Monthly Archives: March 2020

There is No Alternative: Doctor Who, “Kerblam!”, and the Specter of Technological Unemployment

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They’re here to steal your jerb

There’s a moment at the climax of the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!”, where the titular time traveling alien known only as the Doctor confronts a terrorist. This villain seeks to murder hundreds of innocent people in an effort to disgrace and collapse the Kerblam! Corporation, an interstellar Amazon.com analog he blames for rampant unemployment as it’s automated the bulk of its workforce.

“We can’t let the systems take control!” He exclaims.

“The systems aren’t the problem,” the Doctor replies. “How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.”

These sentences have been justly seized on as reactionary by segments of the viewing public, including a recent article in the Guardian. In context, if we’re being charitable, the Doctor is specifically referring to the AI itself, consistently referred to as “the system” throughout the episode. Therefore, the idea is that the computer itself is a tool, and it can only be judged by those who wield it. But it’s just another way in which the episode refuses to face or even acknowledge the actual problem it’s trying to grapple with in any real way.

The premise is simple and fairly typical Whovian fare. The Doctor gets a message asking for help from the homeworld of the far-future Kerblam! Corporation. She and her human companions infiltrate the corporation by acquiring jobs, and there they proceed to ferret out the mystery of why employees are turning up dead.

Part of the narrative is how most of the employees have been replaced by robots, and the robots and their AI controller are assumed to be the most likely culprits (fitting in with a long tradition of Who episodes where contemporary technological fears are channeled into tales of murderous androids and megalomaniacal computers). This is, however, a feint and in truth a relatively clever one, where the culprit actually turns out to be the aforementioned terrorist, whose plan is to essentially put a bunch of bombs in boxes Kerblam! is shipping out to cause a backlash that will shut down the corporation which has automated away so many jobs. And the message asking for help was actually sent by the AI itself.

The episode is thus primarily about the oncoming threat of technological unemployment, where technology has rendered the bulk of labor unnecessary. In other words, it’s a ‘ripped from the headlines’ premise in a world where management consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicted that by 2030, one third of all US workers could be unemployed due to automation, and a recent White House report posits that 83% of jobs making less than $20 per hour will be subject to automation and replacement, and between 9% and 47% of jobs may become irrelevant.

And even the human jobs that Kerblam! does have are described as completely unnecessary, dull, repetitive labor only assigned to humans as a sop to laws that require an at least partially human workforce. “Work gives us purpose, right?” Says one of the people thus employed. “Some work, maybe,” accurately replies one of the Doctor’s companions.

The Kerblam! Corporation is shown to be completely unregulated; it’s even responsible for policing itself, leaving no one to call as people are murdered throughout the episode. And while this point isn’t dwelled on, it’s a self-evidently horrifying end result of a corporation being beholden to no one.

The episode, in other words, presents some evidence of knowing what the real problem is: rapacious, unchecked corporate power and dispelling the myth that creating bullshit jobs that no one really wants is a suitable solution to technological unemployment. Except the climax and denouement undermine all of this, where the only person really trying to change the system is portrayed as a terrorist, the system itself declared not a problem, and ultimately the corporate functionaries vowing to solve the problem by filling the company with more humans working bullshit jobs. And so terrorism (even in failure) is the only thing that succeeds at creating material change, but really that material change is hardly anything at all. Which could be seen as a satire of capitalist society, if there were any evidence the episode wanted it to be seen as such.

Missing completely from the equation, after all, are the owners of the company, the executives, board members, and investors, who actually have power over the situation. In all the talk of rampant unemployment in the galaxy, there’s no mention of a wealth gap, of the wealthy at all, simply a “system” nebulously being “used”. The real question hanging over everything is never asked: who’s fault is it that people are starving simply because they don’t have jobs? Why should they need jobs at all when most of the jobs can be automated away? What’s the purpose of forcing your population to starve or work boring, soul-crushing jobs when the jobs are completely unnecessary and there’s enough wealth for everyone to live a fulfilling life if we simply shared it more equally?

And so we arrive at the expression coined by Slavoj Žižek (paraphrasing Fredric Jameson) that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism, something proven over and over again by Doctor Who’s depiction of the former and lack of depiction of the latter.

Anarchy in the UK

Terrorism as a response to automation has real-world antecedents. In the early 19th century, English textile factory owners began replacing highly-skilled artisans with mechanized looms that could be run by low-paid laborers. In 1811, the artisans began to respond to the sudden loss of their livelihoods with violence, breaking into factories and smashing looms to pieces. In the manifestos these artisans would subsequently release, they’d credit their movement to one General Ludd, a fictional, Robin Hood-like military leader.

The British government responded by making the destruction of looms a capital offense and sending in the military. Many artisans were gunned down, others hanged, still others merely shipped off to penal colonies in Australia. The back of the movement broken, the textile companies were free to “modernize” their factories and the term “Luddite” came to refer to anyone who hates and fears modern technology.

Missing from the typical version of this narrative is the fact that the Luddites weren’t originally opposed to mechanized looms. Resistance only happened when it became clear that the factory owners were going to replace them with cheap, unskilled labor. And the artisans’ first response was to suggest measures to preserve their quality of life–a minimum wage, guaranteed pensions, and the establishment of safety standards for these dangerous new machines. After all, the owners stood to make more money than ever. Why shouldn’t they share it with the people actually doing the work? This logic might in fact have carried more weight in earlier decades, but the writings of Adam Smith had been recently published, and the minds of the ruling class swam with ideas of the fundamental value of self-interest and the “invisible hand” of the market working to the benefit of all.

While concerns at the time that mechanization would lead to mass unemployment would turn out to be unfounded, as the 19th century wore on the bulk of skilled artisan jobs transitioned into relatively unskilled industrialized wage labor. And with no check on business owners’ exploitation of their employees, the leisurely lifestyle of the artisan (who could dictate their own hours) gave way to a situation where by 1890 a US government study found that laborers across industries worked an average 100 hours a week. And the hazards of factory conditions during this period are the stuff of legend, with workers routinely ending up maimed or dead without any of the modern expectations of workers’ compensation, health care, or life insurance.

This state of affairs wasn’t an accident of industrialized capitalism, it was the obvious end-result of it, where business leaders and their investor co-owners do whatever they can to maximize profit over all other considerations, especially the welfare of labor.

Workers unions and their allies in the Progressive movement battled against this system (often literally as the police, military, and mercenaries were turned against strikers) and ultimately won concessions including the 8-hour-day and the 2-day weekend that we now take for granted. Part of the rational for these measures, taken during the Great Depression, was to reduce unemployment, since businesses would need to hire more people to do the same amount of work. Indeed, there was a tantalizing idea in the minds of Progressives at the time that mechanization could actually free us from work. Economist John Maynard Keynes, for example, famously predicted in 1930 that people would soon work 15-hour weeks with no loss of pay. By the middle of the 20th century, taxes on the wealthy had gone up dramatically, social security had been created, and things had greatly improved for most Americans in economic terms. That all shifted with the resurgance of laissez-faire free market ideals in the form of Neoliberalism beginning in the late 70s, where tax cuts and large-scale deregulation gave the wealthy the means to begin the process of destroying the hard-won middle class.

As a result of this Neoliberal agenda, today the wealthy have taken all the gains in productivity and labor efficiency that automation and computerization have allowed and hoarded it all for themselves, leaving 78% of Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck and 61% of Americans unable to cover a $1,000 emergency and having to turn to GoFundMe to cover their medical expenses. And this is all felt more keenly in the time of a pandemic.

Keynes and his cohort would have seen the modern rise of technological unemployment as an opportunity rather than a crisis, where we as a society could reduce the number of hours people have to work just as progressives did during the Great Depression, or even do away with work as a prerequisite to survive altogether using strategies like Universal Basic Income or better yet Universal Basic Assets or some other scheme funded through expanded progressive taxation of the wealthy few who can afford it better than ever.

But conservatives, as alluded to in the Doctor Who episode, would have it that humans need work to give us purpose. However, spending the bulk of your life in the soul crushing tedium of a position that could just as easily be performed by a robot doesn’t sound like much of a purpose, especially while the children of the rich have unlimited opportunities to make their life however they please simply by virtue of their birth.

In a world where the middle classes have been gutted while the burgeoning lower classes find themselves at the sword point of the aforementioned rise of technological unemployment, “Kerblam!” represents a situation where the house is on fire and someone just wrote a parable where the villain wants to blow up the house with everyone in it to put the fire out and in the end the heroes resolve to stay cool by drinking more ice water.

And yet, for so many, this seems to be the limits of their imagination, not just for this problem but all the major problems our society is currently facing. It’s apiece with telling those concerned about Global Warming to drive electric cars and recycle more. The problem isn’t the system, after all. It can’t be the system. I mean, there’s nothing better than the system. As Margaret Thatcher would have it, there’s simply no alternative.

And so there’s nothing left for us but to be thankful we have jobs at all while the world around us burns.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

A Mind Forever Voyaging into Neoliberalism: Steve Meretzky and the Video Game That Saw It All Coming

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“Wake Up Inside Your Favorite Novel”

— Infocom Marketing Tag Line

The first election I remember is the presidential election of 1984. I was 6 years old, and the results came as a shock; my parents and, it seemed, every adult I knew voted for Democratic nominee Walter Mondale and yet Reagan took the prize in a historic landslide. For the first time I glimpsed the chasm between my small corner of the world and the rest of the country. Mondale won only a single state–Minnesota–unthinkable today in the era of “red” states and “blue” states. Indeed, 1984 was the last time a Republican candidate would win New York. (The last time a Democrat won Texas was Carter in 1976.)

The same year, my family bought our very first computer, an Apple //e. It had a screen resolution of 140×192 pixels in glorious 16 colors, had two 5½” floppy disk drives, no hard drive at all, and 64k of RAM which we upgraded to 128k and thought we were pretty hot. And it ran my favorite genre of games: text adventures.

Explaining text adventure games nowadays often results in confused looks. They’re computer games with no graphics. In text, the game describes where your character is in second person, and you navigate the game by typing simple commands, eg. ‘go north’, or ‘take lamp’, or ‘kill ogre with sword’ and so on. In the early-to-mid 80s, text adventure games were produced by dozens of companies and represented some of the best sellers in the young medium.

To understand this, you have to understand that the primary way of interacting with computers at the time was the command line–a place where you would type commands to the computer and get responses. While graphical interfaces and mice first hit the mainstream in (coincidentally) 1984 with the introduction of the original Macintosh (though less successful products predated it, including the Xerox Star and the Apple Lisa), the concept didn’t become ubiquitous until eleven years later with the release of Windows 95.

So in a world where you already typed instructions into your computer, there’s something magical about the idea of typing instructions to a fictional character instead–at least there was to me as a child–as if the computer is a direct portal into another world, and specifically to the world inside of a book. When you’re a bookish, socially awkward kid, there might be nothing more appealing.

My favorite text adventure games were written and designed by Steve Meretzky, who watched the same election of 1984 with apprehension and horror, unsure how to process so many people getting things so very wrong. And so, he did the only thing he felt he could; he took his frustration and poured it into his chosen medium. Into a game.

Legendarily, Meretzky had once hated computers. During his time at MIT studying construction management, he’d refused to even touch one. (This was a time when you could get a degree at MIT without touching a computer.) And yet he became chummy with the fellows in the school’s famed computer lab, who frequently cooked up games for fun in their spare time. Ultimately, a bunch of guys (they were all guys) from the lab left the school to start one of the first software companies, Infocom, with their first product a fantasy text adventure called Zork. Meretzky’s roommate after graduation happened to work as the company’s only beta tester [Edit: After reaching out to Meretzky, he wrote to correct me that Meretzky’s roommate was a tester, not a beta tester, who were outside players they brought in for testing later], and he brought the game home one day to show it off. Meretzky made a show of refusing to, but over time the roommate starting noticing that the keyboard or items on his desk had moved slightly. Finally, Meretzky copped to secretly playing the game and asked for a hint.

Zork became a genre-defining smash hit on release in 1980, and Meretzky would go on to become the second beta tester at Infocom. Soon enough he graduated into creating his own game, Planetfall (1983), about a luckless space janitor and his robot pal wandering an eerie, ruined world.

Planetfall took off, which lead to his next hit game Sorcerer (1984), and then the plum job of creating the official adaptation of Douglas Adams’ bestselling book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984). This became the company’s best-selling title after Zork (Adams himself was a text adventure fan, and worked with Meretzky on it). And so by the time Meretzky came to his employers with the idea to do a political game as a response to Reagan’s Neoliberal policies, the company let him do what he wanted.

The game he finally produced, A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985), wouldn’t be anything like what he’d done before. Or really like anything anyone had ever created before. It invented a new genre of gameplay that would later be called an “environmental narrative game”, or more critically, a “walking simulator”. A typical text-adventure involves the player character encountering puzzles to be solved–a sheet that must be ripped and tied to make a rope to tie to a railing to climb down out of a window to escape a room, that sort of thing. For most of its run-time AMFV does away with this artifice. Instead, what you’re doing is recording a world over the course of several decades as it steadily goes mad all around you.

The year is 2031. A charismatic right-wing Senator-cum-presidential candidate is pushing through a plan that will radically remake the economy of the Country. The Plan for Renewed National Purpose (anticipatory shades of “Make America Great Again”) is a raft of proposals reminiscent of those that spill out of right wing think tanks past and present: Cut taxes in half, cut regulations, decentralize the government while increasing the power of the (right wing) president, end licensing for guns (and cars!), radically increase border security, ramp up policing and prison sentences, plus mandatory conscription for criminals and “troublemakers” (while this last isn’t something that’s come true, it does have a resemblance to the current situation where prisoners are effectively used as slave labor).

You play PRISM aka Perry Simm, an artificial intelligence raised in a precise simulation of a fictional town in South Dakota. Your job is to visit versions of your home town under this plan at intervals of 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years in order to see how things are going and deliver a recommendation to congress. To gather evidence, you record yourself doing ordinary things like going to a restaurant or movie, talking with a priest or a city official, riding public transit, reading a newspaper, and most notably visiting your simulated wife and child in your middle-class apartment. Much of the joy of the game is in wandering the massive town, soaking in the details, and experiencing how the various locations change across time.

The game is not subtle.

10 years on and everything seems to be working. The streets are clean, violent crime is down, construction is booming and there’s plans for a lunar mining operation. Wife and child are happy and healthy.

However, as the years progress, things deteriorate rapidly. Forests are replaced by strip mining. Police casually raid apartments and dorm rooms looking for any evidence of crime. An extreme religious order rises in power (beginning by occupying public land, similar to what would happen with Ammon Bundy’s group in 2016). Public transit closes down for lack of funding. The death penalty is increasingly used until the local sports stadium develops into a place to watch first public executions and then criminal-vs-robot or -wild-animal gladiator matches. The government is subsumed by the religious fundamentalists who put all non-believers in camps (a particularly climactic moment takes place when your grown son has your wife taken away for thought-crime). And finally, 50 years on, civilization has collapsed entirely and marauding groups of survivors wander the ruins attacking anyone they come across. In the end, back in the real world, you play the only puzzle-focused act of the game where you have to stop the Senator from shutting you down and burying your report through your control of the automated systems of the building that houses you.

If the notion that Reaganite policies would lead to an apocalyptic collapse seemed a touch hysterical in the 80s, it feels distinctly less so now. Imagine, if you will, the same premise applied to our world as it actually unfolded from the year of the game’s original release.

It’s 1985. By some Weird Science-style 80s technological magic, an AI is able to enter perfectly accurate simulations of the future.

In 1995, things seem to be going rather well. The Cold War is over, the stock market is booming, unemployment is low, cities are cleaning up, and America is in an unprecedented state of peace. Plus, there’s this thing called the Internet that sure seems promising! Tax cuts made during the Reagan administration (and are still in place) don’t seem to have harmed much, and the president is even paying off the budget deficit for the first time since 1969. Sure income inequality is starting to rise. And sure, there are draconian prison sentences for minor drug crimes and the prison population as a result is expanding to never-before seen levels, but crime is on the downswing nationwide so who’s complaining? And scientists are talking about something called “global warming” but who’s got time to think about that now?

Now it’s 2005. An attack on the US has led to two Middle Eastern wars. Muslims are blamed and persecuted. A president who won without the popular vote has put Christian fundamentalists in the highest positions of power and they’re promoting policies that further persecute the LGBTQ community. Teen pregnancy spikes drastically under abstinence-only education. The prison population has become the second highest per capita after Russia. While the economy is recovering from the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the decline that followed the 2001 attack, the government responds by passing historic tax cuts for the wealthy. A regular pattern of mass shootings has started with two high school students in 1999, and the NRA-backed congress and president refuse to even talk about gun control. A major American city drowns in a hurricane caused by the slow-motion climate disaster in progress, and the government’s laughable response to it causes a humanitarian disaster.

It’s 2015. There’s a black president (hooray). The economy is recovering from the biggest crash since the great depression, and while things have picked up thanks to a stimulus program, the banks responsible are bailed out with taxpayer dollars and no one has been prosecuted for the vast network of fraud that lead to the crash. Meanwhile, a Supreme Court case has functionally eliminated all campaign finance restrictions leading to what amounts to open bribery of elected officials. And in response to the Democratic White House, a billionaire funded quote-unquote “grass roots” movement has taken over large swaths of Congress who literally shut down the government on a regular basis in order to put through what amounts to an anti-agenda–a movement to transform the legislative branch into a body that does nothing except lower taxes and blocks liberal judges (and rubber-stamps conservative ones). The prison population in the US is now the highest per capita in the world. The changing climate causes more cities (and countries) to be hit with monstrous hurricanes, and large stretches of California routinely catch fire forcing mass evacuations. Horrific shootings break out continually, schools across the country have regular shooting drills, and elected officials offer only their thoughts and prayers. The Democratic president deports more immigrants than any president in history, and no one talks about it because it doesn’t fit the narrative. America is continually at war with no end in sight, a never-ending conflict like something out of the novel 1984. (Note that this was written before the recently announced peace deal with the Taliban, about which I could say a lot. But for now let’s just be cautiously skeptical considering that US forces are still in Iraq more than eight years after that war officially ended, and more than two months after the Iraqi government officially asked us to leave and we summarily refused.)

Of course, worse is on the horizon in 2017 and beyond, the con man in the white house and babies in cages and everything else. The progression may not be nearly as cut and dry as the one in the game, and you might not be able to divine all of it by walking around a random city and reading the latest newspaper. But taken in slices, the pattern clarifies.

In an interview from 2012, Meretzky saw much of the Bush administration in his game, but felt hopeful about Obama. “There’s different issues I’d focus on today, compared to 1985,” he says and mentions gun violence and the anti-science denial of evolution and climate change. Still, “the Republican Party feels exactly the same as the Republican Party of 1985, only even more so.” The understatement of the decade. Even Reagan (who backed things like a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants and gun control) would be considered too far left for the party of Trump.

AMFV did not sell well, and Meretzky moved back to more commercial fare. In any case, computer graphics improved rapidly over the 1980s and text adventures, which had once seemed the burgeoning of a new literary medium, came to look like simply a fad. In 1989 Infocom, the standard bearer of the genre, shut down entirely.

In those days before the Internet gave us news at the touch of our fingers, I didn’t find out about the shuttering of Infocom until I asked a sales clerk a local software store (remember those?) when the next game would be coming out. Some time before I’d received the final installment of the official Infocom newsletter, The Status Line, but that had promised a new full-color magazine to replace it called ZQ which never materialized.

This came as a blow to someone who’s dreamed of growing up to write text-adventure games, of the futuristic-seeming promise of the interactive novel. After Infocom’s demise, a former Infocomer founded Legend Entertainment and put out new text adventure games (with accompanying graphics) for a few years, including a cringingly bawdy series of sex comedies about wizard school by Meretzky himself. But this was a last gasp, and soon the era of text adventure as a commercial proposition was over. In its place, an enthusiast community rose up, creating and passing around games for each other’s enjoyment. In that way this situation could be compared to other art forms with enthusiastic creators and little commercial viability, like poetry, but without that form’s institutional and cultural support (there aren’t many professors of text adventure games or grants for their creation).

Meretzky himself moved on to a noted career in casual games and now serves as the vice president of game design at King, the makers of Candy Crush. While this strikes me as a sweet gig, it’s not exactly one that allows for much political commentary or science fictional extrapolation.

AMFV stands as a lonely reminder of what we lost when we embraced Reagan-era Neoliberalism and began down the path to the present, with Meretzky as a Cassandra who saw the problem clearly decades before most people did.

And so rather than waking up inside our favorite novel, as per the old Infocom tagline, we’ve all woken up inside my favorite game.

Heaven help us.

Bibliography and Further Reading

I could not have written this piece without the website The Digital Antiquarian and its many excellent articles about Infocom and Interactive Fiction by Jimmy Maher

See in particular his series of posts on A Mind Forever Voyaging, beginning with this article.

This post also draws on Jason Scott’s documentary about text adventure games, Get Lamp, more information about which can be found at the official website.

See also “A Mind Forever Voyaging – Interview with Steve Meretzky”EUROGAMER.de, 2013

If you’d like to play A Mind Forever Voyaging for yourself, you can play it online, or you can legally download the game file on Github (click on “COMPILED”) which can be played with numerous interpreters that can be found cataloged on the Inform Fiction website.

If you’re going to play the game, you should also check out the supplementary materials that came with it for the full experience including much about the backstory and world.

For this piece I played the game again on my Mac using the interpreter Gargoyle.