What I’m reading this week: “Rise of the Robots”

What I’m reading this week: “Rise of the Robots,” by Martin Ford.

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Humans have a love-hate relationship with automation. We love automation when it gives us dishwashers, washing machines, and robot vacuum cleaners to relieve the drudgery of menial labors. But we hate automation when it enables telemarketers to endlessly spam our phones, corporations to displace real people’s jobs, and tech companies to surveil our every movement.

Pop culture is replete with nightmare visions of cold robot overlords taking over the world on one hand, and utopian dreams of effortless lives and limitless adventures supported by faithful robot servants on the other. The truth is probably somewhere in between— although robots themselves may never rule the world, the people and organizations who control the most powerful robots almost certainly will.

“Rise of the Robots,” written by economist Martin Ford is a detailed analysis of the current state of play. Will robots dominate society? The answer is yes, they already do. The more pertinent question right now is, who will control the robots? Ford’s book explores this question with skill and keeps it interesting, aside from a few sections that get out into the technical weeds. (He is an economist, after all.) An eye-opening look at the value and risks of living in a roboticized world.

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What I’m reading this week: “The Man in the High Castle

Conquered. Occupied. Stripped of power and privilege. Dick’s classic 1962 novel imagines life in an America that lost World War II. The Nazis and Japanese fascists have conquered the United States and divided it into territories, the spoils of war, over which they rule supreme. The Pacific States are controlled by fascist Japan– the South and East states, by Nazi Germany. The Rocky Mountain states lay in between, dismissed and overlooked, a no-mans land where the German and Japanese superpowers struggle for power in a diplomatic Cold War.

Much of the action takes place in San Francisco and the west coast. It’s a horrifying world fraught with deception, cruelty, greed and prejudice cloaked in banality and extreme cultural control. In this nightmare world, the dream of an alternative universe in which the United States England, and Russia won the war captures the imaginations of millions-— sparked by a wildly popular book-within-a-book that describes this mirror world in vivid detail. The book’s central characters struggle to reconcile these twin visions, which are more alike than not, as the plot drives them inexorably toward the climactic confrontation with the book-within-a-book’s author, the Man in the High Castle.

Written in the 1960s, Dick’s novel remains a work of genius however its blunt style and raw depictions of deep-seated racial animus raise the question of how it would be received if it was written in today’s world of reactionary divisiveness and identity politics. Another question is whether he intended his book to be a subtle indictment of the post World War II new world order of the 1960s, which at the time had its own forms of social control, cruelty, deception, greed, and prejudice. The novel’s descriptions of what American life might be like under fascist control leaves no question that a German/Japanese victory would have led to a dystopian hellscape of a society. Yet it subtly hints at a third way, between the darkness and the light, for which we all unconsciously yearn, yet which may only ever be a dream.