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.