The End of Work


Guest List:

The jobless economy: a fully automated, engineered, robotic system that doesn’t need YOU, or me either. Anything we can do, machines can do better – surgery, warfare, farming, finance. What’s to do: shall we smash the machines, or go to the beach, or finally learn to play the piano?

First, some numbers.

There’s a trend in the economy that came up big in our show on Thomas Piketty’s inequality tome. Between 2000 and 2014, the median U.S. income has actually dropped: from $55,986 to $51,017. Over the same period corporate profits have more than doubled. The workforce participation rate in May of this year was 62.8%, the lowest since 1978. The level of investment in equipment and software bounced back to 95% of its historical peak just two years after the same recession that trashed all the jobs that have been so slow to come back.

One of the questions of that inequality story — big gains at the top, stagnation (or worse) at the middle and bottom — is how much is owed to the technology part of the capital, and really the automation of jobs formerly held by human beings. We know that the number of American ‘routine jobs’ dropped by 11 percent between 2001 and 2011. And a new study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University suggest that 47% of U.S. jobs might be vulnerable to loss by automation, with telemarketers, sewers, watch repairers, umpires, models, and cooks likeliest to go.

We start the conversation there, at what McAfee and Brynjolfsson call the “Great Decoupling,” the possibility that machines are beginning to destroy more jobs than they can create (in the short term, at least).

A Syllabus

• We’re watching two things this week: “King Joe,” a weird, half-hearted, casually racist cartoon about the dream of a technologized workforce, and the long, terrific Adam Curtis doc All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace… on Ayn Rand and the utopian dream of computers, named for the terrific Brautigan poem.

• The great work theorist Peter Frase has taken on four futures, utopian and dystopian, contained within the move to automation. (He’s turning it into a book!)

• George Saunders contributed a story to Chipotle to bring on their bags hoping for an end to work:

Note to future generations: Still have “bosses”? Bosses still intrusive? Still have “offices”? Future offices = high tech? All you have to do to raise temperature is think, “Raise temperature in office,” computer does? People move from place to place on invisible air-cars? People think: “AirCar, take me to Copy Room,” soon are soundlessly proceeding to Copy Room? Except there is no Copy Room, because paper obsolete, all documents projected on to screen inside brain? Sometimes, for prank, future person sends ton of random copies into brain of friend, friend cannot walk/see, has to feel way to AirCar, say: “AirCar, take me to Frank’s cubicle, am going to kill Frank for flooding my brain with random copies.” In your (future) time, boss can just stay in own (plush) office, nosing into what (excellent, responsible) worker might be writing in own spare time? Worker can send boss mental message: If you are so smart, Mr. Kenner, why branch shrinking, why did you have to lay off Jerry Ringer?

Jerry = good guy. Really miss Jerry. Jerry = dear friend. People still get fired in future? Even person with new baby? Hope not. Hope that, in future, all is well, everyone eats free, no one must work, all just sit around feeling love for one another.

• We think we’ve got a problem, but automation trouble looms largest in the developing world. Countries around the world have universally risen through a ‘sweatshop phase,’ a time-delayed industrialization. Foxconn, the famous producer of Apple products, is automating millions of those gateway Chinese jobs. And our guest Andrew McAfee gives the example of Nike:

 Nike’s successive sustainability reports reveals that the company used 106,000 fewer contract employees around the world in 2013 than 2012 (a greater than 9% drop), even as both profits and revenues increased by 16% and 5%, respectively.

What would you do in a world without work? Leave us a message here.


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  • Kunal

    Economists believe that 50% of American jobs could be automated within a couple decades:

    Do you think your job could be automated?

    • martinbrock

      Over 50% of jobs were automated during the 20th century in the U.S., while the population more than quadrupled, yet we don’t have a 50% unemployment rate (much less a 90% rate), because we created new jobs faster than we automated old ones. How many wagon wheel makers in 1900? Loads. How many podcasters? None.

      • Kunal

        Definitely true, and I hear that argument a lot. The current jobs will be automated, but there will always be new jobs we can’t even imagine right now. Creative jobs, most likely. Time will tell, I suppose

        • martinbrock

          Automation and the resulting increase in wealth does not spell the end of people exchanging their labor in markets, but it could enable more people to play the piano for a living as Lydon suggests, if people choose to spend their increasing wealth on more live music.

          In the last century, people spent much of their increasing wealth on entertainment, but they also spent it disproportionately on recorded entertainment rather than live entertainment. This century could see a reversal of that trend. The internet makes distributing recorded entertainment much easier and profiting from it more difficult, so the net could ultimately reduce recorded entertainment to little more than marketing for live performances. Big budget movies and the like might be exceptional, but music seems to moving in this direction.

          On the other hand, “finally learn to play the piano” also reveals a limited imagination. Why would 21st century consumers pay more 21st century musicians to play an instrument invented in the 17th? 20th century consumers didn’t. They paid more musicians to play electric guitars. We’ll pay musicians we can’t imagine to play music we can’t imagine on instruments we can’t imagine. I only wish I could live long enough to see it all. Kurzweil’s vision of immortality seems more like wishful thinking, but I’m eager to hear his latest instruments.

          • Gerald Huff

            The difficulty with “creative jobs” is that it’s very hard to make a living at them (ask your local musician about their “day job”). In the digital age, they are also even more subject to winner-take-all (power law distribution) dynamics. There is a long tail enabled by technology, but it’s very shallow.

          • martinbrock

            I’m a software developer, which is a creative job, and I have no trouble making a living. Musicians and painters and novelists and actors have more difficulty, because they’ve chosen an extremely competitive market in which supply far exceeds demand.

            We can’t all be professional actors and musicians, but I’m not sure that new media decreases demand in these professions in the way that 20th century media did. I don’t agree that new media are more subject to winner-take-all. How does winner-take-all account for this podcast and the Scott Horton Show and the Tom Woods Show and and many other ventures, including Radio Open Source, that are commercial successes outside of major media corporations?

  • Mark Aisenberg

    Automating labor to be more productive and profitable is great, but only if two conditions are met:

    1) The gains are shared, not held by a dwindling number of owners, and

    2) People have something else to occupy them that allows them to develop, contribute, and socialize; otherwise we become lazy and anti-social.

    The first issue can be solved by redistribution (taxes, etc.), just as the hardy socialists in Alaska practice when they distribute oil pipeline taxes to all residents an a per-capita basis.

    The second issue is a deep one, and I don’t have an answer.

    Vonnegut’s Player Piano touches on the interaction of these.

    But here’s the right-angle twist: I believe that energy and climate crunches may well halt our seemingly inexorable progress, and might even bring back a demand for old-fashioned manual and animal labor.

    • Kunal


      I think you’re exactly right. In his book “The Second Machine Age,” McAfee writes, “Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead… There’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate”

      I worry about all the people who will be left behind as we inevitably transition to an automated workforce. Not a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, but big questions I fear we don’t think about enough.

      • Oliver Amoros

        See below! 🙂

      • fun bobby

        except they have machines that compose music and poetry and ones that design novel consumer goods and weapons.

    • Oliver Amoros

      1) Basic income leading to a non monetary access economy
      2) People become lifelong learner/creators

      I think town structure will shift from retail/manufacture/residential to producer/campus with transient residents as people will be more free to travel, explore and develop.

      And yes, I guess some may choose a more traditional agricultural lifestyle.

      We can avert climate catastrophy if we divest from fossil fuels. See Rifkin’s Zero Marginal Cost Society

      • fun bobby

        oh I see, starving 6 billion people is a good way to reduce our environmental impact

      • martinbrock

        In a non-monetary access economy, how do producers know what consumers want?

    • fun bobby

      a gallon of gas can push your car 30 miles, can you?

  • Pete Crangle

    Before our collective mind gives serious consideration to “The End of Work,” it will need to address a mythos, one particular telling of one particular genesis myth:

    17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.

    18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.

    19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

    Obviously, there’s a lot to contend with here, both literally and metaphorically. And the context is not arbitrary. It’s generally considered an unhappy moment in the history of humanity, within a myth that has been extremely exportable. A painful birth of human will and various kinds of freedom. It presents an idea of work as a punitive life sentence, without parole nor exception. Where the links between toil, punishment, and death are made with absolute binding clarity (and isomorphic). It is a nagging cultural legacy that will not be easily dismissed en masse, regardless of pell-mell technological developments and cultural/social restructuring.

    Work, as with death, shapes our character, and speaks to, and about, our character. Work, as with death, can become a trap we attempt to escape, or a trap we choose to ignore in a spectacle of bread and circuses. This is expressed with frequent repetition within mass media and our quasi-market system. It helps drive the recreational drug and alcohol trades. It sets the table for the entertainment complex.

    This is not the kind of ‘thing’ that will be conveniently erased from the collective mindset. The end of work (i.e. the coup de grace of humanity’s punishment and suffering), will breed paradoxical resentments towards those who attempt to liberate labor from it’s shackles; that is putting labor “on the beach.” The paradox will manifest in resentment. That which is found within the workforce which strain at the work-death chains with acrimony or apathy, will feel psychological dislocation and resentment when those chains are removed, or there is a mere discussion of their removal; for something we can only speculate upon… Homo-ludens to the rescue? Play, as mass psychic balm?

    It’s important to keep in mind that when we discuss work, we’re not merely discussing applied skills realized within the context of tasks and activity within a concocted organization, which participates within the larger hegemonic systems of power and influence. We’re talking about a social context for the individual to structure one’s self, and usually participate in a panoply of power relationships on the continuum of unpleasant to alienating. Not every work cauldron is a daily gladiatorial contest. Many gigs are numbingly mundane death traps for mind, body, and spirit, where the threat of job extinction (redundancy) looms in the mind’s theatre of anxiety. Work becomes a place to whither during the optimal years, days, and hours of one’s life. Or, it structures those optimal moments of one’s life-cycle, giving it purpose and meaning.

    As we consider untethering of ourselves from the bonds of labor-til-we-perish (or, retire), what will millions of former wage and salary slaves do with their new found idleness? When idleness is no longer an anomalous outlier? Perhaps, create a new mythos? Or, will we engineer this out of our system’s as well? As for me, I need to get back to work…the tedium, is my medium…

    • Mark Aisenberg

      Work is also a welcome distraction from contemplating the meaning of life. I’ve found that in times where I wasn’t busy at work I spent more time focusing on things missing from my life.

      • Pete Crangle

        Too true.

      • GuestAug27

        Too much work can also prevent us from keeping tabs on our elected officials, thus being a detriment to democracy. Perhaps that is why we keep electing politicians who repeatedly fail to protect our interests.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    KEYNES 1930 VERSUS 2014

    In order to give yourself “the longer view” on this “End to Work” ROS discussion, ponder these words from Keynes in 1930. Notice the Keynes phrase “technological unemployment” which is in italics in the original.

    John Maynard Keynes,
    Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren

    At the same time technical improvements in manufacture and transport have
    been proceeding at a greater rate in the last ten years than ever before in
    history. In the United States factory output per head was 40 per cent greater in 1925 than in 1919. In Europe we are held back by temporary obstacles, but even so it is safe to say that technical efficiency is increasing by more than 1 per cent per annum compound. There is evidence that the revolutionary technical changes, which have so far chiefly affected industry, may soon be attacking agriculture. We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. In quite a few years-in our own lifetimes I mean-we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.
    For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come–namely, technological unemployment (italicized in orginal—RM). This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge. It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of afar greater progress still.

    Richard Melson

  • Tan Nguyen

    people pay people

  • GuestAug27

    Does anybody find it strange that after decades of increasing productivity and GDP growth, an average middle-class household has to put in twice as many working hours now as it did 50 years ago to maintain basically the same quality of life? In other words, 50 years ago, one working adult, usually the husband, was able to support a family of four. Now it requires both the husband and the wife. As women entered the workforce, why were there no corresponding decreases in working hours?
    Would we all now have 24-hour workweek if the additional wealth created by the economy over the past 50 years did not end up in the pockets of a very small group of people (let’s call them the 1%)?

    • “As women entered the workforce, why were there no corresponding decreases in working hours?”

      Stuff? is it because they have more stuff to pay for?

      Fifty years ago people didn’t eat out every night and the four kids didn’t own cars.
      I’d like to see a virtual tour of a household from 50 years ago versus one today.
      Today, we would swoop by the $40,000 pickup truck and past the 3-car garage filled with jet skies, ATVs, campers, and etc before we entered the house.

      Yeah, the quality of life is down, but the amount of stuff is up !

    • fun bobby

      cell phone bill and cable bills were a lot less then

  • Kelvin Param

    Brilliant show, Chris. It’s clear that Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the future belongs to the privileged and the brilliant. He seems oblivious to the need to solve the distribution problems that are with us and which will only get more acute. He seems to fall back on the “we didn’t have this or that at turn of the 20th century, but we do now” mantra. Ray seems out of touch with how the majority of the working population in developed economies live let alone the global population. On the other hand, Andrew McAffee’s analysis is spot on just about everything especially the fact technological progress is now hollowing out the middle class. Kudos to Andrew.

    • Marion Leeds Carroll

      Yes! Sure, there’ll be the option to use 3-D printers to “print” inexpensive
      clothing, etc – but what about the people who can’t afford a printer, or
      the raw material for the printed objects – or the outrageous number of
      homeless people… Kurzweil clearly came from priviledge, and has no clue about
      the real world!

  • Cambridge Forecast

    The Trouble with “Technologism” or Techno-Determinism

    Both Keynes and Marx start with facile techno-determinism a la the two main panelists on this terrific ROS show, Kurzweil and McAfee, but than reverse themselves:

    Keynes, first:
    I have posted this comment already in this ROS comments ‘thread” which I present again for convenience.
    Notice this techno-euphoria was given by Keynes in 1930. By 1933, Keynes argued that “finance must be primarily national,” sensing that global capital flows. If not braked, could capsize national economies which is partly what happened to the US in the Great Recession as explained lucidly in the book “Lost Decades” by Frieden of Harvard. By 1933, techno-euphoria is gone. Keynes invents what we call macroeconomics and realizes that governments must lead in regulating and braking the world economy and global finance or the techno-exhilaration would be meaningless and both premature and immature. This culminates in the Bretton Woods negotiations and finally Keynes’s death soon thereafter in 1946 from the strain. The strain has to do with the fact that Keynes sees the centrality of government policies and global and domestic politics must come before all the technical “golly-gee-wow” a la Kurzweil and company. Think of Keynes from 1930-1946 in this way, evolving away from simplistic techno-euphoria. (see Re-Presenting Keynes version of Techno-Euphoria further on in this comment) :
    Marx makes the same journey: In his “The Poverty of Philosophy” (1847) he “does a Kurzweil/McAfee” when he says:
    “The handmill gives you the society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, the society with the industrial capitalist.”
    (Paperback edition, International Publishers company,1973, page 109.)
    The main ROS guests modify this to: “digitization gives you the knowledge economy.” This “technologism” or techno-determinism won’t do.
    Marx, like Keynes, moves away from this “technologism” in the very same book, when he says:
    “Direct slavery is as much the pivot of our industrialism today as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery no cotton; without cotton no modern industry. Slavery has given value to the colonies; the colonies have created world trade; world trade is the necessary condition of large-scale machine industry.” (same book, page 188).
    “There are even phases in the economic life of modern nations when everybody is seized with a sort of craze for making profit without producing.” “This speculation craze, which recurs periodically…” (same book, page 146).
    In other words, both Keynes and Marx start with Kurzweil/Macafee-type techno-determinism and then realize the cart and the horse are backwards and the arrow of causality moves the other way.

    Re-Presenting Keynes version of Techno-Euphoria:
    KEYNES 1930 VERSUS 2014
    In order to give yourself “the longer view” on this “End to Work” ROS discussion, ponder these words from Keynes in 1930. Notice the Keynes phrase “technological unemployment” which is in italics in the original.

    John Maynard Keynes,
    Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren
    At the same time technical improvements in manufacture and transport have
    been proceeding at a greater rate in the last ten years than ever before in
    history. In the United States factory output per head was 40 per cent greater in 1925 than in 1919. In Europe we are held back by temporary obstacles, but even so it is safe to say that technical efficiency is increasing by more than 1 per cent per annum compound. There is evidence that the revolutionary technical changes, which have so far chiefly affected industry, may soon be attacking agriculture. We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. In quite a few years-in our own lifetimes I mean-we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.
    For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come–namely, technological unemployment (italicized in orginal—RM). This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run is that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge. It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still.

    Richard Melson

  • Good show – liked the dissenting opinions.

    Chris asked: What’s the bad news?
    Kodak produced lots of pollution.

    “According to the EPA, Kodak released more dioxin into New York’s environment in 2000 than any other source. Kodak isn’t just number one in dioxin emissions, however. As of 1999, they’ve also ranked as New York State’s leading producer of recognized airborne carcinogens and waterborne developmental toxicants. They’ve also gained notoriety as New York’s number one source for releases of suspected endocrine, gastrointestinal, liver, cardiovascular, kidney, respiratory and
    reproductive toxicants as well as neurotoxins. Kodak alone released more toxic chemical emissions listed in the federal Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) than all of the 144 major polluters in Erie (Buffalo), Niagara (Niagara Falls) and Monroe (Rochester) counties combined.”

    Instagram only 15 jobs and how much pollution?

    One important point by Kurzweil skipped over and maybe an entire show is how language/vocabulary can frame things erroneously.
    (AI being not intelligence….Trans humanism being the end of humanism.)
    For example:
    Is humanity being downsized?
    Kurzweil and McAfee answered this – just not to Chris’ satisfaction.
    The drive forward, the technology market, the overcoming of limitations is all ‘humanism’. The kvetching,whining, and complaining is ‘humanism’. The lack of vison, lack of apprehension, lack of perception is ‘humanism’.

    Humans are not being downsized, they’re being upsized.
    ^ THAT is the huge ecological problem.

  • Aristotle anticipated this day would come. Kurzweil has been explaining a mechanism for looms to weave themselves for years, and his How to Create a Mind should be required reading. Louis Kelso raised important questions. Who will own the robots? How will the 99% get access to ownership opportunities? None of the political parties have addressed these questions, with one exception …

  • fun bobby

    I have said this would happen for a while.

    ” finally learn to play the piano?

    “player piano” reference, awesome

  • Gabi

    Thank you all for this interesting episode! I’d like to chime in with a reply to Mr. Kurzweil’s arguments about how things have gotten better over the 20th century. While true, such a long time-span is IMHO not the most relevant one when it comes to addressing concerns that people have today. I think it very likely that those concerns arise from much shorter experiences, comparisons to less distant pasts and expectations about closer futures.

    In my experience, we can tap into the experiences of our parents and grandparents at best. Or study these topics of course, but how many people do? And how about the age of people having these concerns? It seems to me that the younger one is, the less chance they have to appreciate the tremendous advances we have made over long terms, while being confronted mostly with the shorter-term problems.

    Therefore, the arguments Mr. Kurzweil draws on are a bit removed IMHO. I hope he is not banking on some kind of trickle-down effect resulting from high-level implementation of his ideas to the general population that is concerned with shorter time-frames. I rather think that solutions that work on those levels are direly needed in addition.

  • pwparsons

    All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
    by Richard Brautigan

    I like to think (and
    the sooner the better!)
    of a cybernetic meadow
    where mammals and computers
    live together in mutually
    programming harmony
    like pure water
    touching clear sky.

  • Fascinating!

  • Cambridge Forecast

    The ROS Show “End of Work” in the Light of H.G. Wells’ ‘Things to Come’

    An H.G. Wells megatheme is the rise of “savior technology” after war and disorder and anomie. Kurzweil/McAfee remind me a bit of this Wells vision.
    The 1936 movie masterpiece “Things to Come” is based on the H.G. Wells book, “The Shape of Things to Come” and epitomizes this Wells worldview. The movie culminates in 2036 in a kind of tranquilized techno-rescued techno-topia which is now about to colonize the heavens with its “all or nothing” concluding slogan.
    It is reviewed elsewhere in the following “technicist” way:

    “The story begins in 1940, which at the time of the film’s release was still four years in the future. The world is at the brink of war. War duly arrives, and lasts for decades, until pretty much all that’s left are bands of struggling survivors. These unfortunates must face up to the plague of “the wandering sickness”—think zombies without the unfortunate the unfortunate flesh-eating tendency—while fighting among themselves in Stone Age conditions. A local warlord carries on something like a dapper, British Dennis Hopper in Waterworld. Things are grim. The first hour of this movie, then, is pretty much one downer after another.
    What ultimately saves mankind is the hard work and dedication of a few visionaries, engineers and scientists led by a large-helmeted Raymond Massey, who descends from the heavens to save the masses.” (think of Kurzweil—RM.)
    Illustrated lecture or no, what’s most striking to the modern viewer, perhaps, is that the ultimate fate of all mankind, a sort of techno-utilitarian homogeneity presented as a utopian deliverance from war and disease (think of Kurzweil’s “Singularity”—RM), looks a little like Utopia and very much like an underground shopping mall from Hell.
    With its ranks of shuffling citizens dwarfed by the technology that controls
    them in their underground, airtight cities, with a cabal of self-appointed
    technocrats ruling the masses for their own good, it feels like something out
    of a ‘60s sci-fi dystopia by Philip K. Dick or John Brunner.

    Another dimension that might have been explored in the ROS show is not the shrinking of jobs but the shrinking of wages.

    Those who have been exposed to elementary “macro” in college will remember the key concept of the real exchange rate. If the American macro-accounts are out of balance one channel of readjustment will be a lower dollar and a lower wage.

    The “End of Work” question needs to be appended to the average wage question. (“End of Work” in terms of Purchasing Power for Average Americans even at Walmart Prices, .)
    Richard Melson

  • martinbrock

    As a Singularity-skeptic, I expected to disagree more with Kurzweil, but the program hardly discussed a polyannaish vision of technology development. Instead, we had Kurzweil defending the prosaic history of technology increasing the wealth of practically everyone exposed to it without leaving legions of starving Luddites in its wake. Simply expecting this trend to continue doesn’t seem pollyannaish to me. Expecting it now to end seems less realistic, yet this program pitted Kurzweil alone against four others (including Lydon) arguing a “Great Stagnation” counter-point, and I found myself agreeing with Kurzweil across the board.

    So what about the Great Stagnation? I suppose it’s real, but I doubt the conventional diagnosis. The sort of stagnation that McAfee et al. fear seems a consequence of states further empowering their rent-seeking constituents (through patents of ever expanding scope and jurisdiction for example) rather than a consequence of technology development. A more conventional diagnosis suggests instead that the stagnation is an inevitable consequence of markets delivering growing goods to only a few smart guys creating the technology, but as one of the guys creating the technology, I doubt this account.

    States privilege rent seekers by impeding the access of common people to capital (particularly these days to “intellectual capital”). Explicit monopolies, like patents, are only the tip of the iceberg in this regard. States also lead legions of young people down dead-ending, academic paths by subsidizing these paths through grants and incredibly feudalistic loan programs. Every year, academies produce more graduates with psychology degrees than the total demand for professional psychologists.

    Suppose the U.S. needs a million auto mechanics to supply the total demand for auto repairs, and suppose a cabal of auto repair corporations somehow encourages a million naive students to spend years studying auto mechanics and then to enter the market for this employment every year. Wages for auto mechanics would dwindle, and critics would rightly damn this cabal, but people employed well by the cabal to train this vastly excessive pool of labor competing for jobs as auto mechanics would not be among the critics.

  • Carol

    The tax rate under Eisenhower was around 80% on the top levels.Businesses were required to pay taxes.He was not a Socialist.
    The US is the only country that does not tax to support infrastructure(our infrastructure is in dire need of trillions in overhaul)public spaces,retirement etc.The President is being sued because he pushed for passage of the ACA.
    Ray displays the arrogance of the Innovation crowd and contempt for the rest.Our Seaport District was built with no regard for the promises made re streetscape,residential housing,affordable housing,transportation.It is an urban office park with a bottleneck of commuters flooding the transportation networks everyday.They believe that all this is ok because they’ve called it the ‘Innovation District.”

  • August

    The Luddites weren’t “against technology” as Ray Kurzweil said. They were protesting the loss of worker autonomy. A significant distinction, especially in the context of this discussion where Mr. Kurzweil is totally (willfully) blind to the hardships of many workers today.

  • Michael Beaton

    One thing that strikes me about Kurzweil, and the ‘Technology is Good’ (… at all/any cost… costs? what costs?) sector is the many blind spots that seem to be essential to the unqualified optimism. By constraining the scope of what is allowed to be considered to a set of topics that seem to me cherry picked, they are able to make their case without much self doubt. And if one accepts the terms of the debate It is difficult, as this show also demonstrated, to make any headway into the conversation that deviates from, what seems to me to be, this blinkered optimism.

    Reading the books I think I am sensing the core principles in this thinking… They are not new, just more sophisticated.
    . More is better. Always. More chips, transistors, knowledge, bigger, better, … What is the question here?
    . Trickle down is a huge part of the justification… “it will benefit everyone eventually”… This is used to shut down any discussion of consequences and implementation in the present tense.
    . The philosophical foundations of the notion of “good” is left unaddressed. I have this sense that the basis is changing but is not being addressed. In a world where machine and man have melded, will the one thing left untouched be the notions of love, kindness, relationship, beauty, truth and the like? I don’t assert that they should not change, only that there is a usage of the basic notions of good that are going unexpressed. It feels like a stealth move.
    . Progress is a de facto good. If something can be done, it should be done. Maybe even ‘must’ be done. The notion of what progress is, and what it means vis a vis the earth, and life is spoken of, if at all, in primary color terms… maybe even as an answer to all that ails us. In his books Kurzweil asserts that the ultimate consequence of all the technological evolution merging and then superseding biological evolution will be the distribution of this intelligence throughout the entire universe. (I am not exaggerating).
    . Progress is seen to be, at its core, more of what we are doing now, just better and more of it and exponentially better and faster. The notion of progress in this paradigm does not seem to need the earth, the environment, culture, or any of those experiences of the heart, spirit, of life. There are no picnics, no need to walk in the woods here. (I could cite any of the ROS shows on, say Walden Pond for contrast… Wendell Berry, David Orr, David Abrams, and etc…)
    . Enlightened elites will do the right thing. Promise.

    There are others, and I think a deep inquiry on these terms is warranted.

    To me, listening to this show, and in the middle of the book “The Singularity is Near” It is hard to escape the sense that I am reading the “real time” implementation of the Brave New World. When the new supra-man is being described it seems like Alphas being made and who ever is left over, unmade, are the Deltas… the unfortunate, but necessary residue of progress.
    (For an interesting back-drop and historical context to this conversation read Huxleys “Brave New World Revisited”.)

    I am not arguing right/wrong or good/bad at the moment… however, as the show tried to do in a few instances , what is not being spoken of is the consequences of people trying to take over the processes of evolution.
    Even this sentence, which is not an exaggeration – it is a tenant of this paradigm – strikes me as hubristic. We can hardly figure out the “unintended consequences” more than one level deep with the issues of the day. Look at, say, mono agriculture. Solves a few problems well, while creating a ton of other problems, each demanding a response… And the system gets more complex and beyond our ability to understand.
    Why we think “more of the same, just better and faster – and get rid of the bits that we don’t like/can’t use….like biology” will do it is puzzling.
    We are not that smart. Even with 100 times intelligence, we’ll not be that smart to manage this.

    We do not need more data, we need a better question.

    And that I think is my primary quibble with this entire thinking. It does not have a question that feels right.

    What seems to be missing from the discussion is any awareness that humans, despite the superficial differences, remain “spiritually” about the same. That the consequences of our bright future of TomorrowLand (the old GE presentation at Disneyland) has led to some pretty horrible consequences for many, now billions, of people not included in the benefits of the Global Economy, (for example). Why does anyone think it will be different this time? Because we’re (or it is) smarter? Smart is not the fundamental problem.

    – That there has never been any technology that was not quickly commandeered for military purposes. In what POV is it possible to imagine that this technology will be any different? From the Atomic Bomb, Oppenheimer and others, wanting to share the knowledge…but no… we have to keep it for ourselves, it gives us power/control… To any number of current day examples. We will not submit ourselves to the general weal of humanity. To think otherwise is to be particularly blinded.

    – There is no sense of any costs in the conversation. Human, ecological, or otherwise. It is all benefit. This seems to me to be a foundational flaw, and will at some time become its Achilles heal.

    – There seems to be a hubristic sense of the capability of mankind to know enough to know how to manage the power that comes from being able to even more completely dominate the environment. There is no discussion of the race against such imperatives as Climate Change, Forests, food systems, diminishing water resources (maybe we won’t need water, just a little grease in the joints?), and in the terms of this conversation work. Is this the ultimate escape route for human beings? To discard the body like a dead snake skin, inhabit a new machine.body with our mind/consciousness – one unaffected by the environmental conditions created by our forebears? (that is us.)

    – There is a strange austerity to me, like there is no dirt in the picture, about this shiny new world. Those things that currently make up what may be called our spirit … those less tangible elements of life such as love, relationship, community, meaning, purpose.. All of that is reorganized, and yet is not in the discussion. I don’t propose right/wrong… or good/bad as the framework of that aspect of the conversation.. Simple inquiry based upon a solid understanding of what it means to be human, and the consequences of these fundamental shifts in those experiences seem to be lacking. Will all of our experiences with the ‘other-than-human’ world be through virtual reality? HDef movies of lions and savannas, and whales and life that no longer exist…

    – And in the specific terms of the show : About jobs.. it strikes me that we do not have a clear understanding of the difference between work and jobs. In the sense of work is what we do, as a function of who we are. Jobs is just a place to make money to do the thing necessary for survival. Food, shelter, etc… But humans, and I would say any conscious being, needs good work to do and without it the meaning and deeper parts of being alive are lost. (Just look at the eviscerating affects of unemployment…It kills the soul.)

    It all reminds me of the watching a high production value advertisement from IBM, or Exxon — Or maybe a CocaCola commercial where they wish to teach the world to sing… It is great, and feels pretty good. Just don’t open that door over there… Like the huddled children under Scrooges coat, I have this sense that what lies underneath all this is hidden pain, disease and poverty.

    It is a conversation worth having.
    Unfortunately, to me, the opportunity to have it in this show was blinded by the bright lights of “what is possible”, and “look how good it is now compared to then”… with the implication that of course it will all turn out just right in the future. Every point was counterpointed with .. but it is all getting better… or will be better when… with no detail about how that might be true and little/no acknowledgement of how it might also be bad, and v.bad for a lot of people, not to mention the planet, in the meantime.

    I guess, having worked this out , I think that the paradigm being advanced ..this age of spiritual machines… depends an awful lot upon getting rid of all the niggling problems and things that don’t quite work out. It does remind me of nothing so much as the tragically failed attempt to implement Communism in Russia. Those people who would not, or could not keep up … they became the impediments to the glorious future and thus were quite justified in killing/removing them… There was no place. I don’t sense that this paradigm has much place for many people, and much of the larger context of the earth. All of that will be certified as justified to ignore, get rid of … as impediments.

    As AC Clarke said about this Brave New World and those hyper intelligence’s of the future: We can only hope they will be kind to us…

    I don’t think the notion of The Singularity, with all of its implications and consequences is necessarily wrong.. I just don’t think it is right. To the degree this is true it says to me that the root of the conversation/issue has not yet been addressed. That we are dealing with outcomes not the more fundamental structures of the moment.

    • polmom

      Wow! I thoroughly savored your many salient and well articulated points and counterpoints. I like the way you think

  • Potter

    I don’t know who first said it, but I learned “follow your bliss” from Joseph Campbell. But that was clear to me even prior. I was just recognizing it’s truth. Of course not everyone can. But we do, I think, make some fundamental choices in that direction if we can at all. My dad, all his life, had great satisfaction from using his hands. He was a tool and die maker when there was a real need for them, especially during the Second World War. Actually it kept him out of the battlefield, helping to build planes for the war in Connecticut where all the big companies were. He used to make the tiniest precision tools.

    As you can tell from my posting name here, I love to work with my hands too. Being a potter is so, um, primitive (sort of ).

    If technology liberates some, maybe it’s to go back to working the earth or with it, for bliss.

    I think of inequality as being an enormous force in the world ( not only here in the US) as your guest insisted.

    One thing that was not mentioned was the use of technology in warfare. It’s easier to go to war if you are an advanced society so inclined, without having to suffer casualties. This may also help to keep the less advanced less advanced as they are being raped for raw materials. Then you have whole societies stagnating. This reminds me of the micro version of this within our society.. the less advantaged. less educated, are stuck.

    That said, I am not sure that quiet, familiar village life with it’s rhythms, as Chris for instance reported from Ghana, is not in many ways a very satisfying, close to nature life to live…(with some help from medical advances.)

  • wellbasically

    Ray Kurzweil sounds totally out of touch with the body. I think we are going to find that much of our humanity comes through bodily experience and his uploaded mind will have nothing to say to us as it stops learning.
    We are in a phase where the analytical mind is favored over all else because of the way computers work. Why should we expect it to stay that way?

  • Will Whitman

    Ray Kurzweil is a techno utopian with a creepy and frightening myopia. He speaks of how “we” have improved ourselves, yet what of the 60% of the american workforce without a college degree. Oh, and what of our millions of new low-skill migrants? Thank goodness for the pushback that reveals certain inherent problems in social engineering without consent.

  • jacksaturday

    Recent NYT article: lined up shoulder to shoulder, the unemployed in the US would stretch from New York past San Francisco. The majority of new jobs in the last thirty years have been low-pay, no-benefits, part-time. There are many university graduates serving coffee, which doesn’t help them with crippling student loans.To suggest that they can all become app designers or successful web developers is beyond ridiculous. “No free lunch” is now a dead meme, thank God, I’m sorry futurists like Kurzweil can’t see this like Bucky Fuller did, he spoke of the “nonsense of earning a living.” The US was founded by Puritans still unconsciously clinging to John Calvin. He and his ideas went down with John Henry.

  • Let’s set sail on a slightly different tack.
    A study came out recently that claimed the lowest stress point of your day is at work.
    I’m wondering how very stressful all that free time is going to be.

    I work a blue collar job. We sing, we laugh and we fight as we work. The Dionysian drama takes place at a different venue every week as we travel around Virginia making the homes of the very rich ‘look good’.

    One thing about worker bees is that they have low self-esteem; hence, the need for work. So what is being proffered here, for worker bees, is an end to a very human

    The up coming generations have all had their self-esteem adjusted higher. Maybe it
    will all work out.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    “Perspectivalizing” Singularities and the Second Machine Age

    Professor Robert Gordon of Northwestern gives an intelligent economic historical counterargument to McAfee and Kurzweil from the long view, from their own bailiwick of industrial revolutions and techno-innovations.

    Professor Gordon maintains that, for much of human history, economic growth and improvement has been incrementally slow – somewhere in the range of GDP per capita, growing at about 0.2% per year. His work indicates we may revert to 0.5% growth for many decades to

    Here is how Professor Gordon begins his thesis in the abstract to
    his paper “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts The Six Headwinds” August 2012

    This Gordon paper raises basic questions about the process of economic growth. It questions the assumption, nearly universal since Solow’s seminal contributions of the 1950s, that economic growth is a continuous process that will persist forever. There was virtually no growth before 1750, and thus there is no guarantee that growth will continue indefinitely. Rather, the paper suggests that the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history.

    Could US economic growth be over? That’s the provocative question that economist Robert J. Gordon begins with.
    For example:
    He points to travel: In 1900 travel was via the open buggy, at 1% the speed of sound. Sixty years later we travelled at 80% of the speed of sound in a Boeing 707. And since then, at a consumer level, we haven’t learned to go any faster.


    Phases of growth

    “The analysis in my paper links periods of slow and rapid growth to the timing of the three industrial revolutions:
    IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830;

    IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water,
    indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from
    1870 to 1900; and

    IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present.

    It provides evidence that IR #2 was more important than the others and was largely responsible for 80 years of relatively rapid productivity growth between 1890 and 1972.

    Once the spin-off inventions from IR #2 (airplanes, air conditioning, interstate highways) had run their course, productivity growth during 1972-96 was much slower than before. In contrast, IR #3 created only a short-lived growth revival between 1996 and 2004. Many of the original and spin-off inventions of IR #2 could happen only once – urbanisation, transportation speed, the freedom of women from the drudgery of carrying tons of water per year, and the role of central heating and air conditioning in achieving a year-round constant temperature.”

    Thus Gordon gives you a counterweight to the techno-exhilartionist views of the two main ROS guests.

    Further Historical Comment:
    Keynes in 1930 talked the language of techno-determinism in his famous “Economic Prospects for our Grandchildren” classic and then spent the next 16 years of his life seeing that global security (WW II) and global governance (Bretton Woods world) as well as the perennial problem of global financial architecture (in 1933, Keynes argued that “finance must be primarily national,” thus reversing his own views).
    History and politics allow and engender technology and are not subsumed by
    technology but subsume it.
    Thus to set up a linear and facile “mapping” from “brilliant new technologies” to the “end of work” is a misspecification of the link between technology, jobs and wages.

    Richard Melson

  • Lupestro

    Somewhere between 1980 and 1982, when I was an undergraduate at UConn, a futurist from one of the think-tanks gave a lecture in which he described a future characterized by the sort of technological capabilities that we’ve all lived to see happen. One of his more optimistic statements was that the workforce would be retrained to support the new technology as technicians and such. I asked a question along the lines of “And what will happen to people to whom the educational system has not been kind? Who aren’t equipped to make the shift?” He could not or would not answer that question even provisionally, but some of the statistics that form the answer are at the heart of this discussion.

    Beyond any breakthroughs in computer technology, disciplined thought around rearranging work has resulted in businesses that are perhaps 30-50% more efficient than they ever were. For instance, we don’t have stockpiles of inventory in intermediate stages in the middle of the industrial shops that have to be shuffled around anymore. This is a good thing, but with that senseless work went all the senseless jobs to perform it. My field, the field of software, has been revolutionized by applying big whiteboards, sticky notes, team location, and office arrangements to apply clear thinking about how work gets done. The result is that a small team can deliver an impressive stream of deliverables. (Of course, the technology of the network is vital here as well.)

    The kind of technology being talked about here will only drive this further. The thing we need to grapple with is whether a doctrine that confers the privilege of survival, health, wholeness, and dignity only to those who can demonstrate that they’ve earned it by their labor can function in a world where the opportunity to do so is only available to a tiny percentage of the population. Either we embrace a doctrine in which these things are a birthright or we find something achievable to “whip the horses” with.

  • Andy Abbott

    If you feel like pondering on the details of a post-work, post-capitalist society where technology has been ‘purposefully minimised so that it aids, rather than conditions, our interactions with the world and each other’ then please feel free to spend a few minutes filling in the Erewyrehve survey here