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Since posting Automation and the Human Future a few days ago, a reader has directed by attention to Technological Unemployment Amidst Stagnation at All Systems Need A Little Disorder by Ashwin Parameswaran. I have previously mentioned Ashwin Parameswaran’s blog, Macroeconomic Resilience, in my post Self-Dissimilarity.

While my last post credited the fear of technogenic unemployment primarily to recession-induced pessimism, Parameswaran takes technogenic unemployment very seriously, and anticipates “Transitioning To The Near-Automated Economy,” even considering the changes that must come about in education as this transition is made. What Parameswaran writes is so wonderfully sane and reasonable, and I agree with so much of it (indeed, it warmed my heart to see him refer to our economy today as “neo-feudal” as this is a point that I have made many times), that I hesitate to differ with him, and I don’t need to differ with Parameswaran too much if we adjust our expectations to la longue durée and make it clear that we are not talking about what is going to happen within 25 years or so.

I am certainly not beyond speculating on the possibility of very different employement structures. In my post Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution, I suggested the possibility of an industrial revolution of a different sort — an industrial revolution resulting in a society in which the supply and the demand for labor were not nearly so close to being in equilibrium as they are today. For despite the problems of unemployment that plague advanced industrialized societies, the astonishing thing about it is not that there is unemployment, but rather that supply and demand of labor are so nearly identical. In a different kind of society, a different kind of industrial civilization, this approximation of employment demand to employment supply might not obtain.

As long as we take a sufficiently long time-horizon I am willing to agree that we will be eventually transitioning to a near-automated economy. In a comment made on the Los Angeles Times article L.A. 2013 — about an article from 03 April 1988 (from the Los Angeles Times Magazine), seeking to predict a quarter century into the future to 2013, Yves Rubin wrote…

“In general, such futuristic articles should multiply time spans by at least 10. Downtown Los Angeles “may” look like in this article’s cover photo in 250 years!”

I largely agree with this. In 25 years we see little change, but in 250 years we are likely to see significant change. Think back to the world 250 years before the present — the world of 1763, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Seven Years’ War — and if we compare that world, without electricity, without the internal combustion engine, before the industrial revolution, and before the United States existed, with our world today, we can see how radical the changes to the familiar world can be in a future an order of magnitude beyond the modest 25 years of the 1988 article about LA.

I am willing to admit without hesitation that, 250 years from now, we may well have realized a near-automated economy, and that this automation of the economy will have truly profound and far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. However, the original problem then becomes a different problem, because so many other things, unanticipated and unprecedented things, have changed in the intervening years that the problem of labor and employment is likely to look completely different at this future date. If the near-automated economy becomes a reality in 250 years — a scenario that I will not dispute — I don’t think that this will be much of a problem, because we will need machines producing the goods we need to expand the human presence in the Milky Way. Seven billion people is a lot on the surface of the Earth — and there will be even more people by that time — but when spread out in the galaxy, seven billion human beings isn’t even enough to scratch the surface, as it were.

The transition to a near-automated economy (contemplated in isolation from parallel synchronous changes) would require adjustments so radical that it would be an open question, once these changes were in place and the near-automated economy is up and running, whether we would still be living in the same old industrial-technological civilization we have come to know and love, or whether this historical discontinuity was sufficient to cause a rupture that results in the constitution an an entirely new civilization — perhaps even constituting a preemption event that ends industrial-technological civilization by replacing it with whatever comes next. Over time, these adjustments will happen more or less naturally, but contemplated in one fell swoop the necessary adjustments seem incomprehensibly radical.

In the article Real Robot Talk in The Economist that I quoted in my last post, Automation and the Human Future, the author wrote that, “modern economies continue to use wages as the primary means by which purchasing power is distributed.” What mechanism other than wages can be employed as a means for the distribution of purchasing power? How could goods and services be allocated within an economy without the quantification that wages effect? (The problem is similar to that of allocating capital and resources within a socialist economy: how is capital to be allocated to enterprises without a pricing mechanism?)

This is another example of thinking in conventional terms about a time in the future when conventional assumptions will no longer hold. By the time the automated economy will seriously alter social relationships, so many other things will have happened, and will be happening, that terms like “labor” and “capital” and “goods” and “services” will have come to take on such different meanings that to formulate things in the old way would be nothing but an anachronism.

It is to be expected that measures will be taken in the attempt to preserve the present structure of civilization as long as possible (and in so doing to preserve the familiar meanings of familiar terms), and some of these measures may seem quite drastic in their attempts to preserve certain institutions. For example, we may see mass mobility of labor across nation-state boundaries allowing technogenically superfluous labor to seek opportunities for work in regions of the world not yet transformed by the technologies of automated production. As entrenched as the nation-state is in our contemporary thought, it is not as entrenched as our idea of civilization, and we would sooner compromise the nation-state and the international order based upon the nation-state than we would allow our civilization to lapse.

Yet, in the fullness of time, not only will our nation-states lapse, but our distinctive form of civilization will lapse also, and it will be replaced by another form of civilization, as yet unknown to us.

It is one of the distinctive features of civilization that the problems intrinsic to a given form of civilization emerge simultaneously with the civilization and disappear with the disappearance of that civilization; that is to say, for the most past, the problems of a particular form of civilization are not passed along to new forms of civilization, which have their own problems. I take this to be one of the most fascinating features of civilization, and I don’t think that it receives sufficient attention in the study of civilization. What it implies is that, like an artist’s work, a civilization’s problems are never resolved, only abandoned.

The problem of royal legitimacy, for example, scarcely exists today, and in so far as it exists at all it only exists as a holdover from an earlier form of civilization that no longer exists, as is the case with the constitutional monarchies of Europe. But the intense debates over the divine right of kings simply don’t exist any more. The problem was never “solved” but was intrinsic to the form of civilization in which royal authority was central, and once royal authority was no longer the central organizing principle of civilization, the “problem” of royal authority, its source and its legitimacy, simply disappears.

Of course, one of the ways in which one kind of civilization succeeds another is through a radical innovation that “solves” (in a sense) the problems of the earlier civilization, but in so “solving” the problem another kind of civilization is created, and so the solution does not obtain within the previous civilizational paradigm; it defines a new civilizational paradigm, within its own problems (to become manifest in the fullness of time) awaiting a solution that will initiate another civilizational paradigm.

Automated production issuing in maximized abundance and the demise of employment as we know it today would constitute a transition to a distinct form of civilization from the industrial-technological civilization that we know today, and the emergence of a future industrial-technological civilization in which maximized abundance becomes an established fact and human labor superfluous to the maximized abundance would also constitute a changed socioeconomic context that would interact will all other synchronous historical events transpiring in parallel and therefore in mutual relations of influence.

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Thursday


The industrialization of society produced profound consequences through the mobility of labor and the concentration of populations in urban centers, among another developments.

A counterfactual conditional is a statement making a claim as to what would be the case if the antecedent of the conditional were true, but in which the antecedent of the conditional is in fact false. This sounds confusing, but it is familiar in ordinary experience both in irresponsible historical speculation (e.g., “If the Nazis had won the Second World War, we’d all be speaking German now”) and in the commonplace recriminations and accusations that are unfortunately so much a part of our lives (e.g., “If you’d only done as I had asked, we would have been on time!”). As I have just implied, entertaining counterfactual conditionals can be an amusing but pointless way to pass the time, for example, on a long car trip with friends when the stereo isn’t working and everyone is bored.

In an as-yet unpublished manuscript I wrote the following about counterfactuals:

It is an almost irresistible temptation to speculate upon what the world might be like today if some particular change were made in the past. Speculative history is also an irresponsible impulse, as it can count only as a distraction from the real problems facing us, being a philosophical dead end. But let us be charitable, and instead of calling it irresponsible let us call it a guilty pleasure, and let us be twice charitable and give it a respectable philosophical title: a counter-factual thought experiment. Very well, then, I want now to indulge in the guilty pleasure of a counter-factual thought experiment.

The thought experiment I was contemplating in that manuscript I will leave for another time, but here I would like to suggest a counterfactual thought experiment relating to the Industrial Revolution.

I started thinking about this in relation to unemployment. Unemployment is a timely topic due to the recent recession. While the most recent figures show the US economy in the last quarter growing at an annualized rate of something like 5.9 percent (which is quite good), unemployment is still higher than most would like. This is not a surprise. But that the popular media reports this in hysterical tones also should not surprise. Employment is always a trailing indicator of economic growth. When an economy contracts, employers usually delay laying off employees as a last measure. When the economy expands, employers also usually delay hiring until they absolutely must hire in order to keep their businesses running. Again, there is nothing surprising in this.

What is surprising, from a long term perspective (a very long term perspective — the longue durée measured in centuries if not millennia), is that the match between employers and employees in the labor market is as close as it is. Even in a recession in an advanced industrialized economy, unemployment rarely goes over ten percent, though in some localized areas it may climb to twenty-five percent or more. Still, the vast majority of the employable labor force is working. Why should there be such a close match between employers and employees in the labor market? This question posed itself to me, and it suggested a thought experiment.

What if, instead of the Industrial Revolution that we did in fact have, we had had instead an Industrial Revolution of a different sort? Let me try to explain. The mechanization of agriculture has made it possible to feed a population of a given country with only, say, two to three percent of the workforce involved in food production. This is what makes the Industrial Revolution a revolution in a robust sense. Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the population in all social systems in all parts of the world (which means in all climates, raising all different kinds of foodstuffs) were peasants tied to the land. It took ninety percent or better of the population laboring over food production just to keep people fed, and mostly they weren’t fed very well. And then the revolution came.

With the Industrial Revolution, civilization experienced a dramatic and wrenching change in the lives of its people, and this change had two parts. Food production could be managed by a small work force, which meant that the vast majority of the population left the farms and fields of their ancestors. What happened to them? They migrated to cities and got jobs in emerging industry. This is the second component of the movement of peoples spurred by the Industrial Revolution.

But what if we had had an Industrial Revolution that revolutionized agriculture and food production but which didn’t create vast industrialized cities with work for the masses liberated from what Marx called rural idiocy? The industrialization of agriculture could come through mechanization (as in fact it did, in part), but perhaps also it could come without a focus on mechanization but simply with improved techniques in pastoralism and husbandry. This sort of thing was already happening in England during the Enlightenment, and England was also the earliest part of Europe to experience the full force of the Industrial Revolution.

It could be argued that the famous example in Adam Smith of the number of workmen required in order to make a simple coat illustrates the cascading nature of industrialization, and that any economy that industrialized agricultural production would necessarily have evolved other industries in parallel, the growth of which would absorb the masses no longer tied to subsistence agriculture. But allow us to suppose, simply for the sake of argument, that the components of industrialization could be separated, and that agriculture could be industrialized without the remainder of society being industrialized, so that food production employed at most five percent of the population, and the traditional elites that organized society made up about ten percent (probably less) of the population, thus leaving eight-five percent of the population at loose ends. What would the world look like if eighty-five percent of the population were terminally unemployed?

Since most rational discussions of the actual world revolve not around absolutes and extremes, but around rates and degrees, suppose that emergent industry, instead of employing almost all of the population no longer needed for agricultural production, employed only about half of them. This is certainly a conceivable scenario. What would the advanced industrialized economies of today look like if there was a nearly permanent unemployment rate of fifty percent? Could any known society survive the demographic challenge of so many idle hands? Would a very different society have had to emerge from these conditions, since society as we know it would simply self-destruct under these conditions?

If the necessities of life were present in abundance but work was not present in nearly equal abundance, civilized society as we know it today would not function. Perhaps Georges Bataille was right after all about the accursed share, that the real problem for society is not scarcity but superfluity, that we must construct socially acceptable ways of expending wealth. Moreover, consumption can only be fetishized when it is a commodity that is relatively scarce. Perhaps in a society revolutionized by the industrial revolution that did not happen, labor would be fetishized, and instead of the emergence of consumerism we would have a society based on productionism, i.e., fetishized labor. Authentic labor would then be the ultimate scarce commodity, and people would seek authentic opportunities to work as they now seek exotic opportunities for leisure.

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Georges Bataille: not the best known among twentieth century philosophers, but certainly among the most interesting.

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