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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.