Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Work For

Try this idea on for size.

Just as the atom bomb [was] supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again.

—Tim Kreider in Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

In a world with Groupon hemorrhaging millions of dollars a year and Facebook reaching a market cap of $104 billion while making under 0.2% that amount each year, this is all too easy to believe. It seems like the profit models of most major tech companies involve living off research grants and investor funds. Facebook exists simply because the public values it enough to keep it afloat. In a world of BitTorrent, open source, freeware, ad-funded, and "freemium" revenue models, it really is starting to look like the beginning of the end of capitalism.

But is this really all that bad? Is capitalism the only working model? Here's another great excerpt from the same piece:

“Let us not kid ourselves,” Professor Vladimir Nabokov reminds us. “Let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever. ... ” But practical value isn’t the only kind of value. Ours is a mixed economy, with the gift economy of the arts existing (if not exactly flourishing) within the inhospitable conditions of a market economy, like the fragile black market in human decency that keeps civilization going despite the pitiless dictates of self-interest.1

As I sit here sharing my own free, unsolicited2 opinions with the world, I'm prompted to think of the implications of recession and academic inflation in my own industry. Interestingly, this is even a problem in the research sciences, with today's glut of PhDs. The blog linked there hints at my own opinion: students and other hopefuls cannot stand up for themselves. Employers must refuse to let people work for free. It hurts the whole economy, and it is not the way forward.

Just the other day I was talking to a friend about the possibility of entering a post-scarcity economy in the next few decades. Sometimes the dearth of jobs and the neverending recession make me think that post-scarcity might almost be upon us. After all, we are becoming ever more efficient with food production.3 There is already enough food produced each year to feed everyone in the world (and there has been since 2002). What's the problem with not everyone having a job, as long as we can continue to feed them?

More and more tasks are becoming automated, putting humans out of menial jobs. This creates more demand for jobs that cannot be automated because they depend on human creativity, such as the jobs in art and writing that are now struggling for pay. It also creates more demand for jobs that require true human intelligence, which involves more than basic training; these are jobs in science, law, medicine, and engineering that demand years of education. These jobs cannot be filled by robots in the near future, or possibly any future.

So as labor jobs experience a shortage, knowledge work experiences growth. But these jobs will be less numerous as the economy becomes more productive. As a rule, a single person will be able to achieve more and more in an increasingly technological economy. Their job will become more automated. They will acquire more sophisticated tools that can accomplish the same tasks in less time. The demands of the world simply will not be able to keep up with this new level of productivity. Thus, there will be less demand for people to work. There will still be jobs to be done, but the few that are left will require a lifetime of intensive training, and cannot (nor need not) be filled by everyone.

Perhaps Karl Marx's day is approaching at last, though not quite in the way he imagined it. If everyone could have basic living expenses paid for, then we could all be free to do what inspires us. I could stop hearing artists complain about how much I'm pirating their music, and patent trolls could release their stranglehold on the tech industry. Perhaps most surprising is that these aren't just the whacky thoughts of some out-of-touch roboticist with a soft spot for science fiction.4 In actual fact, Switzerland is already voting on it.

  1. He certainly has a way with words, doesn't he? Maybe he should get paid after all.
  2. Surprisingly, no one asked me to write this (unlike some of Kreider's work).
  3. We're also having trouble managing the effects of big agro on the environment, but I view that as a separate issue.
  4. Well, they are also that.
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One Response to Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Work For

  1. ntraft says:

    Scott Santens has written a very nice summary on Medium arguing for unconditional basic income and it contains a good many references to further reading, for those interested:

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