December 20, 2016

The Left Needs to Get Over Its Fear of Technology

Forty years ago, when faced with a declining order book and redundancies, a group of the workers from various sites of Lucas Aerospace banded together and drew up an alternative plan for the company. Rather than continue to chase defence work, they proposed diversification into technologies like wind turbines and hybrid vehicles. Sadly the corporate management, when presented with the plan, decided not to implement it.

You can find out more about the Lucas Plan in this article by Adrian Smith, or this recent piece in Red Pepper, or watch a 1978 documentary about the plan.

A few Saturdays back there was a day-long conference to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the plan.

It was an interesting day and one that left me with mixed feelings - some rays of hope with the level of awareness and desire to get stuck into the immense challenge of climate change; but a much greater feeling of an opportunities missed and of disappointment.

There were four tracks of talks and discussions, so there was plenty that I missed; however, it felt like there could have been more time spent trying to explain why the Lucas Plan failed. The simple answer is that management decided against it. That's true, but why? Was it that they were trapped in the 1970s framing of work as an adversarial battle of the bosses against the unions, and so couldn't accept a proposal from the workers? Maybe. But it could as easily be that betting on wind turbines and other revolutionary-for-their-time technologies was a big ask of a huge corporation. Were there other approaches the workers could have made after the plan was refused? Could they have set up smaller firms or workers co-operatives to pursue some of those ideas? How might the unions support that? Could they invest in them? Unite seem to own student housing here in Liverpool - do they also own factories? If not, why not?

Many of the same challenges that faced the authors of the Lucas Plan hold true today (and some are far more pressing). It feels like such an approach is even less likely to succeed now than it was then, so what should we be doing differently?

Not that all of the missed connections came from the traditional left. Despite a fair overlap with the sort of approaches taken in hackspace and makerspaces (especially when you factor in the Greater London Council's Technology Networks - a series of community-based workshops providing access to shared tools - which came out of the aftermath of the plan), there were few representatives from the Maker community. Only a handful that I was aware of, although that did include two speakers: Liz Corbin and the aforementioned Adrian Smith.

There are two threads I want to pick up in response to this.

The Maker Movement is a Niche Movement

Liz's talk was a good exploration of the "Maker Movement" and the possibilities for it meeting with those in the unions/left who are interested in plans like the Lucas Plan.

However, there was hardly any awareness—when Liz asked at the start of her talk—of makerspaces, hackspaces and the like. When you're immersed in the world of Make Magazine, the tech press talking up 3D printing, and academics doing research around the number of makerspaces, etc. it can easily feel as though this stuff is mainstream. This was a welcome (if uncomfortable) wake up call to that. There is much work to do in taking it to a wider audience. [I'd managed to miss that last sentence from the original piece, until Jackie Pease pointed it out]

Liz also argued that the "Maker Movement" isn't actually a movement. It's not something I'd much considered before, but I think she's right. There's a strength in that, because it means it can be more inclusive and futher-reaching, but it also makes it harder to achieve momentum because there's no articulated mission to run at.

I've often wondered about how we avoid the idealism and optimistic futures being lost as (/if?) it becomes mainstream, in the way that hippie movement, punk, and the Internet were as they were co-opted by capitalism/consumerism. Maybe it's just inevitable, and maybe you can only get to nudge the supertanker in a more equitable direction, but how do we maximise the size of the nudge?

The Left Ignores Technology Until it's Too Late

Throughout the day there was an undercurrent of mistrust and hostility towards any technology. This was despite us convening to celebrate a plan to develop all manner of cutting-edge technologies. There was even an entire session on automation and AI which was just to organise the resistance to the assumed job losses.

I went to the resistance session, and the level of neo-luddism was dispiriting. The bright-spot within it was when a younger (20-something I'd guess) suggested hydroponics as a way to reconnect urban-dwellers with growing (in response to the speaker from the Land Workers Association proposing that we need to get more people back tilling the land). Sadly, in response, rather than explore that and constructively-critique the idea he was just subjected to ridicule and instant dismissal.

I'm not in favour of using technology to consign more and more people to the "useless" bucket, but looking at how successful the original Luddites and the unions in the 70s (including the Lucas Plan itself) were, it seems that history shows that such approaches are unlikely to work.

Why does the Left (in the UK at least, I'm less sure of how things are elsewhere, and it feels as though groups like Podemos might be more tech-savvy) surrender all use of technology to the capitalists? There's lots that technology and digital tools could do to help workers organise, or to protect their safety, or assist in asserting their rights.

There are many topics within technology which require debate and informed argument, but ignoring and resisting all new tech (is there a list of what technologies are okay? Is it just ones invented and popularised before you got a job?) means that the Left won't understand the issues until it's too late.

The Left hasn't always been fearful of technology. Stafford-Beer's Project Cybersyn is the most obvious example, which was cutting-edge in its day. I'd love to hear about other examples.

I'm hopeful that Adam Greenfield's new book, Radical Technologies, will help point the way to some solutions, or at least provide a direction in which to head.

There are many technologists, coders, designers, who want to make the world a more equitable and nicer place. If we can find ways to marry that to the energy and history of the unions and organised Left then maybe together we can bring that to pass.

Posted by Adrian at December 20, 2016 10:40 PM | TrackBack

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Mike Cooley, one of the key people in the Lucas workers plan stressed that technology and its use (or abuse) is first and formost a political question. This was amply visible in the 'Project Cybersyn' that you mention, although you'll need to read a book on it 'Cyber Revolutionaries' to really start to understand that particular project and how ideology needs to always have precidence over technology if things aren't to go in strange and unwanted directions during a process of technological change.

Posted by: Steve Sprung at November 12, 2019 05:21 PM
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