Employment as we know it has only existed since the late Middle Ages
Losing one’s job to a robot is no fun.
Without a new social compact through which to distribute the potential bounty of the digital age, competition with our machines is a losing proposition. Most jobs as we currently understand them are repetitive enough to be approached computationally. Even brain surgery is, in most respects, a mechanical task with a limited number of novel scenarios.
While we humans can eventually shift, en masse, to “high-touch” occupations like nursing, teaching, psychology, or the arts, the readiness of machines to replace human labor should force us to reevaluate the whole premise of having jobs in the first place.
Employment, as we currently understand it, emerged only in the late Middle Ages, when the peer-to-peer economy was dismantled. Monarchs gave out exclusive monopolies to their favorite companies, forcing everyone else to become employees of the chosen few. Instead of selling the value they created, former craftspeople and business owners now sold their time. Humans became resources.
The employment model has become so prevalent that our best organizers, representatives, and activists still tend to think of prosperity in terms of getting everyone “jobs,” as if what everyone really wants is the opportunity to commodify their living hours. It’s not that we need full employment in order to get everything done, grow enough food, or make enough stuff for everyone. In the United States, we already have surplus food and housing. The Department of Agriculture regularly burns crops in order to keep market prices high. Banks tear down houses that are in foreclosure lest they negatively impact the valuation of other houses and the mortgages they’re supporting.
But we can’t simply give the extra food to the hungry or the surplus houses to the homeless. Why? Because they don’t have jobs! We punish them for not contributing, even though we don’t actually need more contribution.
Jobs have reversed from the means to the ends, the ground to the figure. They are not a way to guarantee that needed work gets done, but a way of justifying one’s share in the abundance. Instead of just giving people food and shelter, our governments lend easy money to banks in the hope that they will invest in corporations that will then build factories. The products they manufacture may be unnecessary plastic contraptions for which demand must be created with manipulative marketing and then space made in landfills, but at least they will create an excuse to employ some human hours.
If we truly are on the brink of a jobless future, we should be celebrating our efficiency and discussing alternative strategies for distributing our surplus, from a global welfare program to universal basic income. But we are nowhere close. While machines may get certain things done faster and more efficiently than humans, they externalize a host of other problems that most technologists pretend do not exist. Even today’s robots and computers are built with rare earth metals and blood minerals; they use massive amounts of energy; and when they grow obsolete their components are buried in the ground as toxic waste. Plus, the bounty produced by modern technocapitalism is more than offset by its dependence on nonrenewable resources and human slavery.
By hiring more people rather than machines, paying them livable wages, and operating with less immediate efficiency, companies could minimize the destruction they leave in their wake. Hiring 10 farmers or nurses may be more expensive in the short run than using one robotic tractor or caregiver, but it may just make life better and less costly for everyone over the long term.
In any case, the benefits of automation have been vastly overstated. Replacing human labor with robots is not a form of liberation, but a more effective and invisible way of externalizing the true costs of industry. The jobless future is less a reality to strive toward than the fantasy of technology investors for whom humans of all kinds are merely the impediment to infinite scalability.