The End of Human Labor

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.

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8 Comments on “The End of Human Labor”

  1. Eric Bacus says:

    How dystopian. Nobody can argue that the robotic revolution isn’t upon us, but what about the other revolutions knocking at our door?  With the dramatic price drops in genome sequencing, who’s to say we won’t be able to soon offer some form of gene-therapy that will remove our strong dependence on food at regular intervals? Maybe starving artists would literally be starving, but their bodies could now adapt and evolve to their meager supplements of our super-stratified class system . Or perhaps laboratory meat will find its flavor, and a new agricultural revolution will peek through. And what of ubiquitous off-grid solar energy? Could it provide a reasonable entryway into a moderately comfortable agorist existence? In your vision of the future, where does the potentially displaced middle class live?  I don’t think Apple and netflix are banking on a future business plan that caters to only the wealthiest 1%.  When does modern serfdom make sense in regard to the pursuit of happiness? When I can plant my electricity crops and paint until I sell some art so I can afford some vegetables?  Who knows? I certainly don’t.   I do believe, however, that our conceptions of class systems themselves are about to undergo an intense age of redefinition.  It won’t be pretty, but as long as luck, optimism and fertility can meet and shake hands inside a warm body, the rewards of our human pursuits may not be lost. 

    With every seemingly insurmountable power shift that occurs, I believe an equilibrium must and will emerge I think we’re only beginning to fathom how our world is about to change over the next century.  When gazing into our approaching horizon, we see immense rumblings that are building to tsunamical heights. As the waves break on our shores, some are bound to be swept away, but the convergence of such disparate impacts as the revolutions of AI, Robotics, and Genomics will surely create new dunes and pockets which allow for entirely new paradigms, cultures and ideologies to ferment and blossom.

    If nothing else, it should be very, very interesting.

    • Greg Linster says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment Eric.  I concur, it’s an incredibly interesting time to be alive.

      Here’s my brief reply to your questions: I’m not necessarily a technophobe, but technology bites back with unimagined and unintended consequences all the time.  Neither you or I (or anyone for that matter) can say what will happen with certainty regarding any technology.  I find your technological optimism to be quite idealistic, while I think my essay explores the realities of the digital world mixed in with some accurate historical anecdotes.  For better or worse, it’s very difficult to undo the effects of existing technologies on the human world.  The world (heck, even the global economy) is far, far too complex for humans to understand or model.  Yet, many technophiles think humans can and should play the role of God (or whatever term we want to use for Mother Nature).

      I find your laboratory meat comment to be particularly interesting.  Technology (particularly, the agricultural revolution) has allowed us to create enough calories to feed the world over, but not enough nutrition for the world over.  America is a nation that is overfed and undernourished as the result of well meaning technological developments.  Again, very few people create new technologies with an evil intent in mind.  The ills of our technologically created health woes are, however, ubiquitous and our happiness seems to be suffering from it too.  We don’t understand this world and our existence at all.  To think we can outdo Mother Nature or play the role of God is the highest form of hubris.  Mother Nature is still the boss. 

      • Eric Bacus says:

        When do we actually begin playing god though? I’ll cite an article on Physorg posted just yesterday. http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-06-genetic-rice-years.html  In that article, Researchers concluded that intentional genetic modification of rice through breeding must have occurred over 10,000 years ago.  This move to create more viable agricultural model could be identified as one of the fundamental reasons why our population has flourished so.  When does modest manipulation of the building blocks of life swing from live-sustaining brilliance to maniacal hubris?  I believe the answer lies in “efficiency”

        I agree the state of agriculture in our world is an unsustainably inefficient one that is producing many social ills. For men with bank accounts that ripple with prices of corn seed and crude oil, they might see their patchworked landscapes as models of modern efficiency, but as you stated, the surplus created from this efficiency is not one of global sustenance. It’s been twisted into an economy of exploitation, power and corruption.  As you suggested, this was a byproduct of the necessity to meet the demands of explosion of hungry mouths. If we simply look at the numbers, modern agriculture has been a colossal success.  We both know this is not a proper method of evaluation.  As we struggle with the lack of true efficiency in our current human-nature model, will it not be inevitable for humans to, once again reach to innovation to protect us from this new environment we’ve created for ourselves?  Our overwhelming desire to survive and flourish will usurp any materials we can get our hands on, and it will be accelerated by events which prompt their necessity. For instance, I believe a relatively comfortable agorist existence is within our reach at the moment, but is not proliferating simply because we’ve not lost our safe haven in our well-worn civilization, now pounded raw by computer-aided capitalism.  

        When we hit a breaking point, when the average family can no longer provide even the most modest sustenance, we will turn to the efforts of the innovators, and slowly but surely, we must find a new sustainable agriculture…Rioting in the streets is hardly marketable for those who rely on the preservation of the status quo.  Suddenly, in the grip of tumult and unrest, who’s to say we won’t unveil efforts to learn to produce a tomato we can grow in an hour with a few drops of water? When the lights begin to flicker, won’t we be well into our race to power our devices with only a handful of photons?  Even if these technologies are used to further ensnare us and embed us into our place in the social strata at the outset, the sheer development and proliferation of these technologies could sustain our children, and our childrens’ children just as rice did the ancient inhabitants of Asia who birthed the billions now flitting across foreign city streets.  

        There will always be poverty, and there will always be injustice, but if it becomes marketable to produce technologies that affect our ability to cope with these hardships, I foresee a reality where a modest lifestyle can once again return to a relatively happy existence.  Forget the fact that they’re forged upon bloody, totalitarian regimes.  Regimes change with the winds of time, but technology has plowed ahead with only moderate losses (take the library of alexandria) to the ravages of angry hordes.  Knowledge, once known, can be sustained.

        I too agree that mother nature is the boss, but if the definition of Nature is expanded to include that of economy and cultural-evolutionary rules, I think you’ll find that her reign extends further than we could ever possibly imagine, and to believe we stand a chance at ever accidentally prying the baton from her hand is the true hubris.

  2. Andrew Russell says:

     There is something in what you say, Greg. The problems associated with the internet are the same as all issues of mechanization that lead to increased output, but decrease the need for labor. Here, in the same way Marx saw surplus value from unpaid labor being appropriated by capitalists, technology adds value to processes and increases profits that have been increasingly less taxed, both at the corporate level and the personal income tax level for owners and shareholders.The internet suffers from this problem in that the costs associated with selling an e-book are obviously far less than traditional publishing, but the prices of many e-books do not reflect this. The internet’s digital black market speaks to this. One thing I think will become increasingly important is a serious look at wealth redistribution through far more aggressive taxation and regulation focused on making the masters of the technocratic abstract economy liable to support the workers made redundant through social programs. This would be the next step towards a scientific utopia, when everything can be created for no cost, who should have the right to charge?

    • Greg Linster says:

      I’m not saying that anything be created with no costs. There are costs to everything. Many people sink vast amounts of time into creative pursuits on the Web and see no financial benefit. There are, however, very real costs for these people.Rather than wealth redistribution, why not have a structural modification of the current digital economics? It doesn’t have to be this way. Google could pay people if it queries their content and people in turn could pay to use Google. Actually paying people for their work–what a fair and novel idea!I think this is the direction we need to head if we want to avoid a plutocracy. Right now, we’re all accustomed to everything being free online and we think we have some inalienable right to use things like search engines. When we don’t value human creations and time by thinking we have right to them being free we are devaluing real humans.

  3. […] guess this is what Greg was writing about. Further reading: 25 Million Americans Unemployed with Record Length of […]

  4. Quora says:

    What is the plan when computers/robots working cause catastrophic unemployment?…

    I think that we will start having to pay for each others creative content in order for anyone to make a living in this future world. Right now, however, we live in a “culture of free”. Most people aren’t willing to pay for content online yet. I wrot…


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