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speculative, but instructive, economics
May 1, 2011 6:54 AM   Subscribe

In a pinch, upgrade the humans or redistribute the robots - "[S]uppose [as a factory owner] I replace all my workers with machines... This squeeze has many implications, one of them being that here is an important sector of the economy in which more or less all the gains accrue to the owners of capital and more or less none to the working class..."

I think he misses a couple (intermediate) implications; one is that in an all 'K' world (w/out labor) there is no aggregate demand and second is how 'economics' changes in a post-scarcity situation that a technologically advanced society of (super)human level AI and genetic enhancement would imply, and yet rather than a reductio ad absurdum, I'd say the speculative reality he describes is increasingly the kind of circumstance we find ourselves in (environmental bottlenecks notwithstanding, assuming we can engineer around them).

BONUS
-Richard Alpert on Buckminster Fuller
-Peter Joseph on technological unemployment
-Are we seeing the beginning of the end of work?
-Capitalism is failing the middle class
-The Conservative States Of America
-A Red Dixiecrat Dawn? [1,2]
-Productivity Only Causes Persistent Unemployment If Policymakers Fail To Provide Adequate Demand [1,2]
-The case for film subsidies (and other goodies)
-Libertarianism is a "low-end" strategy of state formation
posted by kliuless (98 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
This seems to be an increasingly popular subject

Though nothing new:
Player Piano

I am all for the robot revolution and coming singularity.
posted by AndrewKemendo at 7:06 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isaac Asimov wrote about this in the 1950s in his robot novels. The Spacers were rich, because they all owned robots; the Earthers were poor because the robots just took their jobs away from them and left them on welfare.
posted by jb at 7:07 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Germany has a much higher level of robot use than the UK/USA, and has therefore retained a larger manufacturing base and more manufacturing employment. One of the ways Audi has made robot use acceptable to human workers is to start by asking them what they think robots should do, and then putting the human workers in charge of them. Economist article from 31 March 2011
posted by alasdair at 7:13 AM on May 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


I've seen youtube videos of robots dancing, flying, emoting, and there are certainly robots doing lots of real work. But I have not seen any real robots repairing other robots. Until then there'll be jobs for humans.
posted by sammyo at 7:13 AM on May 1, 2011


I am all for the robot revolution and coming singularity.

The problem, of course, being that the robot revolution is pretty much here and the singularity ain't lookin' any closer.

I'm a software engineer rather than a hardware designer, and a lot of the work I've done over time consisted of figuring out how to build "smart tools" to replace manual labor. We like to talk about how this frees up people to do more creative and interesting work (hooray! now the spreadsheet wrangler can do fun things!) but in reality it means the spreadsheet wrangler (or the bolt-tightener, or the carpenter) gets laid off.

It's one of the reasons that I've become more and more uncomfortable with "productivity gains" being one of the primary measures of economic success: eliminating all the humans and automating the hell out of everything is a big productivity boost (as long as the automation system works).

Simply training people as 'knowledge workers' doesn't help, either: the entire point of paying knowledge workers to do stuff like designing robots or software is to pay a few people to do the work of a lot of people via new tools. Although some of the eliminated workers might be able to make the shift, the numbers don't add up long-term.

That's the long-term issue that the article in the original post is talking about. He's saying that eventually, you either have to make humans better at (valuable) stuff robot's can't do, or you have to redistribute the robots so that everybody has a piece of the crazy theoretical cornucopia machine action.
posted by verb at 7:14 AM on May 1, 2011 [17 favorites]


And in the Clifford Simak version, a distant entity that may or may not have been a state (could have been a corporation) basically gave goods away because it wasn't worth collecting the profit. The humans were curious about the free light bulbs and so on, but never bothered to find out how this came to pass. I think in one story it did actually turn out to be aliens messing with us.

In some ways we have reached the stage where some products are too cheap to meter, but collecting the profit has become a habit.
posted by sneebler at 7:16 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah. But here's the thing: if the voters have no opportunity to work, why wouldn't they just vote for a tax on robot labor, redistributed to everyone, in which case we enter a utopia where no one has to work and all our labor is done by robots?

A limitless supply of labor upends the concept of 'poverty' and 'wealth' because money, ultimately is a credit that can be used to purchase labor from other humans. But if labor is free, then money has no value.

So that's the rational-voter democratic scenario.

What about the un-democratic scenario? What if elections are not held and robot labor is used to keep unruly and un-working humans in line? Then we get into the dystopian vision of the future. Where instead of labor going for it's fair value, we instead have rent-seeking humans who restrict the 'money' supply in order to have other humans working for them, essentially their slaves.

Personally, I think the first thing is more likely. I do kind of think we are headed to a Utopian future, etc. The second vision is more fertile ground for sci-fi novels, though.
I've seen youtube videos of robots dancing, flying, emoting, and there are certainly robots doing lots of real work. But I have not seen any real robots repairing other robots. Until then there'll be jobs for humans.
How many videos have you seen of humans repairing robots? On the other hand, I've seen lots of videos of humans repairing other humans (they call it medicine). The fact is, robots need a lot less maintenance then humans do. Likely, robots will be designed to be fairly resilient. And just like humans, it will probably be a lot cheaper to build replacements then repair the existing stock. Unlike Humans, however, robots will not have an egoistic attachment to self, and won't care if they are discarded, scrapped, and recycled. (or at least, it would be a very bad idea to program them that way! This was the major flaw with Asimov's 3 laws, IMO. They should never have any sense of self preservation, and instead they should have been programmed to preserve the human investment value. If a robot thought sacrificing himself improved the situation of a human owner, then they should choose to sacrifice themselves)
posted by delmoi at 7:24 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


And in the Clifford Simak version, a distant entity that may or may not have been a state (could have been a corporation) basically gave goods away because it wasn't worth collecting the profit. The humans were curious about the free light bulbs and so on, but never bothered to find out how this came to pass. I think in one story it did actually turn out to be aliens messing with us.
How much does Google charge for it's products?
posted by delmoi at 7:25 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah. But here's the thing: if the voters have no opportunity to work, why wouldn't they just vote for a tax on robot labor, redistributed to everyone, in which case we enter a utopia where no one has to work and all our labor is done by robots?

At least here in the United States, 'unemployed workers voting for a tax increase' is a direct assault on freedom, and probably treason.
posted by verb at 7:26 AM on May 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


How is this argument different from the Luddite objection to the mechanisation of wool processing? Mechanized looms, and the industrial revolution itself, didn't lead to mass unemployment and starvation but to amazing increases in output and, in time, general living standards. In reality new technology doesn't mean people get laid off, instead firms increase their levels of production with the same number of people employed. Firms which don't embrace new technology meanwhile don't happily keep employing thousands of ruddy cheeked workers, they go bust and all their workers lose their jobs. Just like the Luddites, this is really an objection to the free market and EVIL CAPITALISM but of course that's going to collapse next week, isn't it? Next month for sure.
posted by joannemullen at 7:27 AM on May 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


But I have not seen any real robots repairing other robots. Until then there'll be jobs for humans.

This one probably isn't that far away. (Overview of the JUSTIN robot.)

Also, the kinds of jobs building and creating robots are on an entirely different plane that repetitive assembly line work those robots replace. Skilled engineer types with training and experience in robotics are remotely comparable assembly line workers.

Generally any healthy working age person is capable of some class of unskilled labor, which at one time provided a living wage and formed a large part of the economy. Today, there's really no such thing as unskilled labor, at least not that pays a decent wage. Unskilled jobs are confined to low paying servicing industry positions really only suitable for a young person or student, not nearly sufficient to support a family unit.

It's not that robots will take ALL of the jobs, it's that they will take enough jobs that used to be done by lower educated workers to greatly impact the financial security and buying power of the lower middle class strata that relied on those positions, with effects spilling over into the local and national tax base, drain on social systems, and on and on. Actually "will" is inaccurate, it's pretty much already happened.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:28 AM on May 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


verb makes a good point. Capitalism as a concept starts to break down when nobody needs the work that labor has to sell. (At least when you view capitalism at its most basic: money as stored labor. If there is no market for labor to be sold, then no money changes hands.)

But on the other hand, people are still buying the things that are being produced, so there is some kind of balance.

The question is, how do you solve the problem without screwing some people?
posted by gjc at 7:30 AM on May 1, 2011


How much does Google charge for it's products?

Nothing, you give it (you) to them for free.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:30 AM on May 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Or Amazon, which figured out a way to meter very cheaply. They send me bills that can be measured in pennies for their web services.
At least here in the United States, 'unemployed workers voting for a tax increase' is a direct assault on freedom, and probably treason.
That's not true for people over x years old and under y where currently x = 65 and y = 18. What happens when x = y? what happens 70% of the voting population doesn't have a job? Already the employment to population ratio drops below 50%? It's only 58% right now. Granted, a lot of those without jobs are under 18 and can't vote, but with more automation the ratio for voters will drop below 50% as well.
posted by delmoi at 7:32 AM on May 1, 2011


What happens when x = y? what happens 70% of the voting population doesn't have a job?

Do you want my cynical answer, or my idealistic answer?
posted by verb at 7:33 AM on May 1, 2011


As a response to verb...well then you should start helping with that singularity then. Software engineers are badly needed.

More broadly I am someone working on a disruptive automation technology that may replace thousands of process line workers. What does this mean long term? For me it means my costs go down significantly and I pass that savings on to the consumer which in turn means verrry low prices for people for things they need for survival.

If applied broadly I would hope that other capital owners would take their gains from automation and apply them toward creating a post scarcity/AI world, though I am not terribly confident as people are skittish about these existential risks.
posted by AndrewKemendo at 7:35 AM on May 1, 2011


As a response to verb...well then you should start helping with that singularity then. Software engineers are badly needed.
The "Singularity" is a joke (IMO) . There isn't going to be a singularity, technological growth is more accurately modeled by a sigmoid function then a hyperbolic one.
posted by delmoi at 7:42 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Generally any healthy working age person is capable of some class of unskilled labor, which at one time provided a living wage and formed a large part of the economy. Today, there's really no such thing as unskilled labor, at least not that pays a decent wage. Unskilled jobs are confined to low paying servicing industry positions really only suitable for a young person or student, not nearly sufficient to support a family unit.

My casual knowledge of economic history makes me believe that this isn't true. I don't believe that there was ever a time when unskilled labor could support a family. It might be true that there were more entry-level opportunities where someone with no skills could start out, and then learn some useful skills, and *then* be able to afford to start a family.

But I'm not even sure about that. Those lower middle class families lived very sparse lives compared to today, and if some post-modern luddite decided to live they way people lived in the post-war era, I suspect they would find that it would be more or less equivalent. But that means things like 8 people in a 800 sq ft house, one car, no air conditioning, no electronic gadgets, saving nickels and dimes for a year in order to be able to buy a new TV. Etc.

I'm not saying this is an optimal way of life, and we should find ways for people to be able to lead fulfilling lives. But life was never any easier, on average.
posted by gjc at 7:43 AM on May 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


How much does Google charge for it's products?

Your answer here.
posted by gjc at 7:46 AM on May 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


What happens when x = y?

The voters will vote for misguided and short sighted things that will make things worse in the long run. Eating the rich won't solve anything, but that's what they will vote for.
posted by gjc at 7:52 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


We are living, right now, in the reason that Robot Utopia isn't going to come to pass. If there's insufficient demand to buy the products robots are making, what's the incentive for companies to buy more robots? You can get efficiencies in so many other ways--outsourcing, layoffs added to longer hours for the remaining employees (with or without pay cuts)--that the idea of spending millions on robots just doesn't make much sense.
posted by mittens at 7:53 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


technological growth is more accurately modeled by a sigmoid function then a hyperbolic one.

Some logistic curves have exponential segments, the exponents just start decaying...in any case that doesn't define the singularity, it is as you say hyperbolic.

More accurately the singularity is a point in which technology moves faster than is predictable.

So lets get to work!
posted by AndrewKemendo at 7:55 AM on May 1, 2011


sneebler writes "In some ways we have reached the stage where some products are too cheap to meter, but collecting the profit has become a habit."

See the dollar store. Much of what they sell is substandard crap but they also sell a swack load of things that are perfectly serviceable.
posted by Mitheral at 8:03 AM on May 1, 2011


joannemullen: mechanized looms led to temporary local unemployment -- and also deskilling of work. Weaving was a skilled-man's work, and paid similar to what a good factory job would today. Mechanized weaving machines could be run by unskilled men - or even women and children - for a fraction of the pay. The Luddites were not Luddites - they were responding to a very real threat to their own livelihoods.
posted by jb at 8:03 AM on May 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


How is this argument different from the Luddite objection to the mechanisation of wool processing?

The Luddites weren't about smashing machinery because they were replacing people. That's a bit of folk history which has come down to us through the fog of time, but Smithsonian Magazine had an article recently which explained it all pretty well.
As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient machines. But the Luddites themselves “were totally fine with machines,” says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004 collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”
It's worth reading, if for no other reason than to get one's facts straight.
posted by hippybear at 8:03 AM on May 1, 2011 [17 favorites]


in other words - mechanization of weaving and other manufactures le to an increase in production (aided by cheap raw resources from slavery and other colonies) - but how what percentage of those benefits went only to the owners of capital and what trickled down to their workers? I've done research on working class diets in London c1900, and they weren't eating much better than the working class in c1700, sometimes worse. it took into the 20th century for the vast gains in productivity in Britain over the 19th century to really reach the majority of the population.
posted by jb at 8:08 AM on May 1, 2011


T.D. Strange said:
"...it's that they will take enough jobs that used to be done by lower educated workers to greatly impact the financial security and buying power..."

This is where one needs to think about the importance education and availability of information in the context of an increasingly robotic future.

1.
Access to information today means that you can teach yourself to code at an extremely low cost and that knowledge can lead you to entrepreneurial activities or gainful employment. Much of this is due to open source software and movements to provide other forms of information freely.

2.
A similar revolution in the realm of open source hardware will create new forms of employment and will fully enable people to take charge of sustaining themselves.

3.
With these two revolutions in place, the main issue then becomes the availability of land and resources (water, energy, minerals, etc.) for the human population to exist on Earth; it becomes an issue of designating a maximum carrying capacity for this planet.

4.
If every individual has access to a little bit of land, basic resources, and the information to create an energy-producing house with a small-scale form of food production, then the poorest of society will at least be able to have a comfortable place to sleep (protected from extremes in temperature) and food to eat.

-We need to realize that we are not even close to achieving this very basic condition for humanity. We live in a world where a lot of people aren't doing too well-

Globalized food production and trade has wrecked havoc upon agricultural economies across the world, and in a strange twist of fate, NGOs find they need to reeducate centuries-old farming communities how to farm again.

There are other problems at hand in the world (war, corruption, disease, etc.), but I think if we are to address the future of humanity, the first issue that needs to be addressed is significantly lowering the Global Hunger Index. The job's been made a bit easier in that most of the hunger is on one continent, and the reasons behind this are known.
posted by lemuring at 8:14 AM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Robots won't take over manufacturing until far into the future...As soon as the future African workers successfully get their wages raised to 6¢/hr.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:17 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Exactly Thorzdad.

If we really want to help future populations, we either establish global standards of labor (haha), or we offer them an alternative in the form of the dignity of being able to grow your own food with your own hands without resorting to begging or economic slavery.
posted by lemuring at 8:25 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Alternatively push a diet high in simple sugars, salt and fats on the working class combined with ready access to nicotine, alcohol and caffeine. Then get ten to sit around all day and surf the net and watch tv. Excess worker problem and mass uprising of said working class resolved. Fat, entertained and short lived.
posted by humanfont at 8:54 AM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


If farms were run by robots, food would be free. And by "would" I mean "would not, unless people also owned their own land". Also, the current practice of patenting/copy-protecting seeds would have to end.
posted by DU at 8:58 AM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, the current practice of patenting/copy-protecting seeds would have to end.

There's no de facto copy-protection on seeds (sterile 'Terminator' seeds have never actually been sold).

As for patents: first, there's nothing stopping anyone from using older varieties. Second, the patents mostly cover features like herbicide resistance and Bt toxin production; for an organic gardener (especially one that has unlimited robot labor to do manual weeding and pest control) those are non-issues.

Third, most all of those patented plants are also hybrid varieties. Do you know how hybrids work? If you save the seeds and replant them, the second generation will have considerably lower yields, though it might retain the herbicide resistance or Bt features. So effectively you have to buy new seeds every year anyway unless you also want to run your own hybridization operation.

So, no, the practice of patenting seeds wouldn't really have an impact on people's ability to be self-sufficient using robot labor.
posted by jedicus at 9:09 AM on May 1, 2011


The whole premise is wrong - looking to business as the salvation to any of these problems is doomed to failure. Defining what is and what is not an acceptable standard of living is a political problem.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:25 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


delmoi : How much does Google charge for it's products?

Around 18 billion per year. Of course, you and I count as the product, not the buyer thereof.


what happens 70% of the voting population doesn't have a job?

In the US, only 47% of working-age people actually work. With a total population of 307 million, and a presently-employed workforce of 91 million, That means over 70% (almost exactly) of the US population doesn't have a job today

Of course, you did say "voting", so if we consider only the over-18 population (75.7%), that pushes it down to 61%.
posted by pla at 9:27 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This article starts out with an interesting premise, but I think his conclusions are dumb, primarily because he's an economist who can't envision any alternative to capitalism except Armageddon. He also has obviously never read any of Bruce Sterling's "Shaper / Mechanist" stories. :|

It's also kind of hilarious that he basically describes communism as one of his scenarios, and then calls it Dubya's "Ownership Society".
posted by luvcraft at 9:39 AM on May 1, 2011


The "Singularity" is a joke (IMO) . There isn't going to be a singularity, technological growth is more accurately modeled by a sigmoid function then a hyperbolic one.

What is the measure you are using?
posted by kuatto at 9:50 AM on May 1, 2011


It's interesting that the redistribution of robots is already taking place.

We have robots that vacuum and clean floors.
We have robots that go to the office in our place.
posted by storybored at 9:57 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


jedicus said:
"...So, no, the practice of patenting seeds wouldn't really have an impact on people's ability to be self-sufficient using robot labor."

It already does have a tremendous impact. Have you seen Food Inc.?
posted by lemuring at 10:05 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This entire thing will only come to a head when there is no more cheap labor. Until that happens, markets will just move to wherever the latest middle class has risen. Once capital has run out of impoverished regions from which to exploit cheap human resources, then there is no market to extort capital from. Of course, this will never happen, because as one middle class rises, another falls and becomes the next pool of exploitable free/cheap labor. Unfortunately, that is probably going to be "us" (the U.S.). But in another two to three centuries, the wheel will come around and we'll get our chance to rise again. Just hold your breath.
posted by spicynuts at 10:18 AM on May 1, 2011


As a response to verb...well then you should start helping with that singularity then. Software engineers are badly needed.

Sorry, I spent twenty years as an evangelical rapture-watcher. Working to hasten the arrival of nano-Jesus isn't my cup of tea.

I don't mean that as snark, either. The dream of Singularity is functionally no different than the promise of heaven for a dispensationalist. It's been talked about for a long time, it's always just around the corner, and while it's unimaginably huge, we're all supposed to be working towards it, because it'll be everything we ever dreamed of. Because it is inexplicable by definition, there's no way to effectively decide whether the results will be a good thing or a bad thing -- but we need to get there, faster! Those who question it are Luddites (aka, the unfaithful).

Even more curious is that the hope and promise of Singularity, like the hope and promise of the Rapture, is colossally, apocalyptically disruptive. For the faithful, this is great -- all the crufty, ugly remnants of the old world will be washed away. But like the four billion people Revelation promises will be killed by plagues before the happy ending, those whose livelihoods disappear in the Singularity's disruption are forgotten.

That is a nontrivial problem, and those who gloss over it are either not thinking things through, or falling prey to the most dangerous sort of idealism.



More broadly I am someone working on a disruptive automation technology that may replace thousands of process line workers. What does this mean long term? For me it means my costs go down significantly and I pass that savings on to the consumer which in turn means verrry low prices for people for things they need for survival.

I'm glad that you're cognizant of the first part of the equation -- automation eliminates jobs, either by reducing the number of workers needed to perform a task, or increasing the amount of 'task' that can be done without hiring additional workers. The idea that those thousand line workers will find new jobs because the goods they used to produce are now cheaper, however, is an article of faith rather than a statement of fact.

And that's where the problem is, really. Even if the scales eventually balance out at a macroeconimic level (i.e., the number of eliminated global-work-hours is perfectly matched by a reduction in the global-work-hour cost of humanity's consumption), history demonstrates that the disruption comes with a significant human cost. When we're discussing just one industry being eclipsed by a newer model, that's one thing. But the utopian dream of ultra-disruption leading to a life of leisure for everyone is just that: a utopian dream. In reality, we see the opposite: increasing automation and efficiency raises the floor of basic work skills, a small subset of the old labor pool upgrades, and a large pool of previously 'skilled professionals' become the next round of 'unskilled laborers.'

That's a concern.
posted by verb at 10:26 AM on May 1, 2011 [9 favorites]


you laughed at me while i got my degree.
you laughed at me while times were good.
you laughed at me when the internet bubble burst.
you laughed at me all through the Bush years.
you even laughed at me while the economy went belly-up and screwed you all.
and you will probably keep laughing at me while it continues it's downward spiral to the complete destruction of money as we know it. (which should be obvious to everyone at this point, but apparently isn't)
and this entire time, I've been consistently working...I may not have been rich, but I've been working, and I will hold the last job while you wait in line for a handout.
go ahead and keep laughing then, as an artist, I'm used to being looked down on from below.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:33 AM on May 1, 2011


sexy robots are getting into art too?
posted by lemuring at 10:38 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interesting. We might however find the world's population declining by mid century too, which'll increase the value of labor, cause deflation, accelerate mechanization, etc. All that sounds far more positive. :)
posted by jeffburdges at 10:43 AM on May 1, 2011


...a lot of the work I've done over time consisted of figuring out how to build "smart tools" to replace manual labor. We like to talk about how this frees up people to do more creative and interesting work (hooray! now the spreadsheet wrangler can do fun things!) but in reality it means the spreadsheet wrangler (or the bolt-tightener, or the carpenter) gets laid off.

It's one of the reasons that I've become more and more uncomfortable with "productivity gains" being one of the primary measures of economic success: eliminating all the humans and automating the hell out of everything is a big productivity boost (as long as the automation system works).


This idea that machines will forever impoverish an underclass doesn't work. What would would the rich people do wither their wealth?

Money is about buying other people's labor. If some robot-owning superclass of people gets very rich, then what are they going to do with their money?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 10:51 AM on May 1, 2011


This idea that machines will forever impoverish an underclass doesn't work. What would would the rich people do wither their wealth?

The Gilded Age was just a little over a hundred years ago. Might look there for ideas.

Money is about buying other people's labor. If some robot-owning superclass of people gets very rich, then what are they going to do with their money?

They can always pay people to fight lions, or each other. Think of the spectacle!
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:00 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


My favorite technology cartoon for Singularity believers.

Humans will outlast robots, I just hope we manage to outlast ourselves.
posted by cenoxo at 11:02 AM on May 1, 2011


...a lot of the work I've done over time consisted of figuring out how to build "smart tools" to replace manual labor. We like to talk about how this frees up people to do more creative and interesting work (hooray! now the spreadsheet wrangler can do fun things!) but in reality it means the spreadsheet wrangler (or the bolt-tightener, or the carpenter) gets laid off.

I used to be a robotics operator. I can remember one week when my robot cell suffered a catastrophic breakdown. I, along with several other people, had to do the repetitive assembly work that the robot usually did. After two days, my wrists hurt so badly that I could barely grip the steering wheel as I drove home from work.

Point is, robotics can definitely put people out of work. But what good is a job when it destroys a person's body? And what are the people currently building, programming, operating and maintaining robots supposed to do when we decide that it's more just to continue assembling things the way we did in 1940?
posted by TrialByMedia at 11:02 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This idea that machines will forever impoverish an underclass doesn't work. What would would the rich people do wither their wealth?

The Gilded Age was just a little over a hundred years ago. Might look there for ideas.

Money is about buying other people's labor. If some robot-owning superclass of people gets very rich, then what are they going to do with their money?

They can always pay people to fight lions, or each other. Think of the spectacle!


As long as people can organize to get a good price for their labor, then they won't allow themselves to be exploited.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:12 AM on May 1, 2011


TBM — How did management (and the human employees) view robotics where you used to work? Why did you quit?
posted by cenoxo at 11:13 AM on May 1, 2011


I've posted it here before, but it's very relevant to this thread:

Bertrand Russell, "In Praise of Idleness" (1932)

The war
[World War I] showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been disastrous. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?


Of course, depending on your view of the future of fossil fuels, the extent to which automation can reduce the need for human labor may itself decline...
posted by dhens at 11:36 AM on May 1, 2011 [13 favorites]


esprit de l'escalier : As long as people can organize to get a good price for their labor, then they won't allow themselves to be exploited.

Subtle humor?

Organized labor makes robotics more appealing for precisely the reason you give... Look at the difference in levels of automation between the US and China - Both have similar access to technology, but China has unbelievably cheap labor, while the US has unions.

So "exploited", no... Because that would count as a step up from "unwanted".
posted by pla at 11:41 AM on May 1, 2011


Imagine you're a very rich person and labor unions are very strong. Suppose that you respond by automating everything you can. Now, what do you do with your money? People come up with stuff that they can do for you (e.g., interior design or architecture) and you end up paying them. There's no way that everyone can remain "unwanted."
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:49 AM on May 1, 2011


It already does have a tremendous impact. Have you seen Food Inc.?

The impact of patented seeds and hybrid varieties is felt in the open, commercial market, where they make it difficult for organic and heirloom varieties to compete, particularly in the market for corn, which is not identity-protected. This is completely orthogonal to whether the existence of such crops would affect an individual's ability to be self-sufficient on their own land using more traditional varieties and unlimited robot labor.
posted by jedicus at 11:52 AM on May 1, 2011


Yeah, whether people are wanted or not on the large scale depends on wealth distribution. If the money is in the hands of people who will invest it rather than purchase anything, then there is a paucity of demand and labor is unwanted.

So if labor unions are powerful enough to ensure that there is a more even wealth distribution across all of society, then they can prevent labor from being both exploited and unwanted. If not, well... there's a reason the economy is limping right now, and it ain't for lack of investors.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:53 AM on May 1, 2011


Yeah, whether people are wanted or not on the large scale depends on wealth distribution. If the money is in the hands of people who will invest it rather than purchase anything, then there is a paucity of demand and labor is unwanted.

I don't understand this. How can you invest money in something that doesn't ultimately pay people?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:57 AM on May 1, 2011


People come up with stuff that they can do for you (e.g., interior design or architecture) and you end up paying them. There's no way that everyone can remain "unwanted."
You're still describing a situation where the trend is downward toward an increasing population of "unwanted".
posted by Thorzdad at 12:08 PM on May 1, 2011


How did management (and the human employees) view robotics where you used to work? Why did you quit?

Management liked the robotics because it greatly increased the amount of work we can do without having to invest in more floor space. Employees like the robotics because they don't go home dealing with the kind of pain I described above. When robotics are brought into the plant (a union shop, btw) the floor space gained is used to in-source more manual welding work. It's not as simple as buying a robot and laying off 10 people--there's always more work we can bring back into the plant when we find the space.

Lastly, I didn't quit--I got moved up to engineering.
posted by TrialByMedia at 12:08 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


You're still describing a situation where the trend is downward toward an increasing population of "unwanted".

Why do you think there's a downward trend towards unwanted? Creativity is unlimited — surely people can perpetually invent useful things to do?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 12:15 PM on May 1, 2011


No love for Robert Anton Wilson's Hubbard plan?
posted by yeolcoatl at 12:22 PM on May 1, 2011


More accurately the singularity is a point in which technology moves faster than is predictable.
When has technology ever been predictable?
posted by delmoi at 1:06 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


pay a few people to do the work of a lot of people via new tools.

There is always going to be more work to be done. We build tools so we can build tools so we can build tools. There is always going to be the next thing that robots can't do. Until we have robots designing robots, which is still a ways off I think
posted by empath at 1:08 PM on May 1, 2011


Imagine you're a very rich person and labor unions are very strong. Suppose that you respond by automating everything you can. Now, what do you do with your money? People come up with stuff that they can do for you (e.g., interior design or architecture) and you end up paying them. There's no way that everyone can remain "unwanted."

That's pretty classic trickle-down theory, isn't it?

Creativity is unlimited — surely people can perpetually invent useful things to do?

Um... well, you mention interior design and architecture. What else can people invent to do which is useful? The theoretical rich person you mention already has a full household staff (gardener, maid, cook, nanny), and there's only so many times they can re-do their house or build a new house... And the pool of rich people is limited, while the pool of people who may want to find a way to get that rich person to hire them as doing something useful outnumbers them, say, 100 to 1.

So what kind of creative, useful things can 100 people think of to do for 1 person which will somehow pay them enough to live on for a year serving that 1 person?

(And remember, that's 100 people for EVERY rich person, so if we're going to have this supposed creative, useful underclass for the rich to hire, they ALL have to keep 100 people employed full-time in order for this system to work.)

Even if you assume that, say, half of the non-rich people can be employed doing things which aren't part of this creative, useful class.. You know... restaurant workers, baristas, garbage men, etc... That's still 50 people PER rich person....

I'm just curious... what you envision all these 50 people doing?
posted by hippybear at 1:11 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is always going to be more work to be done. We build tools so we can build tools so we can build tools. There is always going to be the next thing that robots can't do. Until we have robots designing robots, which is still a ways off I think

Even then, when are robots going to make good artists, massage therapists, teachers, philosophers, psychologists, entertainers,...?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 1:12 PM on May 1, 2011


Even if you assume that, say, half of the non-rich people can be employed doing things which aren't part of this creative, useful class.. You know... restaurant workers, baristas, garbage men, etc... That's still 50 people PER rich person....

I'm just curious... what you envision all these 50 people doing?


I know that social change is a very popular subject on metafilter, and it's something that I also think about a lot. I named a few jobs in my last comment, but I think the more important point is to ask ourselves how these hypthetical rich people are staying rich if they have a staff of 50 people each?

So, what are they doing for everyone else? It's not like they can lend their robots, or else other people will just build their own robots. It's not the land they have, or else people will demand better land use policy. It's not the capital they have, because that is perpetually reinvested in the economy.

If the answer is nothing, then the money is redistributed.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 1:24 PM on May 1, 2011


It's not the capital they have, because that is perpetually reinvested in the economy.

Here is where I'm not sure your vision is entirely clear and it all starts to sound like trickle-down.
posted by hippybear at 1:39 PM on May 1, 2011


No love for Robert Anton Wilson's Hubbard plan?

In RAW's 1979 story, the RICH Economy — Rising Income through Cybernetic Homeostasis — is approved by Congress, and some former workers find happiness by designing machines that can do their job (in return for an annual $50,000 payment):
This was a Cherokee Indian named Starhawk, who had been an engine-lathe worker in Tucson. After designing himself out of that job, Starhawk had gone on to learn four other mechanical factory jobs, designed himself out of each, and now had a guaranteed income of $250,000 a year for these feats. He was now devoting himself to painting in the traditional Cherokee style -- which was what he had always wanted to do, back in adolescence, before he learned that he had to work for a living...
Collateral workers who were also replaced by machines received a smaller, but no less satisfying incentive:
The majority of the unemployed, living comfortably on $30,000 a year, admittedly spent most of their time drinking booze, smoking weed, engaging in primate sexual acrobatics, and watching wall TV.

When moralists complained that this was a subhuman existence, Hubbard answered, "And what kind of existence did they have doing idiot jobs that machines do better?"
Workers of the world, arise!
posted by cenoxo at 1:42 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


How do you imagine that capital is not reinvested in the economy?

Money deposited in a bank is reinvested by the bank, for example, loaned to someone who has a mortgage.

Money used to buy stocks is now in the hands of the person you bought the stocks from.

Even if you bury your money on a deserted island and never spend, then that's the best thing for everyone else, because now all the work you did was essentially a gift to the government that just prints more money to replace the missing dollars.

To make things worse, savings are steadily eaten away by inflation (which is essentially a steady rise in people's paychecks without any rise in the value of their work.)
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 1:50 PM on May 1, 2011


If the answer is nothing, then the money is redistributed.

You're forgetting about their army of robot security guards.

If you have accumulated capital like that, they'll just put up giant fences and cameras around everything with lots of tear gas and machine guns everywhere. Think Gaza, but world wide.

Anybody who doesn't have control of a robot army is going to be ignored, killed or, if their lucky, kept around for the amusement of the new fuedal lords. Or perhaps unlucky, depending on how depraved their tastes are.
posted by empath at 1:54 PM on May 1, 2011


In all seriousness, I do agree with you empath that there's always a real danger of exploitation. I think the answer to exploitation is to maintain balances of power. While "the robots" might empower the rich, we just saw technology in the Arab world empower the poor. People are becoming more connected, and organization is easier. Although, I guess it hasn't helped the Gazans much...
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:00 PM on May 1, 2011


I think the answer to exploitation is to maintain balances of power. ... People are becoming more connected, and organization is easier.

I'd say this is a great message to spread far and wide on International Workers' Day.
posted by hippybear at 2:10 PM on May 1, 2011


While "the robots" might empower the rich, we just saw technology in the Arab world empower the poor.

Well. The middle class, in any case. And only in the countries like Egypt and Tunis that didn't have the stomach to massacre people.
posted by empath at 2:14 PM on May 1, 2011


And in an economic system where the vast majority of people are economically superfluous mass murder or mass imprisonment of dissidents will become much more common. If we're heading into a situation where the masses are going to demand wealth redistribution, the rush is going to be to make sure there are as few people around as possible with their fingers in the pie. If you controlled those resources, what possible benefit is there in having people around to muck around with your stuff? You don't need them for security, you don't need them for protection, you don't need them for most of your entertainment. Just hide them, imprison them or kill them.

In a robot-only economy we aren't talking about workers who are demanding to control the means of production -- workers are necessary for production and have a lever of power to wield -- refusing to work. We are hypothesizing people who are completely valueless to those who control the means of production and whose only conceivable leverage is violence.
posted by empath at 2:19 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I never accepted that people would be completely valueless. I think even with the robots, there will still be plenty of useful work for people to do.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:31 PM on May 1, 2011


I don't understand this. How can you invest money in something that doesn't ultimately pay people?

See collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and exotic investment vehicles....
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:04 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Humans, I give you the latest from the minds at cracked.com: FARTS Forced Artificial Scarcity, or why the future will be ruled by BS.

It's actually a very interesting article about how so many goods that used to be actually scarce are no longer, like digitally reproducible music, yet still, we are desperately trying to create artificial scarcity for these goods to generate profits.
posted by Freen at 4:04 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


We are hypothesizing people who are completely valueless to those who control the means of production and whose only conceivable leverage is violence.

Or time. Horrifying dystopias (creepily compelling as I find this one), you have to assume, collapse under their own mismanagement just like everything else does. If you and your neighbor are more wealthy than any human has ever been before, thanks to your modern robot army...you start to wonder, couldn't I get ahead of him a bit? I bet I don't need quite the maintenance budget on those architecturobots putting up my April home in Tangiers. I'll cut back. I'll use the money for something FUN. A few years of that, and the robotic state is just another rust belt being pulled apart for scrap by the next generation.

(Or the robots are so offended by your lack of concern that they revolt, which is a whole other problem.)
posted by mittens at 5:40 PM on May 1, 2011


I'll just leave this here.
posted by cleancut at 6:20 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Given our rapidly increasing scientific knowledge and technology, it's now very plausible that the next stage of human evolution will be self-determined. This article presumes that such an evolution would be mandated and designed by capitalism. I certainly hope otherwise.

Capitalism has proven it's tendencies towards a highly disproportionate distribution of wealth and resources with too little focus on human well-being. That which makes a profit is unstoppable (including industries detrimental to human well-being) and that which does not make a profit is unachievable (including industries vital to human well-being). Political thought among the wealthiest nations whose wealth was built by unchecked capitalism disregard an alternative so completely as to equate the very idea with treason. They would like us to believe that if capitalism fails it will take with it the entirety of civilization. Now there's a political campaign for you.

Capitalism may, indeed, catalyze and control our next stage of evolution. But I'm hoping that something else will determine our next species, something with intent far more beneficial for the well-being of the whole of humanity as well as our planet.
posted by Serpentio at 6:22 PM on May 1, 2011


Capitalism may, indeed, catalyze and control our next stage of evolution.

I seriously doubt that there is any timescale in which evolution comes into play which will be noticed by the current level of human social development. If evolution is driven by capitalism at all, it will be because the ecosphere will be altered to such an extent that we'll find our descendants have selectively survived to thrive in whatever new setting we've created.

If you're thinking of evolution on anything less than 100,000 year scales, you're doing it wrong. And even that is probably too short, given human lifespans.
posted by hippybear at 6:57 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


But I'm hoping that something else will determine our next species

Oh, it'll be the same old thing, big square jaws or something will come into fashion and it'll cause a cascade into stag-beetle proportions and suddenly we'll be nothing but delectable honey-ants to our more advanced kin.
posted by mittens at 7:59 PM on May 1, 2011


If you're thinking of evolution on anything less than 100,000 year scales, you're doing it wrong. And even that is probably too short, given human lifespans.
There are life forms that have been relatively unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. The lack of an evolutionary bottleneck for humanity means that there won't be much selective pressure.
posted by delmoi at 1:45 AM on May 2, 2011


There are life forms that have been relatively unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.

Horseshoe crabs FTW!
posted by hippybear at 2:00 PM on May 2, 2011


hippybear and delmoi: you are making the assumption that all evolution is genetic and that all evolutionary pressures operate on a species wide levels. Evolution has been about the individual's fitness for an environment and the ability to pass down that fitness to progeny. What happens when individuals can alter themselves to be more fit for a given environment? Much like the development of clothing, housing and agriculture: all of these things make individuals more fit for a given environment and culture enables us to rapidly adapt to new environments and pass down fitness not only to our direct progeny but also to the rest of our culture as well.

When you consider evolution not as a purely biological factor of genetic mutation in order to achieve fitness but as a larger, multivariate adaptive process of achieving fitness through any means necessary, geological time scales become a characteristic of specific types of evolution not a rate limiting factor of the very idea of evolution.

Additionally, if we no longer consider evolution to be solely genetic we can consider evolution as a process that can occur across multiple spectrums of individuals/species/ecosystems/cultures/civilizations etc. (It's also important to note that evolution is not about better or worse in any sort of moral or ethical sense, or in the sense of more advanced or less advanced, it's about fitness for a specific environment and the ability to pass on those adaptations that bring about the fitness for that environment)

What is interesting, bringing it back to the original topic, is that capitalism is, in a sense, an evolutionary cultural adaptation to living in an environment where there is scarcity.
posted by Freen at 5:30 PM on May 2, 2011


Making clothing and shelter is not evolution. It's culture. Can culture evolve? Certainly. But that's not a new stage in human evolution. That's something else entirely.

Culture could collapse and there would be nothing that gets passed on to the next generation. But that has nothing to do with human evolution. The ability to teach younger generations one's culture is a result of evolution; the culture they would be taught is not, except indirectly because evolved humans created it.

And while development of culture across human history is a fascinating topic, it's a fallacy to confuse it with the mechanisms of evolution.
posted by hippybear at 4:09 AM on May 3, 2011


So, you are telling me that fitness for an environment is purely genetic? I would argue that culture is an adaptation, brought about by evolutionary pressures, just the same way that DNA is perhaps adaptation from RNA. Take a look at some of the major evolutionary transitions.

Just look at the rate at which humanity has been able to adapt to such wild environmental differences, from the arctic to the Serengeti. Culture is an evolutionary adaptation insofar as it enables rapid adaptation to environments, which in turn enables further adaptations, like, for instance, vaccinations.

A cultural collapse is equivalent to genetic dead-ends: that culture was not fit for it's environment.

What is so fascinating is that the rate of cultural evolution is rapidly accelerating (which if you take a look at genetic evolution, it's quite typical: speciation accelerates over time and a high rate of adaptive change is generally considered more fit and selected for) while we are gaining access to the ability to participate in genetic evolution directly. Additionally, we are just starting to scratch the surface of machine intelligence, which will literally accelerate by orders of magnitude the process of evolution that the human race has been participating in for the past 2.5 million years. Humans, in their default form, are useless in the Artic. And in fact, most cultures would similarly be useless in the Artic. Inuit culture is adapted to thrive in the Artic.

Biological evolution is strictly limited to genes and genetics, but the basic premise of the concept of evolution doesn't require genes. All that is needed is a criteria for selection of the fitness of individuals and some way of passing on to other individuals characteristics that lead to fitness given the criteria. See Genetic Programming: poorly named, but has nothing to do with deoxyribonucleic acid.

We are going to invent clever machines who in turn will be able to invent even more clever machines, ad infinitum. There is a boundary, the Bekenstein Bound but that is far, far away. What happens when almost everything that were once thought to be things that only humans do can be done millions of times faster by computers? It's the same problem as the industrial revolution, writ large.

Dismissing it as fanciful is cute, but just think about how many industries the iphone alone as upended: maps, GPS devices, calculators, wristwatches, books etc. etc. etc. It's only the beginning.
posted by Freen at 1:17 PM on May 3, 2011


I'm not denying that culture evolves.

But the capacity for culture is an evolved thing within humans which is completely independent of what culture the humans are living in. And mistaking the evolution of CULTURE for the evolution of HUMANS is, well, a big mistake.

Now, a change in culture could, over time, create actual evolutionary changes in humans. We might be creating the circumstances for this right now, if we do indeed manage to tip the environment in one direction or another away from the narrow scale of comfort it's been in for the past 10,000 years. But even if you go back, way, 100,000 years, we still find that what was living then is HUMAN, and that the ways in which we've changed since then have all been cultural.

Now, of course culture evolves. It's risen and fallen many times over recorded history, with entire technologies vanishing in the process sometimes. (I'm using "technology" here in the sense of "how did they build the pyramids" and not in any kind of von Däniken sense.) Some of human history we've carried forward and used as a base to build upon across centuries. Other bits have died out as time passes, sometimes lost entirely or only noted by the artifacts we find.

But that's cultural evolution, and isn't human evolution. Unless you believe that somehow cultural evolution IS human evolution. And perhaps that is where our paths of thought diverge.

I'm familiar with genetic programming, at least from a mild remove. The CS professor I've lived with for nearly 18 years has been playing with it in various forms since before I met him. I spent many hours applying selective pressure to graphics and musical samples which were evolving across generations. But if you want to play with that metaphor, it was only the cultural appearances of that code which was changing. The underlying structure of the program that I was running wasn't itself being changed due to any of the selective pressures I was placing on that data. There was nothing evolving about the actual mechanism, only about how it was presenting itself to the user.

Same with human beings and culture. The culture changes, recombines, evolves... but the humans running the programming of the culture remain humans.
posted by hippybear at 2:03 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Making clothing and shelter is not evolution. It's culture. Can culture evolve? Certainly. But that's not a new stage in human evolution. That's something else entirely.

What's the difference between a hermit crab shell or a beehive and a pair of jeans or a house?
posted by empath at 2:22 PM on May 3, 2011


The culture changes, recombines, evolves... but the humans running the programming of the culture remain humans.

Humans are just bags of jelly that carry genes which either replicate or don't. The only thing that evolves is the DNA. Everything the human being produces, from shit and blood and teeth and hair to Shakespeare and particle accelerators is the expression of that genome. There's no bright line you can draw between the body and that which the body produces.
posted by empath at 2:25 PM on May 3, 2011


There's no bright line you can draw between the body and that which the body produces.

True, but can you point to any examples of where the things which the body produces has changed over the course of human existence which is then reflected by changing the body that produced it? I mean, on a fundamental genetic level, not on a "we eat better so we're taller now" level.
posted by hippybear at 2:31 PM on May 3, 2011


Hint: "evolution" has more than one meaning.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:15 PM on May 3, 2011


I have no problem applying the word evolution in other circumstances. See everything I've written in this thread to back that up.

But the original comment I was responding to was: "Given our rapidly increasing scientific knowledge and technology, it's now very plausible that the next stage of human evolution will be self-determined. ... Capitalism may, indeed, catalyze and control our next stage of evolution. But I'm hoping that something else will determine our next species, something with intent far more beneficial for the well-being of the whole of humanity as well as our planet."

Saying that they hope that capitalism may determine our next species? That's speaking directly to the idea that cultural evolution will influence our genome.
posted by hippybear at 3:42 PM on May 3, 2011


True, but can you point to any examples of where the things which the body produces has changed over the course of human existence which is then reflected by changing the body that produced it? I mean, on a fundamental genetic level, not on a "we eat better so we're taller now" level.,

It happens in nature all the time -- see bees, for example.

I'm not an evolutionary biologist, but I'd guess that hairless bodies, the development of agile hands and smaller jaws all co developed with clothes, tools and a changing diet driven by our tool use -- not to mention the dramatic growth of the brain. We develop tools to help us better survive and those that use them best will survive the longest.

I think in the long term that the human body itself will be so much less practical than the tools we use to supplement it that the entire body will become vestigial and we'll eventually evolve to be only brains.
posted by empath at 4:00 PM on May 3, 2011


It wasn't a criticism; I was just pointing out that you two were talking past each other because you were applying different definitions. I assume the original poster wasn't using the word "species" literally, but who knows?
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:01 PM on May 3, 2011


Perhaps my years living in Sedona, AZ have colored my perception of this kind of conversation. I dealt with so many woo-woo people talking about "directed evolution" and how, if we just change our behavior and the way we think, we'll somehow evolve as a species, never using any of those words symbolically, but instead believing that within a generation or two of mystical awakened consciousness we'll somehow transcend our physical forms, a la Star Trek: The Motion Picture...

Of course, the people I was dealing with at that point were convinced it would all come to pass via proper application of crystals and tapping into the vortex energy so abundantly supplied by Bell Rock and such.

Maybe I've taken it too literally. But I do think it's important to combat the concept that somehow humans will be able (outside of direct manipulation) to create a new homo sapiens supersapiens species by changing the way they think or the way they interact. That simply won't happen.

I'm all for cultural evolution and the changes in human society those may bring. But then, I'm a hippie, so... you know... peace and love and all that stuff.

I think in the long term that the human body itself will be so much less practical than the tools we use to supplement it that the entire body will become vestigial and we'll eventually evolve to be only brains.

In the long term.... I could see that. But those kinds of time scales are beyond easy comprehension, and certainly transcend all of collected recorded history as we currently understand it. We aren't bees, so real evolution requires a long long time.
posted by hippybear at 4:17 PM on May 3, 2011


I don't see how you can deny that direct genetic manipulation (assuming it works) is going to rapidly change the pace of human evolution (whatever is driving it).

I don't presume to know if it's for the better or not. Evolution doesn't have a direction.
posted by empath at 4:24 PM on May 3, 2011


I don't see how you can deny that direct genetic manipulation

I have never denied this. Not once.
posted by hippybear at 4:34 PM on May 3, 2011


I don't see how you can deny that direct genetic manipulation (assuming it works) is going to rapidly change the pace of human evolution (whatever is driving it).

I'm going to keep this as an excellent example of a straw-man argument.

Nonetheless, you do raise explicitly the possibility of purposeful evolution through genetic engineering. This means that we have no idea what we will look like years from now (if we're still around).
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:15 AM on May 4, 2011


I'm going to keep this as an excellent example of a straw-man argument.

Mostly it's just me only half paying attention to the thread.
posted by empath at 9:06 AM on May 4, 2011


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