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Social Justice and the Computer Revolution
Sam Ghandchi
Written: August 9, 2003
Republished: May 13, 2007

Fourteen years ago, in 1989, I wrote a paper entitled "Theory of Uniqueness Value" where I discussed the issue of social justice in the knowledge based economies of the new upcoming civilization, a society that is developing following the events that are commonly referred to as the computer revolution, which I have called in a broader context in my works as the civilization following the production of intelligent tools.

I have previously shown that socialism is as incapable as capitalism, to address the dilemma of social justice in the 21st Century. As noted in a viewpoint paper as early as 1989, I see the issue needs to be addressed within the context of the social structural changes that are happening globally and cannot be viewed as an isolated case.

And the reactionary anti-globalization movement is a Luddite attempt to go back to an imaginary "paradise" of the past to solve the current problems. The left is as sterile as the right not only to address the issue of democracy in the new upcoming civilization, but as I will explain below, it is incapable of comprehending the dilemma of social justice in the post-industrial society.

When I discussed about "The Dilemma of Social Justice" in the Part IV of my paper on Theory of Uniqueness Value, I hardly found anybody to care to listen to what I was discussing. Those who were happy with the strides of the new technologies never thought of such a dilemma as a serious matter and thought the new developments will automatically solve the issue of justice. On the other hand, those who still viewed the world within the industrial paradigm just saw the issue of justice within the industrial framework, and reminded me of the same way the ones concerned about peasants hardly saw the need to address the new industrial labor when industrialism started in Europe.

If the first crisis of industrial society was needed for the industrial society to realize that there was a need to address the issue of social justice and the trade unions were formed in response to that reality, the first major crisis of the post-industrial developments in the cradle of this new society, Silicon Valley of California, is showing to more and more participants of the new civilization that the social side of the change will not just follow, and the issue of justice is at the center of the debate, and old solutions like trade unions will not work either, because the foundation of the issue of justice in the new post-industrial world is fundamentally different from that of the previous industrial world. What is the difference?

I had already discussed it in "Theory of Uniqueness Value" in 1989 that the main issue of the dilemma of social justice is the way the works of new professions are rewarded by being the best or being perceived as the best. At the time I wrote the following example of the rewarding of musicians to clarify my point:

".., a musician who sells millions of copies of his tape gets the bulk of the profit even though the company that buys the copyright makes "surplus-value" from the production process. The other musicians who are suffering and feel "exploited" would not feel any better if the capitalist gave them all the proceeds of their not-selling piece of music. Neither is the other capitalist who is promoting the music of their colleague "exploiting" them. (Even though their celebrity colleague may sometimes complain about his contractors, he hardly feels exploited either.) In reality it is their colleague who is reaping the fruits of the activity of their whole social group because his work is the best (or accepted as the best).

"The same is true in movie production, book writing, software design, architectural plans, etc. For simplification purposes, let's look at a capitalist/worker model. If we had a factory with 1000 workers and only the best worker was paid the wages of 800 workers and the rest were unpaid, would the question of justice be related to the capitalist who does not pay the surplus value (say equivalent to the wages of 500 workers) or the "superworker" who is "legitimately" taking the wages of 800 (and is still himself giving out "surplus-value" to the owner!)

"The carpenter of classical economists would make a table cheaper or more expensive relative to the average cost of production. But Leonardo's Mona Lisa is worth much, much more than its paper and ink and its "labor-time" cost even if Leonardo was hired by the most generous employer. On the other hand, thousands of works of art are worth less than the paper and ink used to produce them and are dumped as trash. (Any publisher could give you the figure for the dumped hardcovers). It is looking for the best that justifies the fact that of one hundred text books on the Strength of Materials, ninety-nine have to fail!

"Even if all revenues from the sale of the product are given to the composer of a failed music piece, the musician would still not even meet the minimum survival needs. If the publisher of a not-so-terrific book does not even take any "surplus value" and gives all the proceeds to the writer, the writer will still suffer injustice but not from the owner (manufacturer, or publisher, etc.). If his book is really worthless, and not judged so simply because of social trends, then even public opinion is not responsible for the injustice.

"On the other hand, if a best-seller book pays lots of "surplus value" to the publisher, the "superprofit" of the author is still not comparable to that of the printer. The author will sell the copyright for subsequent paperbacks, mass paperbacks, books-on-tape, movies, plays, etc., if his book keeps on selling for decades. In such cases the injustice is not due to the employer, it is not even in the industrial work-place anymore. Instead, it is within the creative groups themselves. When a top violinist is making money like a millionaire and an average violinist cannot even make a minimum wage in his profession, then the dilemma of justice is not between the owner of the means of production and the worker, but is implicit in the ethical principles governing the reward of creative activities in our society.

"It is true that the same problems of just compensation could have been mentioned for creative professions in the Middle Ages. The crucial differences are: the speed in which works can be eliminated and "the best" determined (the Oscars, the Grammy's, the Pulitzers, etc.), and the continuous rise in the significance of the creative activities in contemporary life."

Today it is not hard to find many examples in the Silicon Valley that are exactly the same. Many hardware and software developers whose work were the best or perceived as the best became billionaires and many others whose works were not as such or were not perceived as such ended up in poverty. So the dilemma of social justice is no longer in the industrial sector (although that is also there but as time passes with the predominance of knowledge based economies the justice issues related to what I termed as related to the uniqueness value are taking precedence in the more advanced regions of the world).

This is what I wrote at the time about addressing the dilemma of social justice

"I think the people who are involved in creative activities are the principle builders of the future human civilization. The issue of justice is a central problem to our future quality of society. Yet because it is a problem between professional colleagues rather than between two opposite social classes, recognition of the issue is difficult. Star performers continue to appropriate the legitimate expectations of the average and lower ranked performers. Even rewarding on the basis of needs (welfare state) does not solve this problem because it does not recognize intention as a basis for reward (such as the intention of an anonymous composer is not legitimate for need-based reward system which prohibits him from even composing.) The "needs" of a well-known musician for an expensive secluded place for mediation is the same as that of an anonymous (or even bad) musician. The "needs" independent of intentions are meaningless for these groups (just having food and shelter is not enough to compete with Picasso, especially if you live in Bangladesh).

"The difference between an advanced shoe factory and an average or a less developed one is not much and the better than average makes a super-profit which is soon averaged out in the industry. But the difference between a music tape that sells one hundred copies and a hit that sells millions, has nothing to do with averaging, etc. There is no law that obliges such hit creators to subsidize or help the well being of others in the same profession. He is taxed for his income as if he had made it in manufacturing or real estate. The allocations of money to music foundations is not directly related to the income of the stars because it is a free country.

"In the ethics and law of the industrial society, it is assumed, rightfully, to expect factory owners to be taxed for the welfare and social security of their workers and such measures are no longer viewed as the "infringement" of freedom. But in the case of the artist/workers, to be taxed in favor of the low paying members of their own profession is frowned upon. I think even professional organizations (in which celebrities usually do not participate) are an expression of the needs of the lower ranks of such professions to claim their share of the income. Maybe unconsciously the term social-responsibility used by some of these organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility or Computer Scientists for Social Responsibility, is more an expression of a yearning for justice for themselves!"

P.S. As far as the issue of massive unemployment of low-skill labor which will continue to increase; and social justice as related to that economic reality, I have discussed it in my viewpoint paper. Basically Welfare System that has always been government based, has proved to make more bureaucracy than justice. But the goal has not been wrong. There are authors like James Albus who have proposed National Mutual Funds, using the wealth-producing automated factories as the their source, independent of government, to create an alternative to the existing welfare system, but until then, in the interim, there is not choice but using the existing welfare system more efficiently, although it will not be that effective.

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