What will we do when the jobs end? They will, you know. Jobs have been disappearing throughout human history. The rate of job obsolescence shifted into high gear during the 18th and 19th Centuries, and increased geometrically during the 20th. The increase in job obsolescence is likely to go exponential during the 21st Century.
Societal changes caused the disappearance of Baby Farmer, Bear Leader, Crossing Sweeper, Dog Whipper, Feeder of Lice, Glimmer Man, Groom of the Stool, Grubber, Herb Strewer, Poundmaster, Priest Hunter, Professional Mourner, and Troubadour. Thanks to technology and automation, the jobs Ash Burner, Beamer, Bematist, Bobbin Boy, Breaker Boy, Broomsquire, Bullocky, Burlak, Computer, Cooper, Doffer, Donkey Puncher, Elevator Operator, Engagé, Fendersmith, Gandy Dancer, Gong Farmer, Hurrier, Ice Cutter, Iceman, Knocker-upper, Lamp Trimmer, Lamplighter, Law-writer, Link Boy, Mud Clerk, Mule Scavenger, Peddler, Pinsetter, Powder Monkey, Printer’s Devil, Resin Worker, Rower Woman, Runemaster, Scribe, Soda Jerk, Switchboard Operator, Teamster, Telegraphist, and Wheelwright ceased to exist.
Baby Farmers neither planted nor harvested babies. A Computer was once a person whose job was to perform mathematical calculations. The machines that now bear the name were originally called electronic computers. Dog Whippers did use whips to chase strays away from church services, but Donkey Punchers didn’t punch donkeys or any other animals. A Glimmer Man didn’t glimmer nor did a Gandy Dancer dance. An Iceman was not one of the X-men. A Knocker-upper was a human alarm clock who carried a long stick he could use to tap on second story windows to wake sleepers for work. Hotels used to employ people to issue “wake-up calls”, but machines have taken over that job too. Some of us are old enough to remember Peddlers (from the Fuller Brush Company), Soda Jerks and Switchboard Operators (for long-distance calls before Area Codes). Teamsters once drove teams of draft animals; they now drive trucks.
Eliminated by Evolution
It’s easy to find amusement in the names of obsolete jobs, but they were meaningful and necessary in the past. It wasn’t their names that caused them to disappear. Most faded because we learned easier and/or cheaper and/or more effective approaches … usually by replacing human and/or animal power with machines. Ice Cutters and Icemen disappeared when the refrigerator replaced the icebox. Automation in the textile industry eliminated several jobs … many of which were dangerous work done by children. Some jobs changed and grew with the country and the society. More Teamsters drive trucks than ever drove horses … but, we are on the cusp of a time when the trucks will drive themselves.
During the Industrial Revolution, machine power replaced human and animal power. Each successive Technological Revolution replaces one set of technologies with a more advanced set of technologies. The relatively recent (World War II through the Present) Digital Revolution led to the Information Revolution and Automation.
In 1975, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, observed that the number of components per integrated circuit doubled every year and suggested that they would continue to do so. His prediction came to be known as Moore’s Law. Later, Intel executive David House predicted that chip performance would double every 18 months (more transistors per board plus each chip being faster). Whether it was every year and a half or every two years, the basic prediction of Moore’s Law has been accurate for a long time.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st Century, the rate of improvement is slowing. Is Moore’s Law finally failing? Maybe. We are probably reaching the limits of silicon chip technology. The Laws of Physics for any continuum may, indeed, be inviolate within that continuum. (While you’re within The Matrix, you’re bound by its rules.) But, are we sure of the exact rules? Newtonian Mechanics defined the rules … until it was supplanted by Special Relativity, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics. Without Relativity, GPS wouldn’t work and your TV would be blurry. Without Quantum Mechanics, your computer and cell phone … indeed, most of modern electronics … would be impossible.
Are we nearing the end of technology? Will its effect on our lives return to the more manageable rate we enjoyed in the middle of the 20th Century? Will technological change and “the machines” stop taking our jobs? Don’t count on it. Our technology has built up so much momentum that its application will keep changing our lives at an ever-increasing rate through most of this century … even if the science stopped progressing tomorrow. Our lives are already changing faster than most of us suspect. (I experienced a personal example of surprising change recently. After learning that I need a new crown for one of my molars, I speculated about how long it would be before they’d be able to make a new crown using a 3D printer. My dentist said, “Oh, we already do that at our other office.”)
Part of our plunging headlong into an unimaginable future is merging with our technology. We’ve seen an explosion in advanced prosthetics. Research in the area is moving us toward merging with our machines; not just leaning on them. How far this will go is anybody’s guess … and those guesses will probably fall short of or completely miss what really happens. (Such is the curse of Prophecy.) We may become more than human or less. More likely, we will be just human … viewing cybernetic replacements and enhancements as we once viewed prosthetic legs and bifocals.
Another possibility is that some of our machines will gain some level of self-awareness. Who knows how or why a machine might become self-aware. (No one has any real idea how or why you and I are self-aware.) My less than humble opinion is that non-organic self-awareness … or an emulation of self-awareness that is indistinguishable from organic self-awareness … is a matter of when; not if. When one of our machines becomes self-aware, we will have a new problem … or, at least, a new twist on a very old problem. We will have a new type of being to consider. Most humans and many animals show evidence of self-awareness. As a species, we have not always treated other humans and most animals too kindly. How will we treat inorganic beings? How will they treat us? Let’s hope that each “species” will treat the other as partners rather than slaves.
The rate of technological change is accelerating and will continue to do so. We have reached the “end of technology” many times. Each time, some new knowledge has led to a new technology. Domestication changed human power to animal power. The Industrial Revolution replaced both human and animal power with machine power. Quantum Physics replaced Classical Physics leading us to the Information Age. If we are at or near the end of Moore’s Law, we are almost certainly close to another knowledge discontinuity that will trigger the next technology. In his books, “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave“, Alvin Toffler presented this tendency and its effect on us.
In the past, knowledge discontinuities have been followed by a related discontinuity in technology. The delay between the new knowledge and its related technology has become shorter and shorter with each pairing. The same is true for the time period between knowledge discontinuities. Social/Political/Cultural discontinuities follow more slowly looking more like evolution than revolution. Indeed, two or more knowledge/technology discontinuities may be needed to produce an obvious discontinuity in society, politics, and culture. Regardless of the speed of transformation in each area in the past, there is no reason to believe that the pattern is not the rule. Our knowledge and technology will continue to change at an ever-increasing rate … and our social, political, and cultural changes will have an ever-increasing difficulty keeping pace.
Who’s next? Sooner or later, every single one of us! Constant training and retraining won’t be enough. Lifelong learning won’t be enough. At most, only a minimum of human effort will be required to fulfill all of our needs and most of our wants. Our current system that ties livelihood to employment will collapse.
What Shall We Do?
Will we hide from the truth … ignoring our condition until it’s too late … then “end it all”? Will we live in private fortresses … ever fearful of attack on our well-being … ever watchful for the wolves at the door? Will most of us live in constant battle over the scraps thrown to us by an ever dwindling “employed class”? No matter how inevitable each may sound, none of these scenarios is tolerable. What will we do when the jobs end?
For the moment, let’s consider “jobs” to be a resource … something we need to maintain our way of living. In the distant past, when a resource (e.g., land, water, fuel, food, etc.) became scarce in one place, we moved to another place. Later, when we tried to move to another place, we found that somebody else was already there. Sometimes, the resources were sufficiently plentiful that we were able to combine to form a larger, more effective society. More often than not, the resources were limited and conflict ensued. In the recent past, we’ve used technology to expand our resources and use them more effectively. (We still have wars, but they’re fought for less practical reasons … ideologies, philosophies, political power, etc.)
So far, migrating to a place where the “jobs” resource is more abundant works. The migration may be literal … farm workers moving north; factory workers moving south. The migration may be figurative … moving to a new job via education and training. Neither approach will be successful for much longer. The more labor intensive jobs are being filled by automatons. Old jobs are disappearing and new jobs are appearing faster than education and training can provide a transition.
Consider these three graphs:
They represent the Growth in Technology (which you’ve already seen above), the Growth in World Population, and the Increase in Life Expectancy over time. The timelines are different (1400 AD to the Present, 1000 AD to the Present, and 100 AD to the Present respectively), but it’s the general shape of the three curves that’s important. When we remove the scale and superimpose the graphs, one thing becomes obvious. All three are going asymptotic to infinity at some point in the not too distant future. If these trends continue, technological growth, world population, and life expectancy will become essentially infinite. (A mathematician will be quick to point out that an asymptote never actually reaches its limiting value. An engineer will as quickly remind us that the asymptote will get close enough to its limit for all practical … or, in the case of our three curves, impractical … purposes.)
Ultimately, Growth in World Population is limited by physical space. Because the Earth is finite, there is a finite limit to how many of us can live here, Unless/Until we merge with our technology, life expectancy probably has a finite limit. The technology curve (highlighted in red on the right) is more likely to continue. We have moved well into the Fourth Industrial Revolution already. Each of the preceding revolutions has seemed like the last … but wasn’t. It is likely this will continue. The journey to new technology is one in which you don’t know where you’re going until you get there. Sooner or later (probably sooner), we will get close enough to a Technological Singularity that the “working for a living” equation will be broken.
How Shall We Live?
If the “working for a living” equation breaks; if only a small number of us will be needed for production, how will we survive? If we behave intelligently as a world economy and society, we will not only survive, we will prosper.
The World’s Population crossed the 7.5 billion (i.e., 7,500,000,000) mark on April 25, 2017. As I write this sentence, it’s approaching 7.6 billion. By the time I publish this article, it will have passed 7.6 billion. How will we care for all these people? Easily … if we have the will and the enlightened self-interest. The nations of the Earth can probably feed, clothe, and shelter everyone now. On January 18, 2016, Oxfam International reported that the 62 richest people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the World’s population. By January 17, 2017, the 62 had become 8. The problem isn’t our production capacity. It’s our archaic approach to distribution.
The world’s various socio-economic systems are based on a scarcity of resources. We assume that we still have a scarcity of resources? Is that assumption accurate? Consider the question of food. The top 10 food producing countries … pictured on the left (not to scale) … export enormous quantities of food; import enormous quantities of food; and waste enormous quantities of food. Partly because of the waste, at least 9% of the total number of people in these countries don’t get enough to eat. Across the World, over 14% of the population are hungry and 33% of the food is wasted. There is enough food to feed the World, but with an economy based on scarcity, nearly a billion members of our population don’t get enough to eat. We can and must find a better way.
A Vision of a Better Way
In 1964, television screenwriter and producer, Gene Roddenberry created a future reality in which one’s ability to live was no longer linked to one’s job. In that future, Earth was a united world in which poverty, hunger, crime, and most disease no longer existed. In that future, Earth was a member of an interstellar community. In that future, one’s vocation was based on one’s interests and goals; not one’s need to “earn a living”. That was the future of Star Trek, the original series (TOS) and the many television series and movies that followed … and continue.
The timeline for TOS was the late 23rd Century; The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space 9 (DS9), and Voyager were set in the early 24th Century; Enterprise, the last series on regular TV, is a prequel to TOS set in the 22nd Century. Although Star Trek was billed as an”action-adventure” series (gotta sell those commercial slots), Roddenberry created modern-day morality plays and a possible future that was neither utopian nor dystopian. People … human or otherwise … are neither at their best nor their worst. They’re just people.
In the TOS and especially in the 24th Century series (TNG, DS9, and Voyager), citizens of the United Federation of Planets wanted for nothing, but still had “jobs” … not because they had to work for a living, but because they wanted to work for a fuller life. Mark Twain said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” He was right as far as he went, but it goes beyond that. People have a need to engage in productive behavior. Being productive makes us happy and healthy. (Releasing my inner curmudgeon isn’t the only reason I write these articles. )
So … We have 300 Years to Plan, Right?
Barring a visit by Vulcans, it may take a few centuries to figure out interstellar travel, but what about closer to home? The problem with science fiction is that it has often led to science fact … that then goes beyond the fiction. Cellphone inventor, Martin Cooper, was inspired by Dick Tracy comics. Flip phones and bluetooth headsets were inspired by Star Trek. Now, we have phones in smart watches … Dick Tracy’s 2-way wrist radio. We can get computer assistance by talking to Siri and Alexa. There were many science fiction stories about humans going to the Moon, but reality had an extra twist. The whole world was able to participate in the Apollo 11 landing because a TV camera went to the Moon as well.
In 2018, it’s difficult to imagine a time when world productivity will exist without human labor. By 2020, it may be a lot easier to imagine. By 2050, it will be obvious. If we continue to ignore the “handwriting on the wall“, it will be painfully obvious.
The Fifth Industrial Revolution
Each Industrial Revolution has been shorter than the preceding one. The first lasted about 105 years; the second about 99 years; the third about 21 years. We’re in the midst of the fourth and can begin to see possible manifestations of the fifth. Of course, we cannot really predict much about the Fifth Industrial Revolution. Each Industrial Revolution (indeed, any revolution) represents a discontinuity.
Of one thing we can be reasonably certain … the next Industrial Revolution will require a lot of energy. With replicators that produced food, clothing, tools, spare parts, etc. … holodecks that produced artificial environments for entertainment or research … hand-held diagnostic tools for medical, engineering, or scientific analysis … not to mention starships to explore the Galaxy, the Star Trek future consumed an unimaginable amount of energy.
Faster than light starships were small cities powered by matter-antimatter reactors. On Earth and other highly populated planets, most energy came from the same source as most of our energy today … the local star. We call our local star the Sun. Until solar cells were invented in the second half of the 20th Century, we used energy from the Sun that had been stored in fossil fuels, wind, water, and the Earth itself. Now, energy generated directly from sunlight is becoming more efficient … and, therefore, cheaper every year. Wind power has become more efficient too. Efficiency in our use of fossil fuels has leveled off. At some point, renewables will replace fossil fuels. Consider these estimates.
Assuming the predictions in the table are accurate, the cost of fossil fuels will exceed the cost of renewable energy sources between 2017 and 2118 inclusive. Unless all news sources everywhere missed it, we didn’t reach the tipping point last year. Excluding 2017, the average year on the chart is 2039. I think that’s conservative. Hawaii has passed a law requiring 100% renewable energy by 2045. In 2017, 23% of Texas’ electricity came from the wind. (One of the 3 main electrical grids in the United States is completely within the state of Texas.) Other states are pushing forward on renewable sources as well. The efficiency of electrical devices … including those specifically designed to save energy … increases with each new model.
Hopefully, the United States is one of the countries that will first ride the wave of the Fourth Industrial Revolution into the Fifth. When one revolution transits into the next, the resulting discontinuity accelerates and modifies trends. Maybe a major breakthrough in power storage will rise out of electric car projects. (The Sun isn’t always shining and the wind doesn’t always blow.) Maybe someone (Human or A.I.) will solve the problem of controlled and safe fusion. Maybe we’ll discover a heretofore unknown source of near infinite clean energy. Predictions of the when-is-it-going-to-happen variety are particularly untrustworthy. The what-is-going-to-happen is a little easier. If we have the will … and the sanity as a species … we will develop and/or discover a source (or combination of sources) of energy that is clean, nearly limitless, and essentially free … an Energy Discontinuity. Can a true Technological Singularity be far behind?
Anyone who has ever tried to navigate the streets in and around the city of Boston understands what “You can’t get there from here” means. I think the city has a secret law that says, “No straight streets and no direct routes allowed.” Getting from today’s world to the one that will exist after the Technological Singularity is the sociological equivalent of finding your way around Boston.
As if path weren’t difficult enough, “Here be Dragons“. The dragons have names. Chronophobia, Cyberphobia, Neophobia, and Technophobia are vicious … but, the most dangerous and deadly of dragons is called Xenophobia.
The Scarcity Fallacy is a side effect of our long-past preagricultural and preindustrial history. Our economic system perpetuates that myth, but that can be … will be … fixed either by reason or by chaos. The only way to avoid the chaos is to conquer the Dragon … an irrational fear and distrust of anything that seems strange, different, or foreign.
Fear is a physiological reaction resulting from perceived danger. If the perception is accurate, it can save one’s life. If the perception is inaccurate, it can cause a lot of trouble. The perceptions are, for the most part, learned behavior. Throughout our evolutionary history we learned to fear a lot of things … attractive plants that can kill us … animals that could rip us to shreds … other humans competing for limited resources. Those fears saved our lives and the lives of our families and our tribes.
Those fears no longer serve us. Fears that once saved our lives now threaten our world. Plants that kill when eaten can be attractive seasonal decorations. We have outlived most of the most terrifying species of animals and share our homes with their tiniest descendants. The “others” who once threatened our livelihood have become our tribe.
Unfortunately, the fears linger below the surface of our consciousness and spread beyond their original, useful scope into areas that make them as harmful as they were once helpful. Caution that helped us avoid poisonous plants can become toxiphobia or anorexia nervosa. Avoiding dangerous animals may morph into ailurophobia, arachnophobia, chiroptophobia, cynophobia, and dozens of other irrational fears of animals. When we fail to notice, forget, or simply ignore how big the tribe has become, fear of other people becomes the Dragon. Lacking a rational reason to fear and hate the “others”, we invent all sorts of irrational reasons.
Religion, a particular system of faith and worship, is one of our more popular excuses. At their core, all religions have the same message … compassion. Anyone who believes that his or her religion teaches fear and hatred of those with different beliefs is misguided. Such a person is either picking and choosing those parts of a particular scripture that suits her or his biases, taking the scripture out of context, or using religion as a weapon. Spirituality is not black and white. If there is a Judgement, it is not ours to dispense. It is presumptuous … perhaps sacrilegious … to claim to know the criteria of the All That Is.
Nationality, the status of belonging to a particular nation, is another great reason we manufacture to feed the Dragon. Nationality is not the same as Cultural Identity. Cultures cross national boundaries, blend, blur, and change. Nationality is a political construct. The lines are on maps; not the planet.
The Dragon is nurtured by those who focus on Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Politics, etc., etc., etc. Sources of the Dragon Xenophobia are manufactured and amplified by those who seek Power and/or cower in Fear. Just as genetic diversity protects and strengthens each of us; so too does diversity of all types strengthen us as a people and a world. All messages opposing diversity are “fake news” being used by the few to confuse, intimidate, and control the many.
The jobs will end. The transition from living being a privilege based on having a job to living being a right based on existence will not be easy. Unless we choose a path that leads to stagnation or destruction, we will move to a world that’s more humane … and, therefore, more human … than what we have now.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
Produced by Phil Spector, Yoko Ono & John Lennon
If we bow to the Dragon Xenophobia, we destroy not only a promising future, but our present and the most recent half-century of our past. Along with Walt Kelly’s character Pogo we will have to lament: