What value do you bring to society that can’t be done by a machine?
Ever since IBM’s Deep Blue had won against Garry Kasparov in 1997, there has been a growing fear among the public that they might be poised to be replaced by mechanical devices some time in the near future. The “Terminator” series, “I, Robot”, and “The Matrix” can be said to be movies that depict dystopian futures based on technological change, which is generally how the public currently feels about its relationship with technology in the near-future. On the other hand, technologists and futurists of any era have historically painted rosy, utopian pictures of the world-to-be in order to garner public support for their products and projects, with the 21st century proving to be no exception.
The latest and most popular manifestation of the dystopia/utopia dichotomy has been centered around the theme of the technological Singularity, an idea that asserts that (at some undetermined, unspecific time in the future) machines will become so advanced that it will eventually gain the ability to think on its own and solve/fix all of the world’s problems. The main contention between the two polarities — in direct disagreement but also very similar in mindset — revolves around the question if human beings really will be relevant enough to “keep around” when the world hits the Singularity.
The mechanical overlords of dystopian societies typically determine that human beings are too inefficient and emotionally-driven to really add any value to the New World Order, and as a result, are driven to wage war or enslave the race as a whole. Sometimes the humans fight back, and sometimes they are successful. (But in all cases the war rages on, because it’s an endless one.) In utopian narratives, the machines are kind and benevolent enough to keep us around — mostly as pets or novelty items — with the existence of humans consisting mostly of consumption, play, and pro-creation while the machines do all of the (important) work.
These scenarios can be fun to think about, but they’re based in fantasy, after all…the world as we know it is neither going or end nor is the Singularity ever going to actually happen (sorry folks), because they’re both hyperbolic scenarios created from the exaggerations of small-scale, localized trends. The tech sector is in an upswing now, but rather than culminating into a magical “world-changing” moment, it’s more likely going to do what it has historically always done — go up for a while, then go down again after its market share and talent pool start to saturate. This gives an opportunity for other sectors of society to catch up (or surpass) them in terms of their influence and power. It might, though, go up again later (maybe) or if they’re unlucky, stay stagnant until a new trend emerges. Either way, there will be no “turning point” in which suddenly everything turns into magic, because no trend is ever a permanent one, no matter how powerful it may seem on the surface.
But it’s clear by now that something is going to change, and that change is going to be something that the most of us aren’t familiar with in any way. In practice, the future will probably lie somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, where some things will become easier while others harder, while life will become harder/easier for some or others, depending on where their background, interests, and loyalties lie. In a general sense, what’s needed now are narratives with greater specifics that help us make sense of the situation as a whole, rather than simply reinforcing the stories of panic and hysteria that have become the norm since the turn of the century.
The problem with the movie narratives mentioned above, regardless if they’re positive or negative, is that they don’t help anybody answer the question poised in the first line of this article from a labor standpoint. (What “value” do human beings bring to the table?) And this is the million-dollar question that almost everyone will have to confront at some point, regardless of who or where they are in society’s standings. It could be for budget-creating purposes, deciding how to delegate tasks for a project or community, finding the justifications needed for the advancement/retainment of an employee’s career, or even simply figuring out what they might want to be doing with their spare time. The question will be everywhere, and there aren’t going to be too many people who will be spared of its implications.
Who are the people that can answer these questions without any doubts in their mind? Visionary leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists. (They’re all cut from the same cloth for the most part.) And once they find the means and methods of making their interests and voices heard, they’re poised to set the standard of the social and cultural values of the “new middle-classes” of the 21st century. This is largely because they have the ability to establish the definitions of work and value in the new marketplace, where things have become increasingly unclear.
Now that large portions of manual labor jobs are being mechanized or outsourced, it’s become increasingly difficult for people living in the United States to justify their existence based on modernist values, such as “hard work”, “dedication/persistence”, and efficiency, as a mantra in itself. Many have followed these words, in some cases with emphatic zeal, only to see their pensions and job security evaporate in the face of globalization and the automation of labor-intensive tasks. The problem is that human beings, no matter how strong of a work ethic they might have, can’t compete against machines in terms of its dedication and efficiency, because it’s a device that just keeps on going and going as long as it has the capability of running. It doesn’t take breaks, it doesn’t require health care, it never calls in sick, and it’s (usually) never the source of inter-personal problems at the workplace. (Unless it’s particularly attractive and flirtatious.) How can you compete against such perfection?
The answer is pretty simple: you don’t. Personally, I’ve never been able to even beat my dad at chess, so my odds at winning against a world champion like Kasparov or a well-oiled machine like Deep Blue are pretty slim. An extremely brilliant chess player, someone much more dedicated, talented, and disciplined than myself, might be able to pull off the arduous task of facing the two figures in a head-to-head battle. But for the majority of people out there, the solution of being “simply that good” is not an option, nor it is a realistic way to establish social policies that revolve around labor and economics. (Assuming the goal here is to reduce, not inflame, civil strife.)
Entrepreneurs, in this scenario, have the advantage of being crazy, as opposed to just being brilliant. An entrepreneur might say, “Well, how about we play a game where the objective is to eat the queen instead of the king?” With a small tweak in the rules, the A.I. of Deep Blue is instantly rendered useless — months and years of hard work by IBM’s staff, evaporated in an instant. If Deep Blue was an actual person, it would probably cry foul, screaming “not fair!” at the changes made, perhaps calling the entrepreneur as being out of his or her mind. But if you think about it carefully, it is fair…the rules still apply to everyone, and the standing between the two players still remains the same.
Kasparov might have some reservations about the new rules, but he could probably adapt to them and easily beat most people out there anyway. He is an artist of sorts, after all — he understands what the spirit of the game is about, and can utilize his knowledge in order to drive at the results needed in order to render his vision complete.
But Deep Blue? The moment a small change in process is made, it becomes obsolete, useless, and no longer relevant. Except maybe as a novelty item of a bygone era, it no longer has reason to exist in the new environment, because the program itself lacks the means of understanding what it takes to adapt to something new. This is how entrepreneurs “win” in what they do — by changing the game, rather than attempting to muscle their opponent down through direct competition. Entrepreneurship is the antidote to the social-ills poised by technological change, giving people the means of justifying their existence against the brutal efficiency of the mechanized process.
The game of chess itself isn’t likely to change any time soon, but luckily for entrepreneurs, the real world operates more like Calvinball than the black-and-white world of board games. You make up the rules as you go along, and play the game with people you trust and respect. The only rule is that all rules are subject to change. And this is how human beings can establish their value against machines and can beat it hands down — the ability to create, adapt, revise, and reorder things as necessary. Entrepreneurs and artists harbor these traits the most, as a result, have the greatest chance of filling in the vacuum of the labor economy where its work cannot be mechanized or outsourced.
This is essentially what Seth Godin means when he says that we’re currently moving toward an economy where creativity will become highly prized — in a world where machines are poised to handle all of our menial and manual tasks, there may be no other choice.
New Labor in Music
I’ve noticed that entrepreneurs in the tech sector who have an appreciation for classical music have a tendency to like Beethoven quite a bit. This connection actually does make a lot of sense, because Beethoven himself was somewhat of an entrepreneur himself, taking advantage of the technological and economic changes that were going on around during his time period. (~18th and 19th century Europe.) Those times were no doubt a highly unstable time period — Napoleonic revolutions, the rise of the merchant classes and the new bourgeoisie, the popularization of the printing press, the first beginnings of nationalism, and so on — with many of the composer’s output written as reactions or responses to those now-historical events.
What do we have today that can be drawn as a parallel? Terrorism, economic chaos, the internet, globalization, etc. — these issues are taken a few steps further than its predecessors, but it’s not too much of a stretch to draw correlations between them, since they share many similarities to one another, especially in their timing. The idea of the rising merchant classes in particular may resonate strongly with entrepreneurs, since in many ways that’s what they’re setting themselves up to do at this point in time. Can it actually be done? The answer is yes it can, because it has already happened before in the past.
In regards to labor, the two issues that the public is currently concerned the most with are: 1) machines replacing the need for human labor (as mentioned above) and 2) the outsourcing of labor into foreign states and territories in order to drive down costs. Drum machines have been in use since the 60s and 70s in music, but it wasn’t until later where people realized that this practice could have been foreshadowing what would become normal practice in corporate America. Outsourcing is a trickier subject to talk about since it blurs with diplomacy and cultural exchange, but there have been examples of composers and producers “exploiting” musical talents of people abroad, where labor and wage standards tend to be much lower.
But music, being an essentially creative enterprise, is more resistant to these trends than most people think. Researchers have been working on various software-based algorithms that supposedly “composes” music by itself, but even after decades of research the results are always the same: either too dull or incoherent. And the trumpet-playing Toyota robot in the video above is perfect on a technical level, but lacks the originality and musicianship necessary to inspire an audience. It’s also only capable of playing musics that are pre-programmed, which have to be composed by a person anyway.
In regards to outsourcing, if someone wanted to produce a song that spoke of the difficulties of growing up in suburban America, it seems kind of silly to ship the act of creating the actual song off to India or China simply because they “could do it for less”. Inspiration cannot be faked, and people generally want to be inspired when they listen to music — or at least feel like they’re being spoken to by someone who really understands the issues being conveyed in the work. Perhaps geography isn’t as much of a concern today as much as it were in the past, but in the end, authenticity does make a difference.
There was a time when it was poised that the word processor would make it “too easy” for people to write things, thus eliminating the need for writers as a whole. In music, similar arguments have been made about drum machines, computers, looping software, recording devices, the printing press, the piano (too easy to play the notes!), metronomes, tuning forks, and so on. The oldest example of this is Socrates warning his students that writing things down would cause them to lose their memory because having that reference would make it too easy to recall past events. (Ironically, writing is the only reason why we even know he existed to begin with.)
The arguments against technological use have always been more or less the same, with the critics always being proven wrong in the end. The problem, and the main source of everyone’s pessimism right now, is that there have been no attempts at controlling the quality of content in any significant way. The word processor didn’t end the medium of writing as a whole, but it did saturate the landscape with a lot bad writing and bad writers who were convinced by their purchasers that they had a voice worth hearing, even without any proper effort or training. And the insistence that the amateur writer is an acceptable substitute to the seasoned professional has caused an overall devaluation in quality and wage standards in the medium as a whole. A similar thing has been happening in music since the advent of the internet — what’s now been dubbed as the “race-to-the-bottom”, fueled by a culture of vanity that the tech industry doesn’t seem to be too interested in stopping at this point. (Mostly because it makes them money — e.g. yes, only this $9,000 synthesizer is worthy enough of your talents!)
But as with all trends, there will be a reaction and reversal once people become tired of the game and a critical point is reached — this is poised to happen very soon, and its beginnings are likely to happen in the intersections of art and tech, by founders and entrepreneurs who have an intimate knowledge and background in both. And these connections will become more important as time goes on, as the tech movement begins to mature into the realms of politics and culture.
Part 3: New Management — who are poised to be the new leaders and administrators of the new economy? The tech industry is now poised to claim that position, but the reality isn’t likely to be as simple as some might believe.