Post-scarcity Society or the Future of Work

Having recently read the “Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy“, I found this work to provide a quick and concise job of outlining how technology today is leading us towards a post-scarcity future.  I’m seeing an uptrend in others taking note of this alarming trend and adding their own perspectives into the mix.

From “THE WASTEFULNESS OF AUTOMATION” where Frances Coppola expounds on not only the wastefulness of a fully automated, future society but the imminent collapse of society that it could usher in:

The fact is that robots are brilliant at supply, but they don’t create demand. Only humans create demand – and if the majority of humans are so poor that they can only afford basic essentials, the economy will be constrained by lack of demand, not lack of supply. There would be no scarcity of products, at least to start with….but there would be scarcity of the means to obtain them.

But the short-sighted strategy of forcing down wages to prop up profits is not the only problem. As Tomas Hirst notes, traditional “middle class” skilled production and office jobs are disappearing, but there is relative growth of low-skill, low-pay jobs, mostly insecure, part-time and short-term. These jobs are increasing because the cost of employing people to do them is lower than the cost (at present) of automating them. If the future is that the majority of people will do unskilled, insecure jobs for very low wages, then this amounts to a shocking waste of human capital. And if the more distant future is that even these jobs will eventually be automated, and working for a living will become the privilege of a few, then it is an even bigger waste.We have the most educated workforce in history, but the majority of them will have no opportunity to use their skills in satisfying and well-remunerated work.

From “You are not an Artisan“, the writer argues the opposite claiming that work is endless but the special or artisan aspect of work will not be in short supply:

In other words, we’re more afraid of machines taking away our social status than our jobs. This might seem like an obvious point. After all, most status-conscious people have strong feelings about what work is “beneath” them, but with machines in the picture, the point gets considerably more subtle.

Wired has a much more optimistic idea of the future as well, ignoring the possibility that millions will be displaced without opportunity to support themselves, simply focusing on information workers who already have a close relationship with automation.  This makes for an optimistic future for workers in information technology.

In the coming years our relationships with robots will become ever more complex. But already a recurring pattern is emerging. No matter what your current job or your salary, you will progress through these Seven Stages of Robot Replacement, again and again:

    • 1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.[Later.]
    • 2. OK, it can do a lot of them, but it can’t do everything I do.[Later.]
    • 3. OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.[Later.]
    • 4. OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.[Later.]
    • 5. OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.[Later.]
    • 6. Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more fun and pays more![Later.]
    • 7. I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.

This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots.

The Atlantic, in Robots and the Future of Unemployment, expresses the current transformation as an echo of the past:

Transformation of the skill level of that much labor is going to have large destabilizing effects. The last time we had such a transition of the skilling of labor we’d have to look at the Industrial Revolution in Europe. There we had a transformation from an artisan class into a deskilled, more productive class. This, from an economists point-of-view (but certainly not everyone’s), was a huge win for unskilled labor. This new change in the skilling of labor is not what is happening now. Now the economy is taking the labor of an unskilled class and replacing it with machines. In order for someone to take advantage of the new employment opportunities opening up it will requires a peculiar new type of skilling – the ability to create and maintain the new efficiency machines.

Kurt Vonnegut also explores this concept similarly in a utopia-dystopia novel Player Piano.

Yet another post on this subject from the Washington Post suggests a solution:

Bridging the educational divide, to help lower-income students succeed in the robot-proof workforce, is a huge undertaking, Murnane and Levy concede. Murnane called it a decades-long challenge — but one that, ironically, could gain urgency among policymakers if the pace of technological advancement accelerates and more people find their jobs jeopardized by automation.

“One of the things that operates right now is there are a chunk of people who are doing just fine, because they’re not threatened by technology,” Murnane said. “Once you see more and more people threatened, that really changes the political calculation.”

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Is this the future?

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I wonder what the world will be like when programming is as basic a skill as reading and writing?  Will it truly be a world of brogrammers, hipstergrammers, gothgrammers, etc?  

Will there be anything left to do?  Will it become a world of white collar slavery, as already experienced by China?

Then, will the only high paying jobs available be for those of true artistic genius?  Or only coveted jobs for people with rare artisan skills that cannot be reproduced by machinery?

Shopping for A Shirt

I’m doing my usual walk around the mall, when I’m feeling an emptiness inside that could only be temporarily sated by consumerism.  I usually make a detour up the stairs and back down on the other side of the mall.  Not today, I thought, I will be a bit adventurous today and maybe buy that expensive toy I wanted.  Just so, I could not avoid the annoying booth lady, who was wearing a tight baby doll shirt and a skirt that seems to defy the laws of physics.  A man in brown was fending himself from her advances and also her wares.  I thought it was my lucky day to have her preoccupied, so I advanced towards them quickly, hopefully to bypass them.  When she saw me, she seemed to latch onto me like a homing missile. 

 

“You look quite handsome today.”

 

“No, thanks, I won’t be needing that today,“ I replied automatically.

 

All of the sudden, I felt like a horrible human being such a jerk. It seemed as if she would haunt me around the mall, at least in my mind, so I stopped and gave in to her.

 

 She had my full attention now and a victorious smile spread on her face like the morning sun.  I looked upon her face for the first time and noticed the creased rays from her eyes, the unreal blue of her eye shadow, and the sun aged skin.  I now saw her as someone who might have children and was having a fairly difficult day trying to feed them.   All of this weighed heavily on my conscious.

 

Her demeanor changed suddenly from peddler to confidante.  She led me back towards her base of operations: a small little kiosk that sold cheap jewelry, headbands, and t-shirts. 

 

“Would you like to try on an e-shirt?”  She asked me, her eyes darting furtively to check for approaching customers.

 

“Do you mean t-shirts?”

 

She leaned forward, “No, I mean these new e-shirts. The ‘e’ stands for electronic.”

 

I sighed.  She said electronic with a nasal intonation that seemed to suggest she didn’t even understand what the word meant. “Well, uh, maybe.  Whatever these e-shirts are, they’re probably just t-shirts anyway.”

 

“No, no, not t-shirts!”  She repeated, and busied herself with rummaging through a low cabinet.

 

Finally, she found her target and popped back up beside me.  She offered me in outstretched hands a black t-shirt.   I must have had a look of disbelief mixed with anger, so she said, “Do not be angry with me! You must try it on to understand.”

 

I grudgingly took the shirt from her and pulled it over my head. “I don’t see what’s the big deal about this boring black t-shirt.”

 

“Look!” She pointed to woman pushing a stroller near us.  As they walked by, I saw she was wearing a shirt that was the most vivid display of the human internal organs I had ever seen.  I could see her heart beat.  Her stomach was fairly empty.  As she walked by, on her back, I saw this display:

 

34

Seattle, Wa

Allergic to cats

 

I nearly shook with disbelief. I looked down on my shirt and saw that it remained blank.  The booth lady smiled at me kindly, as if I were a child.  “You haven’t paid for your shirt yet.”

 

“Wait, so you mean everyone can see every intimate detail about me, my health, my personal information.”

 

“No, no, not everyone, just those who wear e-shirts!”

 

“Why would I want to do this?”

 

Now it was her turn to sigh, “Well, I don’t do this for most of my customers, but I will let you try some more features of this e-shirt.  You are just seeing the default settings.”

 

She tapped a few keys at her console.  When she was done, we looked together into a quiet group of college girls loitering outside the cosmetic store.  Above their heads, I could see what seemed to be thought bubbles.  From what I read while I was permitted this demonstration:

 

Girl1: I want to check out the Macy’s.

Girl2: No, there’s nothing good there.

Girl1: Whatever.

Girl3: Let’s get something to eat.

 

I turned back to the booth, as the conversation was uninteresting even to eavesdrop. “You mean to say that I can not even participate in this conversation without this e-shirt?”

 

“Now, you are beginning to understand.”   She smiled a smile that was even brighter than before, “So, would you like to buy one?”

 

Mercedes Benz – Biome – Cars organically grown in a nursery design

This concept car is gorgeous from inception to finish! The concept art of a organic factory line is a mix of Tron, Avatar, and futuristic creepy.

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