson (set to displace doctors and diagnosticians, if you believe the hype).

And people are often willing to believe the hype. But economists then step in to deliver what seems to be a killer blow to the technological unemployment argument. They argue that proponents of that argument are guilty of two major fallacies —fallacies that first year economics students could easily point out — the Luddite Fallacy and the Lump of Labour Fallacy. These fallacies effectively amount to the same thing: we have been here before and employment is still pretty high. People worried about the effect of machines on jobs over 200 years ago in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The Luddites smashed textile machinery in response to the automation of their skilled labour. But they were wrong to do so. The amount of jobs that the economy creates is not fixed. There is no single ‘lump’ of labour to be divided up between the machines and humans. We can live, happily, side by side. New technologies create new opportunities. Just think about all the new jobs that have been created by digital technologies, from social media marketer, to computer programmer, to online ads technician. The future is bright, even if it is going to be different.

Let’s set to one side the fact that the Luddite fallacy is not really a fallacy (when people lose their jobs to machines it isn’t easy for them to find new sources of employment, even if future generations make the shift). The appeal to both it and the lump of labour fallacy means that proponents of technological unemployment are obliged to explain why it is different this time. And they duly try to fulfil that obligation by issuing something I am going to call the G.A.S.P response. This is a mnemonic you can use to remember the four factors they all appeal that makes it different this time:

General Purpose: The technologies underlying the current machine age do not simply replace individual tasks; they change how work is done across the board. Furthermore, they are, or could be, general purpose technologies, ones that can be deployed across a range of employment contexts. That, at least, is the great hope of AI and machine learning.

Accelerating Change: The current technologies are improving at an accelerating (exponential) rate. This gives rise to two distinct problems: (i) it makes it difficult to draw lessons from historical examples because those examples may be drawn from the relatively linear portion of an exponential growth curve; and (ii) it could make it difficult for workers to retrain to find new jobs because they are slower at improving than the machines.

Superstar Effect: Modern digital networks make it easy for highly skilled workers to capture most of the value within a particular market for goods and services. Why go to the second or third best supplier when global networks allow you to go to the best? Clear examples of this include Google, Facebook and Amazon. They dominate particular markets due to the power of global networks. This means that even when new employment opportunities are created, they will tend not to create many jobs.

Present Indicators: There are several present economic indicators that suggest that technology is having an impact on both the quantity and quality of work. Examples of these indicators include: (i) stagnant real wage growth; (ii) the decoupling of productivity and income; (ii) the polarisation effect (i.e. the hollowing out of middle skill jobs and the growth in low and high skill jobs); and (iv) the decline in the labour force participation rate (in the US) or the decline in real wages in countries where the participation rate remains fairly static (e.g. the UK). (This is probably the weakest of the four claims since there are other explanations for these indicators).

Maybe the G.A.S.P. response is incomplete. Maybe there is more to be said in favour of the mainstream view that employment will remain robust. I’m not going to get into the further details here. I just want to give you my take on the whole thing. I draw two major conclusions from the technological unemployment debate. The first is that it is only a matter of time: assuming their are no physical or logical roadblocks to creating general purpose machinery then it is only a matter of time before machines can replace all human workers, whether that is in 10, 50, 100 or 1000 years time is purely academic (from my perspective) – we need to think about a future without work. The second is that even if this doesn’t happen for a long time, it still seems likely that technology will have a profound impact on the quality and quantity of employment in the short to medium term. The polarisation effect is the clearest illustration of this: more workers are being forced into low skill, precarious, and poorly paid work as a result of the hollowing out of middle skill jobs.

2. The Crisis of Meaning
So what are we going to do about this? Clearly these changes to employment will have a profound impact on society. We rely on work for income and we rely on our incomes to pay for the things we need to survive. Without an income our quality of life will be much reduced. Many technologists and futurists tout the Universal Basic Income as a solution to this problem. A UBI is a guaranteed minimum income, paid to all citizens within a given state or territory, that breaks the link between income and work.

The UBI really feels like an idea whose time has come. The Swiss had a referendum about introducing one earlier this year. They rejected it decisively, but several other countries are experimenting with the idea (Netherlands, Finland) and it certainly seems like it has taken root in the popular consciousness as the way to address the fallout from technological unemployment. You can see why too. For all its radical pretensions, the UBI is actually quite a conservative solution to the problem of mass unemployment. By continuing to pay people an income, the doyens of the capitalist class hope to prop up the consumer economy that has rewarded them so greatly.

But I think a UBI is, at best, a partial solution to the problem. The mistake is to assume that an income is the only benefit (or ‘good’) that we get from work. This simply isn’t true. As I mentioned earlier on, for better or worse, work is a major source of meaning, satisfaction and self-worth. The philosophers Anca Gheaus and Lisa Herzog wrote an interesting article about this earlier in the year. They argued that there are four non-income related goods of work:

Excellence: Work is a privileged forum for achieving the cognitive/physical mastery of some particular skill (e.g. programming). Work gives you the space and time needed to cultivate to develop mastery. Mastery is something that many find intrinsically valuable.

Contribution: Work provides the opportunity to contribute something of value (some good or service) to the society in which you live.

Community: Work is usually undertaken within organisations or in collaboration with other people. It allows you to exercise collective agency in the pursuit of some common aim.

Recognition: Work is a way to achieve social status, recognition and approbation.

Giving people a guaranteed income is not going to give them these non-income related goods. That’s a problem.

But let’s not look at work through overly rose-tinted lenses. Although Gheaus and Herzog may be right that work is a privileged context for achieving these four goods, their argument is flawed in one crucial respect. It is only a privileged context given the current economic necessity of work. If work was no longer necessary for a living we could find other ways to achieve mastery, contribution, community and recognition. It’s not like work is currently brilliant at allowing us to achieve these four goods. Work is, for many people, deeply unpleasant and deeply dispiriting. A Gallup global workplace survey in 2013, for example, found that only 13% of workers actually enjoy what they do. What’s more, to continue to force people to find a job to generate a sense of meaning and purpose about their lives would be torturous in a world of diminishing employment opportunities. It is likely to provoke anxiety and resentment.

Still, I think there is something to worry about when it comes to the withdrawal from work. I think there is a serious risk that rampant automation will rob us of the things we need to make life meaningful. Philosophers have a particular ways of thinking about meaning. The classic view is that a meaningful life is characterised by the Good, the True and the Beautiful. That is to say, your life is meaningful to the extent that you can do moral good (make the world a better place), pursue truth (make contributions to knowledge), and create beauty (works of art/literature etc.). You might think that widespread automation would free you up to pursue the good, the true and the beautiful, but the great fear is that the benefits of automation won’t be limited to the purely economic domain. It may be that machines are better at solving moral problems than we are. In fact, many argue that this is already the case and is one reason why we should hand over control to machines, e.g. the self-driving car debate, algorithmic decision-making debate. It may be that machines are better at figuring out the truth. In fact, this already seems to be the case in certain areas of science where the power of machine learning is being leveraged to generate new theories and ideas. It may never be that machines are better at creating art — though they already can create it — but we have to ask ourselves: is this enough?

The bottom line is that advanced machines can sever the link between what we do and what happens in the world around us. This might be okay if machines only sever the link in the economic domain, but there is reason to suspect they will sever other links too, including some that are essential to meaning. This suggests to me that technological unemployment could kick off a crisis of meaning.

3. Games as Utopia
And how do we solve this crisis? I am not wholly optimistic, but here is where I want to return to my original question about video games and the retreat from reality. It is easy to look upon this retreat with some concern. The real world is, after all, what seems to matter most, but maybe this is wrong. Maybe the rise of the machines gives us a chance to rethink what it means to live a good life. In particular, maybe it gives a chance to think about what it would mean to create the best of all possible lives, right here on earth. I want to close by outlining two philosophical arguments to this effect. Both claim that video games and virtual realities provide plausible conceptions of utopia.

Now, utopia is a much-maligned concept. The word ‘utopia’ was first introduced into the English language by Thomas More in his 1516 book Utopia. Technically, ‘utopia’ translates from the Greek as ‘no place’ suggesting to us that Thomas More was making a somewhat satirical point: i.e. claiming that it was impossible to create the perfect world. Nevertheless, the word has taken on the meaning that is central to that book, namely: that a utopia is the best of all worlds. People have tried to create utopias over the years. They often failed, usually leaving much human misery and destruction in their wake. Nevertheless, there are two, relatively recent (1970s), philosophical conceptions of utopia that I think are interesting and both converge on the notion that a life of video games and virtual pursuits is the best of all possible lives.

The first comes from a book by Bernard Suits called the Grasshopper. This is an odd book. It is most famous for providing a definition of what it means to play a game. Suits defines a game as the ‘voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’. More precisely he defines a game as anything that satisfies the following three conditions: (i) it has a prelusory goal, i.e. some end state or outcome that determines when the game is over and who has won; (ii) constitutive rules, i.e. rules that set up unnecessary obstacles between the player and the prelusory goal; and (iii) a lusory attitude, i.e. a willingness to accept the constitutive rules. Anyone here who is involved in game design might already be familiar with this definition. It was used quite extensively by Jane McGonigal in her 2011 book Reality is Broken which is partly about the gamification of reality.

What is sometimes missed is that Suits’s book is not just about games. It is about utopia too. Specifically, it is about defending the claim that a life that consists of nothing but games is the best of all possible lives. Suits asks us to think about what it is we are trying to do with our new technologies. It seems like we are trying to get them to solve our problems (get us what we want and need) in the most efficient possible manner. So suppose this trend continues and we create a world of perfectly (or near perfectly) efficient machines. These machines can get us anything we want at the flick of a switch. You want a new house? You just have tell the machine and it will build one for you. You don’t need to lift a finger. Suits argues that in such a world all human activities would be games. In other words, if we perfect technology, we will have nothing left to do but play lots of games. Think about it like this. Suppose you want to build a house in this future reality but you don’t want the machine to do it for you. You want to do it the old fashioned way and build it for yourself. You are now playing a game: you are placing unnecessary obstacles between yourself and the goal you want to achieve (you could have just flicked the switch).

So if our goal should be to perfect technological solutionism, it follows that our goal is to create a world in which games take centre stage.

You don’t like that argument? Here’s another one. This one comes from the philosopher Robert Nozick and his famous book Anarchy, State and Utopia. I say ‘famous’ because it has been taught to generations of philosophy students as a defence of the libertarian, minimal state. And although the book is primarily a defence of libertarianism, it is also partly about utopianism. Nozick presents one of the most interesting and novel takes on what it means to live in a utopian world. He starts by trying to operationalise the concept of utopia. He agrees that a utopia is the best of all possible worlds, but what does that mean in practice? He suggests the following:

Utopia: A world that is judged to be best by its members, i.e. there is no other world they can imagine that would be better.

He then highlights a problem. People don’t agree on what it means to be ‘best’. They have different preferences and values. This means that it is very unlikely that there is a single utopian world, i.e. a world that is judged to be best by all its members. But there is a solution to this problem. Instead of trying to create a single world that is best for all, we should create a world-building mechanism that allows people to create and join worlds that correspond to their own standards of bestness. Nozick calls this the ‘meta utopia’:

Meta-Utopia: A world building mechanism that allows people to create and join worlds that correspond to their own standards of bestness.

How could we create a meta-utopia? Well, when you think about, doesn’t virtual reality technology seem like an obvious way to do this? If it is sufficiently immersive and widely distributed, it will allow people to create and join virtual worlds that correspond to their own standards of bestness. (To be clear: Nozick definitely wouldn’t agree with this given his Experience Machine Argument).

This brings us back to the opening story — to Danny Izquierdo and the generation of young men (and women!) that are retreating from the world of work. What I am now suggesting is that they may be right. We may be forced to retreat from work by advances in technology, but this may be a good thing. Danny and others may be the first intrepid explorers into a virtual, game-playing utopia.

Now, before you think I have gone completely insane, let me say that I don’t necessarily agree with the argument I have just presented. I like the real world and I like to think that what I do makes a contribution to that world (i.e. a contribution to the Good, the True and the Beautiful). Furthermore, I do not believe that virtual can survive without the real. It will only be possible to retreat into virtual utopias if the political, social and technical institutions in the real world are stable enough to allow this to happen. Ironically, it seems like the technological revolutions that make virtual utopias possible are also destabilising these institutions. I think we are beginning to see this in the politics of fear and resentment that is sweeping through the world at this very moment. Much of that fear and resentment is being dredged to the surface by globalisation and the changing nature of work. So even if you think the argument I outlined in this talk is sensible, you will have to find some way to make the virtual and real work together. You cannot do that through total disengagement.

* To be clear, what they say may be factually wrong in a number of ways too. Zimbardo’s claims, in particular, seem to be deeply problematic. I don’t really care whether they are right or wrong for the purposes of this talk. I use their view as a scratching post for defending an alternative point of view.

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Post-Election To-Do List (by David Swanson)

1. Stop the efforts to ram through the Trans-Pacific Partnership during the lame duck.

2. Stop the efforts to ram through a supplemental war spending bill for assorted future wars during the lame duck.

3. Stop the efforts to repeal the right to sue Saudi Arabia and other nations for their wars and lesser acts of terrorism during the lame duck.

4. Build a nonpartisan movement to effect real change.

5. Ban bribery, fund elections, make registration automatic, make election day a holiday, end gerrymandering, eliminate the electoral college, create the right to vote, create public hand counting of paper ballots at every polling place, create ranked choice voting.

6. End the wars, end the weapons dealing, close the bases, and shift military spending to human and environmental needs.

7. Tax billionaires.

8. End mass incarceration and the death penalty and the militarization of police.

9. Create single-payer healthcare.

10. Support the rule of law, diplomacy, and aid.

11. Invest in serious effort to avoid climate catastrophe.

12. Apologize to the world for having elected President Clinton or Trump.



1. Build a movement that includes all the Democrats eager to get active.

2. Build a movement that includes a focus on rights of refugees / immigrants

3. Build a movement that resists racist violence at home.

4. Demand a swift end to NAFTA and NATO.

5. Oppose all the horrible nominations for high offices.

6. Break up the media cartel.

7. If win came through voter suppression, seek prosecution immediately.

8. If win came through fraudulent counting, launch massive campaign to compel Democrats to admit it and protest it.



1. Build a movement that includes all the Republicans and Libertarians eager to get active.

2. Build a movement that includes a focus on rights of refugees / immigrants

3. Build a movement that resists racist violence directed at nations abroad.

4. Demand serious action on climate change.

5. Oppose all the horrible nominations for high offices.

6. Break up the media cartel.

7. If win came through fraudulent counting, support Trump’s noisy denunciation, and if it did not, then reject Trump’s noisy denunciation.



1. Support the independent media that made this possible.

2. Support all the wonderful nominees for higher office.

3. Help people in other countries turn their disastrous political systems around too.

4. Volunteer for public service.


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But How Do You Use Nonviolence Against a Nuke?

Some of the most misguided questions ever conceived by the human brain take the form of “But how do you use nonviolence against . . . ?”

For example, fill in the blank with ISIS. How do you use nonviolence against ISIS?

Now you’re supposed to picture yourself with a knife at your throat trying to resist it nonviolently. Then you’re supposed to burst into a fit of laughter.

But how would you resist that knife violently? A superhuman feat of martial arts seems at least as unlikely to work as speaking.

But actually possible before the knife arrives at your throat at all are such nonviolent actions as: ceasing to arm ISIS allies, ceasing to allow U.S. allies to fund ISIS, ceasing to inspire ISIS recruiting by bombing people and propping up brutal governments, ceasing to destabilize countries by overthrowing governments, negotiating an arms embargo, negotiating a cease fire, providing actual humanitarian aid on an appropriate scale, opening borders to refugees, investing in efforts to halt climate chaos, strengthening the rule of law by example, kick starting a reverse arms race, abolishing weapons of mass destruction, and — of course — using all the tools of nonviolence as an individual to create these policies.

Or fill in the blank with Vladimir Putin. Now you’re supposed to imagine some mash up of Vladimir coming at you in a wrestling match, Russian jets flying along the border of Russia thousands of miles away from the United States, and a nuclear bomb landing on your roof. Then you’re supposed to burst into a fit of patriotic singing.

But how would you resist Vladimir Putin violently? He’s not really wrestling you. Attacking Russian planes might provoke an actual attack by the Russian military, and shooting at the nuke as it comes through the ceiling isn’t likely to de-activate it. But actually possible steps that would help include: abolishing NATO, negotiating disarmament agreements, ending foreign wars, closing foreign bases, strengthening the rule of law by example, etc.

My favorite, however, is: “But How Do You Use Nonviolence Against a Nuke?” For this one, we don’t need to invent or speculate. We can simply reply: Learn the actions of Michael Walli, Megan Rice, and Greg Boertje-Obed, and go forth and do likewise. There are thousands of other answers as well. You can lobby for the 2017 treaty to ban nuclear weapons. You can push for divestment from nuclear weapons. You can teach history. You can write articles like this one. But a central answer should be: Do something like Walli, Rice, and Boertje-Obed are doing.

The actions of those three are the main focus of a new book by Dan Zak called Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. The book reviews useful history of the development of the bomb and of resistance to it including the Catholic Worker movement, of nuclear testing and human experimentation, and of recent developments in disarmament, armament, and activism. But the book takes as its starting point the nonviolent plowshares action that Michael, Megan (pronounced MEE-gan), and Greg took part in on July 28, 2012, at the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Their action clearly has already inspired this book, as well as much other reporting, and much other activism — with, I hope, a lot more to come.

These three activists made their way through the surrounding woods and a number of fences into the heart of the Y-12 facility undetected. They painted graffiti peace messages, spilled blood, and protested the creation of nuclear weapons. That they were elderly and one of them a nun was the overwhelming focus of the resulting media coverage. That the United States has nuclear facilities being run by utterly incompetent private companies living high off the tax dollar hog but endangering the globe was a secondary but important focus as well. The sensible guard who avoided escalating the situation was scapegoated and fired. Supposedly changes have been made now so that giant piles of bomb-ready uranium are guarded with at least some fraction of the care devoted to harassing you before you board an airplane.

Michael, Megan, and Greg were put on trial for sabotage or what the judge called a “federal crime of terrorism.” They were convicted, imprisoned, and released when that verdict was later overturned. They have promised to continue their activism.

Meanwhile, the book they inspired offers a rich history of which we should all be aware.

Did you know that high school girls preparing the infernos for Hiroshima and Nagasaki were told and presumably believed that they were manufacturing ice cream?

Did you know that Oak Ridge employed over 22,000 people when FDR died and Germany surrendered, and that sheer bureaucratic momentum blocked any consideration of halting the creation of a nuclear bomb?

Zak’s book includes gems from the Berrigans’ and allies’ poetry: “We wish also to challenge the lethal lie spun by G.E. through its motto, ‘We bring good things to life.’ As manufacturers of the Mark 12A re-entry vehicle, G.E. actually prepares to bring good things to death.”

Only occasionally does the author’s background as a Washington Post reporter (as opposed to a member of the peace movement he writes about) come through. For example, he recounts a moment when “opposition to the Vietnam war was reaching its ugly peak.” He repeatedly suggests that Vladimir Putin has single-handedly restarted the Cold War without any contribution from the U.S. government or NATO. He claims that North Korea has been “led by a succession of madmen.” And his reporting in six different places on the views of others as to whether the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was actually needed to end the war would have benefitted from the addition of his own voice on the matter (presuming him to know that the bombing was not needed).

Still, this is a wonderful book inspired by even more wonderful activism. We should have more of both.

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5 Things to Do About ISIS, or Can an American Without a Gun “Do Something”?

By davidswanson – Posted on 18 November 2015

Toward the end of altering our idea of what counts as “doing something,” I offer this composite representation of numerous media interviews I’ve done.

Interviewer: So you’d stop the planes and the drones and the bombs and the special forces. You’ve said lots about what you wouldn’t do, but can you say what you would do?

Me: Sure, I believe the United States government should propose and attempt to negotiate and at the same time unilaterally begin a ceasefire. When President Kennedy asked the Soviet Union to agree to a ban on nuclear tests, he announced that the United States was itself going ahead and halting them. Negotiating is helped through leadership by example. For the United States to stop engaging or assisting in live fire would give huge momentum to a ceasefire negotiation.

Interviewer: So, again, you would stop firing, but what would you do instead?

Me: The United States ought to propose and work to negotiate and unilaterally begin an arms embargo. I say the United States because I live there and because the majority of the weapons in the Middle East originate in the United States. U.S. participation alone in an arms embargo would end the majority of arms provision to Western Asia. Ceasing to rush Saudi Arabia more weapons would do more good than writing a report on that kingdom’s atrocities, for example. An arms embargo should be developed to include every nation in the region and be expanded into disarmament — first and foremost of all nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (yes, including Israel’s). The United States has the leverage to accomplish this, but not while working against it — as it now vigorously does.

Interviewer: Yet again, here’s something you don’t want to do: provide arms. But is there something that you do want to do?

Me: Other than creating peace and a WMD-free Middle East? Yes, I’m glad you asked. I’d like to see the U.S. government launch a massive program of reparations and aid to the people of Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, Pakistan, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, and the entire rest of the region. (Please, please, please take my word for it that I am not listing every single nation purely in order to save time, and not because I hate some of them or any such insanity.) This no-strings-attached program should include food aid, medical aid, infrastructure, green energy, peace workers, human shields, communications technology for popular use of social media, environmental cleanup, and cultural and educational exchanges. And it should be paid for (note that it does have to be paid for and therefore should count as the very essence of a capitalist “doing something”) through a modest reduction in U.S. militarism — in fact, converting U.S. military facilities in the Middle East into green energy and cultural institutions, and handing them over to the residents.

Interviewer: I hate to have to keep asking the same question, but, again, what is it that you would do about ISIS? If you oppose war, do you support police action? What is something, anything at all for goodness sake, that you would dooooooooo?

Me: Well, in addition to halting violence, negotiating disarmament, and investing on a scale and with a level of respectful generosity to bump the Marshall Plan right out of the history books, I would begin efforts to deprive ISIS of funding and weaponry. A general halt to arms shipments would, of course, already help. Ending the air strikes that are ISIS’s biggest recruitment tool would help. But Saudi Arabia and other regional powers have to be brought around to cutting off the funding to ISIS. That would not be nearly as difficult to do if the U.S. government ceased thinking of Saudi Arabia as a valued weapons customer and stopped bowing down to its every demand.

Interviewer: Stop the funding. Stop the arming. This all sounds nice. And you keep saying it over and over again. But I’m going to ask you one last time to say what you would do instead, and what weaponry you would use exactly to do it.

Me: I would use the weapon that eliminates enemies by turning them into something other than enemies. I would embrace the ideology that ISIS works against. It doesn’t oppose U.S. militarism. It feeds off it. ISIS opposes humanism. I would welcome refugees without limit. I would make the United States a part of the global community on an equal and cooperative basis, joining without reservations the International Criminal Court, and existing treaties on the rights of the child, land mines, cluster bombs, racial discrimination, discrimination against women, weapons in space, rights of migrant workers, arms trade, protection from disappearances, rights of people with disabilities, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I would work to reform the United Nations beginning by unilaterally foreswearing use of the veto. I would announce a policy of ceasing to prop up or to overthrow foreign dictators. I would announce plans to support nonviolence, democracy, and sustainability at home and abroad, leading by example — including in the area of disarmament. Reforming U.S. democracy by removing the system of legalized bribery and the whole list of needed reforms would set an example and also allow more democratic policies. I would shift our officially propogated sympathies from We Are All France to We Are All the World. To imagine that any of these steps is unrelated to ISIS is to misunderstand the power of propaganda, image, and the communication of respectful goodwill or arrogant disdain.

Interviewer: Well, we’ve run out of time, and yet you still won’t tell me anything you would do. Sadly, that leaves us obliged to support an assault on ISIS, as much as we dislike war.

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The State Needs Crime

By | December 13th, 2014

In Saturday Night Live‘s parody of Citizen Kane, on a slow news day Charles Foster Kane says, “if there’s not any news, we’ll make some,” and begins randomly shooting people out the newspaper office window. That’s the first thing I thought of on reading reports that two plainclothes California Highway Patrol cops found themselves outed — in the process of attempting to instigate looting by protesters! — during a march through Oakland and Berkeley against two recent grand jury decisions not to indict cops who had killed unarmed black men.

That’s right, attempting to instigate looting — you didn’t misread. According to eyewitnesses livetweeting from the demonstration, the two officers — posing as demonstrators — were would-be “instigators of looting” (Courtney Harrop, “Undercover Cops Outed and Pulled Guns on Crowd,” Storify, December 11, 2013). Protesters in the group they were attempting to infiltrate spotted them as fakes and outed them to the rest of the crowd. One of the panicked cops, captured in a photograph that immediately went viral, pulled his gun and began threatening the surrounding marchers.

Police provocateurs as instigators of crime is an old narrative. As Earth First! organizer Judi Bari famously said, “the person that offers to get the dynamite is always the FBI agent.” From the December 1999 Seattle protests on, the anti-globalization movement was rife with rumors of undercover cops always being the first to suggest smashing store windows. Nearly every “terror cell” busted by the FBI since 9/11 turned out to have been organized every step of the way by federal agents. Indeed the “terrorists” were usually so incompetent they could barely function even with FBI guidance.

Just as Charles Foster Kane manufactured news where there was none, the state manufactures crime where none would otherwise exist.

It does this, in the first instance, to create a pretext for using violence to suppress its immediate critics — the protesters against corporate globalization, the Occupiers, marchers outraged by racial injustice. The state always attempts to tarnish any movement circulating the message that “Another World is Possible” or casting doubt on the legitimacy of the existing system of power. It has done this by dismissing them as “reds,” “anarchists” and “outside agitators” — as in the post-Haymarket repression and the post-WWI Red Scare — and if necessary by simply fabricating crime.

But beyond that, the state needs us afraid so we’ll be willing to grant it power. A society made up of people who trust rather than fear each other, confident in their own ability to keep themselves safe through peaceful cooperation with their neighbors, is an inhospitable breeding ground for state power. The state needs crime — even if it has to invent it.

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The Warning of Animal Farm: Inequality Matters

By By David S. D’Amato

Recently, in a comment on my short piece, “The Libertarian Road to Egalitarianism,” philosopher and prominent libertarian Tibor R. Machan cited George Orwell’s Animal Farm as an example of what happens when we attempt to do something about inequality. To Machan, inequality is a “fabricated problem,” and Orwell’s fairy story is a cautionary tale on the dangers of trying to remedy it.

Upon reading his comment, I was somewhat nonplussed, for it had never occurred to me to read Animal Farm in such a way. Indeed, since reading the novel for the first time, I have understood it to offer a warning almost antithetical to that of Machan’s reading.

It seemed to me then, as now, that Orwell’s Animal Farm in fact counsels on the problems with inequality, the results of granting special rights and privileges to some politically connected ruling class. Orwell skillfully illustrates the fundamental problem with political authority, its inherent conflict, that confronted with the incentives which favor abuses of power, lofty philosophical ideals are readily discarded. Orwell’s whole point is that the pigs never actually take their rhetoric about equality and reestablishing the farm on fairer terms seriously — that they almost immediately begin to take advantage of their distinctly unequal position on the farm to exploit the rest of the animals and hoard the luxuries for their own private use and enjoyment.

Animal Farm thus succinctly demonstrates the connection between political power and economic power. When inequality in the former is instituted as a matter of legal fact, inequality in the latter follows unavoidably. Free market libertarians are often uncomfortable with the left’s condemnations of economic inequality, arguing that in principle libertarianism can take no issue with inequality itself.

After all, if we favor individual rights, open competition, and private property, we ought to accept whatever results they yield. Strictly speaking, that’s all true enough. It seems to me, however, that a thoroughgoing libertarian critique of society as it is today must include a critique of economic inequality as a symptom of the lack of economic freedom and the persistent interferences of political power to favor and enrich a rich elite. In his biographical study of Thomas Hodgskin, historian David Stack describes Hodgskin’s belief that “the worker could be liberated by the full application of bourgeois morality.”

For Hodgskin, Stack writes, “Inequality and misery, social order and the anti-peace” were all functions of the law, artificially imposed and not the result of “any inherent inequalities in the system of production.” If existing economic injustices flowed from the operation of positive law, then “socialist strictures against laissez faire were mistaken.” Hodgskin lived and wrote in a time when it was easier to articulate a view that was both liberal and socialist. The underappreciated legacy of thinkers like Hodgskin makes the case (frequently made at the Center for a Stateless Society today) that libertarians ought to be wary of embracing the term “capitalism,” and trumpeting it as a thing that we favor.

Like Hodgskin, today’s market anarchists do not object to the mere fact that capital is compensated for its part in the process of production. The worry — which can only finally be allayed by observing a now hypothetical free market and finding out — is that capital is overcompensated due to a position of privilege which the State confers on it. “One is almost tempted to believe,” wrote Hodgskin, “that capital is a sort of cabalistic word, like Church or State, or any other of those general terms which are invented by those who fleece the rest of mankind to conceal the hand that shears them.

It is a sort of idol before which men are called upon to prostrate themselves . . . .” Among Hodgskin’s central insights, habitually overlooked by most free marketers, is the idea that the fact of exchange in and of itself does not prove the absence of exploitation. Unequal exchange is exploitative insofar as one party to the exchange has an unfair advantage, one gained from the coercive prevention or restriction of competition. Considered on the micro level, unequal exchange might manifest in, for example, the employment relationship or an agreement for consumer goods or services. On a larger scale, unequal exchange analyses may aid our understanding of the way that the poor, developing world interacts economically with the rich and developed West.

​In the world of Animal Farm, the pigs employed violence as a way to preserve their position of power; the other animals worked increasingly long hours for less and less, with the pigs ruling as lords of Animal Farm — the name of which was eventually changed back to its original name, Manor Farm. The original mantra, “All animals are equal,” is gradually, almost imperceptibly supplanted by the idea that “some animals are more equal than others.” Machan’s interpretation of Animal Farm forgets that Orwell was a socialist, and as Orwell scholar Craig L. Carr observes, the famous novel is straightforwardly warning about the “betrayal of the egalitarian ideal.”

Following the pigs’ revolution, the ouster of Mr. Jones, “[a]n economic system that legitimates material inequality remained in place.” Orwell is interested in the use of language. In all his work, including Animal Farm, political fustian is the mechanism through which the noble goals of the revolution are “rendered consistent with the privilege and superior position of the upper class.” The language of libertarianism and free markets is analogously important to the beneficiaries of economic privilege. Without it, people would recognize corporate power for what it is, a creation of political violence and coercion, a class system as real, observable and quantifiable as any before it.

Criticizing inequality ought to be important to libertarianism to the extent that we take our own free market ideas seriously and see the political economy of today as far removed from our model. Libertarians should accordingly welcome socialism and class analysis as found in the work of leftists like Hodgskin and Orwell. It’s time we start emphasizing liberty and equality, not liberty or equality.

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Gaza Is a Transhumanist Issue!

By Summerspeaker

Transhumanists as a rule may prefer to contemplate implants and genetic engineering, but few if any violations of morphological freedom exceed being torn to pieces by shrapnel or dashed against concrete by an overpressure wave. In this piece I argue that the settler-colonial violence in occupied Palestine relates to core aspects of modernity and demands futurist attention both emotionally and intellectually.

The latest intensification of conflict in Gaza – the Israeli Defense Force’s Operation Protective Edge – has already killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians, left thousands more injured, and displaced tens of thousands. British- and U.S.-made munitions have been raining down on homes, schools, and hospitals in Gaza. Viscous racism and misogyny fuel the fire, with prominent Israeli Martin Sherman even calling for the forced relocation or death of every Palestinian in Gaza.

Promoted as smart and precise, laser-guided explosives in this engagement yet again fail to deliver the dream of neat and tidy war where only combatants perish. Instead, here the high-tech surveillance and targeting systems lead to old-fashioned results: death, maiming, sorrow, and terror. The rhetoric of smart, high-tech weapons primarily serves to district from the visceral horror at hand. In the case of the Iron Dome defense system, technology may be fostering violence. Certainly war profiteers are doing their thing.

In addition to the military technology involved, Israel stands out as a center of technological innovation and darling of the technophile community. Hank Pellissier has promoted Israel as a transhumanist beacon on IEET previously. Tech business continues to boom in Israel despite the violence. This dynamic illustrates how the technological advancement central to transhumanism and technoprogressivism has an intimate connection with the current bloodshed in Gaza. Israeli scientists seek breakthroughs while Israeli bombs break Palestinian bones.

Israel’s “Iron Dome” Technology

In technoprogressive terms, the costs, risks, and benefits of innovations and the existing apparatus of technoscience aren’t justly distributed in Palestine. Anyone so much as sympathetic to technoprogressivism must regard the massacre in Gaza as shameful and tragic. Israel has long been chastised by the United Nations, albeit impotently, for violations of international law. The recent deadly mortar attack on U.N. School in Gaza constitutes a particularly egregious example of Israeli war crimes. Thousands upon thousands have taken to streets across the world to condemn the current violence, and various states – especially in Latin America – have officially rebuked the Israeli government. Global public opinion appears to be turning against Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in unprecedented fashion.

I encourage all transhumanists, technoprogressives, futurists, and so on to seriously reflect on what the relationship between innovation and militarism means, both in Palestine and more broadly. I recommend against the temptation to dismiss the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict as some primitive or retrograde dynamic that will necessarily fade away amid ever-advancing technological progress. To the contrary, settler colonialism – the primary cause of violence in Palestine – constitutes one of the cornerstones of modernity and remains key in the present day. Western rationality and technoscience themselves come out of the modern crucible that includes colonialism and white supremacy.

Like the United States before it, the state of Israel emerged via settler colonialism and continuities rely on the elimination of Indigenous autonomy, community, and lives. Zionist settlers arrived in Palestine with a mission to dispossess the preexisting population and create a new Jewish-dominated polity. In both Israel and the United States, technoscience relies on stolen land soaked in the blood of earlier inhabitants.

What does the heartbreaking history and present of settler colonialism mean to the transhumanist and technoprogressive projects? Countless possible responses exist, including fervent denial and total despair. For myself I consider transhumanism unavoidably but not hopelessly enmeshed in colonialism. The transhumanism I practice and promote – anarchist transhumanism – takes opposition to all oppression as its centerpiece. I support local efforts to show how Israeli settler colonialism connects to settler colonialism here in New Mexico, end U.S. aid to Israel, and advance the BDS Movement.

As I’ve argued previously, within an empiricist epistemology there’s no doubt that industrial civilization rests on a foundation of vast human suffering. That’s the abyss that confronts anyone who contemplates the state the world and the prospects for improvement. Present atrocities in Gaza provide a window into the abyss. I urge all futurists and techno-visionaries to carefully confront it. I for one have no interest in reiterating the status quo by building the fabulous future on a heap of human skulls.

We can and must do so much better.

(Maps and images added to this article by Kris Notaro | More maps can found at The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions: ICAHD website)

The UN Partition Plan tried to divide the country according to demographic concentrations, but the Palestinian and Jewish populations were so intertwined that that became impossible. Although the Jews comprised only a third of the country’s population (548,000 out of 1,750,000) and owned only 6% of the land, they received 55% of the country (including both Tel Aviv/Jaffa and Haifa port cities, the Sea of Galilee and the resource-rich Negev). In the area allocated to the Jewish state, only about 57% of the population was actually Jewish (538,000 Jews, 397,000 Arabs). The Jewish community accepted the Partition Plan; the Palestinians (except those in the Communist Party) and the Arab countries rejected it.

In 1967 Israel annexed an area of 70 sq. kms., which it called “East” Jerusalem, to the 38 sq. kms. that had comprised Israeli “West” Jerusalem since 1948, even though the Palestinian side of the city under Jordan was just 6 sq. kms. It gerrymandered the municipal border according to two principles: incorporating as much unbuilt-upon Palestinian land as possible for future Israeli settlements (depicted in blue), while excluding as much of the Palestinian population as possible so as to maintain a 72% Jewish majority in the city. As the concentrations of Palestinian population show (in brown), the municipal border cut in half a living urban fabric of communities, families, businesses, schools, housing and roads. Its placement of settlements prevents the urban development of Palestinian Jerusalem – the economic and cultural as well as religious center of Palestinian life – transforming its residential and commercial areas into disconnected enclaves. There are today more Israelis living in “East” Jerusalem (more than 200,000) than Palestinians. Since Palestinians cannot live in “West” Jerusalem, Israeli restrictions on building (combined with an aggressive campaign of house demolitions) have confined that population to a mere 6% of the urban land – although they are a third of the Jerusalem population. Discriminatory administrative and housing measures have led to the “Quiet Transfer” of thousands of Palestinian families out of the city, and to the loss of their Jerusalem residency.

(Maps and images added to this article by Kris Notaro | More maps can found at The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions: ICAHD website)

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Primitivism, Progress, the Transhuman & the Technological Avalanche

Adam Ford talks with John Zerzan about Primitivism, Progress, the Transhuman & the Technological Avalanche.
Why can’t we solve the problem of the progress trap with the use of technology?

It is through technology (i.e. computation) we really understand how fragile the environment is, approach understanding butterfly effects

Describe the incremental progress to Primitivism?
Were we ever purely biological? Without artifacts and instruments? Where do you draw the line…how primitive are we talking? where do you draw the line? what sorts of technology are ok?

is Primitivism an all or nothing approach? Can it co-exist with Transhumanism?
ability to encode ideals/philosophies with or without advanced language and recording?

Technological advancements in bio-engineering, nanotechnology, cybernetics, amongst others, have the potential to be progress traps, and the global scale of modern society means that a societal collapse could impact all of mankind.

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