Pluralistic: 17 Feb 2021

Today's links

Reverse centaurs and the failure of AI (permalink)

The idea of "centaurs" comes from automation theorists: it describes a system where a human and a machine collaborate to do more than either one could do on their own. The world's best chess players are centaurs: grand masters paired with software:

While centaurs hold out enormous promise for extending human capabilities and making our lives better, they have a dark corollary: the reverse centaur. That's a system where the machine uses the human for support, not the other way around.

Amazon's Mechanical Turk is an example of this: a "cloud" of low-waged, precarious pieceworkers that you can tap on demand to do cognitive work that software can't do, mediated through an automation layer that makes the human dimension of the labor invisible.

Writing in the FT, Sarah O'Connor (no, seriously) describes how she came to reverse her once-optimistic position on automation, after the brutal conditions of warehouses were made worse by reverse centaur automation.

Warehouse robots can carry heavy loads and roll over endless miles without complaint. These are two of the most physically punishing elements of a human warehouse worker's job, so you'd think that the introduction of these robots would make workers' lives better.

But that's not how it plays out. There's one task warehouse robots are really bad at: picking ("I struggle to find the robot that [can] handle a bag of plaster of Paris, a bit for a jackhammer, a galvanised steel garbage can, a saw blade, and a 5-gallon bucket of paint").

Warehouse automation has transformed warehouse workers into adjuncts for robots, not the other way around. The robots set the pace, literally: "The average worker picks roughly 100 items per hour if walking around, but more than 300 items an hour in the automated system."

This pace is set by the robot, and the repetitive, high intensity standing, bending and reaching labor has caused injury rates to increase every year in proportion to the degree of automation in Amazon warehouses:

O'Connor finishes her piece by noting: "Dehumanisation and intensification of work is not inevitable…In other words, we must make sure the robots work for us, and not the other way around."

This is extremely well said, and absolutely crucial.

The problem here isn't automation, it's power. The workers whom the robots could benefit are instead harnessed to the robot to the benefit of the shareholders.

Workplace democracy, AKA unionization, AKA the thing Amazon has pulled out every dirty trick to prevent, is the difference between centaur utopia and reverse-centaur dystopia.

Emmanuel Kant's "Formula of Humanity" told us that "treating people as means" was a violation of the supreme principal of morality – humans should be served automation, not harnessed to it.

The important thing about technology isn't merely what it does, but who it does it to, and who it does it for.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

Gorgeous, slipcased editions of public domain classics (permalink)

Since 2017, Beehive Books has been kickstarting gorgeous, slipcased, oversized new hardcover editions of beloved public domain classics, lavishly illustrated by the best artists working today.

After they fulfil their Kickstarter pre-orders, Beehive lists the remaining stock on their site at $100 each. They've just listed three new titles:

I. Peter Pan (illustrated by Brecht Evens)

II. The Blazing World (illustrated by Rebekka Dunlap)


III. Crime and Punishment (illustrated by Dave McKean)

All three are stupendous, readable works of art, but I was absolutely gobsmacked by McKean's work on Crime and Punishment.

The book showcases McKean's virtuosity in all its dimensions: stark monochrome charcoal drawings, lavish mixed-media collages, and gripping full-page paintings.

Of course, I'm biased. Early in my career, McKean did an incredible, unspeakably amazing cover for my novel SOMEONE COMES TO TOWN SOMEONE LEAVES TOWN, art-directed by Irene Gallo.

I'm grateful to Beehive for my review copies of these three books. Beehive is running another Kickstarter pre-order campaign for its next three books:

  • KWAIDAN & SHADOWINGS by Lafcadio Hearn, illustrated by Kent Williams

  • A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay, illustrated by Jim Woodring

  • THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald, illustrated by the Balbusso Twins

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Sony BMG demotes CEO for deploying DRM

#15yrsago RIAA using kids’ private info to attack their mother

#10yrsago Midwestern Tahrir: Workers refuse to leave Wisconsin capital over Tea Party labor law

#5yrsago Listen: podcast about the alleged “data” collected by wearable devices

#5yrsago Back-room revisions to TPP sneakily criminalize fansubbing & other copyright grey zones

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 515 words (111410 total).
  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Yesterday's progress: 304 words (5685 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability (Part 1)

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla