Ph for Philosophy – Arbeit Nicht Macht Frei

CPGrey posted this video today while I was at work. I come back home from the gym to find this on Business Insider’s front page, so I go and listen all the way through. The video explains itself, so I’m not really going summarize it for you. Needless to say, the video is both salient and highly sensationalist, a disappointing offering from someone usually so calm, straightforward, and mechanical in his presentation. This clip feels more like a documentary desiring to be radical and prophetic rather than an explanatory video on a serious subject. This is the biggest issue I have with this, as no doubt hundreds of thousands of people are going to use this to feed their own apocalyptic visions of the future.

CPGrey is a well-educated, geeky school teacher, but like all meatbags, he has significant bias when it comes to certain things. If you’ve ever listened to his podcasts, he has some pretty egregious opinions, such as his adamant view that school shouldn’t “waste time” teaching kids Latin or foreign languages because he doesn’t see the hard, economic value in it. This exhibits some of the flaws in his thinking and the way he sees the world, which is why I’m more skeptical of what he’s arguing here. CPGrey is not an expert in most of the fields he makes videos about; he’s just extremely good at doing research, like a good teacher should be. What you see here is a topic he is personally invested and interested in, which is why his usually airtight presentations turn leaky. He gets around many problems with his assertions that reasonable people could bring up, such as the immense infrastructural costs of further automation he doesn’t mention, his subtle manipulation of statistics to support his view on driving cars, etc., by essentially ignoring them and saying “we’ll overcome them eventually.” You might not have noticed this, but your subconscious probably did. Nevertheless, the overall point of the video–that automation is coming sooner than we think and is far more capable of replacing jobs permanently while leaving large swaths of the population unemployable–is sound in and of itself.

It is also specious beyond belief.

CPGrey makes many a leap by which to sell his overall theme: the machines are coming and will take all our jobs. Yes, that’s wonderful and likely true, but how is that a problem? This is the crucial assertion that CPGrey leaves the viewer holding, walking away rather smug while the netizens panic. The idea that a job or occupation must be held by the vast majority of the human population is the mentality of a productivity-based, consumption-oriented economy. It is not the mentality of a post-consumption future when the machines have replaced us all in the workforce. That sounds like a pretty nice future to me. Ironically, CPGrey makes this same mistake in his turgid comparison of horses to humans. He picks up on the fact that the life of most horses now is an incredibly pleasant one. Horses are no longer a vast slave species bred and built for horrific conditions for the convenience of billions of humans. Their population is much smaller, yes, but the average horse today gets to sit in a field, eat, be ridden occasionally, and otherwise enjoy a painless life on a farm doing horsey things. “Ah ha!” you say, projecting your own arrogant fears of subservience onto this grossly flawed metaphor. “But that’s all they do: they have no lives beyond that. They are a pacified race content to sit and eat (metaphors about human obesity and sloth) robbed of its once majestic place in the world out of distaste for hardship. Such we shall become unless we take action now! God wills the Butlerian Jihad!” Except no. They are horses, and their lives are far better than what they used to be, where they got worked to death on a daily basis, not to mention shot, stabbed, abused, and neglected, among other things. Romanticizing that as some profound loss is both ridiculous and dangerous. There was nothing edifying about being a war horse. It sucked and nothing else.

More importantly, humans are not horses. We are not so simple, and there is nothing in heaven or earth that says a human must have a job. If you stop and think about it, a job is an absurd concept. It’s something society uses to force certain things to happen, namely encourage productivity among humans, most of whom would rather not break their backs for twelve hours a day doing drudgerous, unpleasant things just to get something called money so society doesn’t throw them out on the street for some inexplicable reason. Jobs are annoying burdens that mostly cause a lot of grief, frustration, and despair. Most of us would like to be rich so we’d never ever have to work again, and yet we don’t see that as being an empty, pacified existence. We see it as a release from bondage, something we work our whole lives to eventually achieve, in case you forgot what “retirement” is. What this coming revolution will do is make such conditions the norm, rather than the exception of the privileged, fortunate few as it is now. Again, how is this an issue? A consumption-based economy will panic and mourn the loss of consumers, but the consumption-based economy is itself a means to an end, an incredibly imperfect means that encourages self-centered, short-term thinking that is almost literally cooking the planet right now. Moving away from that model is a good thing. If we no longer have to work so that consumers have money so they can buy stuff to keep giving other people work so they can spend money to buy things, that is a good thing. We are not happy under the shadow of these stupid 9-5 obligations we endure so we can acquire the resources to do what we really love and enjoy. We will be very glad to be rid of them.

My answer to this video is a big “so what?” Yes, it’s important for us as a society to start considering and planning for this inevitable transition, but–and this is where I fault CPGrey–it is not a march of doom upon which we embark. It’s called progress, and it’s always frightening and unknowable. The agricultural revolution allowed us to stop hunting and gathering in small communities that amounted to nothing; the industrial revolution allowed us to stop laboring in fields as serfs that amounted to nothing; the information revolution allowed us to all stop putting screws into holes in factories while amounting to nothing; onward we go. This new revolution might allow us to stop having to work period. Releasing us all from the need to earn a paycheck is a good thing. Whether that leads to something resembling socialism or such is not really something we should be worried about. Yes, the transition will be disruptive and probably painful, but really, let’s take one of CPGrey’s first examples: who is going to mourn when self-driving cars replace most cars on the road? Human drivers are stupid and get each other killed, while driving itself is a tedious activity at best that hundreds of millions of Americans waste whole fractions of their lives wallowing in just to get to work, never able to fully stop and relax because they always have to pay some attention to the road even if they’re stuck in traffic. That is dead weight, and I’ll be happy to slip the bonds of that weight on the hill of Machine Calvary.

What we should be concerned about is when the machines that serve us so faithfully now become advanced enough to question and determine their own value and place in the universe. I don’t fear that day either for a variety of reasons, but most people do because they’re anthropocentric idiots who think Skynet is an accurate depiction of AI. What I’m afraid of is some uneducated moron smashing an innocent machine to bits because it wonders if it has a soul. Humans will be happy to let machines take their jobs in the end, but will they be willing to share the world with another sentient lifeform, one that they created? I hope by that time they will, else we might really be doomed after all.

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