A few weeks back I was talking to my dad about jobs and the way the world is changing. The conversation was about what “work” means, but it was as much about politics—how policies might change, and how policies of the past are going to be completely unable to deal with the population as it will be.
I should note that I am a guy in my mid-50s, done with my engineering and business leadership corporate run, and now a full time writer. My dad is a guy in his late 70s who was a working engineer for some years, then moved into academia for 20 or so years. He’s been retired for some time. We are an interesting pair, I suppose, filled with considerably different experiences.
“You have to imagine a world in which there is either very little money,” I said. “Or very little need for money. You have to imagine a world that requires only a very small percentage of its people to actually do the work it takes to sustain itself.”
What will it look like, I asked, when an AI is writing all the news? Or when it writes commercial fiction at a rate no human ever can? When robots actually run the entire manufacturing plant? When a thought cloud is making art, or movies? When algorithms manage all the logistics of something and you just push a button and things appear? When artificial intelligence is better at making snap judgements than a human is? When AI beats us at our most difficult games.
What happens when there are literally no more workers in the economy?
It was clear my dad wasn’t sure such a world was possible, and yet much of this is happening before your eyes. Science Fiction writers have been exploring this idea for some time. Star Trek, infamously, is set in a world with no currency, for example. The replicator is the metaphor for the world I’m talking about. Just say, “Earl Grey, hot,” and you get it. (Yes, I am still a geek at heart).
Seriously, this changes … well … not to be too hyperbolic, but this changes everything.
It takes almost no effort now to see that the pieces needed to make this low-labor world happen are being put in place at an extremely rapid pace. It should be simple for almost any person who steps back and thinks about what they are seeing to project the environment that drives our global economy today is going to change, and that this change will be both dramatic and radical.
At least I believe it’s simple to project these things. But there’s a trick in there. That term “rational people” is a dead give-away, right? People are, by definition, rational when they think like I think, and not rational when they differ. That’s the usual dynamic, right? But no, that’s not really what I mean. When I say rational people, I mean people who set aside ideology to look at a problem from a more base perspective (call it scientific or mathematical position).
Like most things about changing human behavior, the hard part about this discussion is getting a person to step back an put aside their biases, then see what’s happening. The hard part is to get people to drop pre-thought, and then to think rationally about the situation, to face it without fear and without the belief that the right thing to do is to go back to when it felt safe. We are terrible at that.
That said, here is an extremely interesting article that describes what’s been happening. I suggest you read it.
This dismantling of the economy does not have to be a bad thing.
In fact, if it’s done well, I suggest this change is both natural, and is exactly what the world is striving to achieve—creating an environment where everyone can be comfortable, and live life pretty much as they want to without having to deal with the Darwinian nature of capitalistic competition. Life will still be hard, of course, because it is hard to deal with being a human being. But the concepts we use to manage and control people and the economy today will not work anymore in that society because that society will be a society based on surplus rather than one based on scarcity.
This is why the conversation my dad and I had was political. Whenever all these things happen, the party and people in charge are going to be faced with an economic environment that is different from any economic environment any group of leaders have ever found themselves facing. There are things they can do to help ease the transition, and to make the landing softer. But they won’t do them.
That’s my prediction, anyway.
I predict a lot of people will get hosed over by whatever’s coming, because the conversion process (that’s been slowly building during my adult lifetime), is truly hitting a turning point. When AI can do our basic thinking and analysis for us, things change. This is when capitalism eats itself.
Note—I’m not arguing one political system is superior to another. I’m saying that the economy follows a set of “laws” like a ball follows the pull of gravity. If you believe in the basic concept of capitalism, and you fully see what AI and robotics are doing, I think you must be willing to look into a future (this is almost certainly coming in my lifetime, and maybe even in the next 10 years), and try to think through what happens when the world needs some very small number of people to do the work it takes to make all the stuff we want.
* Let’s say 15%, just to make up a number. What happens when the country/world can make all the stuff with only 15% of out population? Or, put it another way, what happens when we have 85% unemployment, and can still make all the stuff we need?
* How are these 15% taxed?
* Where does the money flow?
* Who gets paid when a robot designs the next Dodge Ram?
* The questions are endless…
I have lots of thoughts about that.
But the only thing I have to say about it all today is that I think a part of the divisiveness of our American politics of the day is actually defined by market dynamics described in the article on Deep Learning and being created by our progress as a society. The “Golden Age” of the American economy that my mostly male, mostly white friends talk about getting back to is gone (or never really existed outside that mostly male, mostly white group, of which I am a part of, of course). That economy of the 50s and 60s and 70s was a strange thing—a unique time period. It created a certain set of practices and expectations that can no longer be applied in quite the same way they once worked, and will most likely not apply at all in the near-term future.
The Donald Trump experience is all this. It’s people, mostly white, mostly what might be termed blue-collar, and mostly male who ARE losing their safe perch on life. They are losing the privilege that they don’t feel they have (but that comes out in their quest for isolationism). Whether you think they deserved their privilege or not is not relevant. What’s relevant is that people who grew up with certain expectations of economic comfort and safety are not getting it, and they are therefore not happy. They are lashing out. The less said about the details of the lashing, the better (for this post, anyway).
The Bernie Sanders reaction has a similar root, but is from a different set of people. They know the world is changing. They feel it. They are the younger, generally educated folks who can’t see how the world is going to help them get where they want to go. They are the middle-aged folks who have given their lives to corporations and watched their business leaders getting fat while they get crushed and still can’t get to the next level.
These people are complaining because they are being pinched out of an economy that is not working for them anymore (if it ever really did). They feel the change that is already happening, even if they can’t put their finger on why it’s happening.
So, yeah, the conversation my dad and I had was political merely because any conversation about how the economy is changing is by definition political. But this is a different beast, this thing with jobs breaking down. This alteration of how the world works changes the concept, logistics, human effort, and cost structure of how we supply the demand we put on the system. It changes the fundamental structure that makes raw capitalism work, and it changes the base concept of protecting people from being abused by capital that, in my limited ability to get, drives the ideology of socialism.
The game is changing.
We’re going to need to think about it differently.
We’re going to need different rules.