Sunday, February 24, 2013

Technological unemployment: a genuine threat, a great opportunity

Below is my attempt at a journalistic-like article which aims to shift people's thinking about money, cost, value, wealth, work and resources (I know, foolishly ambitious). I sent it to some newspapers, magazines and journalists, but have excited no interest with it. My intention is to broaden the debate, but to do so the ideas the article contains need a better distribution outlet than this humble blog. I strongly believe the broader public is now ready for this debate, and thus that something as simple as this article is appropriate at this time. So, in the absence of anything else, I am using this platform to at least have this formulation out there. Do with it as you will. It is not standard Econosophy format, but it is standard Econosophy argumentation. There's nothing new in it for frequent visitors of this site.
[Edited on 25 October 2014 to improve logical flow]

Recent months have seen many articles tackling the Luddite bugbear of technological unemployment – automation replacing jobs. I welcome this attention. Not because I welcome increased suffering, nor because I see no way out. No, I strongly believe technological unemployment is and always has been an inspiring challenge to humanity’s ideas about work, value and societal contribution. In this challenge I see great opportunity.

However, my impression from these articles and from reader responses to them is that we are not taking Einstein’s famous admonition sufficiently to heart: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Robots taking our jobs is only a problem if we fail to think outside the box in which it must remain a problem.

(Three points undergird this article: firstly, we are not in pursuit of Utopia; there can be no such thing. Secondly, we must ask the right questions to see intractable challenges from fresh perspectives. Thirdly, let’s not lose sight of the kind of world we want to live in.)

Currently, if the economy isn’t growing, it’s collapsing. Wages fall, unemployment rises, hope fades, the chance of war increases. This sad historical correlation lies behind President Obama’s recent characterisation of economic growth as an “imperative”. But even though it is a systemic requirement, perpetual economic growth is impossible. If we want to survive as a species, our relationships with GDP growth and orthodox economics must change, not to usher in Utopia, but to adjust intelligently to new knowledge and circumstances.

Why is the impossible an imperative?

For two main reasons. Firstly, the way money is designed requires growth; money is created as interest-bearing debt, and compound interest is exponential growth. Our system is wired to grow exponentially. Secondly, redirecting the economy from the growth track requires radical change, change that vested interests do not want. Nevertheless, either we push on with the impossible, or we do something different.

Something different would be an economy as happy with growth as with de-growth (steady-state). This only sounds crazy because de-growth currently causes social distress. Space does not allow an exploration of the many proposals for alternative money systems currently being discussed, but this is a technical challenge humanity can solve.

A steady-state economy powered by an appropriate money system would not cause social distress, it would free us to enjoy a healthy work-life balance. Think about it: what is economic growth? Ever more economic activity. What is economic activity? Production, buying and selling. Are these the source of all human happiness? We do more of them today than ever before. Are we happier than ever before? Most of us realise rampant consumerism is bad for environment and community alike, so not only is perpetual economic growth unsustainable, we don’t actually want it. It's a cultural addiction, not a genetic requirement.

How does this relate to technological unemployment? Well, we don’t need ourselves economically as we once did. When we contemplate economic de-growth exacerbated by technological unemployment, we see an ever-diminishing role for humanity, we fear “robot overlords”. But a dystopian future only awaits us if we refuse to accept that unpaid work can be more valuable to society than paid work. What does society value more: good parenting or investment banking? If money is our guide, the latter. Otherwise, the former (and similar social contributions). We need new money and money-distribution mechanisms that honour the former. With such systems in place, we would welcome technological developments that free us from boring jobs.

Looked at coldly, wages are a mechanism for distributing money to people. Wages imply that the work they reward is good for society, but this may only sometimes be true and then only partly. We also value contributions to society that cannot be remunerated by the market. In light of technological advances and the need to de-grow our economy, we should implement a Basic Income Guarantee (“BIG”), a new mechanism for getting money to people. To want to do this, we must first re-envision money as a public utility that both frees us to contribute meaningfully to society and rewards us for work the market deems valuable.

If you believe we cannot afford a BIG, you probably think it is money that affords. Resources and know-how afford (what is money without natural resources?). Let’s say we need 30% of the adult population to produce enough to keep everyone housed, warmed, fed and clothed. I.e., there’s enough of the basics, but not enough jobs. In this narrow example, market mechanisms must fail to provide everyone with purchasing power. Abundant supply meets impotent demand. Here the market is the problem, not ‘lazy’ people.

Just because we no longer need people economically does not mean we cannot learn to value what they might contribute when freed to do so by a BIG. Nor does it mean that giving money away must lead to inflation; the need for a BIG arises from the fact of what I’ve termed “impotent demand”.

Technological unemployment is real because production can exceed consumption. The “lump of labour fallacy” rightly argues there is no fixed amount of economic work for humans to do. Correct. It can shrink. Or it can be forced to grow against our better judgement; we neither want nor can the environment afford perpetual economic growth. The lump of labour ‘fallacy’ is thus a red herring. Far more important is redefining our cultural definitions of work, value and reward, and how we design and distribute money.

The cultural habits ingrained in us over recent centuries have dangerously narrowed our thinking. There are good alternatives to ever more jobs. BIG is perhaps the best of them, though just a first step. We have come to mistake money for wealth, and are having a hard time accepting that we can indeed afford to de-grow, that consumerism does not create health and happiness, that economic activity is not a panacea. If we automate more, consume less, move to renewable energies, set up a more appropriate money system, our work-life balance will improve. Indeed, work would become more and more pleasant, until our work becomes our passion, our life.

This is the potential of technological unemployment. From employment in meaningless, environmentally-damaging jobs, to meaningful work for society. To seize this opportunity, we must heed Einstein and transcend the thinking that got us into this mess.

Addendum, 25.02.2013:
Anyone seeking an insight into this would do well to consult a terrific report by Sarah O'Connor, the Financial Times's economics correspondent. She visited Amazon's vast distribution centre at Rugeley in Staffordshire and her account of what she found there makes sobering reading.
She saw hundreds of people in orange vests pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle because "the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time". They walk between seven and 15 miles a day and everything they do is determined by Amazon's software. "You're sort of like a robot, but in human form," one manager told Ms O'Connor. "It's human automation, if you like."

Anyone seeking to understand what technological unemployment (and underemployment) is about, ought to think deeply about what these two quoted paragraphs are telling us. In short: money is more important than both humanity and environment in this system. Until we address this, this tightly controlled, robotic insanity is going to get worse and worse, simply to sustain consumerism and perpetual economic growth, both of which are unsustainable.


Timbo614 said...

Re: the Amazon pieces. Nothing much has changed then since "The ragged trousered philanthropists"...

BTW I am currently reading Sacred Economics. I haven't got to the crux yet. But I start to see where one of your influences is for econosophy.

Not a criticism, just an observation, your submitted/promoted piece comes across as disjointed whereas your normal style, while seeming disjointed, comes across as a whole :)

Malagodi said...

This is such an excellent piece.

As I put it, the question is "how do we value (human) life, now that human labor is worthless?" That is to say, what is the intrinsic value of humanity?

This same question was put humorously by the poet Allen Ginsberg in his poem "America" when he asked:
"America, when am I going to be able to go into the supermarket and get what I need with my good looks?"

And the composer John Cage hinted at it in his "Diary" when he said:
"The big U.S. industries went into Puerto Rico and destroyed the local economy. Now the unemployment rate is 50%. The problem is that they only did half the job."

The Dadaists called for full unemployment, and everyone thought they were joking.

My feeling is, and I think most of humanity would agree with me, is that I don't want a job, I want a life.

Tao Jonesing said...


Why not see if Yves Smith will cross-post this article on Naked Capitalism? Of all the mainstream econ bloggers, she would be the most inclined to carry something like this. I don't agree with Yves' general approach for a variety of reasons, but I do think she earnestly wants to promote positive change for the better, which makes her a good person in my book.

I think you could easily become a regular contributor at Naked Capitalism, which would improve that site enormously.

Toby said...

Hi Timbo, long time no type! Yes, I guess this is a little disjointed, but suspect it's because of the word limit I set myself, which is anyway almost twice as long as standard newspaper articles. But the important point is whether or not the arguments are understandable, because that's where the success and failure of the piece lie. Also, does it keep the reader reading.

Hi Stephen, I think this hits the nail on the head: "how do we value (human) life, now that human labor is worthless?" And how do we undertake to measure that value seeing that we cannot measure value? There's the rub.

Hi Tao, thanks for the suggestion, I had not even thought of that. But I kind of fell out with Yves back when Russ was hounded from Naked Capitalism. She deleted one of my comments, wrote me an angry email chastising me for trying to encourage a flame war (which was a misreading of my comment on Yves' part), then looped me in on an email exchange between her and Richard (I forget his surname, sometimes takes over the site when Yves can't run it) discussing how much of a threat to Naked Capitalism Russ's blog was. They concluded he was small fry and could ignore him. She struck me as paranoid, cold and ambitious, and all about the hits. Not someone I want to work with.

What I want is for the arguments in this piece to spread out, to take root, to encourage intelligent discussion. Any help you guys can offer, any shares on facebook, twitter, etc., would be greatly appreciated. And thanks for your praise and interest.

Tao Jonesing said...


I've had some heated exchanges with Yves and no longer comment there. I think her sense of being a "progressive" is counter-productive and misguided, and I've even told her that she actually makes things worse because she is really championing the system that she says she is fighting against.

That being said, I think she is waking up. And if she is not waking up, she is realizing that her niche is in being an outsider, and she seems to have a lot more outsider content these days.

The reason why you can succeed at NC when Russ, DownSouth and I failed is because you are always "rational" and ever polite. You simply won't be perceived as a challenge to the power that Yves panders to. You'll just be counted as another idealist who writes well and can distract the well-heeled intelligentsia from doing anything about the fact that their "wealth" (aka the basis of their sense of self-importance) is being targeted by the rulers. That's to everybody's advantage because you are far more than that.

I don't like Yves, but you and your message could well resonate with her right now. Accordingly, you should really think about ignoring your history with her and taking a run at getting a spot in her rotation. I think your normal writing style will be accepted there without any alterations, and you could easily update existing content and repackage it as new.

If you do take a run at working with Yves, and I think you should, make sure you delete my comments on this thread first. Personally, I'd really like to see you go mainstream and get a big audience because I think you are a phenomenal thinker and writer. You know I don't always agree with you, but I do respect you greatly.

Good luck.

Toby said...

Thank you Tao, your comment touched me deeply. Consequently, I am thinking deeply about it.

Debra said...

Hi Toby,
I belatedly realized this morning that I was no longer getting your posts..
I sometimes wonder if much of the problems we face right now are not due to the way the words have of multiplying like loaves and fishes, particularly when they are not addressed personally to flesh and blood people.
Perhaps an excuse for my own little life ?
Why do we say that (some) work is boring, Toby ?

On my loony forum, I encourage the people to do their own housework. (They don't have the money to hire cleaning LADIES anyway.) Is housework boring ? Or are we allergic to doing things that we don't like to do, things that make us feel.. like slaves doing slave labor ?
That said, if I had to choose between taking home pay working in an Amazon warehouse, and.. not taking home pay doing my housework, I think I know what I would choose. And you ?

For info, it appears that some American university WOMAN has loftily decreed that "opera is dead", long live telereality...

The war of the wor(l)ds looming ?

The colonization of the Old World by the New has become very very painful...

Toby said...

Hi Debbie,

"Why do we say that some work is boring?"

I think that's a very important question. Boredom is apparently a modern phenomenon, which I suppose is a direct outgrowth of the hollowness of consumerism. We are in constant need of stimulation, so anything can be boring, whether 'work' or 'entertainment'. We are dependent on distractions. This is a topic that needs a very broad airing.

Yes, given the choice, no one would choose to work as a flesh-robot for some monolothic corporation. As we have agreed, it's the numbers, the obsession with measurement, the sense that monetary profit is a clear and irreducible social good that is the root of this horrible problem. Hence my desire to get these questions and ideas 'out there'.

I'm ignorant about opera, but in my own University work I recently discovered Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. What an amazing voice. I had no idea humans were capable of such exquisite precision and emotion simultaneously ... absolutely incredible. Though these things are always matters of taste, and nothing lives for ever. Which is a good thing. "Death is nature's best invention."

Debra said...

Faith in the numbers...
The monetary problem, what I call idolatry of money is tied up with our.. modern theological belief that the numbers constitute proof, and give access to an idealized "truth". An EXACT truth.
Idolatry of money ? Idolatry of numbers ?
Think that during WW2 the concentration camp inmates had... numbers tatooed on their arms to IDENTIFY them.
Now... think that sometime during the late middle ages, we moved from an identity paradigm where we referred to people as John of Ghent, for example (no patronym...) to a paradigm with a patronym. The identifier.. John of Ghent was tied to place, while the patronym allowed our civilization to escape the confine of physical place for identity. The patronym, while a linguistic abstraction (not initially, because some peoples' names came from their trade/work), was nevertheless not a NUMERIC abstraction. (Think about... NUMERIC, and what the word is doing in our world...)

Since WW2, the national IDENTITY card, where we have numbers... has remained in use, even though it was much decried BEFORE WW2.

The numbers are more and more used to identify us. (For the time being, the numbers are glued to.. our linguistic identity, which still includes our patronym.) Because we believe in them ? Have faith in them ?
And of course.. money as NUMBERS can be subordonnated to this belief...

I believe it is very important to go beyond the idolatry of (work for) money problem to get to the shadowy.. numbers behind it.
Our modern "God".. a number, and not a.. name/Word/Verb ?

Toby said...

Well said, Debbie.

In my new role as translator, I have done a lot of work for a software company which produces company management software, management controlling, human resources, cost controlling, all sorts of unsavoury stuff. Numbers defining everything that happens, everything that happens must be measured by numbers. This is efficient and cost effective, apparently.

It's been going this way for decades of course, perhaps centuries, and the momentum of it is still strong. Instead of using our ingenuity to become more humane, to free us up for more community work, more meaningful work, we carry on worshiping numbers. They are more important than any other aspect of our lives. We have to fit to the numbers, contort ourselves to their demands. Crazy but true.

Debra said...

Last scene of "Macbeth", Toby, which we almost finished translating last Thursday :

"Ross : Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier's debt.
He only lived but till he was a man,
The which no sooner had his prowess confirmed
In the unshrinking station where he fought
But like a man he died.

Siward : Then he is dead ?

Ross : Ay, and brought off the field. Your cause of sorrow must not be measured by his worth, for then it hath no end.

Siward : Had he his hurts before ?

Ross : Ay, on the front.

Siward : Why then, God's soldier be he. Had I as many sons as I have hairs, I would not wish them to a fairer death : And so his knell is knolled.

MALCOLM (future king..) : He's worth MORE sorrow, and that I'll SPEND for him.

Siward : He's worth no more. They say he parted well and paid his score, and so, God be with him...."

You can see here the ideological confrontation between the old, pagan, feudal vision of man, and his FATE, and the new Renaissance, Judeo-Christian ideology, where the words "worth MORE" and "spend" stick out.

Because Toby... when you tack on that little word.. "more", then you open the door on something with far reaching repercussions. (Remember La Fontaine, "the better is enemy to the good"...) So far reaching that they are playing out in our world. "Spend" is a word almost exclusively reserved for two, interrelated domains... time and money.

Siward refuses to be sucked into an equivalency game. Yes, men are "worth", but perhaps it is even more timely for them to be... WORTHY ? And... the more they have to be worth, maybe... the more the numbers start multiplying ?

If you turn death into an unspeakable and absolute evil, as we have done, then we begin twisting on the rope, and we play out our lives in what Coleridge so prophetically saw as "death in life" in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".

Toby said...

Well said, Debbie, well said. When we flee fear/death, we meet it in our flight. I remember you saying that Caesar must always be paid. How true. What a bitter irony that "Caesar" (or the state) is both manifestation and cause of our fear of death, our urge to 'control', with numbers (money, Science (not science)), all unwanted variables into non-existence. How Greek, how Shakespearian.

Toby said...

And a huge congratulations on perservering with your labour of love. I'm very impressed. If my French were up to it, I'd love to see your work.

Timbo614 said...

Debbie, thank you for:
Or are we allergic to doing things that we don't like to do, things that make us feel.. like slaves doing slave labor ?

and Toby, Thank you for:
the obsession with measurement, the sense that monetary profit is a clear and irreducible social good that is the root of this horrible problem.

I am at a "nexus" in my current work situation, these two statements have crystallised something for me.

As an indicator of why, I have worked for nearly two years on a project, and software projects start with a completely blank screen and you start entering text (much like writing a book or a poem). They build, sometimes slowly, into complex things which this one now is. My specification was written out on the "back of an envelope" because the people that gave it to me know I can handle that.

As fate decrees, the company is now being bought out, I am a "contractor" I've been paid, no argument. But I now find I have been "sold/included" as part of the package with the assumption that I would automatically agree. When I demurred, one of the guys said "You don't want the money? I replied that not everything is about money - two people at the table actually laughed out loud! The new situation is that I have to repeat the project "do it again" for the new owners in a slightly different systems environment, but vastly different personal/geographic/relationship circumstances.

The people at the meeting had no understanding of my thought process, "money trumps all" was their only reasoning on my behalf. I am, in my own way, a "creator/originator" I take an idea and make it work (in computer/systems terms), it's the back of the envelope freedom that I like. I don't want to create the same thing twice though... my heart wouldn't be in it. I want something new to create.

After reading your earlier (from the 9th) comments. Maybe I'll just say no. I'll be less well off, possibly a bit broke for a while, but happier!

P.S. Spotted you (Toby) on NC about Cyprus, again that's not all about the money either!

Toby said...

Hi Tim,

follow your heart, but don't leave your head behind. It's tough out there, but you probably know that. I've put myself through mini-hells of worry since I quit my job; happiness is not assured. The sad fact is that life is expensive, the state wants to give less and less to its people and low paid work is often more demanding and demeaning than middle income work. Only you can make the decision, but don't think you'll automatically be happier somewhere else. Apart from in extreme circumstances, happiness comes from within. It's an attitude more than anything. If you're not starving, hated and abandoned to the elements; if you have friends, respect at work, income, shelter, chances are you can be happy in those circumstances. There's always something to bitch about.

As to NC, that wasn't me, but just now I've posted there for the first time in a few years in response to someone asking if that other Toby was me. Funny how these things go around. As for Cyprus, that's theft in my book. And while I'm not a believer in the institution of private property (which is a future-oriented conviction on my part), I am against theft, and this particular crime was perpetrated by the powerful, by the so-called elite. It sets a very serious precedent which to me smacks of naked panic.

Good luck with your decision! Maybe a suck-it-and-see period is called for. Try the job on for size, see if you can enjoy it. Then, if your heart really really isn't in it, do something else...

Timbo614 said...

Hi Toby,

Thanks for your response, my post was possibly just a "writing it out in public" to try and clarify thoughts/feelings. Indeed I am thinking hard on it, it will probably come to a compromise in the end. The last 6 months or so has been hard/stressful work, on call almost 24/7 while the system "settled in". Maybe I just need a re-charge period of a couple of months reduced time.

Apologies for assuming that was you on NC I did wonder as the "Toby" was not a link - but thought you might be going incognito and the reference to German politics was a another factor.

Cyprus - I believe the Powers That Be have let the cat out of the bag so to speak, that peoples' money in a bank is not actually theirs. Many people find the effects of QE/Inflation too subtle to account for in daily life, but "just taking it" they can understand with no difficulty. We will see what happens to bank deposits the next time a country needs/is instructed to have a bail-out(in)[read: be captured]. Whatever happens it is a another welcome stumble by the palace courtiers of Brussels in the creation of the European Empire, where we all play the part of serfs...

Best, Tim

Debra said...

Hi Tim,
Passing through here today, I saw your posts.
I am currently living as a total dependant on somebody else. That means almost no social recognition, even if, as a woman, I am a wife and mother, and that gives me some social.. status ? a place ?
We are not equal, Tim... ;-), to the extent that we are not the same, and that what can still work for me as a woman would be hard for you as a man, I think. (I have nothing against differences, by the way...)
What I find the hardest about your situation as you describe it is its highly virtual nature.
I got laughed off of Naked Capitalism (but I don't mind) for exclaiming that I found it was obscene to be haggling over how much the fishes in the Gulf of Mexico were "worth" when THEY were gasping for air due to our criminal negligence and hubris.
I still believe this.
The computer has enabled us to detach ourselves more and more from the life of our bodies in place, and time. And it has detached us from the limitations of physical place, too, while building up an enormous meringue of language, and symbolic structure (money, numbers, and language are part of symbolic structure).
As a devil's advocate, I can also observe... why, oh why are we in such tacit... competition ? with the creator to create ? After a while, when you take over the Creator's... job ? you find yourself working seven days a week, 24h a day because you (read "we") have no faith that the world can continue without your conscious, willing intervention to keep it up.
Pretty amazing that we can still breathe without having to think about it consciously, don't you think ?
On Cyprus...
The modern state has been a coalition between state and bank. The banks get a big boost... during the Renaissance, by the way.
The institution of the bank gives considerable control and oversight of the citizens to the State. But... in all fairness, we are cowards. We believe that in an anarchy situation, "everybody" would be going for everybody's throats...
That is not the kind of.. trust or faith that you can build a society on...
It is the kind of belief that takes your society, and your.. money down, though...