Modernity Watch

The Dignity of Sloth

September 22, 2011

Wrong! The jobs problem—the real jobs problem—is the one described with icy clarity by Douglas Rushkoff in this striking commentary on the other day:

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.

The real jobs problem is giving some meaning to the lives of the—what? forty percent? sixty percent? eighty percent?—of the adult population for which an artificial-intelligence economy (self-checkout supermarkets, self-driving vehicles, remote-control warfare) has no use.

Rushkoff goes all Marx on us, telling us that in the new world of leisure we shall hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and criticize after dinner…or at least the modern equivalents in an overeducated American’s mind:

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.

The blogger Half Sigma points out Rushkoff’s fallacy:

He makes it sound a lot better than it is. Most people lack the IQ to “write books” or “educate and inspire one another.” Of course, even the low IQ can solve problems, but the only problems they can solve seem trivial and ridiculously easy to those of higher IQs.

Half Sigma goes on to suggest that we might be able to set up compelling computer games that, while pointless in themselves, manage to keep the left side of the bell curve off the streets. The cognitively oriented middle classes might be put to “work” playing games that solve isomorphic problems, like Ragle Gumm, or like those gamers who figured out the anti-AIDS enzyme. A small aristocracy of the super-smart would have real jobs.

Back when Philip K. Dick was writing Time Out of Joint, people were already talking about automation causing mass unemployment. In a world of smart machines, what is there for dull-witted humans to do? And then, in a world of really smart machines, what is there for even quite intelligent people to do? Everyone thought such a world would come to pass soon. As often happens, their expectations were not false, only a few decades premature.

Half Sigma points out a cute inversion: In the pre-modern world, a small aristocracy lived idle lives while the masses toiled; in our grandchildren’s world, a small aristocracy will have real, significant, important work to do while the masses are idle.

How will those masses squeeze some meaning out of their lives? If you thought the concept “dignity of labor” was a bit of a stretch, wait ’til we have to grapple with the dignity of sloth.


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