Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 25th Jan, 2010

Artificial Manna

I read Marshall Brain's short story Manna recently, and it was a very clever articulation of the benefits and disadvantages of automation and increasingly zero-cost matter, energy and data. At the risk of over-analysing a fairly unsophisticated example, however, my opinion is that his Manna-dystopia is less likely than the technology or management profiling might suggest.

I always end up thinking about the logic and construction of plot in stories. So the section of the story where he talks about Manna, a computerised system of managing workers (first human, then robotic) by breaking tasks down and monitoring performance of every task, doesn't ring quite true. I can understand that it's possible to make a system that does this basically, but I think it's unlikely that it would ever get to the same level of control if implemented in real life.

Firstly, the inputs to these systems are never perfect. The idea of people pressing buttons whenever the bins are full implies that people care but they just don't like complaining to the staff. I think it more likely that patrons simply won't bother to press the button for something even as trivial as a waste-bin being full or as important as a flooding toilet. You've also got the social aspect - if patrons know that an automated system is going to pay attention to a call button, they're going to play with that. They may toggle it all the time; they may try to vandalise it or break it; they may press it merely to try and get attention from the staff for something else.

Secondly, the Manna system implies that everything in the restaurant can be broken down. What if a patron has an accident? What if a patron starts screaming abuse at a staff member? The more you build these edge cases into the system, the more likely people are going to try to find ways around it. The system detects raised voices? You bring in some screaming kids. The system knows about how to deal with someone who's bleeding? Try fainting. It's going to be a constant battle for the people maintaining the Manna system to encode the responses that are appropriate to the situation. Taking away people's natural ability to adapt and think on their feet and replace that with a business system will never succeed in the long run.

And thirdly, toward the middle of the book the Manna system runs everything. It pays minimal wages, calls you up whenever it needs a person regardless of time or availability, and because there's so many people unemployed it can dictate the terms on which you work or replace you. But what of unions? What of civil protest? What of consumer advocacy? What of human rights? This whole section seems to be based on the - to me rather alien - USAdian labour system, and a pretty biased view of it too. I think it ignores the whole history of the rights of workers from the industrial revolution. Admittedly, it's doing this to present why this situation is so bad anyway, but this process doesn't make the story more believable.

I've spoken to one person who believed sincerely that labour unions are a kind of evil manifestation of shiftless, devious workers attempting to get everything they can from their nice, kind-hearted employer. The fact that this same person enjoyed the luxuries of an eight-hour day, compulsory superannuation, considerable health benefits and leave allocations worked for and bargained for by those very unions he so denigrated was lost on him. I myself don't believe that all employers are heartless, money-grubbing Scrooges determined to crush their workers under an iron boot, and I believe that many modern companies point to exactly the kind of worker freedom and independence that would make the Manna system both unnecessary and overly restrictive to their growth.

The Australia Project part of the story is a vision of how life could be if hardware and materials emulated the opening and freedom of software, but the Manna part isn't a convincing proof of the death of capitalism. I believe that will come as a totally unintended side-effect of the economics of abundance...

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