Gandhian Robotics: Newsletter #35

I read Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States when I was a graduate student. It was a fascinating and depressing read, but one of the several lessons I learned from the book was how anti-slavery campaigners in the mid nineteenth century protested against wage slavery along with chattel slavery. Working as a nominally free person in the coal mines of Britain was almost as atrocious as working as a chattel slave in the cotton plantations of the southern United States.

That stage of capitalist development needed human labor in vast quantities and wasn't too selective about how it got them - slaves and bonded laborers were equally acceptable. In fact, the latter could be cheaper than the former. The British were able to grow cotton cheaper in India, where they were able to fix the colonial laws to benefit their supply chain, than slave owners in the American south. The end of slavery was hastened by the deepening of imperial rule in India. Remember that the first Indian war of independence of 1857 preceded the US civil war by a few years.

In any case, one doesn't have to be a Marxist to realize that the modern economy is based on the commoditization of labor and the easiest way to achieve that is through mechanization. Machines are the perfect slaves. They do what they're told, they don't complain and they can be replaced as soon as they become obsolete. Our fascination with robots and aliens and our fetish for replacing smartphones every six months is the culmination of that process, where machines become the ultimate other.

If you have read books in the Edward Said Orientalism genre, you know how Europeans alternated between exoticizing and oppressing their colonial subjects. Can you lynch a robot? Or throw him out of a first class compartment because he wasn't the right type of being? I don't know, but in this second machine age, computerized machines are the bearers of all meaning and significance. They're objects of vanity and greed as well as the greatest threat to livelihood and wellbeing. Desire and fear are two sides of the same coin. If cars can drive themselves, you don't need drivers; if cars can make themselves you don't need workers.

I think Gandhi foresaw this development more than a century ago. While he spent most of his life campaigning against the empire, he recognized that replacing British rulers with Indian ones wasn't going to change the structures underlying oppression. The focus on Swadeshi, the use of the Charkha for the production of cloth, the campaign against the salt tax, many of his signature innovations were informed by a deep understanding of mechanization and what that meant for human autonomy and livelihoods.

I don't have a particular fascination with khadi or handicraft though I wear kurtas made of handwoven cloth. As far as I am concerned, machines are fine, even welcome, as long as they aren't part of an extractive economy. The current high-tech industry is extractive at its core. While computing devices are designed and marketed in the US, most chips are made in Taiwan and China. Most manufacturing happens in China. Enormous amounts of fossil fuel are burnt getting that Mac to my doorstep.

What would Gandhi do if he were the CEO of a high-tech company? Imagine Elon Musk with a bald head and a robe. How might that person reorganize design and manufacturing? He might argue that local production isn't for food or furniture alone, that computers and other products can also be manufactured locally. Some of the raw materials such as rare earth metals are hard to source nearby, but others should be easily available. In fact, suppose we set aside the basic ingredients and assume that chips will always be shipped from elsewhere; can we make the rest in the neighborhood?

There are clear advantages to local high tech. For one, physical proximity implies rapid iteration between design and manufacturing. Second, there will be a tighter link between the customer and the business. I can imagine a whole line of high tech products that are designed at a small scale, just as local artisans sell their pottery through boutique studios. Further, local high tech means a highly skilled local labor pool which can only be a good thing for the economy, since it means a larger reservoir of talent for testing out and implementing new hardware ideas. Conversely, if all that talent is in China, how can we ever expect to make anything new? People with autonomy and control over the means of manufacturing are that much more likely to invent new products of value for their immediate neighbors.

Yes, they will be far more expensive, but I would rather have a well-crafted high-tech product that exactly meets my needs than a cheaper one that isn't quite the right fit. Bespoke suits are for the rich, but bespoke phones might meet a bigger need. Ultimately, if the role of technology is to expand our horizons rather than turning us into unthinking consumers, we will have to create tighter loops between the maker and user of high-tech. In many ways, that notion of freedom is central to the open source movement, which is now extending into hardware as well. The maker movement is the vanguard of local high-tech. A satyagrahi perspective brings a deeper political and moral sensibility into the maker world. Gandhian robotics isn't as outlandish a notion as it seems.