Levelling up – is it an option?

The reality of levelling up may be more an inertial force than a fork in the road

What to make of Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda? He aims to turn the national economy towards a high skill high pay focus, an intention that appears outright progressive in some ways. Following hot on the heels of the government’s arguably non-conservative methods of handling the pandemic, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, inciting the ire of the conservative back bench in the process, the political shift towards this progress centric attitude may reflect Johnson’s libertarian baseline more than might be immediately suspected.

Far be it from me to side with the naked self-interest of libertarians, but as we attempt to negotiate the turbulent eddies of early post-EU Britain in the midst of a global health crisis that has knocked the global supply chain infrastructure, and thus the economy, into a fascinating state of disarray; this proposed home-grown pivot towards high-skill knowledge-based economic structuring could work to the long-term national benefit.

Currently the agricultural industry, lacking for foreign farmhands, and lacking the Brexit brigade’s input, though the latter insisted, at great volume, that the shortfall would be easily accounted for by the efficacy of British labour, is currently in somewhat of a tight spot, with crops going unharvested in fields and pigs to be slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands. Hilariously, we’re using EU abattoir workers to help out with our butchering where we can’t make up the numbers . Where’s Nige’ when you need him? Moggy – lend us a hand, son? No? Shame. And they’re usually so eager and enthusiastic about Britain and so on…

With no desire to hypocritically reverse our decision and suddenly attempt to beckon all those migrant workers back into the country, thus falling back on a reliance of low-skill low-pay labour, the natural option suggests itself: automation. Automated agriculture is a developing technology, and a natural first choice for industrial automation, the idea is part of a broader techno-agricultural optimisation sometimes referred to as ‘smart farming’.

Welcome to England, a nation of grey people still mewling about the ‘blitz spirit’ every time we stub a toe. People who recall with relish the French revolutionary, Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac’s description of ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ – himself seeming to draw on Adam Smith – as some sort of national point of pride. Luddite shopkeepers now, invoking ounce and pound weights like some talisman against the future, wilfully regressing under the dead skin of ‘tradition’. Typically, people quoting this phrase miss the original contemptuousness with which it was said: “Let Pitt then boast of his victory to his nation of shopkeepers.” The shopkeeper, even in the face the pandemic and the laudable work done to keep people with everyday essentials (while Amazon  saw a dramatic spike in the sale of sex toys  heading into lockdown), is increasingly irrelevant. The pandemic itself may have acted as a catalyst to accelerate the inevitable death of the high street. Does your shopkeeper have an empire of warehouses? A fleet of delivery vans, an app on the Play store, and the infrastructure to tie it all together? It’s a nation of shopkeepers in a world that has no time for a high street and requires increasing amounts of individual control and information regarding what can be purchased from where at which quarter-hour interval. Just browsing? Only if it’s on Firefox…

Amazon, now providing click and collect, negates the need to rely on the outdated notion that there will always be someone home to collect an order. Home is a dead idea for generations who live in converted rooms and box flats, with unstable hours, multiple jobs, and few savings, negating the rigid demarcations of Victorian hand-me-down idealism. For all their faults, Amazon is paying attention to the way in which the world works in the here and now, and ignoring the idiots still decrying the fact that the world doesn’t work as it did in the then and gone. Subsequently, they’re trialling a series of supermarkets operating on a ‘just walk out’ till-less ethos, not even requiring self-service checkouts. As the world accelerates, this makes sense.

Wetherspoons are negating the need to crowd into a bar, hanging around in haphazard half-lines so you can howl your order at harried tapsters before someone else does. Just order your drink on the app. Simple and efficient for everyone involved. Do something better while you wait for your drink to come to you. Likewise, the fast food industry, outside of the astronomical rise of the delivery-centric economy, pivoted in-restaurant ordering towards touch-screen panels. It’s not quite the end of the era of 3AM post-pub slurred burger-oriented bellowing at some underpaid server who’d like to slit your throat with the sharpened edge of a McFlurry spoon (and who can blame them?), but it’s moving in that promising direction. Push button, wait for the automated voice to gurgle your number, grab bag, cheers the poor sod behind the counter, stagger home, choke to death on your own vomit. Efficient and stress free.

And then there’s drivers. Though a decade or more away, and with all manner of court cases, media scandals, insurance scams, idiot-induced accidents, and heated public discourse in the waiting, vehicular automation is coming, following hot on the heels of electric vehicle proliferation – land, sea, and air, each with their own timelines and respective challenges. Nonetheless, the potential scale of disruption and change to aspects of our daily lives as fundamental as travel, cannot be underestimated. We’re already seeing automated driving systems tentatively experimented with; Tesla’s autopilot driving system being one of the most high-profile cases, but in addition London’s Hounslow borough saw testing by Kar-go, a robotic delivery service in 2020. The lack of drivers we have now is only going to accelerate this arc of progress – capital abhors inefficiency and humanity is a great inefficiency. As the arc accelerates, so too do humans become all the more obsolete.

So the jobs of the future are going to have increasingly high skill requirements simply by virtue of elimination of lower-skill work. That’s coming regardless of our opinions on the matter because machine workers are, if not now then later, more cost-effective than meat workers. Shopkeepers need not apply. Mechanics, engineers, and electricians of all fields and specialities, however, will be more than welcome – until such time as we can automate those, too, of course.

Machines may be utterly idiotic, following unintuitive non-adaptive lines of code, but much like the factories built around an increasing micro-segmentation of labour in the factory era of early car construction, resulting in the nigh-on automated processes of vehicle construction in the modern day, the necessity for high intelligence and situational adaptation is superseded by the necessity for dogged long-term repetition and unwavering precision, qualities that are quintessentially mechanical. The moment AI can transition from specialist single-task capability to multi-disciplinary capability anywhere in the same lightyear as a human, then you are really going to see something frightening.

At the moment, that’s held back by the inefficiencies of silicon chips and rough hardware heat restrictions we’ve been struggling with for fifteen years or so. Ever wonder why we’ve barely managed to scratch past 5 Ghz CPU speed  (barring an 8.7 Ghz overclock)? The ROI, basically. Increasingly high resource cost for increasingly slimmer gains. So now we’re looking everywhere for new material and methods of transmission – any kind of tech that can get us through this barrier.

The UK government, attempting to pivot the country away from de Vieuzac’s shopkeepers is, in the light of the post-migratory aspirations of Brexit, a future-driven necessity and not just a semi-coherent parroting of Silicon Valley rhetoric. Any politician ignoring this advancing technological reality does so at their peril. While I am no great fan of the elite-pandering Tories, they are consistently pragmatic in their own way – a trait not shared by the class war skirmishers of Labour and the non-entities of the Lib-Dems. Protect the workers? Protect the poor? Why? In the past it was essential, to protect the workers because the workers provided children who grew up to become workers and soldiers. Now our soldiers fight from continents away and the workers don’t work as well as three hundred lines of code and a few pounds of circuitry.

Naturally, we don’t want to lose our place on the food chain or be the losers in the modern-day battle royale gladiatorial economy. Yet rejecting the realities will not make them any less present. My job as an editor, my skills as a writer and storyteller, the vague scrambling aspirations towards neophyte coder, all are in competition already with the incessant march of technology.

You’ve got a news story? Sports scores, stock market moves, financial regurgitation, any ten-minute figures-driven article you can think of is already being thrown together by algorithms hooked up to databases of phrases and syntax. It’s not a bad thing – nobody really wants to write content-lite ‘some team scored X goals today and tomorrow might score Y goals if Z team goes through’ article, nor do the readers care who is writing it – they’re just after those numbers and nouns. It makes sense for an algorithm to spit them out.

You’ve got a script? You’ve got a novel? Give it a few years and the next GPT-3 will be able to churn out stories like thickened piss. Any paint-by-numbers plot structure you can think of, that’s first. Two blondes and a banker walk into a romance, invulnerable action-hero saves the day; that kind of thing will be first but given enough data and enough time there’s really no reason why something a little more advanced isn’t possible. It might not be “high art”, but I’d remind you that Mills & Boon is one of the most popular publishers on the market, selling one book every 10 seconds in the UK . Don’t knock it. You want to know what high art is selling at? Sales of literary fiction have declined for the past decade, with large prizes being increasingly important, according to ‘publishing perspective 2017’.

How many basic pieces of commercial fiction will use tried and true phrases and clauses in the course of a narrative? If humans are recycling syntax, why not code? Not that that’s an author’s fault – it’s not necessary, or even advisable, to think up pseudo-original metaphors for every single scrawl. Some do and you can tell when they’re trying too hard and it doesn’t work. On the other hand, why does noir fiction become such a vector for parody? Because of the formulaic nature of it. Introduce scene, hack-knee’d metaphor. Introduce character, laboured simile. Deliberate understatement so excessive it becomes amateur dramatic, like a depressed philosopher writing EastEnders with more trench coats and fedoras.

What about visuals? What about them? Automated page layouts are a basic fundamental of modern publishing. With more specialised or individualised projects InDesign is still used, and graphic designers might tweak this and that just so, but why bother faffing about with master pages and file links if you’re just throwing out page 49 of the Daily Prattle and it’s just some bollocks about he said she said and nobody cares whether you’ve spent an hour or a minute getting the words to fit? You think people reading about how someone stuck their dick in a bag of crisps and contracted Sumerian syphilis care about ragged paragraphs? Chances are they’re reading that story on their phones anyway. I know, I know, but you’re a perfectionist. Wake up: nobody cares. For example, do you have any vague concept of the sheer torrential volume of content that goes through the academic publishing space? There is not the space nor the time for the quirks of perfectionism. Be efficient, be pragmatic, or piss off.

My point being that while content production still requires a great deal of human intervention, because you can’t trust a computer not to arbitrarily decide that a mere A4 page is no fit boundary for the magnificence of a text box, a good deal of the nuts and bolts of the procedure is automated where it makes sense to automate it. Even white-collar creative industries are not remotely immune to this. Everyone would like to think they’re immune. Nobody is immune.

So where does the ‘levelling up’ agenda come into this? It almost doesn’t. To a not insignificant extent, Johnson and the Tories are merely painting the inevitable trajectory of progress as a bold and decisive move into the future. One reality being that we were going there whether or not any government decided to embrace this contemporary mechanisation. Nonetheless, accepting the direction and the future, it is better to pivot in the direction of the current than to make a hard-headed futile struggle against it. Intensifying automation is an inevitability and the inefficiencies of human biology made obsolete by mechanical processes will only grow more stark.

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