On my usual patrol round the net, I’ve came across this post, and felt I just had to respond.
I recommend reading that article first- it is pretty long, and I’ve only taken quotes relevant to my points. On their own they will not give you the whole picture.
So, let’s go quote by quote, shall we?
The future of work looks bleaker than it needs to for one simple reason: we bring consumption sensibilities to production behavior choices. Even our language reflects this: we “shop around” for careers. We look for prestigious brands to work for. We look for “fulfillment” at work. Sometimes we even accept pay cuts to be associated with famous names. This is work as fashion accessory and conversation fodder.
Perhaps the bolded quote is accurate when applied to spoiled middle class kids, but out there in the real world, especially in countries full of unemployment, people look for jobs BECAUSE OF MONEY. They hate their jobs, more often than not they weren’t trained for them, but they had to take them to survive.
The emerging future of work does resemble pre-modern patterns of labor organization in a few key ways, but most of us are going to turn into digital-era chimney sweeps rather than bards. And this is a good thing.
Because fuck those who want a job they actually enjoy, right?
I first broached this topic in my 2010 post, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Sailor, where I noted that worker archetypes seem to fall into two categories in every era. The dull-dirty-dangerous category and the (potentially) sexy-lucrative-powerful category. Let’s simplify the labels into schlep work and sexy work.
Sexy work, such as being a bard, is work that:
- humans find easy to enjoy
- easily catalyzes mindful absorption while learning (flow)
- is easy to value as a status currency
- is good raw material for social identity formation
People who seek sexy work are often members of what I called the Jeffersonian middle class in an earlier post — motivated by creative self-expression and a sense of personal dignity rather than economic survival.
Sexy work is easy to enjoy, learn, value and integrate into your identity, primarily because it is downhill psychological work: it is the cognitive equivalent of muscular atrophy. You have to choose to make it hard for yourself. You can cash out some status and attention even if you’re not making any money. It does not test your sense of self-worth significantly.
So as you can see, creative work you actually enjoy is like a muscular atrophy. Heck you may even turn into Gollum if you do it.
The difference between bard work and chimney-sweep work is that it far easier to convince yourself that a relaxing hobby is actually real work. It is a kind of gollumizing effect: behavior that makes you atrophy psychologically.
Ah, so that’s why every artist I’ve met lives in a dark cave surrounded by goblins; waiting in darkness for a chance to waylay unsuspecting travelers with riddles. Also, I cannot get over the snobbery in that gollum post.
There is a sense in which Gollum, rather than Frodo, is the central protagonist in The Lord of the Rings, since his destiny is tied to the inanimate star of the show, the One Ring. He is the only character who truly rises above the standard two-dimensional archetypes of the fantasy genre, and elevates Tolkien’s works to a near-literary status.
Ah yes, the old “Fantasy literature is not real literature” meme. Never mind that Tolkien packs a more meaningful punch than any literary work in the last 20 years. I could go into a rant how sci-fi and fantasy are more relevant to today’s world than any other genre (and I count literary fiction as genre, thank you very much), but I’ll leave that for another post.
But anyway, let’s get back on track.
Defining “creative” is an interesting challenge, but beside the point.
This is because when you actually poke at what people think of as creative — the broader universe around prototypical categories like fine art, rock music or programming — you realize they don’t really mean creative. They mean sexy. The “creative” attribute (whatever its subtle definition might be) is actually an optional extra. Push comes to shove, that’s an attribute people are pretty willing to give up, so long as the four key attributes are preserved (easy to enjoy, easy to learn, easy to value in a status economy, and easy to integrate into an “authentic” social identity).
No, the author is completely and utterly blood wrong here. Creative work is work where a worker independently creates an item or a service. By independent, I mean independent of (semi-)precise instructions given to them by someone else. Baker, even though he might make (bake something) is not an example of a creative worker; his work is repetitive, precise and done according to recipe. Neither is a guy standing besides assembly line.
And this isn’t just mine definition. It’s EVERYONE’s definition. The author doesn’t have a shred of evidence to support his theory.
In algorithmically scalable work, machines need very little help from humans to do a lot. In algorithmically unscalable work, they need a lot of help to do much less. Whether what they do is sexy or creative in human terms is besides the point. What matters is how truly repeatable the defined tasks are.
I suppose then all work is algorithmically unscalable when it comes to solving real world problems. Real world is incredibly complex; it is in fact too complex for humans to understand, let alone machines that have to be guided step by step through even simplest of tasks.
But this is not an issue. You simply throw more programmers, engineers etc. until they solve the problem. Then you have an end product- machine that can replace thousands of workers, saving employers money in the long run. Look at voice recognition and conversational software- 10 years ago it was in realm of sci-fi. In 10 years it’ll be replacing workers in call centers.
Schleppiest work is already gone, courtesy of the machines. Now, more pleasant (but still schleppy) work is going away as well.
Almost all our confusion about automation can be traced to a single sloppy conflation: between algorithmically scalable/unscalable and schleppy/sexy.We do this by inappropriately defining the word repetitive as “whatever humans find boring.”
Again, we don’t. We define as repetitive processes that require a constant repetition of an action or set of actions.
Human work in the digital age is not about the sideshow of faux-creative artisan urges and conspicuous production. It is about accommodating messy variety that requires non-algorithmically-scalable work. Work that is not worth automating. This is a combination of work being hard to automate and low returns to the automation due to limited algorithmic scaling potential (a good example is tax software for parts of the tax code that change very frequently).
This is a bad example. Such software only needs a small update which is inexpensive to produce.
I won’t even comment on “faux-creative artisan urges”.
Speaking of true variety and coffee mugs, let’s get back to artisans. A class that includes people who think producing hand-crafted coffee mugs in Portland at a cost of $20 apiece is work rather than conspicuous production, and morally superior to $0.50 mugs mass produced in China.
Isn’t there true variety there?
No. The key is an idea called requisite variety that sexy-work seekers take great pains to avoid thinking about.
The former is variety that must be handled to make a market profitable. Essential variety exists in even the most low-end, mass-produced version of an economic good. Optional variety only matters, if it matters at all, in premium niches that can only sustain a few producers. When too many producers swarm into these niches, a lottery economy is created and customers essentially enjoy free variety sustained by a churn of deluded producers offering under-priced goods.
Variety does not matter.
Walk into any supermarket, and you’ll see at least several products that satisfy same need on the same shelf (or at least shelf close nearby. YMMV) Do you really think there is a real variety among these products, except for the packaging?
If people place value on something then it will have value. It’s simple as that. There is no intrinsic value to either mug, but people are convinced that hand crafted mugs are better so they’ll buy those.
The perception of value is what matters above all. Variety, quality, mode of production and all the other characteristics of the products are irrelevant on their own. What customer perceives as relevant, or in other words, what they place value on is on the other hand, of utmost relevance.
Considering the producers side of the market is only getting bigger, this indicates that there are enough customers to sustain them. If nobody, or almost nobody bought the artisinal products, most artisans would quickly go out of business, stabilizing the market for everyone else.
And here we arrive to the power of marketing. Even people you wouldn’t ever call hipsters are convinced that hand crafted is better. As mentioned above, this conviction is the only thing that matters. For all the shit hipsters get, they were remarkably good in creating economic climate where they can thrive.
Now, about that jab at moral superiority- if hand crafted mugs weren’t created with child labor or almost slave-like adult labor, I’d say that they do have superiority in this category.
Now that I’ve finished with this rebuttal, I’ll focus on writing my thoughts on artisans, arts and crafts movement and automation in a separate post.