The Future Isn’t As Bright As It Used To Be

My favourite episode of the Simpsons is You Only Move Twice. Homer gets offered a new, better paid job in a planned community and the family up sticks. Hank Scorpio, Homer’s new boss is a Bond villain through the filter of a tech bubble era relaxed CEO and probably one of the most memorable one off characters. However, this episode also has a B plot about Marge slowly becoming an alcoholic. Basically, her new house is stuffed full of helpful time saving robots and having lost her purpose, she slides into (a very mild) drinking spiral.

Barring a meltdown of civilisation, we will eventually make the vast majority of our work completely mechanised or in some way heavily tech reliant. Increasingly efficient mechanisation with a growing population, which equals lots of people with nothing to do. There was a great This American Life podcast about this a few months ago that I’ll try to drag up, entered around a town where there were thousands of manufacturing jobs to make a machine part. Now it’s just two or three relatively highly trained guys, and machines, making the same quantity of parts.  Training of this sort is seen as the way to avert the slide in underemployment – blue collar must all convert to white collar or perish. But even the white collars will go one day. I like to think those of the creative wonk might be able to escape, but having seen some of my early drafts this morning, frankly, I reckon a computer can probably do my job better than me too. Perhaps the future will just be robots and graphic designers.

Arthur C Clarke said that full unemployment was our aim – that technology would free us from the burden of work and we could live an enlightened life like the Eloi in The Time Machine. What he failed to grasp, I think, is that most people like work or at least derive some sort of legitimacy from it. And not just work like learning a craft for laughs, I mean hard, 7 til 7 work. Puritanical almost.

I think there are two parts to that mentality. First, unless you are rich, the world tells you that you’re a scumbag unless you’re working til your knuckles turn to dust. Secondly, while the idea that efficiency would free us up lots of time is great, it doesn’t account for how the notion of free time is reset for successive generations. What I mean by that is because we have all grown up in a world with for example, cars, we cannot grasp how much time is being saved from the time when we didn’t have them.  We don’t appreciate the time saving, or use it as a space to relax, we just believe it to be the norm, the baseline. As a result, those days get crammed full of activity with no accidental downtime. Even our leisure is horrendously efficient and reeks of organised fun.

So one day in the not-too-distant future you’ll have the majority of people with little or no work to do, and those who do work will, like their robo-colleagues, never stop. Since no society has ever intentionally de-industrialised that, to my mind, is the big social crisis humanity will have to grapple with (that is if the environmental castrofuck doesn’t smother us first). Maybe we’ll all end up entering The Matrix willingly so that we’ll have something to do.

Til then, I should probably make breakfast.

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