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The saving grace of the approaching robot jobpocalypse might be that nobody, yet, is taking it literally. The regular flare-ups of the “immigrants are taking your jobs” rhetoric has led to actual hate crimes, but even amidst exaggeration around the automation of millions of jobs, no one has yet, to my knowledge, taken a vengeful sledgehammer to a router. Which isn’t to say people aren’t taking the possibility seriously that their careers with be automated out of existence
“My job will be obsolete because of robots within five years,” one software developer friend told me. “Oh, not necessarily…” I started. “It will,” he snapped.
I probably should have changed the subject. Clearly, he was convinced and didn’t want to be burdened with insipid optimism. Instead I told him, “My parents warned me off being a writer because it wasn’t ‘safe’. And it is definitely insecure — but at least it’s safe from robots.”
I should have changed the subject, as it turns out, because this made him even more furious than the possibility his own career would be automated. He told me that my job definitely could be taken by a robot, that there were already robots producing news pieces as well as any journalist, and that I was clearly in denial.
“But I write travel pieces and essays and memoirs,” I responded.
“So… can a robot write about finding a loved one dead?”
“But it won’t be true. Who would want to read that?”
“You’re just in denial.”
“How can a robot write about learning how to bake sourdough bread in Spain?”
“They’ll assemble it from copy provided by the travel company.”
“But…that’s just an advertisement, isn’t it?”
There was a pause, which he broke, quite loudly: “YOU’RE JUST IN DENIAL.”
At that point, I did change the subject.
“Shouldn’t the long term goal of any society be complete unemployment?” the comedian Doug Stanhope said in 2011. “Where’s the candidate who’s trying to make robots to do all this shit for us?”
This is the strange paradox we’re faced with: the societal change that’s coming is entirely at odds with the way we value ourselves.
This was funny, because we actually live in a society where political candidates are constantly running on the promise of job creation. “Haha!” we said. “Robots doing everything for us! What would we be for, in such a society?!”
This is the strange paradox we’re faced with: the societal change that’s coming is entirely at odds with the way we value ourselves. In a capitalist society, people are judged on their ability to work, as well as their actual willingness to work. Indeed, with phrases like, “The devil makes work for idle hands”, not being busy is actively demonized. “Lazy” is an insult; “hardworking” is a compliment; the go to for small talk is, “What do you do?”
According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, my software developer friend is being a bit melodramatic: only 25% of occupations in the U.S. are at “high risk” for losing jobs to automation in the coming decades.) Those in production, food service and transportation are first in line for job losses. Where will a full quarter of the population go? Where will they locate their worth in a society that is progressing to automation but will still, presumably, cling to the glorification of work, of being busy?
But I swear it is with no smugness at all that I say, at least when it comes to writing: my friend is wrong. Not because a robot will never be able to write as well as me; I have no doubt one day a robot will produce a piece that makes us all laugh and cry. Maybe the damn thing will be able to write about finding a loved one dead more evocatively than I did, describe a descent into agoraphobia more humorously, or make your mouth water over sourdough more acutely. But I’ll still get the commission.
Why? Because when robots can do anything we can, authenticity will be at a premium.
We have versions of this even now. The prefix “hand” on a label often signifies higher prices — think hand-painted, hand-crafted, hand-made — than products churned out by machines. Time, for humans, is precious, so when human time has gone into an item’s production, consumers feel the extra dollars are worth shelling out.
When it comes to writing it’s less the writer’s time you appreciate than the truth of genuine observation or feeling, the window into some fragment of the human condition. Maybe in the future a robot will be able to generate a memoir about how harrowing it is to be lost in a blizzard, or the thrill of rock-climbing in Yosemite, but readers simply won’t be invested if it’s not real. And they would feel cheated if they were deceived, however convincingly.
The truth is, the notion of job security is rapidly changing. We used to be afraid of losing unskilled work to workers who were cheaper or more easily exploited, or skilled work to the, frankly, more skilled. Now, the safest haven might simply be human authenticity and inimitability. I’d love to go back in time to the conversation with my mother as she begged me to study “something safe to fall back on”, and say “Hi, I’m from 2019. Let me explain what ‘safe’ looks like now…”