Some People Think I’m Crazy for Believing This…


…but I believe that robots are stealing my luggage. — Steve Martin

I couldn’t help but remember Steve Martin’s old “What I Believe”* routine when I read the title of Federico Pistono’s essay over on on IEET: Robots will steal your job, but that’s OK: how to survive the economic collapse and be happy

In spite of the talk about it being okay and the assurance that we’ll all be happy sooner or later, Pistono paints a pretty bleak picture:

What will the millions of middle-age, unskilled workers do when they are displaced by technology?

I have discussed this with economists, entrepreneurs, futurists, and not a single one was able to give me a convincing answer. Technology is advancing simply too quickly for the newly unemployed to learn new jobs. In the past, we have seen automation cutting the workforce, but unskilled workers all gravitated towards places like Walmart to find an easy (even though very unsatisfying) job. Now, if Walmart begins automation, competitors will have to do the same, in order to stay alive in the market. There would be no coming back for the shopping industry. It is an irreversible process; the replaced jobs will not come back.

The same will happens for millions of drivers, construction workers, and many others. But having these jobs removed, what will people do? So far, nobody has been able to answer that question. The reason for this, I think, is because there is no answer. Not in this system, not in the way it’s designed to work. The displacement of human labour in favor of automation will have a snowball effect on everything. With unemployment levels at 30% or 40%, the economy will collapse.

Without a backup plan to adjust to a new paradigm, we can expect the worst. Civil unrest, riots, police brutality, and general distress of the population will continue to rise until critical levels are reached, at which point the whole socioeconomic system will crumble upon itself. This has negative repercussions across the whole spectrum of the population, and it is against the interest of everyone on this planet, even of the richest and wealthiest people.

This is familiar territory for anyone who regularly reads this or my other blog. Some experts, Martin Ford in particular, believe as Pistono does that only major economic restructuring — usually described in the form of  government payouts to individuals — will prevent a crisis. Others believe that the robots will only change the nature of what jobs are available, forcing us to retool and adjust, but not bringing about economic Armageddon. Walter Russel Mead has penned a series of essays entitled Beyond  Blue which examines this transition (which he says will be long and painful, although not quite the crisis that Poston describes.)

In Part 4 of the series he compares our current transition with the transition at the turn of the previous century from an agrarian to manufacturing workforce. At the time, many predicted that that, too, would lead to economic doom rather than creating the huge rise in wealth and standards of living which in fact occurred. Mead says we’re in for something similar now, although this time it’s a very different transition:

People do not run out of wants and needs when they have enough food, enough clothing, enough shelter and enough warmth. In fact, liberated from the constraints of the struggle for survival, the human imagination discovers new wants and needs at a faster pace as the old ones are met and forgotten.

This hunger for new, richer and more interesting lives ensures that we can all keep making a living – and it ensures that we will also want to keep working so as to afford all the cool new services and experiences being created around us. As long as humanity keeps wanting, humanity can make a living satisfying wants – and creating new ones.

Mead argues that the new economy will be based on personal services — wherein we add value to existing stuff rather than creating stuff or, in Mead’s words, provide experiences that people want to have. He terms these “lifestyle industries,” and he claims that their rate of pay will increase, just as pay for manufacturing work increased as that sector took off.

These industries include a wide and diverse set of offerings, everything from massage therapists to chefs to personal education consultants (no doubt we’ll meet with that last one in a coffee shop.) If Mead is right, it sounds great — a prosperous nation full of people working in creative endeavors aimed at making their neighbors’ (that is, their customers’) lives better.

Only one nagging question remains: how long before the robots steal those jobs, too?


*I’m not linking it from here because of some of the content, but it’s easy enough to find with a Google search.


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  5. 2012-04-17 23:13:29

    TheAbstractor - Those three outcomes you have mentioned are all pretty well in hand with much the world is talking about. However Federico Pistono, the guy who this article is about/in response to, supports your 'Distributist' setup (think 3d printers, renewable energy, Willow garage robot programming, etc. search with Google and you will begin to understand) with some slight differences: for starters the group The Zeitgeist Movement supports a more defined version of 'Distributist' which is known as a Resourced Based Economy. It works very in very similar ways but is more of an 'end goal' concept. the 'Distributist' setup seems to be a very good middle step in that regard. i had a very similar 'revelation' in regards to our economic system coming from an entirely different standpoint. In any case it's worth a look and if nothing else take a look at those things on Google and try to extrapolate what those could do to your scenarios.

  6. 2012-02-17 01:29:08

    So robots make all human employment, or at least all human employment below the very high decision-making tasks of a business, obsolete. Hundreds of millions of workers are told to stay home and don't get paid. Businessmen are pleased with this result until (1) they realize that no one has money to buy their goods and services anymore, and (2) there's no reason to be "in business" anymore if all their personal and economic demands and desires can be satisfied by property they already own. What follows? Here are some (but not necessarily all) scenarios. (1) Dickensian or Atlas Shrugged Scenario: The holders of the means of production decide that they neither need nor want to give either their production equipment or their product to the rest of society, and the non-producing classes are unable to effectively coerce them into doing so. Some form of mass depopulation or subjugation follows. Those who are left and their heirs would live happily ever after in a world free of want or need as we know it, or at least for several generations. Factors for likeliness: The very quick concentration of power that would occur to relatively few people to the exclusion of the rest of the other actors in our political economy. The persuasiveness and growing pervasiveness of libertarian/egoist idealism, i.e. "What moral right do you have to take our stuff? What moral obligation do we have to provide for you?" Factors for unlikeliness: More traditional moral obligations commonly held by the producer class. Intransigence of our democratic/quasi-socialist political system that could force taxation or redistribution, along with the unlikelihood that most of society would descend into poverty, debt without a fight. (2) Gift Economy Scenario: The productive class decides or is coerced to give their product to the unproductive masses, though still holding the reins on the means of production. Effecting this policy could take numerous possible forms or combinations--government assistance handouts, interest-free lending with little or no obligation to repay, direct retail giveaways, or mass hyper-deflation. In one form or another, almost everyone goes on the dole for the resources that make up standard present-day consumer demand and spends his or her life in leisurely pursuits. However (as with pre-industrial gift economies), persons whose behavior or ideology are unacceptable to the productive class, or who refuse to properly pay "homage and fealty" to the productive class, may find themselves economically disenfranchised. Also, in time, these giveaways could breed an overpopulated "idiocracy" that could bring back the Malthusian scarity common throughout history. Factors for likelihood: The "stickyness" of institutions such as currency, property laws and rights, social welfare policies. Some moral justification to the productive class in creating a "soft despotism" that takes care of the immediate needs of people. Factors for unlikelihood: Human pride felt by the non-producer class that would prevent them from just going on the dole and sacrificing their economic independence, combined with the unlikelihood that a non-producing class would be satisfied with staying non-productive. Distributist Scenario: The producing class gives, or is coerced to give means of production to the non-producing class; or the non-producing people are able to use the technological boom to obtain their own means of production adequate to maintain themselves self-sufficiently. The result is that every person (or household, or small social network) is able to live independently from the products or demands of what use to be the larger economy. Currency and debt obligations as we know them disappear or become largely irrelevant. Real estate held by the few becomes annexed by many. Society fragments into small, self-sufficient "kibbutzes" of people who share friendship, family or ideological bonds, though the whole of society still shares an information media among itself. People now live where, how and with whom they want to live and not in impersonal, coercive urban settings. Factors for likelihood: Probably the most fair and just arrangement for society. Follows historical trends of humanity becoming more free and independent. Factors for unlikelihood: Would require a mass decentralization of power and control of society held by business and government, which they may not be too willing to let go of.

  7. 2012-02-13 22:18:25

    Andrew -- But, automation has always led to more production and more employment, from all the way back when Dutch saboteurs threw their shoes into the machinery which was eliminating their jobs. I see your point, but there's no guarantee that it always will. I like Mead's (and your) interpretation that says that new work will emerge and it will pay better, be more fulfilling, be easier, etc. I hope that's true, but I'm not 100% convinced. Sorry about the blockquote thing. I think I must have modified the stylesheet somewhere, but I'm not allowed to touch it (any more). I'll have to talk to my web guy.

  8. 2012-02-13 21:46:31

    By the way, [blockquote] (using angle brackets), does not work.

  9. 2012-02-13 21:44:42

    Pistono gives breathless speculation from 20,000 feet. How will the ant colony survive whatever is happening? We can't really tell from here, but we are worried, because something is happening. An economy is too big and complicated to speak in such generalities or come to an easy answer. But, automation has always led to more production and more employment, from all the way back when Dutch saboteurs threw their shoes into the machinery which was eliminating their jobs. What would they do for work? - - "What will the millions of middle-age, unskilled workers do when they are displaced by technology?"

    Possibly, their super-rich masters will design fantastically productive machinery. The displaced unskilled, middle aged workers will push the buttons, or get coffee. This isn't demanding work, but the fantastic production will lower the prices of everything, allowing them to live reasonably well. By the way, what were these unskilled workers doing before, and what exactly displaced them?
    Thousands of plug-panel telephone operators were displaced by mechanical, then electronic switching equipment. Possibly there are stories where they starved or comitted suicide.
    "Technology is advancing simply too quickly for the newly unemployed to learn new jobs."
    Really? How many times a year will someone need to learn "a new job"? Are they imbeciles who cannot learn anything new? Again, some actual examples would help the discussion.
    "In the past, we have seen automation cutting the workforce, but unskilled workers all gravitated towards places like Walmart to find an easy (even though very unsatisfying) job."
    What is the evidence? I am skeptical that "places like Wall Mart" are the safety valve for all transitions in employment. What was the "satisfying" employment that these people did before? Did Pistono make this up?
    "Now, if Walmart begins automation, competitors will have to do the same, in order to stay alive in the market. It is an irreversible process; the replaced jobs will not come back."
    What exactly is the "automation" which will reduce Wall Mart and all other retail employment? What are the actual examples, and what did these employees do before displacement? I can also speculate breathlessly. Each rich person still employed under the new automation might expect two salespeople to wait on him/her to save precious time. That might double the people "needed" at retail stores.
    "The same will happen for millions of drivers, construction workers, and many others. What will people do without these jobs?"
    Again, what automation displaces these jobs? What evidence is there that automation cuts total employment and lowers median income?
    -- -- In 1880, 49% of the US were farmers. Now it is about 3%. Anywhere along the way, I could predict dire consequences for all of those displaced, non-intellectual workers. If they weren't needed for growing food, just what would they do? I is just too easy to say in effect, "I don't know what is happening, but if these things happen, then I don't know what we will do."

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