Will the machines take over the jobs?
In a recent TED talk, scholar, economist, author, and general wunderkind Daniel Susskindl says the question is distracting us from a much bigger and more important issue: how will we feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves if we no longer work for a living?:
“If we think of the economy as a pie, technological progress makes the pie bigger. Technological unemployment, if it does happen, in a strange way will be a symptom of that success — we will have solved one problem — how to make the pie bigger — but replaced it with another — how to make sure that everyone gets a slice. As other economists have noted, solving this problem won’t be easy.
“Today, for most people, their job is their seat at the economic dinner table, and in a world with less work or even without work, it won’t be clear how they get their slice. This is the collective challenge that’s right in front of us — to figure out how this material prosperity generated by our economic system can be enjoyed by everyone in a world in which our traditional mechanism for slicing up the pie, the work that people do, withers away and perhaps disappears.
Guy Standing, another British economist, agrees with Susskind about this larger issue. The following excerpts are from his book The Corruption of Capitalism. He begins by quoting Nobel prizewinning economist Herbert Simon’s 1960 prediction:
“Within the very near future – much less than twenty-five years – we shall have the technical capacity of substituting machines for any and all human functions in organisations.”
And then he makes these comments:
“You do not receive a Nobel Prize for Economics for being right all the time! Simon received his in 1978, when the number of people in jobs was at record levels. It is higher still today. Yet the internet-based technological revolution has reopened age-old visions of machine domination. Some are utopian, such as the post-capitalism of Paul Mason, imagining an era of free information and information sharing. Some are decidedly dystopian, where the robots — or rather their owners — are in control and mass joblessness is coupled with a ‘panopticon’ state subjecting the proles to intrusive surveillance, medicalized therapy and brain control. The pessimists paint a ‘world without work.’ With every technological revolution there is a scare that machines will cause ‘technological unemployment’. This time the Jeremiahs seem a majority.
“Whether or not they will do so in the future, the technologies have not yet produced mass unemployment… [but they] are contributing to inequality.
“While technology is not necessarily destroyed jobs, it is helping to destroy the old income distribution system.
“The threat is technology-induced inequality, not technological unemployment.”
Economic inequality and income distribution (sharing national wealth on a basis other than individual earned income) are two sides of the issue of economic fairness — always an inflammatory topic.
When I began my study of economics 15 months ago, I had never heard of economic inequality, and income distribution was something socialist countries did. Now I find both topics all over worldwide economic news and commentary and still mostly absent in U.S. public discourse (such as it is) outside of academic circles. On the whole, most policy-makers on both the left and right maintain their allegiance to the post-WWII Mont Pelerin neoliberal economic model, supported by a cultural and moral bias in favor of working for a living, and if the plutocrats take a bigger slice of pie while the welfare rug gets pulled on the working poor, well then so be it. If the new robotic and super-intelligent digital workers do in fact cause massive technological unemployment among the humans, we’ll all be reexamining these beliefs, big time.
I started this series months ago by asking whether money can buy happiness, citing the U.N.’s World Happiness Report. The 2018 Report was issued this week, and who should be on top but… Finland! And guess what — among other things, factors cited include low economic inequality and strong social support systems (i.e., a cultural value for non-job-based income distribution). National wealth was also a key factor, but it alone didn’t buy happiness: the USA, with far and away the strongest per capita GDP, had an overall ranking of 18th. For more, see this World Economic Forum article or this one from the South China Morning Post.
We’ll be looking further into all of this (and much more) in the weeks to come.
 If you’ve been following this blog for awhile and the name “Susskind” sounds familiar, a couple years ago, I blogged about the future and culture of the law, often citing the work of Richard Susskind, whose opus is pretty much the mother lode of crisp thinking about the law and technology. His equally brilliant son Daniel joined him in a book that also addressed other professions, which that series also considered. (Those blogs were collected in my book Cyborg Lawyers.) Daniel received a doctorate in economics from Oxford University, was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, and is now a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford. Previously, he worked as a policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and as a senior policy adviser in the Cabinet Office.
 The panopticon architectural structure was the brainchild of legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham. For an introduction to the origins of his idea and its application to the digital age, see this article in The Guardian.