Bull Session

Automating America

July 16, 2015          

Episode Summary

In this episode of The Digital Life we chat about about digital automation, innovation, and its effects on the economics of the American middle class.

Is the growing contractor economy, as typified by Uber, another signal that the middle class is in real trouble? As a part of her campaign rhetoric, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, is making some hay of the topic. But the concern is very much a real one. The need for meaningful work is an essential one for humanity, and one that increasingly is falling prey to technological change.


Hillary Clinton vs. The Uber Economy

A Sneak Preview of Hillarynomics


Welcome to episode 112 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings, Jon.

This week I think we should talk about what I consider a concerning trend, if not maybe even a disturbing trend, which is the growing contractor economy, as typified by Uber and, to a lesser extent Airbnb, and then the signals from the American middle class that that group is getting squeezed and might be in real trouble. On the one hand, we have this digital innovation, very relevant to the Digital Life, and, on the other hand, we have the American middle class, which has been the backbone of the economy for so long, and there’s this squeeze on. I know it’s not directly necessarily related to the rise of Uber and other such services, but there’s definitely a confluence of events here that I think is cause for notice, if not cause for concern. With the presidential elections starting to heat up in this country, we’ve got at least one presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, of course, who is making some hay about this, talking about these digital services and the American middle class as potentially being at least on its face incompatible.

I wanted to dig into that a bit today, and talk about automation and the future of work, and really the future of meaningful work, as we use technology to put into place systems that are going to be taking care of a lot of things that in previous generations would have been done by people. Dirk, what’s your take?

Yeah. I’m going to go up a number of levels, and take a super big picture cut at this.

Go for it.

Once upon a time, it was necessary for people to work in order to create the things that they needed to subsist. If they didn’t work to create those things, they would be incapable of subsistence. We are today at a point where machines make it … If you throw out the capitalism part, and throw out the fact that the money and thus the power is not distributed evenly, so you’ve having to try to get more of it to pay for things, but the technology and the infrastructure exist so that we no longer need everyone to work for our subsistence. The combination of human capital and technology make it so that subsistence is less than everyone working.

Now we’re all working either to provide luxuries on top of subsistence, or just to keep this structure, the capitalist economic structure, going. This is a giant evolutionary arc, and where we’re heading, the things like Hillary Clinton’s talking about, the idea of people are going to contractors. It’s clear that the old model is breaking down and changing. Those are all steps toward our not needing to work for subsistence or luxuries. It’s getting to the point where it will be well less than a hundred percent of human capital on top of technology required to provide everything that we would want or need.

The result of that is that people literally don’t need to have jobs. They don’t need to work, other than to make money, other than to accumulate power and leverage within the society most locally, or civilization more broadly. We’re approaching a time where the world could shift in really massive ways, because it’s simply not required for people to work to create the things that are needed to keep life going. The question is what then? One of the byproducts of work, and I’ve mentioned this I think in passing on other shows, but I don’t think we’ve gotten into it too deeply. One of the byproducts of work is a form of social control, so if I’m working, I can’t be getting drunk, because I don’t have anything to do. I can’t be sleeping with the neighbor’s wife. I can’t be doing things that are potentially destabilizing to social systems of people cohabitating in modern civilization.

The question is how is that going to shake out? As we reach a point, and it’s coming. It’s decades, not years, but it’s really coming, it’s close. It ain’t centuries, that’s for damn sure. As we reach the point that most of the work can be done by technology, and the need for people to do the rest of the to make the half a whole, that’s going to leave a lot of people without needing to work for work as a means of providing the things that the society is trying to provide. What are they going to do with their time? To me, that’s the big and interesting question that gets lost in the froth and churn over viewing it in the current economic system of upper class and middle class, and forty hour work weeks. I think a lot of those things are going to get completely blown out by the direction this takes, and the thing that’s just not totally clear is what direction it does take, because there’s a few different that it could.

Yeah. We should dig into that some more, the different future directions that it could take. First, I just wanted to follow up on a couple of points that you had made. One, do you think that work, in and of itself, is a good thing for, let’s call it self-worth, or having a meaningful life. Whether or not that work is compensated so you can go buy luxuries, or food, or what have you. At least for myself, I very much enjoy working, whether it’s my own projects, or projects at the studio, or projects at home. That gives me meaning for me and purpose to my existence. I think caught up in this, in addition to the economic question that we’re discussing here, there’s, also, the question of meaningfulness behind work. What’s your perspective on that, Dirk?

I think everyone’s different. You have to look at it from the standpoint of individual agency compared to the social good. From the standpoint of individual agency, some people don’t care a lot about meaning. Some people, the way that they’re wired, the combination of their nature and nurture have manifested to the point where it’s not important to them that the things they do and the choices they make are full of meaning or meaning based. They have other things that matter to them. There’s terms I want to use that I don’t have negative connotations to, but culturally tend to have more negative connotations, so I’m struggling to pick my words properly. Some people, they are fulfilled by more primitive pleasures, by more primitive experiences, which isn’t an inherently bad thing, but notions of meaning, that isn’t the core and the most important thing to everyone. I think we need to be cognizant of that to some degree.

Even then looking at it from another perspective, some people may like to work without having anything to do with meaning. You’re saying for you work is very important and has meaning, that that’s core for you, I think it’s too strong to say idiosyncratic to you, but is only true for a segment, and I would certainly say a minority segment, of the population. We’re still looking at this from the lens of individual agency at this point. If you then look at it from the standpoint of social good, there’s work and productivity as a means of contributing to the things that need to be created, and even when we have the robots and the automation, all that other stuff, there’s going to plenty of contexts where a human is going to be necessary for the foreseeable future. From a social good perspective, there is the need for some degree of work, some number of people to work some amount of time just to keep things running.

The other part on the social good side, which I touched at a little bit before, is societal control. If people have lots of time to spend, what are they doing, and is what they’re doing constructive or destructive to the greater context.

These things are really complicated when you get into things like global warming and over population. If you go back, I don’t know how long, but if you go back a ways, there was universally or near universally, a belief or feeling that the earth was abundant and plentiful without restriction. That basically we are living in and taking from a bottomless pit of resources, and that’s just clearly not the case, and we are now more and more aware that that’s not the case, and what happens when that can be quantified, and the things that people do are able to be measured against the impact on a dwindling supply of resources on the planet. It might not even be supply. It might be more on the destructiveness. It’s not so much that my taking this oil out of the earth depletes the oil. It’s that the activities in and around the taking of the oil do have these other multifaceted destructive impacts on the rest of what is here on the planet.

Once we’re able to quantify this stuff and have some calculus around that, if we’re in this theoretical future where people don’t need to work just for the sake of working, and we’re able to measure that person eating a steak really … It’s at a micro level relative to the whole scale of the earth, but it’s like a knife right in the side of the planet. Is that person better for the world or worse for the world in terms of the choices they’re making, the things that they’re doing, their exercising their agency in their life. If people in this world, where they’re not needed to be working, to be making these systems run, if these systems can run themselves. If what they’re doing is consuming and at some micro level destroying, what does that mean? What are the implications for their role and purpose? If you start to take this logic experiment out, there’s a lot of scary and dystopian ways of looking at it, but there are things that while dystopian, are becoming more and more logical in the context of the changing frames of the situation that we’re dealing with here in our little world. I think there’s a lot of compelling grist around all of this stuff.

Yeah. We’ve been talking at a pretty high level about these issues. I did want to dig in a little bit to the immediacy of this debate about the future of the middle class in America, just because it’s such a poignant topic, especially during the election cycles here.

I think the American middle class has been such a cornerstone of what we think this country is, that to see these shifts brought on my technology, emerging technologies, digital technologies, to see these shifts happening, it’s causing an awful lot of trepidation and fear, which I think we’re starting to see come to a head. We can recall historically that massive technological shifts around the Industrial Revolution resulted in all kinds of counter movements, the most famous being the Luddites, who broke into factories and smashed the looms that were basically ruining, or what they thought were ruining their sources of livelihood. I don’t know if we’re really at that loom smashing moment here in the states. We’ll get to find that out as this debate unfolds, because under the surface, there is an awful lot of feeling of insecurity that I think is apparent in our political discussions.

Yeah. I mean the Luddites were a good lesson, because they came and they were breaking the looms, but then they were being killed by security guards, so their movement was disbanded. The Luddites, that term has continued to take on meaning. It’s sort of a clique term that I, also, use to talk about a certain degree of technological backwardness. The reality is they have very little impact. They were a footnote in history, and the weavers, the loomers, or whatever the correct terminology is, who were the impetus behind that, twenty years later that profession no longer existed. They didn’t have any impact.

Now we live in a world where the government has drones, missiles, powerful guns and armor. At the end of the day, the opportunity for revolution in some of these theoretical futures, the opportunity to take the Luddite spirit and try and turn some of this back is really, really narrow. It’s really narrow.

Coming more to the practical kernel of where you instigated the whole conversation, I think from the standpoint of where we are today and the current frame of what our society is, yeah, I think that there is reason for heartburn. I think there’s reason to be concerned, but what you have to ask yourself is what’s the worst case? If you play it out, where does this go. If you believe, and I think this is very likely the case, that it’s not going to end up with some percent of the people, with that percent being under ten, being in control and having everything, and the rest of everybody else being maybe not literally slaves, as we think about it in the older times, but basically slaves, subsistence working. I mean if you exclude that as a possibility, then the only way that this plays out is that there’s some major system change, so that the bulk of the people are going to be okay. Using the frame of what we expect in our culture currently, they’re going to continue to have a home. They’re going to continue to be able to eat. They’re going to continue to have access to communication, media and other leisure things. However this shakes out, those things are just going to be in place.

I know from the standpoint of the way the world is now, and as people see the jobs going away, they see the automation coming, they feel like they’re falling behind in terms of their compensation. I can understand where that comes from, but unless you think we’re going to devolve into, relative to recent history in the western world, a historic conception of all the power being in a very small control, and everybody else having basically nothing, which, by the way, is not where we are today. As much as people like to talk about the one percenters, the non-one percenters, let’s call it the fifty percenter out there, has a pretty good life. They’ve got air conditioning. They’re got refrigerators. They’re loading up their shopping cart at Walmart. Things ain’t that bad now, and they’re not going to get much worse at the end of however this plays out, unless we bend into something this is really scary, and I just don’t think that that is going to happen at this point.

Yeah. That’s a nice reverse take on things turning out okay, Dirk. I like the way you put that together. Yeah. I’m absolutely fascinated, because I think part of this election cycle is going to hinge on this very topic, and I’m attracted to it just because of the digital nature of a large portion of it when it comes to automation. We are going to have a fascinating election season, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this all plays out.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we are mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in the digital life, and go to the page for this episode. We have included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you’re interested in following us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N, F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and remember the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email me Dirk at goinvo.com.

That’s it for episode 112 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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