Being useless…

There’s a talk by Yuval Noah Harari which possibly summarises his “Homo Deus” book (though, at under half an hour, it can’t do justice to the whole sweep of the book). I can strongly recommend listening to it before you read further…

In it, he makes a strong case for the idea that technology is progressively replacing what humans do. It has already largely replaced manual labour, and is in the process of replacing intellectual labour, his instances being taken from driverless cars and doctors. I could see this trend before I retired from law, with “expert systems” beginning to do a lot of what had previously required a trained lawyer to do; I had already found that one person with a word processor could replace several members of a typing pool, particularly using “form letters”, and had the first solicitors office in town in which everyone except a receptionist/filing clerk had a computer on their desk. Harari talks about the likelihood that we will be faced with a majority of people being in the “useless class” in the future – people whose brawn and brains alike have been superseded by machines.

Arguably, that has already happened to a significant extent, because one potential solution is the multiplication of what David Graeber wrote about in “Bullshit Jobs”. We are employing vast numbers of people doing jobs which really have no basis for existing, and Graeber rightly criticises this, and the culture which demands that someone work if they are to have any money. Graeber sensibly points to the idea of Universal Basic Income to solve the problem, which is admittedly a better solution than that famously employed by the 1870 Paris Commune, which promised full employment, but in order to achieve that had people digging ditches and then filling them in – definitely an early form of “bullshit job”. Graeber’s suggestion of UBI also solves two other problems. The first is that economics has traditionally been almost entirely “supply side” economics, and assumed that demand is virtually inexhaustible. Anyone involved in sales or marketing knows that demand has not been readily expandable for a long time, and has to be created, of course, but inexhaustible demand also requires that there be people with the money to buy things, and we really can’t carry on plugging that gap with credit. In other words, we need people to have the money to buy the things which industry produces, otherwise it will grind to a halt. The second is that the labour market is hugely warped in favour of the employer (particularly as so many jobs are “bullshit jobs”, and “free markets” do not work unless there is a level playing field. If you are going to starve or be homeless if you don’t get that job, you really don’t have the same position as an employer who can choose between hundreds of applicants and can probably do without an extra employee anyhow (usually by getting the existing ones to work slightly harder).

What neither bullshit jobs nor UBI solves, however, is the pervasive belief that people need to work in order to live. This is particularly prevalent in Northern Europe and North America, and may stem from the “Protestant Work Ethic”, often justified to me by biblically literate people by quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “Those who do not work shall not eat”. In it’s bare form this is, of course, particularly tough on those who either cannot work at all or whose skills are not required for any work which needs doing, something which seems increasingly to threaten virtually every worker on the planet. I will note in passing that scholarship now indicates that those who were being criticised there were not “the idle poor”, as the work ethic seems to indicate, but those who were rich enough not to need to work and were therefore hogging the communal meal because they got there first and, in any event, had probably paid for it.

As Harari notes, there are increasing numbers of people who just cannot do any job which exists, and who are not capable of being trained to do new jobs which may arise. An ethos of valuing people merely because they are human beings, rather than because they can in some way be useful would seem overdue for adoption. We are, as a friend is fond of saying, human beings, not human doings. We probably also need to get rid of the myth that anyone can be trained to do any job, which is patently untrue (very few of us are able to assimilate the training needed to be a brain surgeon, for instance, for as long as that occupation has not been replaced by robots). It is almost as bad as the myth that anyone who works hard can succeed, and the combination of the two (work and education) condemns very many people to being Harari’s “useless class”, and to being blamed for their condition despite having no ability to change it. That way lies depression, which I note strikes particularly hard at those who lose their jobs, and significant numbers who retire…

I am very sensitive to this, given that I am largely a retired person, and even were that not the case on the grounds of age, I have too much wrong with me to be able to work anything like full time productively. Yes, I do still do some work, partly editing theology, partly in a chemical research company, partly as a carer, but neither of the first two pays anything remotely amounting to a living wage (nor, of course, does being a carer), and had my wife and myself not been fortunate enough to inherit money from our parents, we would be in severe financial distress – had I not become too ill to work a little under 20 years ago, I would probably have made enough to retire without those inheritances, but as it is, they lift us beyond what the State will provide sufficiently to be modestly comfortable for the time being.

Just possibly, religion might have something of an answer. If we could, perhaps, internalise the Christian view that everyone is a beloved child of God, irrespective of what they have done or might do, that would be a fine corrective.

Harari closes by saying that he cannot think of another quality which human have which machines cannot replace, and there, I think he misses something which he does in fact mention. That is emotion. So far as I know, there is no indication that machines can have emotions. Here, I have some insight from the illness which stopped me working – I acquired Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with the usual accompaniments of Chronic Depression and Chronic Anxiety, and the depression became, for a time, sufficiently deep to result in anhedonia.

I have written about my anhedonia before. It’s a condition I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. In my case, nothing produced pleasure or the anticipation of pleasure, or even other emotions apart, perhaps, from anger (which was largely turned inward). It went beyond that to not being able to remember occasions when I had been happy, and when I say that, I don’t just mean not experiencing the memory of the pleasure at the time, I mean largely not remembering the occasions at all. OK, with effort, I could piece together a fragmentary account of some time when I thought I probably must have been happy, but it was missing so much of what made it pleasurable that it had no reality to it.

This meant that, when contemplating some course of action, I could still work out what the results of it would be likely to be, but there was no reason to take one course of action rather than another. Would it result in excruciating pain? Why on earth was that less desirable than the pleasure I couldn’t anticipate feeling (and wouldn’t feel anyhow)?

This, I fancy, was the nearest a human could get to being like a machine in terms of mental function. Even the attempted work-round of imagining what someone who did feel emotions normally didn’t work at all well, as I couldn’t truly envisage those emotions any more. The best I could do was construct a framework of rules, and operate according to those. Many of them I’d had for a long time anyhow, but I needed to add to them to avoid outcomes which those around me (chiefly my wife) indicated were not desirable – such as me dying or doing serious damage to myself or others.

That is something I see as being particularly necessary with machines. Isaac Asimov famously posited the “three laws of robotics” in the 1940s, and there was definitely an element of that in the rules which carried me through until the depression lifted in 2013 after seven years of the extreme depths of it, but it needed a lot more rules than that – perhaps because I don’t typically think as fast as Asimov’s robots could do. Perhaps, also, because it is horribly difficult to codify a set of rules of behaviour, something which I came to know very well as a lawyer, a profession which supremely deals with rules for humans to follow (laws, of course, but also clauses in contracts and the like). Producing a set of wording which covers every eventuality in a watertight manner in any even slightly complex situation is an extremely difficult endeavour (maybe impossible) – and the Law does not manage that well (and, famously, might produce justice, but justice without mercy is frankly Satanic – hence the ever-present need for human judges). Games designers and computer programmers will be well aware of this problem of making the wording as watertight as possible, just as are lawyers… and, of course, the computer programmers will ultimately be setting up the rules which govern autonomous machines. There are plenty of stories about the problems which driverless vehicles are encountering to back this up!

Again, though, it is not just a matter of what to do next which is the province of emotion. What of humour? Of music, art, architecture? Of the appreciation of natural beauty? Indeed, of love – and some theology suggests that “God is love”. Personally, I find that too simplistic, but without emotion, I don’t see that religion can exist, and if you balk at “religion”, can I suggest “meaning” or “value”?

If machines can manage those, maybe humanity is overdue for replacement…