Robot photo from Rhizome

My favorite-so-far Bruce Sterling post in the State of the World conversation:

“Following on from John Payne’s comments in <76>, are the robots coming for our jobs? Is a certain amount of unemployment going to end up as part of the system and, if so, what happens next?”

*It’s so interesting to see this perennial question coming into vogue once again. When I was a pre-teen first discovering “science fiction,” that automation dystopia story was all over the place. Even on the cover of TIME magazine. See this Artzybasheff computer monster, all busy stealing guy’s jobs? Looks oddly familiar, doesn’t it?

Heckuva commercial artist, Artzybasheff

Of course that issue pre-dates me by a long chalk. It’s also the folk song of John Henry the Steel-Drivin’ Man, who breaks his heart defeating the boss’s Steam Hammer.

I can tell you what’s NOT gonna happen with “robots.” Nobody’s gonna defeat the logic of the assembly line by starting a Pre-Raphaelite Arts and Crafts commune where people shun the Robot and make hand-made wall tapestries. That’s been tried eight thousand different times and places. It never works for anybody who’s not Amish.

Framing the issue as “robots coming for our jobs” is rather a moot point anyhow, because the blue-collar guys who “own” assembly “jobs” have zero input on whether robots get deployed or not. What practical difference does that question make? No modern salaried employee anywhere has the clout to defend a “job” from “the robots.” The investors deploying the robots are serenely unworried about Luddite saboteurs or crippling labor-union strikes. Those possibilities of working-class resistance were de-fanged ages ago.

So, you know, either they automate some processes at the cost of human labor, or they don’t. Somebody’s alway gonna try it, and in some areas it works out rather better than it does in others, but the basic robot story isn’t robots, it’s “whatever happens to musicians will eventually happen to everybody.”

Apparently this latest little robot-vs-job flap gets most of its impetus from two things, a cool new assembly robot created by Rodney Brooks and a typically Emersonian intervention from Kevin Kelly.

So, here I’ll tell my Rodney Brooks story. I met the guy once, at some forgettable event in Washington DC, and after the panels were over, Prof Brooks and I ventured into the bar.

So, I was nursing a whiskey sour, and I was like: “So, Doctor Brooks, I know a little about your work, and –”

“Call me Rod!”

“So, Rod — level with me about this MIT scheme you have to automate the movement of insect legs. How’s that supposed to work, exactly?”

So, Rod was nothing loath, and he was pretty well going at it hammer and tongs, while I was asking the occasional provocative sci-fi style question — stuff like “so, how does the cube-square law work out when the robo-insects are walking on the ceiling?” — because we sci-fi writers dote on MIT.

Then I happened to glance across the bar, and I saw that our bartender was “frozen in disbelief.” He was so amazed by what Brooks was saying that his glass and his cleaning cloth were rigid in his unmoving arms. This bartender had the affect of a sci-fi movie android with a power failure. It was the only time I’ve ever seen that figure of speech as a genuine aspect of human behavior.

So, I give Rodney Brooks a lot of credit, he’s a fascinating guy, I’m glad to see him kept busy on things other than, for instance, an MIT-style Vannevar Bush Manhattan Project at an undisclosed desert location. I’m confident that Rod’s new manipulator is pretty snazzy.

But let me ask this: if an assembly-line device is going to “take our jobs,” wouldn’t a 3dprinter also “take our jobs?” Why do we treat them so differently? I mean, they’re both basically the same device: automated mechanical systems precisely moving loads in three dimensions by following software instructions.

So how come the Brooks robot is framed as a sinister job-stealing robot, while a 3dprinter is framed as a printer, like, a cool nifty peripheral? Didn’t digital printers also take a lot of “people’s jobs?”

Besides, a Brooks robot is just imitating human-scale movement while 3dprinters create objects in micron-accurate ways that no human can possibly do at all. So clearly the 3dprinter is a more radical threat to the status quo.

Along this same line: Chris Anderson, late of WIRED, has got a new book out about “Makers.” I read it. It’s all about how network society cadres with 3dprinters and open-source schematics and instructables are going to create a “Third Industrial Revolution.” Great, right? Okay, maybe Makers take over the world or they don’t, but how come nobody says “A Third Industrial Revolution means those Makers are going to take our jobs?” Because they would, wouldn’t they? How could they not?

Shouldn’t this prospect be of larger concern than Rodney Brooks’ latest gizmo, one among hordes of assembly line robots that have been around for decades now? An “Industrial Revolution” should *almost be definition* take everybody’s jobs. But the general reaction to Anderson’s book is that the guy is *too optimistic,” that he drank his own tech-hype bathwater and is having way too much fun. Isn’t there an inconsistency here?

Then there’s the latest Kevin Kelly argument, which is more or less about how robots are gonna take everybody’s jobs, but fine, that’s great, especially if they’re sexbots. There’s nothing sparkly-new about this line of reasoning, it’s very Automation Takes Command. The pitch is that robots take the dull dirty and dangerous jobs, which frees us to become, I dunno, humane speculative creatives like Kevin Kelly, I guess.

However, I don’t believe automation has ever worked like that; there’s no creeping wave-line with “robotics” on one side and “humanity” on the other. Playing chess is very “human,” but Deep Blue is a robot that can kick everybody’s ass at chess. You can claim that “Deep Blue” is not “a robot,” but come on: just put a tin face on him and give him a manipulator arm. Instant “robot.” Robotic has never been an issue of mechanical men versus flesh men, like in a Flash Gordon episode.

The stuff we call “robotics” today is more like Google’s “robot car,” which is not some Karel Capek man-shaped “robot” of the 1920s; the Google Car is the Google Stack with wheels attached to it. Similarly, “Google Glass” isn’t virtual-reality supergoggles, it’s the Google Stack with a camera, Android mobile software and a head-mounted display. Will they “take your jobs?” How could they not?

If you lose your job as a bus driver because a Google Bus took your job, you didn’t lose it to a “robot,” you lost your enterprise to Google, just like the newspapers did. Don’t bother to put a sexbot face on the silly thing, it’s Larry and Sergei & Co. Go find a musician and buy him a drink.

Fighter pilots are “losing their jobs to robots,” to aerial drones. Are those the “dull dirty and dangerous” jobs? Heck no, because fighter jocks are romantic folk heroes, like Eddie Rickenbacker and the Red Baron and George Bush 1.0. When most flight work is carried out by “robots” (actually by GPS systems and databases, but so what), are we somehow going to discover a more refined and human way to fly? Will we be liberated to fly in a more spiritual, humanistic, Beryl Markham poetic aviatrix kind of way? I very much doubt that. I’m pretty sure we’ll stop “flying” entirely, even if we anachronistically claim we’re “flying” when we’re zipping around in sporty ultralights letting drone systems do all the labor.

Bookstore clerks never had “dull, dirty, dangerous” work, they were the mainstays of humanistic commerce actually, but Amazon is a Stack. Amazon’s all about giant robot warehouse distribution logistics. It’s all databases and forklifts in the Amazon stack, so of course “robots” took the jobs of bookstore clerks. Bookstore clerks imagined they were chumming around with the literate community turning people on the Jane Austen, but the high-touch, humanly clingy aspect of this line of work changed nothing much about its obsolescence.

So it’s not that “robots” take “our jobs.” It’s more a situation of general employement precarity where applications built for mobile devices and databases can hit pretty much anybody’s line of work, more or less at random, without a prayer of effective counter-action. Right? Let’s move right along, then!

That being the case, “what ought to be done?” Well, if job security of all kinds is going to be made precarious indefinitely, then the sane, humane thing to do is clearly to socialize security and put everybody on a guaranteed annual income. Brazilian-style socialism: keep your nose clean, keep the kids in school, and we fee you off and you can go buy whatever produce the robots have cooked up lately.

One might also invent some kind of Stack Fordism, where Facebook pays you enough to hang out on Facebook making Facebook more omniscient. It’s a lot cheaper than putting the unemployed into prison.

Obviously the American right-wing isn’t gonna go for this wacky liberal scheme; bailing out the “takers” of the 47% is their worst Randroid nightmare. But what people never understood about the John Henry story is that we have no steam hammers left. The robots “take your job” and then the robots *keep changing at a frantic pace,* the robots have the lifespans of hamsters. We’ve still got plenty of muscular, human John Henries, but his steam hammers are all extinct.

Look what happened to Nokia. These Nokia guys had the classic Wired magazine bulletproofed dream jobs. They’re not John Henry. They’re creative class, computer-literate, inventive, super-efficient, global, digital, Asperger’s high-IQ types… They got annihilated in 18 months. Not by “robots” but by Google and Apple. However, well, same difference really.

What kind of “jobs” do Republicans have to offer themselves, when their nominee was a corporate raider, and their top financier is a weird Jewish casino owner up to the eyebrows in Macao? That’s not exactly the Protestant work ethic happening, so, well, I dunno.

It might still work, just needs more political pretzel-bending. Don’t use the word “guaranteed income,” farm it out to Fox News for semantic re-framing. Toss in the “values requirement” that your annual income requires you to wear Mormon undies, go to tent revival meetings and own and display a handgun. They’d line up for it.

Photo from Rhizome