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The Robots Are Coming
January 14, 2013 3:43 PM   Subscribe

All of a sudden, we looked up, and they were there. What if the explanation to the past half-decade --- or maybe the past decade and a half --- of the world’s economic malaise can be explained in one word: Robots. Maybe, in other words, the reason that corporate profits are higher than ever and yet jobs aren’t being created is because we have built machines to take those jobs. Paul Krugman thinks it’s possible.
If this is the wave of the future, it makes nonsense of just about all the conventional wisdom on reducing inequality. Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets....I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons...But I think we’d better start paying attention to those implications.
So does Kevin Drum:
Here's what I mean. It's quite possible that, say, 50 years from now the production of nearly all goods and services will be automated. And this might usher in a golden age...But what happens while we're busy getting there? Answer: the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work...The rest of us will have no jobs, and even with all this lovely automation, our government-supplied welfare checks will be meager enough that our lives will be miserable.
And 60 minutes. And so does the Financial Time’s Izabella Kaminska, who’s been writing a series of posts on the influential FT Alphaville blog for more than nine months on the influence of robots on the economy and whether or not an economy can handle no scarcity. FT Alphaville requires registration, but fortunately Kaminska has collected links from across the world of economics and journalism as people attempt to hammer out this problem.

Why is she so obsessed? In Kaminska' words,
“One of the criticisms I face all the time, meanwhile, is that all this tech innovation has been going on for centuries. Why should there be a crisis of capital now? What makes this time any different? And what makes my sudden focus on tech relevant?
For starters, what I feel is new is the idea that the financial crisis was born out of the tech crash. If not for the dotcom bubble, we would not have had the conditions to create the subprime crisis. The China outsourcing phenomenon and imbalance situation may also have been born out of a need to replace mechanised labour — which compromised capital — with human labour, which still ensured profit and the preservation of capital. It was in a sense, an artificial scarcity response… designed to spread spending power to secure return on capital, rather than extinguish it.

[If] West not outsourced labour as extensively back in the 1990s…. the West may have been Japan-ified much earlier on.

But what really makes this time different, I would argue, is that a lot of the competition is now coming from a) the voluntary and crowd sourcing/open source arena and b) it’s only artificial scarcities (patents, monopoly interests) which are preventing complete democratisation of technologically-fueled abundance across the world. It is thus because monopoly power is slipping, challenged as it is by free alternatives rather than cheaper ones… that the crisis is beginning to manifest.”
Some think the revolution is already in progress. Forbes thinks China may be one of the first victims.

And Wired, of course, has the optimist’s spin:
This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots. Ninety percent of your coworkers will be unseen machines. Most of what you do will not be possible without them. And there will be a blurry line between what you do and what they do. You might no longer think of it as a job, at least at first, because anything that seems like drudgery will be done by robots.
posted by Diablevert (169 comments total) 104 users marked this as a favorite

 
Asimov wrote this story some 60 years ago, in Caves of Steel. It didn't turn out that well for the average schmuck.

As for a race with the machines -- well, that's only for the people who own the machines. The rest of us just lose more ground.
posted by jb at 3:50 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


The correction, presumably, will be that a world of unemployed people won't be able to afford all the robotically-produced doodads. You know, assuming perfect information, no inertia in the marketplace and all that other stuff we know is bullshit.
posted by Jimbob at 3:54 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Automate This (Amazon link) is a good/interesting/terrifying book that touches on some of these things.
posted by mwachs at 3:55 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Aren't automated trading systems (aka "robots") a contributing factor to the financial crisis?
posted by KokuRyu at 3:55 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Over the past decade, though, incomes and living conditions have improved throughout Asia and Africa. So perhaps robots only exist in Europe and North America?
posted by KokuRyu at 3:56 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have been saying for years that replacing humans with computers and machines would, when combined with a growing population, be a recipe for disaster. I am glad to see others think the same thing, because it means I'm not entirely crazy, but also scared pantless about others saying the same thing, because it bodes very ill indeed.

The good news is climate change might bring about a mass culling of our species. With humanity back to reasonable numbers, we might, as a species, be able to get through this.

/lead-lined hat because tin foil is not strong enough
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:57 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


What about open source automation?
posted by TwelveTwo at 3:58 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Climate change seems destined to affect (aka "cull") southern folks, the people who are neither responsible for the climate crisis nor consume much of the world's resources. So a cull won't really help.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:59 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


The good news is climate change might bring about a mass culling of our species.

Good news, indeed!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 3:59 PM on January 14, 2013 [19 favorites]


Lemmy's going to be so pissed when he hears that robots are stealing his shit.
posted by jeremias at 4:00 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


And they have a plan.
posted by NedKoppel at 4:02 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I agree with Kaminska in that the process of mechanization or robotization could have occurred ten or twenty years earlier, but globalization happened instead. Manufacturers discovered that people in the developing world could be hired to make things for less than what it would cost to build new machinery. We're still very much in that paradigm, but in the more developed nations robots may be getting cheap and sophisticated enough to take a piece of the manufacturing pie anyway.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:04 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Tax corporations at a rate equal to the amount they would have spent paying employees that have been replaced with robots.
Use the revenue to create a strong welfare state.
posted by GDWJRG at 4:05 PM on January 14, 2013 [16 favorites]


And they have a plan.

Hunh. Just started rewatching Caprica this evening.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:06 PM on January 14, 2013


I suppose eventually the people predicting the end of the world are going to be right. I mean, they've been wrong for over 2,000 years now but I mean, that just can't last forever can it?
posted by GuyZero at 4:06 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I agree with Kaminska in that the process of mechanization or robotization could have occurred ten or twenty years earlier, but globalization happened instead.

Are you saying there's no automation in China? The entire Germany export economy is based on beer & brats?

There is no mutual exclusion of globalization and automation.
posted by GuyZero at 4:08 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is it really useful to focus on robotics to this degree, except insofar as it catches the imagination? The Industrial Revolution was two centuries ago, and the only difference between a loom and a factory robot, to me, seems to be the degree of articulation. They all affect the economy (and the humans) the same way. We are still playing out the ultimate effects of industrialisation upon society.
posted by forgetful snow at 4:08 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Welcome to your post-scarcity nightmare.

"Our alpha machine replaces all of the hamburger line cooks in a restaurant. It does everything employees can do except better."

"The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots."
posted by jjwiseman at 4:08 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots. Ninety percent of your coworkers will be unseen machines.
That doesn't make any sense at all. Who "Works well with robots"? Only a slim percentage of the population is skilled enough to program and design robots, and even then - you only have to do that work once.

The wired guy's optimism seems predicated on the assumption that that programmers and CAD designers are the only people in the world.
Over the past decade, though, incomes and living conditions have improved throughout Asia and Africa. So perhaps robots only exist in Europe and North America?
mean incomes have gone up in north America, just not median incomes, as most of the wealth has accumulated at the top.

And yes, it's well known that stuff that would be automated in Europe, north America or Japan can still be done cheaply enough with paid workers in places like China. But eventually, robots will continue to improve to the point that they will cost less per year then a current foxconn employee.

__
Oh and the really awesome part about all this: In the past, if income inequality rose too much and started to make life unbearable for the average person, there would be revolutions and governments would be overthrown. But, robots present a convenient solution to that problem as well!
posted by delmoi at 4:08 PM on January 14, 2013 [16 favorites]


Just create any effective corporate tax. Don't penalize automation.

I personally favor a progressive VAT where the more powerful companies pay a higher percentage, thus penalizing size, especially monopoly. Yet I'm not optimistic about the corporations actually paying it.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:08 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just create any effective corporate tax. Don't penalize automation.

Automation isn't the problem, it's great. It's entirely possible that we could end up in a "Star-trek" like socialist utopia where no one has to work if they don't want too, and all our material needs are taken care of by robots.

I actually think that's the most likely outcome in the end. But the problem is the transition, how long is it going to take, how are things going to be distributed as the world moves in that direction, and so on.
posted by delmoi at 4:13 PM on January 14, 2013 [23 favorites]


So the way we're gonna try to solve the "who buys all of the stuff the robots make when no one can find a job and the only money is inherited money" is to produce just staggering amounts of crap for the overclass, to really just shower them with goods out of respect for their position, even if everyone else is starving.

On the bright side, maybe pyramids will come back in style. Pyramids are pretty cool, right?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:15 PM on January 14, 2013 [13 favorites]


If only there were some way to democratize ownership of the means of production.

Nah.
posted by notyou at 4:15 PM on January 14, 2013 [33 favorites]


Automate keeping rabbits out of the patch of land you find to grow food on and we're set.
posted by Space Coyote at 4:15 PM on January 14, 2013


Pyramids are pretty cool, right?

PYRAMIDS WITH FRIKKEN LASERS...

Oh wait we already have one of those in Las Vegas.
posted by localroger at 4:17 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


> anything that seems like drudgery will be done by robots.

This is probably going to be true, but the robots will be doing it instead of rather than for us.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:18 PM on January 14, 2013


"Are you saying there's no automation in China? The entire Germany export economy is based on beer & brats?"

No doubt there is automation in China, but a country that still has to create a tremendous number of new jobs in order to lift millions of people out of poverty doesn't need robots. That kind of automation would be a disaster for them.

Germany is a really interesting example, and may provide a more sustainable model for other nations. Or it least Germany's success can teach us some lessons on how to do automation in a developed nation while still maintaining a strong middle class.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:19 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've been reading a Harvard class reunion report from 1931 to get a sense of how the world looked (to a privileged slice of Americans) back then. Here's Hendricks Whitman (Meg's grandpa!) on the textile industry:

"There have been no great achievements in this industry except in production and this has resulted in a production greater than consumption. This situation is apparently true all over the world in nearly all industries. Possibly we can look forward to future generations having to work only two days a week to supply the wants of the world and devoting the rest of their time to research and pleasure."

Still waiting.
posted by escabeche at 4:19 PM on January 14, 2013 [25 favorites]


You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots.

A. Provided you can find a job working with robots.
B. Provided said job cannot also be done by more robots.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:22 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think Australian sci-fi writer George Turner had a pretty good handle on the way things will likely go in books like 1987's The Sea and Summer (published in the US as The Drowning Towers), in which a future historian writes a historical novel about a near future Melbourne, beset by the problems of climate change, unemployment caused by excessive automation, the collapse of the monetary system and the division of society into elite communities segregated from impoverished masses. [wikipedia]
posted by Auden at 4:24 PM on January 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


Still waiting.

The reason we are still waiting is that the Masters of the Universe are too fucking stupid to realize that they are poisoning their own well.

Instead of letting the extra wealth created by automation be distributed and enjoyed by everyone, the world's owners amass it all for themselves where it becomes an ever more powerful tool for collecting ever more of the new wealth for themselves.

Provided said job cannot also be done by more robots.

Useful AI is coming, and faster than I expected; I was stunned that the DARPA challenge was met so quickly, and now I shrug when Google's car drives itself around a heavily populated metropolis. Robots are reaching a point where it won't take much skill to work with them.

Lots of what I do happens to be doing stuff better with simpler robots, but I still end up taking peoples' shitty jobs and I depend on having customers who are aware that simpler and cheaper are better even if they need more skilled support.
posted by localroger at 4:27 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


One thing I learned in College Accounting over 30 years ago (that they didn't intend to teach me) was that Equipment is an Asset, and Employees are an Expense, therefore even if it doesn't quite match up to human labor, if it even gets close, automation is better for the bottom line. Standard Accounting Practices.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:27 PM on January 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


Interesting and thought-provoking post. Thanks for putting it together.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:28 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


the only difference between a loom and a factory robot, to me, seems to be the degree of articulation.

Luddites vs. robots.
posted by mrgrimm at 4:29 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


One thing I learned in College Accounting over 30 years ago (that they didn't intend to teach me) was that Equipment is an Asset, and Employees are an Expense, therefore even if it doesn't quite match up to human labor, if it even gets close, automation is better for the bottom line. Standard Accounting Practices.

On the other hand, in a knowledge economy, employees are often referred to as "human capital".
posted by KokuRyu at 4:29 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Don't underestimate individual production. We can make a lot at home w/3-D printers, etc.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:30 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


> The reason we are still waiting is that the Masters of the Universe are too fucking stupid to realize that they are poisoning their own well.

I have a feeling many of them think they'll be able to retreat to heavily-defended (by drones, probably) enclaves. I also have a feeling many of them are looking forward to it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:30 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


A friend wrote Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That's OK, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet, so I cannot comment further.

I've frankly no clue how so many industries automated so much but continue to employ so many people doing so little. Can we automate away the middle managers please?
posted by jeffburdges at 4:31 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


That Kevin Kelly piece reminded me of his Wired article "The Long Boom of the New Economy" from back in July 1997, which in turn reminded me of why I don't bother to read Kevin Kelly.
posted by Auden at 4:31 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


> Still waiting.

And you can keep on waiting, if Parkinson's right.
posted by BWA at 4:34 PM on January 14, 2013


Just create any effective corporate tax. Don't penalize automation.

I personally favor a progressive VAT where the more powerful companies pay a higher percentage, thus penalizing size, especially monopoly. Yet I'm not optimistic about the corporations actually paying it.


Not to mention that the capture of the political class by those self-same mega corporations via direct campaign contributions and PAC funds - and that many, if not most US politicians are also substantial owners of companies directly. I don't see significant tax hikes on large corporates, or closing the loopholes to make them even pay their current low taxes happening.

The parallels of the current western economies with the english industrial revolution are quite interesting (to this non-economist). It makes me wonder if we're going to see 21st century Luddites. While now a word largely meaning 'fear of technology', the luddites were more a working class rebellion against the capitalists demolishing reasonably well paid skilled jobs and replacing them with very low-paid unskilled labour, if there were any jobs at all. That all the profit went to the owners of the machines, not the workers. They did smash many weaving machines, but at least part of it was also due to the very low quality materials they were churning out, far inferior to that produced by more labour intensive methods. It was also tied up with the war against the French, in Spain and the Americas, which was causing a massive drop in trade and thus standards of living generally.

At several points, Luddites even clashed with the British Army. Utlimately of course, the Luddites lost, not least due to mass trials sweeping up the innocent and guilty with very stiff sentences and executions - machine smashing was made a hanging offence!

As Lord Byron wrote,
As the Liberty lads o'er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!
Who will be the new King Ludd, I wonder...
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:36 PM on January 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


That isn't the only problem the robots will be causing.
posted by One Hand Slowclapping at 4:37 PM on January 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


Back in the good old days, after the war, when every man had a good manufacturing job and women went back to the kitchen, wasn't the US bombing the shit out of some Asian country or another? Everywhere else in the world outside of Europe and North America, life expectancy was maybe 50 or so.

The stuff the factories of Detroit and wherever were turning out helped create climate change. Can you create a Dreamliner without robots?
posted by KokuRyu at 4:39 PM on January 14, 2013


One thing I learned in College Accounting over 30 years ago (that they didn't intend to teach me) was that Equipment is an Asset, and Employees are an Expense

If you work for a software-as-a-service company, computers are an expense and the only asset you have is the intellectual property generated by your employees, making them the asset.

While you do have a good point, I wouldn't look to accounting as a way to explain the future. They have a hard enough time explaining the past.
posted by GuyZero at 4:41 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I remember when United Airlines first began introducing automated check ins. A candid UA spokesperson explained: "Every face-to-face encounter is an opportunity for service failure."

And here we are.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:44 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps in anticipation of the coming post-scarcity we'll see a rise in Accredited Leisure Studies programs.
posted by Jernau at 4:44 PM on January 14, 2013


Can we automate away the middle managers please?

It's middle management all the way down!
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:45 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Tax corporations at a rate equal to the amount they would have spent paying employees that have been replaced with robots.
Use the revenue to create a strong welfare state.


That's kind of close to an idea Izabella Kaminska raised in one of her recent FTAv posts, why a "free market" changes everything:
In other words, is it fair for a corporate that depends entirely on voluntary input for its capital returns, to suck up those profits entirely for itself? Or should that wealth somehow be shared amongst the collaborative community? Are these corporates becoming rentiers as some argue, or as others might counter social utilities, which need to make money to cover costs of operation and infrastructure.

There is one potential solution. You could call it the “common agricultural policy” response. A model in which people are compensated by the government for staying out of the “financially compensated” workforce if their occupational field is oversupplied and suffering the effects of overproduction and capacity, and thus become free to deploy leisure time as they see fit with no need for compensation.
Her thought experiment was specific to the observation that capital flows are stemming away from industries of job creation and innovation and instead are chasing investments that depend largely on social contribution (see: some of the largest IPOs in the past few years). On top of which are investors who want to protect their wealth by investing in safe assets, which implicitly or explicitly, end up being purchases of government securities. So instead of creative destruction, you end up with net-net job loss. The government might as well step in in a more creative manner than simple welfare.

Kaminska (or Izzy as she's otherwise known) has been writing excellent posts lately on FTAv and I think it's worth the free registration to follow her writing if you're interested in finance and know a decent amount of the basics.
posted by tksh at 4:48 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots. Ninety percent of your coworkers will be unseen machines.
That doesn't make any sense at all. Who "Works well with robots"? Only a slim percentage of the population is skilled enough to program and design robots, and even then - you only have to do that work once.
So the way we're gonna try to solve the "who buys all of the stuff the robots make when no one can find a job and the only money is inherited money" is to produce just staggering amounts of crap for the overclass, to really just shower them with goods out of respect for their position, even if everyone else is starving.


Just look at how billionaires get to live today. Then just imagine the equivalent of a millionaire getting to live like that - with their own yachts and jumbo jets, and entourages of hangers and servants on to put on those boats and jets. And of course the equivalent of today's billionaires getting, I don't know, their own space ships and moon colonies or something.

It does seem like there should be some practical limit on the amount of income inequality. Eventually you would just run out of things to spend the money on.
posted by delmoi at 5:08 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


To the barricades.
posted by Miko at 5:10 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]




wellll...all that stuff, and...we're kind of at the ass end of the industrial revolution right now...there is just so much PRODUCT already loose in the world. Like, I know stuff wears out, but we're producing like, what, 10 times that amount of stuff in just about any product category you care to name. How many more pots and pans does the world need? Outside of clothes and food and the latest, fastest iPad what more could anyone possibly need? (Next time you find yourself at a general goods store, like Target or walmart, take a goood look at where all the traffic is in the store.)
posted by sexyrobot at 5:19 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


When robots manufacture all consumer goods, hand-crafted artisanal bespoke artifacts will be worth their weight in platinum.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:23 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


If you want to know what the world may look like when robots take over 95% of the work, you might look at what happened to Finance / Accounting about 20 years ago...

There was a particular Finance / Accounting department I worked for, that had this Old Guy in the corner. He told me that this department used to have 50 people in it when he joined in 1977. Now there were just the 2 of us doing the exact same work they did, and according to him, 10x better quality than what they used to do before. Computers, he said, waving at his screen. Everything was done by hand before: there were "human computers", he squinted, trying to recall, there was a pretty girl who came in every day dressed up to the nines with bright red nail polish and lipstick, and all she did was come in and use one hand to do long sums all day for the people in the office, with one hand, because the other hand was holding her cigarette because she was a chain smoker.

Where did the other 48 jobs go? Certainly not to other industries - there's more people employed in Finance today than in 1977.
posted by xdvesper at 5:24 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


YouTube spammy, but *extremely* relevant video: Why Soap.com & Diapers.com Are Changing the Rules on Overnight Shipping - check out those robots.
posted by kmartino at 5:25 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Eventually you would just run out of things to spend the money on.

In theory you save it and then it gets loaned out to people who need working capital.

In practice you continue to buy other people's companies one share at a time until you own everything or you go broke because you bought shit companies.

In some cases the money is saved for so several generation of people fritter it away.

But it does all gets spent, by hook or by crook.
posted by GuyZero at 5:26 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read a not-very-good but pretty-convincing story about this very thing a few years ago. Here's the link.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:26 PM on January 14, 2013


Realistically, we're not heading for an era of tremendous abundance. There probably isn't enough resources for everyone in the world to have the standard of living that you and I have right now. And if enough people (most of the people in China and India, for instance) made a serious try at Western-style consumption the ecosystem would collapse.

If everything goes right and we transition away from fossil fuels while avoiding the worst effects of global warming, we could end up with a world where most people are comfortable. No one starves, everyone can read, and things like warfare and disease are relatively rare. Thanks to automation (and things like the 3D printer Ironmouth mentioned) the means of production will be extremely cheap, but the energy to produce things and the resources to make them will still cost money, and likely determine who is rich and who is poor in the future.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:30 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bertrand Russell, whom I have mentioned several times before (1, 2), was all over this in "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?

...

In the West, we have various ways of dealing with this problem. We have no attempt at economic justice, so that a large proportion of the total produce goes to a small minority of the population, many of whom do no work at all. Owing to the absence of any central control over production, we produce hosts of things that are not wanted. We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labor by making the others overwork.
[or by using robots and automation, dhens] When all these methods prove inadequate, we have a war: we cause a number of people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to explode them, as if we were children who had just discovered fireworks. By a combination of all these devices we manage, though with difficulty, to keep alive the notion that a great deal of severe manual work must be the lot of the average man.

...

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.


posted by dhens at 5:33 PM on January 14, 2013 [74 favorites]


Is it really useful to focus on robotics to this degree, except insofar as it catches the imagination? The Industrial Revolution was two centuries ago, and the only difference between a loom and a factory robot, to me, seems to be the degree of articulation. They all affect the economy (and the humans) the same way. We are still playing out the ultimate effects of industrialisation upon society.

My own take on this is that what we're seeing is the precise opposite of the (early) industrial revolution. Back then, the connection between actual, employed human beings and labor meant that increased industrial output rely did lead to increased employment and--over the long run--quality of life.

But automation reverses this, because increased output comes as the direct result of using fewer employed human beings.

Intuitively, at least, this whole problem seems not terribly difficult to grasp.
posted by graphnerd at 5:34 PM on January 14, 2013


What if the explanation to the past half-decade --- or maybe the past decade and a half --- of the world’s economic malaise can be explained in one word: Robots.

Or just maybe George Monbiot has it right.
posted by dmayhood at 5:35 PM on January 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


Also, this is an excellent post. Don't know if I've ever idly chuckled at the words "of course" that well.
posted by graphnerd at 5:37 PM on January 14, 2013



Don't underestimate individual production. We can make a lot at home w/3-D printers, etc.


But who's going to be able to afford all the licensing costs?!
posted by MikeKD at 5:37 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Economists have a wonderful term for what (could) be happening:

the Jaws of the Snake.
posted by Shit Parade at 5:37 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


If everything goes right and we transition away from fossil fuels while avoiding the worst effects of global warming, we could end up with a world where most people are comfortable. No one starves, everyone can read, and things like warfare and disease are relatively rare. Thanks to automation (and things like the 3D printer Ironmouth mentioned) the means of production will be extremely cheap, but the energy to produce things and the resources to make them will still cost money, and likely determine who is rich and who is poor in the future.

I'm not so sure about this. Technology is helping reduce energy consumption by cars, planes and ships by about 20% (with a reduction in GHG emissions), which will help a lot.

More an more oil being discovered means a continued Green Revolution, and hopefully we can be weaned off of fertilizers through genetically-modified crops.

The big challenge is water - there will be less of it in the Fertile Crescent as a result of climate change. But who would have thought that Brazil would have exported more corn than the US this past years? Africa as a food growing region has barely been developed.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:38 PM on January 14, 2013


Bring on the law-drafting robots. They could hardly do a worse job than humans.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:40 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, the laws will be made by wise CAD Designer-Kings
posted by thelonius at 5:42 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


The robots are smart, they'll use just enough of their production capability to make lower and lower game consoles and 3D+ TV's and junk food. That will placate the masses and forestall the costs of a full fledged human insurrection. The tiny percent of humans that are immune to those techno-drugs will be isolated in chat rooms like this where they can burn off evolutionary fever with rants and serious discussions of the problem.
posted by sammyo at 5:47 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


A Spinning Jenny replaces 5 human spinners. A robot in a car factory replaces 5 human auto workers. What's the difference?

Answer: Spinning Jenny was invented 290 years ago, so nobody writes angry op-eds about it.
posted by Triplanetary at 5:47 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Robots are a lot less specialized than a Spinning Jenny. Ol' Jenny wasn't able to build other Jennies that could do other tasks and put other types of laborers out of work. Nowadays robots need not even be physical and handily displace non-manufacturing humans from the job market as well.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:51 PM on January 14, 2013


When the robot revolution comes, I am unabashedly on their side. workers of the world, both carbon and silicon, unite!
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:53 PM on January 14, 2013


Answer: Spinning Jenny was invented 290 years ago, so nobody writes angry op-eds about it.

The introduction of the Spinning Jenny led to widespread riots and protests at the time. Source. There would have been angry op-eds if the spinners were literate.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:57 PM on January 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


Apocryphon, 'robots' as a mental classification can be a lot less specialised than a Spinning Jenny, but robots in reality are exactly so. No one who wants a machine to spraypaint cars evenly builds a robot that can spraypaint cars evenly and build other robots. What's the practical difference? It's just a stack of Spinning Jennys all the way down!
posted by forgetful snow at 5:57 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]



The big challenge is water - there will be less of it in the Fertile Crescent as a result of climate change. But who would have thought that Brazil would have exported more corn than the US this past years? Africa as a food growing region has barely been developed.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:38 PM on January 14 [+] [!]


Water is a challenge but it is also fundamentally(for better or worse) a regional issue. Overall, models predict more precipitation, but concentrated in smaller geographical areas. Luckily desalination is here, we have the technology, unfortunately it is incredibly energy intensive...

There are many problems, but the basic one is finding a scalable, cheap, readily available energy source that doesn't make the planet warmer, there are alternative sources but there is massive inertia in changing over. Couple this with population and a food supply that is struggling to keep up(and climate extremes won't help us here)... this spills over into social instability, to me there is little coincidence the Arab Spring occurred during a food spike (which was following a larger 2008 food spike/riot).
posted by Shit Parade at 5:58 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have been saying this to anyone who'll listen (why does everyone avoid me?) for the last few years.

The "jobs" that politicians keeping crowing about, are not coming back.

The US is already operating under a hybrid capitalist/socialist system - it's that or revolution.

I hope to see a combination of GMI and capitalism, where people can just *live* comfortably, without worry, at a basic level.

Anyone who wants more would be free to go out and earn more Whuffie.

posted by mmrtnt at 6:00 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I need to read more academic work on the topic, but intuitively I think Krugman has it with capital-biased technological change. Yes, the economy will probably always produce more jobs (and there is decent evidence that even the current unemployment crisis is not due to structural factors (NBER paper that requires institutional or .gov access, sorry), but those jobs may have decreasing leverage in the marketplace.

Obviously productivity has potential benefits, but we are right to be concerned about whether or not those benefits will be realized in a way that is good for more than a few billionaires.

Martin Ford has a nice free ebook about this exact topic. He is not an economist but frames the issues in a fairly intelligent way.

I think most economists are just now waking up to this issue. And I think there may be some profound implications for our capitalist economy.
posted by ropeladder at 6:00 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also, nothing like this exact post to convince me that I should get to reading and working on grad school applications instead of watching tv...
posted by graphnerd at 6:01 PM on January 14, 2013


to me there is little coincidence the Arab Spring occurred during a food spike (which was following a larger 2008 food spike/riot).

Interesting point. Forty years ago or so, there were worries about "The Population Bomb", and I think the problems Pakistan and other countries in the region have faced over the past decade or so are a manifestation of this.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:04 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


GuyZero: "I suppose eventually the people predicting the end of the world are going to be right. I mean, they've been wrong for over 2,000 years now but I mean, that just can't last forever can it"

I make that joke a lot myself, really; but at the same time, the reasons people might believe the world is going down the toilet nowadays can be based much more on facts and science than fear and superstition. Of course the world won't end, but you have to admit that the convergence of a massive (and largely ignorant) human population, global climate change, depleting natural resources, and a drastically changing manufacturing and technological landscape doesn't bode too well for humans in the near term. Sure, maybe we can end up in delmoi's Star Trek socialist future, but the way things are set up now, the transition to that he mentions will probably be really ugly.
posted by Red Loop at 6:09 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


If we're going full on doom and gloom let me introduce a wonderful graph (it is, I may say, very pretty):

Rilke wrote, beauty is the edge of terror we're still just able to bare.
posted by Shit Parade at 6:14 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


One interesting thing about a robotic economy is that it enables a high standard of living with a low (human) population, which is great if you're an island nation with lots of access to resources through trade. But not so great if you're a large country with few resources and lots of human capital.

Maybe the different segments of society will fracture in a Snow Crash like way, if they really don't need each other for anything, but are still competing for resources. Each segment operating like an "island" sufficient to itself.
posted by Kevin Street at 6:20 PM on January 14, 2013


I think Australian sci-fi writer George Turner had a pretty good handle on the way things will likely go

Auden, you are totally right, and I think the sci-fi writers have predicted many of the things that are going to be issues as technologies advance. If robots continue being useful, and thus continue being refined, I hope the Three Laws are kept in mind when designing their 'positronic brains.'
posted by Turtles all the way down at 6:25 PM on January 14, 2013


Sure. And just to think, the glitterati are falling all over themselves to tell everyone with an Internet connection that information should be free (never mind the other part) and that piracy is a pretty sweet deal.

And this again drives the money into the hands of people who own factories. The capital, if you will.
posted by adipocere at 6:26 PM on January 14, 2013


the "spinning jenny" is a robot. this whole discussion hasn't made it out of the 18th century.

I have no idea why Krugman implies that high-productivity manufacturing is responsible for the decline in labor share of Gross Domestic Income in the first Krugman link because, gee... our economy certainly has been driven by manufacturing rather than Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate over the last thirty years. Even if you are a Marxist, the whole point is that advances in productivity in the production of an item lead to increased capital investment, while the marginal profit goes to zero as the product becomes a commodity. Robots represent an advance in productivity, a million Chinese using their hands to assemble microwave refrigerators do not.

But if you read the further Krugman essays he introduces a parallel discussion: robber barons
What about robber barons? We don’t talk much about monopoly power these days; antitrust enforcement largely collapsed during the Reagan years and has never really recovered. Yet Barry Lynn and Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation argue, persuasively in my view, that increasing business concentration could be an important factor in stagnating demand for labor, as corporations use their growing monopoly power to raise prices without passing the gains on to their employees.
What about them... The problem isn't that too much money is being invested in robots, it's that too little is. All of that capital that should have been invested in technology (and associated activities such as education) has instead been used to speculate on financial products, to decrease productivity by outsourcing, to consolidate industries to create monpolies whihc earn profits by rent or to create enormous pleasure palaces and purchase other non-commodities.

What Krugman is doing is demolishing the neoliberal argument that income inequality has resulted from a skills imbalance i.e. all we need are education and job retraining to solve it.
So the story has totally shifted; if you want to understand what’s happening to income distribution in the 21st century economy, you need to stop talking so much about skills, and start talking much more about profits and who owns the capital. Mea culpa: I myself didn’t grasp this until recently. But it’s really crucial.
The robot issue is a tangent and this post totally misses the point...
posted by ennui.bz at 6:28 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Kevin Street, don't large countries tend to have larger access to resources? And population is not tied to landmass especially - look here - my own island country, the UK, has a vastly larger population than countries many times its geographical size, and much less material resources.
posted by forgetful snow at 6:28 PM on January 14, 2013




In the past few years I've grown to have increasingly conservative views on economic matters, so I don't post much on metafilter since I don't really enjoy getting shouted at on the internet. But I think this is a very real potential problem and, really, one that is already being seen on some level.

A consensus is growing the Great Recession not only increased temporary (cyclical) unemployment, but structural unemployment as well (the baseline rate of unemployment in society)--just look at the number of people out of work for 2-3 years, who are no longer even looking, and for whom Congress keeps extending unemployment benefits. Here in America, the socially acceptable opinion of these people continues to be that they are lazy bums who lacked the foresight to invest in themselves, and they are more or less getting what they deserve.

Now there are certainly people like that in this country, and you can definitely find anecdotal evidence of them. But a lot of these people, I suspect, aren't 'lazy bums.' A lot of them are older workers who didn't finish high school, maybe, and certainly never went to college, but when they were 18, it wasn't that difficult to get a decent job with such little education so long as you showed up every day and had a good work ethic. Not the case anymore. For some people, I suspect it is the case that there is not one job that they can do better, quicker, or more efficiently than a machine. These are people that a generation or two ago would have had no trouble being upstanding productive members of society. They haven't changed, but the threshold to meet that description has been raised.

Right now, it is only the lowest percentiles of the population as measured by IQ, education level, sociability, whatever you want to call it, who fit that description, so it's easy for mainstream society to dismiss. But what's going to happen as technology progresses, as it surely will, and 'mainstream' jobs are fully automated? Maybe you went to school to do medical billing/coding, or to be a pharmacist, an accountant, even a surgeon--and sooner or later, technology will progress to the point that there is nothing that you can do either that a machine can't do better. You will have no marketable skills. You haven't changed, but all of a sudden you're not good enough anymore.

And you won't be able to get a job operating the machines. As machines become more and more complex, fewer and fewer people will have the raw intelligence necessary to be able to understand their inner workings. Already, companies are dying to hire competent software engineers and other computer programming types, but they can't find any. It's something that not just anyone can learn--you need some innate talent in order to be productive in that field. I'm a pretty smart guy and computer programming was something I just couldn't get at all in college. If it becomes the case that understanding the complex logic of computer code is the only way to be a 'productive member of society,' then over 90% of us will be bums on the street no matter how hard we try.

I think the ideas of some sort of tax on capital are pretty good that I've seen above. Make capital more expensive relative to labor and it stands to reason that more labor will be hired. And this might be the only way to keep the system in balance, since if nobody works, nobody earns money and hence nobody can consume.

I think one of the most interesting things this issue brings up is how often we humans don't really know what's best for us, or what we actually want. Everyone talks about how these machines will free up so much time and give us so much leisure, but even if it could get to the point where machines would do all the work, everyone would be unemployed, and sustained, even at a comfortable level, by government payments drawn from taxes on the fully-automated corporations, would anyone really enjoy that? People derive self-worth and a sense of purpose from having a productive role in society--as much as people like to complain about work in general, life without work becomes dull, petty, and empty. I just can't imagine a society in which everyone lives like an old-school English aristocrat, making up social dramas or fox hunting out of sheer boredom. People need to feel useful, need to feel like they are striving towards a goal, need to feel like they are participating in society, and without work, that's really hard to do.
posted by notswedish at 6:32 PM on January 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


Hey y'all --- I fucked up one thing in making this post --- the Kaminska link is to her personal Tumblr which is not pay walled. Sorry. It's a really interesting collection on links she has assembled there which aggregate different viewpoints on this subject, and I meant to highlight it better.

I think she's written some really interesting stuff on this on alphaville as well, but I know how people feel about registration required links.

As to what's different about a robot and a spinning Jenny --- well, I think there's at least a couple answers

1) there's nothing different, in the end, and it's just the messy middle we've got to worry about (a la Wired)
2) the Jenny, and the other innovations of the industrial revolution, replaced human and animal muscle with machine power, freeing up far more humans to work with their minds for a living. The computer/robot revolution is replacing human intelligence, which will free up humans for low-paying service jobs
3) a robot is a slave of near infinite labor capacity; the supply of labor will be so abundant that humans will not be able to command a price much above zero for theirs. Kaminska has an interesting post on this, I'll have to dig it out.
posted by Diablevert at 6:44 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying the Snow Crash scenario is likely, btw. Just an interesting speculation of what life could be like in a world where anyone can build anything, and the only limitations are energy and materials. (And maybe patents, but that's a whole other bunfight.)

"Kevin Street, don't large countries tend to have larger access to resources? And population is not tied to landmass especially - look here - my own island country, the UK, has a vastly larger population than countries many times its geographical size, and much less material resources."

I guess I'm saying that a world where the majority of the population isn't needed for anything in particular is a world where the rule of the majority (government) might become less important, and true power might rest in whoever has control of wealth. In such a world being small would actually give you an advantage, so society might split into smaller units.
posted by Kevin Street at 6:44 PM on January 14, 2013


The entire Germany export economy is based on beer & brats?

John Henry was a steel drivin man

They're even taking musicians jobs


We Are The Robots...
posted by ovvl at 6:44 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everyone talks about how these machines will free up so much time and give us so much leisure...

Techno-utopians who believe this just don't understand the human will to power. I know I didn't, in my Age of Aquarius, Star Trek besotted youth.

We higher primates have a vicious hierarchical streak in us, and it won't go away without conflict. Giving enormous concentrated power to a few (as our system has) is a recipe for disaster. Look at history: if we do head in a dystopian direction, the rich in their nuclear-powered domed enclaves, with their technological and life-extending researcher courtiers, will be as to gods. And history tells us that they will develop the religion and moral justification for their "superiority" just fine, thank you.

Economic equality is not an attractor. Dominance hierarchy is.
posted by mondo dentro at 6:48 PM on January 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I seem to remember a story written by I dunno some guy which took all the utopian angles out to their extremes and realized, you know what, humans are so fucked up that we will probably fuck that up too. I truly think that is our lot more today than I did in 1994 when um some guy wrote that story.
posted by localroger at 6:51 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think the supposed "revolution" has already happened. Look at the major categories of things people spend money on: food, clothing, transportation, entertainment, housing, child care, education, health care, retirement.

The items that get cheaper in response to automation -- the first 4 -- are already incredibly cheap. As right-wing commentators are always pointing out, even fairly poor people in America can have stylish clothes, big-screen TVs, and new cars.

The problem with our economy is that the other items, the ones that don't respond to automation, are in great demand and are skyrocketing in price as a result. Until someone can invent a robot babysitter, doctor, or teacher, I don't foresee any major change to our economy.

How can we make those last 5 items cheaper? We could copy other countries' health care and education systems, which seem to produce equally-good results at far lower cost. We could plan our cities smarter so that there is a larger supply of housing in proximity to people's jobs. We could introduce a system where retirees get paid to help out with child care, potentially killing two birds with one stone. None of these really have anything to do with automation or robotics though.
posted by miyabo at 6:57 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't think people will lack employment. First, the rich will want new ways to show off their wealth. They'll probably want bespoke suits, clothing, jewelry, and shoes that may took hundreds or maybe thousands of man hours to complete with intricate carvings and art and such that machines won't be able to replicate. Or maybe they'll be like Italian merchants and order up portraits, sculptures, music, plays, comic books, movies, TV shows that focus on what they want to watch or focus on them. Kinda like Reality TV, but much better production values and that have an audience of only a few hundred.

Second, certain services like teachers, social workers, trainers, basically the "helpers" in society will be needed. And since less people will be making stuff there will be more people doing these kinds of "helping" jobs so the cost of them will go down.

Of course, this assumes that the robots will also increase in efficiency enough that they don't use many resources and I would also assume certain robots would be put to work in conservation, renewable energy, and geo-engineering projects to stop and reverse pollution. The whole game changes if the whole resource demand exceeds supply.
posted by FJT at 7:07 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't think people will lack employment. First, the rich...

Did serfs "lack employment"?
posted by mondo dentro at 7:10 PM on January 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


I would love to live in a world where the basic necessities of life were simply provided, rather than being tethered to people having jobs. As a whole I think that as a species humans tend to produce more interesting things when we produce them out of self-motivated desire than when we produce them out of fear of the twin whips of starvation and homelessness.

Barring societal suicide through ecological destruction, future generations will find it barbaric — like we find slavery barbaric — that 20th/21st century states didn't provide a basic income guarantee.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:12 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


We higher primates have a vicious hierarchical streak in us, and it won't go away without conflict.

Violent conflict does not have to be the solution - look at Gandhi's Freedom Struggle which helped emancipate India. If you think violence is the answer, look at how the bloody Partition has affected politics in the region - and all over the world thanks to the War on Terror - even today.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:15 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Did serfs "lack employment"?"

The big change here is that the rich will longer need serfs, because robots can do all the toiling. Nobody will need serfs, or slaves, or low wage workers.
posted by Kevin Street at 7:19 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Violent conflict does not have to be the solution...

I just said "conflict". Struggle is a synonym. As is jihad. Inner, outer, violent, nonviolent. I don't know what will happen. But assuming everyone will just be "reasonable" is for fools.
posted by mondo dentro at 7:25 PM on January 14, 2013


Presumably some of the rich will keep serfs around because they find making humans subservient emotionally satisfying.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:27 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


I just said "conflict". Struggle is a synonym. As is jihad. Inner, outer, violent, nonviolent. I don't know what will happen. But assuming everyone will just be "reasonable" is for fools.

Sorry - it's just that I've noticed that MetaFilter has become an angrier place since 2008, with casual calls for a violent response to the current economic crisis.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:35 PM on January 14, 2013


I work in a NOC. My job is to respond to alerts that are generated by servers and routers. I talk to my boss a couple of times a week, and almost never about work related stuff. I already work for robots.

As far as this post goes, I think it's feasible that humans are going to retire as a species in the next 100 years. There's no reason that most of us should ever have to work, as long as we can keep population growth under control. Then of course you have new societal problems to deal with.
posted by empath at 7:37 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Bring on the machines. Unemployment for everyone! I've spent some time working jobs that robots could easily do better, and I'd rather see a world where my grandchildren (if any) won't have to. The best hope is that it happens quickly, forcing whatever changes are necessary to happen quickly rather than too many more decades of slow decline for the working classes.

Until someone can invent a robot babysitter, doctor, or teacher, I don't foresee any major change to our economy.

It's not hard to think of quite a few jobs other than factory work that robots might well be able to take over in the relatively near future: Truck driving, warehouse picking, fruit picking, operating a cash register, mail sorting and delivery, all kinds of cleaning, window washing, waiting tables, dish washing, et cetera.

But a robot babysitter doesn't seem too far-fetched really.
posted by sfenders at 7:44 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is an old concern in economics; it’s “capital-biased technological change”, which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.

Yup. While it's getting more and more press over the last five years as people have had to confront serious unemployment, people have been examining it for a long time. Culturally, I don't think the United States is equipped to deal with it thoughtfully, though: too much of the population has too much invested in something like the idea that employment is worth and more generally that someones market value reflects their personal value. So I too foresee a bumpy ride.

One thing that I think *might* help, though: if machines that make machines come down far enough in price, that may effectively mean that we have a distributionist spread of capital (*real* capital). This has happened with software already: the tools necessary to write software are available relatively cheaply and cost seems to be dropping all the time. That's lead to a lot of opportunity. I wonder if the same thing could happen but perhaps even more broadly for 3D printing. Maybe the center of production could even move back towards households and we could have a middle class of people who make things for one another.

There's some potential problems, of course. That probably hinges on at least:

*home fab tech being good enough that it's within striking distance of large-capital economies of scale as far as efficiency goes
*but being not quite so good/easy that you wouldn't ever need anybody else to do something for you
*having sane IP laws that let people profit from research and digital creation but don't lock up the technology or a market where you might have a number of manufacturers on the order of the number of households

Probably some other problems I haven't thought of too.
posted by weston at 7:46 PM on January 14, 2013


We just have to create more bogus jobs for humans that are based entirely on human social construct bullshit like money and property. Perhaps non-creative people could all work on Wall Street, competing in one big monopoly game to determine who owns everything - but then just reprint and redistribute the "money" supply every so often.
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:52 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


That distributionism thing is sort of what I was getting at with the Snowcrash musings. If technology makes large scale society inefficient (too many people doing nothing, with no possible economic role to play), maybe one long term response would be to shatter society into thousands or millions of nearly self-sufficient units that would be of optimum size for all their citizens to be employed. It wouldn't reach Dad's Nuke levels of ridiculousness, with individual households commanding nuclear arsenals, but maybe the future would have thousands of microstates or whatever, each capable of cheaply making anything they need, negotiating and trading with each other for resources.
posted by Kevin Street at 8:01 PM on January 14, 2013


There you go, Tweet more! Social Networking: the last defense from Robot control.
posted by sammyo at 8:02 PM on January 14, 2013


We are clearly joking nervously as there seems to be something significant on the near horizon but no one, not the SF writers, economists or that least believable ilk, the futurists have any idea robots will change the world of man. So far robots are very expensive but still cost effective. Will they remain specialized needing human caretakers (engineers) or will we hit a threshold and they build themselves? Will we send them to the asteroids to mine water and diamonds? Will AI finally get smart and take over? So many questions, what would Watson say?
posted by sammyo at 8:12 PM on January 14, 2013


I'm pretty sure we already suspected this.

It isn't just robots. How many typist, mail clerk, file clerk, switchboard operator jobs have we lost. All the old "entry level" jobs are gone. You can't work your way up from the mail room if the mail room doesn't exist anymore.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:13 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


So humans do in fact have a tendency toward establishing viciously oppressive dominance hierarchies, but we also, barring a few monsters, have strong tendencies toward making interesting things and doing nice things for each other. Unfortunately, our economic system currently frequently rewards hierarchy and punishes care. A basic income guarantee (which, thanks to clever people building clever machinery, we are in fact capable of providing) would allow people to indulge their better natures instead of pushing them to remake themselves into something nastier than they are.

Getting from rule of the nasty to rule of the decent might prove impossible, though. Oh well.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:13 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


what would Watson say?

"Fuck all y'all," apparently, or did you not see that thread?
posted by Diablevert at 8:17 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


People need to feel useful, need to feel like they are striving towards a goal, need to feel like they are participating in society, and without work, that's really hard to do.

You really think that people freed from work drudgery wouln't find meaningful things to do with their time? Maybe they would become sculptors, or musicians, or write a novel. Maybe they would climb mountains, not to get to the top (you could do that with a helicopter) but because they were there to be climbed.

People don't need to be build cars, or entering data into a spreadsheet, or facilitating mergers or whatever to bring meaning to their lives.

People would still have goals and projects. They just wouldn't be doing the largely mindless and boring crap they do now to pay the bills. There would still be social groups, and cultures, and sub-cultures.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:18 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


We've had robot babysitters forever with mobile phones, smart phone create vastly more options.

We're making significant progress in using artificial intelligence for medical diagnosis. I'd imagine the liability issues have kept that one moving slowly but now doctors want the robot diagnostic aids, so it'll progress more quickly this decade.

There is a massive push towards online courses with one professor teaching tens of thousands of students who are accessed through either artificial intelligence questionares or poorly paid adjunct faculty. Academia has collapsed from the job applicants perspective, but it's about to get much worse.

Law looks relatively untouched outside mathematical stuff like insurance and finance. We need to start automating vastly more of the legal profession, way over due.

I'm disappointed with how little impact artificial intelligence has had on mid-level managerial activities, but maybe that'll start changing bit by bit as well.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:19 PM on January 14, 2013


You really think that people freed from work drudgery wouln't find meaningful things to do with their time? Maybe they would become sculptors, or musicians, or write a novel. Maybe they would climb mountains, not to get to the top (you could do that with a helicopter) but because it was they were there to be climbed.

We have such people now; they are called the rich. Some of them manage that. A lot seem unhappy, though. There are many vices peculiar to prosperity.
posted by Diablevert at 8:21 PM on January 14, 2013


We have such people now; they are called the rich. Some of them manage that. A lot seem unhappy, though. There are many vices peculiar to prosperity.

I suspect that, once wealth as a driving goal was completely removed, there would be a greater focus on celebrity as a goal. Which kind of explains Paris Hilton et al. Already filthy rich, so notoriety is all that is left to strive for.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:30 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Law looks relatively untouched outside mathematical stuff like insurance and finance. We need to start automating vastly more of the legal profession, way over due.

Robot lawyers... what could possibly go wrong?
posted by sammyo at 8:31 PM on January 14, 2013


Law looks relatively untouched outside mathematical stuff like insurance and finance. We need to start automating vastly more of the legal profession, way over due.

What would you suggest? Law is about thought and interpretation. Robots can't really do that yet. I mean, humans generally suck at it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:42 PM on January 14, 2013


A lot of this seems to be about blaming technology for political failures. US GDP has risen over the last decade, and world GWP has soared. Wages have been stagnant in the US, but that's due mainly to ridiculous financial (non) regulations, low and regressive taxes, broken unions, stagnant minimum wage laws, etc. Much of the motivation for blaming the robots seems to come from this stagnant economy, which is odd, since many of these same people are also blaming rising inequality mainly on political, not technological, factors.

Technology has always lowered the wages of certain human jobs until those jobs were no longer viable, starting with animal labor. Sure, in the long run it will take over everything and we'll all either be dead or in an AI zoo. But in the real term, it all just depends on how fast technology gobbles up jobs vs how fast people can be retrained and educated to shift into the (currently) non-automatable stuff. For a much more nuanced picture of this, see this nice chart here, especially the graphic on the right showing job changes by education level over the last decade. Some (especially low education or dexterity) jobs have been driven down by China and robots, and others have grown as people shift over into them. But the net change remains positive, and with perfectly feasible tax rates, retraining, and education, there's no particular reason that can't keep happening forever. The main thing preventing that seems to be politics, which may be the destruction of the US, but doesn't have to mean the destruction of the world (or, for that matter, a new utopia).

The key question seems to be whether jobs are eliminated faster than people can retrain for others. I don't see any evidence that job-elimination-by-technology is happening any faster now than during the steam or electricity revolutions, and none of these articles have really explained to me why robots and AI are fundamentally different from other machines. One new source of fear seems to be white-collar workers who suddenly realize that they are no more secure than blue-collar workers have been over the millennia that technology has steadily eaten their old jobs and forced them into new ones. But white-collar workers can do the exact same thing, at least until we are all doing work that requires human-level AI, at which point the game is up. But in the meantime, I don't see why this process can't be successfully ameliorated with political fixes like education, retraining, unemployment insurance, etc. That stuff may be impossible in today's political climate, but that's us being killed by ourselves, not by robots.
posted by chortly at 8:43 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I just can't imagine a society in which everyone lives like an old-school English aristocrat, making up social dramas or fox hunting out of sheer boredom. People need to feel useful, need to feel like they are striving towards a goal, need to feel like they are participating in society, and without work, that's really hard to do.

I'm not a Trekkie, so I won't post an obvious speech of Picard being inspirational about the loftiness of exploration, or one of those essays analyzing the Federation's money-less society. Instead, I'll just summarize the answer to your post-scarcity problem with seven simple words.
posted by Apocryphon at 8:49 PM on January 14, 2013


(Busy working on a "decision-making ontology for spacecraft engineering", because, well, someone's gotta do that bit, right?)
posted by newdaddy at 9:10 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a small theory that the rise in digital games is an easing factor for the friction caused by the increased automation of late capitalism. People voluntarily do drudge work (albeit rewarding drudge work) in immersive 3D environments simply to be doing anything at all and actually making progress in it. If robotics are one growth industry, as the links in the FPP suggest, then virtual worlds are an accompaniment to that.
posted by codacorolla at 9:22 PM on January 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think the ideas of some sort of tax on capital are pretty good that I've seen above. Make capital more expensive relative to labor and it stands to reason that more labor will be hired.

Sure, but unless you plan on prohibiting outsourcing at the same time, there's no guarantee that the "labor" that gets brought in to fill the gap won't be a recently-urbanized peasant on the other side of the planet, working in a sweatshop or its functional equivalent. That might arguably be good for them (though having seen high-labor-growth megacities in Asia firsthand, I'm pretty skeptical), but it doesn't help much if you're trying to keep an industrialized country from tearing itself apart.

But I guess if you can somehow come up with the political motivation to impose a tax on capital, some anti-outsourcing / anti-dumping provisions to ensure that labor competition only happens with similarly well-protected and compensated workforces ought to be easy. Doing the former without the latter might actually be far worse than doing nothing, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:49 PM on January 14, 2013


Didn't we just have this conversation?

Almost all OK jobs are going away to automation.

Robots would be a great solution to many human problems, except it's going to involve a massive transfer of wealth from the working- and middle-classes to the rich and the techno-gensia who will be able to capture most of what will basically be free money falling from heaven onto the economy.

Most people in the United States at least will live in horrible conditions because they aren't working and "don't deserve anything", and a few people will live lives of unimaginable wealth - much like now, only a lot more so. (In other countries, they might bow to the inevitable and distribute some of the wealth to the peons, but in the US people would consider it a moral outrage.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:50 PM on January 14, 2013


Law looks relatively untouched outside mathematical stuff like insurance and finance. We need to start automating vastly more of the legal profession, way over due.

What would you suggest? Law is about thought and interpretation. Robots can't really do that yet. I mean, humans generally suck at it.


Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software

LegalTech 2013
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:55 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm disappointed with how little impact artificial intelligence has had on mid-level managerial activities, but maybe that'll start changing bit by bit as well.

It seems like Target has moved in this direction to a large extent. Individual store decisions such as purchasing, hiring, and layout are made by massive computer systems with little human input beyond "maximize revenue".
posted by GDWJRG at 11:25 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm disappointed with how little impact artificial intelligence has had on mid-level managerial activities, but maybe that'll start changing bit by bit as well.

I remember reading a story like this. The computer would time all your activities and tell you whether you were working fast enough. It only got worse from there.

In the future, will it be considered rascist to refuse to take orders from a machine?
posted by psycho-alchemy at 12:18 AM on January 15, 2013


I remember reading a story like this. The computer would time all your activities and tell you whether you were working fast enough. It only got worse from there.

It was probably Manna, which is a great little story.

(Well, "great" in the old sci-fi tradition of being a good vehicle for exploring the impacts of a theoretical scientific development even if it has questionable quality in its literary execution).
posted by weston at 1:05 AM on January 15, 2013


Robots are not going to remodel your kitchen. Robots are not going to fix your septic system, or your overflowing toilet. Robots are not going to be able to do many jobs in the service industry, jobs which have been looked down on "Hey, I don't wanna get my hands dirty!"

But people may not look down on service jobs much longer if they cannot find a job aside from Walmart.

Or course in totally collapsed parts of the US, even service guys are hustling for work and often not finding it. But I think he'll have a better time, overall, than if he was looking to get a job as an accountant at Johnnys Software Widget company.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:12 AM on January 15, 2013


Yes, we've seen that NYT article on processing corporate documents using software before, Golden Eternity, but the lawyers are still writing the court filings. Imagine if we'd software that helped defendants facing relatively common charges.

Ideally we'll replace many Walmart jobs with online shopping companies that automate their shipping, dancestoblue. Walmart could perhaps automate more stocking as well, certainly the cash registers can made progress towards automation.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:18 AM on January 15, 2013


The computer would time all your activities and tell you whether you were working fast enough. It only got worse from there.

Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death.

Cake, and grief counseling, will be available at the conclusion of the test.



posted by Segundus at 2:25 AM on January 15, 2013


It's not fucking robots. It's billionaires and megacorps sitting on their cash reserves instead of investing, because the investment class is completely out of control, and the institutions they run cannot be trusted. Everyone in business knows it - follow the money. It's headed straight to treasury bonds. We're still dealing with the economic collapse of '08, and worse, the "Regan Revolution" of deregulation and absurdly low taxation on the ultra-rich, and it will likely be another 5 years and a couple elections and a few megabank collapses to sort it out.

Automation is a productivity multiplier - it's pretty much the only thing keeping the economy turning over at the moment.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:35 AM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


computer voice: BULLSHIT
posted by orme at 5:59 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Robots are not going to remodel your kitchen. Robots are not going to fix your septic system, or your overflowing toilet. Robots are not going to be able to do many jobs in the service industry, jobs which have been looked down on "Hey, I don't wanna get my hands dirty!"

But if the kitchen owner doesn't have a job, who is going to pay for the remodeling?

Unless we can successfully redefine "full-time employment", I can't see how this trend can be anything other than self-defeating. A capitalistic economy REQUIRES people to spend.

This couldn't have been set up better. First, let's be an information society. Why sweat and toil in manufacturing, when we can pay foreigners a pittance to make our stuff? We can push paper much easier, and at a higher profit. Second, brainstorm! Guess which jobs are the best for robots to do? You got it - paper pushing. Third, expand! Now that we've gone down this road a while we can bring back manufacturing jobs - but have robots do them. The average worker is just fucked from every direction, as far as I can see.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:24 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I live in a city that is, technically speaking, a knowledge economy. The three biggest employers are provincial government, the technology industry, tourism, and education. The cabinet-making shops do okay.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:13 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not fucking robots.
Ever since I first saw Blade Runner thirty years ago, that's exactly the kind of robots I've been waiting for.
posted by Flunkie at 8:45 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


> I'm disappointed with how little impact artificial intelligence has had on mid-level managerial activities,
> but maybe that'll start changing bit by bit as well.

In the near future there will be really, really hard capchas you have to get through to prove you are a bot.
posted by jfuller at 9:02 AM on January 15, 2013


But if the kitchen owner doesn't have a job, who is going to pay for the remodeling?

Amazingly, this highly salient point seems to get either wholly ignored or hand-waved-and-pixie-dusted aside in practically every future-nirvana scenario where people are liberated from the drudgery of work. Unless people are also liberated from the drudgery of needing an income to survive, these futurist fever-dreams will continue to be rather half-assed at best.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:19 AM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


> Violent conflict does not have to be the solution - look at Gandhi's Freedom Struggle
> which helped emancipate India.

Somebody has already put his finger squarely on when nonviolence can be a solution.

"If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi and nonviolence. But if your enemy has no conscience like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer." --Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Excuse the Godwin, this seemed relevant.
posted by jfuller at 9:33 AM on January 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


The state of things in the US today is nowhere near as brutal and unequal as India under the British Raj. So try nonviolence.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:37 AM on January 15, 2013


As this is a blue security zone, I feel comfortable pointing out a perfectly reasonable model of what we can expect with continued automation and an entrenched techno-capital oligarchy. The Computer is your friend, citizen.
posted by bastionofsanity at 10:26 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


In what was a bit déjà vu-y for me at least, Felix Salmon, the finance blogger, has a link roundup on this same topic this morning, including lots if the stuff found here but also some new stuff.
posted by Diablevert at 10:41 AM on January 15, 2013


Unless people are also liberated from the drudgery of needing an income to survive, these futurist fever-dreams will continue to be rather half-assed at best.

That's why we should decouple the income that people need to live from the work those people can do.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:53 AM on January 15, 2013


You really think that people freed from work drudgery wouldn't find meaningful things to do with their time?

Yep.

Take me for instance. I'm fucking lazy. Give me a world in which I don't have to work, and sure I'll SAY I'm working on a novel, and occasionally I'll poke at it. But mostly not.

That's why I say bring on the guaranteed income! I'll sit on my couch playing MMORPGs and eating bonbons until I need a crane to hoist me to bed. That's OK, somebody else can work, and I'll just tax him like hell to pay for me.
posted by happyroach at 11:57 AM on January 15, 2013


You might write that novel happyroach because accomplishments become your tool for impression friends and mates, certainly Scandinavia does quite well on cultural accomplishments per capita.

There is an active diet thread in which a basic income chat wasn't too out of place, so I almost suggested that people should be paid to exercise, but then realized that goes against conditioning theory.

So why do people exercise? I've encountered basically two reasons : Health fears, especially post heart attack. Impress the opposite and/or same sex. In my case, I started exercising religiously when I decided I'd continue to spend time running around mostly naked with hippies in the desert.

Money isn't such a great motivator ultimately. It often suffices, but not always. It's creates negative side effects as well though. Money has one incredible advantage however : It's fungibility has often helped transfer power away from the inefficiently corrupt, ala the rise of the middle class and fall of the USSR. We've seen it do the opposite under the robber barrons and again presently though, so maybe we'll start considering another approach soon.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:54 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


You will get bored with your MMO and start doing something worth paying attention to at some point, unless you are vastly less interesting than most people in the world.

And hell, let's not shit on video game players. I don't play MMOs, because
  1. I'm not rich, and so don't have the leisure time for them
  2. I have a strongly addictive personality — I tried Puzzle Pirates back when it was in beta, but got the hell out after the third or fourth 12 hour day I put into pirating, and,
  3. on the whole, I find participating in public discourse on mefi a more interesting use of my leisure time than gaming.
But nevertheless, let's not shit on gaming. Take the stuff Minecraft players (for example) build — sure, there's a lot of diamond dicks, but there's also some really remarkable art projects, some of which say a lot about what computation itself means. When I read about them / look at them, I think, hey, we'd all benefit if these people got to spend more of their time doing what they love.

I think maybe it's even possible to make a similar case about hardcore MMO guild/corporation leaders, though what they build aren't art projects, exactly, but instead new, interesting social structures. This is more iffy, though, given the Skinner box aspect of contemporary MMO design.

But anyway. When rest and relaxation isn't such a scarce commodity, you'll eventually start doing more with your leisure time than just resting and relaxing. Well, unless you're actually as worthless as you claim, which I strongly doubt. If you do tend toward that sort of worthlessness, I suspect the proper course of action might be to pursue therapy, rather than just critiquing the idea of freedom itself.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:24 PM on January 15, 2013


notyou: If only there were some way to democratize ownership of the means of production.
...without the power ending up even more disproportionately in the hands of the ruthless elite.

That, indeed, is the quandary.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:34 PM on January 15, 2013


empath: "I work in a NOC. My job is to respond to alerts that are generated by servers and routers. I talk to my boss a couple of times a week, and almost never about work related stuff. I already work for robots. "

I think this is an oversimplification that leaves out the real role humans play in these highly automated tasks. The Wired article mentions this, but the real thing you're there for isn't the "respond to routine alert" events, it's the "respond appropriately when stuff gets weird in a way that the automated systems can't perceive" events. At some point (maybe it hasn't happened yet) you're going to have a "shit encounters a multitude of fans" moment where there is no chance in hell that the systems are prepared to do the right things automatically. In those moments, you'll earn every penny that you were paid all those years doing work a robot can probably do today.

I attended a conference last week where people presented some machine learning type approaches to detecting network anomalies, the kind of stuff that hasn't even been turned into marketable products yet. Knowing quite a bit about the present state of security tools, and having seen a glimpse of what the future might look like, it's pretty clear to me that we're nowhere near a solution that has false positive and false negative rates acceptable enough to get humans out of the loop. Even in the best case, it's not going to be an algorithm deciding what you do. You'll still need people to write the signatures and scripts that tell the automated systems what to do, and you'll need tier 1 types to respond when those people screw up and end up blacklisting good traffic because they flubbed a regular expression. You'll need analysts to surf the various mailing lists to find emerging threats, and red teams to try to harden your network against known threats to check the work of all those other people. The end result is better security than you would have without the automated tools, and new job categories (or expansions of existing categories) that don't end up with everyone being replaced with algorithms.
posted by tonycpsu at 1:35 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Man, I am not going to let this one go. The implicit idea behind happyroach's (tongue in cheek, I hope) announcement of his/her self-loathing is that there are only a few people in the world inspired enough to do anything that's not worthless, and that therefore we should follow their direction in exchange for a modicum of food and shelter, plus some rest time so we can recover from doing the smart things they tell us to by doing the worthless, stupid things that we worthless stupid people do when left to our own devices.

This is insane. I know, I know, I'm taking one offhand and not particularly serious statement very seriously indeed, but, well, I can't not take it seriously. I think that the fact that people find it acceptable to make that sort of joke indicates that deep down they really do kind of believe that they wouldn't do anything decent with their lives without Galtian overlords telling them what to do. That's nuts. That doesn't reflect lived reality at all. Most people I know do fascinating things when they're given the resources and freedom they need to do the things they want. They design and make elaborate woodcrafting projects and invent bike polo and grow food and flowers in gardens and they write software and talk on metafilter and get graduate degrees and fall madly in love and raise smart, clever, and kind children and play lazer tag with taggers they've reprogrammed themselves and... I could go on indefinitely. If you hate what you do when you're left to your own devices, that is a serious problem that you have. It's not a problem with self-determination itself.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:40 PM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


A question boldly addressed in Animatrix long ago. And which, considering the lack of serious reaction, apparently seemed like science fiction at the time.

Those machines in the grocery store don't just co-op jobs along with their supposed convenience, they also hand a big chunk of the work to us. Like we did at the gas station, we get nothing in return.

Which is one possible future for meekly cooperative us and our plastic money. Poor little Wall-E indeed.
posted by Twang at 2:25 PM on January 15, 2013


More "not letting this go" before I get back to (sigh) work.

So in the 1970s the at-the-time social-democratic government of Manitoba ran an experiment with guaranteed minimum income, picking one small town and using that as their test case. Here's an article about it. This is the key passage, for the purposes of this discussion:
Initially, the Mincome program was conceived as a labour market experiment. The government wanted to know what would happen if everybody in town received a guaranteed income, and specifically, they wanted to know whether people would still work.

It turns out they did.

Only two segments of Dauphin's labour force worked less as a result of Mincome—new mothers and teenagers. Mothers with newborns stopped working because they wanted to stay at home longer with their babies. And teenagers worked less because they weren't under as much pressure to support their families.

It continues from there, going into detail on how none of happyroach's predictions about himself or about people in general came true for the people of Dauphin, Manitoba. I don't think it's because the people of Dauphin are more virtuous than other people elsewhere. I think it's because people aren't worthless.

I will give happyroach the benefit of the doubt; he may in fact actually be useless and worthless unless threatened with starvation and exposure. But if that's the case, he's an outlier, not the norm.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:32 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I notice people keep putting "talk on metafilter" on the list of creative accomplishments. Huh.

Anyway, I do dispute that people will naturally find great creative things to do- it's not a matter of self-loathing, but of recognizing the limitations in oneself and others. I've seen no signs of a great wellspring of creativity either in my term of unemployment, or in that of people I've met. A large number of people just aren't that creative-especially when creativity is just work by another name. And who's going to force me to be creative when I can just consume instead?

So bring on the robots and taxing workers to subsidize my staying in bed until noon. Just don't expect me to make something out of it. It'll be like that story where masses of unemployed people live lives of boredom in an arcology because only a small fraction of people are talented enough for the state to subsidize their work. As I recall, the protagonist decides to flee to the wilderness, only to find out that nature sucks as well. That's a more likely future for us to be heading toward.
posted by happyroach at 3:05 PM on January 15, 2013


Then you are more limited, uncreative, and lazy than most people. We forgive you, though.

Though I suspect that if you, say, register for a p-patch. you'll do something satisfying. And after you'll get to give tasty food to your friends — they'll probably bitch about not knowing what to do with all these fucking tomatoes, but they'll still like what you've done. Doing good things doesn't require any special amount of creativity or talent or even sticktoitiveness, beyond what most people have.

If you are less capable or willing to do things than most people, that is a serious, serious problem you need to solve for yourself. Don't pretend like you're the norm.

And good lord, public discourse is a good thing, and mefi is remarkably good (though not perfect) public discourse. Thinking things through by talking about them together is how citizenship happens. Citizenship is damned important, much more important than consumerism or maximizing extra production beyond what we need to thrive. I love this place. Most web forums are in fact wastes of time, one step above newspaper website comments. Mefi, though... it's not perfect, but it's without a doubt a good venue for thinking-together in words.

I take this deadly seriously. I feel almost embarrassed by how seriously I take this. I'm an atheist, but I've started to think of the habit of reflexively tearing down people's abilities and skills and willingness to do things for others, most especially one's own abilities and skills and willingness to do things for others, as equivalent to what the Christians call sinning against the holy spirit.

(sorry for being nutty about this. I know I'm massively overreacting. but the idea that we'll all be bored unless people force us to do things is so wrong.)

Also, though: Taxing workers? Most (all?) basic income schemes are about taxing capital. There's a difference.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:22 PM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


the idea that we'll all be bored unless people force us to do things is so wrong

It's a brilliant, perennial, and obviously pretty successful bit of capitalistic/aristocratic propaganda.
posted by Miko at 3:31 PM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


Capital shmapital, as long as somebody else pays for me to play video games.

And it's not depression, it's laziness. Creativity takes training and hard work. I could be wrong though- we could get a thousand fanfic.nets. Or would that be worse?

Most likely though, in this socialist utopia, the arcology bureaucracy will decide I'm not contributing according to my ability and put me to farming tomatoes on the local low-impact organic community farm. My creativity in hoe wielding will justify my existence.
posted by happyroach at 6:27 PM on January 15, 2013


Umm. You do realize you're posting in a thread about perpetual unemployment and underemployment due to automation, right? So, we just go ahead and what, let the unlucky slobs who can't find a job or retrain into one of the few job sectors left available to humans starve?

Or do you want to preserve the dignity of human labor and outlaw technology and force people back into the fields and factories, at gunpoint if neccessary, using starvation as a tool to inflict your utopian ideals on your fellow citizens? Or maybe you're not thinking this all the way through.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:51 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've seen no signs of a great wellspring of creativity either in my term of unemployment, or in that of people I've met. A large number of people just aren't that creative-especially when creativity is just work by another name.

Let's play dueling anecdotes.

I learned to program as a kid, when I could do nothing but read books and play outside if my homework was done and my handful of household chores were done. On the same home computer I could (and did) play hours of video games, I sometimes chose instead to try writing programs. I sometimes still do. People who have similar stories and tendencies aren't rare in the software industry.

I'm guessing you've never met any mathematicians. I think it's possible this is the field with the highest intrinsic motivation I've ever seen. You don't get paid a ton of money. You probably lose social status. Most people don't even understand what it is you do. But yet, people do it.

Or... let's take things out of nerd left-field. Let's talk about what many people do with their homes. Custom shelves for the space behind that door, spending two hours hanging the drapes, crafts to decorate the walls, playing amateur arborist in the yard. They don't get paid for this. Why do it? Status? Maybe. If so, I guess money isn't the only goad. Maybe they caught the bug of the art of keeping house, though.

Or let's talk about tomatoes, since you brought the job of growing them up as an apparent example of the kind of job a drudge is confined to. I've observed that people who are economically capable of buying all the tomatoes they could eat -- and who have plenty of other avocational options -- will sometimes still put months into growing their own. In fact, it seems to be a relatively popular hobby. Come fall they can them, turn them into salsa, or even just drop them off with neighbors.

I don't know what to make of the contrast between your observations and mine. I certainly recognize I know a very small slice of humanity and it's self-selected to a large extent. Maybe your slice is larger than mine.

Maybe not. Maybe more people are wondering about the problem of fitting in everything they'd like to work on or learn about or contribute to the world before they die.
posted by weston at 7:12 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Creativity takes training and hard work.

Nah, not at all. It's actually kind of the default state of humanity. What takes tons of work is schooling, scaring, and punishing it out of people, but we've pretty much mastered that art.
posted by Miko at 7:18 PM on January 15, 2013


Hey, you won't find me arguing for the necessity of work or the dignity of labor. I'm just arguing against the idea that mass unemployment will cause mass creativity. If that were the case, the idle rich, who don't have to work, would be more creative than the rest of society.

Creativity is work that requires training and motivation beyond simple boredom. Time to create is a relatively minor factor.
posted by happyroach at 7:54 PM on January 15, 2013


I'm just arguing against the idea that mass unemployment will cause mass creativity.

If people are going hungry and in need, then no. If their needs are met, then absolutely yes, that will free up quite a bit of activity - creative, sporting, social, every kind.

the idle rich, who don't have to work, would be more creative than the rest of society.

I'm not sure what "idle rich" you're talking about, but I have to deal with a fair amount of rich people and they tend to do a lot. Whether or not you consider it of value is another thing, but they put on a lot of events, raise money, some produce artwork themselves or support others in doing it, they take on building and landscaping projects, do philanthropy and that requires creating entirely new things...so even though I'm not a big rich-person-booster I do recognize that a lot of rich people who don't work are very involved in making a lot of things happen, and they fill up their days.

Creativity is work that requires training and motivation beyond simple boredom

You seem to be getting something out of obstinately holding this stance, but you're totally sidestepping my point that it does not require training. It can be encouraged and exercised through training, but creativity is a fundamental hallmark of the human being, a cognitive quality that you can't just opt out of. Your observations might be true for you if, as others have noted, you're depressed or particularly stubborn, but they sure aren't true for most people. Most people don't even require "boredom " to create - they want very much to create and do it whenever possible, even without thinking. They create organization and order, they create events and conversations, they create experiences, they create food and they create environments. Really, it's pretty ridiculous to argue otherwise.
posted by Miko at 8:08 PM on January 15, 2013


There are tertiary aspects to being un/underemployed which hinder creativity even with a surfeit of free time.

A large part of this is the depression that comes from the awful and degrading way that most people find work in our modern society, which is slapping together hundreds and hundreds of resumes and cover letters and throwing them at a faceless automated online process which probably won't even give you feedback if you're rejected. I often took steps to procrastinate in doing this because it often felt so futile, and I didn't procrastinate by doing something 'productive', but rather by engaging in things with clear rewards that I was good at - namely video games, but also aimless trawling on the Internet, reading, watching movies and any other form of media consumption.

The puritan roots of American society in particular make you feel bad if you're not working, and even worse if you're collecting money from the government for not working, or if you're past the age of 18 and living with extended family and not working. In my experience I felt worthless when I wasn't employed, and this sapped my desire to do things that I enjoyed doing, like writing, drawing, and other creative activities that I engaged in when I had full-time employment and often felt as if the job was getting in the way of.

I can understand not being creative even in unemployment - the uncertainty of being aimless and adrift combined with shame and feelings of uselessness are two huge barriers to creating. However this uncertainty and shame are things which we choose to have in our society. One can imagine alternatives where priorities were placed on creation instead of earning, and where basic living wages were guaranteed for citizens, and that's what's being discussed in this thread.

The malaise that comes from un and under-employment (something I've had more experience with than I'd like) is socially constructed, not some matter of fact that derives from nature. As the conditions of modernity begin to push more and more people out of a realisitic chance of finding meaningful and worthwhile employment, perhaps it's time to consider those alternatives.
posted by codacorolla at 8:35 PM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have a hunch that if you start from the position that the things that you do when you're given your druthers are important, and then try to find ways to share that importance with others, then your initial assumption that what you're doing is worthwhile will prove correct.

Getting hung up on creativity is a distraction — even though, yes, humans are by default much more creative than happyroach claims. Even more important than our creativity, we are for the most part blessed with the ability to be decent, to care, to learn, to figure out what really matters to us and what's worth working for (generally this takes a looooong time), and to share who we are and what we can do with others. Even happyroach's idea of the rock bottom he'd reach without other people forcing him to do things — perpetually playing MMOs, which is to say, playing profoundly social games about doing things with and for your teammates — even that scenario seems to reflect what humans are rather than what happyroach assumes they are.

I'm a cusp gen-x/millennial, and I think we might be seeing a gen-x / millennials split in play here. The unconsidered "everyone is boring and stupid and not worth it" attitude that marks so much gen-x media is much harder to find these days. Thankfully. It really does play right into the hands of the people who pretend that only the Galts of the world have the spark of inspiration, and who further pretend that without these Galts breathing life into us we'd just be lumps of stupid clay.

I wonder if this helps explain why gen-X skews surprisingly republican for such a relatively young cohort.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:37 AM on January 16, 2013


Gen-X used to skew Gooper... now they don't.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:11 AM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


codacorolla, I don't contest any of that. I'm speaking in the abstract - not that being unemployed in today's present context is an awesome creative festival, but that in the future, if we really had a post-employment economy, I would definitely expect creativity to increase. It might not be a new Renaissance and many people might pursue only the simplest levels of it, but an equal or perhaps greater number would finally be free to pursue the things they'd like to have more time for now. As you point out, the malaise is socially constructed - if we reconstructed non-employment to be a positive default state, we could leave much of that behind.
posted by Miko at 6:38 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Robots are not going to remodel your kitchen. Robots are not going to fix your septic system, or your overflowing toilet.

Of course they will. In fact, they already do; you just don't think of them as "robots." But that's exactly how robots will always appear: as something just on the other side of the horizon, not the things we're familiar with. Those familiar things will just be tools, of varying degrees of complexity.

I can speak to the septic system angle, because I have some firsthand knowledge of that. My family had to get their system fixed, and settled on a contractor. Day 1 of the job, a couple of guys showed up with a truck and a trailer. They backed a little Bobcat skid-steer loader with a backhoe attachment off the trailer. Then they took the truck and trailer away, along with all but one guy. That guy used the little Bobcat -- by himself -- to dig up the septic system. Using the Bobcat, he did what would have taken a crew of (conservatively) a half-dozen guys twice as long, and maybe much more than that.

That's what automation does: even when it can't get rid of human labor completely, it drastically reduces the amount required. The most disruptive forms of automation are sometimes the simplest. The drywall bazooka has probably put more people out of work than Amazon's fancy warehouse robots. (And drywall in general, as an alternative to plaster over lath, destroyed an entire skilled trade, replacing it with far lower-paid and fewer jobs in gypsum factories.)

This has mostly been seen as a positive development (except by the people who actually got rendered obsolete) because in general the economy has expanded at a rate that has made up for the productivity enhancements. In other words, the jobs lost to automation in one sector have generally been made up somewhere else. But there is no reason why that is necessarily always going to be the case; economic growth, which has forever been premised on growth in resource extraction, can't just increase forever. And we've seen in the past few years that a slack labor market has allowed the owners of capital to start keeping the benefits of automation to themselves. That is not a sustainable direction.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:43 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most likely though, in this socialist utopia, the arcology bureaucracy will decide I'm not contributing according to my ability and put me to farming tomatoes on the local low-impact organic community farm. My creativity in hoe wielding will justify my existence.
Yeah, this started out as a thread about how people might be having trouble finding work is because automation is making broad categories of human labor unnecessary. This is... problematic... when the dominant economic and ethical systems demand that most people justify their existence to others through laboring for others under the threat of starvation if they fail to do so.

So, say we manage to actually distribute the products of our machines reasonably, rather than using machines to shower a privileged class with goods while others starve. There's no smooth path between here and there, of course, because getting from the rule of the nasty to the rule of the decent is really hard, despite the fact that decency tends to out-compete nastiness.

But, what the hell, let's say we do it. In this case, you do not need to worry about justifying your existence to others. Your existence to others comes pre-justified, by dint of you being a person. Sort of like how under our current system, the existence-to-others of the Walton kids comes pre-justified by dint of them being heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune.

So, no worries. You can relax. No one else is going to demand you justify yourself. You're safe. What do you do then? Well, you're left with the task of justifying your existence to yourself, or in other words, living a good life. If you find gardening satisfying, part of a good life, then garden. If not, well, maybe something else. MMOs, if they work for you. It sounds like they don't, though, given that you don't seem terribly proud of yourself for playing them.

I've got bad game habits too, but mine are less social than yours. If I let myself, I'll play Civilization type games for hours and hours, then feel shitty about myself after. Lately I've been backing off on that type of game, not because I'm being forced to by economic circumstance, but because I just don't enjoy that feeling. I'm not sure they're part of a good life for me, at least not the way I've been using them.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:50 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


(dammit. the edit window has made me so much more likely to leave editing errors in my mefi posts. I'm less diligent about checking for them before I click "post comment," because I think "hey, I can just fix problems in the edit window."

And then I edit, the edit window closes, and I realize I've actually introduced entirely new editing errors. That I can't go back and fix.)
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:00 AM on January 16, 2013


My creativity in hoe wielding will justify my existence.

Though I completely agree that you wouldn't have to justify your existence under an equitable distribution system, I can't help but note that creativity and hoe weilding are not at odds. Back to that "creativity is the nature of humans" thing I talked about, the very design of the hoe varies culturally, and represents an optimization for local use resulting from countless refinements on the stick or sharp rock - each refinement introduced by some creative human. The planting patterns for food cultivation and the seasonal rituals that accompany that activity are creative expressions. And, given repetitive work to do, a very typical cross-cultural creative response is to devise rhythmic music or chants around the work. So yes, even if some totalitarian regime forced you to hoe, you could hoe creatively. Because people are inherently creative.
posted by Miko at 10:12 AM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


In other news: The Autonomous Drones Are Coming
posted by homunculus at 12:14 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


If only there were some way to democratize ownership of the means of production.

Profit is the motor of capitalism. What would it be under socialism?
Firms' autonomy to choose their products and production methods means they can communicate directly with customers and tailor their output to their needs — and with free entry customers can choose between the output of different producers: no agency needs to spell out what needs to be produced. To illustrate the relative informational efficiency of this kind of system, Stiglitz cited a Defense Department contract for the production of plain white t-shirts: in the tender for bidding, the physical description of the t-shirt desired ran to thirty small-print pages. In other words, a centralized agency could never learn and then specify every desired characteristic of every product.

Meanwhile, East European economists realized that an essential precondition for firms to be truly autonomous was the existence of a capital market – and this helped explain the failure of Hungary's market-oriented reforms. In seeking an explanation for the persistence of shortages under the new market system, the Hungarian economist János Kornai had identified a phenomenon that he called the "soft budget constraint" — a situation where the state continually transfers resources to loss-making firms to prevent them from failing. This phenomenon, he argued, was what lay behind the shortage problem in Hungary: expecting that they would always be prevented from going bankrupt, firms operated in practice without a budget constraint, and thus exerted limitless demand for materials and capital goods, causing chronic production bottlenecks.

But why did the state keep bailing out the troubled firms? It's not as if the Hungarian authorities were opposed to firm failures on principle. In fact, when bankruptcies did happen, the Communist leadership treated them as public relations events, to demonstrate their commitment to a rational economic system.

The ultimate answer was the absence of a capital market. In a market economy, a troubled firm can sell part or all of its operations to another firm. Or it can seek capital from lenders or investors, if it can convince them it has the potential to improve its performance. But in the absence of a capital market, the only practical options are bankruptcy or bailouts. Constant bailouts were the price the Hungarian leadership was forced to pay to avoid extremely high and wasteful rates of firm failures. In other words, capital markets provide a rational way to deal with the turbulence caused by the hard budget constraints of market systems: when a firm needs to spend more than its income, it can turn to lenders and investors. Without a capital market, that option is foreclosed.

As resistance against Communism rose, those in Eastern Europe who wished to avoid a turn to capitalism drew the appropriate lessons. In 1989, the dissident Polish reform economists Włodzimierz Brus and Kazimierz Łaski — both convinced socialists and disciples of the distinguished Marxist-Keynesian Michał Kalecki — published a book examining the prospects for East European reform. Both had been influential proponents of democratic reforms and socialist market mechanisms since the 1950s.

Their conclusion now was that in order to have a rational market socialism, publicly-owned firms would have to be made autonomous — and this would require a socialized capital market. The authors made it clear that this would entail a fundamental reordering of the political economy of East European systems – and indeed of traditional notions of socialism. Writing on the eve of the upheavals that would bring down Communism, they set out their vision: "the role of the owner-state should be separated from the state as an authority in charge of administration... [E]nterprises... have to become separated not only from the state in its wider role but also from each other."

The vision Brus and Łaski sketched was novel: a constellation of autonomous firms, financed by a multiplicity of autonomous banks or investment funds, all competing and interacting in a market — yet all nevertheless socially owned.
viz. When governments become banks (via)
On the one hand, government must produce unlimited amounts of debt to meet the financial system's demand for safe assets, and allow the central bank to exchange this debt freely for new money. But on the other hand, they must maintain strict control of inflation and government spending so that the safe assets they are producing remain safe... In the financial world, the purpose of government debt is not to fund government spending. It is to provide safe assets...

In the BIS model, each currency-issuing nation has a public savings bank - government - and a public fractional reserve lending bank - the central bank. The fractional reserve lending bank acts as lender of last resort for the savings bank - hence debt monetization. And it is itself backed by government, because as a last resort government would use tax income to recapitalise the central bank. There are two massive assumptions underlying this: firstly, that central bank insolvency is never an issue because it can always meet its liabilities by creating money, and secondly, that populations can always be taxed sufficiently to meet all government liabilities including (if necessary) central bank recapitalisation.

Or perhaps, more accurately, welcome to the World Central Government. For if governments are banks, and are backstopped by banks, and exist primarily to serve banks and investors, then who is it who really runs this show?
also btw...
-On the transient necessity of central bank independence
-The liquidity trap heralds fundamental change
-Fed Pushes Into 'Uncharted Territory' With Record Assets
-The Fed's profits: What happens when the Fed starts losing money
-Once you turn base money into short-term debt, can you go back?
-All Your Bases and Dead Presidents Are Belong to the Government?
-The US government is morphing into "the world's largest insurance broker"
-National (insolvent) balance sheets
-Government debt: How much is too much?
-How Can We Know How Much Government Debt Is too Much?
-How to Worry About the Deficit
-Debt in a Time of Zero
-Why We Need More Private Safe Assets
-Resolving the Safe Asset Shortage Problem
-The Supply and Demand for Safe Assets
-How much spare capacity does the world have left?
-Inequality and demand - "Of course, we needn't hold institutional arrangements constant. If we had any sense at all, we'd relieve our harried bankers (the poor dears ;) of contradictory imperatives to both support overall demand and extend credit wisely. We'd regulate aggregate demand by modulating the scale of a outright transfers, and let bankers make their contribution on the supply side, by discriminating between good investment projects and bad when making credit allocation decisions."

Or just maybe George Monbiot has it right.

The Problem With the Left - "I rarely agree with what Mobiot writes, but there's no denying that he's a smart man (e.g., he doesn't fetishize participatory democracy), and he's made a life for himself on the left. Only now it occurs to him to wonder what should replace capitalism, and how, and whether it can be done without leading to totalitarianism? And to say it like this isn't a conversation we've had before! We've had it over and over again, ever since the 1930s; people have dedicated their careers to devising solutions; and it's not like they've come up empty-handed. You might think that something of these seventy years of debate on the problems of command economies, market socialism, mixed economies, the foundations of egalitarianism, and the varieties of possible economic arrangements, might've sunk in, so that idiots advocating 1919-vintage War Communism would not be the only people with a coherent point of view. --- Once again, this is not a personal slam on Monbiot, who after all is now thinking about this, and who shows considerable integrity in admitting 'the words died in my mouth'. I just feel like somebody should've been handing out free copies of The Economics of Feasible Socialism..." [1,2,3]

cf. Redistribution in the age of robots - "First of all, it should be easier for the common people to own their own capital – their own private army of robots. That will mean making 'small business owner' a much more common occupation than it is today (some would argue that with the rise of freelancing, this is already happening). Small businesses should be very easy to start, and regulation should continue to favor them. It’s a bit odd to think of small businesses as a tool of wealth redistribution, but strange times require strange measures."

&c. The Future of the American Public Sector - Chrystia Freeland interviews Larry Summers

I'm disappointed with how little impact artificial intelligence has had on mid-level managerial activities, but maybe that'll start changing bit by bit as well.

Much Hadoop About Nothing - "There's undeniably a shortage of people with the skills to create algorithms and interpret reams of data theoretically available thanks to Big Data technologies such as Hadoop. But companies may soon find those skills will be wrapped in with packaged applications that simplify this relatively new technology. Gartner analyst Bill Gassmann predicts in a report that Big Data will become standard issue in 65% of packaged, advanced analytic applications by 2015. Bundling Hadoop into mainstream analytics apps would boost adoption while reducing the need for engineers with specialized programming skills."
posted by kliuless at 2:34 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


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