To Live Without Working

By 1985, machines will be capable of doing any work man can do. (Herbert Simon).

What happens when Herbert Simon’s thesis is fulfilled? It becomes too much! In Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut depicts a society in which a few highly trained engineers and managers monitor and develop an automated production system. The others, who cannot compete or interact with machines, have exactly what they need, properly assessed and calculated by the computers. They are kept busy by a permanent labour market programme with a choice between the army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (”Reeks and Wrecks”). There is no evil 1984-society, but an extraction of a welfare system where unemployment approaches one hundred percent. Vonnegut began his writing career with science fiction and this is probably how his book was perceived when it came out in 1952; today, it is only science: the combined development of computers, communication systems, robots, 3D printers, laser cutters and sensors provide fantastic opportunities to produce goods and services without employees. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee take up the issue of development and give examples such as Google’s self-driving car and IBM’s Jeopardy-winning computer. They provide constructive suggestions on how the disparity in income and social status can be reduced, but do not convince in terms of the new jobs that must be created to compensate those who have been streamlined. I would, therefore, go a step further: what happens in the long run, when all human labour becomes redundant and all jobs eventually disappear? I know of no rebuttal to Herbert Simon’s thesis, that there would be no human labour that cannot be replaced by machines. Work that is defined for a man will not be automated as a monolithic task; rather, it will be broken up into components, each of which is automated and coordinated into large assignments. Those who have irreplaceable expertise will ensure it is spread and transformed so that, even though it still exists, fewer and fewer are required to offer it. One example is the massive open online courses that are now offered to thousands of students; one course run can have more students than the teacher could otherwise educate over their entire working life within the current classroom model. Work will disappear gradually. Here are some consequences: first, we can deduct the labour cost of all the production of goods and services. Even those who still have jobs that are not automated will see wages move toward zero for two reasons: first, they are competing for the remaining jobs with those who have lost their jobs, which drives down wages. Secondly, the imminent risk of automation means that one cannot become too expensive because the jobs become automated when there are real savings to be made. Furthermore, production occurs more rapidly and with higher quality. The capital cost per unit produced is negligible, because a manufacturing system can produce the products individually (the parts are printed and assembled); the total number of units can be large, even if there are only a few examples made of each product. The same applies to services. There remains only the cost of energy and for products the cost of raw materials. For renewable energy, the cost goes to zero because it is inexhaustible. The production of goods will be dispersed, with each factory at an optimal distance between the commodity and the consumer to minimise transportation; services being provided from the places where the computer centres are located (by the sea, along the equator, where solar panels can provide electricity and the deep-sea cooling water, or in the north where there is an abundance of both electricity and cooling).

That leaves raw material costs, but the cost of extraction consists only of the right to access raw materials; work and transport are free of charge. Raw materials can be recovered with negligible cost when machines can sift and sort garbage and waste, as well as disassemble spent equipment; the necessary energy for the process is, as I have said, free. Also, your house may be demolished and rebuilt using machinery, again and again, according to changing tastes and new housing needs. The same applies to all infrastructure. Now, if the cost of labour were to disappear, it is also reasonable to expect that the return on capital would tend towards zero. Competition increases when everything is replicable and there is no competitive advantage for a long time. I also believe that intellectual property will be lost when machines find variants that go beyond the protection of an idea. What does copyright mean when a job is broken down into small pieces that can be assembled without traceability. Data analysis of large amounts of creative works such as music, texts and photos can provide rules that allow a computer to create new works (that cannot be traced back) that are analysed and synthesised together; for example, to compose new music in the spirit of both Bach and Skrillex. With the appropriate robots, computers can paint both as clumsily as Bazelitz and as elegantly as O’Keeffe, and with a 3D printer they can recreate all the sculptures ever made along with brand new ones. When people create new works, they are added to the large database of artistic works and incorporated immediately into new creations. The rules are developed through machine learning. The approach of analysing all works to create new ones is, of course, different than the human creative process. So what? What does it matter if the works cannot be distinguished from those created by humans? In the same way, democracy can be operated continuously by computers that listen, sense and adapt the rules and controls for maximum welfare, minimal poverty and the greatest happiness (the German Pirate Party calls it Verflüssigung der Demokratie – a continuous flow of decisions).

When will all this happen? As soon as the program runs, according to Herbert Simon: “In the computer field, the moment of truth is a running program; all else is prophecy”. It is a question of technological research and development. Even if it is possible to eliminate man from the equation, it does of course not mean that we must do so. It is enough that people generally choose people in front of cheaper and better machine production. For this to happen, a worldwide læstadian revival is necessary. Otherwise, a strange world will be created, where the only remaining task for us is to simply be humans; all other tasks are done cheaper and better mechanically. What about life and society, then? It is a great challenge, and neither engineers nor humanists are taking it on. Here are some issues we need to discuss before we enter into the second machine age and must resign ourselves to live without working. We can pay each other for giving a massage, holding dance classes or giving theatrical performances. The salary we can use to purchase interpersonal services from each other and the consumption is limited naturally by the time we have available. The currency corresponding to human time and attendance is not useful for the production system, because our work is useless for production. We depend on a production system of which we are no longer a part. How and to who do we pay for goods and services from the system, or are they distributed according to some democratically established criteria? Does it make sense to own a production system if there is no return, or does it become publicly owned? The only utility supplies are commodities: but who shall be entitled to charge the price of extraction? And what would they then be able to do with the money? Go to the opera around the clock? We are programmed to connect our time, our work, creativity, expertise and initiative with our standard of living, social status and life situation. When our effort is no longer worth anything, we cannot work our way up and change our lives. Who, then, gets to live in a villa with a sea view on the sunny side, and who must live in Ödestugu? We are heading towards a society that we do not know how it will work.

Something else entirely: a year ago, on 14 April, died Marcella Pattyn, 92, the last beguine in the world (read the fine obituary in The Economist, April 27, 2013). With her, ??died a way of life that has existed for 800 years. The beguines lived simply and worked in the community on the beguine farms. They supported themselves through craftsmanship and health care, possessed themselves their belongings and were free to leave the community. Last year, about a week after I read about Pattyn and read Vonnegut’s book, I visited Ghent where there are several extant beguine farms. Each farm consisted of small, charming houses with flowering courtyards set around a chapel on a larger lawn. Perhaps that is how we should live and work in the future: in a shielded area where we have community and can find meaning in each other’s being, with an emphasis on personal creativity and the rituals and practices for structuring life; for outside the walls we are not needed. An alternative is to get a dog.

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