Machines, Work, and the Value of People

Late last month, Microsoft released a “bot” that guesses your age based on an uploaded picture. The bot tended to be only marginally accurate and sometimes hilariously (or disconcertingly) wrong. What’s more, people quickly began having some fun with the program by uploading faces of actors playing fictional characters, such as Yoda or Gandalf. My favorite was Ian Bogost’s submission:

Shortly after the How Old bot had its fleeting moment of virality, Nathan Jurgenson tweeted the following:

This was an interesting observation, and it generated a few interesting replies. Jurgenson himself added, “much of the bigdata/algorithm debates miss how poor these often perform. many critiques presuppose & reify their untenable positivism.” He summed up this line of thought with this tweet: “so much ‘tech criticism’ starts first with uncritically buying all of the hype silicon valley spits out.”

Let’s pause here for a moment. All of this is absolutely true. Yet … it’s not all hype, not necessarily anyway. Let’s bracket the more outlandish claims made by the singularity crowd, of course. But take facial recognition software, for instance. It doesn’t strike me as wildly implausible that in the near future facial recognition programs will achieve a rather striking degree of accuracy.

Along these lines, I found Kyle Wrather’s replies to Jurgenson’s tweet particularly interesting. First, Wrather noted, “[How Old Bot] being wrong makes people more comfortable w/ facial recognition b/c it seems less threatening.” He then added, “I think people would be creeped out if we’re totally accurate. When it’s wrong, humans get to be ‘superior.'”

Wrather’s second comment points to an intriguing psychological dynamic. Certain technologies generate a degree of anxiety about the relative status of human beings or about what exactly makes human beings “special”–call it post-humanist angst, if you like.

Of course, not all technologies generate this sort of angst. When it first appeared, the airplane was greeted with awe and a little battiness (consider alti-man). But as far as I know, it did not result in any widespread fears about the nature and status of human beings. The seemingly obvious reason for this is that flying is not an ability that has ever defined what it means to be a human being.

It seems, then, that anxiety about new technologies is sometimes entangled with shifting assumptions about the nature or dignity of humanity. In other words, the fear that machines, computers, or robots might displace human beings may or may not materialize, but it does tell us something about how human nature is understood.

Is it that new technologies disturb existing, tacit beliefs about what it means to be a human, or is it the case that these beliefs arise in response to a new perceived threat posed by technology? I’m not entirely sure, but some sort of dialectical relationship is involved.

A few examples come to mind, and they track closely to the evolution of labor in Western societies.

During the early modern period, perhaps owing something to the Reformation’s insistence on the dignity of secular work, the worth of a human being gets anchored to their labor, most of which is, at this point in history, manual labor. The dignity of the manual laborer is later challenged by mechanization during the 18th and 19th centuries, and this results in a series of protest movements, most famously that of the Luddites.

Eventually, a new consensus emerges around the dignity of factory work, and this is, in turn, challenged by the advent of new forms of robotic and computerized labor in the mid-twentieth century.

Enter the so-called knowledge worker, whose short-lived ascendency is presently threatened by advances in computers and AI.

I think this latter development helps explain our present fascination with creativity. It’s been over a decade since Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, but interest in and pontificating about creativity continues apace. What I’m suggesting is that this fixation on creativity is another recalibration of what constitutes valuable, dignified labor, which is also, less obviously perhaps, what is taken to constitute the value and dignity of the person. Manual labor and factory jobs give way to knowledge work, which now surrenders to creative work. As they say, nice work if you can get it.

Interestingly, each re-configuration not only elevated a new form of labor, but it also devalued the form of labor being displaced. Manual labor, factory work, even knowledge work, once accorded dignity and respect, are each reframed as tedious, servile, monotonous, and degrading just as they are being replaced. If a machine can do it, it suddenly becomes sub-human work.

(It’s also worth noting how displaced forms of work seem to re-emerge and regain their dignity in certain circles. I’m presently thinking of Matthew Crawford’s defense of manual labor and the trades. Consider as well this lecture by Richard Sennett, “The Decline of the Skills Society.”)

It’s not hard to find these rhetorical dynamics at play in the countless presently unfolding discussions of technology, labor, and what human beings are for. Take as just one example this excerpt from the recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen (emphasis mine):

Global unemployment is rising, too—this seems to be the first industrial revolution that wipes out more jobs than it creates. One 2013 paper argues that forty-seven per cent of all American jobs are destined to be automated. Andreessen argues that his firm’s entire portfolio is creating jobs, and that such companies as Udacity (which offers low-cost, online “nanodegrees” in programming) and Honor (which aims to provide better and better-paid in-home care for the elderly) bring us closer to a future in which everyone will either be doing more interesting work or be kicking back and painting sunsets. But when I brought up the raft of data suggesting that intra-country inequality is in fact increasing, even as it decreases when averaged across the globe—America’s wealth gap is the widest it’s been since the government began measuring it—Andreessen rerouted the conversation, saying that such gaps were “a skills problem,” and that as robots ate the old, boring jobs humanity should simply retool. “My response to Larry Summers, when he says that people are like horses, they have only their manual labor to offer”—he threw up his hands. “That is such a dark and dim and dystopian view of humanity I can hardly stand it!”

As always, it is important to ask a series of questions:  Who’s selling what? Who stands to profit? Whose interests are being served? Etc. With those considerations in mind, it is telling that leisure has suddenly and conveniently re-emerged as a goal of human existence. Previous fears about technologically driven unemployment have ordinarily been met by assurances that different and better jobs would emerge. It appears that pretense is being dropped in favor of vague promises of a future of jobless leisure. So, it seems we’ve come full circle to classical estimations of work and leisure: all work is for chumps and slaves. You may be losing your job, but don’t worry, work is for losers anyway.

So, to sum up: Some time ago, identity and a sense of self-worth got hitched to labor and productivity. Consequently, each new technological displacement of human work appears to those being displaced as an affront to the their dignity as human beings. Those advancing new technologies that displace human labor do so by demeaning existing work as below our humanity and promising more humane work as a consequence of technological change. While this is sometimes true–some work that human beings have been forced to perform has been inhuman–deployed as a universal truth, it is little more than rhetorical cover for a significantly more complex and ambivalent reality.

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