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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