Five years from now, a Silicon Valley company succeeds in perfecting robot technology. They can create for each individual, an exact robot duplicate. And they can produce this robot at very little cost. Through the internet they then offer every employer in the country an exact replacement of any worker on the payroll. Because they can do so quite cheaply, they undercut the wage demands of each and every worker. No company has any incentive to hire a human.

            Wages fall, but even when wages fall, humans are not hired because their wage demands are always higher than what it costs to buy and maintain the robot copy. Ultimately, even a willingness to accept starvation wages is insufficient to motivate hiring humans, because the replacement cost of the robots is less than what it takes to keep a human being alive. The outcome, then is that, except for a select few, we are all unemployed and we all starve. 

            This is the workers' worse nightmare, and it seems that the devil is in the technology. But actually the technology is quite neutral. Imagine the very same technological story with one small change: rather than the robots being owned by the California company, each worker is the sole owner of his own robot duplicate. Under these conditions, with respect to any work that is not inherently rewarding, you have the option of sending your robot duplicate to work, instead of going yourself. You can create our own leisure. You can do this for a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime. In short, this very same technology is the fulfillment of an ancient fantasy. It liberates each and everyone of us from labor that is not inherently valuable, and frees us to devote our lives to that which will give it meaning.

            Thus a politics of simplicity is not against technological change; it is not against productivity growth. Put in the service of the good life, productivity growth can be liberating. A politics of simplicity can embrace and encourage innovation.  The key issues are the composition and distribution of rewards and decision making power. Will productivity gains result in more leisure or more income?  Who decides? And to the extent that it is income, to whom does it go? In short "Who will own the robots?"

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  • published this page in Consumption 2018-02-11 16:32:29 -0500