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29.7.13

Designed Obsolecense

I used to think I hated Mondays.  Then I came to realize that I pretty much hate any day during which I have to work.  It's not that I don't like work.  Lord knows I make enough of it for myself.  But I hate having artificial schedules and deadlines forced on me.

I once thought it would be cool to have a Star Trek world where you just walk up to the wall and speak and out pops food, beverage and clothing to order.  But then I realized that all the characters on the show had to give up significant amounts of their lives to 'serve the good of all Mankind' to get all the freebies.  Even in the 24th century, there ain't no free lunch.

It seems, though, as if we are coming to a major nexus in history.  As our technology evolves, we have less and less actual work to do.  Eventually, 3-D printing will replace most manufacturing and transportation of goods.  3-D print files will (and already are) become a form of currency.  Most people won't have to travel more than a few blocks from their houses to work or get the things they need.

With one tiny little problem.

Sure things like 3-D printing will free up a lot of time and effort and literally destroy millions of jobs worldwide.  But worse, there will ultimately form a tiny minority of people producing the food and raw materials for the rest of our lifestyles of vast leisure.

What happens when the vast majority of us become designers and traders of ideas, and only a small number are doing all the work of mining, refining and growing all our necessities?  Not only will those people demand far more attention, but they will literally hold the world hostage.  As a consequence, the leisure classes will be required to 'hold a gun to the heads' of the underclasses, or face the utter collapse of society.  In other words, slavery.

This seems to be an intractable conundrum.  The global economy is on an inexorable march towards everyone thinking and no one working.  Even on Star Trek, the replicators have to be fed raw materials to produce all the products on demand.  The crew of the Enterprise blithely fly around talking about how humanity has reached a point where everyone is an intellectual, yet every other episode involves some mining planet or food planet in trouble.  Obviously, not everyone gets to be an intellectual.  Yet the issue of who actually does all the work is never really addressed unless one of the labor planets has a problem.

We all talk about great new inventions and labor-saving devices, but there is very little discussion about what will happen when there are 4 billion people without jobs.  How will they make money?  Who will supply all the raw materials to support this enormous class of non-productive humans?  Will we each own a labor machine and make money based on its output while we sit around pursuing our intellectual advancement?  And what about all the people now who use all their free time watching TeeVee and playing games?  Will we have created a labor-free world so that we can turn our brains to jelly, since it seems most people don't want to read or pursue intellectual hobbies?

Obviously, all this talk of utopian lifestyles imply either a vast reduction in population, or a small minority who actually get to live that life while the rest of us toil in the salt mines to support their utopia.  From the looks of things, we are already at the latter stage.

I, for one, can't see how we achieve our technological dreams without some radical changes in how we do things.  Sure, it's great to talk about living Olympian lifestyles, but what happens to the part of humanity that still has to do the labor?

It's easy to say that we will ultimately produce machines to do all the work so everyone can enjoy the leisure life, but even having all those wonderful machines means that someone has to make them.  Unless they are self-designing and replicating, which has all sorts of unsavory implications itself.  Frankly, I just can't see how we achieve the liberal wet dream society without somewhere along the line having an underclass to serve the needs of the ubermenchen.  At that point, we arrive at Huxley's Brave New World of selective breeding and designer worker bees.

There are already a great number of folks without jobs and they are living in poverty, not wandering around the garden reading Emily Dickinson and discussing the symbology of T.S. Eliot.  The idea of zipping around in star ships while listening to opera and quoting Shakespeare seems a long way off, even though all these folks have the time to do it.

Though the headlines crow about each new breakthrough in technology, we need to keep in mind - and earnestly discuss - what we are going to do with the people already out of work, much less those who will be displaced by the new technology.

As the pace of innovation increases, there is less and less time to process the displaced workers and guide them into new careers.  We are obviously not at the point where one can live a life of intellectual pursuits without the need for income of some kind, and that means work, which is increasingly hard to find.

So, while the Enterprise is zipping around the galaxy with a host of neo-Platonists onboard, the rest of us are stuck with the drudge work to maintain their lofty lifestyles.  How long do you think that will last?  It won't be long before those of us doing the dirty work will start to resent the privileged few who live off our sweat.

There's some serious contemplation to do in our afternoon walks through the cloister pondering the Universe's Great Mysteries.