The seemingly anachronistic ubiquity of smoking in Blade Runner 2049 may be intended as nothing more than a tribute to the neo-noir original, just as the Pan-Am and Atari billboards. But perhaps it also symbolizes something psychological about the society it depicts: the feeling that it has no reason to live. The replicants, of course, do not have souls or free will. They have no past, and, because they can not breed, no collective future. Meanwhile, the humans are staring down-the-barrel at their obsolescence as a species. Ensouled or not, the replicants are so much smarter and stronger, and so even if they lack the agency to conquer or destroy humanity, what is the point of going on?
Replicants may be sci-fi fantasy, but the threat of a machine “takeover” (of sorts) is very real. Maybe they will destroy us, maybe we will physically merge with them, or, and this seems most likely at the moment, maybe automation will render human labor redundant.
The conventional opinion had long been that technological innovation will always create (at least) as many jobs as it destroys, but serious thinkers are now reevaluating this assumption and are beginning to contemplate the consequences of a post-work society. A 2013 Oxford study, much cited since its publication, predicts that up to half of current US jobs could be automated in just a few decades; how many will exist a century or two from now? In other words, we maybe are staring down-the-barrel at the obsolescence of the only socio-economic model humanity has ever known.
For as long as civilization has existed, it has depended on the labor of humans. Even before civilization, humanity’s survival has always depended on humans’ labor. If and when this relationship comes to an end, where do we go as a society and a species? If, within an entirely mechanized economy that runs on autopilot, we are all worthless, and therefore equal, should we all receive an equal share of the economic bounty? And just as importantly, what are we all going to do with ourselves? What is the point of doing anything?
Honestly, I do not think there are any good answers, and I hope the question will remain hypothetical. But I probably won’t get a choice in the matter. So it is worth considering how to respond to a development that really would “break the world,” how we would maintain order. I think there would be a way to preserve the old incentive structure, if it is given a radically new form. The solution, I think, is to institute a system of direct democracy. I know many here are ambivalent toward democracy, but if worse comes to worst, political participation is the only meaningful work that will remain for us.
Of course, we could simply institute a no-strings guaranteed minimum income, and then watch it slowly become the sole source of income for more and more people. Many have suggested this, and while it may be necessary, it is not sufficient.
An occupation is more than just a source of livelihood; our work also gives meaning to our lives. This is why so many writers have been fretting about the affect a possible age of machines might have on our sense of self-worth. So far however, their best solution is shorter working-hours—i.e. to kick-the-can-down-the-road. (In fairness, my hunch is that, in actuality, this would be a fairly durable band-aid.)
In terms of a more permanent settlement, the standard answer is the obvious one: that we could use the extra time to ‘pursue our passions.’ After taking a moment to reflect however, most understand that this superficially ideal arrangement would be far less than ideal in practice. For one thing, much of the sense of accomplishment that we get from holding down a job is derived from the fact that working is quasi-compulsory, that our work is, perhaps not exactly necessary, but in some small way, beneficial to the whole. We are “earning” our living by contributing something tangible to the society. Now, it is one thing for there to be no demand for the product of our labor, if we still believe in its value, but what if we ourselves acknowledge that there is no rational reason why there even should be any demand for our inferior human-made product?
Our work only has meaning if its meaning extends beyond ourselves. So I propose that if our talents are superfluous to the functioning of the economy, we earn our living as professional citizens. Imagine a sort of ancient Athens on steroids—a direct democracy that (all but) requires universal adult participation. By its nature, democratic government will always demand human participation.
Capitol Hill’s perpetual dysfunction aside, the institution of government is a civilizational necessity, and the service it provides can be performed by nearly everyone. No, not everyone is a competent administrator, but under the scenario being considered, that task would likely be automated anyways. Indeed, many of current aspects of government may well become automated, but as long as we are a democracy, there will always be issues that we must decide for ourselves. Our machines may be able to predict the outcome of a given action with extreme precision, but the desirability of an action and its outcome will still be for us to decide. In other words, while politicians will no longer have to debate the best way to achieve x, we must still debate whether to choose x.
I know this idea must strike many people as silly, and I do not want to compound that impression by attempting a detailed blueprint. So for now all I will say about it is that the new political nation would include the current three branches of government, and every adult who is not part of the either the executive branch or the judicial branch would be, in some broad sense, part of the legislature (federal and/or local). The job for the mass of citizens will be to observe daily legislative proceedings on a something like an interactive C-Span through which they vote on laws. Assignment to Congressional subcommittees could be determined by lot, merit, individual preference, or some combination of these. Perhaps there would still be a need for elected representatives, but their role would be that of advocates elected on the basis of their ability to put forward the best argument for their side, their arguments to be presented to a truly sovereign public.
Also, this is not silly. Thinking that hobbies can replace the dignity of earning a living, which is the unimaginative recommendation of most pundits who have puzzled over this question, that is silly. My basic aim is simply to conserve the only economic incentive structure that civilization has ever known. And I say this not just for fear of the unknown, but because I think it is valuable to society for the individual to have a sense of obligation to those beyond his or her immediate circle of family and friends—indeed, without this obligation, there is no society. (It may not touch the individual as immediately, but even in communist societies there is an economic incentive to work.)
Ask yourself; why do we currently coerce people into working when a small minority of workers could easily provide enough for everyone to live? We take it for granted of course, but at root, we have decided that this way is better for (most) individuals, and better for society. The overwhelming consensus opinion is that labor-force participation, in that it creates physical wealth, contributes to individual and societal happiness by improving material well-being. Our current system does not force people to work, they just have to work if they want to be paid (simplifying things a bit, but you get the point). Likewise, my system would not literally force people to be “professional citizens,” they just would not be paid otherwise. Or at least, they would not be paid as much. I believe that political participation is better for the individual and better for society. The state that reflects the wishes of the citizens is, to my mind, a better state. But more than that, under the scenario being considered, the citizen would have nothing tangible to offer society, except his political participation. So if he offers that, he gets paid. It is the same as always; the order is preserved.
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Of course, if the economy does become entirely automated, it is not as though it will happen in one-fell-swoop. So at what point does the citizen-legislator system kick-in? 50% structural unemployment? 75%? Are we really going to disenfranchise 25% of the population?
Well, no. As with any profound structural change, the plan would be phased-in over time. At first, we simply offer to pay people to watch national or local legislative proceedings, and to then meet-up, once-a-week or so, to debate the issues in town halls. So these people would be professional citizens, but not (yet) citizen-legislators. Different states and counties and towns can experiment with different ways of doing this. So yes, the “job” of most people would be to watch TV, argue with their neighbors, and participate in opinion polls.
But let’s not get lost in the details. What is important is the principle. And again, the principle is that I would like to maintain the same basic economic standard that has always ruled civilization: offer a product that meets the needs of your fellow man, and you will be paid. If it happens that political participation is the only thing of value we have to offer, then that should be our work.
Ryan Andrews is the author of The Birth of Prudence, which was published by VDare.