The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Society ... Technology ...

In my last blog, I pondered the complaint of the Millennial generation, i.e. that they have been given a raw economic deal, especially compared to the opportunities to achieve the “American Dream” that my own Boomer generation was given. Instead of seeking some form of anti-youth conspiracy amidst our aging leaders (arguably in their quest to maintain Social Security and Medicare benefits for their peers, including myself), or suspecting an unhealthy sub-conscious mindset grounded in the jealousy and disappointment of an aging generation that once sang “hope I die before I grow old” and chanted “never trust anyone over 30”, I will next focus on what machines and technology are doing to the modern workplace . . . which is quite a lot. I will note that technology has been changing what workers do for over a century now, with mostly good results (e.g. increasing pay tied to growing worker productivity). But the pace of technology change seems to be accelerating and taking us into new territory, such that humans and their social systems are losing the ability to keep up. Are the Millennials the shock troops facing an ultimately contracting need for human skills and abilities in an increasingly automated production economy guided by artificially intelligent (computerized) managerial systems?

The human race overall is getting smarter and better with regard to finding improved techniques to build or create things from nature. The pace of progress seems to keep on accelerating. Entrepreneurs and politicians soon see the possibilities created by these new techniques, and put them to use for their own fortune and power. The biggest impact on the masses results from better and cheaper ways to do things that once required people to do. So, are we facing the nightmare of a world where machines eventually take over most everything, while most people (other than a handful of rich “masters” and a small contingent of their extremely intelligent lackeys who are able to keep up with accelerating machine intelligence) become un-needed, and are thus cast into desperate poverty with lives that are nasty, brutish and short?

This nightmare is not a new one, as many economists like to point out. Technology and change in the workplace has been going on for at least 300 years now in the west. A look at the economic history of America since the Civil War reveals many innovations that changed the way people worked, and changed what was and wasn’t needed for them to do. The coming of the steam engine, and then the internal combustion of oil along with electricity (just to name a few major technology innovations), converted America from a mostly sleepy agrarian society into an increasingly dynamic industrialized economy as the 20th Century began. The telephone and radio changed communications in the 1920s and 30s. And early forms of computers were being used not long after World War 2. By the 1950’s, when the revered “Old Economy” that today’s Millennials look back on started to emerge, most of the jobs were nothing like those that were generally available to Americans before WW1. Technology had changed things! And mostly for the better. So why does economic technology today seem so much more threatening?

Economists have long sought to reassure the public that technology is not to be feared. For every job lost, a new job will arise. Perhaps that job will require more training and different skills, but in the end it will be better, more humane, more interesting, and on average it will pay better. Machines will take over doing things that humans weren’t so good at and didn’t enjoy doing anyway (I still remember all the griping back in the 1960’s about how de-humanizing production-line work was). We will work together with them, and they will let us concentrate on the things that we are really suited for, things that require some skill and thought and puzzle-solving or emotional finesse. Machines will make the economy more productive overall, and workers will surely get a cut of all the increased wealth being created, as they always did.

And for a long time, i.e. most of the 20th Century, that story seemed more-or-less true. It was technological advancement and better human training (e.g. the implementation of mandatory high school education and expansion of college and trade school opportunities) that led to Steve’s “Old Economy” and all its “American Dream” benefits. It seemed like the pace of change had hit a sweet spot, where employers were reaping greater wealth from technology-driven opportunities in productivity and marketing, and yet they still depended on their employees enough so as to force them to share some of that wealth with them. But as the 80’s became the 90’s and the 21st Century dawned, that pace of change kept on increasing (e.g., cheap jet transport, dirt-cheap ocean shipping, instant satellite communications, the availability of small, cheap computers, the coming of the internet, accelerating bio- and nano- technology, etc.).

As such, the need for higher-level skills in order to be valuable to an employer who might pay a decent salary also accelerated. And more and more people couldn’t keep up. The ones that couldn’t settled (or were left behind) in places like Chicago, a poster-city for an increasingly post-industrial dystopia. The distribution of income continues to worsen in America, while the middle class struggles to hold on. The young people of today (yes, the Millennials) need either a highly technical education or an aggressive entrepreneurial character to stand a chance (and only a chance, no guarantees, as with Steve’s Old Economy) of making it to “American Dream” level.

The discussion as to whether things really have changed with regard to machines and jobs is being actively discussed by economists and policy wonks. Many are saying that the trend from the 20th Century of adaptation and wage growth tied to increasing productivity will hold up; for now, we are just going thru a bad phase following the 2007-8 financial crisis, akin to the hold-up in economic progress during the 1930s. Others wonder whether machines are getting smarter too quickly, such that humans and their social systems and ruling institutions will not be able to keep up. Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, is one of these people; he recently put out a well-titled book called “Race Against the Machine”. Others feel that humans will learn to work together with machines, which will still rely upon our cognitive strengths of flexibility and creativity, given that computers still struggle when it comes to creating anything genuinely new or solving problems that that haven’t been specifically programed for.

That sounds nice. But what percentage of our population is needed to help all those computerized systems define problems and think creatively? Furthermore, computers today can do incredible things that couldn’t be imagined back in the 1950’s and 60’s, when they were not much more than huge tabulating machines. Give them another 40 years of progress, and who knows what they will be capable of, with regard to creativity and problem solving. Already, computers are being programmed using “neural networking” to imitate the analytical abilities of the human brain. At that point, what problems won’t they be able to work on, what creative possibilities won’t they be able to perceive?

This could all be wonderful if humankind would learn to share alike all the benefits that intelligent machine systems could convey; arguably, we would hardly have to work anymore! Life for everyone could then be seven or eight decades of play, travel, art, discovery, and social interaction. But somehow, I don’t see this happening. I see a small group of “the pampered” who argue that “they earned it”, and a vast majority of unnecessary paupers kept under control by the armies of the machine-owners. (Hey Millenials, what happened to your “99 percent / 1 percent” meme and your “Occupy Wall Street” movement — i.e., your protests against the machine-owners that I speak of?) The paupers (aka the “99%”) won’t be allowed much more than daily subsistence, and their slow extinction will be increasingly encouraged (such that world population, which is expected to peak around 10-11 billion around 2200, might ultimately drop below 1 billion, with an increasing robot population in the billions — perhaps including a few billion human-machine ‘hybrids’, ugh). I may be wrong — I hope that I am wrong — but I will predict that in a hundred years (when I won’t be around), our world will either be moving towards a robot-supported heaven for all, or a hellish dystopia for all but a few.

But as to Steve and his Old Economy — sorry, Millennials, but as your fellow Millennial, Megan McCardle recently wrote, get over it! Complain and agitate as you will, the Old Economy isn’t coming back. Things are going too fast and you can’t slow them up. Don’t waste your energy crying about what those like Steve (and myself) once enjoyed; you will need all your attention just to keep up with what technology and society have in store for you as the future unfolds. Don’t think that taking Steve’s Medicare and Social Security away so as to lower your future taxes would put your lives back on track. Your real enemy is runaway techno-capitalism, yes, those 1 percent people that you fussed over back in Zuccotti Park not long ago. They appear to be creating an economic world that eventually will not require human workers (for the most part). It will be up to you to create a new political / social system that will share the bountiful benefits of this brave new world with all of humankind, and not recreate the Middle Ages, with a few rich techno-princes on the hill, and billions of useless paupers in the valley. And its up to fogies like Steve and me to help you get ready for this titanic struggle to come.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:49 pm      

  1. Jim, I think you’ve about summed up the topic – and a good one it is too. Yes, it’s true that the young people of today will not have the one-job per lifetime that those older than they had. It used to be a person got an education in a particular skills or field of expertise and was able to keep a job in that acquired area for life. Then began “early” retirement, which basically meant: “We don’t need you here any more” or “this job will no longer exist and thus you are out of a job so retire since you’ve put in the required amount of time”.

    The question may be what will happen to the young people of today who will either be required to learn several different skills or fields of expertise over their working life; or perhaps some individuals will be lacking in the ability to acquire the necessary skills to actually learn the skills for a job. What will *they* do? These Millennials will have a serious problem on their hands. You pose an excellent question: Will people be eventually replaced by robots and thus basically, since they are not entrepreneurs, be cast into the 99% and forgotten?

    I also find myself wondering what follows the inevitable evolution of technology. And I find myself with what may be an answer: Human beings will have to evolve into, (how to put it?) a human who will find that his/her emphasis will be on developing what Abraham Maslow back in 1971 called “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature”.

    Yes, I can see that some kind of “adjustment” will have to be made for the support of the “lowly” 99% – and rightly so. The 1% will simply have to realize they will be on the planet by themselves if they do nothing to support the 99%. But as to *what* it is the 99% may “do” with their lives, perhaps the answer will be to concentrate on developing the emotional and psychological aspects of being human. Maybe in the end, it will be the entrepreneurs who are the “unevolved” and the 99% who are evolved. Who is to say that could not happen? There seem to be a lot of individuals wondering about humanity and how it will evolve.

    Ilia Delio in her book The Unbearable Wholeness of Being states that “evolution says that the living world is unfolding toward increasing order and complexity”. She quotes Bertalanffy (and even Immanuel Kant who said this in a slightly different way but with the same meaning) who calls living organisms “open systems”. She further elaborates and explains that Bertalanffy “meant [by ‘open systems’] that such systems feed on a continual flux of matter and energy from their environment”, which I add would lead to an emotional and psychological development that has, to this time, be unknown in the human race.

    She explains this concept in some detail, which is a little much for this comment. But the idea involved indicates that humans may have a way to *be* that is beyond the mechanistic, “work for your living” way of life they have had to this point. If technology/machines can/do/will evolve, why not human beings?

    Perhaps the question for the future may be – rather than fearfully wondering what place humans will have in a mechanistic society – what will be the way humans will evolve? How will the humans of 100 years in the future be different from those of us living now? Perhaps in many ways they will be the same; perhaps in many ways they will be very different. After all, 100 years in the past, people worked very physically hard – much harder physically than we do today. Yet, there still has been a place for humans.

    When one consider it, even the thinking of humans has changed/evolved over the millennia. Why would there not be a place in the future for an evolved (different) human from the one we know now? It seems to me that some kind of evolution of human beings is inevitable. MCS

    Comment by Mary — September 26, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

  2. Jim, On another, different approach to this whole topic, I find myself wondering about what might be called the “return to earth” movement where individuals try to live the *really* “old” ways, e.g., the Amish, various non-religious groups that form and live on farms, and in a sense use nature as their “energy” for living a human life. Even ordinary people are often looking back to nature in small ways to “feed” something vital within them.

    Are these groups and individuals simply making an attempt to return to the “old days”? *Or* are they the vanguard of what the future will be: Humans using the earth to energize their own being?

    I find myself hopeful for what the future human will be. MCS

    Comment by Mary — September 26, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

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