(Nick’s Notes: Unfortunately this will be the last post we see by Mr. Wilson but we hope he comes back again and contributes more to the site when he can! He has expressed interest in doing so so we can hope!)
“Ideally, we’d like to help people find ways to earn money with less work, but of course that’s always a challenge. Fifty years ago, everyone thought that robots would be doing all the work for us and people would be living lives of leisure. That this has not come to pass is surely mankind’s biggest tragedy.”
-Oliver Benjamin, Dudely Lama of The Church of the Latter-Day Dude
Over the last few years, many of us have become used to living in an America in which there are roughly 4 job seekers for each available job. Furthermore, I was recently told that a drop in the unemployment rate these days is just as likely to be caused by people giving up on finding a job as it is by people actually becoming employed. I’m sure that we will eventually get past our current sluggish economy and we will see a new wave of job creation possibly contributed to by the emergence of some exciting new technology. Then perhaps at some-point the economy will fall into another slump only to boom again in the future.
Despite these relatively short term ups and downs, is the possibility of a fully employed work force a realistic prospect for the long term future? There was once a time when the United States was a country of self employed farmers and artisans. Due to technological advances, significantly more agricultural output and consumer products could be produced by fewer people. As of 2008, only 2-3 percent of the population were directly employed in agriculture. That is 2% to 3% of the population now grows the food that feeds the other 97-98%. At the same time the manufacturing sector has seen similar increases in the ability of less people with less specialized skills to produce more products at a cheaper cost.
Obviously, this has been great for the consumer though it is probably less so for the parts of the workforce who have seen their crafts dumbed down and brought to obsolescence.The children grandchildren and great grandchildren of yesterday’s farmers and manufacturers have largely become employed in the service sector economy. More intelligent and more educated ones have been able to become engineers, doctors, and lawyers but for many of us, we have become a generation of telemarketers, advertisers, middle managers, salespeople, bank tellers, and private and public sector bureaucrats.
These are the nuts and bolts jobs of an economy where food production is taken care of and where there is little manufacturing of anything of actual value. It is amazing how many people make their money doing nothing more than moving about paper and signatures. Much of this work is tedious, hyper-conformist and mind-numbing but it is still more comfortable than the lives our great grandparents had on their farms.
These service economy jobs are now in the process of becoming obsolete. Interactions with corporate bureaucracy can now be taken care of by purely automated means. Insurance, electric, Internet, and phone bills are paid online or over the phone using purely automated systems. Cashiers at the grocery store are being replaced by purely automated systems. Furthermore, tasks like buying insurance, taking money in and out of the bank account, and making travel arrangements are now becoming more automated. There are definitely times when I want to talk with an actual human about my phone or Internet plans but these times are becoming rare and the need for another human to be involved in most transactions is decreasing. Bookstores, record stores, and video stores are now becoming obsolete too and I will miss many of them (though I still enjoy meeting all my media needs from the comfort of my home). The advent of computers and the Internet has made all this possible. Upcoming advances in robotics and biological engineering will eventually eliminate the need for actual human workers in manufacturing as well as agriculture and medicine too.
The way technology is used largely depends on the context it is introduced in. In our current system it has largely been used to make labor more expendable and enrich ownership and management in the process. What I advocate is using the our exponentially growing technical capacity to free from dependence on wage labor. Simply put, if we can meet all or nearly all our needs without working next to no hours, why shouldn’t we? I don’t know what is required to do this. Perhaps alternative currencies, 3d printers and duplicable information will allow more of us to work, and support ourselves outside of conventional employment.
This could be a step in the right direction. I personally like the idea that an economy freed from the high overhead burdens and capital concentration, caused by excessive regulation, zoning, licensing, corporate subsidies would allow greater numbers of to self employed people or work at employee owned and controlled enterprises. In such instances one would be much more likely to keep the rewards and the free time of automating or simplifying one’s daily tasks. But, perhaps more is needed though, maybe some sort of minimum income, or changes in land tenure or some sort of radical restructuring of the economy. Other options include financial rewards for making one’s job obsolete or allowing people to keep the earnings and the free time if they automate their position. All these ideas have their shortcomings, but it seems to me we are a creative enough society to find ways to use the technological capacity we have to free ourselves from mindless drudgery.
The economy of the future has yet to be determined. Are we moving in a direction where access to resources is further removed from having to work for them? Will machines and computers do all the work allowing humans to focus on their pastimes of choice? Have the conflicting interests of the laborers and corporate owners affected the progress to this possible future?
Technology has the ability to eliminate the need for most of us to spend most of our time encumbered by repetitive and unsatisfying drudgery. We could live in a world where all our concerns are taken care of and we are free to pursue the things that truly interest us. Let’s prepare for the inevitable time in which jobs become obsolete.