Worrying about Wetware
There is a silent revolution taking place in robotics, and automation in general. It is related not just the capabilities, but also the accessibility and affordability of the new means of production. Greater productivity is one of the results and the one most robo-evangelists cling to. The other is uncertainty. Our entire social and economic systems are predicated on working for income. This affects not just the life rhythms which human redundancy purports to improve, but also social status, consumption capacity and self-esteem. We will have to see if the revolution actually delivers on its promises, but even a partial result could lead to a hair-raising social upheaval, regardless of whether the final result is a net positive or not. In discussing past industrial revolutions, we often gloss over decades of labor unrest, migrations, community destruction and uncertainty in a few lines, with an intellectual carelessness more appropriate to Communist rationalizing of the piles of dead than humanist interest in the general welfare. People do not take well to harrowing transitions, especially if they appear to ultimately diminish them as independent actors. The new service economy jobs are not the same as the old, industrial ones (in numbers and in quality) and they are unlikely to support an extensive middle class as the West has become accustomed. Without that middle class, Western democracy will not be the same. We will see the continued rise of the piece-meal working “precariat”, such as the gig economy workers, and of people in make-work jobs in government and administration as a form of managerial distributism. Neither category is likely to have much political power and true agency. Even though a reduction in the cost of goods and an increase in quality will lead to better consumption, the poor today do not compare themselves to the kings of the past in their access to healthcare and communications. They compare themselves to others in society. The human mind stays with us and it is programmed to constantly assess its position and social status. This may lead to new conflicts, as well as new perversions, as new avenues of social status or asserting self-worth emerge, from becoming an object of social media voyeurism to giving in to addictions. Ultimately, we will have to make new choices, as the disconnect between labor added value and income will change the paradigm of thinking about population. How likely is democracy if you are not paying taxes? How can one finance universal basic income? Where does that leave fertility and the effects of fertility differentials on population evolution? And, finally, we need to remember Milton Friedman’s admonition that you can have immigration or welfare, but not both.