The nation’s presidential election is fast approaching. talking heads from both corners promise that this will be “the most important election of our lifetime” or even “in history.” Surely by now, most of us have gotten tired of hearing such labels thrown around. No doubt when 2024 rolls around, there will be a similar cacophony.
Still, there’s no question – from an old man’s point of view, at least – that the nation is turning left, and has been for some time. That may be necessary. Every year, new advances in computer science destroy more jobs that used to be considered safe from digital replacement. I had dinner with my grandson at a chain eatery the other night. My menu, my order, and the payment of my bill were all done through a small plastic device that sat on the table. The waitress served us, and came around once to ask how we were doing. I wonder how long it will take for those tasks to be automated as well. Will a fifteen dollar an hour minimum wadge be the tipping point, or will it take until twenty?
My son-in-law, who writes about the digital space, tells me that AI is coming that will monitor lawyers’ statements in court, and provide pertinent case law references in real time. Once that happens, can fully automated court rooms be far behind? Truckers and airplane pilots will one day soon give over primary control of their vehicles to AI as well – though no doubt they’ll be kept close to take care of any problems that arise.
The truth is that many jobs in manufacturing, engineering, and a burgeoning list of other occupations are switching their collars from white or blue to steel. Jobs are becoming more scarce, especially for people who have more limited education and skill sets. In his prescient 1954 short story, “Fondly Fahrenheit,” Alfred Bester conceived of a future where some people make their living by renting out the services of robots they own.
Much of how we think about ourselves and others in today’s society revolves around what we do for a living. Our jobs and careers fortify our self-worth. Until relatively recently, this wasn’t the case. Before the industrial revolution bloomed in the eighteenth century, most Europeans had no real jobs or careers. They were yeomen, attached to the lands of property owners – typically nobility of some rank. Their jobs were to do whatever the landowner needed done, from farming his fields to following him to war. Then mechanisms in the cities needed human hands and minds to guide them. The migration from the countryside began, as Wordsworth beautifully chronicled in “Michael.”
What will happen, now that the machines no longer need our oversight? The farms and land are no longer a refuge. They are mechanized as well. Where will the rapidly growing ranks of humanity turn – not just for a paycheck, but for a sense of accomplishment and self-worth?
Certainly, these people will need to be sheltered, fed, clothed, and cared for medically. Our society is lurching toward that reality, a little more every year. The promise of “good jobs, for everybody who wants one” is still heard, but it rings more hollow as factories and shops continue to close. My own belief is that we will either decide to explore the universe around us, or we will sink to a future of constant war and regimentation, not unlike Orwell’s shocking dystopia described in “1984.” Humanity has the capability for beauty and hope. A visit to any museum or library will prove that. Our choices, beginning now, will prove how strong these capabilities are.