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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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The Lights in the Tunnel

Comments (268)

I read a fascinating book yesterday called The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future by Martin Ford.  I can’t remember who sent it to me (someone did – thank you); it appeared on the of my infinite pile of books so I gobbled it down as my first book at 2010.

The first half of the book sets up the situation and the corresponding problems.  I agreed with much of the first half.  The second half proposes a solution.  I had a hugely difficult time with it.  Ford anticipated this as he regularly acknowledged (unnecessarily) throughout the second half that many people would have a hard time with his proposed solution.  Yet he marched on relentlessly.

Ford’s basic premise is as follows:

At some point in the future – it might be many years or decades from now – machines will be able to do the jobs of a large percentage of the ‘average’ people in our population, and these people will not be able to find new jobs.”

Ford does a good job of spending the first half of this book making the case for this.  He draws nicely from the notion of a technological singularity (which many of us are now calling simple “the singularity” for convenience), explains why mainstream economists (and the notion of econometrics in general) are basically historians rather than effective predictors of the future, does a nice job weaving the Luddite Fallacy into the mix,  makes a compelling argument about China’s role in this he calls the “China Fallacy”, and wraps it up by revisiting a variety of conventional views of the future while asking “do we really believe they are going to play out this way?” (answer = no).

At this point I took a break and went for a walk around the block with my dogs.  I knew the book was shifting from “problem” to “solution” (the next chapter was titled Transition) and I wanted to clear my mind so I could absorb it. I had a couple of weak ideas about where Ford was going to go, but it was pretty fuzzy to me.  So I dove back in.

The second half of the book blew me away.  Ford starts by asserting underlying his mental model – that in the future 75% unemployment will permanently exist because jobs will have been automated away – and they will not be replaceable.  So – the vast majority of people in our society will be “unemployable” in a conventional sense (as in a 40 hour / week job).  Ford asks rhetorically “Is it possible to have a prosperous economy and a civil society in such a scenario?” (answer = yes and he’s going to propose a way to do it.)

The base on which he builds his solution is the following idea:

“We will have to undergo a quantum shift in our value system.  In order to preserve the free market system, we will have to come to the realization that while work (at least for most people) may no longer be essential, broad-based consumption is essential.”

He then spends the balance of the book explaining a government-driven taxation and incentive approach that taxes companies based on their permanently lost wages (based on automation, which he asserts will increase gross margins) while incenting the unemployed to act in ways that benefit themselves and societies by paying them based on how they act and contribute in this “non-traditional job” way.  Ford suggests several simple categories, including Education (self and others), Community and Civic Activities, Journalism, and the Environment.  He then spends a lot of time explaining the implementation at a high level, including an abstract example of how a functioning free-market society could exist post the singularity.

Sometime during reading this stuff my brain exploded and I had to go take the dogs for another walk.  When I came back, I tried to explain this to Amy but couldn’t.  I tried to make the argument that all government employees (local, state, and federal) are already in this category so the jump from the federally reported 10% unemployment to 75% isn’t as big as we might think since 8% already work for the government (so let’s say the jump is from 20% to 75%).  I couldn’t do it – I just couldn’t take myself seriously.

While I love Ford’s tenacity with the idea and radical approach, I think this book would have worked better as science fiction rather than an attempt at an economic / political essay.  Ironically, I might have been able to buy the argument better in the context of science fiction; when put against the backdrop of our existing social / societal construct, it was too difficult for me to absorb.

I have a belief that the structure of what we call “modern society” will have to change post singularity.  I don’t yet have my own hypothesis for what this looks like, but many of my favorite science fiction writers have been hacking away at this for several decades.  And I’m continuing to slurp down as much stuff as I can about the singularity since I both (a) believe it will happen in my lifetime – assuming I live a normal life expectancy and (b) I hope I’ll be involved in helping create it. 

I’ll be following Ford’s blogging at his site econfuture: Future Economics and Technology. Even though I struggled with his solution, it’s another interesting input for me to ponder. And all of this also led me (via an article titled Martin Ford Asks: Will Automation Lead to Economic Collapse?) to a fun new website called Singularity Hub which has now been added to my feedreader.  Now, time for some more Philip K. Dick.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1061629357 Rob Freeborn

    I had a similar brain melting moment a few years ago while talking to my dad. We were driving somewhere and had stopped at a gas station. As we were leaving I said something to the effect of "wow, my head would explode if all I did was pump gas all day" to which my dad responded "Don't forget that for some people pumping gas is their maximum capability?"

    I've never forgotten that and hope I never do as it's important to realize when dealing with people on a day to day basis. In a very similar fashion to Martin Ford's book, what is the gas pump operator going to do when we have, for example, gone to an all electric economy?

    We will likely be able to start seeing some of the earlier effects of this shift over the next few years as technology has already modified so much of what was previously done by people. For example, how many fewer travel agents do we have handing over airline tickets? How about the number of bank tellers needed as online banking has become so much more prevalent? Citibank must LOVE me as I've have less then one direct human interaction a year – and that counts both visiting a teller as well as on the phone.

    The tipping point for his idea is likely closer then we would all care to admit. The question then becomes, what is that percentage "really" going to be – is it his 75% estimation….something lower/higher?

  • Leo Lax

    The solution may be evolutionary. The future will be a society led by social entrepeneurs who run social entreprises. The value creation will happen through the social impact of these enterprises.

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  • http://twitter.com/reecepacheco @reecepacheco

    Too bad Kurt Vonnegut isn't around to take this idea and run with it.

    He'd have a field day.

    So it goes.

  • http://twitter.com/reecepacheco @reecepacheco

    and p.s. – we're talking about Skynet again…

  • http://twitter.com/connectme @connectme

    Ford's premise might work if everyone was altruistic, and therefore predisposed to spend their free time in constructive activities. I'm afraid reality might look more like the talkback section in your typical political blog.

    The current crisis at the state and local level is a harbinger of even more drastic malaise. For over a decade I've believed there should be a Taxster, essentially the automation of the sales tax collection process.

    While I agree with Ford that China is both too late and too big, they will still have sufficient capabilities even if China does not follow the US trajectory. I fear the day when China – or India – gets really good at delivering e-commerce experiences to worldwide audiences. Today's online tax havens in Seattle and Cottonwood Heights can easily give way to Chinese economies of scale when combined with improved logistics.

    I find that scholars like Ford often forget the importance of industry in promoting economic dynamism – bringing in dollars from "over there" to local businesses and other uses "over here". (Of course, this also holds true for foreign talent…more H1-Bs, please.)

  • http://twitter.com/servicetattler @servicetattler

    I suggest three PKDicks after that. Funny thing that, it sounds like one of his scenarios.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/tom tom

    In simple economics, a common partitioning of factors of production is often made of just two factors: labor and capital. Subject to relative costs and capabilities, they're substitutes for each other. Hence the cost of labor won't go to zero unless the cost of automation goes to zero. But machines cost money, so the price of labor won't go to zero.

    Also, the premise that there are/will minimum qualifications one must meet in order to be gainfully employed is false. It is not black and white, but rather shades of grey, which is to say that there are and will be variations in compensation.

    So it goes, indeed.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    And Philip K. Dick.  And probably even Heinlein. Maybe Neal Stephenson will take it on some day.

  • http://twitter.com/brianmba @brianmba

    It's funny you mention sci-fi, whenever we we're presented with the future it's always in a semi-utopian way… it's hard for me to picture 10 billion (or more) "productive" humans in the Star Trek universe for instance.

    Relating to today's societal system, it seems there would need to be a shift away from emphasizing the rights and goals of the individual to the role of the individual and thereby emphasizing the society on a whole.

    Thank you for sharing your insights and struggles with the book.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    I think the tipping point is much lower than 75%.  Democratic societies are really uncomfortable with unemployment numbers over 25% (the Great Depression numbers) and that’s widely cited as the theoretical maximum for a civilized society.  My guess is the tipping point is between 25% and 40%.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    I find scifi to be bifurcated between utopia and anti-utopia (or dystopia if you prefer).  I believe I learn more, and get deeper ideas, from the dystopia’s!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/rickgregory rickgregory

    There's actually a SF treatment of a society like this. I want to say it's Sterling…. I'll try to find it and post a link.

    I suspect the bigger issue is one of human psychology. What do we do when 25% of the people are working, but 3/4ths aren't? with the 25% really be OK with that? Can people really sit around and mostly consume doing just what they want? What does society look like? Is this the economic equivalent of immortality, i.e. does having to work to live spur us to build things in a way analogous to the way limited lifespan spurs us to do what we can before we die?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    I’d love to hear the name of the scifi book if you can remember it.

  • http://www.pindropsoup.com Dave Michels

    I commend you on this:

    I’ll be following Ford’s blogging at his site econfuture: Future Economics and Technology. Even though I struggled with his solution, it’s another interesting input for me to ponder.

    I just watched West Wing with my son – the episode where Bartlet hires Ainsley Hayes. My son asked why the President would want an advisor from the other party.

    It is difficult, but imperative to surround ourselves by intelligent people – even when we disagree with them. It seems so obvious and beneficial, but many have trouble with this. I think (but don't know) this is part of the problem with so many troubled US firms. I know I sometimes wish I had a yes man.

    It does concern me the US economy is more and more based on ideas. If automation is the future, that could suggest the US could compete with the wages of some other countries – but I don't see that trend yet.

  • http://www.crashutah.com/blog John Lynn

    I must admit that this book doesn't much intrigue me at all. However, I find your love and passion for reading an exciting read. I'm always amazed at your passion and which topics get you excited. Definitely makes me want to read more.

  • http://twitter.com/bracken @bracken

    Can you recommend a few of your favorite dystopian novels? I've read a lot of the classics in this realm (1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, Anthem, etc) and would love to learn of some good ones off the beaten path.

  • guest

    No need to be anxious about hitting even 25% unemployment again. The last administration sent the prison population to all-time highs, which was then conveniently excluded from being recorded as "unemployed". Same can happen again, we'll just build out the prison/parole system and do an improved job of pretending it's not 25%.

    At that time, hamburger flipping will also be re-classified as a manufacturing job, along with pouring soda and breathing air. Distributing ibuprofen, nyquil or aspirin will be an enforced class A felony.

    Seriously, I think that tipping points vary per region and condition of public benefits in that part of the country. Detroit right now is guesstimated to be at almost 50% unemployment, and there aren't riots yet. Meanwhile, Germany in the 30s can provide some idea of how even 30% unemployment and hyper-inflation can drive individuals.

  • http://twitter.com/stevenkane @stevenkane

    I think this possible future was nicely dramatized in WALL-E

    the majority of humans (on the space ship) did not work but did consume
    ;)

  • http://twitter.com/frederickcook @frederickcook

    There is a company here in Blacksburg, VA called TORC that spun off of the university after the DARPA Grand Challenge events a couple years ago. It isn't uncommon to be driving from the VT campus to the Corporate Research Center and see a piece of farm or mining equipment driving itself around a field filled with cones, while a bunch of guys with clipboards watch.

    I admittedly haven't read much on the subject of a singularity, but I don't exactly see a moment when this occurs, like when the iRobot comes on the market. I think it will be a series of seemingly much less significant events, such as a few thousand mining equipment operators being replaced, then a few thousand warehousing jobs a few years later. Remember when the Port of LA shut down a few years ago because they got some new "equipment" that replaced a lot of high-paying human jobs? We wouldn't have even heard about it if there hadn't been a major strike that shut down the ports.

    One final reason I don't see this sudden singularity: in large part, it already has occurred, except that instead of a massive automation trend, it is third-world countries who have replaced these jobs domestically. Cheap Eastern labor combined with the technology to transport those goods and services was the singularity. What is happening now will likely happen again with automation, but it will look a lot more like the current exodus of jobs to the other side of the Pacific.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Wow – great lesson for your son.  He should be happy to have you as his dad!  My parents encouraged this to (“be open to anyone’s thinking even if it is different than yours.”) 

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Thx – I think reading a wide variety of things, whether you agree with them or not, is really important (and fun).  However, I definitely find myself veering away from plenty of stuff that doesn’t interest me so I thing you’ve got a fine filter.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Stephen Donaldson is a master – he’s got two separate series (Thomas Covenant Chronics – more fantasy and The Gap – hard core dystopia scifi).  Charles Stross is a winner, Ian Banks – which I’ve just started working through – is a classic – and great.

    A recent fun one was Max Brooks “World War Z”. 

    That should get you started.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Good point – there are already pockets of unemployment > 50% in the US.  It’ll be interesting to see how that resolves in the next few years. 

    And yes – another great example (via the prison population) of how the numbers can easily be manipulated. 

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Great example.  And boy did they look like they had interesting lives, er, or not.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    One of the key principles that intrigues me about the singularity is the idea that machines (computers) will be able to improve themselves without human intervention.  I’m really focused on this at a software layer in a bunch of investments right now and while there is an enormous amount of improvement needed, if you squint your eyes and dream you can almost see it.  But it’s really hard to figure out and understand what the implications actually are.

  • http://twitter.com/frederickcook @frederickcook

    Exciting stuff. Reminds me though about the hobbyist who says that urinals are smarter than supercomputers today because they know what is going on around them. Real automation will surely require real-world interaction, which means hardware as well as software.

    Great discussion here, and thanks for the book review!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mtjhax Michael Johnson

    I'm gonna have to check this book out. It seems like the most obvious resolution is that most people will be employed in service jobs that cannot be automated and we will increase our consumption of services until things balance out. Maybe this is more or less what he is proposing in his solution?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Nope – he makes the strong argument that the service jobs will also go away.  It’s interesting (and worth reading) how he builds the case.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    I’ve always felt that the Public Restroom is a great HCI (human computer interaction) laboratory.  http://www.feld.com/archives/2009/05/the-publi… />

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/daveangulo daveangulo

    If I grok this, post singularity, the only jobs left are in knowedge/creative categories. I'm not sure that necessarily leads to a tipping point in unemployment, as I don't believe potential in either of those categories is bounded. I'm not sure anyone could envision the number of widgets we currently manufacture that have value and power this economy. I can only imagine the knowledge/creative products that will have value in that new economy. Really, who would have thought that a tractor or other items in farmville would have some tangible value that could employ people. So, yes with squinting you can see parts of it.

    I fully agree it will look very different, but I'm not buying that we'll go through a discontinutity to get there. The universal thing that I've seen over and over again is that people do what is necessary to provide for themselves and their families. If that means engaging parts of brains that have been stagnant during the industrial revolution, then they will. The same way the left the farms, traversed oceans and moved to cities. If we can do one thing to ease the pain and prepare for this, it would be to overhaul our education system.

  • Wayne

    I think the original responder was being ironic. Kurt Vonnegut did indeed take on this idea, in his first novel: Player Piano.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Indeed he did.  That was the first Vonnegut book I read (since I read them in order after he died) and I remember the Illium Works well.  Seems like it’s time to read it again.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/sigmawaite sigmawaite

    This basic idea of machines doing all the work and people all unemployed must be really easy to think of since I've thought of it for years with this thread the most I've gotten about it from others!

    So, for a one inch step toward more detail, we want humans managing computers, managing computers, …, managing computers doing the work.

    But we have a LONG way to go. To see some of this, let's use a scenario I worked up over 10 years ago to take a half baby step toward a little more reality:

    Consider a couple with both working 80 hours a week at $10 a hour with two children. So, they gross about $80 K a year and spend it all.

    (1) So, with machines doing so much of the work, suppose we get a factor of 10 in productivity in value per person-hour. A factor of 10 is pretty big, but done in the past, so let's assume it. Then they can have one parent stay home with the children and make a better home, have the other parent cut back to 40 hours a week, gross $200 K, and spend nearly all of it.

    (2) Another factor of 10, $2 M a year, and they can have a much nicer house, a vacation home, a small boat in a boat house, private schools for the children, better cars, clothes, furnishings, toys, some vacations, some savings, etc.

    (3) With another factor of 10, they gross $20 M a year, have still nicer housing, boats, vacations, private tutors for the kids, save a lot of money, retire relatively early.

    (4) Another factor of 10, $200 M a year, retire after a few years of work.

    (5) Another factor of 10, $2 B a year, contribute resources to art and science, e.g., exploration of the universe. So, send a lot of machines to Mars until it looks really safe there with lots of reliable resources for a return flight and then send some humans.

    So, that's five factors of 10, a factor of 100,000 which means that can do in 1/50 of an hour, 1 minute 12 seconds, the work that now takes 2000 hours, that is, a year at 40 hours a week. So, we have a LONG way to go and all along the way uses for the productivity.

    And, if a significant fraction of the population has such consumption, then there will be some natural resource 'strains' and shortages meaning that the next factor of 10 will be more difficult meaning that there is still more work to do.

    And there's still more to it than that!

    Back to work!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Ford makes the argument that even the knowledge / creative jobs will vaporize (and he makes it reasonably convincingly).  You’ve got to remember that the singularity occurs when computer intelligence surpasses human intelligence.  Structurally, if / when this happens, the dynamics of society fundamentally has to change.  Of course one argument is that humans will slow down the rate of technological progress so that machines never get there.

  • http://twitter.com/jimstorer @jimstorer

    If you believe the mayor of Detroit, you might have a good place to test this theory. He states unemployment in the city is ~50% (and climbing?).

    http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/ariel-schwartz/su

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/daveangulo daveangulo

    Ok, now I have to read the book… at least the first half. Its going to take a lot of convincing that even exceeding human intelligence will allow a computer intelligence to vaporize those jobs. At the core of creativity is a certain chaos where seemingly disjointed elements are recombined in a new form, raw intelligence often has little to do with the process. You aren't talking AI, you're talking a new life form ala Data from Star Trek II. I'll go read and see what he says.

  • Mike Greczyn

    In 2008 I read a book by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called "The Affluent Society", written in 1958. I don't remember the details of the book that well, but it argued that the majority of our economic activity revolves (or will revolve at some point in the future, remember he was writing in 1958) around making stuff that we really don't need and thus adds little or no value. In other words, we exist in a post-scarcity, affluent society and many of the jobs that people currently get paid to perform could disappear tomorrow and, the pain of the unemployed notwithstanding, the rest of us wouldn't notice any change in our economic well being. Galbraith says nothing about automation, and he was probably writing in a time when the idea of most jobs being automated was still science fiction. He argues that we should replace the lost private sector jobs with public sector jobs creating public goods. It sounds like elements of Galbraith's ideas may have made it into "The Lights in the Tunnel". I spent a couple of evenings trying to explain Galbraith's ideas to co-workers and friends, but gave up much as you did with explaining this book to your wife, mostly because I was trying to explain a wacky economic theory after one too many beers.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    “He argues that we should replace the lost private sector jobs with public sector jobs creating public goods.” – yes, very similar construct.

  • http://Legal-Citation.com Mike Boucher

    Why would the machines take over our work if they're smarter than we are? They'd have better things to do. We're mostly smarter than squirrels , but that doesn't mean that we've taken all of the really great nut-gathering-and-burying jobs.

    An interesting thing about the singularity is the rise of beings who don't need to make choices. If I choose to put in the time and study to become one of the leaders of the Hadron Collider, I have no time left to put in the study and work necessary to become Pope. I have to choose, and one choice precludes the other. Not so for machines. A machine can download/crossload its knowledge and being into another machine and then that personality can do both, although in different bodies. At the end of the day, they get back together, sync like a couple of overpowered cell phones, and get the benefit of having lived both lives.

    So once you get a single machine that's smart enough to become a deep sea explorer or a physicist or an astronaut then by definition you have a machine that can be a deep sea explorer AND a physicist AND an astronaut.. Then you're back to the squirrel analogy – for what conceivable reason would that machine want to do something as useless as our jobs? It didn't even occur to us to take the squirrel's job away, and it won't occur to the machines that they'd want to take ours.

    So don't worry about the singularity. We're the squirrels. It's not going to have anything to do with us.

  • http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com Martin Ford

    Hi, this is Martin Ford (the author). First, I want to say thank you to Brad for taking the time to review my book. I just came across this today.

    I do think that if we accept the idea of something akin to the singularity occurring then even high-level creative jobs will be ultimately be threatened. However, I think my book is actually more conservative than that it terms of its predictions. The book is not predicated on the singularity. My main argument is that any type of job which is fundamentally routine or repetitive in nature will ultimately be subject to automation. I also make the point that a lot of "knowledge" jobs which require college degrees are nonetheless basically a series of repeated tasks that will someday be within the capability of automation software or narrow AI applications.

    I think there will certainly be jobs which demand genuine creativity–perhaps forever–but there simply will not be enough of those jobs, nor will the vast majority of the workforce be capable of such work.

    One thing to keep in mind is that the readers of this blog are probably a very elite group. It may be very hard for YOU to imagine that you'll be displayed by machines, but in the U.S. we have a workforce of about 140 million people. Most of those people are doing routine jobs, and that includes a lot of routine jobs that require extensive training. I also believe that outsourcing will become even more prevalent and that offshore knowledge workers are likely to be equipped with AI tools that make them even more competitive. So, creative/high skill jobs are going to be highly susceptible to that as well.

    The primary question I ask in my book is: If at some point, most (or a very large percentage of) average people are unable to find employment because they no longer add value to the production process, then where will broad-based consumption come from? How will mass market industries survive? People with no discretionary income cannot consume.

    I put down some of my thoughts about this idea that jobs will migrate into more creative areas in my blog here:

    http://econfuture.wordpress.com/2009/12/13/the-jo

    and also some ideas about automation, purchasing power and consumer spending here:

    http://angrybear.blogspot.com/2009/12/job-automat

    Finally, let me respond to Brad's critique of the second half of my book. I fully understand that my proposed solution is very radical and that very few people will take it seriously at this point.

    However, the question is: If we truly reach a point where most people are unemployable in the traditional sense, then what do we do? What alternatives are there? As others have pointed out here there is some "tipping point" in terms of unemployment and income inequality at which it is difficult to see how democratic institutions could survive. Even Alan Greenspan talks about this in his book. The ideas I suggest my seem outrageous but I wonder if the alternatives would be even more radical and dire. If capitalism ultimately fails we don't 26 alternate economic systems to select from: we basically have some kind of planned economy. That does not strike me as a very inviting solution.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Martin – thanks for weighing in, especially around clarifying the part around the singularity.  I didn’t mean to imply this was a requirement in your thesis and when I reread my post I realized that I hadn’t been as clear about this as you have been in your comment!

    I’ve been pondering some additional solutions in the past 24 hours.  Part of what I’ve been thinking about is a more radical re-adjustment of what our society means, trying to draw from parallels in other major shifts (e.g. from the Romans, or the Middle Ages, or the Industrial Age).  I like the phrase “radical re-adjustment” because it gets to the structure of civilization – we still have a civilization, it’s just a very different one. 

    I’m also wondering if this was what Neal Stephenson was really trying to drive us towards in his trilogy The Baroque Cycle.

  • http://www.loupaglia.com Lou Paglia

    Sounds pretty far fetched that we could develop a system to overcome a 75% unemployment rate even with stratospheric government subsidy, simply because I don’t see human nature of “wanting more” changing at the needed magnitude.

    The first thought that came to me reading this post is that Ford and Ayn Rand should go bowling together. Would be quite the conversation.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JChauncey JChauncey
  • Doc

    The UK is approaching the 75% level, at least in large regions, given structural unemployment and the enormous bloated government services area.

    It seems that it is leading more to a Clockwork Orange of drunken thuggery than a social Utopia.

  • JLeno

    January 5, 2010, 10:11 am
    Monologue | Monday night on “The Jay Leno Show” on NBC:
    “And scientists now say that within 40 years, robots will be doing most of the jobs we don’t want to do, especially illegal robots from Mexico.”

  • http://twitter.com/albertwenger @albertwenger

    I have just bought the book based on Brad's post and look forward to reading it. My own take before reading is that there will actually be less consumption in the future rather than more (as more things will get delivered as services instead of disposables — e.g. clothing). The big readjustment would have to revolve around how to spend time in a way that keeps a civil society.

  • Gary Filice

    I know, just science fiction, but I believe someone mentioned this already. The word 'evolve' came up. The idea that a society removes the necessity for manual labor through ultimate technology may have already happened. The typical drawing of an "alien" shows three or four fingers, no thumb! There is no need for grasping since they are members of a push-button society. Machines may mine the materials to build the machines they travel in, feed them, do the medical procedures, etc. This affords them more time to think, or travel the universe and visit societies like our own still going through the transition!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Ok – that made me laugh out loud.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    I think the insight that it’s about “spending time” and “being productive” (whatever productive means) is a powerful one.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    My dogs will no longer be at a disadvantage because they don’t have opposing thumbs!  I’ll have other advantages over them, of course…

  • Gary Cordell

    Check out Phillip Jose Farmer's story "New Riders of the Purple Wage" . Not exactly serious, but it plows this field and sows the seeds of our discontent.

  • Gary Cordell

    Oops. Make that "Riders of the Purple Wage". Sorry, Zane Grey.

  • Gary Cordell

    OK, New Riders was the name of a band. Soooorry…

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Thanks for the recommendation – I just bought a copy.

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  • Richard

    If the automation goes far enough, and the machines can make themselves and most things are automated, then money and profit become obsolete. If food and goods just appear in the store (because it's automated) then why should it cost anything?

    Only things that machines cannot make/do would have 'value'. But then our 'unemployed' pool would be so large that we can surely find people to do that work for 'fun' (read free) if there are no input costs.

    We have to move from a work economy to a leisure economy.

    The answer to the question: 'what is the gas pump operator going to do …' is, whatever they would have done in retirement. There would be nothing wrong with staying in bed and reading all day long, for example.

    As to: 'But machines cost money, so the price of labor won't go to zero. '. Why cannot the whole production chain be automated, from exploration, to mining, to refining, to manufacturing? It's getting more and more that way now. Compare the labor force required 100 years ago to operate a mine, to now.

    Don't think of it as 75% unemployed, think of it as 75% retired. They don't need/want to work. They have better things to do.

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  • http://www.syntelos.org/ John Pritchard

    Hm, see no reason to abandon the conventional idea that we will retask, retrain, retarget, innovate, and the economy will evolve. So I can't see an economic singularity.

    We do need more profound tools, as in the direction of opening up concurrent engineering, in the internet, so support much more substantial innovations and evolutions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.kehle Joel Kehle

    You both might also consider Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake". I found it rather depressing but it's dim view of human nature is thought provoking nonetheless.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      Purchased!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.kehle Joel Kehle

    I don't think it's a society where people just do what they want. People would earn an income by doing things that are sanctioned by the government. To earn a paycheck you would go to school, write critical essays, etc. I'm not saying this is good or bad (that's a different discussion), just that there will be a construct put in place by society where the 75% will still do things that feel a lot like "work".

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.kehle Joel Kehle

    I know I'm about 9 weeks late to the party but here's a thought I haven't seen in the comments:

    Martin Ford has read Kurzweil but doesn't address a central point made by Kurzweil – humanity will merge with the machines they have created. If what Kurzweil predicts comes to pass, we can expect that human beings will be augmented in ways that will allow them to meaningfully participate in the future economy.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    Yes – this is a big miss on Ford’s part.

  • http://www.nowwatches.com/breitling-evolution-watches.html breitling evolution

    The incident was especially painful for Blippy, given that a New York Times breitling navitimer profile of the company appeared Friday morning, highlighting the growth of start-ups replica watches like Blippy that are designed to share personal information breitling evolution with the world. And the worst-case scenario is probably yet to come: although Alcott was willing to sign up for the service again Friday evening, after Blippy had initially removed his account in hopes of preventing breitling mont brillant any further breaches.

  • TREHIN

    I have read that book too and I am also fascinated by its content.

    To put it in perspective, automation didn't start with information technology the invention of the steam engine first then of the electrical engines and the explosion and diesel engines, many tasks have been taken care of by machines. The main differenve is that "thermic engines or electrical engines" were replacing the arms and the legs of workers while now we have "search engines" which are replacing some more complex intellectual functions in various jobs. To add to the accelleration, information technology has been combined to mechanical automation making it orders of magnitude more efficient at replacing human intervention…

  • TREHIN

    We have seen historically how the "industrial revolution" has changed the whole world of political, economic and social relationships. The information technology will bring as much if not more changes in our way of life… Unfortunately most political bodies seem to have given up their responsibilities in matter of supporting people via a caring governmentaction, prefering to let pure market economic forces rule the society through financial markets in particular with the results we have all witnessed in 2008 and 2009 financial crisis. And as usual, it is the people who had nothing to do in the process that will pay, like what is happening in Greece and will happen sonn in other countries.

    Martin Ford's book starts to make some challenging proposals but it is unlikely that goverments and business organisations will start condidering these proposals…
    Paul

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