We have now entered the age of uncertainty. Welcome to the gig economy, where government shutdowns, unparalleled political instability, terrorism, stock market instability, Brexit and climate change raise more questions than answers. Uncertainty, fueled by an unrelenting, twenty-four-hour news cycle, is, for many of us, increased by today’s technological innovations.
We are overwhelmed by—and submerged in—apps and devices, which are gradually reducing the amount of influence we, as humans, possess. This technology creep is casting an ever more ominous shadow. Arguably, along with climate change, technological encroachment will turn out to be one of the two defining features of the twenty-first century. Fighting this is futile. When we are no longer able to change a state of affairs, we have to rise to the challenge of changing ourselves.
Machine learning and automation will render millions of humans obsolete. In the US, for example, as many as four million truck, bus, delivery and taxi driving jobs will eventually be usurped by autonomous vehicle technology. Already, carmakers like BMW, Daimler and Ford and technology giants like Apple, Uber and Google are developing autonomous vehicle technology. The idea of transportation workers being replaced by these innovations was once the stuff of Asimovesque science fiction—that is no longer the case today.
Life is a process of evolving, an amalgamation of various states through which we have to pass. Where people often fail is that they wish to select a state and remain in it. With the coming revolution, stasis is not an option. Economically and psychologically speaking, to stop is to die.
A wise proverb tells us that the art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. But how do we preserve order when confronted with profound, never before seen changes? More optimistic folks urge us to remember the industrial revolution. Collectively speaking, it made us stronger. However, comparing the industrial revolution to the technological revolution is like comparing jazz to EDM: yes, they are both forms of music, but they operate along very different lines.
Although the industrial revolution created more jobs, the upcoming revolution will be profoundly different, both in the pace and latitude of change. Today, unlike during the industrial revolution, the growth of new jobs is dwarfed by the erosion of old jobs. The industrial revolution was built around the human touch; the technological revolution is about eliminating it.
According to researchers at the Oxford Martin School, at least one in three jobs is vulnerable to AI and robotics. Routine and repetitive tasks, such as manufacturing, call center work and administrative duties can be (and will be) easily substituted. Over the next two decades, according to the researchers, machines will replace almost half the jobs in the US and China, and around 40 per cent of jobs in the UK.
Of course, not all humans will find themselves without work. However, with the technological revolution largely concentrated around major cities, more and more people will find themselves flocking to the same locations, competing in Hunger Games type competition for limited posts. Ask anyone who has made the move to a major city like London or New York, and they will tell you that moving to these cities is a challenging process, both financially and psychologically. Soaring housing costs mixed with a geographical concentration of opportunity, or, in the case of the people left behind, lack thereof, poses many a problem for leaders around the world.
To some, this disposable dystopia is an affront to humanity. How are we expected to earn a salary if no jobs exist for millions of mere mortals?
Well, how about Universal Basic Income (UBI), a trendy way of describing government cash handouts for each and every adult citizen? UBI advocates include household names like Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Elon Musk. Idealistic notions aside, is it possible to fund such a conceptually appealing idea?
Well, maybe. The idea is this: whenever an employee is replaced by a robot or by software using automation through artificial intelligence or machine learning, the business involved should pay a tax, much as an employee would on her wages. This would create the money needed to fund UBI.
This sounds great. But think about it for a minute—if an employer is simply paying tax on the technology, instead of an employee paying tax on his salary, isn’t this the financial equivalent of a double negative? And even if the automation tax proves to be more lucrative than the traditional tax, will it really provide enough money to fund universal basic income?
Vulnerable workers have every right to be concerned. I’m not just talking about store assistants and taxi drivers—studies show that AI is better than the average doctor at spotting melanomas; and AI is far more efficient than humans at carrying out routine financial assessments, as well as rudimentary legal work. Even Wall Street will feel the brunt: machines will be algorithmically programmed to spot trends and patterns quickly, allowing them to act faster than most human beings. Education will also experience profound changes. In fact, it already has: online education, without direct teacher-student interaction, is already here. We have every right to look for assistance, but UBI doesn’t appear to be the answer.
UBI is financially negligent. By definition, universal means that every single person over the age of eighteen would be a beneficiary. From an economic perspective, even in the richest societies on the planet, UBI, which is designed to provide a modest but respectable standard of living, would be a) unaffordable b) unsustainable and c) likely result in ballooning deficits and financial collapse.
To offset the effects of the UBI vortex, one can envisage a world in which governments, in an effort to fund this utopian concept, reallocate resources from other areas such as education and healthcare. Also, in theory, UBI undermines the concept of social unity. Unconditionally rewarding people for simply breathing could very well result in communal collapse, a sort of societal decay. Even if UBI does become a reality, money is no substitute for meaning, especially if it’s, to quote Mark Knopfler, “money for nothing.”
Finding That Something
In a world full of ups and downs, obsessions, depressions and recessions, it’s very difficult to find true meaning in life. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for. Many of us derive meaning from our jobs. Of course, the meaning of life differs from individual to individual, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life on a daily basis.
Life is a rather amorphous condition, but work appears to imbue it with greater definition. If asked to introduce yourself, you might respond, Hi, my name is Susan, and I work as a nurse. In Viktor Frankl’s seminal text, Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes, “those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’” UBI may provide us with a how, but can it provide us with a why?
Our identity is shaped by meaning, or a lack thereof. An individual who once enjoyed meaning in his or her life, but now lacks any, may be suffering from what I refer to as identity displacement. Industrial-era jobs fortified the working and middle classes; when meaningful job opportunities start to vanish, so do our identities. Voltaire cautions that, “work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” With UBI, perhaps there is little reason to worry about need. That still leaves us with boredom and vice.
But, if people want to laze about in their pants, have casual sex and/or play video games 24/7, who cares? Well, honestly, we should all care. Although there is no universally accepted definition of boredom, it is not simply another way of describing apathy. Boredom is a mental state that stems from a lack of stimulation, and this lack of stimulation leaves people craving relief. People don’t enjoy being bored, and research shows that boredom exerts a profound influence, behaviorally, medically and socially.
In studies of depression and binge-eating, for example, boredom is often listed as the number one trigger. According to Scientific American writer Maggie Koerth-Baker, US teenagers who report being bored are 50% more likely than their more stimulated peers to start smoking, drinking and dabbling in drugs.
Boredom often leads us down ill-advised paths. In a 2010 study conducted at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, 85 people were told they would get $5 if they answered 10 out of 15 questions correctly in a math test. Each participant was told that their computer had a glitch. Some were told the right answer would appear if they pressed the space bar. Others were told that if they didn’t press the enter key within five seconds the answer would appear on their screen.
Those in the second group—the ones who were told to wait five seconds—were more likely to cheat than those who had to press the spacebar. It seems the devil makes work for idle hands, even those left idle for a mere five seconds. Furthermore, Charles Murray, the political scientist known for his work on IQ and race, has written extensively on social conditions and the manner in which they have changed over the past half century, especially for the working classes:
In societies where the chances of secure employment is low, divorce rates, crime rates, and the number of children being raised outside nuclear families tend to be higher than average.
UBI, for all its purported strengths, may provide us with a way of living … but it cannot provide us with a reason for living.
Some proponents of UBI will argue that, with more and more free time, people will dedicate themselves to the creation of artistic and musical masterpieces. Some will, but let me ask you this: when you have a couple of hours free and two competing impulses—to exercise or to binge watch Netflix—which do you usually follow? Choosing the couch is as human as eating and mating. We are inherently lazy, which may be a sort of residual trait carried over from our ancestors’ days of conserving energy for the next hunt.
Maybe this helps explain why, when it comes to actual hobbies and interests, we seem to be actively seeking out fewer new experiences. Maybe technology is to blame. Although it’s hard to blame technology alone for such a radical ideological shift, I challenge you to pinpoint a more obvious culprit.