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June 25, 2006 9:08 PM   Subscribe

Never wanna work/Always wanna play/Pleasure, pleasure every day. What happens when the jobs go away and don't return? Should we take the surpluses generated and pay people not to work? What happens to the assumption of scarcity when nanotechology allows us to generate potentially anything we want from grass clippings? Maybe Marx had it wrong all along. Maybe, instead of fetishizing work and the authoritarian mindset that it generates, we should have been reading Paul Lafargue instead. Just as a thought experiment, what would you do if your job category disappeared? How would you spend your time? Would you invest more time and energy in friendships and other relationships? Hobbies? If you were your employer, what technologies would you use to get rid of your position and save money?
posted by jason's_planet (43 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm not sure we should be so optimistic about this just yet. They may say that nanotech assemblers are only "a few decades away," but how many times have we heard that about the cure for cancer?

As for the thought experiment: I see hobbies as what people love to do, but are unable to do for a living for whatever reason (time, skill, no way to turn a viable profit). That's where I'd head.
posted by danb at 9:14 PM on June 25, 2006



I'll start this item by saying that I am a secretary. If I were trying to eliminate my job, I would use voice recognition technology to allow me to recognize the voice of the caller and screen appropriately. Once that's in place, you don't need somebody to answer the phone anymore.

That's one way to do it. Once brain-computer linkups become common, why would you need to pay somebody to type? If thinking text can produce that text on the screen, there's no need for a second person to process those words.

That's what I would do, if I were a typical capitalist trying to eliminate my job category.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:16 PM on June 25, 2006


If a robot that could do anything a human can do could be mass-produced right now, what would happen to the economy? What would happen to your job?

Marshall Brain (of HowStuffWorks fame) has spent some time thinking and writing about exactly that.
posted by spazzm at 9:24 PM on June 25, 2006


Oh, I'm sure they'll create a war to send us off to.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:27 PM on June 25, 2006


Molecular assemblers are - given our current understanding - simply not going to work that way. Smalley tore Drexler a new one over this a while back.
posted by Ryvar at 9:28 PM on June 25, 2006


I'd never read "The Right to be Lazy", but man, is it genius.
posted by borkingchikapa at 9:33 PM on June 25, 2006


Oh, I'm sure they'll create a war to send us off to.

Why? Sufficiently advanced robots have the capacity to be far superior at war than any human could ever hope to be. We'd only get in the way.

Let me add the disclaimer that I think most futurism is bullshit because prediction of disruptive technologies is by definition impossible. That said, the simple fact is that the future is unlikely to need non-programmers - you can automate simple maintenance and just recycle any difficult repairs. If true artificial consciousness were to develop we wouldn't even need programmers. The elite are well aware of this and that fact should frighten you a bit, unless you're one of them.

Another consideration: the barrier to wiping out the human race is only going to get lower as technology improves and average wealth increases. Humans cannot be allowed to have continued access to the physical world over the coming centuries because we will completely eliminate ourselves. We're simply too psychologically unstable both as individuals and as a race. I think that mandatory uploading of consciousness for all humans, by law, into digital playgrounds of the mind will occur for this reason. Whether or not it should be is an ethical debate that rests on this string of far-out assumptions, and is thus too unlikely to be worth serious expenditure of energy.

Honestly, the laughable predictions of the 1950s expose our futurist notions for the nonsense they are, so I don't think any of this is worth taking seriously right now.
posted by Ryvar at 9:45 PM on June 25, 2006


That C&E News article is a great link, Ryvar, thanks. I don't know enough about nanotechnology to say for sure that Smalley is right, but I do know enough about polemics to see that Drexler was dodging the issue. (Still, that's a lot of vitriol, isn't it? "You and people around you have scared our children." Gimme a break.) I do think there's probably a way to get around the problem of needing something enyzme-ish, even if we don't know it yet. But, as I said in the first comment, this stuff is probably a lot farther off than people seem to think it is.
posted by danb at 9:47 PM on June 25, 2006


I don't have the time just now to follow these links, but people interested in the question could do worse than read Andre Gorz's "Farewell to the Working Class" , particularly the appendix including the author's (optimistic) speculation on the topic. Gorz envisages reduced working hours for all, and an expansion of productivity outside the sphere of paid work, as people use their spare time for a bazillion hobby and DIY projects (ie situtations where workers are not alienated from the product of their labour).

Personally, I think that gains in productivity will continue to be mopped up by the top .1%, just as the gains from the greater participation of women have been.
posted by pompomtom at 10:00 PM on June 25, 2006


I do think there's probably a way to get around the problem of needing something enyzme-ish, even if we don't know it yet.

Possibly something with magnetic bottling, but that method would likely be agonizingly slow for anything but special-purpose applications.
posted by Ryvar at 10:01 PM on June 25, 2006


Well danb, from Smalley's point of view... what's the first thing 90% of people think of when you say "nanotechnology"? Probably "grey goo"-type scenarios where nanomachines take over. I can see where he's coming from, if research in the field he's dedicated his life to has been held up by misperceptions like Drexler's.
posted by Spacelegoman at 10:08 PM on June 25, 2006


Why? Sufficiently advanced robots have the capacity to be far superior at war than any human could ever hope to be.

To make us scared and easy to manipulate. We'll always have an enemy. We'll always be at war with Oceania.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:28 PM on June 25, 2006


Just as a thought experiment, what would you do if your job category disappeared? How would you spend your time?

Dude. "Gainfully unemployed" is my dream job. People ask me what I'd like to do, I tell them I'd like to get a grant. And another. In perpetuity.

I would do more of all of the things I don't find the time to do now because I'm spending my time paying the bills.
posted by cortex at 10:29 PM on June 25, 2006


I do think there's probably a way to get around the problem of needing something enyzme-ish, even if we don't know it yet.

Investigators are building maquettes from amphiphilic (hydrophilic and hydrophobic) components of various proteins.

These maquettes or de novo peptides have brought about unique and unforseen advances in chemistry, some which may one day address the issues raised by Drexler.

In any case, when I hear scientists say it can't be done, I remember Clarke's maxim.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:37 PM on June 25, 2006


I heard somewhere that we could get by if we worked just 4 hours a day. But it would be to much work to look it up.

Also of interest is the British Columbian Work Less Party
posted by afu at 10:42 PM on June 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Uncanny X-men were right when they said
"Everybody wants to work, oh no, not me"
Maybe we should look more often to Ausrock,
In the search for great Australian poetry....

posted by pompomtom at 10:44 PM on June 25, 2006


This is the third or fourth time I've linked this somewhere on mefi, but it's a fun way to fall into the nanotech issues - from this 1999 conference on future technology. Ralph Merkle charts a course in avoiding the dangers of nanotech, Bill Joy isn't so sure and argues humanity has a 30% chance of extinction, followed by interesting panel discussion. (links to transcript & realmedia video).

spazzm: I read manna the other day, [spoiler alert] it was fun, kinda Asimov style but without the darkness and editing. But I was waiting for the twist - they all live happily ever after? or perhaps the dangers of having your neural system remote-controllable are just implied.
posted by MetaMonkey at 10:48 PM on June 25, 2006


A while ago, let's say 400 years, some enormous percentage of the world's population, let's say 90%, needed to spend all their time working the fields so that enough surplus food could be grown to feed the remaining 10%.

Today in most developed economies what percentage of the population is tied to the land? 5%?

If you had asked people then what would they do in a society where 5% of the population grows all the food they would freak.

Let's say 100 years ago what percentage of the population worked in factories or building stuff? 80%? 60%? Who knows, but today it would be more like 20-40%. 100 years most women spent far more 'working time' in the house washing, cleaning, bringing up children and cooking. Today with modern appliances and lower infant mortality rates that time would also have plumetted.

We invent work. We're good at it. Perhaps some of it is merely to keep everyone on a treadmill but nonetheless it seems to happen.

It's a remarkable thing that through all these transitions most, say 80-90% of the available work possible is used one way or another.

Chances are we'll keep being good at it.
posted by sien at 10:49 PM on June 25, 2006


What happens to the assumption of scarcity when nanotechology allows us to generate potentially anything we want from grass clippings?

Call me a pessimist, but human nature being what it is, someone would own those assemblers and would charge for their use.
posted by Mutant at 11:01 PM on June 25, 2006


someone would own those assemblers and would charge for their use.

Charge what, exactly?
posted by Ryvar at 11:04 PM on June 25, 2006


Grass clippings?
posted by spazzm at 11:14 PM on June 25, 2006


Apparently you make more money if you just laze around and don't work.
posted by missbossy at 1:14 AM on June 26, 2006


95% of the "jobs" that we are all surrounded by are completlely automatable with technology that was available in the 1950's.

its not technology that is going to create the influx.

in any case, fearing technology is so 1997..
posted by dminor at 1:25 AM on June 26, 2006


If job category disappeared? Do I get paid anyway? I'd get more education and breed like a mo-fo. Babies are fun.
posted by dabitch at 1:32 AM on June 26, 2006


We invent work. We're good at it. So true. For everyone around me, whatever our 'job description', we actually spend the whole day pushing buttons on a machine that wasn't even invented 30 years ago - pushing electrons around. If we all stopped I'm not sure anyone would notice, we certainly wouldn't starve.

What an outstanding first post, in so many ways. Thanks.
posted by grahamwell at 2:16 AM on June 26, 2006


If I had no need to work, but at the same time my physical needs such as shelter and food were met, I'd like to think that I'd spend my time doing volunteer work in charity shops and soup kitchens. Or befriending lonely housebound people. But that's a rosy-tinted view of things. I'd probably sit around all day messing about on the interwebs.
posted by talitha_kumi at 2:19 AM on June 26, 2006


jason's_planet, I didn't realize this was your first post. Sterling effort.

grahamwell:we actually spend the whole day [...] - pushing electrons around. If we all stopped I'm not sure anyone would notice, we certainly wouldn't starve.

I don't think so. All the mammalian brain does is push electrons around, but I think most people would notice if theirs stopped.

No, wait...
posted by spazzm at 2:41 AM on June 26, 2006


Dude. My electrons stopped moving a long time ago.

This question was asked when I was about 14 by my teenage hero James Burke on "The Burke Special". I've wondered about it ever since. In the intervening thirty years I've seen a huge increase in national wealth, in technological skill and a transformation in the workplace, yet the panicky sense of scarcity - that we have to work ever harder or everything will fall apart - seems worse than ever. We're no happier it seems, deeper in debt, and need two incomes (and a slug of inherited wealth) to afford even a modest house.

I wonder if we are slipping into slavery so gradually that we don't notice.
posted by grahamwell at 3:04 AM on June 26, 2006


That would be the Star Trek future, right? With replicators and thus no need for money. But in the series it's not really clear what all the people are doing apart from boldly going where no man has gone before, which seems to involve a lot of science and the occasional war.
posted by cerbous at 5:09 AM on June 26, 2006


Just as engines supplanted physical labor, bringing about unprecedented wealth creation, true MNT will complete the transformation of manufacturing into a purely intellectual process. So, just as the former laborers shifted into more genteel service-oriented jobs, we can expect that trend to continue in an MNT world. This is merely an extension of trends that began in the age of steam. Even after all manufactured goods become essentially software, there will still be a need for people to create, market and support it.

I think the next great "phase transition" we need to focus on is the one in store as intellectual jobs are increasingly automated. As machine intelligence increases exponentially (roughly doubling every 18 months), the range of human activities that can be automated continues to grow. There are already many activities that are impossible without the contribution of macine intelligence, (large integrated circuit design, for example). As this trend continues, the contribution of human intelligence to most tasks will dwindle, until we either choose to be assimilated into the greater machine intelligence, or elect to become their treasured bonsai.

But what would I do as a treasured bonsai? Probably amuse myself in much the same way as I do now - learning new stuff and playing with the coolest toys (which I expect will get much cooler). At some point they may decide they need all the atoms I'm hoarding, and it'll probably be better for everyone for me to be emulated in software. This would provide true immortality (backups!) as well as apparent godlike powers. It's all good.
posted by gregor-e at 5:43 AM on June 26, 2006


> Just as a thought experiment, what would you do if your job category disappeared? How would you spend your time?

Not one person in ten thousand would find anything significant to do with himself if he didn't have to work. The 9999++ will spend their time watching TV in a dope/beer stupor.

And whining, of course. Because all the people who aren't needed because of what they can do will get no respect, and it will drive them crazy.
posted by jfuller at 7:07 AM on June 26, 2006


In his book "Abandon Affluence", Ted Trainer makes the point that the free market is a very efficient mechanism for allocating scarce resources to the wealthy.

In my view, this is an example of positive feedback - the more wealth an entity has, the more control it can exert over the rest of the marketplace, and the more wealth it can in turn direct toward itself. It's also the fundamental reason why businesses, if unconstrained by regulation, tend toward monopoly.

Like any positive feedback mechanism, this one causes instability - reflected in the market's boom and bust cycle. In a serious bust - like the Great Depression - the wealth hasn't actually disappeared; it's just concentrated in so few places that most people don't have access to it, so it can't perform its normal function of lubricating economic interaction.

This is bad for the community at large, because people starve and freeze - but it's also bad for business, because custom dries up.

It seems to me that a countervailing negative feedback mechanism - where any substantial concentration of wealth is automatically tapped, and a portion spread back out across the marketplace - would go a long way toward damping down the market's boom/bust behavior, and it seems to me that some form of guaranteed minimum income scheme would be exactly that.

I don't see the so-called Malibu Surfer Problem as much a of a problem at all. The guaranteed minimum income would presumably be set at a level that allowed people to live on it, if they were frugal - much the same was as old age pensions are set now. People who are happy to live on that for their whole lives will presumably (a) be fairly rare (b) be making some non-economic form of contribution to the life of their communities (c) not be taking jobs away from those more motivated.

On preview: jfuller, I'd be surprised if your point about the majority dope/beer/TV stupor is right. There would certainly be some of that, but I think we'd see quite substantial numbers of people who figure out fairly quickly that making themselves useful to others is actually more fun than watching TV. I think the Ask Metafilter community is a nice example.
posted by flabdablet at 7:50 AM on June 26, 2006


To answer the question - if my job category disappeared I'd probably panic and make myself miserable trying seek out another. If I had no prospect of ever being employed again though, I'd have fun doing a Wainwright of some of the countryside around me, taking and teaching courses and puzzling more over what's around me.

If I were my employer - that's an interesting one because my job is rather a product of automation, I'm the human interface to several rather large computer systems. I spend a lot of time taking data out of one system and putting it into another or formatting it so that it can be understood. I suspect there's a lot of people like me - automation sounds like a great idea but inevitably the results aren't quite as good as you'd think and you need people to polish up the resulting mess. I think you'd find your voice and brainwave recognition would be 98% accurate, but that 2% would take *ages* to sort out.
posted by grahamwell at 9:08 AM on June 26, 2006


What jfuller is saying is that nothing would change.
posted by Ptrin at 9:42 AM on June 26, 2006


grahamwell, spazzm: Thank you very much! I'm glad you like the item!

pompomtom: Thank you for the reference. You have a good point about how the super-rich would mop up most of the gains; I think an optimistic scenario would envision the super-rich and their politicians implementing a guaranteed minimum income in order to preserve social stability.

sien:We invent work. We're good at it. Perhaps some of it is merely to keep everyone on a treadmill but nonetheless it seems to happen.

It's a remarkable thing that through all these transitions most, say 80-90% of the available work possible is used one way or another.

Chances are we'll keep being good at it.


Maybe. What job categories do you see arising to fill the gap?

grahamwell: I suspect there's a lot of people like me - automation sounds like a great idea but inevitably the results aren't quite as good as you'd think and you need people to polish up the resulting mess. I think you'd find your voice and brainwave recognition would be 98% accurate, but that 2% would take *ages* to sort out

Very good point. I worked in a heavily automated hot dog factory in the nineties. About a hundred and seventy factory workers produced 200,000-300,000 pounds of meat a day. But we needed a small army of mechanics to keep the machines running.


jfuller: . . . all the people who aren't needed because of what they can do will get no respect, and it will drive them crazy.

There are many ways to gain respect. Going to a thankless drudge job 50 weeks a year for forty years of your life is one of them.

Artistic skill is another. Sport is another. Travel to exotic countries is another. Educating yourself about every damn thing under the sun is another. Cultivating warm relationships with friends and neighbors is another.

Taking the time to raise healthy, wonderful children is yet another.

I don't think we have enough of these things in American life; maybe that's what's driving people to live in a beer/dope/TV stupor.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:01 AM on June 26, 2006


For some speculations about how a society might function that had made appropriate use of technological potentials and abolished wage labor, see the final chapter of The Joy of Revolution, particularly the sections "Absurdity of Most Present-Day Labor," "Transforming Work into Play," and "Technophobic Objections".
posted by Bureau of Public Secrets at 10:20 AM on June 26, 2006


the best exploration of your question IMHO is this one.
the entire premise of the book is "what are people going to do when technology takes over" and who can do it better than kurt?
posted by dminor at 10:58 AM on June 26, 2006


There is a great SF novel where earth manages to achieve the tech to send eggs and sperm to Alpha Centari where the kids are raised and cared for by machines. Within months of launch the three super powers at the time bomb themselves back to the 1800s and it takes them 30 years to send another ship to AC (actually three ships in competition, one from each superpower). When the first ship arrives they find that the Alphas don't want for anything because of a combination of fusion and assembler tech. People do whatever they want without the constraints of a resource based economic system.

I'll have to comb my library for the title, I can see the spaceship on the cover but not the title.
posted by Mitheral at 2:44 PM on June 26, 2006


Mitheral writes "I'll have to comb my library for the title"

I remembered the author: James P. Hogan's Voyage from Yesteryear
posted by Mitheral at 2:48 PM on June 26, 2006


it has been a long time since i've heard someone drag up the legend of Lafargue, and yet no one has mentioned Bob Black (previous thread). Black called Lafargue, "Karl Marx's wayward son-in-law."

beware of any anti-work manifesto which hinges on the (crypto-fascist/futurist) indefinite continuaiton of a post-industrial condition.
posted by 3.2.3 at 6:10 PM on June 26, 2006


beware of any anti-work manifesto which hinges on the (crypto-fascist/futurist) indefinite continuaiton of a post-industrial condition.

Not sure what you're getting at here. Do you mean that eventually we'll return to a industrial state?
posted by jason's_planet at 6:22 PM on June 26, 2006


Seriously, this is the episode of Star Trek that made me hate the series, and made me realize that the whole future perfect milieu was so much bullshit.
Picard: "A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We've eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We've grown out of our infancy."
He goes on to tell the people from the past that there's no more scarcity so people are free to persue their goals for the betterment of themselves and the common good.

I can talk about what great things I'd do, but most likely I'd just raid a lot more with my guild, and basically vegetate. But I'm not particularly worried that the situationist utopia is just around the corner.
posted by illovich at 10:41 AM on June 27, 2006


illovitch: I think you might be the first one to use the terms "perfect" and "utopia" here. I know it wasn't me.

I also wasn't suggesting that anything might be around the corner. It was purely speculative, imaginative. We might live to see changes of this nature. We might not.

Just kicking the idea around. That's all.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:09 AM on June 27, 2006


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