Robots and artificial intelligence may make humans redundant.
In an article for the African publication The Elephant, Joe Kobuthi reminds us of a radical change taking place in Western economies, which he refers to as the “global North.” “A recent study conducted by two Oxford researchers indicates that about 47 per cent of total employment in the United States is at risk, perhaps over the next decade,” which represents “a much broader scope of job destruction at a much faster pace than labour market shifts experienced in previous industrial revolutions.”
Jobs will be destroyed. But what do we mean by “job”?
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The imaginary activity that grounds most people’s sense of personal identity and the stability of society itself. It is usually embodied in the fantasized ideal of a durable relationship with a person or organization possessing sufficient monetary resources to guarantee the subsistence of an indeterminate number of individuals.
We learn from the article that Elif Shafak calls this an “age of angst,” so strong is the jolt not just to the economy but also to the cultural values that previously dominated in the prosperous “global North.” Jobs used to be the most tangible element of both capitalism and communism, the fuel that kept the social machine going. But the history of the past century tells us that fuel appears to have run dry.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, jobs disappeared for a simple reason: the enterprises that previously offered the jobs either disappeared or reduced their activity. This led to social unrest which, in the US, was eventually contained by the policies and the reassuring discourse of President Franklin Roosevelt.
Frightened to its core, the surviving industrial and financial establishment began an ultimately successful campaign to impose an ideology — frequently marked by quasi-religious fervor — to oppose the twin bugbears of socialism and communism. Capitalism, which had simply been a mode of economic organization, thus came to be seen as the source of moral values on which American political identity was built. Out of fear that the people might democratically decide to organize the economy differently, the governing elite — Democrats and Republicans — agreed that the US and capitalism were existentially linked. The ideals of democracy, justice and equality took a back seat to the virtues of ambition, assertiveness and greed.
The fear of socialism reached a fever pitch in the early 1950s with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and McCarthyism. The government of the people, by the people and for the people shifted to becoming a government of selected people, elected by people in gerrymandered districts, for the corporate and financial elite who could join together, manage the economy and offer the people jobs. And it worked. The economy created the jobs, which became the most stable feature of society. The idea of getting a job guided the young into adulthood. And Henry Ford’s philosophy of paying workers enough for them to become pampered role players in the consumer society worked for nearly everyone, at least within the white majority.
The confusion of the 1960s — marked by high-profile assassinations, the ever so annoying civil rights movement, the Vietnam War gone awry, the hippies unpatriocally dropping out — began to destabilize belief in the preordained path of school, college and a job to last a lifetime. But despite the momentary disturbance, it still represented the universal ideal of the white middle class.
The next big shock came with the Great Recession of 2008 followed by the advance of digital technology and the dematerialization of everything. It now translates into a double phenomenon: the realization that robots and artificial intelligence may make humans redundant, coupled with the newly discovered truth that the digital economy only works favorably for the wealthy, who alone profit from massive gains in productivity. Many, still under the influence of the ideology, continue to see the wealthy as job creators. But an increasing part of their expanding wealth comes from the fact that machines perform more efficiently than people, and with far less hassle.
Consequently, jobs are giving way to “gigs,” a slang word formerly used by jazz musicians struggling for an occasional engagement. The idea of “my job” — a major factor of personal identity — has morphed into “my next gig” in today’s gig economy. Employers confronting a new situation will soon find themselves saying, “damn it, we made just need a human being to get this thing done,” as they wait for someone to invent the machine that will execute that unforeseen task.
Need more proof? The top explanation of the record-breaking drop of the stock market on February 5 is the fear that “wage growth will push down profit margins.” What business can afford the luxury of people?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.