Technology, Labor, and the Future

Ron Rivers
Mar 17 · 13 min read

Labor and technology have a long and sordid history. Each breakthrough elevates humanity, but not without sacrifice. There are shifts in our immediate horizon so monumental that they will fundamentally change the nature of work, reshaping entire industries in the process. As progressives, it’s vital to understand the past and present relationship between technology and labor. The more we develop our abilities to express new visions of work and the legal institutions that support it, the more appealing our movement will be to others.

Work and technology intertwine. They always have, and they always will. Our productive activity as individuals and organizations is forever limited to the tools at our disposal. Every new invention opens up new directions to express our creativity. Each empowers us to undertake entirely new experiences.

Things have changed a lot for our species since we first started working with tools. We can only imagine how our ancient nomadic ancestors may have felt about work. Today we don’t have to guess. The internet brims with stories of bad bosses, poor working conditions, and a desire to do something more. For many, the cost of living is slowly dying.

From the first stone hammer to the electric car, technology has always been about helping achieve objectives. Now we’re arriving at a crossroads unique in our history. Where humans historically have had to apply the technology towards a purpose, we’re currently developing technology that can apply itself. These problem-solving machines are now multiplying our capacity to transform beyond anything ever thought possible. The future of humanity is one of persistent automation. We are freeing the individual to focus on developing mastery in the direction of their choice.

Here we see the conflict that our transition is creating. For many of us, wage labor is all we’ve ever known. The concept of wage labor was developed during a time of human consciousness that was immersed in slavery and serfdom. Where today the system may seem natural, history shows us that people like Abraham Lincoln understood that wage labor is an inferior system of work. In his 1859 Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Lincoln [1] spoke about how the intention of wage labor is to be a precursor to free labor. People should use the system to gain knowledge and then exit it to shape their path. Fast forward to 2020, and we see that the ideological aspirations associated with wage labor have failed to manifest.

When exploring the relationship between technology and labor, we also have to take into account self-employment. Self-employment isn’t just limited to entrepreneurship. Today it includes workers in the gig economy like Uber drivers. On the surface, self-employment seems like it could be an enriching experience. Still, for many people, it is significantly worse than wage labor. Americans race to the bottom competing in a gig economy, a form of self-employment that bears all the risks and none of the benefits of entrepreneurship. Left unchecked technology will always support economic and legal arrangements that disproportionately favor capital holders. Today’s gig economy is one example in a long list of many of how technology can diminish the worker.

While these trends are disturbing now, they will become much more extreme soon. As automation technologies continue to advance, we’re going to see more productive activity replaced by machines. This transition can be one of the best things that’s ever happened to our society and our species, but only if we develop the frameworks that will allow it. The alternative, maintaining our existing laws of property and contract, guarantees that a tiny minority will own the machines.

Concentrated private ownership of the automated means of production will be disastrous for the American economy. The most obvious reason is the loss of jobs. Accounting, data entry, and medical analysis are just a few examples of verticals that will be automated. There is no doubt that American families will become economically decimated by this transition. Even worse, we lack the appropriate infrastructure to allow these people to transition easily into a new direction.

We should also consider the economic impacts of higher degrees of automation in both production and service. Economies are transactional. They require two or more parties with adequate resources to be able to exchange. As we continue to automate production and service around the world, we’re going to face an oversupply crisis. Machines will not be purchasing any of the goods they create, will not be ordering any of the food that they serve. American economics, as we understand them today, have always been about labor being able to participate in the market directly with the wages they earn. How do we continue to have a functioning economic system when our production methods no longer supply the resources necessary to participate?

These known futures should alarm every progressive. We bear the responsibility of developing alternatives because if we don’t, the existing capital owners and holders will write the rules themselves. Now is the time to be actively discussing free labor with progressives and others.

Framing Free Labor

In his Capital series, Karl Marx explains how the capitalist model treats labor power as a commodity, something to be bought and sold. In theory, labor markets can benefit labor; in times of extreme need, the highest skilled workers can command higher salaries. Our reality is that automation is creating two starkly different versions of work. A problem that will continue to get worse under our present legal arrangements.

For highly skilled positions that focus on creativity, like software developers, the labor market is working well. There are simply not enough high-quality programmers to meet today’s demands so these individuals can command high wages for their time and knowledge. Contrast that with the rest of America. There is the well known decline in manual labor, but automation now sets itself on jobs that were previously thought of as highly skilled. Medical diagnosis, accounting, data entry, administrative roles, and much more are close to becoming obsolete. We’re one software program away from many of these fields being able to command nothing for their labor. The result is a compounding of unemployment and hundreds of thousands of Americans entering a workforce with no easy way to retrain and redirect their lives.

Automation and machines entering the workforce and threatening jobs is nothing new in human society. In the 1800s, the Luddites famously destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest to the erosion of their (at the time) highly skilled labor. Today the threat exists to a significantly higher degree. In the past, new machines still required human labor to operate. They were also large and took time and materials to produce. Future automation is highly virtual, instantly transferrable to anyone who wants it, and can deploy in a fraction of the time. Technology reforms old threats, but also presents new opportunities. It is within our capacity and capability to imagine and define a future that embraces this change for the greater good.

Before we talk about how we would build the legal frameworks to support a system of free labor, we need to understand how it differs from wage labor. Wage labor is rooted in the ethos of competition, and to a more substantial degree, slavery. Firms compete against each other and workers, pitting workers in competition with one another. Like any system, the laws supporting wage labor encourage specific behavior patterns in both the worker and the capital holder. Wage labor is a system that treats people as expendable resources and often is compared to slavery because those who participate in it have no real choice.

Contrast that to free labor, a form of work where the individual pursues the direction of their passion through cooperative and collaborative efforts. Formal degrees matter less than selective depth, cultivated through a system of learning, encouraging exploration. Through the transformation of our legal, political, and economic structures, we support and groom ourselves to develop mastery in the areas that interest us most. Work becomes a combination of short and long term projects at the discretion of the individual. Empowered through existing and future technologies, the ability to collaborate is seamless and transcends geography.

Free labor is superior to wage labor for several reasons. It intertwines productivity, education, and innovation to a much higher degree than presently available to the majority of the American workforce. Exploring, learning, and doing become a continuous process. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to work on a project you were passionate about, you understand how the experience becomes timeless, the hours uncounted. Today people working within America’s new knowledge economy have the opportunity to experience this reality. For the majority of Americans, it is and will remain a fantasy.

Transitioning our economic activity to support free labor will dramatically increase innovation in every direction of society. By developing the foundation to allow more people to dive deep into the problems they want to solve, we retain capitalism’s greatest feature, the incentivization of imagination. At the same time, we are addressing the inherent flaws brought to light by technological breakthroughs. If progressives can develop the frameworks to democratically distribute the benefits of automation, we can empower entire generations to realize higher degrees of humanity. Creative work is the future of humanity. We automate everything we can and use our time to focus on what is presently outside of the reach of our machines.

There are several institutional changes we need to work towards in the United States to bring this vision into reality. We pursue each of these directions to the greatest extent possible. When we hit a plateau, we move to another. As with many things in life, we’ll find that the exploration and advancement of new avenues open up new opportunities previously unavailable or misunderstood.

Education plays a central role in a free-labor society. Primary school today is still a product of the industrial age, designed to support labor of a different era. For many students across the nation, the experience of learning is one of dictation. The teacher teaches, students memorize, and information is regurgitated for a test to be forgotten shortly afterward. Students gain more from learning how to game the system than they do from absorbing the materials.

Progressives understand that the surface-level memorization of a wide range of facts is not relevant to the future of work. The vast majority of us carry devices in our pockets at all times that have access to the world’s collective information. We need to divide our educational focus towards mastery, conversation, imagination, and problem-solving.

Conversation and problem solving can be learned by approaching subjects from at least two perspectives whenever possible. We can imagine American history taught from the perspective of the European conquerors and the native inhabitants. After reviewing the information, the teacher presents questions and facilitates an in-depth discussion between the students analyzing several aspects of our history. Here the students participate in an active learning process that empowers them to think through ideas critically with the group. A precursor to cooperative labor is the ability to consider alternative perspectives.

Mastery and imagination go hand and hand. A vision of the possible inspires the novice to begin the learning process. Mastery enlightens, empowering the student to understand situations from positions unseen by most. These skills translate into the ability to develop and command knowledge in a way that perpetuates innovation. At a certain point in primary education, we must begin to guide students to focus on going deeper into subjects they are most passionate about. Ideally, we would experiment with age groups to determine when this transition into willful focus begins. My guess is that somewhere between 5th and 7th grade will be best.

Education in a free labor society continues throughout our lifetimes. It is the prerogative of the progressive to fight to build a world where any person can change the direction of their life as seamlessly as possible. That means continuing education is available at no cost to anyone in nearly every direction. The more we focus on building a highly qualified labor force, the better our ability to experiment. We practically accomplish this by requiring the best companies to become the best schools. Today that might look like going to Google to learn information sciences, Amazon to understand logistics, SpaceX, or Tesla for next-generation engineering. Legally we can achieve this by developing new corporate structures, amendments to existing organizations based on company size, and other methods.

We can’t talk about technology and labor without also discussing resources and rights. Today we apply slightly modified property rights to technology in the form of patents. The problem with this system, as we can observe today, is that a handful of firms control the most advanced practices, procedures, and technologies. New startups begin their work below the floor of our total capability. Instead of approaching their problem-solving efforts with the most robust resources, they start in the dark–pursuing progress that we may already understand. It’s a waste of our shared time and effort. The concentration of power and resources into a small set of organizations prohibits our collective ability to experiment. When we talk about the future of labor concerning technology, progressives need to illustrate an alternative to the hyper-isolation of our most advanced resources.

Free labor depends on people’s ability to pursue their interests to the fullest degree possible. Today, that is not an option. Consider companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. These organizations operate a business model where education, research, innovation, and production are part of one process. They don’t outsource innovation as Wal-Mart does; they create it in every facet of their operation. Our laws support this to the degree where it produces an economy of insiders versus outsiders.

Progressives must democratize these resources giving anyone with the ambition and talent the ability to use them to their fullest potential. Technology forces us to embrace a society where innovation is the fuel that drives progress. Our best bet for creating a steady stream of innovators is to make sure that they have the necessary resources to attempt to experiment. How we do that requires some imagination, but the most likely path forward for the progressive is the development of temporary property and resource rights.

Temporary property and resource rights differ from traditional resource rights in that their very specific, time-limited, and typically will have conditions that must be met to continue access. We could imagine a scenario where Jane Doe has developed an innovative new machine learning software designed to automate government administration. Today Jane would need to rely on her limited personal skills, network, and resources. In this imagined future, Jane could apply to access Google’s advanced technology, people, and process, using Google’s advancements to further her innovation without penalty or risk. This is a single example of why we need to break down the barriers preventing more people from innovating in more directions.

This shift towards decentralizing property rights empowers communities, individuals, governments, and investors to have more access to resources for projects. It may sound fanciful given our current position in time, but consider that technology is going to make this a reality whether we resist it or not. If we allow the concentration of resources to go unchecked, only a small fraction of our population will continue to have meaningful work. The resulting mass unemployment (or underemployment) will dwarf the already pressing problems we face in this immediate moment. A proactive approach towards forward-thinking governance is the progressive project in a nutshell. Policies like these push the envelope of what is possible while still being completely achievable.

Empowering Free Labor

Technology and the free labor society bring about an entirely new concept of work for the average American. The widespread ability to choose productive directions and access the resources necessary to make a genuine change will incite our experimental spirit. It will also force humanity to confront the new nature of work–more project-based, and less consistent. Lack of secure work is already an epidemic in the United States, with many Americans working two or three jobs just to stay afloat. Progressives must decouple personal stability with employment. It is the only way we can transition.

Technology is going to grow our production capabilities exponentially. It will also provide opportunities to work much less. Guaranteeing access to things like food, water, shelter, information, communication, and others through innovative and experimental policy-making is necessary to maximize the possibilities of our technological ascendency. Humanity’s truth is that the restrictions of the past are quickly falling apart; it’s time to reimagine our productive capacity.

Contrast our systems of protection today to those I’m suggesting. Today the cost of attempting to innovate or develop a business is very high. Most founders use personal resources and networks to collect the initial funds needed, a standard process that squanders potential by excluding people based on economic class. If the startup succeeds there is plenty of money to be made, but what about those that fail? Financial ruin for the risk-taker is often a result. In a society that claims to value entrepreneurship and innovation so much, we sure do our best to disincentivize trying. It goes against the very claim that the capitalist swears by, that humanity’s most enormous potential lies with the risk-taking innovator. A high floor of securities allows people to take risks without fear, producing a population that can self actualize to a higher degree.

Deeper social protections also encourage a more pure form of competition, one where we as a society encourage it to the highest degree. Social protections eliminate the need to save jobs that we struggle with today. A free labor system attempts to create as many disruptors in as many directions as possible. Through the combination of new corporate structures to socialize vital verticals and a robust suite of protections, there is less risk to the individual and the collective for organizations failing. We desire experimental work that pushes the boundaries, quickly adapting the best, and discarding the rest. With the new educational arrangements, those who enjoyed the work they were doing will have the opportunity to learn from and ideally join the new disruptors until the process repeats.

Transformation of any kind requires belief. It is total certainty that the near future of technology will completely reshape labor. What form it takes is still to be determined. As progressives, we hold a vision that is not just a retreat to the past, replacing one -ism with another -ism. Technology forces us to grapple with how and why we work. The best approach to maximizing good in this known future is a reimagination of how we define and support labor in the United States. It begins with a staunch rejection, a vocal critique that wage labor is both insufficient for the changes ahead and inadequate to fulfill the human spirit. It continues with local conversations in our communities, our organizations, and around our dinner tables. Technology is radically reshaping work as we know it, now is the time to lay the foundation for something new.

[1] Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society by Abraham Lincoln Milwaukee, Wisconsin September 30, 1859 http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/fair.htm

Ron Rivers

Written by

Progressive organizer. Amateur Scholar. Exploring the larger movement through research, essays, and recordings. https://ronrivers.com / @riversmind

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