I’ve been working on this post for a long time now, as events keep coming along that add to the bigger picture. Finally the point was distilled down for me by rereading a classic novel from 1965, which I’ll get to, but for now, here it is: Somehow, we were all convinced to abandon the idea of Utopia, to give up on the notion that the future would be better than today. The reason Disneyland’s Tomorrowland was allowed to become quaint and kitsch and eventually retro-cool is that it couldn’t be updated, because we’ve had no vision for the future since the mid-1970s. Or at least not for a future that’s nicer than our present. The most futuristic story told in film since 1975 starts off with the title card “A long time ago, in a galaxy far away…” The future ain’t what it used to be, and that colors everything in our culture and most particularly our politics.
For some time now, we’ve heard about income disparity, along with various proposals intended to address it, from raising the minimum wage to Universal Basic Income plans. Running parallel to the economic debate is the technological one; we’re frequently reminded that “robots are taking our jobs,” that by Year [x], some staggering percentage of current occupations will be handled by machines, making huge numbers of people unemployable and dependent.
Here’s what nobody is saying: We have known this day was coming for over a century. Fiction authors, philosophers, political theorists, and religious writers have been speculating about how technology and society might develop and change since before Thomas More’s Utopia coined the term in 1516, but utopian literature really took off with the advent of science fiction, particularly the works of H.G. Wells.
The problem is that somewhere along the way, somebody successfully convinced people to think about the rise of technology in different terms. Prior to the late 1970s, the common wisdom was that “technology will free the human race from the drudgery of labor.” Going all the way back to before Wells, it was understood that robots would do all the dirty, dangerous, life-destroying, soul-crushing labor, and the dramatic increase in productivity would benefit all of us; the gains in productivity would be distributed to all, and we would be free to pursue our interests and be our best selves, spending our days in artistic, scholarly, or athletic endeavors, traveling or pursuing philosophy, following our hearts and doing whatever fed our souls, because we didn’t have to put in most of our waking hours chasing money.
If you go back and look at the early works of Kurt Vonnegut, he wrote about this theme repeatedly. His first novel, Player Piano, specifically focuses on what happens when people are replaced by machines. (The title refers to the fact that the player piano was the first device invented specifically to completely take away a job from a human and replace them with a machine.) The novel I referred to earlier, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which ought to be mandatory reading for everyone considering entering politics, puts an even finer point on it, and for a book over 50 years old, it’s as timely as this morning’s CNN feed. One of the central themes of the book is valuing humans as humans, because they are human, when they have no purpose or use; our society teaches us to condemn and reject people who cannot or will not work, but what happens when the vast majority of people’s jobs have been given over to robots, when people cannot work because there is no work for them to do?
In Robert A. Heinlein’s first novel, For Us, the Living…, which he wrote in 1939, he put forth a compelling argument for a basic universal income, arguing not only that it was right but also inevitable. His primary point was that as technology results in massive productivity increases and eliminates the need for large masses of people working at tedious drudgery, the benefits of that increase ought to be distributed to all, since it’s all built upon the cumulative knowledge that is our common inheritance from the past.
Take a pair of shoes. In a modern shoe factory the production is around six hundred pairs of shoes per man per day. By figuring in raw material and capital costs it drops only to about four hundred pairs per laborer per day. Does one man make four hundred shoes per day? Put him at a cobbler’s bench and assume him to be an experienced cobbler, yet he will do well to turn out one pair. Obviously the factor which produces this enormous multiplication of wealth is technical knowledge, the contribution of the creative inventor and creative artist. There is one outstanding characteristic of the creator-discoverer. His work lives after him and is cumulative in its effect. We owe more to the unknown genius who invented the wheel and axle than we do to all the workers now on earth. Furthermore, inventors stand on the shoulders of all their predecessors. No modern invention would be possible without the work done by Bacon, Da Vinci, Watt, Faraday, Edison, et cetera without number. These men are our forefathers. They have left to each one of us the most valuable inheritance possible, other than the good earth and life itself.
Heinlein refers to the Universal Basic Income as our “heritage” and “inheritance.” When an inventor creates something that revolutionizes society, we all benefit, and we all should benefit.
The problem we face today is one of rhetoric. It’s long been known that whoever gets to choose the vocabulary controls the debate, and that’s the case today. The generation raised on the Cold War, who as young children were confronted with the nightmare threat that evil communists were infiltrating and taking over and imposing their Socialist agenda, have such a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of socialism that anything that sounds compassionate or human is immediately suspect. They hear “universal basic income” and think the commies are at the door ready to force them into bread lines. Of course this ignores the bald fact that the most aggressively Capitalist economy on Earth is China, a Communist country, proving the two are not opposites.
I think Heinlein was onto the right idea, at least before he became a hardass Libertarian. Putting the concept in terms of our shared inheritance is a far more effective way to talk about what I think is a societal inevitability. I call it “the Tomorrowland promise.” When I was a kid, we were at the tail end of the hopeful future; prior to the 1969 moon landing, the future was a “great big beautiful tomorrow” full of hope for a better world. Even hard-nosed capitalist, businessman and rock-ribbed conservative Walt Disney expected that the future would revolve around society sharing the benefits of technological advances. And up until the early 1970s, everyone else assumed as much too. It was understood that because robots were doing all the dirty, dangerous, dull and repetitive work that previously required a huge labor force, humans would be free to do whatever they chose; we could spend our days engaged in athletic, artistic, scholarly, spiritual, or merely recreational activities, whether painting or just flying around in our rocket-packs, none of us sacrificing our time and talents to a life of struggling for survival. That was the Tomorrowland promise, that we would all share in the liberation brought by the machines, and would have the time and means to become our best selves.
Then, in a very short time, the world of The World of Tomorrow quickly turned into the world of Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Silent Running, The Terminator, and a thousand other dystopian worlds. The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow became a nightmare hellscape of environmental horror, technological oppression, staggering income disparity, and invasions of aliens and the undead. The future became a thing to be feared both in entertainment and reality. Whether this was a reaction to real world political issues and general malaise or a deliberate effort to shift the public’s opinion, the result is the same, two entire generations raised with little to no hope for a better future. Damon Lindeloff, the script writer for Tomorrowland, said in an interview, “I think that, for me, I’ve always been really interested in the future and I kind of feel like all the movies that I’ve been exposed to over the course of the last 20-30 years have shown me a future that I don’t really want to be living in. it’s cool to watch, but teenagers trying to kill other teenagers, or robots eradicating mankind, or you know, apocalyptic wastelands, albeit populated by Charlize Theron, are all great, but what about that other future, and is there a way to tell that story?”
In 1988, it took 16 people to do what I do today, and I do twice as much of it alone as we did together. Back then, I was a production artist, and I was part of a large team that put out a weekly magazine. There were typesetters, a stat camera operator, and a bunch of other paste-up artists, as well as layout artists who had to manually calculate how much type could fit on a given page at a particular typeface and size, calculate the percentage that images would have to be scaled up or down in the camera, color strippers who hand-cut stencils in Amberlith, as well as a driver who delivered the finished boards to the printer, where others would create negatives of the pages, touch up the dust specks and shadows, make printing plates, and run the press. Today, a production artist with a Mac can do all of those jobs at once; I’m the layout artist and typesetter, I capture and edit the images, I assemble the whole project and send the artwork directly to the printing press without any of those tedious and man-hour-consuming steps or expensive physical materials like film and typesetting paper. A typical company owner’s payroll is dramatically lower and productivity dramatically higher, and the quality of the finished product vastly superior. But I don’t get those other 15 people’s paychecks. Where did that money go?
The company owner did not invent scanners, Photoshop, InDesign, direct-to-paper printing without negatives or plates, or any of the other things directly responsible for his good fortune. Somebody else did.
And yet, today, when speaking about the advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, the discussion is always framed not as “technology is freeing us from the oppression of mindless drudgery,” but instead “robots are taking your job.” Futurists talk about how soon more than 50% of the population will be unemployed and unemployable, how many different occupations will cease to exist, and the implied solution is usually a reduction in what Dickens called “the surplus population.” Rare indeed is the think-piece that suggests an application of the principles cited in the US Constitution: “to promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
We would do well to remember what the Ghost of Christmas Past had to say about “the surplus population”:
“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”
Let’s go back to Heinlein for a second. One of the points he makes is that all of our previous economic systems were built upon the premise of scarcity; it took large numbers of people many hours of labor to produce wealth, and the distribution of the proceeds of labor was the subject of many arguments, all of them predicated on the the truth that there was not enough to go around. That’s no longer true, and has not been for quite some time. Technology is creating a world of plenty, but we’re still operating under the old rules. For over 50 years, the US alone has produced enough food to feed the entire population of the globe multiple times over. The problem now is not scarcity of resources, it’s distribution. Those who demand that the needy work for their support are ignoring the facts, as Heinlein illustrates:
“But surely, Perry, you can see that there is not enough drudgery in this world to go around. The machines have released us from the curse of Adam. How can all of us crowd into the control stations of the machines? We have short hours, naturally, and most machine tenders and such retire at an early age, but it isn’t practical to change shifts every fifteen minutes nor to train new men every few weeks. Would you have men dig holes and fill them up again for the sake of work itself? Would you destroy the machines and restore the cobbler’s bench?”
And now let’s go back to Vonnegut for a second. Toward the end of the book, science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout is asked to prove that PTSD-suffering millionaire philanthropist Elliot Rosewater is not crazy, despite his running around giving away his money to help the discarded people in a decaying town that bears his family name. Trout tells Elliot:
“Well…what you did in Rosewater County was far from insane. It was quite possibly the most important social experiment of our time, for it dealt on a very small scale with a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use?
In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too. So – if we can’t find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out.”
“Americans have long been taught to hate all people who will not or cannot work, to hate even themselves for that. We can thank the vanished frontier for that piece of common-sense cruelty. The time is coming, if it isn’t here now, when it will no longer be common sense. It will simply be cruel.”
“A poor man with gumption can still elevate himself out of the mire,” said the Senator, “and that will continue to be true a thousand years from now.”
“Maybe, maybe,” Trout answered gently. “He may even have so much gumption that his descendants will live in a utopia like Pisquontuit, where, I’m sure, the soul-rot and silliness and torpor and insensitivity are exactly as horrible as anything epidemic in Rosewater County. Poverty is a relatively mild disease, even for a very flimsy American soul, but uselessness will kill strong and weak souls alike, and kill every time.
“We must find a cure.”
It is inevitable, as both Heinlein and Vonnegut foresaw, that technology will remove the majority of people from the work force. We will have to decide what to do about them. If the wealthy few who control technology are allowed to continue piling up the profits brought by technology while the people who formerly did all that work are shoved further into poverty with no possibility of climbing back out because there are no jobs, a dystopian future is the inevitable result. But, if we remember what everyone from Thomas More to Walt Disney posited, that the elimination of mindless manual labor is a blessing, a society with a staggering surplus of wealth and a shortage of work to do can figure out how to create a workable economy in which the rich can stay rich while the poorest are still provided for. All it requires is replacing the economics of scarcity with economics of abundance, and a philosophy that values people as people rather than considering them a problem to be solved.