Modernity Watch

The Dignity of Sloth

September 22, 2011

Multiple Pages
The Dignity of Sloth

Did you see this news story the other day?

An online game has helped determine the structure of an enzyme that could pave the way for anti-AIDS drugs.

The game, called Foldit, allows players to create new shapes of proteins by randomly folding digital molecules on their computer screens.

In the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, scientists write that they have been puzzled by the protein’s structure for over a decade.

But it took the online community just a few days to produce the enzyme’s model.

The name that leaps to mind here is Ragle Gumm, at least if you are an old Philip K. Dick addict.

Gumm is the hero of Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint, which my early-teen self consumed from the pages of New Worlds Science Fiction, a British pulp magazine. Gumm, resident of a cozy 1959 American suburb, makes a living by repeatedly winning the prize in a newspaper competition called “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?”

“In a world of smart machines, what is there for dull-witted humans to do?”

It turns out that Gumm’s reality is all fake. His real reality is the late 20th century, a time of interplanetary war. Gumm has the gift of figuring out where enemy missiles will strike. For complicated reasons, his military-intelligence employers have put him through certain cognitive adjustments, given him an illusory mid-20th-century environment, and dressed up the missile-strike calculations as a newspaper competition.

So we are catching up with Philip K. Dick. I need to hold onto something solid here, or I shall go off on a long Philip K. Dick tangent. He was one of the most imaginative of the mid-century sci-fi authors, with particular appeal to those of us inclined to speculations about what is really real. His influence has rippled down through the decades, apparent most obviously in movies such as The Matrix and Richard Linklater’s strange little gem Waking Life.

So here we have these gamers solving a difficult problem in molecular biology. Did they know that’s what they were doing? It seems they did; though there was no reason—I mean, no technical necessity—for them to. With a little imagination, the problem could have been dressed up as a Dungeons & Dragons-type exercise. Then the gamers would have been so many Ragle Gumms, having fun solving a brainteaser competition—for prizes! Making a living at it!

And there you have the solution to the jobs problem.

The jobs problem—ah, yes: the problem of getting Americans back to productive work, right?

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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