In this clip from Secular Talk, host Kyle Kulinski comments on a recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the firm of accountants, that by the 2030s one third of all jobs in Britain will be lost to automation. This process will also affect America, Germany and Japan. In America, 38 per cent of all jobs will go; 35 per cent in Germany, and 21 per cent in Japan. As Kulinski points out, the 2030s aren’t very far away, and this is frightening.
He goes on to discuss an article he read by Stephen Hawking about this problem some time ago, in which the cosmologist said that there are two ways this could go. It could lead to a dystopia, in which the benefits of automation were monopolised by the rich. The result would be massive unemployment, social unrest and war. Or a way could be found to spread the benefits to everyone in society. One way this could be done is if we accept that this is inevitable, and that all jobs will go eventually. Instead of throwing people onto welfare, people could instead be assigned a machine at birth, and given an income derived from the work this machine does, so that not everyone has the same income.
He also notes that the same report suggests that some job losses could be offset by gains in areas that have not yet been automated. He is sceptical of this claim, however.
Kulinski states that this issue needs to be tackled urgently, and that so far only a very few have dared to take it seriously, and then only in a limited area.
Welcome to Megacity 1 and the world of Judge Dredd. The writers of the long-running comic strip acknowledge that Dredd’s home city – a vast, sprawling supercity of over 1 billion people spread along the east coast of America – is a monumental dystopia. John Wagner described it as ‘a gigantic black comedy’. The City suffers from 98 per cent unemployment due to robots. As a result of this and massive overcrowding, crime is rampant. And any sign that there might be a paid job going can easily result in a riot.
The massive psychological harm inflicted through such conditions has been portrayed again and again, particularly in the class Dredd strip, ‘UnAmerican Graffiti’. This was about the contest between two graffiti artists, ‘Chopper’, an unknown lad, and ‘the Shadow’, a robot. Chopper, like many others, had been driven to street art as a reaction to the boredom and despair created by the terrible unemployment rate. This was a society, where the problem was so great that schoolchildren were told that getting a job was unlikely, and therefore they needed a hobby to stave off boredom.
The solution Kulinski discusses for solving the problem of high unemployment due to automation – by assigning each individual at birth an income from a particular machine – in similar to a social programme in Mick Farren’s 1980s SF book, Exit Funtopia. This is a piece of ‘Future Noir’ set in a dying future Britain. Environmental and economic collapse has resulted in a society, where many citizens have been forced to become impoverished migrants – Joads, after the family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, forced onto the road in search of work. The ‘Funtopia’ of the title is a giant amusement park, where members of different subcultures can live out their fantasies away from mainstream society. Each member of the park is given an income based on the work a robot performed by robot doing their job. As befitting a piece of Noir, the hero is a ’40s’, a man who recreates the styles in dress and culture of the 1940s, called Marlowe. After the private eye, of course. There are also references to Godard’s Alphaville.
I’m very sceptical about this scheme. I don’t think it would work on the grounds that there isn’t a straight equivalence between one person equalling one machine. The jobs lost through automation may well be those in which the job lost may only constitute one function in a series of processes carried on by a machine, or a number of machines.
The great Polish SF writer, Stanislav Lem, also discussed this problem in one of his short stories. In this tale, a space pilot from Earth touches down on a planet covered in little black discs. There is only a single inhabitant left. When the pilot questions him, the man tells him that the black discs are the result of the decision by the planets’ leaders to solve their unemployment problem through automation. Nearly everyone was thrown out of work, except for the planets leaders and those who possessed the automated factories. There was massive unrest. It could have been avoided if the factories had been nationalised, and the profits shared amongst the citizens. But this wasn’t done. With the population growing restless, the leaders held a competition to decide how the problem could be solved. The winner was an inventor, who had developed a device for turning everyone into one of the black discs. It was selected through an extremely literal and legalistic reading of the conditions of the competition. The whole unemployed population was rounded up to be killed in this way, and eventually the unrest spread to the ruling class, who also found themselves fed to the murderous machine. Only the inventor was left, alone on his world, surrounded by the glassy remains of his victims.
Lem was an intellectual, who used SF to explore philosophical problems and concepts. He could create very serious works like Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stephen Soderbergh, or hilarious fables, often with a strongly satirical edge, like The Futurological Congress and the Cyberiad. I think that short story was written in the 1970s. But it’s coming true, very quickly, and needs to be tackled.
But what’s the odds we’re going to get the dystopian option, ’cause the elites running society, the economy and the media, simply won’t want to create a more egalitarian society as the price of solving the problem. Get ready for Megacity 1. Assuming, of course, that they don’t try turning us into the equivalent of the little black glass discs.