The Invention of the Stick
Technological unemployment. The result of machines and other types of technology replacing humans in the workplace. This has been happening since our ancestors invented the stick a couple of hundred thousand years ago. Probably. And this process will continue until machines are better than us at everything, which is an inevitability unless we get hit by a monster asteroid or Donald Trump presses the red button on his desk, thinking it to be linked to the Bat-Signal , unknowingly unleashing a couple thousand or so Nukes on random (read as predetermined) sites worldwide as the fake news media close in on his safe space.
Although history tells us that humans have been displaced because of the invention of technology in and for the workplace it has also created more jobs for humans to do too so no one was has been particularly bothered by the disruption – because it was more or less insignificant. For example a few hundred thousand years or so ago it may have taken three humans to get to some fruit at the top of a tree but when we invented the stick we found that the same task now only required one human to get to the fruit, the stick wafter (that was probably his official job title). The other two guys could get their own stick and work at their own tree if they wanted to or they could go and do something else such as testing mushrooms, or become a customer service rep’ in a call center somewhere in northern England, where the friendly, but equally as terrifying, people live. In more recent times though this could have been the stagecoach driver who, after the invention of the steam-powered locomotive/train, became a train driver – or simply the guy who puts the passenger luggage onto the train.
The Invention of the Techno-Stick
Some people today argue that going forward it will be different. They argue that technology will take more jobs away from humans than it would create or do so at a rate in which new jobs can not be created to compensate. Take jobs that involve driving, think taxi’s, buses, etc… This is a very good example as autonomous vehicles really are coming, in fact they are here today albeit in a limited capacity. What will happen to the millions of people worldwide who drive for a living when autonomous vehicles are ready to go mainstream?
Well, they could get jobs building these new self driving modes of transport, right? Some could, there is absolutely no doubt about that. The problem is that facilities that can build them already exist or do not require a lot in the way of work to convert them, and even still they are already staffed by humans and machines and the trend is that manufacturing facilities are increasingly automating production. What is there to celebrate when Business X announces plans to hire, say, 2000 people to build a new automated plant, or a couple hundred, to refit an existing “dumb” plant, when those jobs will disappear once construction is completed, and when they announce plans to get rid of 10, 20, or 30% of its existing staff because they are no longer needed – thanks to their newly installed autonomous machines and software? Even if the percentage is not as high as that a loss is still a loss and over the entire industry – the numbers could add up catastrophically.
According to a study by researchers at Oxford University and Deloitte, roughly 35% of jobs in the UK could be lost to automation in the next 20 years. See if your job is susceptible to automation HERE!
Some might argue that the humans displaced by machines here, be that drivers or production operatives, or anyone else displaced by tech, can do something else such as learn how to code. They should be up-skilled or re-skilled for the new world of work! They could build the software that is necessary for these automated systems to become a reality. This argument, I think, does not stand up to scrutiny. We are talking about millions of displaced workers here! Does the economy really need millions of new programmers? It could probably do with some more, and they are already on their way, but millions more of them? No! I’ll put it another way. Do we need millions of new farmers? Or how’s about 3 million more insurance salesmen? These days if you want a quote on car insurance you’d usually go online to get one or a bunch of them through some sort of price comparison website which does the job of a shitload of insurance salespeople.
If, and by if I mean when, this mass layoff of people happens no politician in their right mind would suggest that these people should be taught how to grow potatoes. Because it would be a stupid thing to say. But yet saying that masses of people displaced by tech should learn how to code (somehow!) seems to be, for them at least, an acceptable solution. This I think is most likely because they have no idea of A) what programming actually is, and B) they generally have little or no understanding of the current state, and possible future, of technology. And generally speaking this is true of the everyday average citizen. Politicians, believe it or not, tend to listen to the electorate. Are they just saying stuff the general population wants to hear?
Regardless, we live in a world where in 2012 Facebook acquired Instagram, which at the time had a staff list numbering, give or take a person or two, 13 people, for $1bn. And, with no disrespect to drivers or anyone else intended here, learning to code from scratch is frickin’ hard. It really is so much more than learning a “language”. Do a quick search on a job board of your choice for a programming type vacancy and you will see that these jobs require applicants to have degrees in all sorts. Computer Science, qualifications in Maths, and so on. And to top it all off even if you had the required qualifications they would not even consider your application seriously if you did not have at least two years, usually four years, worth of experience working on or with the platforms or the programming languages (there are more than one) they use. I mean, that’s at least five years of education and probably unpaid work experience before you can even apply for an actual job. How and where do these people get these skills? How do they survive in the meantime? I live in England by the way and our current government’s slogan appears to be “Austerity, everywhere!”. [Insert Buzz Lightyear meme here.] One also needs to consider that these newly trained displaced workers are going to be competing for these new jobs with experienced people who are already in the industry as well as new generations of people who are leaving the education system with the necessary skill set and knowledge.
What I was trying to get at with the above paragraphs was that a long time ago it was pretty easy to figure out what someone could do as a job if a machine or new tech took their job. This was because the rate of technological change or advancement was slow. Technology was primitive so it didn’t take a lot of effort to train someone to use it so you could move a worker from Job A to B relatively easily. Today technology is advancing at an exponential rate. Not that humans posses the power of clairvoyance but it is difficult for us to envisage what the world would look 200 years from now, but trends do show increasing automation with no signs at all to suggest this is going to stop.
Saying “No need to worry! The stagecoach driver from the year 1817 done OK when he lost his job to a machine so you will be OK too” to the taxi driver offers no practical solution to his problem. The problem being: obsolescence.
The Invention of the Intelligent Techno-Stick
Some futurists envisage a future where Artificial Intelligence works with us, not instead of us like what happens in some kind of buddy cop movie. It would take care of individual repetitive tasks in the workplace freeing us fleshy types to do the more “meaningful” work that apparently needs to be done. Murtaugh is the AI doing all the methodical and boring police procedural detective paperwork and Riggs, I suppose, is the human in this relationship getting the real shit done, speeding down highways on the roof of a muscle car taking shots at the bad guy, weaving in and out of traffic while explosions and stuff happen in the background. I don’t know. It is an analogy.
When they use this argument the example used is often in office related environments (probably because they know that those employed in the manufacturing sector are screwed or because they don’t live in that world and it therefore does not matter to them). The types of jobs they are talking of are in the realms of management, research, analytics, and jobs of this nature. They do not go on to explain what meaningful work us human types would be freed up to do in this office environment, or in a manufacturing facility, and furthermore they never seem to acknowledge that this AI doing individual tasks so we don’t have to is going to lay off a shit load of people. IT’S HAPPENING NOW WITH MACHINES… IN MANUFACTURING FACILITIES and to some extent in the office too. Why would it be any different in an office of the near and far future?
In all seriousness an employer would not employ more than one person if he did not have to. Despite what you may have been lead to believe businesses do not hire people because they are bastions of social and economic justice. If a company employed, for example, three people to work in Human Resources BEFORE the implementation of AI , because there was three or four persons worth of work to be done – why would they employ three humans AND three AI systems AFTER if an AI can do at the least half of the work a human can do? Surely the company would get rid of one or perhaps two of the humans here, let the AI do its thing, and give the remaining work to the remaining human employee? If so the question then becomes; how much work would there be left to do?
Does this remaining employee get a pay rise due to the savings made by employing AI? Or does the employer cut his hours and therefore his wages as a result of there being less work to do?
But of course this is talk of narrow Artificial Intelligence, that is AI designed for a particular purpose or task. For example: self driving cars are narrow AI’s. They are designed to drive, not to make cheeseburgers. An AI designed to make cheeseburger couldn’t drive a car. Soon, techno-utopianists argue, strong AI (also known as Artificial General Intelligence) will arrive and this will change everything. This type of AI will be able to perform any intellectual task that a human can do. (Don’t worry – this wont mean people loose jobs… apparently) More specifically they talk of an AI with human level intelligence. They are not exactly sure how this AI would behave but they insist it would result in the creation of many new jobs in industries that do not even exist yet. It would invest in the stock market in ways that do not make sense to us but these actions would create lots of wealth and lots of jobs. It’ll probably could invent stuff too. So more jobs. Yay!
The problem is that if this does indeed happen these jobs are going to be for machines to do and arguably a very small number of people who do have the necessary skills and competencies.
If the jobs are in manufacturing, machines are going to make the product. If these jobs are in software then AI’s are going to be making the software. Why would you hire an army of computer scientists/coders to write the next “Facebook” style platform when you could get an AI to do it. It’ll cost you £0, more or less, and it would be better at doing the job in comparison. Granted, you would likely want a human to oversee the project but he’s already one of the few people on your payroll so….
Despite the rise of consumerism and the population explosion over the last 40 or 50 years jobs in manufacturing haven’t necessarily increased significantly, even if taking into consideration developing nations – similarly you could probably count the number of new types of jobs created in the last 50 years on one hand. We are producing more stuff for more people using fewer and fewer people.
A Recent History Of Jobs
By Me, Aged 31.
“Once upon a time human workers were displaced due to the off shoring of jobs. Jobs were lost in Country A but then the same number of jobs, perhaps a few more due to relaxed or lacking employment and environmental law/policy, were created in Country B. Some people won, some people lost. But then a new wave of automation came along, both in Country A and Country B, and all of the other countries, and then people were made redundant worldwide. Everyone lost. Riots ensued.
The Return of The Stick
The newly elected President of the USA, Donald Trump, campaigned on a platform that promised to bring manufacturing jobs back from Country B, X, and J, but it simply is not going to happen. He probably will put in place policies that will bring manufacturers back to the country – but jobs… for flesh and blood people? No! Or at least not enough to have any significant impact or meaning.
Given the two articles, linked above, if Trump does bring manufacturing jobs back to the USA – they are going to be poorly paid, and probably unnecessary. Again, would a politician today seriously promise to bring farming jobs back just for the sake of “jobs”. I mean, where do you draw the line. Would such a politician lobby for emails to be outlawed in an effort to create more jobs in the physical postal industry? Pretty stupid right, but why not? What is the point in creating labor-saving technologies if we aren’t going to use them? Would you seriously consider voting for such an idiot?
Back to the subject of AI. Why would we even ask an AI to create more jobs for humans anyway? Surely we should be asking it for help with ways in which to automate away any and all jobs that humans are still doing? But of course we can not predict the actions of an AI such as this.
What if after going over the data it had gathered on our history, planet, and our way of life, it suggested that we abolish money completely? It provided sufficient and coherent reasoning and provided a realistic roadmap that, if followed, would allow us to provide a quality of life for all humans on earth comparable to that of the multi-millionaires of today? Would the bankers quit? Would we “switch off” the stock markets? Or would those who would lose everything they have (bankers, stockbrokers, business owners, landowners etc) do everything that they can to oppose the AI, the very thing they made investments into in the hope that it would one day make them even more wealthier?
Perhaps the human elite would, in an effort to preserve their own power, tell the masses that this AI wanted to enslave man? Who knows. We have wealthy people and politicians today blaming the perceived poor state of their country on immigrants, the poor, unemployed people, as well as disabled people – and this kind of rhetoric has been repeated so often that people actually believe it. While in reality they have been the victims of poor economic and social policy for decades. The politicians who do go out of their way to refute this nonsense are branded “out of touch” with “normal people”. One such politician in the UK was recently branded as such because he failed to identify two apparently beloved TV personalities, as if this was something that really mattered.
“You can not trust this man to offer you a better future. He does not watch prime–time TV for Christ’s sake!”
Technological unemployment has been a thing since the invention of invention regardless of political systems and economic policy, and it seems to me to be remarkably naive to suggest that one day it will stop because “the technology we create to do jobs for us will eventually create all the jobs we will ever need!”. Say that out-loud and realise the absurdity of it.
Great. Now What?
“Experts” are undecided as to when strong AI will be created or if at all. Some say it’ll happen sometime around 2040 – a prediction based on the current exponential growth of technology.
But before this AI arrives, or not at all, it is probable that technology is going to cause massive disruption socially. Some of that positive. Quite a lot negative. Really negative. Pitchforks and angry mob kind of negative. And this is because no one is taking the threat seriously. The people we elect to represent us, with all due respect, were born before the internet and mobile phones existed with some even before colour TV. They were born in an age in which the technology that exists today was the stuff of science fiction – Star Trek and in Jules Verne books. They grew up with technology slowly emerging around them and although they recognise new technology they think that today the change is occurring at the same pace as it was in their youth. They’re the types of people who type “Google” into a web browser address bar and then “Facebook.com” into the resulting Google search bar. They just don’t get it. Donald Trump platformed on a promise, implied or otherwise, of bringing manufacturing jobs back to the USA. Either he knows that he can’t possibly deliver and said it anyway to gain the support of a massive sections of the electorate, or he really is oblivious and he genuinely believes that he can. Both scenarios are worrying.
We are seeing a rise in the number of people employed in part-time, zero-hours type jobs – and the Gig economy (whatever the fuck that is) – and we are constantly being told that this isn’t a bad thing. It is what people want, apparently. Flexible working! Of course people would prefer not to work for longer than they have to, and this is one of the reasons for the invention of automation technologies, but the problem here is that these jobs often do not pay enough to live on. Zero hours contracts in the UK are usually minimum wage paying jobs and you are not always guaranteed work and sometimes one under contract is prohibited from engaging in other employment. Part time jobs are usually minimum waged but the hours are fixed. Jobs in the Gig economy, well, you get paid for whatever work you can find and you had better be grateful for the opportunity! These jobs are kind of like dutch auctions where you bid to do the job at a cheaper price than anyone else. If you offer to do the job for £800 but someone else offers to do the job for £600 then you lose. It is a race to the bottom And it gets worse. A study found that those working in these sorts of economies find themselves in ever-increasing debt. And rather than blaming the system that actually encourages this, proponents say that it is the fault of the worker for not budgeting properly. Fancy that! You are being paid poverty wages and it is your fault for not putting aside some of your meager “earnings”. How can you possibly budget effectively if you do not know what, or even if, you are going to be paid next month?
So we have this weird paradox where we value work greatly but keep inventing technology to do that work. Then the amount of available work for humans shrinks – and is to be shared out among growing numbers of people, then we only employ people to do that work after some Hunger Games type of elimination process. The lucky winner gets the job and the poverty wages to go with it. And a lifetime of debt too.
The narrative appears as thus;
FIGHT AMONG YOURSELVES FOR WHATEVER JOBS YOU CAN FIND AND WHILE YOU ARE DOING THAT WE WILL CREATE MORE JOBS BY CREATING MORE MACHINES TO DO THE JOBS THAT YOU USED TO DO AND THE JOBS THAT IT CREATED FOR YOU TO DO. TRUST US. AND IF ALL ELSE FAILS WE WILL ROLL BACK ON SEVERAL THOUSAND YEARS OF TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS. THIS DOES NOT SEEM AS STUPID AS IT SOUNDS. GO AND WATCH SOME TV. LOOK OVER THERE! IMMIGRANTS!
Sooner or later larger numbers of people are going to notice this ridiculousness and to some extent we have seen the start of this awareness during the Occupy movement of the late 2000’s when people the world over began to organise and collectively campaigned for social and economic justice. The next waves of protests could be on a scale of which today we’d expect to see in the final third of a Mad Max film.
Take the UK for example where as of March 2015 there were 297,600 taxi/private hire driver licence holders in England. When driverless vehicles arrive all of them, give or take a few thousand, would become redundant. And of course these drivers might have families to support. And their respective local economies rely on these families… and so on. And this would not be restricted to the UK it would be world-wide. The USA has 2.8 million truck drivers alone. Meanwhile, as far as taxis go, you are supposed to feel better about it because the cost of a ride from A to B is going to be a hell of a lot cheaper. But what good is a cheap taxi ride if you can not afford one?
Voting in the likes of Trump is not going to work any more. He’s not going to solve these kinds of problems. There are likely few politicians out there who can, and this is precisely because they are politicians. If you have a pain in your chest you would go to a doctor and not your local Starbucks for help but for some reason we keep going to Starbucks. Maybe it’s for the caffeine hit, after all it is a psychoactive drug.
And when you are pumped full of drugs and a shouty man keeps shouting that immigrants are the reason your life is shit, and the only one calling him out on it is a man who was previously discredited because he does not watch a lot of television, the shouty man is going to win. Always. Because you watch prime time television. It it something you find some sort of comfort in. You sit down to watch and your brain shuts off. You don’t have to worry about important things when you are watching the TV, you see.
And after everyone realises that they are obsolete, despite the promises of the shouty man, and the fires raging in the shopping precincts, the high streets, the affluent neighborhoods, and nations capitals burn themselves out we’ll be left wondering exactly how does one grow potatoes, and realising that the idea of Basic Income was a pretty good one.