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Would we have flying cars under socialism?

Hi everyone,

You are reading issue #9 of the fully automated luxury communism newsletter. If you have not done so yet, you can subscribe at the this link.

Every two weeks this newsletter brings links, snippets and interesting facts about technology from a left perspective. It hopes to spark a greater discussion among the left about the opportunities and threats that tech brings.

This week I will share my thoughts on how socialism would decide what to invest in technologically, and if we would have flying cars under it.

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Recently some tech giants have been at it, funding "flying cars." Google's Larry Page is behind Kitty Hawk in New Zealand, Uber is planning to go airborne in 2020 and there is now an actual flying car you can pre-order.

Most of these are not actual flying cars though. Kitty Hawk is more like a drone that can carry some passengers, and that could be used as an airtaxi. Equally Uber's plans are more of an attempt to get into the executive helicopter transport industry than anything else.

Or as Uber's Justin Ehrlich stated:

“It sounds awesome but it almost it conjures up an image of things taking off from the ground. And the technology there would be quite difficult and seems pretty far off, whereas I think a lot of these services will be moving from one rooftop to another.”

The flying car terminology basically conjures up sci-fi images, and provides a great marketing spin for companies that are essentially trying out new takes on executive air travel. Nevertheless their prevalence raises a great question: will we have these types of frivolous, but also inspiring, examples of technology under socialism?

Will we have flying cars under socialism?

The way in which technology gets developed under socialism, and how we would decide what technologies to pursue is a key question. First because it goes into a great stereotype of socialism: that it would produce a grey, stagnant world of shared misery. Secondly because one of the founding myths of capitalism is that it constantly innovates. Formulating a socialist approach to innovation is crucial in convincing people of the merits of another world, while also preparing us for a moment in which we might implement socialist innovation policies, or parts of them, ourselves.

What does innovation looks like under capitalism?

To decide what innovation under socialism would look like, however, we should first understand what it looks like under capitalism.

Capitalism innovates through a two-track system: in the first stage more speculative technologies get researched at academic and state institutions. These are often (particularly in the U.S.) tied to military uses and are funded by government money. After a technology, or a cluster of them, is subsequently developed far enough that they can go to market in the next few years, the second stages sets in.

In this phase private companies, pushed by venture capitalists and startups try out a range of uses for a technology. Most of these fail, but some eventually become successful. Here products are generally still without profit, and rely on venture capital to fund them, yet marketisation is the primary target.

Essentially fundamental innovations are made by non-market actors and then re-configured by private actors for private gain.

A figure from Mariana Mazzucato's book the Entrepreneurial State illustrates this very well. Most of the basic components of the IPod and IPhone were developed by the US public sector (mainly tied to the military), these components were subsequently re-assembled into a market-oriented product by Apple.

The socialist alternative

Now what would a socialist alternative look like? This of course dependson which type of socialist you talk too, and to which degree they would establish control over the economy. Some general lines can, however, be put down.

First, the initial part of the capitalist innovation cycle could remain broadly in place. State or publicly sponsored research could simply continue, with possibly less focus on military applications. Steps could be taken, however, to increase the independence of and popular representation of institutes of higher education and government research agencies. A military focus could also be shifted towards one oriented on civilian technology.

The major change would be in the second phase: taking basic innovations to a broader audience. Which would require an alternative to the current complex of venture capitalists funneling excess capital into perceived market-ready technologies, and a myriad of companies racing for that money.

Aaron Bastani offered an interesting option for socialists to pursue in a blog about the new space race. Space had long been a field controlled by governments, and sideways by very big suppliers like Boeing. In the last few years ambitious startups like SpaceX or Blue Origin have entered the area fuelled by venture capital. For all the large statements of Elon Musk about going to Mars, fundamentally this is driven by an expansion of commercial applications for space technology (applications in telecommunications and imaging today, and possibly space mining in the future) and the lowering of the costs of space travel.

The usual pattern would be that space is increasingly handed over to the private sector, with government organisations largely focusing on farther away space travel and scientific projects. Bastani's post goes radically against this and proposes building a UK space agency that could directly compete with the likes of SpaceX.

So instead of SpaceX building a satellite based internet, and controlling it. A government agency would build one, and hand it over to the UN.

Or in his words:

"But why is it preferable that space industries create trillionaires rather than ensure everyone on Earth has access to free, ultra-fast 5G? For the Global South, which is far more connected than many in Europe and North America fully comprehend, this would be a boon, providing them with instant access to information such as prices of goods, knowledge of the weather, the ability to communicate and coordinate, pay taxes and conduct financial transactions. And all that for the same as what Britain currently pays in its annual overseas aid budget."

A socialist model of innovation would thus replace present day startup activity with democratically owned initiatives and, more importantly, steer new technologies into use-cases with a clear social impact.

Flying cars and socialism

So would we develop flying cars under socialism? Probably not in the way capitalists would do it, which is largely based on elites wanting individualised transport that doesn't get stuck in traffic. The same technology could, however, be used to create similar transport aircraft, possibly autonomous drones capable of carrying people, and use it for more socially relevant causes. Say stimulating rural development in difficult to access places by improving mobility there.

Care should be taken here, of course, to allow for independence of action by innovative organisations. And not to bury them in the bureaucratic infighting many public organisations suffer from. And allow for bottom-up entrepreneurial energy to propose new ideas and applications for technologies.

Yet socialism would have innovation, it would just be directed at different areas than it currently is. We will have flying cars, only utilised in ways infinitely broader than what can be imagined under capitalism.



Here are some links with interesting news from the past two weeks. Two stories predominate, Cambdrige Analytica and the Uber accident.

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions - New York Times

The exposé on how right-wing data analytics company exploited the data Facebook hoards to make right-wingers win elections.

"So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016."

Uber crash shows 'catastrophic failure' of self-driving technology, experts say - The Guardian
Major safety problem apparently with a Uber-self driving car, which led it to kill a pedestrian crossing the street. We'll see how this impacts the further development of self-driving cars.

"Days after a self-driving Uber SUV struck a 49-year-old pedestrian while she was crossing the street with her bicycle in Tempe, Arizona, footage released by police revealed that the vehicle was moving in autonomous mode and did not appear to slow down or detect the woman even though she was visible in front of the car prior to the collision. Multiple experts have raised questions about Uber’s Lidar technology, which is the system of lasers that the autonomous cars uses to “see” the world around them."

Choice: Break up Facebook – or Take It Into Public Ownership? I Am Not Kidding - Novara Media
Article by Paul Mason on the choice between breaking up tech monopolies or nationalising them (or at least part of their infrastructures), and how it would be practically implemented.

"Fortunately we have three well-established tools within capitalism to end it. Regulation, breakup and nationalisation. The tech companies not only know these things are coming – their bosses privately spend a lot of time working out what they’re going to do."


This was issue #9 of the fully automated luxury communism newsletter.

This newsletter and my own thoughts are very much a work in progress, so any tips, comments, messages or corrections are very much welcomed. Please let me know at: fullyalc@gmail.com or via Twitter @AutomatedFully

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Nice piece of writing. Future optimism is socialist optimism!