The Stack Archive

The western myth about the great Asian robotics experiment

Fri 3 Jun 2016

Editorial Our recent piece about Foxconn’s replacement of 60,000 workers with robots drew significant attention. One of its commenters asked some questions which I believe reflect general western confusion about the conflict between China’s politics and its economics:

‘What happened to the 60.000 people now unemployed? Do most of them leave town and search for jobs somewhere else? Is there a social state-run system which helps unemployed people to find new jobs and survive between? Surely there [are no] unions, but do the worker[s] organize otherwise?’

China does indeed have a union, the ACFTU, though it’s so aggregate in nature (134 million members in 1,713,000 primary trade union organizations) as to seem rather alien to a western idea of a worker’s collective. Likewise does it have a social security system, though perhaps not the all-enveloping safety net that the country’s notional politics would suggest to westerners; only one third of China’s workers, 242 million out of 770 million, even have a basic pension.

So will the displaced Foxconn workers be absorbed into the famous extended family system – another supposed point of disparity regarding the economics of automation between east and west? Maybe 50 years ago. As of 2010 more than half of Chinese people aged 60+ were living separately from their adult children, rising to 70% in cities, with the trend on the increase since.

Certainly the workers organise and strike, most notably in response to the scandal of the Foxconn suicides a few years ago. But that’s not an isolated flurry – a Hong Kong-based workers’ rights group registered 1,200 strikes and protests between 2011 and 2013 ,with 1300 the following year and 2700 in 2014. And again, rising.

A famous American writer once observed that one’s own toothache is more important to oneself than an earthquake in China, so it’s no surprise that we in the west follow that country’s internal politics, local economics and mores so little; and that we view Asian experiments such as Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative (which puts citizens under almost unparalleled urban surveillance) and China’s vanguard roboticisation of industry in the light of ‘hot-house’ projects which will only cause devastation in western economies – but will be absorbed in Asia by some mythical and (by now) spent idea of socialist panacea.

The automation revolution is not just a Chinese export – it’s also a local delicacy; currently a rather bitter one in Kunshan.

Also see: The ripple effects of China’s industrial robotics push

Let’s not make Facebook our online hall monitor

This May the British government finally launched its much-anticipated and innovative Verify scheme, wherein a select number of external providers, including the Post Office, have been authorised as guarantors of a citizen’s online identity, allowing users to access diverse government services.

Verify claims to be the first of its kind in the world, and addresses a common problem that is vexing many governments – the transitioning of citizens out of the relative and long-standing security of internet anonymity and into a more responsible and monitored world where they must account for themselves and their behaviour online.

The intent towards Verify is quite a relief. In late 2010 David Cameron’s government briefly considered using Facebook’s Real Names Policy as a low-cost means of ensuring citizen identity in government dealings, although this notion was dispelled the following summer, after Facebook was used as an organisational tool for the 2011 UK summer riots.

But it is easy to understand what induced the initial temptation; Mark Zuckerberg had already done the work in a non-aggressive and organic manner – so why reinvent the wheel, at cost?

Indeed, many major organisations have since taken advantage of Facebook’s login API to avoid re-inventing that wheel. Chances are, in the course of your daily browsing, you’re routinely offered the opportunity to ‘log in via Facebook’ instead of fussing about with email verifications.

As I write, the internet is lambasting the landlords which demanded tenants ‘Like’ their Facebook page or face potential eviction – in a climate where local government is having to regulate against employers demanding access to the Facebook accounts of current or potential employees – a formidable argument for the recently-proposed notion of Facebook as a ‘global state’.

The nations of the world have already invested in bureaucratic and organisational systems which administer physical passports for their citizens, and it’s a high-effort principle that needs to extend to digital identification across sectors. Social Networks should retain their valid place in internet counter-culture. But that’s enough. If governments want to us ask for our papers, the mechanism for that must remain local, national…governmental; even if the resultant systems are not perfect.


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