Enter the Machinocene
Without technology, human beings are not all that special. Maybe humans have great spirits, but who is to say a human spirit is any different from the spirit of a wolf or a cockroach? For that matter, who can prove that spirits even exist at all?
It is technology that demonstrates humanity’s special position in the circle of life. Fire, the wheel, computers, and all of our other tools have set us apart and catapulted us ahead of the other creatures. A bear is scary, but not as scary as a gun. A cheetah is fast, but not as fast as a jet. Humans need technology, but throughout history have also been at odds with our own creations. We need our tools and machines, yet many of us are afraid of them.
There is a great amount of hype around the coming wave of automation. Some predictions assert that in the next few decades most of the work done by humans will be taken over by machines. This seems like a good thing. People, for the most part, don’t like doing repetitive things, and they hate having to do gross things. Machines don’t care at all. That is what they were built for. A world where no one has to dig ditches, input data, or process transactions sounds awesome. Like Star Trek. But people are afraid of machines taking over. They fear it will leave them with nothing do to, and they are afraid humans will be supplanted as the dominant force on the planet. Who wants to lose control of their own destiny to an automaton?
I understand the fear of having nothing to do. It is just the fear of boredom, with the extra peril that if you don’t work, you and your family might starve. But wouldn’t you rather do something easy, like watch a machine dig a hole, then something difficult like digging the hole yourself? While the machine is digging, you can go do other stuff like write musicals about historical figures, or just play a video game or some other fun activity. Maybe you could even find a way to make a profit from these more desirable activities.
If you really like digging holes then you can still do that. The existence of a hole-digging machine doesn’t make man-made holes impossible. You can dig artisan holes and charge extra, or you could pursue an advanced degree in the philosophy of digging. Automation can produce as many opportunities as it takes away. Maybe they are weird opportunities that no one has thought of before, but they are still opportunities nonetheless.
Perhaps a better example would be that of personal assistants. PA’s, secretaries, valets, and the like have long been thought to be immune to automation. Sure, a machine can wash clothes and lift heavy objects, but how could a machine take notes or schedule appointments? Well, now there is software that can do both of those things, and it is getting better all the time. With the rise of digital assistants, a whole class of people may be out of work in the future.
Think of the kind of people who have assistants. They are often better off than most of us. They can afford assistants who do boring, tedious things for them, and gain time and energy for their own more profitable activities. Having an assistant makes these people far more effective.
What if personal assistants weren’t reserved for the wealthy and powerful? What if the advantage of personal help was available to everyone? What if everyone had someone to pay their bills and manage their contacts list?
If everyone had an assistant, we would all be more effective. Soon, this scenario may come to pass. We will all have digital assistants, software that works as our own personal secretary, and wonder how we ever lived without them.
And what about all the human assistants and secretaries who will be out of work. Well, they will get their own digital assistants who will help them find something else to do. If will be a tough transition, but there will be more gained from this form of automation than is lost.
The fear of being completely replaced by machines is, I think, unfounded. What about the fear of being controlled by them? Many people don’t want a machine to tell them what to do. For these folks, I have some bad news: Machines already control many, if not most of our activities. Machines control traffic lights. Machines control cash registers. Machines control hospitals and utilities and government bureaucracies. Just about anything that is important, and many things that are not, is controlled by a machine in some way.
Machines are already in charge, and nothing particularly bad has happened as a result. We haven’t been exterminated by calculators or enslaved by vending machines. At least ,most of us haven’t. People are more independent than they ever have been, thanks to all the things machines do for us. Sure, there are claims that social media and computers are manipulating our minds, but that isn’t a case of machines controlling people. That is just people using machines to control other people. Some things change, and others stay the same. Today, as it was a thousand years ago, its not tools you have to look out for, but the intentions of those using them.
There will always be tension between humans and technology, but neither can survive without the other. To those who are afraid of being replaced by machines, I say don’t worry. You will find something else to do, and it will be cool. To those who are afraid of being controlled by technology I ask: Would that be such a bad thing?