Sunday, 4 June 2017

The unstoppable rise of fatuous activity

Where will all the jobs come from as robots and AI take over? Problem or no problem?

Much has happened already because automation is hardly new. It has been with us since well before the days of Richard Arkwright’s cotton mill. New jobs will emerge we are told, jobs we cannot imagine now, but they will emerge as they always have since Arkwright harnessed Cromford Sough and made hand-loom weavers redundant.

Ours is merely one of the many worlds automation builds and discards on its way to wherever. It is not some job-destroying digital tsunami lurking just below the horizon, but is already here, as it has been for centuries. Working life is responding and changing now just as it did in the past, but we don’t necessarily notice as we adapt, as memories fade, as inessential becomes essential, as we take the opportunities it offers.

The trouble is, if we stand back and look at ourselves with a sceptical eye, then much of what we do as a consequence of automation feels somewhat inessential. Even worse, it often feels fatuous. Like some kind of game which confers no deep benefits on anything but the economy, which merely satisfies our need to do something rather than nothing.

Not necessarily a problem then, because we like a growing economy don’t we? We are supposed to, but there is something uncomfortable about fatuous economic activity. Fatuous political activity is even worse. Yet this is where automation has taken us on the journey to wherever. A land of games, trivia and fatuous amusements, often disguised as gainful employment.

Alienation was once the fashionable diagnosis for a disconnect between industrial society and human life and perhaps it still is, but few of us appear to be even slightly alienated. On the contrary, we seem to enjoy the prosperity it brings, as if that is enough to offset the fatuous nature of what we did to earn it. Perhaps that’s okay and perhaps it isn’t.

As we all know, money can be earned from fatuous activity – huge great wads of it. In economic terms we are more prosperous than we have ever been. For most of us life is more comfortable than anything even moneybags Arkwright knew. We are healthier and we live longer, but for what purpose have we acquired all this health and comfort? To be gainfully employed?

Now there’s an old fashioned ideal – the crusty old notion of being gainfully employed. According to Ngram Viewer the phrase has largely fallen out of use from its high point in the late nineteen thirties.

Perhaps the ‘gainful’ bit became too naively optimistic. Perhaps that is what took the whole phrase by the hand and led it towards a decent burial. Or maybe the uncertainties of employment made it redundant in a world where any employment is some kind of gain. It all depends what we mean by ‘gain’.

Today we might take ‘gainful’ to mean financial gain and be satisfied with that as we check out the latest mobile phone offers. Alternatively we could mean social gain or moral gain or personal gain but those are more likely to be used as rhetorical flourishes in politically correct homilies. Oh - and there’s a fatuous activity to set the ball rolling - politically correct homilies. We find those useful don’t we?

Once upon a time ‘gainfully employed’ probably had a certain musty, Sunday school flavour of social and moral worth. Not many could aspire to it, but it was up there as an ideal. Yet our automated world has weakened and subverted our always tenuous grip on the ideal – the notion that employment can be or even should be socially, morally and personally rewarding.

As to what has replaced it, the answer seems obvious enough. In many areas of working life it simply faded away to be replaced by economic and political worth. Much of what we do today, many activities through which we are employed, lack a really convincing element of social or moral worth. Much of that is down to the effects of automation and the desperate political dodges designed to mop up an increasingly vast pool of excess labour. Keep the young ones at school for as long as possible then bung as many as possible off to university to take a degree in the sexist mores of hot-tub design philosophies.

What exactly is all this fatuous activity? The low hanging fruit are obvious enough. Nail and tattoo parlours, mass entertainment, university radicalism, professional sport, advertising, public relations, silly cars, fancy restaurants, fashionable clothes, posh coffee, designer labels, posh anything else, recycling, sustainable energy, oversized houses, political make-work projects and so on and so on. None are unambiguously wrong in a moral sense, but they are neither socially nor morally worthy in any sense. To survive and prosper in the modern world they don’t have to be and any notion that they could be has largely faded away. It had to fade away if automation is to continue. 

Grow, build and make have been automated to the point where most of us don’t involve ourselves in these essential activities. These are not the only essential activities by any means. Teaching, nursing, transporting and a host of other activities are essential too, but they are loaded down by a growing culture of fatuity spun off by automation, by the vast amount of work we no longer need to do. People have to do something and so often that something is nurturing and growing a culture of fatuous activity.

As we automate and as the population grows, something has to give and that something has been the ideal of being gainfully employed. There is no place for it. Employment has morphed into a culture which puts economic value on fatuous activity because it is forced to do so, from complex regulations to political and social fantasies to infantile entertainments. We have no idea how to use automation other than carry on building this culture of ours, this culture of fatuous activity. 

It will continue.


Demetrius said...

An essential problem with modern fatuous activity is that so much of it is based on debt and increasing liabilities. If it were just what we did with spare cash as a minority interest within our means it would be something of a waste but containable. If it does go wrong as it is very likely to, then instead of us making slight adjustments we will have to totally change our lifestyles. Anyone for porridge?

Anonymous said...

I think we get a clue from looking at all the bright young things who make serious money hanging around advertising, media, politics and finance. Get a degree in something like Geography or Art Appreciation or History and you are marked out as suitable material. Avoid at all costs anything so quotidian as any technical topic or anything too clever. Medicine or surgery is just about OK so long as you never actually do it.

Then a spell in something a bit twee, National Trust or one of the better sort of charities before moving swiftly on to public relations or marketing (but never sales) or strategic planning or consultancy. Then a jump into the fringes of politics or one of the newspapers or TV companies. Then a jump into a quango or indeed into politics itself.

The key is never to be pinned down precisely, no one quite knows what you do but you are connected to all the best people and your approval is needed. Quite what would happen if you did not exist is a question polite people in the same boat never ask and impolite people in a less important boat never get to ask.

As for what happened to people who did real things, well they were pushed on the scrap heap and their industry replaced by heritage centres (run by folk as per above). Crafts persons are replaced by redundant account executives who work an ersatz forge and hammer iron whilst making ooo arrr noises in an inauthentic manner. The key is never to be authentic, always be totally false and fake, all the best people are.

Just take a look at the career paths of recent top political figures and you will get the idea. Being rich and going to proper schools helps a bit too, and that is where most of the common oiks are going to find the door just a little bit closed. But so far the key is plenty of BS, it will get you to the top.

James Higham said...

I was gainfully employed reading and attempting to follow it all.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - I like porridge so I'll be fine. The trouble is I also like to have the central heating on in winter. Maybe it will be one or the other.

Roger - you are right, I saw a fair bit of it before I retired. Eventually there was no point having relevant professional qualifications, the thing to have was an MBA, the gift of the gab and a the ability to skip off elsewhere after a year or two networking.

Oddly enough I remember a senior scientist predicting something like this way back in the mid seventies. He suggested that ultimately scientific qualifications would take nobody very far.

James - in that case I was gainfully employed writing it :)