Talking Monkeys in the Robot Future

By the time this is posted I will be with the bog monkey somewhere in Ireland, mesmerizing them with tales of indoor plumbing and a diverse diet. Since there is some chance I may be tricked into having an adult beverage or two and thus be rendered unable to post, the following has been pre-recorded.


A favorite theme here is the consequences of the post-scarcity world. For as long as modern humans have been modern humans, people organized to mitigate against the consequences of scarcity. Hunter-gatherer societies worked out systems of cooperation so they could hunt, protect their women, defend territory, rear children and so forth. It is largely assumed that human settlement was a cooperative effort in response to scarcity. People figured out that they could work together in larger and larger groups to increase and stabilize their food supply.

All of that is speculative, but we know there has never been a time when there was plenty of food, shelter, safety and access to women. The story of history is, in part, the competition for resources. It’s not that there was never enough in aggregate, although that has been the norm. There have been societies with plenty, but the distribution of the plenty has never been equal so there were plenty without plenty. This observation is how we got communism and roughly a 100 million dead trying to make it otherwise.

The West is well into a post-scarcity world. In America, our poor people are fat because we provide everyone unlimited calories. Even the poorest of the poor get government money so they can buy massive amounts of calories. You can argue that a ten pound bag of frozen chicken nuggets is unhealthy, but you can’t deny they possess loads of calories. Go into any ghetto grocery store and you see the locals filling carriages with mounds of processed food that provide vastly more calories than they need, but it beats the alternatives.

All of this is familiar ground if you read blogs like this one. We no longer have poor people in the way in which we think of poverty. There is another angle to this that does not get much attention. The robot revolution is not just going to give us even more plenty with less human labor. The robot revolution will also strip away many of the positional goods. Robot cars, assuming it happens, turns the car into a public utility. Most likely robot cars will require banning human drivers so there will be no reason to own a swank ride to impress the neighbors.

It does not stop there. Putting the slack-jawed yokels out of work by automating the widget plant still leaves Cletus and Junior at the bottom of the social order. Instead of working, they will be provided a stipend so they can sit around all day playing games and taking drugs. When the plant managers and accountants are sent home with the stipend because robots took their jobs, something else happens. Suddenly, the old rules of status fall apart. Vast parts of the professional classes can be eliminated with automation, according the futurists.

Frankly, this is the one area where automation is most likely to have an impact. Automating manufacturing has been going on for decades and we could be bumping up against the point of diminishing returns. Automating office work is another matter. Lots of that can be automated. The law is a great example. We could automate a lot of it know, but the profession has always been slow at adopting technology. That’s changing and we’ll see whole areas of the law turned over to software in the next decade

If you hate lawyers or office workers, this may sound great, but there’s another side to this. Humans are hierarchical. Take fifty people at random and put them on an island and before much of anything gets done, they will begin to arrange themselves hierarchically. The males will compete with one another in some way to establish dominance. By the time they figure out how to get fresh water and build a fire, someone will be in charge and he will have lieutenants. That’s right, it will be a male in charge. That’s how it works.

In the modern world. The social order is determined by one’s choice of work. Doctors have a higher status than garbage men or college professors. They may not make more money than the garbage man, but they have higher status. Usually though, status and income correlate closely so we know the guy in the high status job because he has the Mercedes and lives on the hill. The low status guy has a jalopy and lives in a rundown part of town. This is how we assess one another and ourselves. It is as much a part of our nature as left handedness.

How this works in the robot future is not easy to figure. Right now about 63% of adult Americans are in the workforce in some way. This includes part-time work. That sounds good, but it is around an historic low and all the data suggests it is going lower over time. Obviously, the robot future promises to throw just about everyone out of work in time so defining social status by work is going to become less useful. In fact, the people still working will begin to envy the vast majority sitting around, taking drugs and watching television. The Marching Morons is funny, but unrealistic.

We’re probably seeing the beginnings of a replacement status system in the managerial class. They covet credentials to the point of absurdity. More than a few times I have run across someone with what appears to be an eye chart under their name. It is the list of credentials they display so others can assess their position in the hierarchy. In the robot future, humans will have all the same stuff, but they will compete for meaningless credentials so they can decorate their chests with ribbons and medals. The robots in charge of the robot future will pretend the guys kitted out like third world dictators are in charge, based on their chest full of medals.

7 thoughts on “Talking Monkeys in the Robot Future

  1. Here on the outskirts of the Imperial City an acquaintance refers to “titleitis.” This is the seeking of impressive sounding titles for your job that look good on business cards and LinkedIn profile pages. Money is not as much a measure of value as the title. He decided differently and quit his GS-12 job, started a business, and got to where he worked 1 day a week and had the other 6 off with a 6 figure income. No impressive title but he was home for his kids when they got back from school.

  2. Having spent a lot of time with NYC young professionals, the status competition seems to center on:

    1. Education, as you said.
    2. Exercising. This is a great one, as there’s no way you can just buy a really toned body. You need to put in a lot of time at the gym, ideally some expensive kind (Crossfit, Soulcycle, Equinox) to look like that. It’s interesting to look at female models from the sixties, pre-workout trend. They are thin, but they aren’t muscular.
    3. Experiences. Stuff is cheap and everyone has lots of it, so now you status signal by vacationing ever further off the beaten track, dining in more interesting and hip restaurants and seeing more professional theater productions (Hamilton, anyone?).

  3. That access to women thing never works out. It’s fine in the beginning, but then you get into ” I want something new to wear ” and ” You never take me any place ” and the perennial ” I need new shoes. ” And she does need something new to wear , because while you were out hunting she ate the last of the buffalo. Now she can’t wear the summer clothes and shoes.:-)

    But she sure can cook. Warm in winter, too.

  4. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gives rise to Philip K. Dick questioning if Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The next thing you know, Harrison Ford is a Blade Runner tracking down a robot that crushed the head of its creator with its own hands while using its human-like, hydraulic digits to gouge in the creator’s eyes.

    There seems to be a pattern here. First, the seed of mankind’s imagination impregnates reality and soon a premature Zombie Baby is born with black eyes and a cannibalistic desire for its own parents.

    When I was a kid watching the Jetsons, I knew I would be in the future when I could see someone as I spoke to them on the phone. I actually told this to someone the other day in a different time zone than me as we were conversing on Skype.

    But I never dreamed man would be foolish enough to bring the Stormtroopers into being from Star Wars. Why? The next step will be an Arnold Schwarzenegger doppelganging cyborg holding out its robotic hand as we give it the keys to Skynet.

    Why do the illegitimate children of the Technocrats often seem so creepy? Maybe it’s genetic. Or, perhaps it’s because they live, but have no soul.

  5. They’ll also compete to display participation in marathons, triathlons etc. Now they have beach access stickers from Martha’s Vinyard on their SUVs. I don’t know how they’ll meter access to places like that in the future.

    They sure as hell won’t let me in, that’s all.

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