YOU may be forgiven for thinking the seasonal port had lingered in your system a little too long.

But there he was: Captain Adenoid, standing before a forest of orange robot arms, proposing his “Take Back Control” bill.

Halfway through, Keir Starmer called Scottish indy (or at least the self-governing impulses behind it) “not an unreasonable demand”. Maybe another glug from the cafetiere required.

Yes, Starmer’s New Year’s speech was a shameless raid on a variety of ideological storehouses. More triangulation going on than a crate of Dairylea.

Take that outright theft of Dominic Cummings’s notorious slogan. Cummings devised it as an answer to our deep psychological aversion to losing things. But now it’s been repurposed – harnessing the wind of popular revulsion against the political classes, by promising to empower communities.

And even cheekier, Starmer suggested that his scattered range of extra powers for local government might slake Scotland’s thirst for independence. Cue howls – entirely justified – that several Holyrood mandates for “community power” and “control of our lives” (otherwise known as a Scottish independence referendum) have been flatly opposed by Labour.

There are other malodours arising from UK Labour’s land-grab on “Take Back Control” – not least the urinal tang of anti-immigration sentiment it originally captured. But watching Starmer’s Labour squat its haunches on the middle ground of post-Brexit Britain is, at best, mildly diverting.

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I’m more interested in the deeper question implied by all this: what does it mean to be in “control” of anything in 2023? And what exactly might you want to take it “back” from, in the first place? We could begin with all those robotic arms twisting away in the background, as Starmer delivered his New Year’s Speech. He was talking at the robotics facility at London’s Here East, a design and fabrication lab based at the Olympic Village in Hackney Wick.

At best, robots are ambiguous symbols of taking back control. Yes, these are precision instruments, designed (as Here East’s blurb puts it) to manipulate “structures far above and below normal human scales” – from molecules and nano-materials, to surgery and aircraft. These are wonderful enhancements for the already highly-skilled scientist, medic and designer.

For everyone else, the familiar story that “the robots are coming for your job” has taken some surprising recent turns.

Yes, the statistics on automation are relentless. The economist Daron Acemoglu notes that “half of the increase in inequality in the US since 1980 is at least related to automation, largely stemming from downward wage pressure on jobs that might just as easily be done by a robot.” Between 2018 and 2022, workplace tasks executed by machines went from 29 to 42%.

But these shifts are hardly uniform. Robot cleaners still don’t do the skirting boards as well as humans. Truckers seem to be surviving the once-threatened wave of self-driving vehicles, which have crashed into too many barriers to be truly reliable.

And while manufacturing robots are on a steep global incline, 2022 was a year when the knowledge-and-creativity-based professions – supposedly immune to automation – shuddered with the prospect of a loss of control.

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Horrified offices across the land have been playing with Open AI’s ChatGPT program in the last few months. They’re aghast at its ability to compose intelligent, largely accurate prose when asked about any expert topic (GPT-4, out soon, may intimidate us further).

And creatives of all kinds, from visual to dramatic to musical, have been trying to figure out how they should respond to “generative AI” like Dall-E and Stable Diffusion. From a mere text prompt, these softwares can produce slick and plausible art forms.

So do we need to “take back control” from these machines, as they become deployed in our lives? Do we want them looming in the background of our press conferences?

I always recall the original lessons of the early 19th-century Luddites, facing the mechanised looms of their day. They asked this simple question of all tech innovation: “How does this benefit the commonality”?

General Ludd’s question can be updated. To what extent could a “local” community decide that having AIs and automatons in their midst might reduce their working week by a few days, with no diminution of pay? Or that the surplus they generate could provide a social dividend or basic income to all?

With that support, we could give ourselves the time and space to figure out what remains as distinctively human for us to do, given that robots (made from code or metal) stand ready to liberate us from routine. But to get there, do we need a different, grander level of “control”?

I would like to see these futures articulated by the next few waves of trade union militancy. But one message they could send might well be taboo to current governments, on both sides of the Border.

Namely, an increase in the state-level regulation of markets and institutions is required, so that the massive shifts coming from AGI (artificial general intelligence) will benefit the majority. Not just theglobal tech-moguls owning the devices and thus further bulging their coffers.

So we need to be subtle here. “Taking back control” of radical technologies may need to happen at the macro level. But when it comes to responding to the climate crisis, our response should rightly be more micro and local.

Most governments or national communities are facing the same weird conjunction. That of an illimitable force – the skyward arc of computation – meeting the highly limiting conditions of our planetary biosphere.

At the same time as humans could be potentially liberated from routine and rote labour, we will also have to steadily move into a post-growth, post-consumerist system, reducing the amount of “stuff” that diverts or sustains us.

What all this could open up for us is potentially a completely new society. A place where self-expression and non-alienation, cultivating of relations with others, the pursuit of ingenious solutions, even the contemplation of our uniqueness in the universe — all this becoming a new mainstream culture.

What we could be “taking back control” of is ourselves, our agency, and our basic human ability to envision and decide. But this will happen best through local actions, where people feel that the tools of the future are largely in their hands.

Already, across these islands, communities and localities are setting up their own broadband networks, housing collectives, renewable energy arrays, and food production systems (See the Alternative Global website for more).

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They’re not waiting for elected administrations to answer their needs, but seeking ways to use technical infrastructure to provision themselves. The state may be a partner to these autonomies – but only after they are underway, and needing amplification.

One of the significant tragedies of current politics in Scotland is that we could have been well ahead on this “cosmo-local” agenda, ripe and ready for this present moment – even short of independence.

Land reform has made advances along these lines: but even a humble land value tax has proved beyond the executive powers of SNP (and now SNP and Green) governments. Being on the board of Common Weal, I can certainly point you to a profusion of proposals for new community structures, aimed at restoring concrete power to the people. We might even imagine a “take forward control” agenda, which again looks at these issues with subtlety.

How do we harmonise with the EU, under the conditions of indy? Are there degrees of surrender of “control” involved, involving our participation in Europe-wide regulation and standards, on which we will have to make a fine call? The Scottish indy movement should always be aiming to hit a sweet spot, between forms of (and relations between) macro-level and micro-level control. I live in hope.

Starmer and co at least have their antennae up and quivering – even if much of what they propose just copies the existing playbook of indy policy. They’re not wrong in identifying “who’s in control?” as the great theme of the moment. But that’s hardly news up here. Let’s get on with our labours – while the machines let us.