The Human Condition:

The Science of Self-Determination – February 28, 2016

Robotic factory

Given that forces are at work in the world—and not of any one scientist’s, economist’s, or political party’s devising—to change the nature of modern society, we need to change the way we prepare people to live in the future we are creating.

Consider the following factors:

Technology is advancing. This is happening not because someone has decreed it, but because it is simply possible. Anyone who gains a solid education in how things work is going to see the benefits of building better machines, with more computerized controls, greater distribution of energy and information, and more complex systems that regulate and administer themselves. From the first nut designed to fit on the first bolt, and so hold together two things that would not stay fixed with animal glue, the advance and refinement of technology was assured.

This means that automation is coming. The Computer Revolution affects not only the smartphone in your pocket—making it more than just a telephone but also a camera, music box, library, and television—but every aspect of our science and technology. Factories are becoming more automated, and so are the systems to supply them with raw materials, distribute their products, handle their finances and accounting, and dispose of their wastes. For a good long while, these advances will require educated people to design the new control systems, supply the ideation and creative effort that makes new products possible, and troubleshoot and maintain the operation itself.

Those jobs will require deep education and an inquiring and creative spirit. At the same time, the kind of jobs that can be learned in twenty minutes, practiced for eight hours a day, and sustain a person for twenty or forty years—routine, assembly-line, repetitive-motion jobs that require no thinking or creative human involvement—those jobs are going away. Most of them have already gone to China and India, places which have a lot more hands and people willing to take a lot less money to do these simple, boring tasks. But as the technology tidal wave hits in force, even striving Chinese and Indian workers will find themselves locked out of that kind of job.

You can probably try to legislate against the machines—as people are trying to legislate and place tariffs on imports made with cheaper overseas labor—but that strategy won’t work for long. The benefits of automation mean more consistent, less expensive, more reliable products. The work that goes into automating the factory and modularizing the product’s components will have the side benefit of streamlining the design itself; so new products will generally have more functionality, simpler operation, fewer moving parts, less to break or wear out, and less to repair and replace. The newest products these days are usually an order of magnitude better and an order of magnitude less expensive than the older models. How many iPhones are traded in each year because they no longer work, as compared to no longer offering the features and benefits of the newer model?

The new technology turns Marxist economics on its head. The “labor theory of value” disappears when labor is no longer directly involved in production. Human inputs at two or three removes—the artist designing the product’s look and feel, the computer programmer modifying the assembly procedures, the marketer thinking of ways to extol the new features—are the closest that “labor” comes into the picture. With automation, the capital cost of investing in plant and production resources is the entire value chain. That might lead current thinkers to imagine that the means of production will be ever more concentrated in a few rich families, modern-day robber barons, who will then restrict the supply of goods and services to keep everyone else poor. But that thinking is so 20th century.

The new technology is about distribution of information and energy. Look at what individual inventors, designers, artists, and craftspeople are doing today with 3D printing. Manufacturing in the future will no longer require huge factories pouring hot metal from blast furnaces, driving long lines of drop-forge hammers and drill presses powered by steam or hydraulics, or moving pallets of same-design product from one staging area to the next. Metal and glass will become carbon fiber, polymer, and epoxy; hammer and drill will become computer imaging and shaping, and products will be individually designed to fit personal size and taste, while you wait. Where does the Monopoly® man with his silk top hat and money bags fit into that scenario?

Medicine is evolving. For about two millennia, doctors worked by memory, observation, and instinct. They treated patients with simple, mechanical technologies like splints and bandages, potions and prayers. And they based their treatments on fanciful notions about “humors” and “elixirs.” It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that doctors even understood the role of germs—bacteria, viruses, and other things too small to see—in the most common diseases. And even a basic understanding of the role of genetics didn’t come until late in the 20th century. For hundreds of years, doctors were only for the rich and royalty, while the rest of humanity depended on the midwife for obstetrics and the local wise woman for her herbs to put in poultices and teas.

All of that is changing now. Medicine has gone from observation and prayers to computerized imaging of different bodily systems at different scales of focus and analysis; to genetic sequencing, manipulation, and applied gene therapy; and to greater understanding of the chemical makeup and interactions which drive this curious reversal of entropy that we call life and supply the stuff of the fabulous network that we call mind. Through linking the action of genes with the stresses of the environment—the true combination of nature and nurture—first, through the study of disease processes and, then, with the definition and categorization of all life processes, we will finally become the masters of our fate.

When we eventually understand this vast picture in all its detail, which will probably happen sometime in the next half-century or so, there won’t be a disease we cannot cure, an accident of birth or happenstance we cannot repair, or a life condition we cannot improve—right up until the final dissolution that ends in death. And even then, who knows?

The sure bet is that we will continue the trend of people living longer, stronger, healthier lives. This will be due partly to medical advances, partly to people themselves learning how to take better care of themselves, eat healthier foods, exercise properly, and maintain a positive outlook. The rise of automation has already helped here, as work for most people in modern society has transitioned from long hours of dangerous, backbreaking labor to more relaxed, more creative, more mentally stimulating means of adding value and earning a living. Indeed, the next big personal goal for most people is getting more exercise, because they’re sitting in a chair at a desk all day.

At one time, people spent the first twenty years of life as a child and student, learning about what they might become as an adult. Then they spent the next forty years or so working at a job that involved their bodies and their stamina more than their minds in order to afford food, shelter, and clothing. And finally, in their sixties, when people became too exhausted and worn out to compete with the next generation, they retired to a life of relative leisure that might continue for another ten years or so.1 Now we are seeing young people extend their educations into their twenties and thirties—and many more are reading and engaging in continuous learning either about their profession or for more general interest during their whole lives. Many people are retiring earlier, but only because the current preference among employers is for younger, lower-paid employees. And many of those who leave one industry are transitioning to other fields, taking on new education programs, new challenges, and starting new careers in their “retirement years.”

With all the advances in medicine, and with people living far beyond the traditional “three score and ten,” the notion of studying for twenty years, working for forty years, and then expecting to have earned enough excess wealth in that period to retire and loaf carefree for another ten, twenty, thirty … fifty … seventy years—is just insane.

Educated societies are falling below their demographic replacement. As medical technology and education levels advance, and as people live longer and in better conditions, they don’t need to raise eight or ten children in a family to ensure a stable population. Moreover, many people are falling below that, where mother and father on average reproduce fewer than the two children-point-something needed to replace themselves. We are already seeing the populations of Europe and Japan falling and the average age rising, with fewer young people coming along to work and provide the societal wealth needed to pay for programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Perhaps educated people tend to focus more on their own concerns—their careers, their place in society, their entertainments and expectations—than on raising children for the generations to come. Perhaps they lack the faith that the modern world and the life they know will survive into those future generations. Perhaps, with more information in their heads and more involvement with immediate results in their lives, these people think more about the present and the near future than about preparing for a future that will extend beyond their deaths. For whatever reason, as societies modernize and come to rely on improving technology and advancing medicine, their focus changes. They have fewer children, but those children will themselves live much longer. The parents and society then invest more in educating and preparing those few children for a longer, better life.2

So while we are all living longer in the modern, Western societies, there are also fewer of us to enjoy this benefit. Without making an actual, reasoned choice, people are moving toward quality of human beings over quantity. This tells me that, as technology and medicine solve problems in what we used to call the Third World, the planet’s population will tend to stabilize. I would imagine that, absent another world war or a virulent epidemic—that is, absent Armageddon—the world population will stabilize at about three billion by the end of the century and proceed from there.

And even with a stabilizing population, the wave of automation and the advances of medicine will proceed even faster. We are looking forward to a rich future of available medical remedies, plentiful manufactured goods, and elaborate automated services being offered to people who will have no jobs to earn the money to pay for these wonderful things. This is a problem that will keep you awake at night.3

This leads me to the following inexorable conclusions. In the very near future, we will be forced to:

Redefine work. For all of human history, and for much of our pre-history as hunter-gatherer tribes, the value of a human being has been set by the amount of physical or mental effort he could contribute to the family, clan, or other social structure.4 We defined people predominantly by their jobs and job titles. We pegged a person’s well-being and prospects for a comfortable or a miserable life on the kind of work he prepared for, the work role he took on, and the success with which he filled it. The mantra became, “He that will not work, neither shall he eat.”

This must change drastically in a world where machines create value and wealth, and that wealth is available at relatively no cost to society except for the simple decision to go and make an investment in another machine.5 Much as I dislike the idea of socialism—and indeed, most forms of it are geared to the regimentation and conformity of the 20th century, rather than to the distribution of freely flowing information and energy in the 21st—something like a societal approach to the maintenance of individual lives will have to come about if these nearly free, machine-provided goods and services are to flow to the people who need them.

Redefine needs. Ideas of “products” and “services” will naturally diverge in such a society. The machine-made goods and automated, computerized services will be freely available and will establish a lower limit of survival. They will also establish a lower level of personal interest in the consumer’s lifestyle, surroundings, accoutrements, and possessions.

Take, for example, bread. The basic loaf, made in an automated factory in two or three generic grains and styles—think of Wonder® Bread—will be available to people who want just plain “bread.” It will make a sandwich or toast and nourish anyone who doesn’t care too much about flavor. But for people who want a better experience—for people who value texture, flavor, and esoteric concerns like ethnic fidelity, and for people who enjoy good pastry and appreciate the art of fine food—for these people, small, local, artisan bakeries will exist to sell a superior, handmade, human-inspired form of “baked goods.” And in that niche market, people who want the nicer product will be prepared to give up more of their income—whether it’s earned salary or state allotment—to satisfy their personal desires. In that market, also, the people who love to cook and bake will find stimulating, creative work and an addition to their government stipend.

In the same way, imagine a split in demand for goods like furniture, cars, clothing, and technological accessories like cameras and computers. People who really cared about unique styling, handmade quality, or some other niche characteristic in their products would pay for someone to design, build, and invest the extra creativity in the object. People who valued only utility or durability would take the readily available, machine-made product.

And some products will always—or for a good long time to come, anyway—require the human touch. Literature, painting, sculpture, music, and other arts will always need human practitioners. And people will always pay for the relief, consolation, and diversion that these “goods” and “services” bring.

Educate people for life purpose and self-determination. In this environment, where anyone can have the basics of survival—food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and entertainment—as a member of society but not everyone will achieve the satisfaction and sense of purpose built into a job, we will need to rethink the meaning of life and the uses of education. The biggest question facing each individual—the question with which the mass of humanity has never actually had to deal in all of our history—will be: “Why are you here?” And the corollaries will be: “What are you doing with your life?” “How will you get through the day?” “And what keeps you from suicidal despair?”

For people with less ambition or self-regard, mere hedonism will be enough: abandoning themselves to alcohol and drugs, sex and pornography, or binge viewing and reading. But in a future society with fewer births and longer lives for the average population, where the focus is on human quality rather than quantity, hedonism will never be enough. For the people who demand more, we need to create a science of self-determination.

Such a science would take each individual by the ears and force him or her to answer personal questions about where his or her interests, talents, ambitions, and other personal characteristics lie, and how these qualities can lead that person to find purpose in life. It will be about discovering the individual’s passion and setting him or her up to pursue it. And from this pool of talent and training will come the writers and painters, the fine woodworkers, the pastry chefs, the clothing designers and dressmakers, the technology innovators, and the rest of the motivated population that will contribute to that higher end of the economic spectrum.

The science of self-determination will be about finding the value in each person and cultivating it so that he or she can return value to society. And the teachers who take up this task, to develop this science and deliver it for their students, will be returning the greatest value of all.

And for the rest? Well, we survived the Fall of Rome and the Black Death. I think we can survive letting Wall-E Waldo bake bread and make sandwiches for us.

1. When I worked at the electric and gas utility, where a most of our employees had tough, physical jobs like climbing poles or digging in trenches, the “Tributes” second of our employee communications—announcements of employee retirements and deaths—showed a clear pattern. A lot of people, especially in the field jobs, especially people from the generation that had attended to World War II, would retired in year X, say, and then passed on about three years later. Retirement was a short respite from the working world.

2. Think of the importance that the middle class in America and Japan today place on their children getting into the right kindergarten or grade school, pursuing the right activities, learning the right social values. Protective, “helicopter”—because they are constantly hovering—parents have replaced the cheerful laissez-faire parenting that my generation enjoyed.

3. It also drove me to write my most recent novel, the two-volume Coming of Age.

4. I say “he” in this context deliberately, because women have always had supplemental value as the bearers and nurturers of children and the maintainers of hearth and home.

5. I’ve written about this before, but consider what even our current level of technology has done to the concept of good times and bad. Where once a society’s wealth was counted in bulging granaries and a plentiful store of goods, now a recession or depression is defined as having too many products in the pipeline, stacking up on store shelves, and too much excess capacity to make goods that not enough people want or need. The result is rising inventories, a slowing pace of growth and economic activity, closing plants, idled trucks and railroads, and lost jobs. In the agriculture and energy sectors—consider the price of oil today—the story is even worse, where a bountiful year and high production rates equal falling prices, lost investment, and bankruptcy.
       Try explaining all this to an ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian—or to the average Soviet citizen. You can’t. They never had enough productive capacity in the first place to ever think about having too much of it.