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Life After Capitalism
December 24, 2011 8:45 AM   Subscribe

One thing we can be certain of is that capitalism will end. Maybe not soon, but probably before too long; humanity has never before managed to craft an eternal social system, after all, and capitalism is a notably more precarious and volatile order than most of those that preceded it. The question, then, is what will come next.
posted by The Whelk (85 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

 
Spinal Tap Mach II "Jazz Odyssey"?
posted by punkfloyd at 8:57 AM on December 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Who ever knows what comes next? At the end of the 7th (and final) edition of his famous history, The Worldly Philosophers (originally written in 1953), Robert Heilbroner says that “given the experience of socialism in its twentieth-century forms, it is difficult to expect its benign rebirth in the century to come… any prospective socialism, especially in the less developed areas where its advent is most likely, will again develop tendencies for political megalomania, bureaucratic inertia, and ideological intolerance.” At the same time, he says, “strains and stresses will exert their destructive force on capitalist societies as well.”

These include ecological dangers, foremost among them the difficult challenge of reducing climate-warming emissions; the alarming spread of nuclear weaponry; ethnic, racial, and religious hatreds; and the fast-growing problem of a globalized economy that arises largely within individual capitalisms, but then escapes their control to become a supranational presence.

“In sum,” Heilbroner concludes, “here is a prospect as threatening, if not as desperate, for the rich capitalistic world as that which confronts the poor precapitalist or presocialist one.”
posted by LeLiLo at 8:58 AM on December 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


Capitalism 2: Soylent Green Is You
posted by stinkycheese at 9:00 AM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Capitalism will certainly end. The only question is if there will be any survivors.
posted by charlesminus at 9:08 AM on December 24, 2011 [26 favorites]


Without commenting on the likelihood of any of the four alternatives coming to pass*, isn't it refreshing, after the distractions of the last decade's stupid wars, to be thinking about -- and perhaps shaping -- what comes next?


------------------
*The cynical, easy money is on "Exterminism". But hope is revolutionary.
posted by notyou at 9:11 AM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


The answer is increasing automation of everything, with more and more decisions being made by algorithms rather than people, the continuing mechanization of police forces and military, a 24-7 surveillance society, the death of privacy, and the slow grinding down of what's left of humanity for use as servants or fuel for our new robot overlords, with a very few humans at the top living lives of abundance and luxury. Most of us won't even notice it, because the transition will be eased with huge amounts of anti-depressants and other new and amazing psychoactive drugs and a retreat into virtual worlds while the real world becomes more and more miserable and hopeless year by year.

Merry Christmas.
posted by empath at 9:11 AM on December 24, 2011 [59 favorites]


The problem IMO is that capitalism, as a system, may end, but that in no way means the end of capital. It all just goes off to some private island somewhere with the super rich and everybody else is left killing each other over scraps. The end of capitalism promises to be much worse in this regard than the end of any other social system that preceded it because it's going to take Wealth with it.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:13 AM on December 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Zombie apocalypse, duh.
posted by thescientificmethhead at 9:14 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's replicator technology, right? That's what we get next, isn't it?
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 9:14 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


If we have learned one thing from the last forty years or so it's that the rich can't be trusted to act in their own best interests.
posted by localroger at 9:14 AM on December 24, 2011 [18 favorites]


Anything that makes an argument around something Cory Doctorow wrote is immediately suspect.
posted by crunchland at 9:15 AM on December 24, 2011 [15 favorites]


Zombie apocalypse, duh.

Yes, Zombie Apocalypse is correct. I'm getting myself a Remington Model 870 in a few months.

Have YOU prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse?
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:19 AM on December 24, 2011


"Strong man" kleptocracies....now, where did my army of drones go?
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 9:21 AM on December 24, 2011


Mister Fabulous: favoring the Model 31 myself.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:22 AM on December 24, 2011


But I don't want to see capitalism end. I just want us to realize there are other tools in the economic toolbox. Some parts of the economy may need one tool, other parts a different tool. The skill is not thinking up new tools that alone can solve every problem, but realizing which problem needs which tool. As they say, when all you have is a hammer...etc etc.
posted by Jehan at 9:23 AM on December 24, 2011 [19 favorites]


Interesting article, but talking about a post-scarcity economy, when we could even be theoretically liberated from work, is like talking about a future after the invention of a personal time machines. It's not really a thought experiment extrapolating reasonably, or even just boldly, from current trends; it's a fantasy debate more on the level of "what if Wolverine was a Jedi" or "what if everyone had a TARDIS, what then, I ask you."

It's especially strange when the essay talks about how socialists in the day of Adorno and Horkheimer had previously wondered aloud about what to do after liberation from work, as if that somehow means this thought experiment ought to be more realistic by now. It's like saying Harold Camping ought to be reliable on the topic of apocalyptic predictions, since, after all, he has made so many, and surely we're more close to the Rapture now than we would have been then.

You cannot point to a computer which can diagnose diseases and say that it is a step towards replacing human labor. Not only do humans have to design, build, market, test, ship, oversee, use, and train others to use that machine, but they have to also extract and purify the raw materials. Even if we were to say, for sake of argument, that once we've made an army of these machines, we never have to use human labor again to make them, their use still does not replace doctors or nurse practitioners. No matter how sophisticated this machine is, it's still just an extra tool that they can use for more efficiency, so that they can get more work done more quickly.

Even in industries where machines do lower the amount of needed workers to produce x amount of output, such as in farming and manufacturing, you still need a baseline of human labor to keep things running. To think that the fact we can automate production means that eventually all production will be automated is like seeing a child grow from four feet to five feet, and then proudly beaming that in just a few decades, he'll be as tall as a mountain, and so we should start seriously thinking about how to knit a sweater for a mountain.

The article even takes note that our weekly work hours have not stayed low, no matter the technology we have around us. It's strange that they don't draw the extra connection to notice that, even though in theory a fully-electronic, fully-networked office ought to be much more efficient than an office straight from pre-Xerox episodes of Mad Men, in reality, people still wind up working from home and having work spill over into their private lives. For the vast majority of workers, the increased automation and efficiency does not at all lead to the famous four-hour workweek. There's a lesson here.

That said, I do fundamentally agree with Zizek's point that people are still too tied to the "crackpot realism" of thinking that nothing can replace capitalism. If anything, we've already replaced capitalism, or rather capitalism has already evolved, but since we live day by day, we haven't noticed how different the world economy is from what it was a hundred years ago. And we should certainly think more seriously about alternatives to the status quo, and to refute the idea that what we even have today bears resemblance to what fans of capitalism had even originally liked about capitalism, and to further refute the idea that socialism "has already been tried in Russia and didn't work." But, I don't think musing about a post-scarcity economy does that, or is much fun outside of fiction.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:23 AM on December 24, 2011 [54 favorites]


"Most of us won't even notice it, because the transition will be eased with huge amounts of anti-depressants and other new and amazing psychoactive drugs and a retreat into virtual worlds while the real world becomes more and more miserable and hopeless year by year."

Larger than life and twice as ugly
If we have to live there, you'll have to drug me.

posted by markkraft at 9:36 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I kind of doubt Jacobinsim is coming back.
posted by delmoi at 9:40 AM on December 24, 2011


Capitalism will certainly end. The only question is if there will be any survivors.
Well, eventually the sun will explode, so probably not.
If we have learned one thing from the last forty years or so it's that the rich can't be trusted to act in their own best interests.
What do you mean? If their "own interests" mean more money, then they're doing really well, even since 2008. Of course it depends on where you put the cutoff line. The hyper-wealthy are still making a ton of money.
posted by delmoi at 9:46 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The article even takes note that our weekly work hours have not stayed low, no matter the technology we have around us. It's strange that they don't draw the extra connection to notice that, even though in theory a fully-electronic, fully-networked office ought to be much more efficient than an office straight from pre-Xerox episodes of Mad Men, in reality, people still wind up working from home and having work spill over into their private lives. For the vast majority of workers, the increased automation and efficiency does not at all lead to the famous four-hour workweek. There's a lesson here.

In at least some work situations (mine and lots of others), actually, work hours are entirely a result of bosses being uncomfortable by not having you under their eye M-F than of having 40 hours of actual work to do a week. During crunch time, I am working the whole time I'm there, but there are many weeks, in almost every job, where you don't actually have 40 hours worth to do. There is no logical reason you couldn't leave early those days, but it makes management uncomfortable to give up that control.

Some places are understaffed, of course, and that creates excess work, but not because the work is so onerous, but because management has decided not to hire the people who are available to do it, but to squeeze it out of people already doing their bit.
posted by emjaybee at 9:48 AM on December 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


The article even takes note that our weekly work hours have not stayed low, no matter the technology we have around us. It's strange that they don't draw the extra connection to notice that, even though in theory a fully-electronic, fully-networked office ought to be much more efficient than an office straight from pre-Xerox episodes of Mad Men, in reality, people still wind up working from home and having work spill over into their private lives. For the vast majority of workers, the increased automation and efficiency does not at all lead to the famous four-hour workweek. There's a lesson here.
The guy hasn't read Russell's In Praise of Idleness?
posted by delmoi at 9:54 AM on December 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think the "their interests" comment is a reference to upheavals and uprisings that necessarily attend with a continued upward redistribution of wealth (i.e. karma), and the lack of foresight. As they like to say "Past performance is not a future indicator" or whatever it is that quote is...
posted by symbioid at 9:55 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's also worth noting that France moved to a 35 hour work week in 2000. Proposals to follow suit have some traction in most European countries.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:56 AM on December 24, 2011


Anything that makes an argument around something Cory Doctorow wrote is immediately suspect.

He also name-checked Charles Stross, so that evens it out in my book.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:00 AM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Unless it's the Singularity tm, the only alternative is a more socialist capitalism.

Anything that doesn't respect man's inherent selfishness won't last very long.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:04 AM on December 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Anything that doesn't respect man's inherent selfishness won't last very long.

Is man inherently a selfish, evil creature or does capitalism create the framework for that behavior?
posted by bradbane at 10:09 AM on December 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Is man inherently a selfish, evil creature or does capitalism create the framework for that behavior?

Yes.

(or: individual human selfishness to lesser or greater degrees is innate. Capitalism magnifies the trait, and makes it a (bordering on) necessary attribute to survive and thrive in the system that it precipitates. It acts to limit options and possibilities to those with intrinsic selfishness and mandatory accumulation as the guiding principle).
posted by titus-g at 10:21 AM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


End of work != post-scarcity.

The proportion of humanity directly involved in manufacturing and farming has been dropping for decades. That doesn't mean that everyone has everything; it means that the limiting factor is resources, not labor.
posted by phooky at 10:23 AM on December 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Capitalism magnifies the trait, and makes it a (bordering on) necessary attribute to survive and thrive in the system that it precipitates.

Not necessarily - capitalism paired with large amounts of redistribution (i.e. Nordic countries) makes for very generous and sustainable welfare states.
posted by ripley_ at 10:27 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Exterminist capitalism is already the dominant paradigm in every urban area of the United States, and I'll buy lunch for anyone who thinks they can prove me wrong outside my clinic in North Philly.
posted by The White Hat at 10:35 AM on December 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


only alternative is a more socialist capitalism.

Not sure I buy this; it sounds like wishful thinking to me. Historically, aristocracies -- in various forms -- have been pretty stable. It's only in the past few centuries when technological progress has continually destabilized those social structures and created the environment where more democratic forms of government (whether socialist or capitalist in terms of economics) could be created. In fact, I think that there is a certain baseline level of continuous change and disruption that is required for the continued success of anything approaching democracy; without that continuous disruption, the socio-political system becomes increasingly sclerotic and dominated by a few who manage to concentrate power in themselves and monopolize the means of social control and violence.

Insofar as that technological progress has been premised on ecologically unsustainable levels of resource extraction and consumption, I'd say that the outlook for democracy -- again, whether socialist or otherwise -- doesn't necessarily look good. If the continuous destabilization that has been preventing the establishment of a static aristocracy (by constantly creating new ways of challenging their control) stops, then I think we could easily end up in a new social dark age, where a small number of elites figure out how to keep the greater part of the population compliant and bowed on an ongoing basis.

The mechanism by which that might occur would vary depending on the actual technological level of the plateau or steady-state society, but it could be exclusive control over particularly effective weapons (actually in any scenario that I could envision, a monopoly on violence is required as a precondition for social domination), but also food or water supplies. Control over communication might also do the job pretty effectively, or be a requirement.

But in general, I don't see any reason why the social systems which have sprung up mainly since the Industrial Revolution would continue operating in the event that the pace of technological change -- which is premised on resource extraction -- ground to a halt.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:35 AM on December 24, 2011 [9 favorites]


Absolutely, a lower level of 'pure' capitalism in the economic mix will inevitably mediate its impact.

As, also, probably does the ~70% union membership in Scandahoovia, in terms of the power balance between owner and worker.
posted by titus-g at 10:39 AM on December 24, 2011


I'm afraid he missed many important ideas : anarchism, organizational agility, decentralization, intellectual property's beginning implosion, transparency, democratization of corporate power, deliberative democracy and polls, ranked voting, etc.

I've found the best answer to the selfish nature question is A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation by Peter Singer, bradbane.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:42 AM on December 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Isn't the only reason Nordic countries can have sustainable welfare states is because of an abundance of natural resources (oil)? If so its not really sustainable. Its only going to last as long as the world thirsts for oil and they still have some to drill for.
posted by SirOmega at 10:42 AM on December 24, 2011


Not necessarily - capitalism paired with large amounts of redistribution (i.e. Nordic countries) makes for very generous and sustainable welfare states.
That's called socialism. Not even Marx wanted to get rid of private business, I don't think.
posted by delmoi at 10:50 AM on December 24, 2011


The answer is increasing automation of everything, with more and more decisions being made by algorithms rather than people, the continuing mechanization of police forces and military, a 24-7 surveillance society, the death of privacy, and the slow grinding down of what's left of humanity for use as servants or fuel for our new robot overlords, with a very few humans at the top living lives of abundance and luxury. Most of us won't even notice it, because the transition will be eased with huge amounts of anti-depressants and other new and amazing psychoactive drugs and a retreat into virtual worlds while the real world becomes more and more miserable and hopeless year by year.

In other words, Wall-E.
posted by holdkris99 at 10:55 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isn't the only reason Nordic countries can have sustainable welfare states is because of an abundance of natural resources (oil)?
Norway is not the only Nordic country in the world. Sweden's GDP is $450 billion. Wikipedia says 71.1% of that was services, 26.6% industry. Wikipedia says "The main industries include motor vehicles, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, industrial machines, precision equipments, chemical goods, home goods and appliances, forestry, iron and steel.", but doesn't give a breakdown for what industries comprise what % gdp.
posted by delmoi at 10:55 AM on December 24, 2011


“It’s easy to imagine the end of the world, but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.”

One thing we can be certain of is that capitalism will end.

I am happy to let these moronic statements offset one another, in all their grandeur and misplaced self-confidence, and to celebrate the intellectual equivalence and acuity of Zizek and a randomly selected CUNY grad student.

"The socialisms and barbarisms described here should be thought of as roads humanity might travel down, even if they are destinations we will never reach. With some knowledge of what lies at the end of each road, perhaps we will be better able to avoid setting off in the wrong direction."

Now we're really getting somewhere!
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:57 AM on December 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yeah looking at this chart, the Eurpean Union as a whole produces 2,365,000 barrels of oil per day, while Norway produces 2,350,000. That leaves just 35,000 barrels for the entire rest of the EU, just about $1.2 billion a year for the entire EU excluding norway.

So the answer, clearly, is no. Nordic countries other then Norway are not funding their social welfare states with oil money.

On the other hand, Norway extracts about $83 billion worth of oil in 2009, but not all of that money is going to go to the government. And their GDP was $276 billion. Government spending was $169 billion, or 61% of their GDP and about twice the value of the oil they drilled.
posted by delmoi at 11:06 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


End of work != post-scarcity.

Crony capitalism != Free market capitalism.

This is fun!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:08 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not necessarily - capitalism paired with large amounts of redistribution (i.e. Nordic countries) makes for very generous and sustainable welfare states.

This is a myth. Sustainable welfare states - as here in Sweden - are not the product of redistributionist economics. They are the product of across the board, extremely high tax rates paid by everyone. There is no free lunch.

The sustainable welfare state is also made possible - at least here in Sweden - by a having a small country, with a population of under 10 million people, 85% whom are native Scandinavians who share common cultural and ethnic bonds extending beyond mere nationalism.

It is not really a model which can be exported like an Ikea flat-pack.
posted by three blind mice at 11:10 AM on December 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Most if not just about all of the comments do not address the issue of what will replace the current economic system. Sure, this and hat will become more important. But the post is about an economic system. Nothing may end it; something might modify it; it might be totally replaced.
If so, what will end it? That said, what might replace it?What system were in place prior to capitalism as we currently know it? Will any of these forms return? Is there a new form of economics we do not yet even think about? My guess: it will not vanish. It may be modified to placate in part the 99% so they will not act up.
posted by Postroad at 11:11 AM on December 24, 2011


Public and private social expenditure in percentage of GDP : OECD 2007, WikiPedia OCSE 2001.

You can sustain fairly respectable social benefits simply by taxing very high incomes, not over indulging in wasteful military spending, indulging less in other corporate welfare, etc., SirOmega. I'm sure cultural homogeneity simplifies matters, but all northern European nations maintain sizable social expenditures.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:18 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Decentralized small scale economics with strong cross regional social ties aided by communication technologies.

I don't think less work is a problem, but I think not having meaningful work is a problem.

People need to be busy one way or the other and if we invested, say even 5% of our stupid idle time into meat space community we'd be a heck of a lot better off.
posted by edgeways at 11:22 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The sustainable welfare state is also made possible - at least here in Sweden - by a having a small country, with a population of under 10 million people, 85% whom are native Scandinavians who share common cultural and ethnic bonds extending beyond mere nationalism.

It is not really a model which can be exported like an Ikea flat-pack.


Is the argument here that it can't work outside of a largely homogenous population because the idea that Those Other People are all moochers who don't deserve anything and will just loaf on the dole will inevitably rise and take the spotlight?
posted by weston at 11:28 AM on December 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


You cannot point to a computer which can diagnose diseases and say that it is a step towards replacing human labor.

While nobody has actually invented Prime Intellect yet, for my entire life I have been watching things that I thought would be impossible to automate get automated, and putting people out of their jobs.

I was just discussing this with one of my customers the other day; he had started out with degrees in biology and chemistry, and embarked on a career doing lab work for a big chemical company. He had thought that would be a safe career because so much of what he did couldn't be automated -- and he watched, over a period of about a decade, as it was all automated and the lab that had employed 20 technicians only needed 2.

The absence of Singularity Seed AI's so far notwithstanding, think back 20 years or so and ask if you would have believed that, for about the same amount of money as a few tanks of gas, you would be able to buy a little box that you could hold in your hand, that would run on batteries, that would know exactly where you are and figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be, that would guide you left and right and show you a map and read the street names to you, and that these little boxes would become so ubiquitous that a lot of people would be perfectly lost without them.

Now imagine what we might have in another 20 years that seems equally unfathomable today. Google is already teaching cars to drive themselves...
posted by localroger at 11:30 AM on December 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


Everybody is focusing on the the proposition of a post-labor society due to automation, which I think is interesting, but that is much more believable than a world of "abundance." There is already ample evidence that robots are putting people out of jobs but pretty much no evidence that we're getting closer to a post-scarcity society. All the author really presents as support for the idea is a line about solar panels:

The cost of producing and operating solar panels, for example, has been falling dramatically over the past decade; on the current path they would be cheaper than our current electricity sources by 2020.

How much of the world would we have to cover to power everything by solar panels? What are solar panels made out of? Do we have enough of that material?

It's a nice idea but THIS is the idea that seems the most far-fetched to me and which makes "exterminism" and "socialism" the only two worthwhile thought exercises.
posted by Defenestrator at 11:42 AM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah looking at this chart, the Eurpean Union as a whole produces 2,365,000 barrels of oil per day, while Norway produces 2,350,000. That leaves just 35,000 barrels for the entire rest of the EU

FYI, Norway is not part of the EU; the 2,365,000 barrels of EU production includes 146,500 from Italy, 70,820 from France, etc. Not that this necessarily invalidates your argument, but I wanted to get the facts straight...
posted by dhens at 11:43 AM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


but pretty much no evidence that we're getting closer to a post-scarcity society. All the author really presents as support for the idea is a line about solar panels

Well I don't think he was seriously arguing that any particular quadrant of his four-way argument was likely; I think given the current free-for-all among the world's elites his bleak depiction of exterminism is probably more likely. However...

How much of the world would we have to cover to power everything by solar panels? What are solar panels made out of? Do we have enough of that material?

The answer to "how much of the world" is not much at all, and we have convenient places like the Sahara which are awash in sunshine and not much use otherwise. As for the material and how much of it we have, they're getting cheaper precisely because they're being made with simpler fabs from more common and readily available materials.

The bigger problem for solar is storage. We don't have a practical way to store the superabundant energy available in daytime good weather for use at night and when it rains.
posted by localroger at 11:51 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Immanuel Wallerstein has been explaining this for the last fifty years. It is too long to soundbite, but here's what Amazon has. It really is worth looking into, because we're in the early stages of a long change with much at stake.
posted by carping demon at 11:56 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah looking at this chart, the Eurpean Union as a whole produces 2,365,000 barrels of oil per day, while Norway produces 2,350,000. That leaves just 35,000 barrels for the entire rest of the EU, just about $1.2 billion a year for the entire EU excluding norway.

Norway is not included in the EU figure. The main contributer to oil production in the EU is the UK, at about two thirds of the total.
posted by Jehan at 11:56 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Postroad: That said, what might replace it?What system were in place prior to capitalism as we currently know it? Will any of these forms return? Is there a new form of economics we do not yet even think about?

I'll (assuming: climate change & cheap energy scarcity becoming factors) put my money on a Ken MacLeod type scenario, with different systems in different global regions:
- Scotland gets socialism and rockets (YAY!),

- in England the political parties merge (completely) with the tabloids and run the country with a form of outrage fuelled paternalism.

- U.S. America as a whole embraces hyper-capitalism leading to walled island enclaves of wealth, in a sea of poverty (Somalia with white people). Possibly with some states seceding to follow their own path, be it God or other.

- Ex soviets mostly going back to bleak and joyless state communism.

- Asia & Aus/Nz go the full, unadulterated, Gibson.

- Africa & middle east - wealth (sun farms) & renaissance civilisation, also the best craft beers.
I may be wrong on some minor points.
posted by titus-g at 12:21 PM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is a myth. Sustainable welfare states - as here in Sweden - are not the product of redistributionist economics. They are the product of across the board, extremely high tax rates paid by everyone.

High taxes paired with progressive uses for that revenue is exactly what I meant by redistribution - I'm not sure what other definition you would be using for that term.
posted by ripley_ at 12:32 PM on December 24, 2011 [10 favorites]


The article even takes note that our weekly work hours have not stayed low, no matter the technology we have around us. It's strange that they don't draw the extra connection to notice that, even though in theory a fully-electronic, fully-networked office ought to be much more efficient than an office straight from pre-Xerox episodes of Mad Men, in reality, people still wind up working from home and having work spill over into their private lives. For the vast majority of workers, the increased automation and efficiency does not at all lead to the famous four-hour workweek. There's a lesson here.

Except for the 15%+ of society that's now unemployed, a number that is showing little sign of dropping. We're not going to be in some Wall-E/'sudo make me a sandwich' type future in the next 5 years, certainly. But I think that grossly underestimates the problem for modern neoliberal societies

If Foxconn sees it as economical to replace 1 million Chinese factory workers with robots by 2015, you know this shit just got real. In the same way that Redbox killed Blockbuster, you're going to start seeing highly/fully automated fast food shops, robots stocking shelves at Walmart, robots mowing lawns, robots picking strawberries, etc. This is the very, very near term future. Short/medium term, nearly all unskilled manual labor is on the chopping block

Yes, people will still be needed to design and manage the robots - but far, far fewer people. We've already got supermarkets using one employee to manage 4+ self-checkout lanes; a few people to construct and manage the EZPass lanes that replace toll operators; etc. But it's just a fantasy to imagine these new high-skill jobs will be as numerous or as widely distributed down the social ladder, or that many laid-off Walmart cashiers will be retraining as robotics engineers and computer programmers

Outside of Marxism, modern thought seems to have simply no answer to the question of what to do with a society in which a large, growing minority simply have no ability to productively contribute to an economy shaped more like a steep pyramid with each passing year. empath pretty much nailed the course we're on now - liberals need to start taking this stuff seriously, before so much of the middle class has been gutted that there's not enough left with which to build a political movement to turn the tide
posted by crayz at 12:44 PM on December 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Absolutely, a lower level of 'pure' capitalism in the economic mix will inevitably mediate its impact.

We're splitting hairs here, but it's arguable that the Nordic states have more 'pure' capitalism than North America - if you look at the various (flawed, but still somewhat worthwhile) economic freedom indices, the Nordic states tend to have freer financial markets, stronger property rights, and more privatization in certain industries.

I don't think that following up that capitalist system with high taxes for redistribution makes it any less capitalist - but I may be in the minority on that.
posted by ripley_ at 12:52 PM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I believe that humans are neither evil nor good. Self-interest is amoral in that it is a prerequisite to survival.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:05 PM on December 24, 2011


Is the argument here that [Scandanavian-style welfare statism] can't work outside of a largely homogenous population

I don't know if three blind mice is necessarily making that argument, and I wouldn't presume to put words in his mouth, but there does seem to be a shortage of functional, exemplary modern welfare states outside of those which have basically homogenous populations; put differently, a suspicious number of those modern welfare states seem to be in comparatively homogenous places. Sure, it could be dumb luck, but it seems rather foolish to assume that there's no relation if your goal is to export that social model elsewhere.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:16 PM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


He had thought that would be a safe career because so much of what he did couldn't be automated -- and he watched, over a period of about a decade, as it was all automated and the lab that had employed 20 technicians only needed 2.

Indeed. I got out of the lab after a three-month stint of unemployment this year, and now work as a Field Application Scientist (a service job rather than R&D). My lab went from ~70 employees to 8. In my new job I'm exposed to the inner workings of a lot of other labs, and the story is the same. Part of this is due to a shift of focus to late stage development instead of research, but increasing automation has also played a large role.

A friend of mine works for a company that sells lab automation equipment, and makes the argument that there will always be people employed to build and maintain our new robotic overlords. But he doesn't seem to realize the ratio of jobs created to jobs lost will not be 1:1. Far from it.

Of course, one real solution to this problem (and many others) is to reduce population growth. This is happening in most developed countries, but probably not quickly enough. If you don't have kids in the U.S., you're still often looked at as abnormal or (ironically) "selfish."
posted by Thoughtcrime at 2:42 PM on December 24, 2011


If the continuous destabilization that has been preventing the establishment of a static aristocracy (by constantly creating new ways of challenging their control) stops, then I think we could easily end up in a new social dark age, where a small number of elites figure out how to keep the greater part of the population compliant and bowed on an ongoing basis.

Some of us would argue that this is already well underway.
posted by mek at 2:46 PM on December 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Capitalism is doing fine.

Right of first sale? What's that?
posted by effugas at 2:47 PM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been observing since I graduated college that the construction industry is perpetually stuck about 20 years behind the technology curve. (Example: I still run into contractors who are adjusting to the use of the fax and certainly don't want anything more modern.) This is in part of function of the conservatism inherent in any activity where you are spending millions of dollars on something you can't individually prototype and test first. Further, the expected structure of fees doesn't really allow breaking out of this mold.

As a 25-year old with a strong technical background I saw this as crazy and frustrating. As a 38-year old I see it as probably a backwards form of job security. Certainly much of construction, particularly the growing area of rehab/renovation, will be one of the last things that can be reasonably mechanized.
posted by meinvt at 2:51 PM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Isn't a lot of new construction pre-fab though? So instead of framing a house, wiring it, plumbing it, drywalling it, etc., your construction workers are digging a foundation, bolting everything together, and that's it. I've seen those "Amazing Factory" type shows cover the factories where these are assembled and they are mostly automated.

I also think it's kind of interesting that in the US we're facing this problem while simultaneously facing a crumbling physical infrastructure that is falling further and further into disrepair.
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:28 PM on December 24, 2011


(Whoops, post was cut off.)

The reason I think it's interesting is that it raises the question in my mind of whether or not we will actually continue to have the infrastructure to support pervasive automation in the future.
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:30 PM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


the growing area of rehab/renovation

True, but this depends on there being people willing to pay for an inherently labor-intensive process. The downside to being in a trade that can't be automated is that you could find yourself being bypassed completely.

E.g., a few days ago there was a thread (maybe on the green) about plaster walls versus drywall ones. Plastering walls is a process involving much skilled labor, which can't be very easily mechanized. While on the surface that might seem good for the plasterers, it didn't save them: instead, the world switched to drywall and just bypassed their entire trade.

Similarly, rehab/renovation has a price ceiling which is determined by the price of new construction. If it's significantly cheaper to just have a structure demolished (using power equipment operated by one guy) and replaced with a prefab unit (built in a factory by machines, or by a very small number of workers going balls-out with lots of mechanized assistance), then it's going to be tough to stay in business. Naturally, the prefab house might be recognized by consumers as an inferior substitute to rehabbing that old Victorian, but there might be a decreasing number of people who can afford to concern themselves with such things when the roof has leaked and now half the house is mold-filled and uninhabitable.

The bottom line is that industries have to find ways to remain affordable to consumers (which is to say, that if we want as a matter of public policy to keep those industries around, then we need to be cognizant of consumers' ability to afford them), or they will die, regardless of whether they manage to resist automation. The number of absolutely essential industries is really quite small; yesterday's essentials may frequently become tomorrow's luxuries in the face of declining real income, once we stop being able to paper over our increasing impoverishment with cheap imports.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:34 PM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The cost of producing and operating solar panels, for example, has been falling dramatically over the past decade; on the current path they would be cheaper than our current electricity sources by 2020.

The author in 1978: "If disco records keep on the current path they will be the only recorded music by 1990."

Aside from this amusing assumption of a lack of S-curve improvement patterns, it doesn't have a huge bearing if they are cheaper than current electricity sources at that point, it matters if they are cheaper than contemporary alternate energy sources.
posted by jaduncan at 3:39 PM on December 24, 2011


The death of a vibrant middle-class seems much more likely than an alternative to distribution by market mechanisms. (Notice that none of the possibilities actually identifies the mechanism for distribution: the focus is on outcomes.) Preserving common-pool resources seems to increase in difficulty as participants/claimants proliferate.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:43 PM on December 24, 2011


Have YOU prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse?

Yes, yes I have. Got your Z-Max rounds yet?
posted by rough ashlar at 4:45 PM on December 24, 2011


Kadin2048: a suspicious number of those modern welfare states seem to be in comparatively homogenous places.

In the developed world, most nation-states are really, really homogeneous. The US and Canada are an exception there. Most everywhere else has 80%+ majorities (though this gets a bit complicated once you get granular, e.g. if you count Welsh, English, Irish and Scottish as separate ethnic groups or the French of Italian origin as a different group from other French). And that said, Canada has a very robust welfare state for a country that's non-homogeneous enough to regularly suffer secession crises.
posted by Kattullus at 5:03 PM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


In the developed world, most nation-states are really, really homogeneous. The US and Canada are an exception there. Most everywhere else has 80%+ majorities

This ignores the way in which homogeneity is socially/culturally constructed, or isn't. Many parts of UK/Europe are still prejudiced against ethnic/national groups that have become almost totally integrated into American society (Irish/Italians/Polish/etc), so I have a hard time accepting the whole "these people aren't like us" as anything but cultural friction, which in the US has been maintained across decades and centuries against just a handful of specific groups - the discrimination itself serving to reinforce ethnic/cultural divisions which would otherwise dissolve naturally over time
posted by crayz at 7:35 PM on December 24, 2011


ethnic/cultural divisions which would otherwise dissolve naturally over time
that is problematic
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:25 PM on December 24, 2011


Capitalism ending? I find that doubtful. Communism is just the seed of totalitarianism. Capitalism is just a name for freedom, pragmatism, and a system of ownership that encourages society to improve. Assigning a name just means that is your definition right now. If the definition of capitalism changes slightly, that could be an end to capitalism even though it really isn't.

I don't know what comes after capitalism, but it's not dirty angry people in tents. At least I hope not.
posted by candasartan at 11:06 PM on December 24, 2011


You cannot point to a computer which can diagnose diseases and say that it is a step towards replacing human labor. Not only do humans have to design, build, market, test, ship, oversee, use, and train others to use that machine, but they have to also extract and purify the raw materials. Even if we were to say, for sake of argument, that once we've made an army of these machines, we never have to use human labor again to make them, their use still does not replace doctors or nurse practitioners. No matter how sophisticated this machine is, it's still just an extra tool that they can use for more efficiency, so that they can get more work done more quickly.
Well, it will replace the job of the guy who diagnoses diseases. If that was his only job he'll not be able to just go get a job programming robots. You can always point to individual jobs that will go away: Cab drivers in NYC will be replaced by Google's self-driving car, for example.

"Well, everyone will get a job working on robots" doesn't work because probably most people aren't smart enough to be robot engineers. So if the only 'real' job in the future is 'robot engineer' that means most people would either be unemployed or maybe work as service people who for people who want service from a human even if they don't need it.

I think that's actually something underlying the whole occupy wall-street thing: People want jobs, but how many of those jobs are really going to even be needed? And lots of people hate doing service work.

I still think that the future is most likely going to be star-trek style socialism where everyone gets everything they need from robots (rather then replicators) and no one has to work if they don't want too.
posted by delmoi at 3:17 AM on December 25, 2011


Capitalism is just a name for freedom

And freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

Ergo...
posted by Grangousier at 3:33 AM on December 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


In the short term all troublemakers and unemployables will be moved to reservations inside the existing national parks. We will fire food and medical supplies into the reservations once a month with giant railguns. Inside the reservations there will emerge a mad max style dystopic society where every scrap of technology is jealously hoarded. They will be ruled by a a 7 foot tall man named Mingo Tull.

Of those members of society outside the reservations there will emerge 3 strata of society.

The Supperrich, knowledge workers who are able to command vast sums of money in order to approve things, host meetings and send memos. They will work mainly through virtual meeting spaces located in the cybermatrix and advanced telepresence robotics in the physical world. They will enjoy a standard of living far greater than most people who have lived throughout history.

The Makers, artisans who create baubles and high end goods that appeal to the supperrich. They will handcraft telepresence robots and tune cybermatrix avatars. Their work will be in high demand some of them wipe enjoy lifestyles almost as lavish as the clients they serve.

The Blues. They fashion things that keep society running, screws, ball bearings, pipes. They will operate robot assembly lines via hardlink. Most of them will never be removed from the robotic arms they operate or the sporting events inside the cybermatrix they seem to love.

Once we face an existential threat from hostile extradimensional creatures we will quickly realize we have nobody suitable to send to nSpace, the plane from which the the threat arises. As a last ditch effort we recruit the descendants of Mingo Tull, who still inhabit the reservations as they have for hundreds of years. Due to the short and brutal existence inside the reservations they have hyperevolved into perfect warriors. They are soon victorious over the nSpace aliens.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:43 AM on December 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


I seem to have nothing but snark and pedantry these days, but... you're trying to remake Zardoz, there, aren't you?
posted by Grangousier at 3:51 AM on December 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


You know, never seen it. Just seemed like the most obvious outcome.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:01 AM on December 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh, well, Zardoz is just the Super-rich and the Barbarians, really. Still.

In the absurdist melodrama that passes for real life these days, it does seem that the people trying to grab all the money are sitting on a high branch, merrily sawing away at it, assuming that when the bough breaks, the tree will drop away and they'll be left sitting there happily. Given that the wealth and security of the super-rich depends on there being billions of customers, I wonder what they think they're actually going to achieve by extracting all the wealth from the wider community (that can no longer be used to buy their products) and dismantling the mechanisms of civil society (such as the NHS in the UK) for their own profit. Eventually the whole thing has to fall apart as water, sewage, electricity and telecommunications rely on an enormous customer base in order to function, and people only have so much money. Without much of an income, not very much at all.

Anyway, it's quite interesting watching the right grasping enthusiastically at almost every bad idea from social policy over the last five hundred years (though they've not proposed workhouses yet. That's just a matter of time, I suppose.) But I think on balance I'd prefer less interest and more stability.

Merry Christmas, everybody!
posted by Grangousier at 4:55 AM on December 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Exterminism" was mentioned a few time here, so for those (like myself) who had never heard of it:

“Exterminism” was first coined – as close as I can determine from cursory research – by Edward Thompson in 1980, in an essay for New Left Review called “Notes on exterminism, the last stage of civilization.” Exterminism, according to Thompson, describes “those characteristics of a society - expressed, in differing degrees, within its economy, its polity and its ideology – which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.” [1]

Anyhoo.

Not that anyone here needs just one more asshole soothsaying or anything however I would be loathe to fail mentioning the Fourth Turning and it's fantastic and well researched documentation of the political cycles that societies go through (Anarchism, Tribalism, Weak State, Imperialism).

This capitalism will go away business is just foolishness however - though I would be interested in which version of capitalism the author is describing - in some forms there could be some truth; a technological singularity notwithstanding, markets, division of labor and accumulation of productive goods will continue for the foreseeable future.

1.http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/102305_exterminism_katrina.shtml
posted by AndrewKemendo at 5:16 AM on December 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bruce Sterling's book Heavy Weather has some interesting parallels with the exterminism scenario.
posted by fraxil at 6:18 AM on December 25, 2011


I was just discussing this with one of my customers the other day; he had started out with degrees in biology and chemistry, and embarked on a career doing lab work for a big chemical company. He had thought that would be a safe career because so much of what he did couldn't be automated -- and he watched, over a period of about a decade, as it was all automated and the lab that had employed 20 technicians only needed 2.

I truly am sorry for your customer, but that still leaves 2 technicians (not to mention all the other people who have to run the office and the building). This isn't a nitpick - there is a huge difference between "huzzah, we have all been liberated from labor!" and "well, lots of you guys are out of a job, but the robots haven't taken over, and besides, you all still have bills to pay." Plus, I'm sure your customer will eventually find another job, even if he hates it.

Even if we were to say for sake of argument that technology has made an extra 5% of current workers redundant, that's nothing at all like a world where all the workers have been liberated from labor. It's more like a world where an increasing, significant minority of workers are going to be chronically un(der)employed.

The absence of Singularity Seed AI's so far notwithstanding, think back 20 years or so and ask if you would have believed that, for about the same amount of money as a few tanks of gas, you would be able to buy a little box that you could hold in your hand, that would run on batteries, that would know exactly where you are and figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be, that would guide you left and right and show you a map and read the street names to you, and that these little boxes would become so ubiquitous that a lot of people would be perfectly lost without them.

Bad news for the gas station map industry, good news for the still-developing GPS industry. I'm honestly unsure that there has been a net loss (or gain) of jobs as a result of consumer GPS units becoming ubiquitous. Besides, it's not as if, in the past, people literally hired personal navigators to guide them along car trips. It's possible that there are changes I'm not thinking about in this change which have caused people in general, as a major net loss, to lose their livelihoods, but I'd need to see hard proof.

Now imagine what we might have in another 20 years that seems equally unfathomable today. Google is already teaching cars to drive themselves...

Even if we were to say, purely for the sake of argument, that Google is able to not only complete the unlikely task of getting all cars to drive themselves, but also that people would somehow prefer a personal robotic chauffeur to the feeling of control and security you get from driving yourself. There will still be many other jobs to do. Even if all the truckers in the world go unemployed, they will still have to find something else to do. It may be a huge problem, it may be shitty, their lives may get worse, or maybe their lives will get better, or maybe their lives will change neutrally with regard to quality. The truth remains the same: there will always be all sorts of jobs that only humans can or will ever do, and humans will have to perform those jobs in order for those jobs to get done.

Automation, even on a large and diverse scale, isn't going to get rid of this any time in any foreseeable future. Even when automation makes many workers redundant, the economy still does not reach a point resembling post-scarcity or "liberation from work." As such, realistic alternatives to capitalism (or variations on capitalism) will always have to factor in the reality of labor still being necessary and scarcity still being an issue.

...

Well, it will replace the job of the guy who diagnoses diseases. If that was his only job he'll not be able to just go get a job programming robots. You can always point to individual jobs that will go away: Cab drivers in NYC will be replaced by Google's self-driving car, for example.

But there isn't a guy who just diagnoses diseases in the same way that machine diagnoses diseases. Doctors, RNs, etc. perform many, many duties other than just what that machine does. It's not like the difference between iPod first gen and iPod fifth gen to go from that computer performing an impressive task to replacing Dr. Smith, M.D. as an employee.

Saying that NYC cab drivers "will" be replaced by Google's self-driving car is another gigantic, enormous, Kessel-Run-number-of-parsecs leap. It's like saying that that MicroSoft auto-compose program with the zany infomercial will replace all musicians. I will happily place $1000 in an interest-bearing account right now and bet you that, in fifty years, NYC cab drivers will not have been replaced by self-driving cars from any company, despite what The Fifth Element may taught us as schoolchildren.

"Well, everyone will get a job working on robots" doesn't work because probably most people aren't smart enough to be robot engineers. So if the only 'real' job in the future is 'robot engineer' that means most people would either be unemployed or maybe work as service people who for people who want service from a human even if they don't need it.

But not everyone is going to be replaced by a robot in the first place. Not even most people. No matter how many supplements Ray Kurzweil takes. Even if many more people get replaced by robots and the people who build them, there will still be many other jobs available other than robot engineer. People will still need lawyers and doctors and accountants and custodians and HVAC repairfolk and plumbers and therapists and drug dealers and nurses and teachers and burger-flippers and master chefs and massage therapists and all the other stuff such that economies are made of. I'm not being optimistic - I'm being realistic. Not all of these jobs will be good or well-paying, but they will still need to be done, they will not be done by robots, and someone will wind up doing them.

I think that's actually something underlying the whole occupy wall-street thing: People want jobs, but how many of those jobs are really going to even be needed? And lots of people hate doing service work.

Now here, I do agree with you. The job market is changing, and there will probably be a larger underclass than there has been in years past. We need to think about what to do about this, while still also recognizing that there will also be a huge chunk of the economy still requiring good old-fashioned flesh-and-blood people. It's much more challenging to deal with this scenario than the blank slate of the post-scarcity, liberated from work scenario.

...

As for exterminism, it seems familiarly arrogant to assume that we are the ones witnessing the last stage of humanity. Apocalyptic scenarios are as old as scenarios themselves. In a way, it's more comforting to imagine that we're the last act before the fireworks. More realistically, we're just one more phase in the development of humanity. Things shall birth and things shall die as we seek to both end and save the world, and at the end of it all, seen clear-eyed after centuries unseen, we shall be described by history books as having been a gaggle of floppy cocks. John Gray's Black Mass is a good book on this topic.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:08 AM on December 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I truly am sorry for your customer, but that still leaves 2 technicians [...] Even if we were to say for sake of argument that technology has made an extra 5% of current workers redundant

You're jumping from an example where 90% of the workers were made instantly redundant due to an evolutionary technological improvement, and you think that 5% redundancy is a conservative, sake-of-argument estimate?

When you assume that only 5% of people in the economy will end up redundant as a result of technological improvement, you're pretty much begging the question. If we can keep the redundant workers to only 5%, then the current economic system will have won and the current model will be safe -- from that particular threat, anyway.

But I think that 5% looks ridiculously low. Hell, I'm pretty sure we're probably at 5% redundancy due to technology and globalization right now, in the U.S., if you look at actual un-deflated unemployment numbers (ones that include discouraged workers, which is where people who don't manage to retrain are inevitably going to end up).

There are lots of technologies available now that can result in 50%+ FTE elimination in a workplace -- we're not talking about Kurzwelian speculation, this is stuff that you can buy today: self-checkout systems, warehouse automation, off-site food prep, etc. It's getting rolled out slowly, but pretty steadily, and the workers that such systems are making redundant are generally not the same people who can easily retrain and join the 'knowledge economy'. This seems...problematic.

Even if the majority of newly-redundant employees are able to retrain to do something, regardless of how odious, that still leaves a significant number of unemployed, on top of those that the current system has left out. I'm not at all confident that things can just go on ticking as they currently are, with that increased pressure.

Right now, the U.S. seems to be about at the maximum level of sustainable structural unemployment while maintaining the status quo; if we go much beyond where we are right now, it will lead to social unrest that will require some sort of response -- either a Keynesian make-work program (a la the WPA; which would be a leftward swing for the US) or more forceful police-state oppression to keep the proles in line (which is the vanguard of exterminism). It's anyone's guess which way the elites will go when the chips are down.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:54 PM on December 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Saying that NYC cab drivers "will" be replaced by Google's self-driving car is another gigantic, enormous, Kessel-Run-number-of-parsecs leap. It's like saying that that MicroSoft auto-compose program with the zany infomercial will replace all musicians.

No, it's simply a matter of time. Just because you can't imagine all the nonexistent jobs automation has already replaced doesn't mean they weren't there. The instant cab/bus drivers can be replaced by robots, they will be.
posted by mek at 1:16 PM on December 25, 2011


The truth remains the same: there will always be all sorts of jobs that only humans can or will ever do, and humans will have to perform those jobs in order for those jobs to get done.

That would be true if most current jobs were necessary, but they're not. We could get by (and at one point did get by) with only two jobs: farming and construction. After food and shelter, the rest is nice, but unnecessary. So once we have robots that can give us reliable food and shelter, we don't need to work. We may want to work, so we can buy clothes and computers and bikes and whatnot, but wanting to work is very different from needing to work. The article is about a future that does not require human labor (which is enough to end capitalism), not a future that doesn't include human labor. The latter may be difficult to imagine, but the former doesn't seem fantastic at all.
posted by scottreynen at 12:19 PM on December 27, 2011


We could get by (and at one point did get by) with only two jobs: farming and construction. After food and shelter, the rest is nice, but unnecessary. So once we have robots that can give us reliable food and shelter, we don't need to work. We may want to work, so we can buy clothes and computers and bikes and whatnot, but wanting to work is very different from needing to work.

I don't know that I understand this concept of necessity/need. If no one has any money to spend (gained, often, through labor), the "need" for farming and construction diminishes drastically.

As a matter of history, anyway, I am not confident that any society has ever functioned with only farmers and builders. Transporters are nice, to get the food and building materials where they need to go. Metalworkers (and miners) and lumberjacks get the building materials ready. Shopkeepers and markets for selling food. Physicians seem useful. Cops, soldiers, firemen.

Honestly, I think this approach would fail the SimCity test pretty damn quickly.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:09 AM on December 29, 2011


As a matter of history, anyway, I am not confident that any society has ever functioned with only farmers and builders.

Yep. Even if you could somehow have robots completely take over farming and construction - and I presume they will also oversee cooking and urban planning, and waste disposal and governance? - and even making the huge assumption that these robots, once activated, will be completely self-sufficient, self-repairing, and self-improving - you're going to be left with people who will still want to do things and who will still need other people to help them do those things. You will need therapists and nannies and nurses and doctors and lawyers and security guards and custodians and entertainers and all the technicians who help those people do those things and god knows what else. You might not need an entertainer the same way you need a meal, but societies need people in those roles and people from societies fill those roles.

To the person who said we only "need" farming and construction, I ask: you don't "need" MetaFilter, and yet here you are. After Cyberdyne takes over farming and construction, even assuming that that is actually possible in a meaningfully general and universal way, will you stop wanting to access MeFi from the internet (or the future equivalents of both)? Do you presume that everyone is just going to volunteer to keep all those things running which let that happen, or will instead a significant number work for some sort of currency?

You're jumping from an example where 90% of the workers were made instantly redundant due to an evolutionary technological improvement, and you think that 5% redundancy is a conservative, sake-of-argument estimate?

And if I were to produce a dueling anecdote about an office where no one was displaced by automation, would that disprove it? Even then, two people are in that office, but it beggars belief to think that they have replaced all the people who run that office. They are also the custodians, building managers, lawyers, accountants, actuaries, insurance agents, etc.?

Even if I triple my guesstimate to 15%, that is still not a future which is in any meaningful sense liberated from labor. It's more like a swarm of unemployed Morlocks collecting benefits from an increasingly stressed-out world of clock-punching Eloi.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:23 AM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


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