Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Advanced Civilized Paradigm I: Work

I’m going to be writing a series of blog articles about far-future changes. This is the first one. In writing these articles, I’m not going to be addressing current events or immediate problems (which means I may interrupt the series from time to time with something that needs more urgent attention), but rather considering long-term implications of advancing technology and the changes that it brings. I’m calling this series “The Advanced Civilized Paradigm.”

Here’s the basic idea behind the Advanced Civilized Paradigm. If we look at the way our precivilized ancestors lived from the first emergence of the human species, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years in the past, until the development of agricultural communities around 10,000 years ago, we find a persistent pattern. People lived in small communities of mostly-related people. They had no formal government or organized religion. This pattern persisted all over the world wherever people lived by foraging and hunting, for tens of thousands of years. This kind of persistent pattern or template of society I’m calling a “paradigm,” and this original, very old one in particular I call the “Precivilized Paradigm.”

Over a few thousand years, the early agricultural communities developed into city-states, and as they did, another pattern emerged that was also found all over the world, and that lasted for a long time, although not nearly as long as the Precivilized Paradigm did. This pattern included hereditary monarchy, a hereditary warrior-aristocrat elite class, a class of slaves or serfs at the bottom of the heap who worked for the benefit of the elite under threat of force, formal state religion, subordination of women to men. This pattern can be seen all over the world wherever people lived in cities in agrarian communities, with only rare and partial exceptions. It lasted from the emergence of the first city-states in the fifth or sixth millennium BCE and endured until relatively modern times. I call this pattern the “Classical Civilized Paradigm.”

Starting in Europe in roughly the 16th century CE, this pattern began to morph into something different and we’re still in a transition stage. It’s not at all clear where we’re going, but we certainly haven’t achieved any stable form that is likely to endure for as long as the Classical Civilized Paradigm did, let alone the Precivilized Paradigm. Maybe there won’t be any. Maybe we’ll just continue in a progressive upheaval forever. Or maybe not; maybe there’s a practical limit on the advance of technology and the social changes that accompany it, beyond which we’ll continue to progress but more slowly, with refinements on what’s already been developed, but nothing revolutionary, the way the printing press was revolutionary, or the steam engine, or electricity, or radio, or the assembly line, or the robotic factory, or the Internet.

For purposes of this writing series, I’m going to assume the latter is the truth: that there’s a practical end to all this, however far we are from it at the moment. With that in mind, I’m going to explore some logical “end states” of visible developments.

What will the economy be like when there is no such thing as a job?

What will religion be like when there are no barriers of language or communication?

What will government be like when instantaneous voting becomes a reality?

What does human mean in a world of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence?

I will deal with the first of those today in this entry.

What An Economy Does

An economy is a social arrangement that produces and distributes wealth. By “wealth,” I mean goods and services. (Money is not wealth. Money is a medium of exchange whereby wealth is traded.) Note that this description has two functions: production and distribution. An economy produces goods and services and gets them to the people that need or want them. An economy that succeeds in doing this is successful. An economy that fails in either function breaks down and fails in both. You can’t distribute wealth that hasn’t been produced. If it has been produced and you fail to distribute it, the economy stops producing it, too.

There are of course many ways of producing and distributing wealth, of varying sophistication. But no matter how complex the economy, or how many layers of esoteric financial manipulation are constructed on top of it, in the end it comes down to those two things. Can the economy produce enough wealth for everyone? Can it spread that wealth around so everybody has enough? To the extent it answers both questions “yes,” it works.

Now let’s consider a specific economic transaction and how it serves both functions at once: wages for work. First, we have to understand that our society assigns “ownership” of the material resources necessary to produce wealth on the basis of history, going back to someone who, in the far past, was able to grab those resources and hold them by force. In America, that generally means a white person who seized them from Native Americans. In other parts of the world, it’s slightly different, but it always comes down to forcible seizure at some point along the way. (Of course, if you look at the Native American from whom the white person seized the resources in question, and trace ownership back from that point, you find that somewhere along the way a Native American seized the resources from another Native American by force, too. The point here is not that white people are more wicked than Native Americans, but that ownership ultimately derives from piracy.)

Since the initial seizure, the property may have been traded many times by more peaceful and voluntary means. The history of these transactions ascertains who owns the material resources that are necessary to produce wealth. By societal convention, all wealth produced is considered “owned” by the “owner” of the material resources necessary to produce it – that is, of the land, natural resources, factories and infrastructure by which wealth is produced – and not by the people who do the work to produce it. The people who do the work to produce it, since they don’t own the wealth being produced, and can’t be coerced into doing the work by main force, must be paid to do it. That’s how our society has set things up, and how wealth is both produced and shared. Wages motivate workers to work, thus facilitating the creation of wealth, and at the same time provide workers (which, please note, means most of the population – this is important) with money (tokens of exchange, remember) that they can exchange for wealth (goods and services). In that way, wages also facilitate the distribution of wealth. They are the mechanism by which the wealth our economy produces is put into the hands of most of the people who receive it.

With me so far? It’s easy to take all of this for granted and consider it an artifact of nature, but every bit of it is a societal convention. There’s no reason why we MUST assign ownership of material resources to individuals, or say that the wealth produced is owned by the people who own the resources used to make it, that’s just the way we’ve done things for a long, long time, and so we seldom question it. What we have is a system in which rich and privileged people buy the labor of almost everyone else and then sell them the goods and services that their labor produced, thus resulting in a distribution of wealth. In terms of economic function, that’s what’s going on. Money (tokens of exchange, remember, not wealth) goes in a circle. It goes from the rich and privileged to everyone else, then it goes back to the rich and privileged (allowing wealth to be shared out to most everyone in the process), and the whole cycle starts over. The flow of money is two-way and circular, but the flow of wealth is one-way and linear.

Let me note in passing (I’ll come back to it) that wages for work aren’t a terribly good or reliable way to distribute wealth. They’re better than nothing, but they tend to distribute wealth rather poorly, resulting in frequent breakdowns of the economy such as we are currently experiencing. Wages tend to drop below productivity, and have to be propped up with regulations and laws and unions and other measures that fight against this tendency, and that doesn’t always work, as in fact it’s not working now. Keep that in mind as I discuss a long-term trend and take it to its logical conclusion.

With any work that’s done for pay, it’s theoretically possible to replace human beings by machinery. As a practical matter, for the present it’s not possible to do this with all work, but it’s increasingly possible with more and more of it. A tiny fraction of people work in agriculture today as did 150 years ago. Manufacturing as well has been increasingly automated (except in some poor countries where labor is actually cheaper than machines). Some services have been automated, too. For example, if you call the customer service department of many a company, you will find yourself talking to a voice-recognizing computer program that fields your questions or complaints. Such programs cannot, at present, completely replace human beings in customer service, but they can do the simpler sorting tasks and answer the easy questions that used to be done by low-level CS operators, and pass the hard stuff to humans just as low-level clerks would once pass hard questions to their supervisors. In principle, there is no reason why a machine could not be made to do any and all service work whatsoever. Machines could, in principle, run businesses, conduct sales, do scientific research, give artistic performances, or even perform the services of the sex trade. Some of these things would require considerable advances in technology over what is available at this time, but none of them is demonstrably impossible.

Let’s take this to its logical conclusion. Imagine a world in which machines can do anything human beings can do as well as humans or better. Every company that needs labor for any purpose no longer hires people, it buys or leases machines. Not only does it not hire any workers for the factory floor or the secretarial pool, it doesn’t even hire executive officers. Forget today’s CEOs of mega-corporations getting multimillion dollar bonuses. They’re unemployed, too. In fact, everyone is unemployed, and the only people who can make any money are the stockholders of the corporations.

Only problem is, they can’t make any money, either. The goods and services the companies are producing can only be sold to people who are making money, and under that scenario that means only to the stockholders. And there aren’t enough big stockholders to buy enough to keep business profitable – so everyone goes broke, the economy fails, and everyone in the world starves to death, leaving a world populated by nothing but robots.

Well, of course it wouldn’t actually go that far, because as soon as things got bad enough to really tick people off, we’d have a revolution of some kind. As this system we have in which rich and privileged people buy the labor of everyone else and then sell them the goods and services their labor produced goes from sort-of-working to not-working-at-all, it will be replaced with something that works better. But what?

Remember the exception above to “nobody’s making any money”? Stockholders still have wealth to trade and can still buy stuff, at least until the whole economy collapses. So a system in which all the work is done by machines would work just fine as long as everyone is a significant stockholder. Or, to put it another way, in which everyone has an owner’s share of the wealth produced.

In the far future, I believe that’s what we will have. We’re still a long way from it, but it’s the way our descendants will live.


  1. A superb historical distillation. At the end, I was dying to glimpse your imagined "logical 'end states' of visual developments" of what future people will be doing and how, especially with "machines that can do anything humans can do as well as humans or better." Perhaps that future description is the stuff of art (which is not to say that your essay isn't), and art is what we'll all be doing.

    What wealth creation can be done only by human beings? The Western concept of art as chiefly embellishment with little or no utilitarian function beyond the aesthetic is new, narrow and isolating. Art for art's sake. This is in contrast to the Precivilized Paradigm and the Classical Civilized Paradigm where art wasn't a peripheral phenomena but had utilitarian, social and religious benefits. The thing that survives is cave art!

    The behavior of art. We've all got it. It's making special that which has survival value. We've evolved because of it. Ellen Dissanayake, the UW professor and author of Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, calls it, "a psychobiological necessity." Art for life's sake, lives lived as art. Sounds like a world I'd like to live in:)

  2. Me, too. :)

    But are we sure art isn't something that a machine could ever do? All we can be certain of is that current AI technology isn't capable of it.

  3. Oh my. I thought AI stood for Amnesty International. Ha! Artificial Intelligence indeed. Well, robots could be a distant future stage of human evolution I suppose. Robots playing a role or dancing on stage, painting a portrait, leading a ritual. It doesn't move me much, I have to say. What's the advantage again?

  4. Cheaper for those who want to make money off it. The point here is that we're eventually going to have to get away from the idea of wages for work as the way to distribute wealth. If all wealth is produced by machines -- if there are no jobs -- who can buy the stuff that's produced? Unless we distribute wealth in some other way.

  5. We have to distribute wealth differently, absolutely, but why that means the end of all jobs I don't understand. What I envisioned after reading your essay was a civilization absent the drudgery and slavery of jobs, not the end of work altogether. We're still in the Classical Civilized Paradigm as far as wages and jobs go! Work as the creation of wealth in the future could be interesting, relevant, unconnected to insurances and retirement, and less hung up on the Puritan/Calvinistic morality of busy-ness.

    I can't get my mind around (imagine) machines producing all the wealth, including art. Doesn't a human have to make the robot, or at least activate the robot who makes the robot?

  6. Humans have to produce the technological infrastructure that makes the robot, including first-generation machines that make second-generation machines. Humans also have to develop the technology that makes all this possible, and it has not been fully developed yet. However, all that means is that the end of paid work is not upon us YET. Once the technology is developed and the infrastructure built so that robotics becomes self-sustaining, humans will no longer be needed (for that). But I don't really want to go too much into the technical details of AI and robotics, partly because I'm not an expert at it and don't know in detail how any of this would work. All I'm going to say along those lines is that I see no reason why it can't eventually be done.

    There are two ways to make a living in a modern society. One is to hold a job. The other is to own a business (or shares of a business).

    If you hold a job, that means you are doing work for someone else's profits (not your own) in return for a fixed, agreed-upon sum of money per hour or per month or per sale or what have you. The wealth that you produce is not yours; it belongs to those who own the business that you work for. Since your money is coming not from the profits of the business but from your wages or salary or commission, you have an interest in high wages or salary or commission -- even though that will increase costs of doing business and so lower profit margins. You don't care about profit margins, because the profits don't belong to you.

    If you own a business, or shares in businesses, you do not receive a fixed, agreed-upon sum of money per what-have-you, but instead receive a share of the profits of the business equivalent to your percentage of ownership. Your attitude towards wages or profits is completely reversed. You don't get money from wages -- that's something you have to PAY, and it reduces the share you get to take home. So you want to hold wages down, not bring them up.

    One way to hold wages down is to cut them out altogether by getting machines to do the work for you instead of people. True, machines have costs as well, but generally speaking those costs are less than the human costs they are replacing.

    Taking this to its logical conclusion -- and again, assuming that there is no concrete, objective human functionality that machines are in principle unable to perform -- what we would eventually have is an economy with no jobs at all.

    But that same basic economic function of distributing the wealth, which today is accomplished (sort of) by paying wages for work, would still need to be done. If you can't do that, there's no market for the goods being produced, and the whole thing breaks down.

    Goods can be sold and business can be profitable only if at least most people are making money. You can't sell stuff to people who have no money. So one way or another people have to have money, or the whole economy goes kerputt. And since people won't be able to get money by working at a job, and the only other way to make money is by being a business owner -- everyone is going to have to be a business owner. Ownership shares will have to be taken from the few people who own most of them today, and broadly shared among all the people. The sharing won't have to be perfectly equal, but it will have to be at least generous enough to make up for the absence of wages.

    Exactly how this is to be brought about isn't nailed down, but regardless of the form, the transition must be revolutionary.

    Now, does this mean that the future after this will be completely empty of work? No. But it does mean that it will be devoid of jobs. People will still work -- but they'll work for the sake of the work itself, for the satisfaction of it or for the joy in what they're producing, not for wages or salaries, which they will neither need nor be able to find.

  7. Thanks for the extra help here in getting it. I'm all for the end of jobs and wages. And maybe you're right and machines will take us there -- I think of my 1916 cohort grandma talking about her first washing machine as opposed to washing "on the board." Pretty big transformation. The ownership piece is perhaps trickier. With that story, looking backward doesn't bode well for a peaceful sharing looking forward.