One of the major motivators of my current life path as well as a big turning point in my current worldview was watching this video:
If you haven’t watched this yet you should, because it is very entertaining and pretty mind-blowing. If you don’t have time to watch it right now (really, you should make the time to watch it!), it thoroughly explains how technology and machines are automating all of our current jobs, and how unlike during past advancements where new jobs were created to replace old obsolete ones, technology is now at the point where that correcting mechanism is breaking down. We are past the age of “dumb automation” and are entering an age of “intelligent machines” on par with human capability.
It is easy to see this all around us. In the early 1900’s horse buggies were replaced with drivers and automobiles, and now in 2015 cars are starting to drive autonomously. Throughout history journalists adapted to different media by learning to write for newspapers, television, and the internet; now many articles are written by A.I. software. Just yesterday I saw a billboard advertising robotic surgery. Unemployable doctors, anyone? Professions ranging all skill and creativity levels are being done better, faster, and cheaper by machines and software.
Image Credit: South Park
It is a valid argument that these technologies aren’t perfect and will probably require some maintenance, but maintaining and improving these technologies does not provide nearly enough work to employ the entire workforce and keep the unemployment rate below Great-Depression levels. And with nearly half of all jobs automated by 2035, it is not hard to imagine we will soon design self-maintaining and improving machines and software systems.
Another common argument is that machines cannot replicate the “human” aspect of social and service-oriented jobs. But from Siri and Cortana, to automated cashiers to nursing-home robots, people are growing comfortable with machine interactions. On many fronts it is clear that humanity is approaching a technological revolution never before seen… so what do we do?
Doomed to Repeat?
Believe it or not, there is actually an anecdote we can pull from the past. While our current conundrum is far beyond past predicaments, the United States has actually encountered a similar situation before. In the early nineteenth century, the advent of the assembly line and new farming technology led to overproduction and underconsumption. Companies got really efficient at making stuff, and people didn’t need the stuff. There was more supply than demand or jobs to afford the demand. This trend along with some other factors caused the Great Depression, which was triggered by the stock market crash of 1929 but had been building up for years. To make matters worse, credit-based purchasing/consumption was introduced in the 1920’s, which worked fine until people got laid off en masse from the crash, causing a vicious cycle of people not getting access to their basic needs despite factories and stores being at full capacity. Rather than rethink the role of labor, jobs, and money in the economy, the government and corporate-sponsored fix was to create New Deal jobs, spread consumerist culture propaganda, and invent planned obsolescence to rekindle consumption.
To me, the biggest atrocity is that artificial scarcity was (is) preferred economically over abundance for all. That is a travesty and system failure we continue to live with today.
So what do we do this time? What does this phenomenon mean for humanity and how do we respond to it? Do we let the technological unemployment trends continue, and prepare for the next technology-induced Great Depression to engulf the world? Do we encourage even more wasteful cyclical-consumption spending that exploits and destroys the Earth and its peoples? Do we pass laws outlawing the machines from “stealing our jobs” and thus stalling technological and social progress? Do we admit defeat to our superior creations, sit back, and let the robots take over the world and our lives? Of course all of these options are ridiculous and delusional, but are unfortunately what we face based on the current structure of the world economy and society.
Forcing someone to do work so they can gain access to their basic needs, when the said work is unnecessary, is slavery and is no better than traditional chattel enslavement.
Traditional solutions involve creating jobs for the sake of jobs. Similar proposals call for Universal Basic Income to distribute spending power to everyone equally. Both of these are really just band-aid fixes to keep a dead limb from falling off. They are only cosmetic and propagate an unhealthy system. To go further, forcing someone to do work so they can gain access to their basic needs, when the said work is unnecessary, is slavery and is no better than traditional chattel slavery.
A more intuitive and sane solution is to embrace this revolution to the fullest extent, which naturally leads to the concept of a post-work society. This article by the Guardian does a great job explaining what this kind of society might look like, and provides another perspective of recent trends. Their chosen name of the concept (“Fully Automated Luxury Communism”) really doesn’t matter and should not be alarming. What should be alarming is the possibility of another and even worse depression within the next 20 years if we don’t make some serious fundamental changes to our economy.
“Bastani and fellow luxury communists believe that this era of rapid change is an opportunity to realise a post-work society, where machines do the heavy lifting not for profit but for the people.”
So what’s stopping us?
Image Credit: Isaac Asimov
Technological advancement at the level we are seeing now is something to embrace, not fear. It gives us the opportunity to radically improve all of our lives, as long as we understand the implications. We are progressively and incrementally approaching a point where humanity can achieve freedom from labor, which should not be confused with abolition of labor. Members of society should be able to choose what they want to do, and leave the undesirable and dangerous jobs to machines. Just because machines can do everything, doesn’t mean they have to.
Ironically, despite it already being one of the most automated industries, I would actually advocate for a human reconnection with agricultural labor. Since the Neolithic Revolution around 10,000 B.C.E., humans have shared an intimate relationship with their food. The process of growing, hunting, and cooking has been an integral part of bringing families, communities, and cultures together, as well as fostering a deep connection with the Earth and other animals. Perhaps if members of society weren’t so distracted by jobs and advertising they would have the opportunity to regain these important connections and values. The point to drive home is that technology is neither inherently good nor bad, but what we make of it. We can use it for profit and to gain control over others, or we can use it to collaboratively create a society that frees people from the bondage of wage slavery. We have a choice, and the clock is ticking.
So where does that leave us on this Labor Day? According to the American Worker: “The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership”. I’d say transcending labor is the pinnacle of labor itself, and our arrival here is something to celebrate. So enjoy this Labor Day, because it may take on a completely different meaning in the future.