I was just talking to a friend about her travails with car insurers Aviva. Apparently, they told her – when she finally got through to a human being – that she was not paying them enough to speak to anyone real.
Most of us have some kind of dealing with Aviva – a financial monster – that bought my pension from Norwich Union some time ago. But equally, the story came as no surprise.
I say this because the main effect of the current AI (artificial intelligence) revolution is to extend the experiment to cover most basic rate-payers – in whatever industry you care to name.
The only people who believe that this is fine, that the robot speaking to you will have as much understanding of your situation as a human being, are probably the owners or leading shareholders in the company running that particular call centre. That was one of the messages of my book, Tickbox.
The first implication of this is that – far from setting people free to spend their time in leisure – the reverse happens. They either lose their income entirely or they find themselves forced to work much harder and more pointlessly.
Just like the last time anyone predicted increasing leisure for all in the 1930s – was this Arthur C. Clarke? – the reverse happens.
In practice, it couldn’t be further from worrying how not to be too bored, the handful of corporations that now dominate our lives simply increase their profits. Which means that a smaller proportion of everything that needs doing is marketable, and our responsibilities are increased – I’ve been handed the responsibility for buying a new iPad for my son by his newly-academised school, for example.
This is worse than Tickbox, though it builds on the same set of mistakes (see my pamphlet The Absent Corporation: Why big companies don’t want to see you). It is also a process that feels horribly familiar. Because we have seen it happen so many times before.
I have also been wondering what can be done about it. How can we make sure the new AI technology genuinely enhances everyone’s lives – not just the income of its owners – rather than being used to squeeze our lives even further?
First, I don’t think centralised state control will help. Partly because the civil service in Whitehall has been captured by a kind of snobbery – see Polly Toynbee’s column in the Guardian paying tribute to the former civil service head Bob Kerslake.
Central governement’s attitude to ordinary people is a kind of enochlophobia – it means a ‘fear of crowds’. They are actually afraid of us.
Personally, I believe that the only way to claw back any kind of control over the technology is by splitting up the handful of companies that are now promoting it.
And by making sure they don’t combine again.
Only this kind of anti-trust measures against Microsoft, Google and Meta can give us any power at all in the relationship.
How come monster like Aviva can get away with providing human support only to those wealthy enough to afford it? Because they are far too big. They are more like a nationalised industry than a private sector firm.
The other measure we need is to provide a number of new currencies at all levels of the economy – which can’t be easily converted into pounds, euros or dollars.
This then needs to be distributed via the population, to keep us going through the difficult period we are entering – when so many of us will have our livelihoods endangered.
Why do I say that it shouldn’t be exchangeable into pounds, euros or dollars? Because, the structure of the UK economy over the past 40 years is such that any new money would shoot down the wires to those who are already wealthy and plugged into the City of London.
That seems to me to be the main challenge to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). It is the only reason why creating money like that, via the Bank of England would be inflationary.
I fear that neither of these will happen – so we need to hold onto our hats.
We are in for a bumpy ride!