This article came across my desk this morning:
The gist of the article is that within a couple of decades, computers equipped with machine learning software will begin to replace knowledge workers – professionals like lawyers and those that had a safe job, because it wasn’t a repetitive, mechanical, production line job. In other words, what happened to assembly line workers is about to happen to the professions – highly educated people that worked hard and frequently went into deep debt, for the promise of a safe enough job for life, that would earn them a good living.
What happens to all those people, if this scenario becomes a reality (as it is likely to do)?
Regular readers of this blog will know what I think already. We already had too many made up jobs, which existed for the sole purpose of providing somewhere for the otherwise unemployed to go and earn their daily bread. I don’t mean low skilled, low wage jobs, either. I mean form filling jobs and occupations where what was being done really wasn’t that necessary, for the advancement of the human condition. Some of those command middle class salaries, but the effort expended in them is utterly superfluous, in the bigger scheme of things. Harsh, but true.
What has never been faced is the fact that we actually don’t need to work as much as we used to, as a population. It’s counterproductive. Yet, we can’t seem to drop the idea that a person’s value and worth is tied to his job. We don’t know how else to distribute wealth, unless you spend forty hours a week doing something that entitles you to your share.
That, of course, is a pure command and control technique. While you’re fully occupied earning just enough to keep the wolf from your door, you’re too busy to think and question the legitimacy of those that hold power over you, who make the most money and who seem to control the institutions and laws we live under. What can’t be admitted is a society in which people’s material needs are fully met, without them having to work at what we would call a full time job. We cannot imagine a society more fully engaged in creative pursuits, working on meeting their spiritual and self-actualisation needs.
This short sightedness is already having drastic consequences for youth unemployment. We can’t even invent made up jobs for the bright young things emerging from our universities and schools. We don’t know how to put enough money in their pockets to make them feel membership of our society, instead of alienated from it. We haven’t the wit to turn these young people into consumers, let alone productive members of society. Instead, they are thrown onto the unemployment scrapheap. Forgotten. Discarded.
With technology increasingly able to do the work that previously somebody clever had to do, what are we going to do with all the displaced people? Are we going to throw them on the unemployment scrapheap too? Are we going to disenfranchise and alienate larger sections of the population and clever ones at that, just to shore up our existing ways? Isn’t revolution inevitable, one way or another?
I think it’s a wiser course for human affairs to begin thinking about new ways of redistributing wealth and allowing people to find meaning in artistic, creative pursuits that enrich the human condition, rather than throwing an increasing number of people to the wolves, thereby diminishing their lives intolerably. Insisting that everybody works harder and longer hours at jobs that we made up, just to keep the productivity and growth statistics healthy, so that we can insist that everybody has to justify their existence on the planet, through their effort and work in a career, is an anachronism that is increasingly expensive to defend. It no longer makes sense and it produces egregious effects that harm the lives of real people. Stop it!
I actually think that leaving a lot of the menial work, whether it is manual assembly line work or repetitive knowledge work, to computers is a good thing, but only if we find a fairer way to redistribute the wealth to those impacted. It cannot be a good thing to hollow out human lives, so that a very small number of people profit excessively and the rest starve. If we want, as a society, to leave more of the routine work to machines, then we had better start considering what to do with all the people it makes unemployed. Destroying them is not an answer, yet it’s our default position, at present. A better answer is to allow them to engage in creative pursuits, without forcing them into penury to do so.
One day we might actually evolve to a point where the value of a human life is compared against his or her accomplishments, learning, abilities and ideas, rather than how much money they make in a traditional full time job. Won’t that be a great day?