Last week, we discussed how automation isn’t going to eradicate work and how that should reframe the debate about what the future looks like. Instead of responding to technological change, we need to imagine a future and develop the technology that will help us get there.
I want to expand on that point, and extend it into our experience with rural and post-industrial areas.
Beginning around the 1980s, due to reasons I won’t get into this issue, Western economies began to lose industrial and manufacturing capacity as it moved overseas. This phenomenon, called deindustrialization, not only led to a ton of industrial workers losing jobs, but was also the beginning of a trend of low wage growth and unionization rates.
Those industries, however, were often centred in certain parts of the country. In the United States, it was the Rust Belt, whereas in Canada it was parts of Ontario that tended to be hardest hit. There was never a proper response by governments to bring new industries to these communities, and in most cases they’ve struggled in the decades that followed.
Over that period, there have been several other important trends. The economy became more consolidated as businesses merged, more people moved to cities and the service and technology industries boomed. As a result, more economic activity has moved to major cities, leaving rural towns, post-industrial areas and even parts of the suburbs behind.
Personally, I love cities, but I also don’t feel that people who prefer rural life should be left behind. The question I want to pose in this issue is whether we could conceive of a different economic approach that would revive these communities — and I think we can.
In a new book called Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, Xiaowei Wang explains how technology is increasingly being used to connect rural Chinese communities to ecommerce supply chains that not only supply major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, but others extending around the world.
The Chinese situation is quite different from our own. A larger share of the population still lives in rural areas and the government has a system in place where they have rights to land to grow food for personal consumption or sale. But that doesn’t mean their initiatives aren’t informative.
This trend started when rural migrants who went to cities to find work started returning home and bringing their new skills with them, making things to sell on ecommerce platforms. That was then formalized into programs from the state and the ecommerce giants to promote this form of rural development.
Wang visits chicken farms equipped with cameras where chickens wear tracking bracelets and have their location updated in real time. She meets a family that hired some of their neighbours to make costumes for stage, film and even Halloween. But while this path of development is benefiting some people, others are wary.
As we discussed a few weeks ago, Western societies went through a process of commercialization after the Second World War that not only changed how we interact with one another, but also much more foundational aspects of our lives. Wang told me a similar process (specific to the Chinese experience) is now playing out in rural China — and it’s not clear embracing a consumer economy will be sustainable or best for their wellbeing.
But could there be an alternative?
Back in July, I introduced you to Dan Hind’s idea for a British Digital Cooperative, and it’s been very formative for how I approach these questions. In China, we see technology being used to transform communities to serve a certain set of goals that are driven by the need to increase economic growth and produce profits for ecommerce companies — but what if we set different goals?
Hind’s plan contains a number of different ways technology could be used to promote the formation of more cooperative structures for the economy and how we govern our society. I want to expand on one.
Wang explains that centres have been set up in rural communities to promote the ecommerce path of development, while Hind proposes the digital cooperative would establish storefronts in communities around the country to not only educate people on the use of technology and provide access to things like 3D printers, but also to have teams to develop solutions for local cooperative enterprises and organizations.
The goal would then be to use the digital cooperative to try to build the kind of world we want to see. Instead of Facebook, there would be social media platforms that promote community and education over engagement. Instead of Amazon and PayPal, there would be platforms that don’t use their middlemen positions to extract profits.
But ultimately, workers and members of the community would have much more power to ensure the economic activity happening in their communities better serves their needs rather than the goals of corporations and an economic system that puts profit and growth before quality of life.
I firmly believe that would result in very different communities, and by promoting a more decentralized economy, those activities could be better spread out so some aren’t left behind while others thrive.
Perspectives From Around The World
Derrick O’Keefe, cofounder of Ricochet Media, analyzes the NDP’s majority government victory in British Columbia and its failures from its first term in office.
Jeremy Appel, co host of Big Shiny Takes, argues UCP cuts could set the stage for a general strike in Alberta.
Andrew Nikiforuk, a contributing editor at The Tyee, outlines a new report that shows there’s no business case for the Trans Mountain Pipeline.
Martin Greenfield, a Sydney-based labour activist, reflects on the 100-year anniversary of the Communist Party of Australia.
Daniel Jadue, the communist mayor of the Recoleta commune in Santiago de Chile, spoke to Jacobin about Sunday’s overwhelming vote to abandon Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution.
On Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer about why reforming Section 230 would actually make it harder to challenge the power of tech monopolies. I also wrote for CBC News about why Annamie Paul’s centrist Green Party will struggle to appeal to more Canadians.
Quick question: do you think the article you just read would be published elsewhere?
Odds are that it would never run in Canada's corporate media. That's why we're asking you to be a part of building a real, left alternative to corporate media — so that more people are exposed to viewpoints and ideas like this one.
But without your support, it's an impossible task. We depend 100% on readers like you becoming members to pay writers and fund our operations. We don't take money from wealthy backers and we don't run ads.Become a member