Lately I have been reading a series of science fiction novels which are set thousands (or tens of thousands) of years from now in the fictional world of the far future. In this imagined future, humankind exists alongside of sentient computers which have stupendous quasi-divine intelligence, vastly greater than that of people. The artificial minds regard humankind as a combination of parent, pet, and childlike ward–however, at the same time the supercomputers are controlled by (or at least work with) the world’s wealthiest citizens who use this considerable advantage to consolidate their hold on elite positions and rare resources. The book’s writer was (is?) a lawyer so many of the books’ problems involve lawsuit-style disputes over who controls what property in the face of complex rules and circumstances (some of which are hilarious: for example when two entities merge, they literally integrate together as a hive-mind superorganism). Many scenes involve the hapless human protagonists standing aside baffled as supercilious machines argue over their fate (in impenetrable jargon, of course)—a tableau instantly familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with lawyers. The work is tremendously entertaining and already out of print—so you will need an e-reader or a used book store if you want to find out what happens.
As with most science fiction, the series of novels reminds me not so much of the world of the far future (concerning which… who knows?) but rather of the present. We are currently living through a great revolution: every year our machines become substantially more powerful and more intelligent. Thanks to devices of all sorts, today’s world is ever more efficient which, in turn, makes the price of goods and services cheaper. Although it sometimes seems otherwise, production costs for just about everything keep going down (even though many industries are coming under the influence of cartels and monopolies). At first the growing utility of machines was only evident in industry where machines and industrial robots started performing the tasks of assembly line workers (to make textiles, refrigerators, automobiles, airplanes or such), but now computer programs are taking over for accountants, librarians, stock-brokers, and bookkeepers. Inhumanly precise robots can now even do the work of surgeons, sculptors, and pastry chefs.
Ostensibly we are all beneficiaries of this revolution. Economic and moral philosophers have talked about a “post-scarcity” society where all essentials are cheaply provided to everyone and the only premium is on luxury goods and services. It is reasonable to argue that citizens of the first world (and even in parts of the developing world) are entering such an economic paradigm: everyone has a pleather couch, a big screen TV, and all the corn-based junk food they can cram in their pantry. Yet somehow Netflix and Doritos lose their savor when nobody has a worthwhile job. Technological change and attendant globalization are causing tremendous inequality as labor becomes irrelevant and capital becomes more important. It is more than just a political canard that the middle class is disappearing.
Secretaries, factory drudges, and travel agents are beginning to seem archaic–like scribes and icemen. If such trends continue oncologists, soldiers, writers, radiologists, and actuaries will begin to disappear as well. Carefully combing the daily news, one increasingly reads about breakthroughs which allow computer programs and elaborate machinery to efficiently do white collar jobs. Here is an example article about how stock traders are being replaced by cold inhuman computers (which, strangely, still contrive to be more likeable than the traders). Soon the only people who will be productive will be the super-elites who own robotic factories, proprietary software, and energy production facilities (and consequently everything else).
Of course the hollowing out of the American middle class and the rise of the super billionaires is not only due to more effective technology. Globalization of world labor markets and the afore-mentioned cartels (and rent-seeking) are also factors. Expensive machines do not have all the jobs: it is cheaper to outsource light manufacturing overseas where inexpensive labor and minimal regulation ensure maximum profits. Yet, it seems the day is coming when society becomes so stratified that there will be few ways to enter the top echelon of society. Capital & equity will have meaning. Labor and innovation will be worthless.
Of course maybe I am being paranoid. Perhaps the machines will also usurp the leaders who stand at the pinnacle of social power/wealth (or the elites will otherwise be deposed) and we can all work two day workweeks and spend the rest of the time going to petting zoos and having online conversations with friends. Maybe the supercomputers will just kill us all off like we did with earlier hominids.
Again, who knows? We are talking about the future. But right now society is not keeping up with the pace of machine innovation. As a consequence we face all sorts of alarming class ossification, wage stagnation, unemployment, and political gridlock. Those of us who still have jobs should start to think about the ramifications of obsolescence in the face of ever-better machines–for that fate is coming. In the near future, travel agents won’t be the only ones who have lost their jobs to the march of progress. Unless you are the richest person in Venezuela or the Duke of Windsor, you will soon not have a meaningful job. Will you enjoy a life of empty leisure and fey entertainment like my housecat or will you be stuck working 65 hours a week doing some task which the economy deems to be beneath the dignity of machines?