João Antônio Gomes
Technology and Capitalism: Where Ends Don't Always Meet
The computer put men on the moon, revolutionized the practice of science, and perplexed the masses as it made its way into the home. The 1970s personal computer revolution – promoted by companies like Apple, Intel, and Atari – would play a fundamental role in the consummation of the latter by making the devices more financially and physically accessible to the public. Soon, the electronic industry speculated about the future development of the technology; in a 1977 article, a Dallas microcomputer retailer expected them to become “as standard as a toilet.” In many ways, reality lived up to these projections. Although plumbing fixtures still reign supreme in some homes (which is not the case in mine), the immense commercial success of computers remains indisputable. In 2019, they were present in 47% of households worldwide. Nevertheless, time crushed the expectations of some people: consumers. Back then, common sense dictated (correctly) that computers enabled workers (primarily white-collar workers) to perform their tasks more efficiently. What once took hours of paperwork could now be solved with a few clicks. This belief, however, was often accompanied by the underlying assumption that technology would reduce workloads; if one can finish work faster, that means more time with the wife and kids, right? If twenty-first-century life has taught me one thing, it is that it does not. Why? Because technological progress under a capitalist logic of production does not prioritize general welfare and comfort.
Let us imagine a situation where a firm has $50 to purchase equipment and raw materials and another $50 to hire labor, the union of these two elements being the firm’s output. Let us imagine a situation where a firm has $50 to purchase equipment and raw materials and another $50 to hire labor, the union of these two elements being the firm’s output. Now, suppose that the firm has a revenue of $130 where $100 goes towards factors of production, which would leave the owner with $30 as profit. A technological breakthrough enters: it allows the firm to produce at the same output level as half the workers. What does that represent to the owner? An opportunity to become more profitable because he can now spend half of the original amount ($25) on labor, laying off half of his workforce. In total, his profits increase to $55, and the costs of production drop to $75 at the expense of half of his workers who get to bring the bad news to their families. Even in an ideal perfect neoliberal economy, most economists would agree that the laborers would not be swiftly reintegrated into economic activities. Hence, it is undeniable that the layoff damaged the workers' lives in this situation. But is there any way they could go unharmed by technology? If the firm-owner kept the original number of employees, letting them work half days, it would lead to a higher net utility on both sides of the production equation – the employer does not lose anything, and the workers gain half a day of freedom. The pursuit of profit can impede the attainment of the maximum level of happiness (or pleasure as utilitarians would say).
If anything, technology and capitalism can depress the workforce even further. Several European countries, such as Portugal, have recently passed legislation to prevent bosses from reaching out to employees outside of working hours. Cellphones and the general development of communication technology have brought work into the personal lives of workers, further taking time away from leisure. On a more dystopian note, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World discusses how the development of genetic engineering led society into a productive caste system, where people are destined to fulfill an economic function from early on. To address the rampant demoralization from this system, Huxley drowns this society in a narcotic (soma) to maintain levels of happiness across the board. Although fictitious, Huxley’s work masterfully extrapolates the idea that technology is a device of en masse subjugation under capitalism – a reality we currently experience to a lesser extent.
In a time when capitalism seems like the only alternative, it is crucial to realize its flaws, so institutions like governments and unions can address them to protect the workforce and promote welfare. Now, I would not go as far as to declare myself a burgeoning Marxist; however, I believe it is quintessential to critically assess the prevalent political and economic system instead of merely regurgitating the ruling narratives. In other words, think a little outside the box (even if it sounds a bit socialist).