The future of work, continued

View 821 Saturday, April 26, 2014


If a foreign government had imposed this system of education on the United States, we would rightfully consider it an act of war.

Glenn T. Seaborg, National Commission on Education, 1983



I had intended to work on the acknowledgments of the California Sixth Grade Reader, but I discovered that LASFS is celebrating the 4000th meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, and they had scheduled me, Niven, Davit Gerrold, and Craig Miller to do a panel on LASFS and pro writers, and had brought in Tim Powers from San Bernardino to talk, and as usually happens when Tim and Serena come to town we put together a dinner. The result ate up the day, so I’ll have to get to the acknowledgements tomorrow or Monday. That has become my highest priority project. It should have been out the door a long time ago.


Last time we had an essay by Eric Gilmer on the future of work, with my comments. Please read both if you haven’t already, or if you read them but forgot what was said.

The Future of "Work"

Hi Jerry,

I found Eric Gilmer’s short article quite interesting. We certainly do live in interesting times. For the most part, I think most generations have. It’s just that today, the details of our interesting times change just about as fast as we buy new shoes.

Eric makes a number of interesting points, but the one I’d like to focus on is the notion of work. I’m sure you would agree that what most of us consider work would look nothing like what most considered work in the Middle Ages or Pharoanic times in Egypt. Each era had tools, but those tools enabled the muscles of men to work more efficiently at producing the goods they needed to survive. They certainly survived better than those who lived prior to the Stone Age.

We seem to be living in the culmination of that process. Each generation since the earliest man learned to use a rock to break open a hard shelled nut or a stick to defend himself has made improvements in the tools humans use to survive. Even in the early Americas, some tools changed more rapidly than people could be educated to take advantage of them, however. Today, as Eric points out, most of our tools are driven by computers and we are at the beginning of a time when our tools will improve themselves as they seek to do the jobs once performed by men. They will be more efficient, quicker, cheaper, and the goods they produce will be endlessly varied, inexpensive, and even uniquely crafted for each individual’s taste. Once this occurs, what then of Man?

During my college years, I remember reading of a sort of war of the Scribes Guild vs the Printers Guild in one or more of the states of Europe. Things sounded very similar to Union vs Manufacturer debates of today. Printers/Manufacturers: "We will make more knowledge/goods/services available to the people." Scribes/Unions: "You are destroying jobs for the sake of money." What neither side could see at the dawn of the printing press was the huge shift that took place in Man’s relationship to the world as more and more people gained more knowledge from the books and pamphlets made available by the printing press. Much of what we have today was made available by that wide spreading curtain of knowledge that helped move Man up and away from the poverty and misery of his ancestors. Like the printing press, however, the invention significantly preceded the gains humanity would reap from it. It took time for what the printing press brought to be felt in human society.

Today, we are still in early development of our "printing press".

Just as with the printing press, computers will result in the fall of nations (perhaps already have), the elimination of jobs, and the expansion of what it means to be human. Today, entire countries and economies can do quite well with 20-25% of its young people not "gainfully employed". That does not mean they do not work. They just do not work in what has traditionally been called work. Just like the printing press and many other inventions throughout the course of human history, computers will redefine the meaning of work, leave many behind during the years of its development into a stable and ubiquitous tool, and cause individuals to develop entirely new ways of thinking about the universe and Man’s place in it.

In the future, just like we who are in the future our grandparents made possible, work will mean something different. I will probably not mean 9-5, mass migration of populations at the beginning/end of the day to centers of work. Humans may very well do their "work" in their sleep leaving the entire day for leisure and the arts. Some humans will work harder than others. Some, perhaps most, will do no "work" at all. What that sort of world will be like I can only dimly see, but my multitasking, quick thinking, and deeply knowledgeable through their cell phones grandkids will make happen. It will be horrible and it will be glorious, just like every major change before it.

Braxton S. Cook

It is certain that in modern industrial societies well advanced into the Computer Revolution the nature and meaning of work will change. Meanwhile, we move toward a society in which an increasing number of citizens of the Republic have no contribution to make: they are literally proletariat, persons who contribute only their progeny. Now there will always be some people of this classification, but it is unlikely that those who do “work” and whose contributions are absolutely necessary to keep the high productivity system of robots and tools running and producing the means to support everyone will choose to submit to being governed by the much larger number who contribute nothing, and who seek increases in their entitlements. Note that in the United States, we define as poverty an income and amenities – having teeth well past age 70, a fair amount of health care, the possibility of transportation at fairly rapid speeds, durable clothing, other such things taken for granted – would have been considered wild riches beyond the dreams of avarice for most of human history. Poverty in the US is still wealth in most of the world.

How long this can continue is a matter for concern. If Moore’s Law continues to operate, productivity will increase monotonically and perhaps exponentially. There will be lots of goods to distribute. Perhaps stability can be bought with the surplus value, not of labor as Marx thought, but of capital – robots – even thought Marx based much of his analysis on the premise that “Capital is barren:.” What that meant is that the building of machines used about as many resources as the machines would contribute to the economy. That wasn’t really true in his time, and became increasingly less true as the industrial and then the computer revolutions developed, and is certainly not true now. In agriculture we have moved from more than 80% of the population being required to work in agriculture to feed the population in the early Twentieth Century, to the point where far more food, both per capita and in absolute quantity, is produced by fewer than 10% of the population; and this is a permanent change.

Manufacturing is undergoing a similar transformation. In both cases capital was hardly barren. Productivity increases steadily. Fewer and fewer workers are required. This continues.

And our schools continue to be unwilling or unable to train people to do work that someone will pay to have done.



The Future of Work and Everything Else Part 2

Dear Dr. Pournelle;

In my last message to you I believe the tone I set may have been somewhat dour. Ignorance in the face of great change does that to me, but I am, nonetheless an optimist; that special brand of mental illness that allows me to ignore the capacity of Humanity to inject every favorable situation with the politics of greed, fear, race and religion and to believe there is reason to hope. I would not be fully representing my thoughts on the subject if I didn’t mention what I believe to be some of the more hopeful possibilities in the coming years, or at the very least a few of the highlights.

I can imagine a world that has defeated old age and disease; where we don’t lose our best and most experienced minds after a few short decades, a world where even our finite resources on earth are adequate due to super efficient manufacturing. If Humanity can achieve something like energy security (I won’t discuss the seemingly permanent 30 year horizon for fusion energy) than it is just possible that the coming decades will see greater peace and prosperity than at any time in our history. Every generation won’t have to re-learn the old lessons…imagine what that might be like: Humanity can keep it’s wisdom and not lose it to the grave every three score and ten.

The development of a permanent Human presence in the solar system will be greatly aided by the advances in materials science, energy storage and medical therapies that can correct the health issues surrounding prolonged existence in micro-gravity, or increased exposure to radiation. Additive manufacturing will make colonies cheaper to establish and more robust in the face of prohibitively expensive supply runs from Earth. longer lifespans may offer the potential of travel to the nearest stars even without an FTL drive. With durable, able robots as our Assistants Humanity may be able to achieve goals that we all discard with adulthood, or never consider due to the constraints of life as we know it. We could build a world without want, without illness and work for goals now unattainable due to our short lives.

Regardless of my optimism (which has yet to make it’s way to the DSM), I am not so far gone as to believe in Utopia. Nothing ever created has been shared evenly (presuming that would be a good thing) and no good thing has ever been developed that has not also been abused, or has more…complicated ramifications.

For instance; human existence without ageing and death will see a generation that has never (or rarely) known loss. Medical technology that cures every disease, heals every wound and factories that produce endless, cheap goods will produce a generation that has no knowledge of pain or want. I don’t know about you, but on the rare occasion that I meet someone who has been ‘blessed’ with a trouble free life I have always sensed something missing about them. They seem somehow incomplete.

I believe there is a potential problem with a generation that knows nothing about pain or struggle. Children that never grow up cannot drive a civilization, at least not one that I want to be a part of. There must be an answer for this just as urgently as the need for a new business model. Pain has been a constant companion of Human existence and is our great teacher. Pain teaches us compassion and humility. Pain makes us grow up, forces us to look inward. Take pain away from a Human and I will show you someone who will never attain their potential.

As for a new business model, I will defer adding to this discussion. Business of the future in light of our new knowledge and abilities is beyond my training. I hope abler minds will weigh in. The importance of it can’t be understated: Business drives progress. Profit drew adventurers to the New World and it will be profit that draws them to Space. But where is the profit of the future? What will have value in an era that has banished scarcity? Land, of course, but what else? And if there was a ‘thing of value’ that had not been eliminated by cheap manufacturing, who could purchase it? I’m not asking these questions as a prelude to answering them. I’m asking these questions because I have no idea and I hope to Hell someone else does.

I will conclude by saying that I don’t believe every answer must come before the change. Much if not most of the coming changes will occur just as all other changes have; unconsciously and by a combination of capable, pivotal figures as well as the unthinking reflexive nature of Humanity in aggregate. I think that is the very definition of a chaotic system. The future, then may be different than the sum of it’s parts and is likely only to be understood in retrospect. So when future is past we can look at it again and ponder how close to the mark we hit.

Thank you for your continued patience with my musings. Again, I apologize for my errors and oversights. I want to contribute to the discussion, not monopolize it, however, so I invite criticism and new ideas.

With respect,

Eric Gilmer



Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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