A casual stroll through the popular science section at a Barnes and Noble today and you’ll notice an influx in titles relating to our future with machines. Different authors, different jackets (of varying color hues and hipster jacket materials) but the gist seems to always veer right: Everyone wants to warn you about how the robots are coming to take your jobs, put you out of work and end life as we know it, ushering in a new dominion of corporate rule and oligarchical technocracies. The warning signs are clear, they say, and you must act now if you ever want hope of keeping your livelihood. They all warn of the loss of blue collar jobs as if that’s just a given at this point; the hot topic for debate now is the white collar job and many of these sensationalist authors feel the need to point out that soon the only people employed will be the ones programming better, faster and smarter robots. The picture they paint is bleak indeed and they like to scare up a neo-luddite response to transhumanists such as myself as being people steeped in blissful optimism and hopeless naivety about how the world really works down in the mud with the working class.
But here’s the thing they don’t tell you: I wouldn’t want to live in their painted future any more than you and no one, transhumanist or otherwise, is trying to make that happen. The best thing that’s going to happen to you this century is your boss firing you in favor of some cheap robot labor.
America has a big problem when it comes to how it views work. In the US, a job is a job. Everyone wants one, and even if they don’t really want one, they think they need one. Even a bad job offers a bit of social status above the unemployed: It becomes a physical and observable manifestation of one’s worth by proving they are not, in fact, the tainted “loser.” Of course, a garbage collector can still be an alcoholic that beats his wife and robs little old ladies on the street just as easily as a lazy and unemployed hack might, but the visual picture of a body hard at work is one people take comfort in. There is this deeply ingrained notion that work, a job, no matter how bad the pay, how long the hours, or how awful the conditions, is still better than no job at all. This is especially true in poorer subcultures where the immediacy of work is seen as a primary achievement over the more far-sighted application of education which can often be frowned upon (stereotypes foster their own through groupthink…undereducated communities tend to remain undereducated because of peer pressure to do so). A cursory glance at this mentality may lead one to blame the obvious elephant in the room: Capitalism. Of course this plays a big role in it, but to truly understand America’s obsession with the job, one has to dig back much further into its history, long before capitalism was even an economic theory on the board.
The roots of the modern view of labor in the US date back to the 17th century with the arrival of Puritan groups in the New World. The sociologist Max Weber laid out the foundational study for these beginnings in his landmark work “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” first published around 1905. In it, he argues that the Reformation in Europe that would later spread the Americas led to the notion that “time is money” and that work is a glory to be given back to God. Thus, any work to be done should be done in silent happiness, regardless of the labor itself, as a means of glorifying the Creator that had bestowed just enough skill to complete the task. The led to the creation of the concept of “work ethic” which is a fundamentally moral concoction that relates work with a “calling.” Because of this fervor in extending religiosity to one’s craft, combined with the humble lifestyle of a Pietist, money was oft saved. Consequently, when something needed funding, puritan groups such as the Calvinists were often called upon to aid and if it suited them, they did so willingly. Capitalism, then as Weber argues, is the modern “spirit” of this concept: A way of rationalizing the internal greed of man and structuring it in a secure and even devout way. It is fundamentally based upon the doctrine of sin and is built upon the preconceived notion that humanity is inbuilt with greed. Thus, it aims to solve this by channeling that greed in a manner that is of benefit to the market, but the end result comes with certain prices to be paid.
Now, no matter the root of why this thought developed, the fact is it accelerated the growth of the American economy. Capitalism works very well in small doses: Localized markets can quickly jumpstart themselves using free market values. It also works well to address growth. Growing nations come with growing workforces and capitalism supplies jobs at the ready to fill even the most basic needs. For better or worse, it really is a well-oiled machine where the laborer is needed as the cornerstone upon which the rest of the tower is laid. During the industrial revolution, this was wonderful (barring the massive human rights violations…from a strictly economic point of view, the industrial revolution was a success because of the free market). The factory was suddenly a viable business model and the production of goods became cheaper, making the goods themselves more accessible. America lurched by leaps into the future, well ahead of its European counterparts.
But alas, the such is no longer the case. So far, this has been ignored and if anything, has merely been the inconvenience of academics. In the real world, people still think they need jobs and the pursuit thereof has never been higher. But the rise of the robot and of AI will change all that as it will literally force it to do so: About 40% of the people in America won’t have jobs in the next 40 years due to robotic displacement. If the mindset about jobs doesn’t change, though, we will not survive this shift and revolution will occur. There has never been a revolution in history that was not related directly to the workforce in some form or another (even ancient revolts under feudal kings often revolved around these same matters). But this time around, with a little luck, an ideology shift will change everything.
You see, we live in a different era, an era that has access to things no previous era ever has. Work is different, labor is different. 3D printers are shaping up to make everyone their own manufacturer. Digiceuticals and biohacking are making everyone their own doctors. The internet has granted access to the world’s knowledge, often for free, but always less than a college tuition. The end result is that the purpose of working or what we call a “job” is becoming less and less clear. Just as it is becoming difficult to justify going to college when you can learn the same things from the comfort of home, it will also become hard to justify purchasing goods when one can simply purchase a 3D printer and download the goods off the internet…or pirate them for nothing. Would you download a car? Access is immediate and this is a major blow that capitalism is struggling to survive through. The response isn’t healthy. It leads to monopolies, singular manufacturing (some have jokingly said that the only business of the future is the one that makes the 3D printers) and acquihires that absorb competition in the name of redundancies and stale innovation. Jobs are dissolving at a disturbing rate, but we are still stuck feeling as though we need them…and in some respects we do: You can’t live without money and you can’t currently get money without a job.
So if you need a job to survive and you won’t have a job in the future because of advanced technologies that are cheaper to use than you are to hire, how is this good news? How do we survive this? The simple solution is to adopt a more socialist model overall while still promoting individual entrepreneurship at home and abroad. This can be done with a couple of things. The first is to provide a minimum living wage. Let’s say that everyone in the US gets paid $1,500 per month. It’s not much once rent and bills are accounted for, but you can live on it and probably a little better than many minimum wage jobs now. This frees you up from absolutely needing a job. Second, provide free education, at least through a four-year program. This incentivizes learning and will encourage those who maybe didn’t have the ability before to pursue education. It also relieves debt and has the ultimate benefit of education larger swaths of the public which will lead to greater innovation. I often wonder how many potential new discoveries are waiting to be made in the mind of someone stuck flipping burgers.
Now, couple with this personalized manufacturing that is inevitable from 3D printing and the like and you have the beginnings of the next world of entrepreneurial innovation. More free time, more information and greater access to higher education will all come together to raise the average in terms of innovation. Of course, there will always be some who are lazy and unwilling to better themselves. They’ll collect their minimum check and live a rather poor life doing nothing…and they’ll be happy doing it. But on average, if the history of humanity is any gauge, this will greatly improve society as a whole as we move toward new strengths in terms of intelligence and innovation. This is the only way to take back America, as traditional jobs are outsourced to robotics, humanity will have more time to restructure and innovate in new areas.
In the end, like it or not, robots are going to take your jobs. They’ll be cheaper than you, more reliable than you, be able to work longer than you, and cost less per year than you. It’s only a matter of time. But rather than bemoan the situation, why not think big and look to the future with open arms? This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. This could open up our future to a world of new ideas and innovations that were crippled prior…or it could go horribly wrong. But we have to decide what kind of nation we want to be and we have to decide now. Do we want to cling to old habits, fixing nothing and hoping that maybe, just maybe, if we keep doing the same old thing something will look up, all the while watching other nations surpass us? Or do we want to accept that things are different now, acknowledging that the time has come to put our fears of new ways of thinking aside as we grow into a world where we can once again regain strength in the foundations we have long lost of technology and science?
The choice is yours.
(Originally published via Medium: http://bit.ly/1NYTkdQ)