The Essay


      Whether in the form of self-driving trucks, artificial neural networks, robot waiters, or self-checkout registers, automation technology promises an enticing future. Each new innovation ushers in new opportunities for free time. Meanwhile, traditional business viewpoints and the media see automation as an advancing threat to jobs, affordable living, and the proven success of capitalism. However, with a paradigm realignment to understand the synergy between automation and a guaranteed basic income, society may actually reduce economic disparity and continue learning and innovating more freely than before!

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      The advance of automation in the economy is overturning jobs, replacing human workers with mechanized ones. The biggest industry overtaken already is the practice of agriculture, which humanity has been altogether occupied with from the dawn of civilization up until farming became predominantly mechanized in the previous century. Now our professions are more sophisticated, but 47% of them are already poised to be automated as well (Frey and Osborne). At the same time, millions of people across the country are struggling to find decent jobs. In many supermarkets, what was once a team of cashiers is now an array of automatic registers, with one human overseer just to work out occasional technical kinks. The stock exchange is not filled with traders doing their day jobs anymore; instead, the market is primarily run by exchange bots that have learned to trade their stocks with one another. Many online articles are being composed by writing algorithms instead of human authors. These technologies all sound great at first – the point of such automata is to accomplish these tasks without manual labor – but these developments are causing problems in practice. The tradition whereby employment funds a person’s livelihood clashes with the prospect of automation, since workers whose jobs are mechanized must go without compensation. The social institution of jobs is beginning to show its age.

      Automation is only going to increase; to deny that would be economic folly. In fact, M.I.T. academics are arguing that we are entering a ‘second machine age,’ where “the accelerating rate of change brought on by digital technologies could leave millions of medium-and-low skilled workers behind” (McAfee; McMillan). Returns are accelerating, a distinction evinced by the trend that technological change is exponential (Kurzweil). Automation unlocks time for additional research and development, which leads to further automation, and the cycle progresses. For example, Amazon began as an online bookstore. In Amazon warehouses, the company implemented storage-pod-fetching robots capable of efficiently tracking inventory logistics. With the utility of automation they are expanding into a company capable of selling just about every product under the sun. Over time, fewer employees will be necessary in Amazon’s workforce (Chang). Inversely, Borders bookstores failed to evolve and ride the trend toward automated logistics, and as a result, they were pulled under by the wave of change.

      Driverless cars and trucks, the true “auto”-mobiles, are on the verge of finding widespread usage. The trucking industry will soon vanish once trucks with narrow (specialized) artificial intelligence become commercially available. The futurist Zoltan Istvan describes “the near-term socioeconomic forecasts [as] pretty startling when you look closely at them . . . [5.7] million truck drivers are poised to lose their jobs when the trucking industry becomes driverless . . . in [as soon as] five years” (Istvan; Shedlock). Investment advisor Mike Shedlock references economic theory, which recognizes how technology raises standards of living over time, and how that requisites replacing idle truck drivers that are sleepy and accident-prone with programmable ones that will consistently find the right gear for every situation (Shedlock). The oncoming revolution of the trucking industry is just one example of the multitude of jobs that are transitioning to be able to function autonomously.

      In the economy we are heading toward, the occupations that will remain the longest will be those requiring artistic, design-oriented, or otherwise creative talents. Although, even those can be trumped by evolved creativity emulations, as Andrew McAfee forecasts in his Ted Talk on how droids are taking our jobs (McAfee). Automation is a tool to produce abundance for little effort. Just as machines have been created to replace muscle-power, technology today is becoming a substitute for brainpower. As with any technology it has little reason to go away and on the contrary is both the driving force and the product of societal change. Automation is its own chain reaction; the job-based economy only serves to provide humans with workfare, and so without changing the system of income in tandem with the evolution of output, the friction between jobs and automation will only conflict even more... because regardless of what might be ideal for the capitalist-driven economy, automata are better at what they do. They will automate the roadways, they will automate the supermarkets, they will automate the arts and music, they will automate our bills!

      Once we are out of utilitarian work, and thus out of traditional income, the question then is, ‘Who is paying for our goods?’ The answer is that the machines are! In creating product, the robots create profit. So long as it is in their programming, robots will remain at work, uncaring about the tedium of their routine. And the most crucial distinction between the artificial and human species of workers lies in the fact that automata do not demand compensation. The money artificial workers would normally be attributed as income can be rerouted toward the income of those people displaced. Determining exactly which people have been displaced, however, would not be prosaic, as anyone could claim their intended line of work was taken up by robots. So instead the wages can be added to a pot owned by the government, to be distributed unconditionally and equally to each citizen. This is the essence of the basic income solution, which would ease the integration of automation into the economy by guaranteeing a minimum income for each citizen. This would apply universally in the socioeconomic sphere. The minimum income could gradually increase, replacing workfare at a rate proportional to the number of jobs losing demand. We should work as much as we need to, but only for as long as we need to. While new jobs may still manifest, they would predominantly focus on personal entertainment or creating every kind of “frippery and unnecessary contraption” (Watts).

      There is an old Protestant proverb that maintains, “The devil finds work for idle hands to do.” This is one statement by which those with religious authority and monetary influence historically reinforced the unfair conception that the poor should work more to attain similar wealth and status. As the British thinker Russell points out, “The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich” (Russell). Notions of societal duty that induced guilt also played a role; Russell further wrote that duty, “speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.” Those in power often held wealth or spiritual sway through inheritance: “British wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a larger income than a working man.” Just by mere inheritance of his title, the King customarily receives the greatest income. Platonically speaking, might makes right. Russell’s essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” goes in depth with the social problem he identified, “that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.” In fact, it is storied in the bible that “Job was a righteous man who endured much suffering” (College Board). In the parable, God considered him to be one of the most righteous men in the land. These stories parallel the theory that while historical rulers who already held power need not have suffered for their position, they contrived that those powerless must suffer in order to remain righteous subjects. The people were common, suffering was common. While it is true to a fundamental extent that gain often requires effort, the mandate of work has been amplified by religious doctrine, repurposed into political control. On the other hand, automation undoes the required efforts, and part of what a basic income promises is the universal inheritance of leisure time.

      The idea that most people have to suffer in order to earn wealth has become indoctrinated into modern culture. However, efficiency and output increase significantly with the power of automation. In the ‘Socially Responsible Automation’ discourse of his lecture on ‘Money and the Machine’, philosopher Alan Watts reminds us, “the whole point of the machine is to make drudgery unnecessary . . . to relieve you of that suffering. It is ingenuity” (Watts). Watts’ talk clarifies that a piece of technology is a tool of simplification, and thus, machines are devices that should only be beneficial once properly utilized. Presently, it is much the other way around; a brief glance at the headlines reveals a multitude of such counterintuitive statements as “Technology is Destroying Jobs,” “Automation is Leading to Economic Collapse,” and “Robopocalypse.” As it turns out, many job positions are being replaced. Is automation not invented in order to do our work for us? Nevertheless, automation cannot be justified as a destructor of the economy. On the contrary, the reason automation is being implemented is to streamline the economy, not to hinder it; to ease it, not to burden it; to enable it, not to doom it; to automate it, not to destroy it. If society is not gaining value, and instead encountering economic trouble, then the system is flawed (Watts). Currently, concern about increased automation engendering unemployment is exactly such a hang-up: if employers everywhere replace their workers with robots, then those displaced will cease to earn sufficient money to purchase the products altogether, making national automation a troubling negative investment.

      What is called for is a realignment of paradigms; true wealth must be understood as the security of each individual, not a measurement of their suffering. This recognition might be met with guaranteed basic income: “an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means, test, or work requirement” (BIEN). When society recognizes the inherent worth of each individual, their dignity is returned to them. In a basic income pilot study in Namibia, a researcher noted, “Through regaining their human dignity, people act more [responsibly]“ (Haarmann). Additionally, displaced workers avoid the poverty trap and will still pay for the goods and services they acquire with their basic income, thus meeting the cost of the machinery.

      For a long time, the American dream has been centered around “the pursuit of material prosperity - that people work more hours to get bigger cars, fancier homes” (Library of Congress), and so on. However, it is often the case that instead Americans “have less time to enjoy their prosperity.” Instead, most of our hours are spent grinding out the workweek, of which each and every day is begun by a “dreaded alarm clock” (Istvan) and followed by a grueling nine-to-five at work. Only the occasional weekend or brief two-week vacation punctuates redundancy with travel or a fun project or hobby. As Istvan also indicates, “The American Dream is not so much a pilgrimage anymore, but a well-greased hamster wheel. We have been cajoled into an economic system that needs to infinitely grow in order to feed itself and feel satiated.” This theme is depicted effectively in the recent animation The Lego Movie, in which the lyrics suggest “everything is awesome when you’re living the dream.” This subtly refers to the American dream and its promise of work for social satisfaction. The antagonistic President Business is also a fitting figurehead for the businesses imposing the scheme upon the workers. But in the story or out, this lifestyle can be reworked. With the help of a universal basic income, the arguments for continuous work would lose merit in the face of automated procedures. The human progress would take place through inspired activities and value would be learned through deeper exploration of the liberal arts.

      Critics of basic income often make the accusation that a guaranteed minimum income would stifle the motivation for innovation by making everyone financially complacent. Well, the other aspect of the American dream is the capability for social mobility, the idea that with effort one can occupy a higher working class. In the United States, social mobility is now lower than it is in the northern European countries that have very generous social safety nets (McAfee). A cushion similar to a basic income in the United States could raise our social safety nets and help reclaim the idealized social mobility. Education, too, is necessarily a huge social component in terms of developing questioning, entrepreneurial, and creative mindsets. As a Montessori kid, my kindergarten career emphasized independence, constructivism (learning from working with materials instead of through direct instruction), and freedom within limits. These ideas, too, were displayed in The Lego Movie: the major conflict of the plot dealt with the order and control the villains sought by gluing other building blocks in place versus the free creativity of simply playing with one’s imagination. If all of schooling developed learning more organically, students could be much more successful as they would be driving themselves instead of doing inconsequential busywork assignments as only the instructors see fit. That model is more contrived, and derivative of the monarchical structure portrayed by the autocratic, ceramic view held in the western world – the structure characterized by a king, judge, priest, or teacher figure on a podium or throne, determining the actions and beliefs of his audience (Watts). Andrew McAfee, too, witnessed the engaging experience of a Montessori education. Just as it did for myself, it taught him “that the world is an interesting place, and [our] job is to go explore it” (McAfee). Meanwhile, the public school system of later years feels like the Gulag’s conscription, whose purpose is either to bore students into submission with what is going on around them or at best train them to achieve the highest grade, as if that is the ultimate intention behind learning from the considerable library of knowledge the human race has accumulated over the centuries. All that will ever achieve is the turning out of more workers willing to accept the same well-greased hamster wheel, who care only about the grade of their paycheck and not about the application of philosophy and other sciences into their own lives. The rise of M.O.O.C.s, or massively open online courses, is proving to be an accessible way to learn (often for free) most topics that universities have traditionally offered. Notable online course providers include Udemy, Coursera, Future Learn, Edx, Khan Academy, and Codecademy, among others. I have followed courses from each of these providers and I find they are extremely helpful and entertaining in comparison to my common schoolwork, if only because I can freely choose topics I am interested in, and I am learning of my own accord. This breed of resources may prove key in rapidly adapting the workforce to newer topics as we transition out of jobs such as truck-driving and grocery-bagging and into higher-level and more academic-oriented pursuits. At the same time, automation can empower us to do more on our own, not less!

      In Greek mythology, the myth of Sisyphus describes the titular mortal, who through his particular conflict with the gods was condemned to hell and the chore of ceaselessly rolling a boulder to the top of a mountain, whereupon it would always roll back down again, for him to restart the eternal task (Camus). This is reasoned to be the most dreadful punishment, that of futile or pointless labor. It matches the fourth circle of Dante’s hell in which sinners must push rocks and carry out other pointless chores. London anthropology professor David Graeber also explains a story from writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wherein people punished in prison camps are forced to move rocks back and forth across the road just the same. It completely destroys them psychologically, leading them to desperately try any method of ending the punishment. The same species of experience is often manifest in school for most students, at least in the subjects which they have no interest in, or even those which they may enjoy but are forced to endure through a certain prescribed lesson plan. This is something I can totally vouch for myself. The problem extends out of school too: many modern workers are finding their jobs to be increasingly pointless these days. Graeber additionally wrote about the phenomenon of ‘BS jobs’, based on his intuition accrued from meeting people who considered their jobs to be meaningless wastes of time in their lives (Graeber). This struck such a chord with some readers in London who felt that their jobs should not exist that posters appeared across the Tube transit system in early January, urging other riders to question whether or not their jobs are pointless, created just for the sake of “keeping us all working.” They argue it seems as if the jobs were assigned to them by the authorities only to keep themselves official in appearance, while apparently justifying the income of either party. He explains that while uncountable jobs have been mechanized, we do not quite realize it and out of habit within our traditional job-income system we artifice more made-up job positions just for people to fill; service, administrative, and secretarial jobs have more than tripled – such cumbersome titles as ‘telemarketer,’ ‘lobbyist,’ and ‘strategic vision manager.’ As a result, we are actually working more hours rather than less, even though we should have been afforded free time by the working machines. The healthier alternative along with a universal basic income and the effects of automation would be the replacement of many paper-pushing jobs with computerized processing, and the similar upgrade with other unnecessary professions, such that we can follow a three-day working week as predicted by Keynes and other prominent analysts. Many readers replied to this proposal and offered that they often procrastinate on Mondays and Fridays anyway, wasting much of their workday surfing the internet, since they know they always have time to get their work done in the middle of that week. This time could be spent following up on hobbies or other personally-invested activities instead. But whatever can be done to escape the work of the week is grasped, whether it embodies watching Netflix, checking status updates, or managing Farmville. It is mindless filler that nonetheless entertains bored employees, in order to temporarily reimmerse themselves out of unimpassioned chores.

      The concept of a guaranteed minimum income is often associated with radical left-wing schemes for redistributing wealth. However, there is also a conservative case for such an institution. President Richard Nixon, for example, called for a “basic Federal payment” (Abelard Teaching) for families without outside income in a speech he gave on welfare in 1969. While not usually known for being conservative like Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr. had recently stated, “The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income” (Gordon). Other endorsers include the conservative economists Friederich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the latter of which actually advocated a minimum guaranteed income via a “negative income tax.” One common conservative argument focuses on the possibility of simplifying the many means-tested welfare programs, by combining them into a single funding stream. As Utah Senator Mike Lee puts it, “There’s no reason the federal government should maintain 79 different means-tested programs.” The basic income program would potentially cover all of them. In general, the promise for both liberals and conservatives comes with the themes of giving “people more resources and authority and greater freedom to find new and more effective ways up from poverty.”

      Voltaire, in defense of the necessity of human labor, famously claimed that “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” While work may have been a preferable substitute for tedium in the past, today our forms of entertainment are boundless. The repetitive nature of modern toil, be it in the common workplace or the usual school environment, is no match for the variable and all-encompassing scope that internet media presents for our enjoyment and development. In the closing statement of his talk, Andrew McAfee aptly clarifies the impact of automation upon our time: “So yeah, the droids are taking our jobs, but focusing on that fact misses the point entirely. The point is that then we are freed up to do other things. What we will be able to do is reduce poverty, drudgery, and misery in the world, and so live more lightly on the planet” (McAfee). Without pressure to do certain jobs, people would probably, at least out of the human need for reason, come up with more meaningful things to do (Graeber). In uplifting our commitment to more passionate activities, there is less reason to cheat with vices for passion we desire, and human suffering recedes. Anyone can secure a life and a home as long as they consciously choose to use their basic income. And in the age of technologically-driven abundance backed by a sustained basic income, true need should be a thing of the past.

      In the second machine age, we will employ our machines instead of our selves. Since automata demand nothing in return for their services, we can universally redistribute the money the machines earn as basic income. This automated income synergy holds strong social implications. The blog Thought Infection wrote, “Freedom in the 21st century should mean freedom from having to engage in productive work simply to meet your basic needs for comfort and dignity” (ThoughtInfected). In securing income, we secure fundamental human rights! Some may think this a bold move, breaking away from the successes of pure capitalism. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.”

Works Cited

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