Sorry, That Job Went To A Robot

Back in the 1810s a group of skilled self-employed weavers bandied together to take a stand against the new wave of weaving technologies that was being introduced. These included the power-loom and the spinning frame and all would require less-skilled labour to be used. The self-employed weavers were worried they would be out of a job. So they got to breaking these technologies in calculated acts of protest and called themselves the Luddites – arguably a reference to Ned Ludd who smashed some stocking frames back in 1779. And now, hundreds of years later, it’s not a power-loom that will force many people into unemployment, it’s robots.

Drones will deliver post, robots will run warehouses, automated check-outs will bleat at you to ‘insert your card’, Excel will do your accounting, a new piece of software might even paint a picture for you and cars will drive themselves. And what for the people who used to do these blue and white-collar jobs – they’ll have nothing to do. Some call them ‘pointless’ or ‘useless’ people, which is a glib way of acknowledging that history appears to be an endless case of efficiency taking precedence over people. But there’s nothing efficient about a society full of unemployed and unhappy people, the sort of people who might take arms against robots and start smashing.

Meanwhile, those with vested interests will laud the oncoming industrial revolution saying it’s the greatest opportunity humankind has ever had for advancement. I imagine similar things were said about nuclear energy. The zealots of this movement will barely be able to contain themselves knowing that their latest Amazon package will be flown to them via drone or they’ll be able to upload their memories into a robot (yup, Ray Kurzweil would love this). It’s worth remembering that these people will probably be rich and very far removed from the worries and realities of poverty and unemployment. They might also have not have asked if there are actually enough resources on earth to robotise everything.

So, what to do? Firstly, don’t take any of these stories at face values whatever the predictions – nothing goes as planned. Secondly, if the elites get what they want and society becomes increasingly automated (as it already has done) we must ask what it means to have a world without labour (or, at least, human labour) – what does this mean for feelings of self-worth considering they are so often tied to the work we do and what does this mean for the Labour party itself, founded on the rise of the working classes? Thirdly, this isn’t really about machines and robots, this is about power, people and how we treat each other. A Universal Basic Income is just one way of ensuring everyone gets paid even if they don’t work. Although the right wing, if they were to implement something like this, would probably use it as yet another excuse to strip back the state and weaken public services but what’s the point of a UBI if you can’t afford medical care and other necessities?

So the future is still there to be fought for. It’s not a foregone conclusion and the stories the vested interests weave don’t have to become self-fulfilling prophecies. We can challenge power, as hard as it is, and create a fairer world for all, with or without robots. Basically, it doesn’t have to end up becoming like this…

Why Life Is Like Monopoly (And Not A Box Of Chocolates)

So, you’ve got £200 in your pocket and you’re ready to Go. London unfolds before you – its Victorian terraces, towering skyscrapers, penthouse apartments, silver dogs and prisons. All that saving and you might finally be able to get a foot on the property ladder, it’s what you’ve always dreamed of. Yup, just a typical game of Monopoly, except this time I’m going to bend the rules a little to show the parallels between the board game and the game of life.

https://i1.wp.com/pic.lifetmt.com/2014/07/logo-monopoly2.jpgLet’s say there are 6 players and everyone is ready to get going. You, player 1, full of hope and aspirations start the game with £200. Next to go is Archibald, player 2, who already has £2,000,000. Why does he have such a high amount? He inherited it from a previous player. Whereas you’ll have to work hard to earn your cash Archibald will barely have to lift a finger. Unfair? Yup. That’s life. So, you keep trundling round the board just waiting to be able to buy your first little piece of land. However, it turns out Hugo, player number 3, is a member of one of the few land owning families in the country and it just so happens that his family already own a whole load of London. This means you won’t actually be able to buy the land you’ll just be able to rent it off Hugo’s family. Furthermore, because Hugo’s family have been hoarding land for so long it has become an increasingly scarce resource, meaning it’s very, very expensive because so many people want it. Better get moving round that board.

Fortunately, Hector, player number 4, is the banker and he’s there for you. He gives you £200 every time you pass Go to help you get your first foot on the property ladder. Of course, it’s not free money, it’s actually a loan and because the system isn’t that well-regulated Hector’s happy to keep loaning you money, he’ll even give you a mortgage, even though it’s unlikely you’ll be able to repay it. He also turns people’s dodgy mortgages into investment opportunities for rich people who want to get richer. Multiply this process by millions of people and when they start failing to pay off their mortgages the whole system comes crumbling down and lots of people get in debt, including you player number 1. Fortunately, Hector knows Bertie, player number 5, who is a politician, and rather than get Hector fired or even put in jail for corrupt behaviour he actually bails the bank out with public money – that’s right, he takes some cash from your hard-earned stash and gives it to Hector.

So, strapped for cash, in debt and struggling to get by you decide to make a stand. You wave a placard, you shout a slogan or two, you appeal to the better angels of people’s nature in the hope to make the system fairer. Enter Bobby, player number 6, he’s a policeman and he’s got no time for the likes of you. In fact, Bobby likes to uphold the rules of the game and he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t. So it’s off to prison with you for being a troublemaker. That’s what you get if you challenge the establishment and try to change the system. And let’s not forget some of the other players who haven’t been mentioned including Eric, the accountant and consultant who advises Archibald and his rich friends on how to avoid paying taxes; Rupert, who runs the newspapers and happily prints articles on how terrible and greedy poor people are whilst lavishing praise on the rich; and even quiet and unassuming Peter who actually works at MI5 and enjoys spying on groups of ‘subversives’ who think climate change and capitalism are somewhat problematic. He’ll happily team up with Rupert, Bobby, Bertie and the rest in order to keep the establishment in place and the masses at bay.

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Life, like a game of monopoly, seems to begin and end with money. People endlessly trudge around the board of life trying to make a decent living but there’s nothing decent about money, the system is rigged from the outset. It could take someone many lifetimes to earn what some people inherit at birth. Money is not fair – it is a scarce resource that is unevenly distributed and yet it’s the item we use to access key resources including houses, land and food. Thus, objects that could be in abundance (there’s enough food on the planet to feed everyone for instance) are forced into a system of imposed scarcity making it doubly hard to get by – first you’ve got to work to get a living just so you can get the money to buy the actual things you need. Perhaps you’re thinking what I’m thinking? That it’s time to change the rules of the game…

You Can’t Stop The Beat Of Equality

Fascists painting swastikas in blood on the sides of buses during an anti-refugee march in Dover. Rich Oxford University alumni threatening to write Oriel College out of their wills if the college removes a statue of the racist Cecil Rhodes. Mega-corporations getting away with avoiding paying billions of pounds worth of tax during a time of austerity and increasing inequality. Sometimes, maybe always, it seems like the world is going to pot and that the bad guys really will win. And whilst I don’t think equality and justice are guarantors but are contracts in need of endless renewal, in the same way the social fabric is a patchwork in need of constant darning, I do know that despite all the hatred out there it is so much easier being nice. Plus, nice people get a better soundtrack.

Bigotry is hard work. As the Red Queen boasts to Alice that she can believe six impossible things before breakfast so too must bigots juggle all sorts of contradictions and paradoxes in order to justify their narrow-mindedness. For example, one of the fascists who marched in Dover yesterday has to believe that certain groups of people are inferior whilst demanding that they themselves, and the people they care about, are superior. It tends to be one rule for them and one rule for me (and my family). A fascist also has to believe that our economic problems can be blamed on migrants and refugees, meaning they get to scapegoat the vulnerable whilst not bothering to question the economic and political realities that keeps a constant stream of wealth and power flowing to the elite minority at the expense of the majority (a majority that they are part of!). On the other hand, it’s much easier for a nice person who realises that nothing makes anyone inherently better or worse than anyone else and so doesn’t need to expend lots of energy discriminating against certain groups. They can also google around the issues of inequality rather than just accept what the newspapers tell them. At the end of the day (and at the start of it) love is a much more sustainable energy source than hate.

And nice people get a much better soundtrack. Take You Can’t Stop The Beat that ends the ace musical Hairspray (big spoilers by the way, equality wins). All the characters, even the baddies, shake their booty to a song that relishes the striving for so many forms of equality – between people of different races, skin colours and body shapes. “You can try to stop the paradise we’re dreaming of,” they sing, and of course (as Taylor Swift also told us) haterz gonna hate, because that’s what haters do. But “you can’t stop today as it comes speeding down the track,” sings Queen Latifah, “Child, yesterday is history and it’s never coming back.” And she’s right, today is zooming straight at us like a highspeed train and we get to choose whether it’s a train that runs people over or if it’s some awesome party train to which all are invited (rehabilitated fascists included). Because when it comes down to it hate and love are choices, and as difficult as we might find it to choose the latter, there’s still time to learn (trust me, it’ll be fun). And so concludes my blog about being nice – perhaps just an excuse to post this awesome song which does what this blog does anyway but too a far catchier tune (Spanish subtitles included).

The Museum Of Statues

You might have heard that Oriel College, Oxford, has come under a lot of scrutiny recently with regards whether or not its statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed. Rhodes was a Victorian mining magnate who made lots of money from diamonds and the exploitation of labour, however, he did give some of his cash to Oxford University to set up a scholarship for international students. On one side are the students leading the Rhodes Must Fall campaign demanding that the statue be removed because Rhodes was a notorious racist and it’s pretty offensive having to walk past his effigy on a daily basis. Then there are the conservatives (for want of a better word) demanding that the statue stay because students these days are too easily offended and removing a statue is tantamount to erasing history. And there’s Oriel College staff – caught in the middle of it until a recent article revealed that a bunch of wealthy college alumni threatened to withdraw hundreds of thousands of pounds if the statue was removed. So, because money speaks louder than students (unless they’re very rich students) the statue will stay. I agree – I think the statue should stay – just not in Oriel College.

Different sides of the debate keep asking us to focus on the ‘bigger picture’ – be it the reputation of Oxford University, the literal whitewashing of history, historical legacies of racism and not forgetting the contemporary incidences of racism in a notoriously white university, brilliantly explained in this article. However, there’s another bit of the ‘bigger picture’ that I would humbly suggest we are missing – our obsession with statues. I mean seriously, they’re everywhere, whole buildings festooned in big blocks of stone carved into the likenesses of…well…mainly white men. White men who led us into war (Winston Churchill, Nelson), white men who got rich (Cecil Rhodes, George Peabody) and white men who fought dragons (St George). Sure, women get statues too – Queen Victoria and Elizabeth, two women who by the sheer accident of birth ended up ruling our country. There’s Justice and Britannia, not real women who existed and actually did things but personifications of moral sensibilities and countries. And Jane Austen gets some odd statue-plaster-thing outside her museum in Bath but then it’s not as if her novels were known for their diversity.

Nowadays we tend not to erect statues to random rich and belligerent men – it’s not as if Cameron and Blair are getting plinths any time soon (at least I hope not). But back in the day people loved it or at least the people who actually had the money and power to demand a statue be built in the middle of London or on an Oxford University college. And that’s because back in the day rich, white men were writing history – a history far too many of us take at face value when we decry that removing Cecil Rhodes’ statue is akin to rewriting history. No, it’s recognising that history tends to be some terrible, bigoted agenda written by the victors (aka supremacists) with whom we no longer want to associate ourselves.

So where should the statues go? Into the fifth or sixth empty home of some random rich person who would rather their house lie empty than house people in need of accommodation. So it can accommodate statues instead. They could all be lined up for people (well, overly sensitive people who get easily offended when people ask for old statues to be taken down) to look at and underneath each statue there would be a plaque that contexualises it according to the latest, historical findings. Thus, underneath Cecil Rhodes would appear, amongst other things, the word RACIST. And we don’t approve of racism anymore which is why we don’t need statues of racists lining our streets and educational institutions. And rather than faff about spending lots of money on new statues we can build affordable housing instead.

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The Museum of Statues (aka The Ashmolean)

If Made In Chelsea Were Polyamorous

If you don’t know already Made in Chelsea is a BAFTA award-winning ‘structured-reality’ television series that began in 2001. The series follows the lives of affluent West London socialites as they gossip, date, banter, galavant  and cavort their way through lives without financial consequences. It is part fly-on-the-wall documentary, part scripted-soap, hence ‘scripted-reality’ – although in truth this means it falls somewhere between a low-budget episode of Gossip Girl and a dull episode of Big Brother. So sit back and relax as Spiffy, Tamara, Leo, Archibald et al. sip champagne, go for cocktails, converse awkwardly over dinner, and pause to look meaningfully into the sunset/countryside/cityscape/oncoming traffic.

However, once you’ve watched a few episodes the basic premise becomes clear – it’s all about relationships. Conversations tend to concern who is dating whom, who wants to date whom, who used to date whom, who cheated on someone whilst dating, and who is about to cheat on someone whilst dating. But despite all this talk of relationships the one thing the Made In Chelsea lot don’t do very well is fidelity. Many tears are shed as relationships fall apart, get fixed and fall apart again. The characters/real people desperately strive to be happy in faithful monogamous relationships but just end up perpetuating the stereotypes of overly clingy, needy women desperately seeking a man to make their lives alright and louche, unreliable, wannabe Lothario men desperately seeking a woman to have sex with. This is it as far as plot is concerned (yet it does prove bizarrely compelling).

However, so much of the drama could be avoided if the Chelsea bunch embraced the social phenomenon known as polyamory. From the Greek poly meaning ‘several’ and the Latin amor meaning ‘love’, polyamory is the practice of “consensual, ethical and responsible non-monogamy” (Jillian Keenan) – it allows for multiple partners to be involved in mature sexual and romantic relationships.

So what would this mean for the Chelsea set? Well, Tiffy would no longer have to cry at night whilst Harry is off getting it off with Lara because all three could consent to a relationship style that allows for both Tiffy and Harry to see other people. Whilst Tiffy and Harry could remain ‘primary partners’ they could each agree to the other having a certain number of ‘secondary partners’ perhaps for sex, emotional support, shopping sprees etc. It would be a carefully constructed and agreed to non-exclusivity. And if it worked jealousy would fly out the window because both halves of the primary partnership would enjoy the other finding satisfaction elsewhere. Meanwhile, Tiffy and Harry could drop the small talk, which takes up far too much of each episode’s running time, and get straight to the real emotional stuff of making a polyamorous relationship work – expect numerous DMCs, honest accounts of their feelings and much energy being put into making each other feel emotionally secure. There would be no stigma to saying one feels vulnerable, insecure or jealous because in an open and honest polyamorous relationship everyone is there to look after everyone else.

Of course, the bit that people might struggle with in polyamory isn’t the non-monogamy part but the “consensual, ethical and responisble” part. It’s all too easy to imagine the label ‘polyamorous’ being stuck on a relationship that is actually unequal and psychologically upsetting. Harry could just use it as an excuse to sleep around whilst Tiffy gets miserable at something that she had no say in. That’s not polyamory, that’s cheating. Cynicism aside the Made in Chelsea-ers might well be capable of engaging in mature, polyamorous relationships. Things could actually work and then there would be a lot less back biting, far less jealousy and hardly any overblown emotional drama. Basically, what little plot there is would dissipate because no one wants to watch lots of happy people in functioning, respectful relationships. So maybe it’s best the Chelsea set stick to what they’re best at – hit and miss monogamy.

Our Love Affair With The Rich

The Tories have long been considered the party of the rich and, now they have power, they’re doing an awful lot to help their rich chums – repealing the fox-hunting ban (a sport only really enjoyed by a few), reducing union and employment rights (so big business owners won’t face as much threat from their workers) and continuing to turn a blind eye to tax avoidance (a pursuit the wealthy enjoy even more than hunting). With poverty, inequality and income disparity on the rise it really does seem as if all the rich are doing is getting richer.

However, despite this depressing trend it still seems as if we are enamoured of the rich – why else would we spend so much time watching them. They’re on television – Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, 90210, Gossip Girl, RevengeThe Kardashians, Made in Chelsea, they’re in film – A Little Chaos, The Great Gatsby, Match Point, The Aviator, The Riot ClubThe Queen, they’re in books – Brideshead Revisited, The Great GatsbyThe Wolf of Wall Street and they’re on stage – Arcadia, Hay Fever, Posh, The Audience. It seems that despite the rich undermining the social fabric of our society by putting wealth before morality we do quite enjoy watching them do it.

This contradictory and voyeuristic behaviour is easily explained. On the one hand the rich tend to bank roll culture – they’re the ones that can afford West End ticket prices and they like nothing better than having themselves portrayed on stage. The plays may well be a little satirical but they are always disappointingly harmless as tools for social change, here may I refer you to Acykborn, Bennett, Stoppard and the like. Also, the rhetoric of social advancement is deeply embedded in British society. There is a steady stream of messaging that vilifies working class people and people on low-income – Benefit Streets, Little Britain, the Conservative Party election campaign to name but a few. We’re encouraged to despise and ridicule ‘chavs’ and do all that we can to ascend the social ranks. Of course, what they don’t tell you is that there are limited seats at top table and however hard one aspires the likelihood of becoming one of the ‘rich’ is slim.

So, as desperate as we are to get rich the reality is that this is very hard and it’s far easier just to watch them on telly. There’s something quite fascinating in watching the lives of those who live without consequences, where money really is no object.  To be able to eat baby octopi off a bed of diamonds whilst blowing up yachts off the coast of Barbados – why not. It’s an odd social contract but so long as money is king, and it will be until we better understand how to take the -ism out of capitalism, we will have to settle for being rich vicariously.

My addition to this rich tradition of richness is The Wellington Boot Club – a murder mystery comedy showing at the Burton Taylor Studio in Oxford from 26th – 30th May, 7.30pm. Get your tickets here! A whodunnit that sees Esther Jones, a psychology student at Oxford University, turn detective when one of the members of The Wellington Boot Club – an all male drinking society – is bashed to death during an initiation ceremony. The play explores the ‘laddish’ and misogynistic drinking culture at Oxford University that can often result in criminal behaviour. So expect another play that pokes at the rich and tries to baffle the audience with a slew of red herrings.

It’s obvious what we need to do – we need to stop encouraging the rich and stop watching them. We don’t need to constantly compare ourselves because there will always be someone wealthier and our lives are important and meaningful without bottomless bank accounts. The trouble is the rich are very reliable for behaving ridiculously (they can afford to) which makes them sitting ducks for parody. So it looks like we’re caught somewhere between a trust fund and an offshore bank account.

The Wellington Boot Club