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.