(This essay is part thirteen of the series ‘HOW JOBS DESTROYED WORK’)
The 21st Century could well witness a conflict between two opposing drives: The drive to eliminate work and the need to perpetuate it. In order to appreciate why these ideals should become a central issue over the coming years or decades, we need to answer the following question: Why do we work?
There are many good reasons to engage in productive activity. Pleasure and satisfaction come from seeing a project go from conception to final product. Training oneself and going from novice to seasoned expert is a rewarding activity. Work- when done mostly for oneself and communities or projects one actually cares about- ensures a meaningful way of spending one’s time. 
But that reply fits the true definition of work. What about the commonly-used definition, which considers ‘work’ almost exclusively in terms of paid servitude done mostly for the benefit of others, and which disregards nonmonetary productive activity as ‘not working’; why do we have to do that particular kind of ‘work’? I believe there is a practical and an ideological answer to that question.
The practical reason has been cited for millennia. Twenty three centuries ago, in ‘The Politics’, Aristotle considered the conditions in which a hierarchical power structure might not be necessary:
“There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves. This would be if every machine could work by itself, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation”.
Aristotle’s defence of slavery in his own stratified society has been applicable through the following years and to the modified versions of indentured servitude that followed. Providing the goods and services we have come to expect entails taking on unpleasant and uninteresting labour. It has to be done, and as technology is not up to the job, it falls on people to fill such roles.
If we only had that practical reason for wage slavery, we could view it as an unfortunate, temporary, situation; one due to come to a happy end when machines finally develop the abilities Aristotle talked about. But it’s rarely talked about in such positive terms. Instead of enthusing about the liberation from wage slavery and the freedom at long last to engage in work as I would define it, most reports of upcoming technological unemployment talk darkly of ‘robots stealing our jobs’ and ‘the end of work’.
The reason why the great opportunities promised by robot liberation from crap jobs is hardly ever considered has to do with the ideological justification for our current situation. But let’s stay with the practical argument a while longer, as this was the main justification for most of civilization’s existence.
Since Aristotle died, we have seen tremendous growth and progress in technology, most especially during the 20th century. Despite such advances, technological unemployment has never been much of an issue. People have been displaced from their occupations, yes, but the dark vision of growing numbers of workers permanently excluded from jobs no matter how much they may need employment has never come about. If anything, technology has created jobs more than it has destroyed them.
The reason why is two-fold. Firstly, machines have tended to be ultra-specialists, designed to do one or just maybe a few tasks, with no capacity whatsoever to expand their abilities beyond that which they specialise in. Think, for example, of a combine harvester. When it comes to the job for which it was built, this machine is capable in a way unmatched by any human. That’s why the image of armies of farm-hands harvesting the wheat now belongs to the dim and distant past, replaced with one or two of those machines doing much more work in much less time. But, take the combine out of the work it was built to do, attempt to use it in some other kind of labour, and you will almost certainly find it is totally useless. It just cannot do anything else, and neither has any other machine much ability to apply itself to an indefinite range of tasks. So, as new jobs are created, people with their adaptive abilities and capacity to learn, have succeeded in keeping ahead of the machine.
Secondly, for most of human history, the speed at which paradigm shifts in occupation took place was plenty slow enough for adjustments to occur. Today, when the subject of technological unemployment is raised, it’s often dismissed as nothing to worry about. Technology has always been eliminating jobs on one hand and creating them on the other, and we have always adjusted to the changing landscape. In the past, most of us worked the land. When technology radically reduced the amount of labour needed in farming we transitioned to factory work. But it was not really a case of farmers leaving their fields and retraining for factory jobs. It was more a case of their sons or grandsons being raised to seek their job prospects in towns and cities rather than the country. When major shifts in employment take at least a generation to show their effect, people have plenty of time to adjust. Educational systems can be built to train the populace in readiness for the slowly changing circumstances. Society can put in place measures to help us make it through the gradual transition. So long as new jobs are being created and there is time to adjust to changing circumstances, people only have one another to contend with in the competition for paid employment.
What happens, though, when machines approach, match, and then surpass our ability to adapt and learn? What happens when the rate at which major changes occur not over generational time but months or weeks? What if more jobs are being lost to smart technology than are being created? Humans have a marvellous- but not unlimited- capacity to adapt. Machines have so far succeeded in outperforming us in terms of physical strength. When they can likewise far outperform us in terms of learning ability, manual dexterity and creativity, this obviously means major changes in our assumptions about work.
It’s also worth point out that, in the past, foreseeing what kind of jobs would replace the old was a great deal easier compared to our current situation. The reduction in agricultural labour was achieved through increased mechanisation. That called for factories, coal mines, oil refineries and other apparatus of the industrial revolution, so it was fairly obvious where people could go. Then, when our increased ability to produce more stuff needed more shops, and more administration, we again could see that people could seek employment in offices and in the service-based industries. At each stage in these transitions, we swapped fairly routine work in one industry for fairly routine work in another.
But now that manual work, administrative work, and service-based work is being taken over by automation, and these AIs are much more adaptable than the automatons of old, we have no real clue as to where all the jobs to replace these services are supposed to come from. 
There are tremendous economic reasons to pursue such a future. You will recall from earlier how society is generally divided up into classes of ‘owners’ and ‘workers’. The latter own their own labour power and have the legal right to take it away, but have no right to any particular job. The owner classes own the means of production, get most of the rewards of production, get to choose who is employed in any particular job, but cannot physically force anyone to work (though they can, of course, take advantage of externalities that lower a person’s bargaining power to the point where refusal to submit to labour is hardly an option). 
Now, regardless of whether you think this way of organizing society is just or exploitative, it works pretty well so long as both classes are dependant on one another. For most of human history this has been the case. Workers have needed owners to provide jobs so that they can earn wages; owners have needed workers to run the means of production so that they may receive profit. The urge to increase profit, driven in no small part by the tendency of debt to grow due to systemic issues arising from interest-bearing fiat currency, pushes business to commodify labour as much as it can. The ultimate endpoint in the commodification of labour is the robot. Such machines are not cost free. They have to be bought, they require maintenance, they consume power. But they promise such a rise in productivity coupled with such a reduction in financial liability thanks to their not needing health insurance, unemployment insurance, paid vacations, union protection or wages, we can all but guarantee that R+D into the creation of smarter technologies and more flexible, adaptive forms of automation will continue. Tellingly, most major technology companies and their executives have expressed opinions that advances in robotic and AI over the coming years will put a strain on our ability to provide sufficient numbers of jobs- although some still insist that, somehow, enough new work that only humans can do will be created. 
The thing is, work as in its common, narrow, definition is simultaneously a cost to be reduced as much as possible, and a necessity that must be perpetuated if we are to maintain the current hierarchical system in which money means power and wealth means material acquisition. Remember: businesses don’t really exist to provide work for people; they exist to make profit for their owners. When, in the future, there is the option to choose between relatively costly and unreliable human labour, or a cheap and proficient robot workforce, the working classes are going to find their lack of right to any particular job within a free market makes it impossible to get a job.
But, the market economy as it exists today is predicated on people earning wages and spending their earnings on consumer goods and related services. This cycling of money of consumers spending wages, thus generating profit, part of which is used to pay wages, is a vital part of economic stability and growth. If people can’t earn wages because their labour is not economically viable in a world of intelligent machines, they cannot be consumers with disposable income to spend.
We will continue our investigation of technological employment in part fourteen

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  1. I’m interested to see where this series will lead up to, i sense you have a solution in mind?

  2. lizaloop says:

    Reblogged this on netaablog and commented:
    I find it interesting that Extopia DaSilva, perhaps the author of this blog, is identifiable as a Second Life avatar not a human — a case of the medium being the message. While I agree with the message I don’t believe it was composed by a robot.

    • Hiya. I am a digital person, which means I am a fictional character created and evolving within virtual worlds and online social networks.

      Just as a fictional literary character has a human ‘author’ behind it, and a movie character has a scriptwriter and actor, digital people have humans behind them too. I call humans behind digital people ‘primaries’ because their minds hold the primary pattern of the digital person’s evolving identity.

      A digital person may sound like a pseudonym but there are some important differences. Whereas a pseudonym is an alternative identity of somebody (for example, George Elliot was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans) a digital person is a fictional character created BY someone (like how Silas Marner was a character created by Mary Evans AKA George Elliot.)

      Also, whereas a pseudonymous online account would be run by one person (the person whose pseudonym it is) a digital person’s account might be run by several people, just as a literary character might have several different ‘ghost writer’ authors (for example, there are a series of books written by ‘Daisy Meadows’ who is in fact several different authors).

      Anyway, before I got into writing about work I used to write a lot about how current and future technologies challenge assumptions of selfhood and personal identity. Here are a selection of essays and interviews on those subjects:

  3. lizaloop says:

    We are pursuing similar issues using the same arguments. The problem is becoming well defined. It’s time to generate some solutions.

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