Wednesday, 28 May 2014
Cowardly New World?
So, I just got home. No biggie, I hopped in a taxi, got on a plane, took a bus to the car park and drove my own wheels back to my little gaff, my sanctuary, the place where I keep all my stuff; the accumulated detritus of a life lived, if not well, at least lived frenetically. It’s really time I slowed down a little. Maybe it’s time we all slowed down?
While I was waiting for the airport parking transfer bus I began to think – it’s a thing I do without bidding. I’d like to believe it’s something we all do, but I’m not convinced. The bus eventually showed up and the bored driver grunted a practised and insincere greeting as he grudgingly allowed us to board and remain bored while we regained the sanctity of our cars. The experience - like shopping - may have been made better without involving human beings at all.
From the earliest days mankind has been busy devising ways of saving labour. Airports in the future will not need drivers to take us from planes to automobiles; the planes are mostly capable of flying themselves, driverless trains already operate in some parts of the world and there is much excited chatter at the moment about driverless cars. What will the world’s stock of imperfect taxi drivers do once that technology is perfected?
We already have robot warehouses and where once a harvest took a whole village it’s now within the remit of one man and his combine harvester. Vending machines, cashpoints, online banking, Amazon, pay and display… the whole internet revolution. Everywhere you look, man is replaced by machine. This should be a good thing, were human evolution actually up to the job. For every creation of human ingenuity that increase individual productivity, the actual productivity of an enormous sector of the world population goes down, in some cases to zero.
Feed the world? Easy. Give it something worthwhile to do though, now there’s the rub. As more and more machines do the donkey work, humans should be freed to be creative, to enjoy their leisure, to be all that they can be. But what of the vast majority of freed humans, the ones who are only really capable of being donkeys? Here’s your problem, world leaders, it’s not employment that is needed; the real question is what DO we do with unproductive humanity? (And how do you stop the buggers breeding?)
While the bread and circuses approach was good enough for the Romans two thousand years ago, human ingenuity has yet to come up with an effective way of containing not just a city, but a world population surplus to requirements. Recently, the solution was to give them money, let them be consumers and pretend that they actually contribute to prosperity but as more and more useful humans leave work and retire that particular illusion is going to be harder and harder to pull off.
What do we do when the tax receipts fall but the Epsilons continue to reproduce? When the genuinely productive step off the hamster wheel? Will the work of machines alone provide enough wealth for an eventual – and not so far off - majority who are only getting better at being idle? We’ve already automated consumption and entitlement. How long before we finally twig that it’s the automation that’s moving forward and the humans who are the obstacles to progress? What leader is going to be brave enough to admit that?