The End of Human LaborPosted: June 8, 2011 | Author: Greg Linster | Filed under: Techno-Philosophy | 8 Comments »
Strangely, I’ve often wondered if it would ever be possible to domesticate monkeys. Recently, there was an interesting article in National Geographic titled “Animal Domestication” that has me thinking about monkey labor again. Imagine if monkeys replaced humans in factories or if a chimpanzee showed up to clean your house. I could spell out countless humorous examples of monkey labor, but I don’t want to digress from a key point. Why does the thought of monkey labor make us feel uncomfortable? I think there is one fundamental reason and it’s the same reason we feel uncomfortable about technology becoming really good. Both threaten to make human labor obsolete.
The End of Work
Back in the 1930’s, in his piece, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“, John Maynard Keynes described “technological unemployment” as follows.
For the moment, the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labor outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.
But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run is that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is today. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge. It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of far greater progress still.
Was Professor Keynes right? Imagine a world in which technology becomes so sophisticated that robots can do virtually any task. If this sounds a bit far fetched consider the Roomba, which has already intruded into the world of domestic chores like vacuuming. When robot labor becomes cheaper and more efficient than human labor, what, then, will be left for humans to do? One possibility for a society that didn’t require human labor would be the one in which communists envisioned. Consider Leon Trotsky’s idealist vision for communism.
All the arts – literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.
One need only to read a bit of history to learn about the disasters of communism. This Utopia painted by the mind of Trotsky didn’t come to fruition. The realities of communism were much different and deplorable. Trotsky wanted people to believe that humans would be left to explore their creativity and ingenuity with abundant free time and that they’d spread the wealth evenly. There is, however, one distinct difference in the future I’m describing from communism, i.e., human labor isn’t needed to survive in the new technology dominated world.
What, then, exactly happens when humans no longer need human labor to survive? I think this idea is incredibly difficult for most people to fathom, but it ought to be one of the premier issues for political theorists. For those who don’t own any of the means of production, no matter how cheap goods became, they would have no way to sell their labor to buy them. It would become near impossible to acquire anything if you don’t already own some means of production. The robots (or even the domesticated monkeys) would essentially create a new source of slave labor that would starve out the middle class. Some individual or company would likely own them. This, of course, brings up a few interesting ethical questions. Do we have an ethical obligation to robots? Will they ever deserve to be treated like humans? We, as a society, rarely talk about these questions in public discourse, but perhaps we ought to.
You might be skeptical of the claim that any of this could ever happen, but it might just be more probable than you think. In fact, driverless cars already exist. I have yet to hear, however, anyone ask: What happens to all the cab drivers now? A hypothetical filmmaking cab driver must now go out into the market where it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a job that pays. He will struggle to get paid creatively, and thanks to robots, he will struggle to get paid for physical labor. Paradoxically, as technology is getting better, our society has (mostly unknowingly) gravitated towards a communist-like world in which people work for free for the collective. This has been a disaster in the past and it’s going to be a disaster in the future.
The End of the Middle-Class
A healthy middle-class is the key to a thriving democracy, but we have set ourselves up for a plutocratic rule. The economic architecture of the Internet has created a “culture of free”. The basic idea is that human created content is free and companies with search engines profit from this by selling advertising. Jaron Lanier calls this digital Maoism or “cybernetic totalitarianism” and I agree with him that it’s very dangerous.
The problem is that most of the things that are uniquely human creations are free on the Internet today. When you think about it, this is strange. At no time in the past did we expect all books, magazines, newspapers, magazines, photographs, movies, and music to be free, but for some reason we expect them to be online. This speaks to a very important point: nothing a search engine does is valuable unless there is human created content for it to query. Humans make search engines valuable, but search engines don’t make humans any more valuable. To believe otherwise is to destroy the concept of personhood. As machines (or monkey labor) are able to potentially replace the need for physical human labor there will likely be no way left for humans to make a living. Unless you already have money, there will be no way to make any more of it.
One way this could change would be through paying to access each others creative content online. Many people are opposed to this, but I don’t really see how else there could be a middle-class. How are the musicians, artists, writers, journalists, and filmmakers supposed to make a living from their craft? In the present, they can still sell their labor on the market as a restaurant server or cab driver, but as I’ve discussed, those types of jobs may soon be obsolete for humans. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current digital economic structure is that as the physical jobs are disappearing, thanks to the “culture of free”, no one is willing to pay for content online. We are, with open arms, welcoming back a part plutocratic and part communist-like society.
Without a doubt, the machines are getting really good and the “culture of free” is destroying the possibility to earn a living in ways that are generically human. Is it possible that our own human intelligence will eventually make human labor obsolete? Are humans capable of surviving in a world like this? More importantly, just because we can create a world like this someday, does that mean we should? Glorious civilizations in the past have been destroyed before from unintended consequences. And technology will not necessarily save us from a similar fate. Whatever our answer to the questions I’ve posed in this essay are, I think we need to spend more time thinking seriously about the potential ramifications of our digital economy.