This essay was inspired by a 30 Aug 13 WSJ editorial, Work and the American Character by Peggy Noonan, in which she discusses how important having a job is to being American. From the article, “A job isn’t only a means to a paycheck, it’s more. ‘To work is to pray,’ the old priests used to say. God made us as many things, including as workers. When you work you serve and take part.” Peggy is talking here about feeling enfranchised. In the early 2010’s if you have a job you feel like you’re an important part of the community, and the community respects you for your effort.
I was further inspired by an interesting 31 Aug 13 Open Culture article, Isaac Asimov’s 1964 Predictions About What the World Will Look 50 Years Later — in 2014, in which Asimov talks about the changing role of work from a 1964 perspective. From his article, “Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.
The most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become ‘work!’ in our society of enforced leisure.”
Both articles point out that as the workplace becomes more automated, the ability for humans to have a meaningful job as makers of stuff diminishes — the machines are doing more and more. I will add to this that in the 2010’s service jobs are facing this same trend. An example of losing service jobs is robots answering phones and making routine calls. A fast approaching example is driverless cars.
In sum, the challenge we civilized folk are going to face over the next thirty years is finding enfranchising alternatives to “Get a job!”
Enfranchisement is a feeling. It consists of two parts: feeling like what you do is important to the community, and feeling like the community respects your interests.
This is an important feeling. It is the bedrock of a community that is low in crime and takes an active interest in events that affect it.
The converse is disenfranchisement: the feeling that the community doesn’t care about my interests, and I don’t care how my actions affect the community. It is active or passive apathy. An extreme example of disenfranchisement is the Gaza Strip community — “Mortar Israel from my back yard… meh.” (I write more on enfranchisement here)
Having a satisfying job is deeply enfranchising. This is why it’s important. The challenge of the 2010’s and beyond is finding other activities for people to do that are also enfranchising — activities that can substitute for those jobs that are being taken away by automation.
Work, Harsh Reality and Satisfaction
The satisfaction that comes from doing work has a lot of instinct helping it along. In hunter-gatherer times everyone worked; everyone contributed to the well-being of the Neolithic village. And this is the condition our instinctive thinking is built to work well in.
But conditions in civilized living are different, and this means that instinctive thinking doesn’t match harsh reality as well as it did in more primitive times. Our harsh reality has changed, and our relation with harsh reality has changed. Example: We no longer personally kill, prepare and cook what we eat. We let numerous specialists and specialized machines transform plants and animals into consumable products. This means our current harsh reality is ordering a Big Mac at a drive-thru speaker and getting it in a paper bag, not catching and slaughtering a cow, and foraging to find and root out potatoes.
Harsh reality and Delusion
One of the virtues of human thinking is its adaptability. We can grow up in the arctic or grow up on a tropical island and be equally comfortable with our lifestyle. Growing up in the civilized environment is dramatically different than growing up in a primitive Neolithic Village environment, but we manage quite well at it.
We manage, but there are dramatic differences in what is “OK” between these many environments. Because we are so good at adapting we take many of these differences for granted.
One of the differences these changes in harsh reality allow is what is “OK” for our emotions to tell us. In the above example the civilized environment allows animal rights activists to gain serious community attention rather than be laughed at as strange, hopeless romantics. This 15 Sep 13 Telegraph article, Who you gonna call? Belief in ghosts is rising by Jasper Copping, is another example. This is about belief in ghosts rising in England.
As mankind’s lifestyle has evolved from primitive to civilized the issue of what is satisfying work has constantly evolved as well. We have moved from tilling the land, to driving a tractor that tills the land, to designing software that makes a tractor that tills the land. Because industrialization dramatically increases the pace of change, this question of what people can do that is satisfying and enfranchising has loomed larger and larger for over a century now… and the looming is not stopping!
During the 1920’s America and Western Europe experienced the Roaring Twenties — a time of booming economy, booming technology, optimism, and social liberation. It wasn’t all pleasant. There were a lot of scary exciting things happening as well as pleasantly exciting things happening. The book The Great Gatsby is in part a description of that amazement. (the book… the amazement element gets left out of the movie interpretations.) In the 1930’s the whole world experienced the Great Depression — a time when the economic systems that were supporting that 20’s optimism seemed to get mucked up and dysfunctional.
During both these periods people who thought about social institutions were marveling at the changes the current wave of industrialization were bringing to how people lived. Asimov’s article mentioned above is a classic example. (although written 30 years later)
And now it’s my turn to take a 2010’s swing at it.
Building Enfranchisement without building stuff
Now, in the 2010’s, the heart of the issue is discovering what people can do that is enfranchising, but not “work” in the manufacturing or service sense — the kind of work that automated systems will be handling more and more.
Here are some possibilities I have come up with:
o Creating human-crafted wares: “hipster manufacturing”
Many people buy stuff because it has mystical properties. This market will remain vibrant. Many people will be able to make a living by crafting stuff with mystical properties. This may seem like work, it may feel like work, but it’s not because it really isn’t supporting civilization. These processes will be hugely inefficient when compared with automated ways of making stuff, so this style of making things is icing on the cake. But it will be sustainable because the hand-crafting aspect will add a mystical nature to the product and in a prosperous community many people will be willing to pay extra for that.
Adding to the demand will be a transforming of harsh reality that will also be going on at the same time: As processes become more automated people are less aware of how stuff is really made — the physics, chemistry and economics of production. The effect of this is that people will be thinking “Why not believe in mystical powers? My harsh reality can support it.”
o Selling urban legends
Face-to-face selling will remain a powerful way to convince people to buy stuff. One variant of it that will gain in strength is selling stuff based on urban legend. This is because urban legend gets its power from stroking instinctive/emotional thinking, and that feature of human thinking will be strengthening. Emotional thinking and the urban legends it supports will become progressively more influential as people will become more and more divorced from the harsh realities that would prove the urban legends wrong. One example: the anti-science movements that support creationism. These beliefs work just fine as long as you’re not seriously trying to solve a complex science problem. Another example: selling wondrous foods and medical cures based on mystical power. These are supported by the deep instinct to worry about food and health. Another example: the animal rights movements. Animal rights can feel quite warm and fuzzy… if you’re not a person who routinely slaughters many kinds of animals, such as a poor rural farmer or a hunter-gatherer.
o Supporting mythical rituals
I attended 2013 Salt Lake Comic Con. It was a deeply surprising success — it was the biggest convention ever in Utah, and the third biggest Comic Con in the nation — only San Diego and New York City surpassed it. The attendees were both numerous and deeply into “cosplay” — designing and wearing elaborate costumes for other people to admire and shoot pictures of.
This Comic Con experience may be a vision of the future. This was an updated county fair and the attendees were getting a lot of emotional reward for their effort. Supporting mythical rituals will occupy more and more human attention as the time and attention spent on work decreases. And as Salt Lake Comic Con this year demonstrated, these efforts can bring a lot of emotional satisfaction.
That brings up the question of what are mythical rituals? My definition is a broad one: It is things we do because they make us feel better on the emotional level — to be a mythical ritual, enthusiastic emotion matters, not correlation with harsh reality. This means it includes things such as cosplay and backing sports teams.
Disasters are always surprises. This means they are a time when responses have to be novel, and dealing with novelty is an area where humans will outperform automation for a long time. Humans will be at the forefront in two areas: First, they direct the automated responses to disasters. Second, they will provide a lot of emotional comforting. So preparing for and responding to disasters will remain a highly enfranchised human activity. This is similar to the activity of firefighters and other first responders we experience in the 2010’s.
Humans won’t need military, but that doesn’t mean it will go away. There is deep emotion supporting a warrior class and being prepared to defend the homeland. What exactly soldiers will do thirty years from now, I don’t know. But it’s likely they will be around in some form, and being a soldier will be an enfranchising activity.