Episode Ninety Four: Eating The World; And A Question

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m settling into a sort of post-employment routine now where the family gets up at around 7am and I dress and feed our son then play with him a bit while my wife gets ready. Today, my first bit of “work” was at 10am when I had a call scheduled – and instead of doing it at the house, I decided to go downtown and take the call at a cafe, seeing as I had a lunch meeting, too. And it’s at that point that, I think, I made my first mistake.

See, I might have that part of a routine, but I don’t have the “work” part of a routine quite yet. So today I decided to take my call at Tilt, which is just kitty-corner from the agency where I used to work, and I told my wife, “oh, it’s not problem, just drop me off where you used to drop me off”. And so we stopped at the usual place and I paused before getting out of the car and said, “We can’t do this again. It’s too weird.”

Because, no disrespect to my former colleagues, but it *was* too weird. It was as if I still had some sort of employment umbilicus that I hadn’t quite cut yet that was still tethering me to a specific place. Perhaps it was clinging on to some sort of familiarity and routine of the coffee shops and places I used to go for lunch that I got drawn back to that place. But, stepping out of the car and seeing people I used to work with, everything felt wrong.

So, I think, I won’t be going back. At least, not regularly.

1.0 Eating The World

Marc Andreessen of a16z kicked off one of his tweetstorms the other day looking at the macro picture of automation and computing and their effect on the economy and labour market[1]. A gross simplification of Andreessen’s argument is that robots won’t “eat all the jobs” because they will free us up to do other things, creating new markets and new jobs. I should add, first, that where I think Andreessen and I differ is mainly just an element of degree rather than outright disagreement and also in terms of timescale.

So, first: Andreessen says that we don’t know how to automate, or know how to apply the computing power that’s now available to us, towards goals like “creativity, innovation, exploration, art, science, entertainment [and] caring for others”. His argument follows that when automation is abundant, human experiences become rare and valuable (because they focus on what it is that is unique and non-replicable about the human experience), and says that as the price of recorded music has tended to zero (or that access to recorded to music has tended to zero), the live touring business has exploded. Alongside that, he points out that as the price of drip coffee dropped, the demand for handmade gourmet coffee grew.

Let’s take a pause there. The last time I talked about this, I was mainly concerned about the loss of jobs in the transportation business. Having never worked in haulage, I’m fully prepared to admit that I’m probably talking out of my ass, but I can’t necessarily say that long-distance haulage and transport of goods is a fulfilling career. It is, I would say, an example of the mindless drudgery, a job that could be done better through automation and probably should be done through automation.

The thing is, at the macro level, eliminating those jobs is a good thing. People are capable of doing so much more than helping to move dumb arrangements of atoms from one physical location to another. Let the machines do that work at our bidding. But at the micro level, that’s about three million livelihoods that are about to be disrupted. And this is, I suppose, where conservatism or paternalism or the idea that people are lazy layabouts who need to get off their asses comes from: the writing is on the wall. So what are you, as one of those three million, going to do about it?

The narrative that we had been sold culturally – at least where I grew up – was a simplistic one: get a job, turn it into a career, settle down, buy a house, pay it off, live your life, retire, collect a pension, die.

Turns out the world is a lot more complicated than that. These days, more than it ever was, life is a hustle. The days of a job-for-life are obviously over, but what might also become true is that a career-for-life ends, too. *Within your own lifetime* you might find that the track that you had thought you were on becomes thoroughly disrupted. And without a framework for something like continuing education, or without a societal/governmental way of looking at how people transition from one career that *literally disappears* to one that *literally appears*, it’s hard to see how, at the micro, individual, community, people level, we aren’t in for anything other than a world of hurt.

Of course the argument is that this has always happened. Well, it’s always happened for a couple hundred years. But I think we can agree that the rate of change is increasing just as our institutions are incapable of keeping up with it.

Okay, so the argument goes that you should change “education” and make it fit for the twenty first century purpose. There’s been lots of back and forth in this space – the parts I’ve been exposed to have pointed out that the education system *as it exists – the classroom system and so on* happens to coincide quite neatly with industrialisation, factories, mechanisation and the need for a workforce that’s able to do things. Sure, again, a gross oversimplification, but the question remains: what is education for, and what are people supposed to do with it?

Because right now, the world *still needs* a bunch of people to do things that we can imagine will be eaten by software and automated away within their lifetime. You can imagine a sort of time horizon in that there are jobs-to-be-done that are the bottom of the pyramid, easily automated, most easily disrupted that *right now*, for at least the next five to ten years, need to be done. But, if you’re considering things from the point of view of an individual who’s working out how to maximise their income and contribution to society (ie their expected lifetime value of earnings), then they’ve got to take into account the following: should they anticipate automation? Or should they be prepared to work a series of short (five to ten year, say) term arbitrations where they “do the work” that machines will later do and then move on to the next piece of labour?

The problem there of course – and you have to realise that I’m thinking all of this out loud, as it were – is that if *everyone* were to do that, there’d be no one left to do the jobs that needed to be done (which, I guess, is why we have a labour market), but also this question: *why* are these people doing those jobs that machines are doing. The quick answer, of course, is: it’s the market, stupid: they need the money, and someone’s going to pay them for it. You don’t get everyone educating themselves to be smart problem solvers with transferrable skills and no-one willing to do plumbing.

Which brings us to the second part of Andreessen’s argument: that you have to accept that, on a certain level, increased automation is going to bring the cost of *the goods and services affected by automation* down to zero or near-zero. Let’s leave aside the fact that there’s a massive difference in reality between zero and near-zero and instead focus on the point that automation increases the standard of living. Yes, it does: but does the cost of living stay fixed, and instead *for the same amount of money* do you get a higher standard? The point being that I would’ve paid a certain amount for “communications” a couple decades ago which would cover things like “stamps” and a “landline”, but instead I probably pay roughly the same amount – so in real terms the money that I’m spending is the same – but I’m getting value that I couldn’t have gotten a couple decades ago. I still need to spend the money though.

So: better, higher standard of living. Still need to spend money for it. Some jobs going away, entire new fields being invented. Likelihood of government being able to act fast enough, or to develop a framework that will help ease the transition? Practically nil. *OR IS IT?*

[1] https://twitter.com/pmarca/status/473627894392958976

2.0 And A Question

It’s been suggested to me by a few people, so I’m thinking of pulling together a Best Of edited collection of bits of this newsletter and making it available as an ebook or Kindle Single. Or, even, printing the damn thing out as a newspaper via Newspaper Club.

So, let me ask you this: if I were to run a Kickstarter to get that all pulled together (which would cover getting an editor in to help me massage everything into the right kind of shape, and then spending the time to make sure everything was typeset right, or even hiring someone who actually knew how to do that):

a) would you back it; and
b) how much would you pay for the ebook or Kindle Single;
c) how many of your friends would you tell to buy it.

It’s super simple – just hit reply and say “yes” (or “no”, I suppose, but I’m only really going to count “yes”es) with how much you might be willing to pay.

That’s it for today. As ever, send me notes.