Always wondrous were ads for gadgets that would eliminate drudgery and free up the woman of the house (it was always a woman) to live a life of leisure. The rhetoric of machines that would eliminate soul-numbing work captured my attention at a very early age because all you had to do was extrapolate...wouldn't it be cool if dad didn't have to go to work and he and mom would be there when I got home from school...doing...whatever it was they wanted to do? What would my world be like when I was an old man of 30?
As I began to study the history of the Industrial Revolution up to present days, I found this rhetoric of labor and machines a constant: at some point in the future - possibly my own future - we would enter another Epoch: robots and computers (same thing) would do all the horrible work, leaving humans to create, socialize, dream. How would the bills get paid? I didn't know, never having paid bills. I figured the money went to others...who worked. But: their work would have gone away too, right?
Everyone would be playing games, painting, writing poetry or learned papers and books, learning new languages or music, or joyously goofing off.
It doesn't look like it's going to happen like They Promised, does it? Why?
Well, the simple answer: instead of the populace understanding that any machine that puts people out of work was invented not only by a genius and his team, but the genius and his team built upon millions of hours of previous work by previous toilers and tinkerers and basic scientific research funded by everyone - all of who were supported by farmers and mothers - we instead allowed the idea that whoever could buy the biggest and fastest machines, owned All Of That.
There seem to be a few hundred choice entry points to tell this story to myself and y'all, but for now I'll cut to December of 2012.
In one of his shorter posts for the NYT, Krugman published "Rise of the Robots" on December 8, 2012. He notes that the "college premium" had been stagnant for a few years. In other words, the payoff for getting a degree was not showing its previous earning power in the marketplace. When he first started writing about income inequality twenty years earlier, it was about the gap between laborers and CEOs and other assholes, like hedge fund managers. Now it seems to be between workers and capital...and OMG Marxism! The dreaded Karl Marx, hibernating for a hundred years, suddenly stirs. Production rises, income of labor stays the same and then begins to lose. Why? Automation. Read the article. "If this is the wave of the future, it makes nonsense of just about all the conventional wisdom on reducing inequality." Education won't help when what we really have are a few people who own machines. The biggest and fastest machines. Those with the biggest and fastest machines are reaping all the rewards; everyone else gets the shaft. You buy the biggest machines, you pay 100-1000 of the brightest PhDs to collect data, write algorithms, maintain the data servers...you win! Everyone else is fucked.
Jaron Lanier, computer whiz/prodigy/generalist/genius says he was there (and he was, as numerous books on the history of Silicon Valley attest to) when this really got going and he and his famous friends thought it was going to be this incredible "information is free" thing that would make everyone's lives better. Now he says they were horribly wrong. Because it turns out that the NSA, Wal-Mart, Facebook, Goldman Sachs...all bought the biggest, fastest computers and hired an army of gifted geeks. He has ideas about how to save us, and I think they're good to begin our thinking with.
I've followed Lanier's career for a long time. I think he's one of the best and most interesting thinkers in the world, but rather than talk about his ideas, I'd rather you took the time to watch what he's saying about the existential situation we're in now:
Here's 4 minutes on "Why Facebook isn't free."
Here he is interviewed by Andrew Keen, about Lanier's book Who Owns The Future? It's about 10 minutes and 40 seconds:
Finally, for 27 minutes or so - I think you'll find it well worthwhile - he's interviewed about his books and his changed thinking and what we might do to remedy this "jobless recovery" situation. NB around 5:20 to 6:00, in talking about the structural changes from Kodak to Instagram: "We pretend that the people who do the work don't exist." Another notable moment: from around 8:00 on: "honesty in accounting" could solve the mess the middle class is in. Also a fascinating point: around 11:30: "levies" and their history:
I have a bee in my bonnet and I'm afraid you're going to be hearing more from the OG on income inequality, American fascism, mob mentality, robots/automation/computers, Real Wealth vs. Money, the college loan bubble, Missing Public Discussions, and social fallout of Winner-Take-All Hypercapitalism and Privateeing, and ideas about how we might extricate ourselves from rising misery.