There was something pathetically nostalgic at the specter earlier this month of fast-food workers demanding compensation to the tune of $15 an hour for performing jobs that require almost no skills beyond not being in a coma. It recalled a halcyon age very long ago when management depended on menial labor, when a general strike of unskilled workers could bring bosses to their knees.
But now a company called Momentum Machines is touting a device that can allegedly shoot out 360 custom-ordered and fully wrapped burgers per hour, rendering the very idea of an exploited and undercompensated “fast-food worker” a quaint relic of a musty bygone age. According to the company’s website, “It does everything employees can do except better.” The machine will also presumably never call in sick, never get an order wrong, and will not tamper with food due to spite or boredom. It will also never demand a raise. According to the company’s co-founder, “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
As someone who worked a string of dirty, low-paying, soul-smashing jobs—including a stint as a French-fry chef at Wendy’s—to put myself through college, I bear witness that there is nothing remotely noble about being a menial laborer. It is a rancid myth, only a notch or two up the evolutionary ladder from the myth of the noble savage.
While at college, I had my first encounters with a loathsomely clueless and punchably arrogant breed of born-bourgeois Marxist academics, who prattle endlessly about the proletariat’s virtues but have conveniently managed to insulate themselves from the rotten vicissitudes of working-class existence. You know the type—they reflexively use “capitalism” and “corporations” as pejoratives. They seem to have been energized and ennobled by the economic crash of 2007, blaming it on a “crisis of capitalism” rather than more likely suspects such as fiat currency, global finance, unsustainable government debt, offshoring, and unchecked immigration.
But most importantly, this might not have been a “crisis of capitalism” so much as it was a crisis of human capital. The fact is, technology is rapidly rendering human labor next to worthless.
Many of the snarkier, radicalized neo-Marxists that emerged in the recession’s wake are furious at “capitalism” for the fact that they owe $100,000 in student loans yet can’t find jobs, when they should be furious at themselves for digging a $100K debt to bankster gangsters all for the dubious privilege of tacking up useless sociology degrees to their studio-apartment walls.
For some reason, despite all of Marxism’s historical failings, these dupes still consider Ol’ Karl “relevant”—more relevant than ever, if you can swallow that without choking. But Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto back when employers depended on manual labor—in other words, back when hammers and sickles were actually useful devices.
But technology has rendered Marx supremely irrelevant, because it has rendered the value of human labor irrelevant.
Whatever blue-collar American jobs haven’t already been shipped overseas are rapidly being supplanted by embarrassingly more efficient hi-tech gizmos, thingamabobs, and doodads. Cashiers have been pushed aside in favor of self-checkout scanners. Factory workers and fruit-pickers are getting pink slips to make way for robots. Taxi drivers will soon be run over by driverless cars. And soldiers are increasingly useless when you can push a button and summon a drone.
Some argue that these developments are ultimately good for workers, that it will free up more time for them to get a better education and adapt to our new “knowledge economy.” This presumes that much of the populace is educable, that those whose menial skills aren’t needed anymore will suddenly and magically muster the cognitive skills necessary to cut it in a more brain-intensive vocation.
But it is not only blue-collar jobs that technology is chewing up and spitting out. Tech-oriented jobs such as “data entry” and “word processing”—ubiquitous only a few decades ago—hardly exist anymore. Increasingly sophisticated computer programs have likewise sent many jobs in accounting and finance the way of the dodo bird. A California company called Blackstone Discovery has developed software than can allegedly analyze over a million legal documents for less than $100,000, which should strike fear in the hearts of lawyers coast to coast. And IBM’s Watson supercomputer is well on its way to becoming the world’s best medical diagnostician. There is even software that will make writing and reporting obsolete, which is confoundingly problematic for me because the fast-food robots will make it impossible for me to return to my lowly post as a French-fry chef.
More and more, workers can no longer be exploited because they offer nothing worth exploiting. There will be no need for labor, and thus no need to exploit it. In a not-too-distant dystopian future where machines have supplanted laborers, the great bulk of humanity will be left idle and abjectly dependent—parasites who can only take because they have nothing to give.
It’s quite a wretched, gloomy scenario. What’s the answer? I’m not sure there is one. A very human frailty lies in believing that every question has an answer, every problem a solution. In this case, nearly all humans except a tiny technological elite may have ceased to serve any evolutionary function, at least in an economic sense.
Workers of the world, goodbye. You have nothing to lose but your jobs.
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