The end of work as we know it

Even sex workers aren't safe

I read Player Piano in high school, when all of us were suburban kids were discovering Vonnegut. (We were also discovering Herman Hesse, for reasons I will never understand, and we talked about Slaughterhouse Five and The Glass Bead Game as if we were some sort of intellectuals. I read a couple of the Hesse books and found them dry and pointless. I loved Vonnegut, particularly God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.)

At any rate, even in the 1970s, Player Piano didn't seem that far away, and it was one of the formative books of my crazy political consciouness of the time, and it got me thinking, years later, about unemployment. When I was first out in San Francisco, all of my friends were busy -- and not many of them were working for pay at a traditional job. And I thought, as the nation went into a deep recession and everyone talked about creating jobs, that what people really needed was money, not jobs. For almost everyone I knew -- people involved in politics and art and theater and writing and troublemaking -- a job was just a way to pay the rent. And if we didn't have to work to make ends meet, so much the better. We all had a lot to do, much of which would never earn us any money; get rid of the damn jobs and we could do it all a lot better.

Yes, as Vonnegut made very clear, people got, and get, a lot of their self-worth from what they do for a living, particularly if it's skilled work. But maybe that's not the way it always ought to be -- particularly if the day when robots take over almost all manufacturing is rapidly approaching.

John Markoff of the New York Times has a mind-bending piece about robots taking over jobs that even a few years ago were too complicated to be done by machines:

 The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case for a rapid transformation. “The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine.” In their minds, the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today. The analogy is not only to the industrialization of agriculture but also to the electrification of manufacturing in the past century, Mr. McAfee argues.

The "debate" can go on as long as you want, but the reality is that a lot of what we now call "work" will soon be done by machines -- sooner than a lot of us think -- and that will mean, if nothing else changes, a nightmarish society where the gap between the rich and poor is even worse and the middle class is in a free-fall collapse. Consider:

In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings.

So who gets that $3.5 million? Not to be all Marxist or anything, (heaven forbid), but right now, under modern industrial capitalism, none of it goes to the displaced workers. In theory, the robots could allow them to do something else with their lives -- teach, or mentor kids, or paint, or learn to speak a couple new languages, or build a new house to retire in, or whatever. The robots don't need to be paid, and that "productivity savings" could go directly to the wealth of society as a whole, making life better for all of us. But it won't -- the whole $3.5 million is kept by the factory owner, and the displaced worker gets nothing -- except depression, a lower standard of living, and the opportunity to scramble for a job that takes less skill and pays less.

If we're going to survive as a stable society, two things are going to have to happen. We're going to have to accept that "work" in the traditional sense is not going to be the only, or even main, source of people's income -- and that's okay. And the only way that's going to work is if we mandate that the saving from more efficient technology go to everyone, not just the elite.

Pretty radical shit, huh? I must be out of my mind. Kind of like that ol' Commie Kurt was in 1952, when he saw this coming.





Workers of the world, RELAX!

Posted by marcos on Aug. 20, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

Perhaps the best way to get the workers to relax would be to give everyone a three day work week and readjust the financials so that they still get a living wage (off one job!) and give more quality time to raise the family!

Posted by Guestsf24hr on Aug. 26, 2012 @ 5:52 am

Otherwise we just lose further business to foreigners.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 26, 2012 @ 9:03 am

What Vonnegut described has already happened in several industries -- first in metal machining with the advent of CNC machines -- which is what Player Piano was about -- and later in other industries, of which printing comes to mind.

These industries formerly generated vast numbers of high-paying jobs requiring human skills and now are minor aspects of our economy.

The change did not occur primarily because of greed and pressure from industrialists. It occured through public expense in the form of defense contracts.

And the savings will only be realized for the industrialists who first adopt the technology, and only for a short period of time.

As wider adoption of the technology occurs, there is no savings but only greater competition; all accompanied by further decline in overall economic vitality.

Meanwhile, such technology is based on the availabiltiy of cheap energy, a commodity deeply entwined with hidden and deferred costs.

Posted by lillipublicans on Aug. 20, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

Makes progressive "philosophy" moot.

Posted by matlock on Aug. 20, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

Vonnegut got it 100% wrong. He thought we'd all be doing 10 hour weeks by now but in fact the exact opposite happened. We discovered "knowledge work" and now we all work 50 hour weeks.

You see, Tim, someone has to design and build all those clever robots. So yes, the dumb jobs are all done by robots or the Chinese, but the smart jobs are still done by Americans.

You know, Apple, Google, Intel, MicroSoft, Oracle. and guess What? - they're all just down the road from you, paying good wages for interesting jobs.

Kurt and you also overlook the American work ethic. OK, you may not have it and just write, but many of us want to work and be successful. Oh, but wait, I forgot, you don't like successful people.

Back in the 60's, the end of work was predicted. Couldn't have turned out more wrong. That's the thing with predictions.

Posted by Anonymous on Aug. 20, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

The MBAs think that they've finally beaten the geeks as they are thrashing through engineers fresh out of college the way that Newsom used to run through cocaine and white wine.

But it turns out that the ones who are doing simple knowledge work are leaving piles of burnt out and broke young adults in their wake and generating precious little value. The real money is in tying software value added to hardware in the field.

That said, I'm fortunate enough to be working for a researchy startup where I'm allowed to work 30 hours per week on site. The startup is staffed with adults.

There are no zip guns, no fooseball tables, no team building exercises or culture of corporate cult. Just adults of whom I lie in the median age (!) coming into work, giving a day's labor and having a life afterwards.

The MBAs are taking the economy for a ride, promising us that a time sponge economy of Zynga, Twitter and Facebook are substitutes for producing and adding real value. But they own the elections, own the government and own the two parties.

So it will be over their dead bodies that the economy transforms from an industrial revolution job and education structure towards one that is capable of providing the basics for all and allowing anyone to exceed above that.

Second Amendment, anyone?

Posted by marcos on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 7:57 am

I meant to refer to this post by Anonymous; I simply posted it in the wrong window.

Anonymous did not read Vonnegut's Player Piano; Anonymous has no basis for commenting on whether Kurt Vonnegut was right or wrong. That is abundantly clear from his comment especially with regard to American's work ethic.

Read the book -- not some Anonymous person's opinion of what the book says.

matlock has the same issue, except matlock never read Harry Bergeron, but he's heard that mention of the play is *very* *very* bad for progressives because it makes us question our philosophical guiding light, the late Kurt Vonnegut, and by extension, it makes us question ourselves and our deepest beliefs.

So there is a "Palovian" response to be detected here: Vonnegut... Bergeron.

In truth, the shallow and valueless beliefs are those held by the matlocks and anonymi of the world. The cognitive dissonance bubble waiting to be pricked so that it can ooze away all its fetid contents is the one surround the likes of them.

Posted by lilliipublicans on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 10:27 am

rightist beliefs.

(Also, meant "Pavlovian" and "one which surrounds" in last paragraph)

Posted by lilliipublicans on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 10:46 am

He predicted the end of work and now we work more than ever.

He may even have understood science but he didn't understand human nature or the work ethic of Americans.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 10:48 am

you ever post make any sense anywhere you post it?

Posted by matlock on Aug. 22, 2012 @ 1:45 am

Obviously you haven't read it either.

Posted by lillipublicans on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 4:24 am

The progressive code book, it's a lot like the book 1984.

Posted by matlock on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 5:43 am


You've never been a soul-searcher, have you Mr. Redmond?

Posted by Hesse Reader on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 7:01 am

that everything Tim knows about manufacturing (which is to say, nothing) he learned in a creaky old novel and the New York Times. Stick to your homo-erotic worship of Ross, Tim. The rest of us have work to do.

Posted by Chromefields on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 8:05 am

hack writer and ageing hippie who hasn't done a real day's work in his life, and would be uselessly jobless for life if and when SFBG folds?

Posted by Anonymous on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 8:11 am

imputations of homosexuality as an insult. Anti-women, anti-Black, anti-democracy, anti-family, pro-domestic violence prosecution: what ever gets you another McDonalds on your corner, right?

Posted by lillipublicans on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 8:56 am

You certainly read a lot into the word "homoerotic." Did someone forget to burp you this morning? Easy, tiger. Stress kills.

Posted by Chromefields on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 10:12 am

Perhaps that's why Player Piano made such a big impression on me.

Another bit of writing which made a big impression on me -- though I can scarcely claim to be the master of that work -- is Branko Horvat's "The Political Economy of Socialism."

And the quote I found most compelling in that book was one I seem to remember being attributed to Karl Marx -- yes another one of those intellectuals with no background in manufacturing -- but perhaps I'm mistaken. It went something to the effect of "man can only make sense of his life when engaged in productive behavior."

Whoever said it knew well what he saw speaking of. Probably the fact that so much of our economy is *not* based on anything remotedly productive -- most of the stuff "Anonymous" lauds as really great -- is the reason why so many people are on heavy psych drugs nowadays.

Posted by lillipublicans on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 8:47 am

The left-winger chooses to read only books that reinforce his prejudices and so receives not education but only reinforcement of bias. Throw in some confirmation bais and it is little surprise that people like you have so little critical and original thought to offer.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 10:26 am

The problem is that while some Americans are working far more hours (some because of tech culture, some because they need more hours of work to make ends meet since real wages for many jobs haven't kept pace with the cost of living) many are still unemployed. There aren't enough "knowledge jobs" for the entire American workforce. I'm all in favor of productivity gains and in manual labor being replaced with robots -- as long as the economic benefits go to everyone, particularly the displaced workers, and not just to a few.

Posted by tim on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 12:24 pm