Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Robots Will Steal Your Job. Is That Okay?

I meant to add some of these transcripts to a post on the post-work society, but there is enough here for its own post. These are from the last three weeks of the always-enlightening C-Realm podcast, and deal directly or indirectly with the book Robots Will Steal You Job and That’s OK. I think there are some important points made here, so I want to include them. This the host KMO summarizing some ideas from the book (I have eliminated the guest’s remarks because these thoughts flow reasonably well on their own):
KMO: “The main thesis of the book is that technology destroys jobs faster than it creates new types of work. And you were talking about something that dogs need, and I think that humans need as well, is meaningful work. And the society in which we live is destroying meaningful work for large numbers of people, and the solution for dogs is to breed the need for meaningful work out of them. To just make them content to be apartment-dwelling, or suburban-home dwelling sort of pieces of furniture that move around and wag their tails from time to time, but are otherwise content to not do much of anything. And the thought just applies in my mind to people; that It’s becoming a new challenge in life to create one’s own meaningful place in the world in a society that claims to offer opportunities for meaningful work to everybody, but in fact doesn’t have enough meaningful jobs to go around.

There is a whole section of the book on happiness and on what makes us happy. And what he dwells on extensively is the idea that, other things being equal, humans are happier working than not working. And we are fast approaching a turning point. And he’s not necessarily a Singularitarian, he’s not talking about what’s going to happen when computers wake up and take over everything, but just as the pace at which, say smart-phone apps are replacing humans and making whole professions really obsolete, even if people are provided for, even if they are given a monthly stipend which is equal to or greater than what they got for working, there is a sense of self-worth that is wrapped up in working in our current culture which people who are unemployed, they don’t feel that sense of self-worth, and they feel really dejected, and it takes a toll on their health as well as just their subjective well-being. And what the author of this book is calling for is a renunciation of basically the Protestant work ethic – the idea that you have to be productively engaged in something to justify your existence, that you have to earn the right to exist.

I see it sort of like the transition to a post-petroleum society. It’s going to happen one way or another. We can admit that we have a problem that needs to be addressed and address it consciously in advance and smooth the transition, or we can just let it hit us like a ton of bricks and, you know, whatever is left after that ton of bricks hits, and whatever’s still working, that’s the new reality. But--Frederico Pistono is the author of the book that I’m talking about--and the point that he makes, and one that I fully agree with, is that, even where we stand right now, with using technology to provide for the necessities of daily living, most people who have jobs are doing work which is entirely unnecessary for the maintenance of human well-being, and for feeding people, for providing shelter, for providing clothing, for educating the young. Most people are trying to generate economic activity for its own sake just to make some money, because we have this notion that you have to ‘earn a living;’ that you can’t live unless you’re toiling. And that the more we try to maintain that pretense, the more useless work we’re going to create just to generate economic activity for its own sake. And the more we do that, the more we’re actually devoting real resources which could be put to useful ends to utterly useless and increasingly destructive ends.

So, I would rather see people just free to, say, walk a mile from the place where they live to the cafeteria where they get a free meal for lunch, than spend that time on the phone trying to collect debt for some credit card company. That is useless work that doesn’t need to be done, and the world is not a better place for them having done it. And if it weren’t for the opprobrium; if it weren’t for their fear that other people would see them as not being worthy, or not being entitled to live because they’re not ‘earning a living’ in a recognized fashion, that just seems like a very harmful standard that we are holding onto and it has long since ceased being a useful thing to cherish. I think that people like you and me and Olga with whom I live, we are all working. We work very hard but we have learned to substitute our own inner rewards in place of the approval that is withheld from the larger society because, you know, we are ‘unemployed,’ so to speak, because we don’t work a ‘real’ job.

So, in that sense, the failure of civilization to collapse, as so many folks have been expecting it to, presents its own set of unique challenges in that, if there were a collapse, then people who like to work with their hands and could exhibit their competence and worth by building things and doing things; there would be plenty for them to do and plenty to reward them. There’d be lots of meaningful work for them. And in a situation where we continue on our current path where fewer and fewer humans are actually engaged in anything that is of actual benefit to the society, then we’re faced with a choice. We either need to really teach people how to find meaningful work outside of the context of employment, or we have to do what the dog breeders do and just degrade people to the point where they don’t even feel the need for meaningful work anymore which, you know, is a dystopian nightmare in the making.”
The guest then points out that we seem to be already doing exactly that via the mass media – deadening people to the meaninglessness of their work, and that we’re not satisfying anything that’s particularly noble in the human spirit. I would add that there is a third possibility – the elimination of large numbers of people through passive neglect or (hopefully not) active repression. This is a scenario similar to what happened to draught horses after they were no longer needed thanks to the internal combustion engine and electrified transportation. Note the rapidly declining birth rate. People will tend not to have children if there is no means to support them.

A couple weeks later, reacting to a comment from the guest, a self-described techno-utopian, that, ‘We can’t all expect to get work to live in the future. That’s not going to work anymore.’, KMO again summarizes some of the main points of the book:
KMO: “To recap the concerns that were in the conversation that I asked you to listen to, that was my conversation with my friend Gary Borgeson; we are..I would say, we are past the point at which there is enough necessary work to go around, and that most of the work that people are doing these days is not for the purpose of providing necessary goods and services, but is really just to generate economic activity so that they can earn a living. And as people in the Peak Oil community are fond of saying, ninety percent of the preparation for Peak Oil is mental preparation. And I would say a good portion of the preparation for a post-work society is a mental and…what’s the word I’m looking for…I guess, ethical adjustment. Because right now there is a deeply entrenched meme in our culture and in our cultural psyche that says you have to toil in order to live. You must be in the service of something larger than yourself that you didn’t choose and  you don’t direct your actions in order to justify your drawing breath and your having shelter and food and clothing. Unless, of course, you are some sort of entrepreneurial genius and you can go off and do it for yourself, but that’s discouraged in this culture. Better to follow the established course; get the degree, get the credentials; go and get the good job with the good benefits package and the retirement package and the paid vacation, and then you’re on track. But the society doesn’t offer that path to enough of us anymore for that to be a viable modus operandi. And yet, that situation is going to get much, much more pronounced in the near future. And if we don’t shrug off this ‘you have to earn a living’ mentality, then were going to be’s going to have some very ugly side effects.”
Here’s  a comment from the interview with the author himself:
Frederico Pistono: “The initial critique that I receive when I present this argument is, if you take people now, and you tell them, ‘I’ll give you everything you need, but you don’t have to work,’ then people won’t do anything  because they’re lazy bums, and they’ll just become couch potatoes, even more than they are now. And to me, that really is ironic, because the reason people are couch potatoes is because they are working 9 to 5, and because, they come home, they are exhausted, they don’t have any mental energy left to dedicate to anything meaningful and so what they do is they watch TV and they sit on the couch. So it’s exactly the other way around. Because what you see when people are free to do what they want, and they have a sense of purpose because they’ve been educated about the possibilities about the state of technology.

"When people are left to do whatever they want, and simultaneously, they are educated about the possibilities, and the thrill of collaborating in new ideas and projects, amazing things happen. Look at what communities like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are enabling – people coming together creating interesting and cool projects. The open source community, the creative commons community, Wikipedia, all these collaborative, group-mind projects are the result of the fact that people are not lazy bums who sit around and do nothing. It’s the testimony that people are really engaging, interesting individuals who look for things, who start projects, and who collaboratively create amazing pieces of work if they can, if they are allowed to. And technology is enabling that feeling, and that determination, to come true. And this is not a hypothetical situation anymore. This is proven. We have fifteen years of data  to demonstrate that this is possible. The Linux kernel, the hundreds of millions of Web pages created collaboratively through Wikipedia, the Creative Commons movement, open source ecology. So not just culture in terms of texts, video, audio, films, but also actual physical stuff, projects that people touch and use with their hands. So anything really that is creative. So to me, that is a testimony of what’s possible, and the criticism that if people were free to do what they wanted that they wouldn’t do anything is just fallacious, and I think history proved that wrong.”
I would also add volunteering to that list. Growing Power – the world-famous urban farm here in town, relies on (and I’m going for memory here), some 3,000 volunteers, volunteers who receive no compensation, to enable the farm run to deliver its produce. And, similarly, don’t forget things like WWOOF, Workaway and Habitat for Humanity. From later in the conversation:
KMO: "You know, you mention that there is this perception that if people are not required to work, that they will just sit on the couch and eat bad food and get fat and really disgusting. And if you go to YouTube and you type in ‘people of Wal-Mart' you’ll find loads of videos, of images of people, you know, just snapshots taken with phones and such at Wal-Mart, of really obese people dressed in absurd clothing, they seem just really damaged and degraded and, as my friend Jim Kunstler would say, demoralized. And I think a lot of that comes from the fact that we have basically taken all or as much human labor out of agriculture as possible and automated it as much as possible, or at least put it under the mechanized control of very few people. And that what this has done is given us a diet which is based primarily on the manufactured products which have come from a few grain crops – wheat, soybeans, corn; just a very few varieties of things which can be planted, fertilized, tended, harvested, transported, broken down into their constituent fractions, recombined, and put into a box or a package on a store shelf which has very long shelf life but has very little nutritive value. And a lot of the people that you see in those videos, I think, are already unemployed, because the unemployment figures and the  way that we measure them are constantly being rejiggered or reformulated so as to minimize or distract from the reality that fewer and fewer people are needed to keep this economy working, and more and more of them are in this position where they don’t spend their days working, they spend their days sitting on the couch or in from of the computer, on Facebook or watching television and eating really bad food. And one of the things that you advise in terms of getting happy and putting yourself in a good position to weather the coming economic storms, is to grow your own food, or at least some of it."
Okay, that kind of veered off on a tangent, but I think it's a good point. And from the techno-utopian, referenced above, James Hughes, this is a topic I plan to address more at length hopefully in the near future.
JH: "We have what we call out our techno-progressive critique, or our techno-progressive perspective, which is that we can radically improve the human condition through life extension and many other of the technologies that we talk about, but that they have to be proven safe, there have to be accountable democratic governments, there have to be universal health programs that make these technologies accessible to all and not just to an elite, you know, so that there are ways to say, yes, it’s possible to have the bright, shiny future that we want, but there are lots of things that we have to do to ensure that we get that instead of the dystopian outcome."

KMO: "When talking about these issues, people raise very legitimate, I think, concerns about the sort of perverse incentives that our current brand of corporate capitalism introduces into the use of technology and the way that people will adapt themselves to the workings of the system rather than the system being designed to maximize human benefit and human satisfaction and fulfillment and cultivation."
Perverse incentives, indeed. Well put. Always thought-provoking topics, and since I have quoted extensively from the shows, I will encourage people to donate to this listener-supported podcast. It's one of the few pieces of media that consistently addresses real topics that matter instead of the nonsense of the mainstream mass media.

Frederico Pistono's blog


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for introducing me to the C-realm podcast. I listened to 2 of them yesterday at work. Great stuff.

    I've talked about this before in comments to your wonderful posts, but I'll do so again:

    Why not opt out of the current mainstream f-ed up economy which devalues human labor and creativity, and in the Marxian sense definitely alienates us from our our labor.

    Join a land trust or coop. Get some cheap land and living arrangements. Create a way of life in which you labor at providing the meaningful necessities of life for yourself and your community. Grow things. Make things. Barter and trade and gift the results of your labor.

    Sure, you will have to do without the shiny baubles of the global high-tech world, but those things don't make you happy, anyway.

    I am no longer on Facebook. I am no longer using Instagram, or any of the other time-suckers that actually made made my life less enjoyable, due to the fact that they caused me to waste time seeking approval in a commoditized, superficial virtual hell.

    Learn a skill that involves the physical world and which provides an endless path to improvement and love of craftsmanship.

    Get by with as few products of the global economy as possible.
    Good luck.
    Don't attack the robots, just don't have anything to do with them or their spawn.

  3. Perverse incentives beautifully describes celebrity culture.

    Preverse indeed, we bestowed the the most lavish praise and generous rewards on the most useless behaviour, ( pro athletes, and other entertainers).

    The tough changes ahead mean much less of this type of novelty. As energy becomes more scarce we will have meaningful work. The future will require most of us to work much harder than we have ever worked in our lives, machines will not run with out large amounts of energy.

    Meaning will replace novelty, tough on the body but a saviour to our spirit.


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