By: Thomas Wigand
Can life imitate art? Well, a silent movie from over 90 years ago might exclaim a resounding “Yes!” That movie is the classic Metropolis, that premiered in (Weimar) Germany in January, 1927 – widely considered to perhaps be the first science fiction movie, it is set in our present, the 21st century. In many ways it anticipated today’s titans of Silicon Valley, which is the thrust of this article – but first, as a necessary setup, a quick overview of the movie itself:
The political and social environment during which it was made had to have had some influence. Berlin of the post-WWI period was marked by social debauchery (the movie Cabaret touches on this period), driven largely by economic and political upheaval arising from the loss of the war, the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles and resulting economic distress, and political interests working to exploit the situation to gain political control. This was the era in which the National Socialists (Nazis) and Communists were tussling to determine who would come out on top. The original ANTIFA arm of the Communists was but a few years away, as was Adolph Hitler’s election. Outside of Germany, the industrial age and condition of workers had provided fodder for the utopian-peddling Communists to promise things such as “Peace, Land and Bread” to a desperate “proletariat” that could not know the dystopian reality that Communism would later inflict. As such, many were likewise worried that the siren call of Communism could envelope the globe (which was not without reason, as this was a stated goal of Communists).
Seemingly lost to time, the “complete” version of Metropolis was assembled from a print found in Buenos Aires in 2008, and what the nearly complete original is now available (trailer HERE). Intriguingly, the complete original was never seen in the United States – the distributor here gutted it, in particular removing the Christian themes that are woven throughout. Some of the better-preserved footage is startling – so sharp that if told that it was filmed in recent years on black and white stock, it would seem plausible. Also startling is the effective use of light and shadow, and the special effects – today’s CGI cowboys could learn much from this nearly century old film!
The storyline involves a 21st century city called “Metropolis,” conceived and run by an industrial titan named “Joh Fredersen” – substitute “tech” for “industrial” and the personality type fits many of todays overlords of Silicon Valley. Fredersen’s headquarters is called the “New Tower of Babel”:
The “head” (thinkers) live a lavish lifestyle above, while deep underground workers (“hands”) operate a massive machinery operation that enables the city to run; theirs is an existence of dreariness and exhaustion, with no prospects for improvement for them or their children. Meanwhile the elite above live well; and the really elite enjoy a debauched lifestyle as they frequent a Japanese-themed nightclub called “Yoshiwara” (which also happens to be the name of Tokyo’s red light district). A “mad scientist” named “Rotwang” develops a “machine-man” (robot), which he then is able to make indistinguishable from a human being. In this, his model is to bring back “Hel” – the deceased wife of Frederson – and this robot is sent out to mislead the workers and incite them to destroy Metropolis.
Which brings us to today’s Silicon Valley. Increasingly the titans of tech simultaneously extol (and worry about the consequences of) advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, recognizing that over time many (likely most) human workers will be displaced – unemployed, and unemployable. The Ted Talk brigade is proposing solutions – primarily a “Universal Basic Income” (“UBI”) and it enabling folks to pursue self-actualization (recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and start up new businesses, freed to pursue an entrepreneurial dream, or create art, or whatever the subsidized idle-time now makes possible. Some are even peddling the notion that UBI can save the planet! Let us say up front, that these “solutions” are self-serving for the tech-elite; and they will not work.
For years the neo-Marxist Progressives a/k/a Socialists (e.g., Bernie Sanders) have peddled “Medicare for All” and “Social Security for All” – essentially euphemisms for socializing health care and retirement funding; eliminating eligibility requirements or contribution requirements by making all citizens auto-covered by these programs. This is, of course, consistent with Marxist dogma about “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” – with a twist. Those without a “need” are covered, as this provides political cover, while the “ability to pay” will remain – we all get the “entitlement” and only some suffer the “ability to pay.”
UBI presents an expansion on this – essentially “welfare for all.” The theory (that is peddled) goes something like this: everyone will get a sum of money equivalent to what the government decides is sufficient to cover their basic needs (housing, food, medical, transportation) and perhaps a bit more. So folks would be “freed” from having to work to meet their “basic” needs. Yeah, that’ll work out well. We have millions on welfare already who are “freed” from work while having their basic needs covered – and yet our inner cities are not exactly hotbeds of entrepreneurialism or people otherwise pursuing and fulfilling Maslovian higher-order needs.
As an initial matter, how would UBI be financed? By definition, the tens or hundreds of millions who’d be content to loll around while their basic needs are met won’t help contributing; meanwhile many (perhaps eventually a majority) of those who have a work ethic will be in forced idleness due to their replacement by technology. The proponents (as usual) fall back on “the rich,” and some even propose increased taxes on the tech companies whose AI and robotics replace workers (a tax with a built-in cap, for if it was set too high the cost of a human worker would again become competitive). There ain’t gonna be enough money dot-com.
Also, if human beings are increasingly displaced by AI and robotics, from whence will come the customers? Who will buy the products produced by robots (particularly if we get to the point that AI-powered robots are designing and building other robots)? How do you build and sustain an vibrant economy that increasingly excludes human beings – and won’t over time the overall economy shrink, thus rendering the UBI less tenable, and thus throwing economically displaced humans into ever-more dire circumstances? Will not “income inequality” grow worse rather than better (don’t think for a minute that die-hard Progressives won’t still bewail that “injustice” even after UBI).
The titans of Silicon Valley are portraying themselves as “socially conscious” and “woke.” Hardly. If media reports are to be believed, Jeff Bezos’ Amazon treats its human workers not unlike the sweatshop owners of lore (at least until they too are replaced by robots, which reports indicate is nigh). Tech giants are anticipating a societal blowback, and so have been buying up escape abodes in places like New Zealand. Their support of UBI – their peddling of a neo-Marxist concept – is cynically intended to relieve political pressure, to delay the reckoning, to buy time even as they expand their human-displacing technologies.
Silicon Valley, at least its upper level executives, are increasingly becoming like the privileged elite living above the masses, like those portrayed in Metropolis. This also includes a debauched lifestyle reminiscent of Metropolis‘ Yoshiwara patrons, as well-described here. The “Ted Talk” brigade will stand before friendly audiences and present oh so logical and soothing prognostications of a coming tech-infused utopia – Utopia 2.0. But this is not unlike the Communists mentioned above who peddled their Utopia 1.0. The world got dystopia in v. 1.0; we should not assume on mere faith that Utopia 2.0 will have a different outcome.
This is not to advocate a Luddite-like resistance to technology, including AI and robotics. But it is very much to say that we should not passively accept the word of those who stand to reap even more billions from the path they propose; nor should we accept an industrial-age Marxist concept (UBI) as the solution when, at best, it would be but a temporary palliative.
Finally, in this article no disclosure was made regarding how Metropolis ends. That will have to await your viewing of it in its entirety (and pondering the parallels to today that it may have predicted).
Mr. Wigand is the author of Communiqués From the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, which is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions. Comments or questions for Mr. Wigand may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org— he will make every effort to personally respond to every email.