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September 1st, 2003


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12:13 pm - A Labor Position?
This post got me started on a different position that I had previously held. I think it has some merit for discussion -- I'm not sure where I stand. First, however, I'll note my background interest in the nanotech future... and rushed to join the emerging field to be a part of what seems like real boom or bust (no half-way) future technology. Either Drexler-Good or Joy-Bad.

Bryan states "we need to brace ourselves for the age when no one really *has* to work" and I don't know what it means. I used to -- it means that robots, or universal assemblers, can produce whatever we want -- at minimal energy and resource costs. Like downloading a picture or an MP3 today -- it isn't a zero-cost transaction (electricity, computers, bandwidth) but it sure seems that way. What if books were like that? What if groceries were like that?

The traditional extraction become that the important resources at that time become those that are limited -- often reduced down to land. I may be able to synthesize a house, a solar energy collection system, etc, but if I have no where to put it, it doesn't do me any good (and I'll still need a source of raw materials). And the argument leads to whether we go back feudal style (I'll share my land if you
help defend it), communist utopia (I get my 1/6billionth of the earth), etc. But this isn't what I'm interested in, not right now.

The question is the emergence, and what it means when no one really *has* to work. I think the statement fails, and it does so by ignoring the historical industrial precidents.

What does it mean to have to work? Many could argue -- and particularly if I were to address a crowd a hundred years ago, when the unions were fighting for existence -- that what I do is not at all required. That I do what I do for the resources to provide the things I need for survival (and then some++), but that nothing I do for "work" directly contributes to my (or anyone else's) survival.
In some sense, I don't have to work. Nor do most of the people who read this blog, if not all.

But wait, you argue -- my research could contribute important results leading to the development of some technology to solve some fundamental concern of human survival. You are too generous, but the basis of my research is not the point. The thing is that as a species, we have embraced the luxury afforded by labor saving technology... and continued to hunt for relevancy. The personnel it takes to run a high-production farm is a small fraction of the population it feeds, and the requirements will continue to decrease.

This ends up leading to my concern with a strong blue-collar constituency, as seen in Pittsburgh (and Boston...). Steel jobs are not coming back, because it just doesn't make sense for them to. Jobs that are shifting to Mexico, that are now shifting to Asia instead -- these are not coming back either. Because what we are looking at are jobs for which the individual doesn't matter, the procedure can be reduced to an algorithm that can be replicated anywhere. The jobs will leave the Asian workforce, or whereever the economic minima is, when it becomes cheaper to do through robotics (or whatever technology). McDonalds' isn't automated yet because the technology requires more capital resources (for R&D and social costs) than hiring the young, the old, and the otherwise unemployable.

It is not a blue-collar only phenomina. We're seeing the same problems with outsourcing to India (and China), and it is indicative of the same problems. Sure, the programmers are probably equally talented over there. But we're competing on an easily defined commidity, and the economic energy game is going to end up with the lowest cost solution -- probably automated code generation of some form.

Does this mean as a research programmer at an elite university that I'll be one of the few people whose job remains? No. Jobs are going away -- it is that job descriptions are. There are millions more IT worker than there were a century ago; there are far less steel workers, etc. Before the steel production machines were developed, there were less steel workers and more of other jobs that generally don't exist now.

As Fuller wanted it, we continue to do more with less. Not on the scale that he wanted, and not in the uniform way of raising everyone's standard of living, but we're doing it. Parts of Africa may still not have running water... but they have access to cell phones and helicopters. Like Southeast Asia (more cellphones than landlines), when the next big, say energy, technology comes along, they will be in a unique situation to benefit from it by lacking existing infrastructure.

My point is that as long as our standard of living (domestically and globally) has room for improvement, there will be reallocations of labor to strive for it. Intellectual property, or at least, intellectual development, will play a critical role. I will consider our culture a failure if I no longer have work because everything is provided for me by my granted Universal Assembler, but the best TV I can build is similar to what is available in stores today, and the content similar.

Besides, how will we adequately compensate our professional athletes and media stars if everyone else doesn't have to do anything?

(6 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


From:maryneedssleep
Date:September 1st, 2003 11:11 am (UTC)
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[as long as our standard of living (domestically and globally) has room for improvement, there will be reallocations of labor to strive for it]

That's what I'm most curious about. How will that fall out globally? CNN (or maybe it was MSNBC) recently had a story about how the world does not have enough resources for the entire population to adopt the same standard of living that Americans currently have. For example, there isn't enough metal to produce a new car for every one in China every few years. I can't find that article now...

Anyway, I wonder what it will mean for our standard of living to continue to improve. How will resources be redistributed as they become more scarce? If at the same time work the average person can perform becomes scarce, will there be insane competition for minimal resources?
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From:daemonv
Date:September 1st, 2003 01:46 pm (UTC)
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I don't think the world wants our style of living... just the standard. Buckminster Fuller demonstrated a long time ago that there is, or should be, enough stuff to go around. Does it mean that everyone gets a shiny new car made entirely of freshly mined metals? Of course not. Is there enough iron, aluminum, etc on the planet (or in the nearby vicinity) that everyone could drive a safe vehicle -- probably.

When I say standard of living, it means things like life expectancy and quality of life. And when I think of resources, effective recycling programs are a plausible direction for futurework (guarrenteed, in fact).

Most of our improvements in standard of living do not directly relate to -- or do not have to -- increased consumption of materials. Someways, yes, but... consider silicon. Despite the multitude of chips that make up your computer, there is far less silicon than in the computer you first played with (my guess). The grade is higher, and the density of transistors, but the net result is a decrease in silicon area. And all the gold that was used for the interconnects has been sold and reclaimed.

Likewise, the car you bought in the past few years uses a heck of a lot less steel than if you had bought it 50 years ago. What happened to the steel then? Either it has been recycled (like some of the steel from the WTC) or is sitting in a junkyard...

[User Picture]
From:bryguypgh
Date:September 1st, 2003 12:46 pm (UTC)

celebrate disposable time day

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As Fuller wanted it, we continue to do more with less.

Not sure who fuller is, but I think you're right, and I think it defeats your larger point.

My point is that as long as our standard of living (domestically and globally) has room for improvement, there will be reallocations of labor to strive for it.

No doubt this is true as stated, but you seem to imagine that the amount of labor is a constant. I believe the total hours worked for pay by people will decrease dramatically as we continue to "do more with less". The value of free time will at least stay constant and probably increase as the cost of the necessities of life dwindles to zero and the cost of luxuries continues to drop.

Think of it this way - each person has a value for disposable time, and it may not be the same for everyone, but the fact that people don't work 80 hour weeks even though they theoretically could make more money that way proves this point. As the price of necessities like housing, basic medical care and transportation drop, the amount of free time that people will want to "purchase" is likely to increase, so you'll see some chipping away at the 40 hour work week. We've already seen 35 in France, and I think it will take time but it will happen as menial labor becomes less and less necessary.

Intellectual property, or at least, intellectual development, will play a critical role. I will consider our culture a failure if I no longer have work because everything is provided for me by my granted Universal Assembler, but the best TV I can build is similar to what is available in stores today, and the content similar.

I'm not sure what you mean here- why do you think that your ability to build a better TV would be inhibited? In fact if you had essentially unlimited materials and a 10-hour work week, you could build any TV you wanted in your copious free time.

And that's something that I think most people don't consider- many people who do intellectually engaging jobs would do them anyway even if they weren't paid more to do them. The profit motive is a powerful motivator, but most certainly not the only one. Otherwise it's hard to explain the existence, for instance, of Free software.

Besides, how will we adequately compensate our professional athletes and media stars if everyone else doesn't have to do anything?

Um, that's a joke I think?
From:ex_trurl
Date:September 1st, 2003 01:01 pm (UTC)

Re: celebrate disposable time day

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Not sure who fuller is

Heh.
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From:daemonv
Date:September 1st, 2003 01:52 pm (UTC)

Re: celebrate disposable time day

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Apparently I haven't had a RBF rant in front of him.
[User Picture]
From:daemonv
Date:September 1st, 2003 02:00 pm (UTC)

Re: celebrate disposable time day

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First, Fuller is an abbreviation of my idol, R. Buckminster Fuller. And if you don't know who he is, you are in for an education. And I used "doing more with less" in the sense of more work with less material -- his classic example were geodesic domes (one of his inventions), that require less material to shelter more space and because they exploit tensegrity (local compression, global tension), get more strength out of less material. He never really talked about doing more stuff with less time, but then, he had a high-frequency sleep pattern enabling him to work round the clock for 50 years.

I'll address the rest later.

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