Liberated by robots

At the beginning of capitalism stands the beast – as in all social orders – and at its limit stands the robot. The robot is one of those fascinating border objects. Generated within capitalism as a commodity to produce commodities, the robot – even more than the proletariat – digs the grave of capitalism, to use Marx’s phrase. 

Paul Krugman is quoted  in a recent New Yorker piece on our dark robotic future  as saying: “Smart machines may make higher G.D.P. possible, but also reduce the demand for people—including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.”  Which gives us a definition of us mortals that transcends biology and mechanics – it is ownership that lords it over things and people. Robots can’t own, in this scenario – just as the computers that are now programmed to plunge into the market and out of the market in microseconds, seeking micro-point differences on which to make profits, generously allow their owners to take all the spoils. And yet, in a society of robot provided abundance,  the justification for owning is – behind the backs of the owners = practically abolished. Each dollar we hold is, in part, staked on scarcity. And scarcity is the mother of capital  – out of its belly capital bursts, greedy little ringer, to make the system of exchange work. But the system of exchange, as economists always forget, is not the purpose of the economic system. That purpose is to serve the  needs of humanity. With the ultimate robot world, we can cast the system behind us, slough it off, bury it. The system would finally have generated its own obsolescence. Economists, however, work for the man, and the obsolescence of the man is outside of their program. Better a nation of slaves than a nation without the wealthy.

Gary Marcus, the man who wrote the New Yorker piece, mentions Oscar Wilde, butnot Karl Marx. However, both Wilde and Marx had their eyes on the prize, as far as what the economy was ultimately for. Marcus even daringly explores an aspect of automation that is rarely mentioned: substituting the computer for white collar jobs.

Secretaries have been replaced by word processors and accountants by QuickBooks. As John Markoff explained last year, in an article entitled “Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software,” blue-collar and white-collar jobs are both threatened. Even new-fangled information-economy jobs like I.T. departments are now endangered by systems like Amazon’s back-end A.W.S. infrastructure, which provides one-stop cloud-based solutions where a team of on-site computer wizards were once needed. With advances in both hardware and software, the time between the invention of a job and its automated replacement is getting shorter.

Marcus doesn’t mention management. Upper management. CEO level management. But of course those jobs are also easy to routinize and automate. And yet, the literature on this is sparse. The reason, of course, is the strong streak of servility in our current American culture that dare not dream of knocking the boss off his pedestal. The boss, after all, is a genius!