Sunday, January 03, 2016

Recklessly Blundering through a Revolution

I read Jonathan Taplin’s “Sleeping through a Revolution” and wanted to write a riposte titled “Recklessly Blundering through a Revolution.” Taplin compared those of us who slept through the programming revolution as being like Rip Van Winkle. I would say, we are not Rip Van Winkle, but more like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, blundering through a revolution, a changed landscape. So here goes.

Taplin, in a letter to his daughter, begins with the statement “There was a time in the late sixties when the most critically acclaimed movies and music were also the best selling. The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s” album and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” were two examples. Now, it is no longer so. Now even trash sells if it is promoted well. I lived in the late sixties and know what he means. When we wanted to see movies we bought tickets and sat in a theatre, when we wanted to buy music we bought their cassette tape. Compact Discs hadn’t made its advent yet; streaming music videos were unheard of. We lent music cassettes to friends and borrowed their’s, too. This was the known practise, those days. When even that wasn’t possible we went to a lending library which let us borrow a cassette and hear the music for a fee of Rs 10. The cassette was then returned, just like a book to a lending library. We clandestinely made copies of tapes, but our tape recorders were crappy and there wasn’t the joy of listening to an original recording. We neither ripped it off internet sites, nor downloaded it, because those technologies didn’t exist.

Today we are living in a “programmed” world. Much like the movie Matrix our lives are programmed. Right now programmers are controlling our lives in many ways. For example, I called the servicing executive at my internet services company, and, after entering a maze of numbered options, I was connected, and then a mechanical voice said, “All our executives are busy, your call is important to us. Please hold on.” Then the line went dead. The executive wasn’t busy; he disconnected the call because he must have been working all day and is very tired. He must also be poorly paid and overworked. Then I dialled again and asked to speak to the supervisor. I was told “The supervisor is busy in another call, please hold on.” Perfectly legitimate excuse for a call centre. Then the line went dead. That’s the poor service we are getting because today the emphasis is on producing revenue, not rendering service to already sold products or services.

In my corporate career I have worked closely with call centres, in their knowledge processing units. I know that executives can disconnect a call if the caller is abusive. So he must have labelled me as abusive caller and disconnected the call. Who will know? Believe me, in today’s world customer is nothing: he is not king, he is not serf, he is not even recognised. Yes, that’s how they are programmed to work, all those guys doing the programming and coding. You buy the product that is marketed to you, and you shut up. Trying to give service for your product is not cool and is not the company’s priority, because there’s no revenue in it. Instead, they would rather introduce a new product. You have been taken for a ride, and you don’t know it. You just blunder on. If your product fails you come back to buy a later model, because with the last version you had trouble. So you exchange your old phone and buy iPhone 4, iPhone 5, iPhone 6, because you are familiar with the programming.

See, I said programming, because I have tried my hand at programming and know what an algorithm means. My son is a programmer and, and I am sure, he is of a similar view. When I wanted to buy a music system he asked me what I will do for the music. I said I will buy CDs. He said “Don’t be a fool, I will get them for free, and you don’t need a music system, your cellphone would do.” Does anyone know how many hardworking people the programmers drove to ruination by this attitude? They are: the music stores, the lending libraries, the small time tape duplicators, and the small artists who performed music at weddings and birthday parties. If this isn’t reckless blundering, what else is it?

Consider this piece of data Taplin provides:

Year 1999 (bn $)
Year 2000 (bn $)
Decline (%)
Newspaper ads
DVD Sales

And now consider how the programmers (aggregators) made money:

Year 2001 (bn)
Year 2014 (bn)
Rise (%)
4.8 (2002)
7  (2002)

So, is it any wonder that “virtual reality porn was going to be the killer app,” in the coming days? And even murders can be done online. Researchers have found that they can hack into robot driven cars and accelerate, brake and stop the vehicles. And you are again being made a fool and murderer without your knowing it.

Some time ago I had watched a BBC documentary on “Quants” who operate on Wall Street. Now, Quants are highly talented programmers who secretly write code that can sabotage the stock exchange’s network and place their orders before others place orders. The documentary found that Quants are mostly Russia-trained programmers holding Ph. D. in computer science whose programming skills allow them to prioritise their orders on the stock exchanges, leaving behind others. I will give you a small example on how they work. Have you tried to book railway tickets on the old system on a computer? By the time you try to login at 10 a.m. and it shows that there are 300 tickets available and the time you come online you find that all those tickets have been sold and that you are 150 in the wait list. What happened? Where did all the tickets disappear? Somebody logged in when you were in queue and booked all the tickets. This is a program similar to Quants on Wall Street. Later the Indian Railways got wise and limited one ticket per login which discouraged these Quants.

So, this is what happened. The Quants placed their orders before yours in queue and exhausted all the tickets before you came online. When this happens on the stock exchange, by the time your order is ready for execution the price has jumped higher than the price the Quants paid. That mean you pay extra for the same shares you buy than the Quants. You lose. You are made a fool of without your knowing by the programmers. The SEC in the US knows that some hanky-panky is going on, but can’t nail them. The Quants being highly intelligent programmers, know how to hide their codes so that they aren’t detected. Even their bosses don’t know what they are doing. Moreover, Quants know each other, and inside their secret society they exchange notes and strategise. Neither you, nor the authorities for that matter, know a thing. That’s the sort of world that we are inhabiting, so be advised.

The aggregators – programming platforms like Google, FB, Uber – spend heavily on lobbying governments. The reason is they do not want the authorities to levy a tax on online transactions. So they want their revenues to be tax-less across territories. “Google outspends all but a few financial and military firms in its lobbying efforts.” “Uber is valued today at $ 41.2 billion, making it one of the 150 largest corporations in the world.” And, funnily enough, Uber doesn’t own a single car. Therefore, they don’t benefit any car manufacturer, tyre manufacturer, or headlamp manufacturer. These smaller businesses would then depend on automation to survive. “Jobs are at a high risk of being automated in 47 per cent of the occupational categories into which work is customarily sorted.” With a digital assistant, do we need a secretary? The knowledge worker will be a curiosity in future. Does anyone care about grammar and syntax while writing computer programs? Yes, programming language has its own syntax, but I mean the help manual which is supposed to make the programme understandable.

The old way of doing business as you and I know (I am assuming you are an oldie like me) has changed. What is the net effect on us who have used our thinking and writing capacities to earn a living so far? “You have lost the freedom and autonomy to enjoy meaningful work. [And] The willingness to live an examined life with a core faith or philosophy,” writes Taplin. We, intellectual workers, who pride ourselves on our ability to string words do not even know that we have blundered through a digital revolution, and our roles as writers and artists have been devalued, or, have been entirely forfeited.

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