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The birth of a bright new world Uber versus the Luddites

Editor’s note: In mid-2016, we received a three-part series of articles that activist and programmer Alaa Abd El Fattah, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for protesting the military trial of civilians, wrote from his cell. In this series, he reflects on what the advent of Uber and application-based riding services means for the labor economy. Ride-hailing companies Uber and Careem were ordered by the courts to halt their Egyptian operations in March, in response to complaints from litigants that cars licensed for private use should not be utilized for other purposes. On Monday, Parliament passed legislation regulating the operations of Uber, Careem and other ride-hailing companies. In light of this, we decided to translate and publish Abd El Fattah’s articles, in an effort to continue reflecting on the evolution of our economy and the intersections of technology and labor within it.

Britain, dawn of the industrial revolution: angry crowds of weavers and skilled craftspeople storm the new mills and set about smashing the steam-powered machinery and mechanised looms that threaten their livelihood and stability. For a brief moment, society keenly follows the progress of the Luddite movement (as it is known, supposedly in reference to one of its leaders), until it is decisively defeated and reduced to the stuff of proverb. “Luddite” becomes an insult used to denigrate those who attempt to slow the march of progress and modernization, or to stop it altogether — a reminder of the absurdity of attempting to oppose knowledge and innovation. Only Luddites resist change. How stupid of them!

Paris, dawn of the fourth industrial revolution: in protests which turn violent, taxi drivers attack Uber drivers and sabotage their cars in protest against threats to their livelihood and job security. But only Luddites try to hold back history. How stupid of them!

Cairo, dawn of the fourth industrial revolution: rowdy demonstrations by drivers of white taxis see Uber drivers ambushed and handed over to the police. Only Luddites try to hold back history. How stupid of them!

California, dawn of the fourth industrial revolution: Uber drivers file a class action lawsuit against the company demanding to be recognized as waged employees entitled to the usual labor rights and protections afforded by any employment contract. The company’s detailed and convoluted defense claims that the drivers are in fact users of the company’s services who enter into contracts on a per-ride basis, and as such cannot legally be considered employees. Inside the courtroom, discussions cover such details as to what extent the company is responsible for training drivers or providing equipment, while outside the courtroom, the company’s message is more blunt: the workers are Luddites — even if they have embraced modern technology — because they refuse to acknowledge that the age of employment contracts which bestow rights, protections, insurance, holidays and fixed salaries is over, for these things have no place in today’s economic and technological reality. Luddites refuse progress and modernization, and stand in the way of knowledge and technology. Only Luddites try to hold back history. How stupid of them!

Involuntary Luddites

This article is necessarily full of mistakes, because I’ve written it based solely on memory and imagination. What choice do I have? In the first year of my detention, I was permitted by the Prison Authority to possess reference works, books, magazines and periodicals in Arabic and English without any restriction whatsoever. After some negotiation they also allowed my family to bring in articles printed out from the Internet, after they’d been given a brief once-over by prison security. I was permitted to subscribe to every local and Arab newspaper available. But with progress along the transitional roadmap, the stabilization of constitutional life and the ongoing success of the campaign against terrorism by the army, police, judiciary and media, the State Security Investigation Services inevitably decided to involve themselves by banning everything that was previously allowed, save for national newspapers and, after prolonged wrangling, Mickey comics and one novel per month.

I try in vain to understand the rationale behind these prohibitions. I don’t question their legal grounds, of course; I’m not so silly as to imagine that the constitution, the law, or prison regulations figure highly among the concerns of the good men of the Ministry of the Interior. I do wonder, though, about the security imperatives which dictate that a prisoner — who is by definition incapable of any action — be deprived of reading material that is freely available to those at liberty. What is the potential threat to public order or to the regime — even the prison regime — that might ensue if I were allowed to subscribe to the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat, for example, or consult a few pages on Wikipedia?

But the faults of this article are not confined to factual mistakes made for want of references. The problem is that I myself have become an involuntary Luddite. Here in my cell, time doesn’t pass and history doesn’t move. I don’t hear about new developments in the outside world, and if I do, I don’t understand them; if I understand them, I can’t appreciate the effects they have on people or witness the reactions they provoke. So here I am, a de facto Luddite, attempting to engage with a complex subject surrounded by controversy despite lacking any means to follow or understand it. Forgive me, then, for presuming to think I have something to add — when my words may well be repetitious and long since refuted.

In all cases, I’m not too concerned about the future of taxis, white or otherwise. For at least three years (perhaps longer if the justice of the law intervenes, shorter if the intervention is divine), my only ride will be a police van — a mode of transportation that has undergone no developments since the demonstrations of 1986. What I am concerned about is the future of the labor market, to which I hope to return at some point. I’m also concerned about my precarious position as an IT specialist kept out of the field for several years, and therefore unable to keep pace with its changes.

The fact of the matter is that the conflict between Uber and the white taxis is merely the first battle in what is to be a long war waged over the understanding of labor as it emerged in the wake of the industrial revolution. Anyone who thinks their job or livelihood is safe today may well find themselves, with no advance warning, amongst the ranks of the Luddites tomorrow. Even Uber drivers themselves are not safe: when self-driving cars become the norm, Uber will likely decide to dispense with the human element and the errors and problems it introduces. At that point, those who have opposed their colleagues’ struggles for permanent contracts will realize the value of these contracts in protecting against arbitrary dismissal and guaranteeing severance pay. Because who can compete with robots when it comes to cleanliness and observance of traffic regulations? It would put paid to the sexual harassment issue, too.

Are you confident that your job couldn’t be done by an army of workers on casual contracts? Are you ready to compete with robots? Or might you, perhaps, end up joining the disciples of Ludd? And then there’s the ever-increasing likelihood you’ll be made an involuntary Luddite. Only robots are capable of satisfying our masters.

Birthing pains

Let’s return to the original Luddites. However we try to understand their motives, the historical fact remains that the industrial revolution brought with it jobs, comfort and prosperity, and unprecedented stability and security that far outweighed what it destroyed. It might seem logical, then, for “Luddite” to have become a derogatory term synonymous with backwardness and myopia.

Based on this, theories have emerged which explain the history of societies with reference to the development of disruptive technologies, i.e. new types of knowledge and technology which fundamentally alter the form and nature of production, labor relations, and ownership. Their appearance is decisive, their spread spontaneous. The phenomenon is necessarily positive. Those who stand to lose out are always cast as a minority who would prefer to deprive the majority of the fruits of progress. And whatever the resultant harms are, they are temporary — think of them as the inevitable pains which herald the birth of a bright new world.

The theorists of disruptive technologies and the upheavals they cause liken them to natural phenomena. They may be the result of research and trial by individuals and corporations, but they are givens. Nothing can stand in their way or change their course; if a technology is suppressed in one country, it will simply pop up in another. In the end, its effects will encompass the entire planet.

Where these theories were once tools for analyzing the past, they have become ideological tools used to shape the present and future, a doctrine that governs entire markets. Venture capitalists compete in a frenzied dash to find the next disruptive technology or idea and be the first to monetize (and ideally monopolize) it. They race to push the current disruptive technology onwards into new markets and fields. Thus it was the success of the sharing economy idea in the market for hotel alternatives (i.e. Couchsurfing and Airbnb) that encouraged investors to launch the same technologies (like Uber and Lyft) in the transportation market, and companies to expand geographically into new cities and markets, and so on.

When a given doctrine comes to dominate the largest interests in markets, its sphere of influence tends to expand to the point that it becomes hegemonic, controlling states, governments and all institutions. Its proponents may achieve this end by a variety of strategies: by establishing facts on the ground, which must then be written into law; by mounting battles in court; by lobbying decision-makers and courting them with campaign donations; by shaping public opinion through promotion and advertising; by recruiting elites through research funding and conferences. All available means are marshaled to propagate the narrative which claims that disruptive technologies are an unmitigated good and an unquestionable given, and that any attempt to stand in their way or hesitation to embrace them, any attempt to manage them or allay their effects, is necessarily bad and must sooner or later fail.

Seeing as I stand accused of casting doubt on official narratives, and being an inveterate offender when it comes to challenging hegemonic ideas, I find myself instinctively doubting this account of disruptive technologies. This is despite my usual enthusiasm for modernization, advancement and technology — information technology most of all — and despite the many benefits these services, networks and technologies offer me.

It may be true that the industrial revolution brought widespread affluence, but the painful convulsions that accompanied it were by no means quick to subside, and it was generations before things settled. Neither the Luddites nor their children, nor even their grandchildren, reaped the fruits of the industrial revolution. And what relative prosperity it brought was not a result of technology alone, but of the interplay between technological innovation and political reform. The period saw the regularization of working hours, the prohibition of child labor, the establishment of industrial safety regulations, the introduction of a minimum wage, the negotiation of wages through collective bargaining, the introduction of regular statutory holidays, and an acceptance of the idea of health and education as rights to be granted in the form of public services funded, via taxation, from the profits of the industrial revolution’s beneficiaries — along with many other rights and protections afforded to wage laborers that we take for granted today. It is these same rights and protections which the fourth industrial revolution is threatening.

If industrialized societies had continued to allow factory owners to employ children for long hours in inhuman conditions, or failed to introduce progressive taxation based on profit — as was the case early on in the industrial revolution — it would not be possible today to consider Luddite a synonym for stupidity and backwardness.

Most importantly, the process of transformation was a path of bitter conflicts between different classes and interests. Labor rights were wrested by force from states, governments, and factory owners after decades of protest, struggle and revolution. Yes, the Luddites were defeated, but in their place came working class fighters and activists who did not reject progress but sought to impose their own terms on the course it would take. Elites and ruling classes treated them with the same violence and derision meted out to the Luddites, but the resistance continued, and sometimes protests were so heated that workers sabotaged machinery — the difference, of course, being that where the Luddites’ sole design was to sabotage machinery, the workers saw sabotage as a means to exert pressure, which was rapidly replaced as unionization and industrial action became legal rights designed to take the place of violence and counter-violence.

To characterize the historical process brought about by the industrial revolution as temporary birthing pains that gave way to affluence and ease not only obscures the details of class conflict within the major industrial nations, but also the differing ways nations experienced these transitional pains. The industrial revolution brought about colonial expansion — and increasing colonial violence — as industrialized nations opened new markets and sought new raw materials, and savage competition between industrialized nations over the fruits of modernization, which resulted in the outbreak of world wars.

In short, the invention of new technologies may be a given, but their growth and dissemination, and the structure of the markets and power relations which are based upon them, are far from it: they are the results of political changes, which in turn are the outcome of conflicts within society.

Understanding technological innovations, analyzing their effects and cultivating a healthy skepticism of the propagandistic narratives which necessarily accompany them, is vital. Fighting these technologies and the interests behind them — with the aim of directing their course, curbing the harms they cause and expanding their benefits, increasing the number of people they help and compensating those they harm — is therefore also vital.

The only people more stupid than those who stand in the way of history are those who prostrate themselves before it. They leave no trace or memory at all, even as a cautionary tale to the Luddites.

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Alaa Abd El Fattah 
Alaa Abd El-Fattah is webmaster of Panorama, but is better known as an Egyptian blogger, software developer, and political activist. He is known for co-founding along with his wife Manal Hassan of the Egyptian blog aggregator "Manalaa" and "Omraneya", the first Arab blog aggregators that did not restrict inclusion based on the content of the blog.