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The Post-Work Economy

Date/Time Permalink: 08/09/12 06:18:32 pm
Category: General

Hey, there's this news about America that seems to be on the tip of everyone's tongue: the economy. It's sucking mud, right? And the younger generation, they're pretty depressed about the lack of jobs, right? And everyone's asking each other "Where did all the jobs go?"

And what's the first thing you hear out of every candidate's mouth, on either side of the aisle, from mayor to president? "We need to create jobs." "We need to bring jobs back." "Ladies and gentlemen, I will now pull ten million jobs out of this hat!" You'd think job were like rabbits, and it was all just a question of making them boink fast enough.

I think this is the point where I can drop the bad news about what happened to the jobs: You know all those stories we used to have about how technology will replace humans doing the same job? Well, it's starting to happen. It is happening. It's been happening for years.

You know that utopian Jetsons future where you just sit on your throne and push buttons and magic robots do all the drudge labor? Well, don't look now, but we're getting damned close to it. Technological unemployment is a thing, and it's not going away. And we're sure not going to let the Luddites have their way, so we better get used to a society with an ever-smaller number of available jobs.

  • Remember bank tellers? ATMs do most of the work they used to do.
  • Remember paper maps? GPSs fill that gap now.
  • Newspapers? Magazines? Paper books? Electronic media is eating them all.
  • Records and CDs? I don't have to tell you what happened to those, do I?
  • Media production in general? Technology does 90% of that now.
  • When's the last time you dropped off a roll of film to be developed?
  • Office jobs? Sure, they're still there in a FIRE economy. But each office gets more done with fewer heads.
  • Phone operators? Radio station DJs? Most of that's automated now.
  • Fewer cops on the streets? Well, good thing we have those red-light automatic-ticket machines at every intersection, isn't it?

Heck, I can relate a personal experience: Back when I worked for $GIANT_BANK, our mission in life was to process incoming payments from all the customers in North America, which arrived in the mail in the form of paper checks - run them through machines to transform them into electronic money. When I started prior to the turn of the century, we're talking some four truckloads of carts of trays of checks per shift and it was all credit cards. Almost a decade later, when I quit, maybe five carts, and that's credit cards, student loans, insurance, and mortgage. The center I worked at has since shut down.

And before that, the machines that I used replaced even more jobs before me. The computers did all the math, but that math was once done by banks of manual adding machines. Accounting was done by MICR and OCR technology, but it used to be done by writing transactions down in a ledger. Data entry was also outsourced; electronic images of the checks (when AI, OCR, and MICR were all defeated by people with sloppy handwriting) were processed by some nameless clutch of coolies in some south-Asian sweatshop. Even the machines that opened the mail and extracted the checks and paystubs replaced the people who used to do it with letter openers. Now, even what I did is gone - when is the last time you wrote a check?

Remember, we wanted this. We have all wanted our shining society of crystal spires and togas, our utopian paradise of leisure. We have only now begun to ask ourselves, "Hey, when robots/computers do all the work and there's no more immediate problems to solve, what the hell are we going to do for a job?"


Not the mean, dingy socialism of China, Cuba, and former Soviet Union that everybody's scared of. The hip, swinging, democratic socialism of Scandinavia.

Let's face it: We get more done now with fewer human resources. That's a good thing! But without adjusting a society to keep pace with technology progress, you end up with 95% of the people competing with machines for jobs, and masses of wealth becoming concentrated into the hands of 5% or fewer, who own the machines, the patents on the machines, the copyrights to the manuals about the machines, the universities that teach you how to run the machines...

There is a socialism answer.

You hate the idea? So do I. It's our second-worst option, but everything else is tied for first. But what's going to happen when we have no choice? Our population isn't shrinking. We aren't going to bust up all the gadgets and go back to doing everything by hand. What else can we do? You tell me.

I've been sniffing around on this idea, and so far I see an Alternet columnist suggesting an economy without jobs. And of course there's the classic scarcity question in economics. Another recent Alternet post points out lies perpetuated from our outdated Capitalist Republic structure, and #1 is the myth of the relation between the prosperity of the rich and the number of jobs. Because what happens when having more wealth merely allows the rich to buy more robots??? Or, indirectly, better technology to make outsourcing more efficient?

And there's those jobs again. "Give tax breaks to the rich, because they make jobs!" Yes, look at all these invisible jobs the Job Fairy brought us. They are raining from the sky.

It's a waste of time to fight progress. We're right here, on the Internet, trying to think bigger and pushing more progress forward. You can argue that you can move your career forward with progress. Take advantage of the new technology and the new jobs it creates - if you're replaced by a robot, become the guy who builds the robots. If science takes your job, become the new scientist. If the global market outsources your job away, become an outsourcer on the global market yourself. Yes, we can do that, but over time, that path shrinks. When one robot replaces thirty laborers, we only need a couple of maintenance persons for the robot.

We have to transition from a labor economy to a knowledge economy. We have to transition from a scarcity economy to a plentiful economy. Inevitably, we have to allow some of the scraps from our table to support a few freeloaders, who, let's face it, do nothing to earn their keep. Or they do intangible things to benefit society (helloooo, parents, grandparents, housekeepers, mentors, and volunteers of all kinds) which are not recognized as "jobs".

We already do this - we just force them to dodge and flinch through the system under a subterfuge to get the same public pension they'd get in a Socialist country.

And for the Raymondites (as in Eric S.) out there in Linux-land: What is Free and Open Source Software, after all, but Socialism in action?

Granted, Socialism works in software because you can freely copy and transmit software anywhere in the world, without making anyone poorer. That's harder to do with a truckload of turnips. The farmers' jobs are safe for now. But - I live in Iowa, an agricultural powerhouse, and more and more every year I see that there's better computer programs developing more advanced genetic strains of turnips with a higher yield per acre and better machines that harvest the turnips faster and when Google's self-driving cars become an established reality, even the truck driver that drives the turnips from the farm to the store will be out of work.

Did you see what I just did there? I linked to Wikipedia, a Socialist website that's put a huge encyclopedia industry out of work. Yes, they take donations, but that money goes mostly to servers, bandwidth, offices to keep them in - they spend it on bots. The content itself is, as this clever user puts it, "the aum of the Internet". Stick that in your John Galt, Jimbo! What's that about never asking another man to live their lives for the sake of yours, again?

The goal of technology, even of science, is to improve society to the point where we don't need a Capitalist system any more.

There are countries in the world that realize this now, and there are countries in the world who do not.

Update, same day By complete coincidence, I ran across this imaged quote making the social media rounds. Take it away, Buckminster Fuller!

Buckminster Fuller quote

Sourced from here, which I tracked down by the grace of Wikiquote.

Update 9/9/12 Hey, here's a philosophy professor also criticizing the role of work in capitalism. hm.

Update 11/25/12 Another look at this problem, "skills don't pay the bills". "Transitioning to a knowledge economy", did I say?

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