Future Families

Been thinking about the confluence of technology and people considered both as individuals and as members of a family. The loss of family estates and the rise of existential dread by Adam Lane Smith inspired me to blog about it.

Mr. Smith’s short essay is about how human being have always tended to organize themselves along the lines of an extended family. He maintains – and I agree – that it is within such a family that human happiness is best obtained. This need for family is not limited to natural tribes. St. Benedict, when he created the Western monastery – literally, a collection of solitary hermits, as the ‘mono’ here refers to alone – he was reining in the dangers of individualism untethered from social relationships. Monks – again, the name comes from being alone – now lived in community. They had plenty of time to pray and study alone, but had reciprocal duties with the community: monks take care of the community, and the community takes care of the monks.(1)

The bug in my brain: we may or may not like the idea of a society organized around a family estate headed by a patriarch, but I think technology is going to push us in that direction, or push us over a cliff.

Consider two factors: for centuries now, since, perhaps, the first troglodyte knapped a good flint blade, technology has been eliminating jobs almost as fast as it has created them. Take any remotely modern job, even, say, a farm working picking crops, and you can back up into a million bits of technology that make that job possible: trucks, refrigeration, irrigation, pumps, herbicides, supply chain management, communications, and on and on. It’s a truism that each of these technologies puts the case-specific buggy whip maker out of work, but the greater fact is that technological advances generally create 10 times as many jobs as they destroy, each of them generally safer, more productive and more highly remunerated than the jobs lost. We would not have 7 billion people on earth if this were not the case, and fewer impoverished people both as a percentage and absolutely, than at any time over the last century or two.

Image result for robby the robot
I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords, especially if they’re as slow and clumsy as this thing. Cool styling, however.

The fear is that, eventually and possibly very soon, robotics will put almost all manual laborers out of a job. Maybe. Sure has and will put a lot of people – warehouse workers, burger flippers – out of job. The reason for this fear seems to be the belief that robots, broadly understood to include AI, will soon be able to do not only virtually all blue collar jobs, but many or most white collar jobs as well. A robot can not only flip your burger and fulfill your order in a warehouse, it will soon be able to design the warehouse and all the robots in it from scratch, and design and build the robots that fix the robots, and the spec out and design the AI that will replace it. And do the taxes and fill out the forms. And then run the software that produces the increasingly life-like CGI replicas of dead people and put together the propaganda movies that will help keep us sedated…

And so on.

I have my doubts. But let’s grant this – dystopia? Here’s what it would mean in practice: those jobs that the robot AIs can’t do economically will fall into two classes: comparatively trivial jobs such as hairdressing or lawn care, which could be done by robots, but why bother? And jobs that are really tricky, involving human judgement and creativity on a level AIs can’t match.

This second class of jobs, which will include work such as directing the robots, marketing (no, really – there’s some serious voodoo involved on occasion) and perhaps the creative end of ‘creative’ jobs (anybody really think a bot couldn’t write most pop music? But you’d still need, for example, John C. Wright and Brian Niemeier to write their novels) will become increasingly better paid.

Jobs that the robots can’t do will be needed in order for the robots to do the jobs they can do. Someone will need to direct them towards an end, even if the bots can figure out the optimal way to get there. Robots creating movies will still need the parts of the stories that make it real and tend to defy algorithmic solutions – plot twists and character arcs, for example. (2) Those people whose jobs defy automation yet are critical to the workings of the automation would do really well, in other words. So well that they could easily support many other people.

So: I’m seeing a future with many ‘family estates,’ where the patriarch has a job that pays so well that he can support many people on his income alone. He will follow two paths: build capital over his lifetime so that the estate can continue without him, and groom successors. He will provide opportunities to his ‘family’ to work in various ways, as managers of the estate or creative contributors toward its functioning and beauty. Maybe they want to grow and cook their own food, or make their own furniture, or paint the family portraits, or write family biographies. Who know?

Over time, more and more people will belong to such estates, either as patriarchs or his family, or as ‘clients’ in the old Roman sense. If – big if, largely contradicted by history – his successors can maintain the family fortune, generations of people may live this way.

Lot of speculation here. The point I think I’m making: one option that may appear if robotics do in fact obviate most jobs is the reemergence of the ‘family estate’ broadly understood. The good side, as in Smith’s description, is that natural familial affection would be given room to grow; the down side is that those inside who have no other economic options may come to feel trapped. And the potential for human evil never goes away, but that can hardly be uniquely laid at the feet of the family estate.

Just dumping something that’s been running through my mind. Of course, the evidence suggests that many such tech and creative overlords, perched upon their piles of cash, will behave very badly. They certainly do now. Such are unlikely to leave offspring capable of continuing a family estate in the unlikely event they ever form a coherent family in the first place.

There could be conflict between those wanting to build for the future and those who believe they are the future. It could get ugly. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see how this comes out, as predictions of this ‘singularity’ (yeech! What a dumb expression!) being right around the corner seem to always be a few decades off.

  1. An illustrative fact: since to the Catholic, especially medieval Catholic, mind, rights are an emmination from duties, monks could own no property. Unlike a farmer or a knight or even a parish priest, a monk had no duty to support others. His duty was to obey his abbot; it was his abbot’s duty to direct the activities of the monastery to make sure the monks were taken care of. So there was no justification for a monk owning anything. His vow of poverty simply fixes this idea to the front of his mind.
  2. No doubt bots could produce 90% of what passes for art/movies/music/literature/whatever. If they in fact don’t already. That other 10% may prove difficult.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

10 thoughts on “Future Families”

  1. Biggest argument against the “robots will take all the jobs” idea– right, and that’s why there are no tailors or clothing designers, eh?

    Robots can do jobs, but they tend to do them badly.
    And even a human who can’t do the job can identify where it’s done badly.

    They are, however, incredibly good force-multipliers– you can have the REALLY GOOD farmers managing hundreds or thousands of acres now, instead of what they can physically farm by hand or horse. (Which makes more jobs dealing with the unexpected results of a hundred square miles of corn.)

    Robots can’t teach kids– but they can help teach kids, singing ABC songs for hours, sounding out words. It takes a human to identify when that kid who they know is probably faking “I can’t do this.” (Note: most public school teachers wouldn’t have a chance to figure it out with my kids, you’ve got to know them better as an individual. And the Baron still got one past me in teaching himself to read, I thought he couldn’t.)

    ************

    You did seem to miss one angle on the scifi-estate idea– support. Even if only one member is bringing in cash, they’re going to need support for everything else. Even if it’s “only” telling the robots what to do for upkeep, or organizing their social calls.
    Because humans are still humans– having humans do stuff will still Mean Something.

    1. Yea, I think the takeover by our robot overlords is a bit overstated, for the reasons you state. That said, warehouse jobs are supposedly vanishing as robots take over, and delivery jobs are being targeted now, via robot drones and self-driving vehicles. Those two fields alone employ millions of people. Order taking/burger flipping type jobs also seem to be on the way out – that’s millions more. Yet, ‘learn to code’ is still pretty good advice. So, I’m predicting both disruption (like that takes a crystal ball!) and the emergence/growth of new classes of very well compensated experts.

      I also look at my own family. At peak, my one job supported 7+ people with money left over (not a lot, maybe, but we still got to do stuff, like travel across the country to weddings, that are pretty luxurious). If I lived somewhere cheap, I could have maybe supported 20 people. And I’m not a tech maven or anything. When I drive past the tonier areas out here, in Silicon Valley and the East Bay area where we live, I see hundreds, maybe thousands of homes owned by people who make a lot more money than I ever did – they could have whole scores of people dependent on their income, if they wanted to.

      Most of those people, I suppose, will burn it all on their narcissistic happiness hunting, just as they always have. But some will build something that lasts. That’s the cliff/family estate fork in the road I’m musing about.

      As to your last comment, I think I covered that: “He will provide opportunities to his ‘family’ to work in various ways, as managers of the estate or creative contributors toward its functioning and beauty. Maybe they want to grow and cook their own food, or make their own furniture, or paint the family portraits, or write family biographies. Who know?” I assume there will be meaningful jobs on the estate.

      1. Yea, I think the takeover by our robot overlords is a bit overstated, for the reasons you state. That said, warehouse jobs are supposedly vanishing as robots take over, and delivery jobs are being targeted now, via robot drones and self-driving vehicles. Those two fields alone employ millions of people.

        Yes, but there is demand for MORE.

        And it’s so desperate that they employ the only barely competent, too.

        *******

        My husband is managing 8 right now, and we’re looking into expanding to my parents– we can hope they come in, anyways.

        The kids over ‘can understand English’ contribute, it’s just not in a taxable sense.

        The issue with the providing opportunity for meaningful work is that…well, it’s not a matter of the taxable worker giving an opportunity. It’s that the need is there, and he either has if filled by a family working together, by barter, or by hiring someone.

        For an example, eating take-out. That’s one of the biggest ways a stay at home improves the family budget; I’m no gourmet cook, but I do manage healthier food for a lower price than any take-out, and I can also leverage that into being able to shop around for better prices on the ingredients– something impossible for a single person living on their own.

        The household members make it so that there isn’t a need to hire outside of the household.

        I guess what my instincts are reaching for is that cash is a stand-in for work, not an actual thing in itself.

        And I just realized that I think in most cases, with enough automation, most households would naturally drop to insanely low cash-levels– just enough to cover the needed outside supplies, and the fripperies.

        If you don’t need to involve outside people, then you don’t need cash. Cash is just barter in a more portable form. Almost no portability needed, almost no cash needed.

  2. Oh man, no robot will ever be able to replace a hairdresser who really knows what he or she is doing. (Says a person with curly hair, who finds it hard enough to find a trained human who can really cut hair the right way, and when I do find such a one I cling to them). There are lots of jobs that we consider expendable until we find someone who can do them well. Sure, robots may flip burgers at McWendy’s, but chefs you will have with you always, because a human attention to intangible details is what makes a good burger or a good haircut a work of art.

    1. No robot will be able to replace a *good* hairdresser, I suppose. But for some, maybe most, say, a balding old man who just gets a 1/8″ buzz cut every once in a while, a robot could probably take care of me.

      And I’ll grant no robot will soon replace a truly good chef, while noting that there are probably 100 McMeals eaten for every one nice meal prepared by a real chef.

  3. Interesting things to think about. It occurs to me that if most jobs, or a large proportion of them, are eliminated by automation, that can’t be good for the economy since you’re eliminating a huge chunk of your market for products. I’m sure the market will work that out somehow, but I wonder how it would end up being worked out? Will the economy just have to hum along on the demand for products among the fortunate few who still have jobs, while the rest of the population is put on the dole or something? That seems like it would be hard to sustain.

    1. Well, what’s happened every other time is that the displaced workers found something else to do, and their job being able to be done cheaper lowered prices everywhere else.

    2. So far, as Foxifer mentioned, technology has ended up creating more jobs than it has eliminated. You’ve seen the warehouse bots that stay out of each other’s way, or the Boston Dynamics robots, which can persist at a task even when interrupted? The real question: are robots, by which I mean somewhat self-directing AIs capable of some slight degree of ‘initiative’ in approaching problems, going to finally eliminate more jobs than they create? History says ‘no’, but the self-anointed futurists of the Singularity say ‘yes’.

      I don’t know. We do have a model – family estates – where people have lived more or less in harmony even when few have jobs outside the estate. Maybe we can do that? if not, then the whole ‘millions on the dole’ dystopia seems likely, followed by Our Betters restricting reproduction, then culling the herd, etc.

      Or, based on history again, something else entirely will happen.

  4. This is a really interesting idea, and I think it could be the basis for a good sci-fi story. The more commonly envisioned result of this kind of economic development is that most people end up on public benefits rather than as the clients of some padrino: the social-democratic rather than the feudal dystopia. Kurt Vonnegut did it best in “Player Piano”, in my opinion. I wonder what forces would push a society toward one arrangement or the other.

    1. Years ago, probably in Asimov’s, read a short story where everybody was a part of a family of sorts, an arrangement of individuals by choice. The disruptive technology in the story was some sort of IQ enhancement technique, where eventually almost everybody is a genius. The story is told from the perspective of a woman who is merely very intelligent, who joins a ‘family’ with an estate high in the Himalayas. The story begins with her arrival and ends when she leaves. All the brilliant people are basically bored, filling their time with displays of brilliance that eventually drive the protagonist off.

      Besides, I’m thinking the feudal arrangement, if you will, might not be such a dystopia . It certainly could be, but sometimes people get along quite well in families. Beats being a parasite on the state, which will then use you for whatever it wants. Do we want the villages of 1284, or the police of 1984?

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