Sunday, September 11, 2011

Living in the future means thinking like an sf writer, pt. 3

Douglas Rushkoff's post at (reposted at Dangerous Minds), Are Jobs Obsolete, discusses another aspect of "living in the future":
New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures—from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.

We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.

And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs—as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there’s something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.
And question it he does:
We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that’s even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high. Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings to get the empty houses off their books.

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff—it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.
He goes on to argue that "jobs, as such" are an artefact of the Industrial Revolution. And that maybe we ought to be thinking of them in that way.
We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do—the value we create—is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.

This sort of work isn’t so much employment as it is creative activity. Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations. We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another—all through bits instead of stuff. And we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff.

For the time being, as we contend with what appears to be a global economic slowdown by destroying food and demolishing homes, we might want to stop thinking about jobs as the main aspect of our lives that we want to save. They may be a means, but they are not the ends.
That's all very interesting-- and it's right out of a science fiction novel. Which seems appropriate, right, since we are, after all, "living in the future." But there's a serious hitch. In the US, we've been retreating ever more rapidly from being able to accept even the idea that human beings have a right to food, shelter, and clean water. So far are we USians from making food and shelter a human right: many cities are happily (or at least self-righteously) denying people similarly basic rights-- for instance, the right to urinate or defecate. (They do this by refusing to provide facilities for people lacking homes and then criminalizing urination and defecation that doesn't take place in a "private" space. Which pretty much makes it a crime to be homeless.) Recently, a special investigator for the UN excoriated the US for making homelessness the crime of the victim rather than the gratuitous, deliberate human rights violation it is.

So I'm wondering about the part Rushkoff mentions: the attachment in this country to punishment rather than reward as a means of administering and regulating status. The very existence of the homeless serves to make the merely hungry or those suffering from medical conditions because they can't afford treatment realize it could be worse. And after all, the threat of "worse" rather than the promise of "reward" is what keeps people in their places, right? Ressentiment is the universal super-glue, that prevents fluidity and the ability to shift gears when necessary. Following Rushkoff's thinking would be, well, revolutionary-- and for the right-wingers who are quick to accuse, nothing short of "class warfare." And lord knows, we couldn't have that here, in the US.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

It seems to me that Thomas Disch's novel 334 provides a dark view of such a future.

Josh said...

Synchronicity! I was just talking to a colleague about how, when Michael Harrington forty years ago predicted an end to work and money, he didn't mean we'd all be poor and unemployed. My colleague pointed out that Stanley Aronowitz in the '90s had a similarly sanguine take on The Jobless Future. But heck, so did The German Ideology.