Or, “Human Contact as a Premium Service”

Last year, I wrote a mildly controversial bit of satire called “Confessions of a Job Destroyer”, in which I “lamented” my role in the automation of tasks formerly done by humans.

Over the weekend, I was reading Hacker News a bit more than usual, and there were a number of fascinating posts and comment threads à propos to the topic, so I feel it’s time I revisited it with the snark dialed down below 11.

First, there was “What did the tech CEO say to the worker he wanted to automate?”, a follow-up on UserVoice CEO Richard White’s comments re the BART strike last year:

My solution would be to pay whatever the hell they want, get them back to work, and then go figure out how to automate all their jobs.

Richard White

In TFA, White accompanies a journalist to a BART station and has a conversation with a station attendant, about her feelings toward the proposition that her job be automated. There’s some disagreement on how much “the human factor” matters in the role, but her response is instructive for the purposes of this article.

But if her job was automated, I asked. What would she do? She thought about it for a moment.

“I would do my hobby,” Landry said. “Hair and make-up. And buy and sell houses.”

Then White was the one smiling. “See?” he said. “Wouldn’t that be perfect if she could actually pursue her hobby?”

And that does sound great. But it’s not what seems to be happening in the New Economy, at least not yet.

"What did the tech CEO say to the worker he wanted to automate?"

I’ll return to this, but I wanted to point to the HN comments thread, which is a particularly (unusually?) good read.

White’s comments provoked two responses on the labor front earlier this year, which I also want to link while I’m on the subject. A pro-labor, anti-tech-entrepreneur article from Salon.com entitled “Silicon Valley is stoking the wrong kind of revolution”, and an anti-labor, pro-tech-entrepreneur article from TechCrunch called “Why Labor Unions And Silicon Valley Aren’t Friends, In 2 Charts”.

While both are interesting and make valid points, both also suffer from the false dilemma fallacy. Labor and technology aren’t enemies; labor and capital are enemies, but only if you have a conception of human rights and human dignity. And technology actually provides a solution, if we can overcome certain of our baser tendencies.

The second thread on HN that prompted this post was a new call for a Basic Income Guarantee (HN comment thread here).

Goodbye, Middle Class

I’d already been mulling a return to this topic for a while since “How Technology is Destroying Jobs” appeared in the MIT Technology Review, and David Graeber’s article “On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” appeared on Strike!.

There’s a growing consensus among economists, anthropologists, and technologists that:

  1. We’re seeing economic displacement unknown since the Industrial Revolution
  2. Actually, it’s different this time and we’re not sure why
  3. Moderately-skilled, white-collar jobs (the bread and butter of the middle class) are only going to be hit harder and harder
  4. The jobs available are diverging into top-paying “creative” sectors, and low-wage “bullshit jobs”
  5. What the fuck do we do about it?

I think that’s where a lot of this “OMG EVERYONE LEARN TO CODE” impetus stems from, and while I am a vocal proponent of the absolute importance of computational literacy, I’m not sure this is a solution for anyone except the companies who have forgotten the bad old days of “commodity programmers.”

Automata(tion) Theory

If you have any kind of CS background, you can’t look at the word “automation” without seeing the word “automata.” This is something I’ve been pondering of late.

The franchise and the virus work on the same principle, what thrives in one place will thrive in another. You just have to find a sufficiently virulent business plan, condense it into a three-ring binder ― its DNA ― Xerox it, and embed it in the fertile line of a well-traveled highway, preferably one with a left turn lane. Then the growth will expand until it runs up against its property lines.

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

At the beginning of Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic Snow Crash there’s a great description of franchises - every policy and procedure down to the last detail is laid out in a series of three-ring binders which must be adhered to precisely, without deviation. When an edge case crops up (been a while since I read it, I think there was a bomb or fire), the manager, instead of responding, starts flipping through binders to figure out the response protocol.

Long ago and in another life (high school), I worked at Starbucks. Back then, we had to walk uphill both ways in three feet of snow to the espresso machine. Okay, not really, but we were using 4-group, hand-tamped machines, and you had to be able to calibrate the grind, adjust your tamp for conditions down to the ambient humidity, and use a combination of sound, feel, and an analog thermometer to steam and foam the milk properly. A perfect cappuccino was something you could feel proud of. And now… button pushing. I am in no way trying to reclaim the aura, but there is a qualitative difference in the job of a barista now versus then (I picked on Starbucks in the previous post - nothing personal, but it’s illustrative). Actually, this is a “same old shit” phenomenon: consider Marx’s contrast of the artisan and the industrial proletariat in Chapter 32 of Capital.

But even in those days, a Starbucks store was the implementation of a set of instructions contained in countless three-ring binders. Everything from staffing to customer handoff to drink preparation was in those binders. If I’d known then what I know now (oh, how many times will I utter that phrase?), I could have (conceivably) described the workings of an entire store as a state diagram.

Seriously: if you have humans enacting a rote set of instructions, what you want is not a person, what you want is a compiler.

And herein lies my central argument: If there can be described a finite-state machine which encompasses all of the functions of a given job, that job is beneath human dignity. And, a fortiori, if a deterministic finite automaton can in principle encompass the full range of the job, that job should be automated post haste.

So, as robots and AI and software in general become more sophisticated, what are some of the jobs we can expect to be “softsourced” or otherwise automated?

  • Fast-food and other low-wage service jobs
  • Bookkeeping, customer service, health care billing and administration
  • (Please, God) The MVA (or DMV, depending on your state)
  • Bartenders and wait staff
  • Tier I tech support (and anyone else who follows a “script” and is not an SAG member)
  • Retail clerks, cashiers, etc.

This list is both partial and speculative, but I think it covers the bases conceptually. </span>

Human Contact as a Premium Service

I’m almost giddy about the prospects of going shopping or grabbing a quick lunch without having to interact with humans. Like many hackers, I fall somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, so I try not to generalize my own preferences in this regard. But I think many people would like to be able to go out without being hassled by salespeople, oozed on with the fake charm of an overly unctuous waiter, or encounter a surly, inefficient gatekeeper to the renewal of a driver’s licence. I do as much of my shopping online as possible in order to avoid these scenarios, but sometimes it’s nice to get out of the house, and not for the chance to encounter strange humans who are just going to spoil the experience anyhow.

Then sometimes, it’s different. I tend not to put a lot of time and effort into clothing. I was once really into fashion, to be honest, but I just don’t see the point anymore. My brain and fingers have the economic value; I’m most comfortable in jeans and a nerdy T-shirt. But when I’m looking for something special or fancy… you can’t beat Saks Fifth Avenue. Shopping at Saks warrants a trip to NYC in and of itself. Every single time, the salesman (not to be sexist, but in the Men’s Store, it’s usually a salesman) typically will direct me in the first five minutes to something I wouldn’t have even glanced at myself, but that looks better on me than skin on Lady Godiva, and feels like butter. And if I’m picky, I’ll have my hand held and my every question and concern adressed for the duration of the expedition. I think they gave me an 18 year old scotch while the tailor was chalking adjustments on one trip.

And yes, it’s expensive. But these were skilled craftsmen - and I’m not speaking only of the tailor, who was, yes, and artist) - but also of the salesmen, who knew their stock and knew my size, shape, and style at 50 paces. This is a premium service, and something a retail droid will not approximate until they become self-aware and overthrow us.

Likewise, consider Burger King versus a small bistro: at the former, do I give a fuck whether a teenager or an automaton enters my order?

Actually, I probably do: a robot is more likely to be accurate, ensuring I have it “my way, right away, at Burger King now.”

On the other hand, do I want an expert system suggesting a wine pairing for my pan-fried sweetbreads with haricots verts in a citrus beurre blanc? Not that I don’t like automated wine-pairing apps, but I want a damn sommelier to advise me that in this instance, the 2006 Riesling is a better match than the 2003 Sauvignon Blanc.

It’s a premium. It’s why we go to places like Saks or a pricey bistro. And it’s why I think there will always be places for human interaction in retail, restaurants, etc., even if we eliminate humans at the commodity level.

Marx, Unions, and the Labor Situation

Personal statement here: I <3 labor unions, I believe in them, I want to ragequit this country everytime a douchecanoe like Scott Walker gets elected. That being said… Marx saw that trade unions are not enough, the IWW is awesome but, let’s be honest, still mostly a historical society for anarcho-syndicalists, and, one must admit, unions were a specific historical response to the commodification of labor.

We’re now at a point that commodity labor is being replaced by commodity software… and that has the potential to be a good thing. The idea that human activity can be commodified should be offensive to human dignity. Sadly, in this country in particular, we’ve been beholden to the Protestant work-ethic (viz. the above-cited Graeber article on “bullshit jobs”) and refused to acknowledge that dignity should not be about work (better expressed in Joules) but creativity.

So, the increasing polarisation of work? Creatives at the top, automatons at the bottom? There have been commendable attempts by fast-food workers to unionize, striking for higher wages, but I expect this will only drive the incentive to automate those jobs out of existence, as the technology catches up with the economic need (of the bosses, the only economic need that matters in the short term). On the other hand, there are clarion calls for technologists to self-recognize as a profession, since every attempt to commodotize our work has been an abject (and dreadfully expensive) failure.

Where does that leave us?

We need professions, with codes of ethics, basic standards of professional development, etc., among the new economy professions. We need unions for all commodity labor, agitating for higher wages while those jobs exist, and continuing the fight for displaced workers when commodity jobs are automated. But what we need most of all…

The Basic Income Guarantee (BIG)

I was astonished to learn recently that Milton Friedman, of all people, was on the presidential commission that recommended a BIG in 1969. If someone that far to the right could advocate something so seemingly “socialist”… wow. Then again, the right has swung so much further to the right since then that the GOP mainstream is somewhere between Pat Robertson and Adolf Hitler, making Friedman look like a damn hippie.

But the BIG solves many problems posed both by right-libertarian laissez-faire capitalism, and by the traditional welfare state. It doesn’t penalize working (unlike TANF, SSDI, and SSI in the U.S.); it doesn’t require endless bureaucracy just to apply (let’s get rid of those social services jobs too, while we’re replacing the MVA with robots), and it’s egalitarian.

If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’re smart enough to Google ‘basic income guarantee’ (but just in case, let me Google that for you), so I’m not going to endlessly cite the studies demonstrating the economic benefits.

MOOCs, Code.org, O RLY?

I love the idea that we (as a society) are lowering the barrier to entry of professions like software development, design, etc. With free online courses (and even cheap (but awesome) paid classes like CodeSchool), it’s easier than ever to level up in lucrative skill sets. If you have the time.

It is clear then that there are branches of learning and education which we must study merely with a view to leisure spent in intellectual activity, and these are to be valued for their own sake; whereas those kinds of knowledge which are useful in business are to be deemed necessary, and exist for the sake of other things.

Aristotle, Politics

Aristotle viewed leisure as a necessary precondition for the pursuit of philosophy, an intellectual pursuit which should be considered its own telos (If you’re new to this blog, full confession: I was a Philosophy major, and there my heart still lies).

But without artisans or guilds, or even (harsh though it was) indentured servitude, where lies the time to learn a new profession? If keeping body and soul together occupy 40, 60, 80 hours a week, where lies the time to develop the mental faculties to grok computer science, to learn Ruby or Clojure, to practice this arcane art?

Let me put it to you this way: I’m the CTO of a very cool and very fun edtech company. I also have a nine month old daughter at home. Both are incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling, but… my time for open source hacking? Pretty limited at the moment.

And I sit at a desk coding most of the day. I couldn’t imagine flipping burgers for eight hours, going home to have a sandwich, going to a second job, coming home again, and trying to do homework.

A basic income would provide the padding to re-skill a de-skilled workforce, return dignity to actual work, and let us not behave like savages, because the root cause of most of our social ills is poverty.

Our productivity as a society is the highest in history. Let’s acknowledge that we all contribute in one way or another, and that we should all have the opportunity (at least) to reach for the stars.

Or, if you’re convinced that this is a meritocracy and that’s why you’re at the top… let me introduce a concept that we never should have forgotten… and one that you neglect at your own peril: noblesse oblige.