🎮 Virtual Slaves

In the 4th Industrial Revolution, it's your turn to get obsoleted.

8 min readMay 22, 2020

Recent decades brought fast wealth concentration around the planet, in contrast with the social mobility that flourished in the early-mid 1900s.

Percentage of income that stays with the richest 1%. Disparity is on the rise in anglophone countries, and has stagnated in Japan + Eastern Europe.

Oligarchs hold around 50% of all assets in existence. Five companies constitute 20% of the whole S&P 500 market capitalisation. Stock exchanges have been vibrant — socially distanced from the reality of the average citizen.

The pandemics led to an unprecedented expansion of the monetary base, funnelling fresh dollars towards financial instruments, enriching hegemonic banks and professional speculators — not exactly the kind of person you may think benefits from Corona-vouchers.

☁️ The Keiretsu On The Cloud

Keiretsu (系列) is a Japanese term to designate a corporate coalition model. Economic interests propel vertical, horizontal and cross-sectorial integration, formalised with shared capital participation. The most cited example is that of the conglomerate between Mitsubishi, the Bank of Tokyo and a vast network of suppliers and distributors.

The most notable example, nowadays, is that of the cloud emperors.

Alibaba, Amazon, Google and Facebook lock-in their data suppliers (you) with network effects; acquire competitors in pace of war (when it's not possible, just copy them); and sleep next to the regulators who legislate their battlefield.

Amidst this crisis, how does a startup compete for talent with such a company, that has hundreds of billions of dollars with which to lure new resources?

On the "other side of the table", half of all North American homes (and much more, in developing countries) have zero emergency savings. Uncertainties pile up while jobs evaporate.

A new worker class is forged between a cross and a sword: to hold on to the memories of January-2020-salaries; or to accept longer hours and smaller earnings at the mercy of any given Keiretsu?

Monthly percentual job losses (from peak) in the US. In red, the unemployment in 2020. In blue, the shock and recovery in 2007/08.

A probable reaction is the generalised cry for what some have dubbed "oligarchic socialism": a regime in which the notion of "jobs" is replaced by arbitrary allotments of money by the Central Bank.

Popular in Silicon Valley, the idea of anaesthetising idle workforce with credit created specifically for this purpose may come to be one of the most enduring legacies of the pandemics (before "Universal Basic Income", Marx spoke of "proletarian alms").

Ask yourself: would you rather work for a system that pays you to stay home; or deliver pizzas 12 hours a day for a faceless boss in order to be able to feed your family?

🃏 Gig Workers, ISAs & Personal Tokens

A levelling of the playing field is inevitable for the digital workforce.

The de-globalisation of manufacturing clashes with the globalisation of the white collar. First world labour with commoditised formation heads towards a hardly avoidable dead-end.

Why do you still pay a dollar-denominated fitness coach to work out from home, when you can find the same talent, an order of magnitude cheaper, across the sea?

A possibility that strokes spirits (at least in developing economies) is that the reduction of average urban salaries and an increasing demand for peripheral or marginalised workforce reverts a stubborn trend towards inequality.

Almost 500 tokenised professionals, at a market cap of roughly U$ 15 million. You can buy and sell "claims to the time" (or cash flows) of these people, 24/7, in uncensorable markets like Uniswap.

Pioneers will unravel novel forms of self-capitalisation. In the US, Lambda School popularised a postpaid education model, where students pay back their tuition with a fraction of their salary, only when they’re making over U$50.000/year.

In the cryptocurrency realm, there's already freelancers tokenising their careers — as if selling shares (freely negotiable tokens) of themselves, such that each may be redeemed for work-hours, or even confer rights over future cash flows.

🏰 Digital Feudalism

We speak of "surveillance capitalism" as if it was possible to distinguish one from the other. It's not (anymore).

The surveillance network is a predicate of the modern state. Without it, the virtual construct of a liberal democracy is unsustainable. Welfare policies, social protection, free online services: each of these features, whether you like it or not, is a node of this mesh.

The "flow of goods, services, people and capital overcame the ability of political processes to accommodate them" (Janeway, 2016), bringing us to a fork on the road.

The government is watching your GPS moves. Do you believe in the fallacy of "anonymized data"?

Rodrik (2012) states that, if we want to take globalisation further, we need to either let go the autonomy of nation-states or the democratic order.

If we want to deepen democracy, we must choose between maintaining sovereign nation-states and international economic integration.

If we want to protect the modern nation-state, either we abandon the democratic ideal or we leave behind the promise of an economically prosperous globalisation.

Among these three optionsdemocracy, sovereign nation-states and economic bonanza — we must choose only two.

D. Rodrik: the globalisation trilemma, 2012.

The crisis of 2020 shattered demand in almost every sector of the real economy. With sustained 15–30% unemployment rates, the prospect of social effervescence turns real.

The first lockdown is to protect you from the virus. The nth lockdown is to protect you from each other.

Every passion for the State lasts only until one gets a job. Every passion for Capitalism lasts only until one gets fired.

🕳️ Tribal Epistemology: a New Dark Age

We are witness the emergence of a tribal epistemology. Some of its symptoms are hyper-partisanship, a populist disdain for science and the factual emptying of political discourse.

The origin of this epistemology is rooted in the idea that truth is not determined by the power of cumulative evidences, but rather by the way hypotheses align to the narrative enacted by the leader en vogue.

We assign verisimilitude to stories that reinforce biases in which we already believe. Evidence contrarian to our prejudices — the raw material of the scientific method — are demoralised as fake news.

Your feed is not programmed (by the oligarchy) to entertain you. It is wired to piss you off — to the point where you need to express disagreement; or where you feel that irresistible urge to share a self-congratulatory fact. In the attention economy, engagement is worth more than any measure.

For Rome to keep its civilisation under control, in times of economic distress — as slaves supplanted the "middle-class" — the medieval order became closely dependant to the charitable efforts of the Catholic Church.

It turns out the institutions who supplied us with truth, from the emergence of the press to the birth of the internet, now, don't seem fit for it anymore. The people yearn for novel devotions.

Worker classes from rich nations are left behind in comparison to their Chinese peers and the elites of their own countries. Blame falls on "modernity", inflating latent nationalisms that resist the test of globalisation.

The globalist oligarchy is a contemporary equivalent to medieval aristocracy. Like the barbarians — which took advantage of the chaos to loot as much land as possible during the fall of the Roman Empire — they are positioned as the biggest beneficiaries of the recession driven by physical distancing.

The clerisy who supports them, today, is secular: influencers in media, academia, the bureaucratic apparatus and obscure corners of the "non-profit" sector, all enjoying deeply symbiotic relationships with the elites.

Quarantine patrol in Singapore. Remember when you found it cute to watch these robots dancing?

Like their medieval counterparts, their stated motivation is to do good to others (in spite of self-interest). The justification for their instructions usually stems from a premise of “moral superiority”.

🎮 The Next Phase of The Game

The title of this article is not hyperbolic. The possibility of virtual slavery indeed looms on the horizon.

Many authors alert that this may already be materialising— an example being the way in which we "consensually hand over" persnonal data to the web's titans (Weyl & Posner, 2018).

The future of labour has two sides: above the APIs, and below the APIs. Either you give orders to robots, or you obey them.

CAPTCHA: for years, you've been helping Google identify houses in Maps; digitalise books and interpret daily images. Besides feeding the algorithms… what if these data could also codify your way of thinking?

In the third season of WestWorld, the HBO series, a character whose mother's sick needs to complete impromptu tasks (like killing or kidnapping targets), issued by an app, to collect rewards and be able to afford hospital bills.

Replace "killing or kidnapping" by "driving the motorcycle to the target" and you'll see where we're going with this.

Our ability to imagine contours for human-machine relationships is ultimately limited by the language — the code — that we have at hand.

In few decades, personal computers migrated from our tables to our laps, to our pockets, to our glasses, to the inside our ears. None of it was forced. We idolise the AirPod. When the time comes, we'll learn to love subcutaneous chips with Keiretsu's microprocessors.

What will the super-apps incentivise you to do, once they have unrestricted access not only to your geographic, financial and behavioural information — but also to your fears, dreams, pains and pleasures?

The continuation of this article is called "The Truth-Stomping Techlash".
Stay tuned 👈

📚 Bibliography