A hopeful vision for automation, urbanization and a more human world

(in a time of fear, reactionaryism and retreat)

Note: this is usually where I’d try to kick off with a catchy intro, but since this post is pretty meaty I’m just going to get into it and use sequential bullets to communicate as efficiently as possible.

1- The “career” is a 20th century invention, and will likely lose its fundamental meaning and importance well before the end of the 21st.

2- We’re right to worry about the impact of automation on ‘blue-collar’ or commonly perceived unskilled work. But it will impact and eliminate skilled work as well.

3- The heuristic that I find most helpful/useful to evaluate a job’s likelihood of disruption via automation (at least in the short term) focuses on the tasks that underlie it. Tasks that have a clear and objective “right” answer as an end goal are at far greater risk than those for which there is no such “right” answer.

4- The self-driving car may be the most intuitive example (a machine can be programmed to know when/where/at what speeds to turn) but this heuristic stretches into much of the medical (e.g. radiology), legal (e.g. discovery) and finance (e.g accounting) professions as well. And again, that’s just in the relatively near term.

5- None of this is new (we’ve all heard it before), but I think it bears repeating. This level of change and automation is scary, but also empowering.

If free markets & their unending thirst for efficiency force us to focus on work that’s not more reliably and more cheaply done by robots/automated tech, we get to focus on things that human beings are and have always been uniquely positioned to do. We’ve grown to drastically undervalue much of this work, but the tides will shift…because comparative (not competitive) advantage is the best lever for creating defensible employment and net-positive labor productivity in a free market.

6- Some examples:

  • If robots can build bridges (with minimal assistance) more efficiently than humans, we should let them. And instead ‘employ’ human beings to choose colors/patterns, add interactive design & communicate messages that make people riding in the back of automated cars feel more alive and connected. As a result, we can build bridges and other infrastructure that are the most economically efficient, artistically beautiful and uniquely human in history.
  • If software can drive a car more safely and cheaply than a human, we should let it. And permit both sides of the transaction (e.g. Uber & a passenger) to funnel collective savings into paying people to do uniquely human things in those cars instead: like business coaching (on the way to meetings), personal therapy sessions (after a long day/week), whatever.
  • If Amazon can run humanless stores with clerkless checkout, then let’s train more personal chefs so we can spend what we save on groceries on professionally produced dinners & human experiences at home, amazing things that were previously unattainable for most.
  • If a machine can consistently create delicious cups of various coffee drinks, then let’s not have four baristas at every coffee shop and instead invest in uniquely human competencies that enhance our experience there. For example, let’s have artists/graphic designers and copywriters on staff/in residence to help all the (similarly independent) people that work from such places on their creative pursuits, deck designs, and email copy/blog posts.

(Btw, I actually want to try this coffee shop concept out — lmk if you’re down to help line up an experiment!)

7- If you’re feeling courageous, take all of those ideas and multiply them by 1000 when you consider how these uniquely human services/experiences can be powered at far greater scale remotely, virtually and powerfully via augmented and virtual reality.

8- And note that they all take place in cities, because cities are the solution.

How do you solve a crisis of conscience and wave of reactionary nationalism created by the rotting of rural identity/life (and political apparatus that artificially extends its relevance) in a rapidly urbanizing world?

Make our cities more inhabitable, attractive & human then ever.
And don’t stop.