What the Corporate Lunch Reveals

a depressing corporate lunch restaurant

Last night I was thinking about the SMELL of an office.  Normally offices don’t smell like much, except for at lunchtime, when there’s this nauseating smell of microwaved meals.  It’s a savory smell of preformed chicken, warm plastic, and ramen noodle spice packets.  It wouldn’t even bother me so much, except that it’s been designed in a lab to tug at my appetite.  So I breathe it in and am tricked for just a moment into thinking that it’s something I could eat.  Is that a carbohydrate, mushy noodles with a hint of sweetness?  Especially since this smell is wafting through the cube farm around noon and maybe I haven’t eaten yet.  But then it pervades my palate, and the stale, processed nature of it hits me.  Are the amino acids of that savory protein intact?  Probably not.

There is nothing fresh to eat in an office.  Oh sure, they bring in some delivered produce once a week, encased in plastic, the apples turning brown moments after I cut into them, leached of all antioxidants by months in cold storage.  Everything is on a conveyor belt, really.  The workers are moved into the building by rapid transit systems.  The frozen meal energy units are stamped out and packaged using some hellish alchemy that approximates nutrition to the minimum federally mandated standards.  The work product generated by these meals is emails and documents, packets of drudgery routed across vast global computer networks and spewed into the faces of recipients via glowing screens, lighting up our faces with blue light as we digest the mediocrity.  And afterwards, we eliminate the waste product in a corporate bathroom, squatting side by side in merciless stalls with huge gaps that deny us privacy.  All systems optimal and functioning as designed.

But when I try to go out for lunch, my frugal companions scowl at my madness.  How will I ever afford a house in the Bay Area if I squander my dollars on such extravagance?  No, no, we office drones must scrimp and save every penny.  Get a CostCo card and a big freezer.  Buy in bulk.  How will I afford children?  And I ignore them because I want a breath of fresh air, at least.  I know the food at the restaurants won’t be any better, though I did have a client down on Second Street in San Francisco with an organic salad place across the street.  SF systems require somewhat better fuel inputs to produce slightly less mundane work output.

But the average corporate lunch place, even here in the Bay Area, is nothing like that.  Lunch in the corporate world illustrates the depth of our descent.  White bread sandwiches with processed meats, canned soups, iceberg lettuce salads with trans fat dressings.  And don’t get me started on the decor.  Fluorescent lighting, travel photos of a beach with palm trees, faded by the sun coming in the window, a damaged dream of escape from the grinding routine of a systemized society.  So eat quickly or maybe just take your food to go and eat at your desk.  So much to do, so little time.  Choke down the calories, get on with it.   You do want your job, don’t you?

I notice the rare smokers I pass as I come back from lunch.  Only the smokers seem to take regular outdoor breaks in the corporate world, driven by the monkey on their backs to suck down carcinogens.  Do you know that nicotine actually improves cognitive function somewhat?  I assume the benefits are largely offset by the reduced lung function, but I haven’t looked into it.

And the higher up the status tree we climb, the fiercer the competition becomes.  In the ruthless furnace of Silicon Valley startup culture, white bread sandwiches are replaced by intermittent fasting.  Nicotine is a lowly nootropic.  Get your uridine stack in place and drive that motivation.  Pop the Modafinil and FOCUS, people, FOCUS.  Ship that code.  Build your brand.  Sink or swim, motherfucker.  Always Be Closing.  The Bay is a churning mass of wrestling bodies, competitors striving and scratching all around you, clutching at any advantage.  Is it any surprise that the psychopaths inevitably rise to the top?

But these modernists look at me askance when I say that maybe these systems are failing.  They are unsustainable environmentally and financially.  They are bereft of meaning, commoditizing all human experience.  It may be that the gears of these mighty systems around us will simply fall apart and fail as a consequence.  Humans have needs unfulfilled by these processes.  We need better nutrition, we need to be outside moving around basically all of the time.  We need some meaning, a supportive community, we need to cut each other some slack.  That’s my futurism.

The Robot Lord Scenario

A robot slices a ball of dough and drops the strips into a pot to make noodles at a food stall in Beijing. - photo by AP

A robot slices a ball of dough and drops the strips into a pot to make noodles at a food stall in Beijing. – photo by AP

I just finished reading Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford. This is a nonfiction book in which Ford predicts that all jobs will soon be automated away, and that this will lead to an economic crash, since no one will have any money to buy anything.  I’ve written about this idea before, and Ford’s position hasn’t changed much since his previous book, Lights in the Tunnel.

Economists call the idea that automation makes jobs disappear the “Luddite fallacy,” and have long dismissed that this can happen.  Because, up until now, whenever jobs were taken away by automation in one area, new jobs were created in another, so there was nothing to worry about.  Luddites are named after Ned Ludd, who, along with his followers, smashed some weaving machines at some point in English history in order to save the jobs of weavers.  But progress rolled on and weavers apparently found other jobs to do.  Just as automation on the farm put farmhands out of work, new jobs opened up in factories.  This pattern has been repeated over and over since the Industrial Revolution.

So why should we even listen to Ford and his ranting that jobs are actually disappearing, not just changing?  Well, for one because he does a decent job of documenting actual job stagnation.  I had assumed that we were just sending jobs (such as call center jobs) overseas, i.e. offshoring.  And while this feels painful to us, if it means that even poorer and hungrier people in other countries get more food, then that doesn’t seem like a bad tradeoff.  But while Ford acknowledges that maybe offshoring is the cause of employment stagnation in the US, most of our money is spent on services that can’t be offshored.  So he insists that jobs are being taken by machines, not by starving foreigners.

He documents an impressive array of recent machine accomplishments, from making hamburgers to composing emotionally compelling music.  I don’t doubt that this is happening.  There is almost nothing that humans do to earn money that machines won’t be able to do more cheaply at some point.  The key question is WHEN this will happen.  Ford thinks that this could happen somewhat soon, and that we’d better whip out the guaranteed minimum income pretty quickly, so we don’t have a massive social collapse.  He even digs up Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who is worshipped by free market libertarians, and who thought that the guaranteed minimum income was a good idea, in order to overcome their objections to this idea.

Unsurprisingly, he fails to placate the free market libertarian Robin Hanson, who rationalists know and love from his OvercomingBias blog.  Hanson wrote  a nice takedown piece of Ford’s book on Reason.com.  Hanson focuses on Ford’s egalitarian streak and is most annoyed that anyone would object to his beloved economic inequality, which he holds near and dear to his heart, as any proper conservative should.  Ford and Hanson have locked horns before, and I do find their sparring entertaining, but I don’t feel that Hanson properly dissects the core of Ford’s argument.

To me, the basic question is this: Can our world  economy continue to function in the absence of consumers at the bottom?

In Ford’s view, the economy will stall if there are only rich consumers, because the rich spend a smaller percentage of their income than the poor do.  This is called the “marginal propensity to consume” or something.  Yet, somehow, consumer spending has increased even as wages have remained stagnant, and also, the rich have made up a greater percentage of consumer spending.  Ford says that this is because debt has increased.  Hanson replies with the apparent non sequitur that debt hasn’t increased as much as inequality.  Uh, what?  Debt needs to increase enough to cover consumer spending, not to match inequality.  But the fact is that if consumer spending increases, and the percentage that the rich contribute to consumer spending also increases, well, maybe we don’t need poor people to run the economy.

I don’t really understand these economics.  But it does sort of seem that the Fed is just printing money and trucking it directly into the bank accounts of the super rich, who aren’t spending much, so that would explain how inflation is held in check.  Then again, deflation from automation would balance all that quantitative easing.  Um, I think I will shut up now.

Anyway, I figured that of course you need a lot of poor consumers because they will cover the space of all possible desires for products better than a few rich consumers, and thus provide a broader base for innovation.  But then again, the poor are just cattle that herd together like idiotic conformists, all consuming the same garbage media like Taylor Swift and wearing the same outfits from the mall.  Whereas the rich value eccentricities?  They probably spend more money on Cristal and superyachts than fine art and health extension.  I don’t know.  Next topic.

If it does play out that the poor are automated out of work, and yet the economy keeps running based on the demands of a tiny, super rich elite, we could end up with what Noah Smith calls the Robot Lord scenario:

“The day that robot armies become more cost-effective than human infantry is the day when people power becomes obsolete.  With robot armies, the few will be able to do whatever they want to the many.  And unlike the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao, robot enforced tyranny will be robust to shifts in popular opinion.  The rabble may think whatever they please, but the Robot Lords will have the guns.  Forever.”

Nice!  Noah is a futurist after my own heart.  Who is going to force the super rich to hand out guaranteed incomes if they can sequester themselves in gated communities protected by autonomous weapon systems?  Sick as this may seem, it’s a remarkably American way for things to play out.  So what would happen to the lumpen masses?  This is grist for a great sci-fi novel.  Ragged, unaugmented humans trying to scrape out a meager existence in the trash heaps of the super rich transhuman aristocrats.  I guess the film Elysium examines this sort of scenario.  I haven’t seen it, but I might check it out in spite of the Hollywood stench that surrounds it.  Bruce Sterling sees this trend of “dematerialization” as more than just a Silicon Valley buzzword and imagines a “favela chic” scenario:

“You have lost everything material, no job or prospects, but you are wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”

It’s not clear to me how the government fits into this scenario.  Governments do like to stockpile weapons and other real assets.  It is hard to see how they would go away entirely.  Maybe they will be the ones handing out the food bars while we fervently click the “like” buttons to trigger neurotransmitter spikes with our VR headsets on.

Nonetheless, we can imagine that hackers will play some unique role in this fully automated future.  They might be like Merlin, working magic for the future kings of capital.  Or perhaps some will be like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to feed the poor.  Still others will be like Loki, wreaking havoc and glorying in the chaos, as hackers have always done.  But maybe the aristos will simply be replaced by hackers in the end.  After all, when all you have are robots to protect you, you better not be vulnerable to any SQL injection attacks, or you will get owned by super class a hackers.  I better book my trip to Las Vegas for DefCon this year.  I’ve got a lot of studying up to do if I want to survive the next feudal age.

The Truth About Morals

A Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. - photo by Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images

A Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. – photo by Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky recently argued (via email) about whether or not the intentions behind an action determined if the action was moral, and I thought this was an interesting question.  We are all busy people, so I will toss aside the nuances of this argument and try to reduce it to its simplest terms.

First, let me introduce the two people arguing:

  • Sam Harris is an author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, who is a critic of religion and proponent of scientific skepticism and the “New Atheism.”  He is also very publicly anti-Muslim (which I can appreciate).
  • Noam Chomsky is sometimes described as the “father of modern linguistics” and is a major figure in analytic philosophy.  He has written many books attacking US foreign policy, and after 9/11 he basically said that it was a terrible tragedy, but the US is the biggest terrorist state in the world.

Now let me get to the argument:

Harris tries to make the case that the US government, while it does do some terrible things, is morally superior to Islamic terrorists because it has good intentions and only kills lots of civilians by accident, whereas Islamic terrorists do not have good intentions and kill civilians on purpose.  Harris berates Chomsky for ignoring the intentions of the actors.

Chomsky sputters in response that he damn well has considered the intentions of the actors and, in fact, has been studying these questions for 50 years.  He treats Harris like a pipsqueak for not having done his homework, stating:

“As I’ve discussed for many years, in fact decades, benign intentions are virtually always professed, even by the worst monsters, and hence carry no information…”

So basically what he’s saying is that everyone believes that their intentions are good, and history can show that the worst atrocities have been committed with good intentions in mind.  For example, Chomsky points out that the Japanese fascists slaughtering the Chinese were sincerely trying to bring about an earthly paradise.  Similarly sincere intentions could be assigned to the Germans during WWII or to certain Stalinist officials, who also thought they were creating a utopia.  This reminds me of Haidt’s theory in the Righteous Mind that people generally think they are doing the right thing, even if they seem like bad actors from another point of view.

So Chomsky claims that nothing in general can be said about intentions in moral decisions, in other words, you can’t say that all acts done with good intentions are therefore good.

The main example Chomsky gives is a case in which the US did not appear to have good intentions.  Apparently, after a US embassy in Africa was bombed, President Clinton ordered the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory.  This factory was one of the only factories in Sudan that made pharmaceuticals.  It was bombed under the premise that it was producing chemical weapons, but no strong evidence of that was ever presented to the public.  This probably resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands who did not get the medicines they needed.

Chomsky takes the position that there was never any strong evidence that the factory actually produced nerve gas, and the timing of the event, which occurred just after the embassy bombing, makes it look like a retaliation.  Harris counters by parrotting the US government’s story and claiming that President Clinton didn’t want to kill innocent civilians, he just wanted to keep Al Qaeda from getting nerve gas.

Chomsky agrees that Clinton’s goal was not to kill civilians, but that he and his advisors must have known that destroying the main medicine factory in Sudan would have that result.  Yet he bombed away anyway, treating those African lives as so many ants one might crush on the street.  Ouch.  Then Chomsky wonders if this isn’t WORSE than a terrorist who intends to kill civilians, but at least recognizes the humanity of their victims.  This is a problem for me, since killing someone isn’t good evidence that you have recognized their humanity, but that’s beside the point.

Even Chomsky wasn’t cynical enough in my mind.  There is this thing called the military industrial complex and there is this thing called the secret government, which means that we sometimes drop bombs because we need to keep the work orders flowing for the defense industry.

“Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan … we should consider bombing Iraq which he said had better targets.” – PBS.org

But I like Sam Harris and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I agree that Western morals sure look a lot more sophisticated than those in the rest of the world.  We have PETA for chrissake.  We care about animals and gays and minorities now, which Peter Singer calls the expanding circle of empathy.

But I’m afraid Harris doesn’t consider the idea that our leaders might not share the moral values of our population.  In fact, it seems that our systems are set up such that the least empathetic psychopaths can rise to the top of many organizations because they aren’t hamstrung by what we might refer to as common decency.  The morals required to survive as a bureaucratic foreign policy maker probably look very strange to the common American.  If you don’t value defense industry profits over the lives of remote foreigners, you might not be able to keep your job for very long.

Harris has this other idea about morality that he calls the Moral Landscape.  In this theory, he proposes that there must be a way to find objective moral truths.  He takes as a premise that all morals basically boil down to achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of conscious minds, more or less.

But what if we treat morals as memes?  What if morals are behaviors that evolve to allow us to survive in different environments?  The rich West has a different environment generally than the Global South.  The US Defence Department has a different environment than GreenPeace.  This fellow Axelrod used this thing called game theory to simulate simple games among agents to see which strategies survived.  He discovered that a tit-for-tat strategy was the most successful; so people who cooperate at first, but are willing to punish bad behavior, will be more successful.  There is also this idea that forgiveness can help people break out of the cycles of vengeance we see in Hatfield and McCoy sort of conflicts.  Morals are probably a lot more like these strategies, and Harris would do well to put survival as the starting premise.

If we recognize that morals are strategies that help us survive in our local environments, then we can move closer to discovering the real objective truth about morals.