Why Do We Insist on Playing Musical Chairs?

Musical chairs is a terrible game that pretty much no one over the age of 12 actually enjoys. It flies in the face of many of the things that make a game fun. It requires a large number of players, which means your odds of winning a game are much lower than if you played a more modern game involving 2-6 opponents. Moreover, the method by which play proceeds means that the average player in any game spends the majority of the game in an eliminated state, barred from further participation until the next game begins. These factors conspire to encourage and reward a cutthroat style of play that leads to pushing, shoving, body-checking, and disputes over which player is sitting on a larger percentage of a chair. Few things more closely resemble the social dynamic of Lord of the Flies or the battle royale games of some horrific dystopian universe than a group of adults playing musical chairs.

And yet here we are – playing musical chairs where the stakes are the lives and health of ourselves and all the rest of humanity.

There’s been a lot of talk over the course of the last 18 months about how companies in the U.S. have been sending good manufacturing jobs overseas. The argument implicit in this assertion is that if we could find some way to convince companies that it was in their best interests to bring those jobs back to our country, all those manufacturing jobs would come right back. This is, in fact, utterly untrue, because it isn’t the Chinese who are stealing our jobs. It is advances in automation.

These jobs aren’t coming back. The rate at which they will disappear continues to accelerate. Some fast food restaurants are already committed to creating a self-service experience, Amazon has created a handful of experimental grocery stores with no checkout lines, and self-driving vehicles are putting truck, bus, and cab drivers on notice that their days are numbered. Automated systems are reaching such a level of sophistication that they will soon begin replacing white collar professions, too. Matt has talked about how computers can write most of the articles on business news sites these days, commercial airline pilots are no longer safe from automation, and fully autonomous robot surgeons are moving out of the realm of science fiction. Artists, musicians, and writers will likely continue to dance creative circles around computers for a bit longer, but even we shouldn’t get so cocky as to assume we are inimitable.

Futurists, technologists, and scientists can get pretty “gee whiz is this ever cool” about these changes. They are very clever, and robots have the potential to do the majority of the work currently done by humans. And this sort of thing is in our blood. Human history is a succession of advances in ways to avoid having to do the scut work previous generations took for granted as unavoidable chores necessary to day-to-day life. Some of these were pretty horrible, but most of the time they legitimately increased humanity’s productivity.

Better robots and AIs have a dark side, however. The people who currently do jobs that are eliminated still need food, shelter, clothes, and medicine. They still want to have fun, to give their children a better life, to feel that they are growing as human beings and contributing to society in some meaningful way. As the number of jobs computers do increases, it leaves fewer and fewer jobs available for those humans. This will eventually reach a crisis point, and what we’ve seen in U.S. politics in the last 18 months is only a taste of what is to yet to come.

As a species, we face a stark choice, and different groups have already started taking sides in this debate – quite often without realizing they are participating in it. As we approach the Singularity, we are likely to respond in one of four ways to this loss of jobs:

1. Reject technological progress.

2. Eliminate our competitors for the shrinking number of available jobs.

3. Learn to accept that we will have to allow a certain percentage of the people around us to die.

4. Transform society to decouple work from the opportunity to live comfortably.

Let’s consider potential end states for these.


Option #1: The Luddite Option

Blame the robots. Get angry at the people who develop and program AIs. Rail against companies who seek out ways to replace humans with sophisticated, computer-operated machines.

This was foreseen decades ago by folks like Isaac Asimov, and science fiction continues to explore the theme in myriad ways. My first contact with it in modern life was in a late-80’s issue of MAD Magazine when I was still a child – an Al Jaffee fold-in showing a man cooking dog food for his family and whose answer was “a robot took his job.” We see it today as retail and fast food workers lose jobs to self-checkout lanes and as truckers and taxis look nervously at the emergence self-driving automobiles.

It is not surprising that people in those professions (and their allies) should object to that. Under the current model (capitalism), replacing a human with a computer means that a human no longer has a job – and when this becomes an industry-wide trend, those workers might not be able to secure employment that affords a comparable standard of living. It is a sentence to abject poverty – homelessness, food insecurity, ostracization, and a lack of disposable income – that leads to poor health and, ultimately, death.

It is fair to say that companies seek to replace their labor force because they want to help the bottom line. Human laborers need sleep. They get sick. They vary greatly in the quality of their work. They expect benefits. They demand higher wages. Sometimes they even unionize for those things. Removing as much of the human element of their business as can be replaced by automated labor cuts out all of those complications, which bolsters profits at the expense of putting people out of work.

While this response by laborers is to be expected, attempting to halt the progress of automation has ever proved futile. You can even see examples of this in American folklore. So while it is reasonable to hate job-stealing robots and computers, the workers are not going to convince the bosses to replace these technological marvels with human laborers. Where computers fall short in at job, it has become more cost-effective to improve the programming of the machine than to replace it with a person.

Laborers and unions can try to stand in the way of automations. Activists can put pressure on corporations that embrace this technology by (rightfully) pointing out the profit motive. But in the end, the machines will win – because they always have. With each embrace of technological innovation, with each stoppage of the music, one of those chairs is going away.

Option #2: The Scapegoat Option

This one is, sadly, a time-honored favorite of our species. It involves designating human scapegoats for changes that are actually being caused by other forces – in this case, advances in labor-saving technology. These scapegoats are then denied work, driven out, or killed outright in order to eliminate them from the pool of people competing for an ever-shrinking selection of jobs.

This has been going on in our country for centuries, at varying degrees of intensity, as the perceived in-group blames immigrants, racial minorities, immigrants, religious minorities, immigrants, foreign countries, anyone with an identity the in-group deems unacceptable for the current woes of society, and did I mention immigrants? At the best of times, it is a continual obstacle to social justice efforts in the country. On darker days, it leaves a shameful legacy.

Scapegoating can go to some horrific and morally unconscionable places. Sometimes it whips up a violent mob. Quite often, though, some political leader harnesses this fear by giving people tacit permission to destroy the scapegoats in exchange for granting him the power to achieve his personal political ambitions. Genocide (the ultimate expression of scapegoating) is a barbaric but effective way of eliminating surplus labor in a society. That Donald Trump made scapegoating rhetoric the center point of his presidential campaign is the reason people fear that he will bend the U.S. toward true fascism.

(This doesn’t get into the reasons why certain groups are historically singled out as scapegoats, which is by no means irrelevant to the topic, but is beyond the scope of this essay.)

The problem with the scapegoating option is pretty obvious, however. It doesn’t change the fact that the job market is still a game of musical chairs. Every year there will be fewer chairs, and so every year Americans will have to find another out-group to drive out or destroy. Eventually, the people who control the robots will be the only ones with seats in the game. God only knows how they will while away their time after that, but 99.9% of us won’t be around by then, having been exterminated or exiled as we became extraneous to the new order.

Option #3: The Plutocracy Option

Wealth is virtue, and poverty is vice. The rich have earned the right to any decadence. The poor deserve nothing – not even dignity.

This option has a similar end scenario to the previous one, but it is much more random and spreads its moral hazard across a much larger segment of society. It works like this: Encourage people to regard poverty as something that is deserved, rather than something that could happen to any of them. Whenever a friend or neighbor or family member’s source of income is eliminated by misfortune or the march of technological progress – whenever someone’s chair is removed from the game – people learn to treat it as a natural consequence of some moral failing on her part. These things are not tragedies, and society loses nothing of value if these people fall into abject poverty and die while those who control and own the robots live lavishly.

Why would decent people ignore the plight of the poor among them to such an awful degree? Some of the people who still have jobs are watching the train of automation coming toward them, too, and they are making preparations in hopes of somehow surviving their own obsolescence. This means that although they may have ample resources now, they are painfully aware that this will not be the case forever. Another fraction of those with jobs are already stretched thin financially – earning minimum wage as software engineers and physicians. They can’t afford to feed the hungry without risking their own starvation. Some will still reach out with altruistic hands as humans have done in every era of poverty, but when every year sees an increase in the unemployment rate, the sheer number of poor people who need basic necessities will reach a point where even the living saints are apt to despair at how little they can alleviate the suffering around them.

Then there are the ones who adapt to this new age of cognitive dissonance, of believing that those struck down by misfortune or replaced by advances in automation deserve poverty, all the while refusing to admit that they could ever suffer the same fate.

Like the scapegoat option, the plutocracy option continues our current game of musical chairs. Those who can maintain ownership over the organizations deploying these advances in automation stand to establish massive fortunes while 99.9% of the population lives in a squalor where death by starvation, disease, and desperate violence is a constant threat. Eventually, those incredibly rich people stand over a depopulated planet as its rulers and sole occupants. God only knows what they do with their time after that. As with the final stage of the scapegoat option, none of us will be around to see the end stage of the plutocracy option.

Republicans have been feeding Americans with this line of reasoning for at least as far back as Reagan. They cut it with a healthy dose of scapegoating along racial and religious divides. Things like attacking the availability of birth control play nicely into this:

First, children are incredibly resource-intensive, as anyone paying for daycare or college. Forcing them on people who can’t afford them (and know they can’t afford them) prevents those families from rising out of poverty. It prevents them from competing with the plutocrats and ensures there are enough desperately poor workers available to keep wages deflated until full automation comes into effect.

Second, children force you to think about someone else’s well-being when making decisions, such that taking up arms and risking your own life to defend your own children is a no-brainer, but doing so on behalf of a stranger’s is considerably more difficult to justify. Move those strangers into scapegoatable categories, and why on Earth would you orphan your children for the sake of those people?

Third, parents – and especially poor parents – become a scapegoatable category in themselves. The “if you don’t want kids, don’t have sex” argument is easy to pronounce, but it walls off one of the most essential expressions of human intimacy and one of the least expensive forms of entertainment (so long as birth control is in place).

Option #4: The Cooperative Option

Embrace automation in a way that does not serve the interests of a tiny minority. No one deserves to starve. No one deserves to be homeless. No one deserves to die of preventable health problems – whether chronic (diabetes) or catastrophic (cancer).

Thanks to technology, the per-capita productivity of human industries is higher than at any time in history. Twenty years ago, much of my job would have involved hours of sifting through paper records (I know because some of my colleagues were there). Fifty years ago, it would have involved countless hours on a typewriter. A hundred years ago, it would have involved typing each of those records multiple times. Thanks to computers, access to any of tens of millions of files requires seconds, and it’s possible to update hundreds of files in a matter of minutes.

The same is true of virtually every service industry and many manufacturing jobs, as well. We are accomplishing more work than our parents (and far more than our grandparents and great grandparents), and yet somehow we are still expected to work the same number of hours and retire later in life? Automation could be freeing us of the need to work as much as we do, but instead we belittle those whose jobs have been lost to it and bemoan it when it threatens to render our jobs obsolete, too. The productive capacity of the economy has not been reduced by these machines – on the contrary. Why, then, is automation of industries and the replacement of entire swaths of workers seen as a tragedy?

Capitalism – or at least the current form of capitalism in the United States that says that if you can’t or don’t have a job, you will eventually become hopelessly, irreversibly impoverished.

If we want humanity to survive the singularity without genocides, violent revolutions, or economic eugenics, we need to create a world in which a basic standard of living is divorced from traditional work. It is a world where automation allows people to take care of each other, instead of being used as an excuse to drive them away or leave them behind.

What does this look like?

Single-payer healthcare (Medicare for all): Other countries have been doing this for decades – even before computers. Healthcare in the U.S. is tremendously expensive for several different reasons, but a lot of them boil down to the fact that it involves so many parties (the health insurance industry in the U.S. employed 525,600 people in 2015, and that ignores the administrative employees of hospitals who file all those insurance forms and the pounds of flesh demanded by pharmaceutical and health tech companies), each of which drives up the final cost to the consumer. Not only is the current model financially wasteful, it causes the majority of bankruptcies (in 2010, at the time ACA passed, this was 62% of bankruptcies and 78% of those had health insurance). It is expected that the repeal of ACA (a far cry from universal healthcare) will result in the deaths of north of 40,000 Americans per year.

The failure of the United States to implement some viable form of universal healthcare is an economic catastrophe and a humanitarian crisis that we have been ignoring for too long.

Universal Basic Income (Social Security for all): Some countries are already experimenting with this, and others are mulling it. To some extent, its aim is to replace other social programs, reducing administrative costs of current poverty-relief programs. In a post-singularity world where jobs are scarce, however, it will need to do more than prevent starvation and provide access to other necessities of survival like clothes and housing. The goal of such a program would not be, as is often the case with Welfare, to encourage people to seek employment as soon as possible. Rather, it would need to provide a high enough standard of living to allow leisure.

Won’t that mean people stay home all day and watch Netflix? For a certain percentage of people, yes. Instead of condemning the idea to prevent the decadent leisure of those people, consider what people are likely to do with that additional free time.

First, people with hard-to-automate skills can still ply them for additional money if that is their desire. They might choose to work part-time or fulltime, but it will depend on whether they regard their work (and the additional income) as a worthy use of their time.

Second, people will be able to assign meaning to their lives based on something other than their jobs. Some will volunteer for charity work or community service. Some will have time to care for family members – be they small children or aging parents. Some will make hobbies once confined to evenings and weekends a fulltime pursuit – whether it is the study of sciences, artistic pursuits (including writing and handcrafts), academic study, or teaching. It would promote the advancement of science, technology, and arts, unfettered by economic pressures.

Will humanity still face obstacles and catastrophes? Yes. But this economic model allows people to be altruistic without risking financial ruin. People may have the right to play WoW for 40 hours a week, but most people will still want to do something that gives meaning to their lives – whether that is engaging with a community, participating in some form of artistic expression, or preparing the next generation to take its place beneath the sun.

The singularity is not here yet. Current estimates predict its arrival in or around 2045 (after I retire, dammit!). But it is likely we will see it in our lifetimes, and the response we prepare for it now will shape the course of human history. Will we continue playing musical chairs, or will we at last embrace the cooperative games that pit all of humanity against everything Nature can throw against us?

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