You Are Not an Artisan

by Venkat on July 10, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, after reading yet another piece of high-minded marketing copy, full of words like hand-crafted and artisan, a silly verse popped unbidden into my head:

This is not the renaissance.
You are not an artisan.
Go around to the back door,
you’re a smelly tradesman. 

So long as we’re pretending that we’re rediscovering an early-modern work ethic, I think I can call myself a bard and allow myself a bit of anachronistic doggerel.

Thinking through the implications of the whole artisan-crafts-guilds meme in the future-of-work debates led me to an odd conclusion: the future is significantly brighter (or less bleak) than people realize. So long as you stop thinking in terms of crafts and aim to practice a trade instead, there is more work for humans than people realize.

What’s the difference? It’s the difference between bards and chimney-sweeps.

Conspicuous Production

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.

We can think of this as conspicuous production, by analogy to conspicuous consumption. First-world artisan tendencies take this to a logical extreme.

When you subconsciously think of work as something you consume for pleasure, you end up with a possibly irrational (economically speaking) attraction to artisan work. Even those who don’t actually end up as artisans choose work the way they choose cars, jewelry or handbags, over-valuing things like resume-value and exposure-value.

The result is a misguided analysis of the impact of computers and automation that makes us think the future of work is much darker than it is.

What’s the difference between a tradesman and  an artisan?  Think chimney-sweep versus bard as the extremes of the spectrum. Both are archetypes that mostly disappeared with late industrialization in the early twentieth century, thanks in part to automation, but there the similarities end.

One fulfilled a critical economic function by engaging in unpleasant and inconspicuous production. The other fulfilled a non-critical economic function in the economy by engaging in pleasurable and conspicuous production .

One generated a higher, less volatile income, but with little potential for upward mobility, the other generated a lower, more volatile income, but with more potential for upward mobility.

The median chimney sweep did better than the median bard, but the best bards did better than the best chimney-sweeps (by finding favor with a king for instance). Since this was before mass media, bard reward distribution was not as skewed as it would become, but it was still skewed.

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.

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.

What makes it worse is that in an economy based on a fiat currency, shareholder value maximization and deficit spending, the capacity to generate an income does not necessarily imply that meaningful work is being done, either in a subjective psychological sense (it helps you evolve rather than atrophy) or economic sense (net wealth is being created rather than consumed or harvested). You might even end up having to pay to do real work.

Since income being generated at an individual level is not a reliable indicator that work being performed, I prefer a different distinction: schlep work versus sexy work. If there is schlepping involved, it is more likely to be real work. If there are sexy elements involved, it is more likely to be conspicuous production pretending to be work.

Schlep Work and Sexy Work

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:

  1. humans find easy to enjoy
  2. easily catalyzes mindful absorption while learning (flow)
  3. is easy to value as a status currency
  4. 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.

The first three attributes are self-explanatory. By social identity, I mean the part of your self-perception that is derived from what you think others think of you. Sexy work is attractive to those who like their social identity to be harmoniously integrated within itself (what your mom thinks of you and what your boss thinks of you are not in conflict) and with your private identity (you don’t feel misunderstood). There is consensual external validation of your internal sense of self-worth. You feel authentic.

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.

Schlep work has the opposite characteristics along all four vectors. It is harder to enjoy, learn, value and integrate into your identity, primarily because it is uphill psychological work for a social species. It is hard whether or not you want it to be. It is hard to cash out status and attention even if you’re making good money. It tests your sense of self-worth every day.

Somehow, over the past decade, we’ve gone from a useful heuristic (“focus on your strengths” and “find flow”) down a slippery slope of use-with-caution ideas (“work smart, not hard” and “follow your passion”) to the idea of work as a kind of consumption that should be chosen based on the pleasure one can derive from it.

Sexy/schleppy is to my mind, the most natural way to break down human preferences for work. They arise from fundamental desires and aversions. In choosing consumption behaviors or conspicuous production, we tend to feed desires and starve aversions. In schleppy work, we do the opposite: we defer gratification and accept, even seek out, a degree of pain based on the no-pain-no-gain heuristic. A little nudge from a plausible “play to your strengths” philosophy is enough for us to choose the easier way.

Unfortunately, the entire current conversation around work is confused because we prefer a less meaningful distinction, creative vs. uncreative. 

Creative versus Sexy

I started rethinking my sexy-versus-schlep ideas in light of the emerging debate around jobs, and especially the question of whether the rise of smart machines might lead to a permanent loss of work for humans.

To address this question correctly, we need to stop deluding ourselves about the word creative.

In reading books like the rather banal Race Against the Machine and articles in the same vein, I was struck by an underlying assumption in much of what is being said: that all “non-creative” work is destined to be taken over by automation. So the anxiety around jobs reduces to anxiety around how creative computers and robots can get, and whether there is enough leftover “high-end creative work” to go around for humans.

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).

In other words, we’re more afraid of machines taking away our social status than our jobs. This might seem like an obvious point. After all, most status-conscious people have strong feelings about what work is “beneath” them, but with machines in the picture, the point gets considerably more subtle.

People substitute creative for sexy in describing their aspirations (to themselves and others) because it sounds less narcissistic. If you seek sexy work, you could be viewed as self-absorbed, entitled and attention/status seeking.

If you pretend it is creative work, you’re suddenly God’s gift to the world, basking in the gratitude, admiration and adoration of all simply for existing.

This is one reason vanity startups, garage bands, indie coffee shops and boutique handbag design businesses proliferate. The valuation of Apple is a good proxy for the valuation of sexy work in our economy, since the company effectively panders to sexy-work seekers (it is revealing that Apple’s stronghold is in consumer markets, while Microsoft’s stronghold is in enterprise markets, but I won’t go down that bunny trail).

So when people talk about saving work or jobs, they mostly talk about saving sexy, income-generating conspicuous production packaged as creative work, in a debt-fueled de facto leisure society. Since few people actively aspire to do the schlep work anyway, we don’t poke much at the consensus view that it can be automated away.

I think this conclusion is premature and in fact mistaken. Just because sexy work is the kind we want to save doesn’t mean it is the kind that is easier to save. In fact it is harder to automate schlep work, which we grievously misunderstand.

To understand what makes work easy or hard to save from computers, robots and automation, we have to consider work from the point of view of machines.

Algorithmically Scalable Work

Machines don’t see the world in  sexy-versus-schleppy,  creative-versus-uncreative or production-versus-consumption terms. For the moment, they don’t consume at all.

For the moment, computers only produce. The world according to computers (and by extension, robots and soon all machines) offers two kinds of work: algorithmically scalable and algorithmically unscalable.  

Algorithmically scalable work typically involves a small variety of typical cases that require a sort of bounded-variety repeatability in the tasks being accomplished. A kind of repetition whose logic can be captured within a very compact process description: an elegant algorithm.

These tractable universes, on which elegant algorithms operate, don’t emerge magically out of messy realities. They emerge because humans work to either censor out or encode a million little exceptions, corner cases and arbitrary domain-specific details. They emerge because humans work around problem regimes that resist generalization and simple automated learning models. Programming is theory building, and computers work not with reality, but with the theories we construct for them to inhabit. They need us to define the base categories through which they see the world.

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.

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.” 

Just because we don’t want to do certain kinds of work, doesn’t mean machines are better at it. They might be worse.

Machine Repetition and Human Boredom

We make the mistake of thinking that just because computers do bounded-variety, repetitive information work very well, that they can do anything that seems repetitive (boring) to humans very well.

But when we’re talking complex systems-level schlepping, like the refining of crude data from disparate information systems, there are rarely any elegant algorithms. Just dozens or hundreds of arbitrary details, small fixes, one-time operations, error corrections and so forth. Humans think of it as repetitive work, but it isn’t. It is hundreds of similar, but not identical, special cases that are easy (if tedious) for humans to handle, but resist general attacks via elegant algorithms.

In fact I suspect the amount of messy and non-repetitive but critical detail determines the amount of human work a domain can sustain.

The human share of the work pie isn’t the gap between machine creativity and human creativity. The real human share of the work pie is the gap between machine repeatability and human boredom. 

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).

Whether or not it is sexy is irrelevant, since machines don’t compete for status or strive to form “authentic” social identities. Whether or not it is creative is also irrelevant since we are usually being insincere when we talk about creativity.

The big point here is that computers are an industrial age technology. Algorithms are codified processes that deliver economies of scale in narrowly circumscribed kinds of information work. They are information processing assembly lines.

There is deep uniformity to the output of algorithms just as there is deep uniformity to the output of assembly lines in China producing coffee mugs. The Big Secret of the Big Data revolution, which is often characterized as teaching computers to handle “volume, velocity and variety,” is that the last of the triad involves far more unsexy human schlepping than the first two.

We forget this obvious point that computers are an economies-of-scale technology because the processes are very high-resolution.  So we mistake fine-grained combinatorial variety (think Starbucks drinks or the dizzying variety of cellphone plans) for the sort of true variety that computers still leave humans to handle. It’s another matter that we don’t like having this unsexy work left for us.

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.

Requisite Variety and the Artisan Delusion

Aspiring artisans seek sexy work at small-and-local scales. They reject mass celebrity and status in a global culture, but still crave local celebrity and status (they call it “being respected in the community”). They still look to engage in conspicuous production. They are as prone to deluding themselves that sexy is creative as wannabe actors.

How do they do this?

They do this by confusing economically essential variety (such as handling all the potential variety and ongoing evolution in an online payment system) with economically optional variety (such as uniqueness in hand-crafted coffee mugs). This is the artisan delusion.

If the uniqueness in the product mainly makes the producer feel more special and unique, without leading to profitable differentiation, it’s the optional kind, like latte art.

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.

Often, the optional variety doesn’t matter even to the most refined customers (who care least about what they get in return for marginal dollars). So an unprofitable amount of marketing effort  must be expended simply to convince people to care about distinctions that make no difference.

Most of us would reject the conclusions of a data science project that dropped key data sources or a payment system that failed to handle common methods of payment. Most of us are completely happy drinking reasonably good, non-pour-over coffee out of unremarkable mass-produced mugs from China. Unless of course, we can get the artisan stuff at the same price.

Economically essential variety is related to what systems theorists call requisite variety; irreducible domain variety that must be handled to achieve baseline performance. Artisanal variety is often the opposite of requisite variety: noise. Information that is, at best, an element of consumption pleasure (much of it accruing to the producer rather than the nominal consumer) and somewhere between inconsequential to actively distracting in profitable production. Variety that we are predisposed to ignore as consumers or actively eliminate as producers.

The artisan delusion is important because almost everything artisans want to do — all the local-and-sexy work — is actually algorithmically scalable once you filter out the noise. There just isn’t much requisite variety there. Which means it is more vulnerable to being taken over by post-industrial modes of automated production, not less. Because software makes assembly lines more capable, not less.

This is a harsh truth to accept. So much so that artisans and their small-and-local advocates often go to great lengths to manufacture environmental and other non-economic justifications in the hope of creating structural distortions that neutralize their sexy-work biases. While there are certainly legitimate concerns of this sort around every sort of scaled production (whether industrial or post-industrial), there is often a lot of bad-faith overstatement of such concerns.

An example of this is the case of a disposable artisanal container traditionally used in India to serve tea, kulfi ice-cream and a variety of other street foods. The container, called a kulhar, is an unglazed earthen pot usually made in small kilns in the small-medium scale sector and smashed into shards after use.

These pots are massively damaging to the economy and environment, because they require fertile topsoil to make (so desperate farmers during drought years are often good sources for raw material rights), and are effectively a kind of crude glass that is the opposite of recyclable. They are arguably worse than paper or plastic in terms of landfill degradation time.

Yet, because kulhars look more artisanal  than paper or plastic cups (and have historically been associated with small-and-local vendors rather than modern industry),  for a while the Indian middle class was championing them as being “better for the environment.”

A Towering Babel of Confusions

So let’s take stock: we’ve schlepped though a series of subtle but pervasive confusions and delusions that cloud the future of work debates and the impact of computers.

  1. The application of consumption sensibilities to production activity choices
  2. The assumption that income generation is the same as work in a psychological sense
  3. The sexy vs. schleppy distinction that emerges as a result
  4. The creative versus uncreative red herring that we use to disguise narcissistic sexy-work seeking
  5. The resultant conflation of creative with what humans are supposedly “still better at”
  6. The obscuring of the algorithmically scalable/unscalable distinction that actually matters
  7. The conflation of repetitive and boring resulting in a mis-characterization of schlepping
  8. The failure to recognize that algorithms are an economies-of-scale technology
  9. The failure to recognize the distinction between true and combinatorial variety
  10. The failure to distinguish between requisite and optional variety
  11. The rise of unprofitable boutique sectors that rely on “educating” consumers to care about distinctions that don’t make a difference
  12. The resulting unwinnable “race against the machine” to retain “creative” human work at the edge of this optional-variety economy
  13. The overall result: under-resourced schlep-work sectors that need humans and overcrowded sexy-work sectors

This is a formidable multi-dimensional space. We’ve got sexy/schleppy, algorithmically scalable/unscalable, creative/uncreative,  high/low requisite variety, profitable/lossy marketing.

But this whole towering babel of confusions falls apart if you discard anthropocentric categories (creative versus uncreative) and human desires (sexy versus schleppy) and distortions resulting from the nature of fiat economies (income versus work) and simply break down work according to what computers qua computers are good at in terms of their own intrinsic nature as algorithmic information factories delivering economies of scale.

If you actually look at the work computers leave for us — supporting algorithmically unscalable information work — you will see that it is a far larger category than the “sexy that can be packaged as creative” subset that we are racing desperately to save. It may still not be enough to keep everybody productively employed, but there is certainly more to do than we think there is.

The easiest way to appreciate the emerging human condition to adopt a couple of new metaphors for machines: machines as children and humans as intestinal fauna.

Machines as Children, Humans as Intestinal Fauna

First, machines  are like children. The opposite of the overlord personification we’ve been encouraged to adopt by science fiction.

Like parents, we have to let them have the fun while we child-proof the environment (sanitize their inputs) and clean up after them (do whatever they are too clumsy to do and clean up any messes they create). They may not (yet) crave status or social identities, but they certainly look for easy-to-learn high-flow tasks: algorithmically scalable work (which is a sort of aspie-sexy choice of work if you think about it).

Second, humans are like the intestinal fauna in the body of technology. I don’t recall where I first heard this analogy, but it isn’t original to me.

The data refining example illustrates the second analogy: without intestinal fauna, humans and other animals could not digest many nutrients. Even dish-washing is hard for machines, so we have to pre-clean to some extent before loading dishwashers.

Without humans inhabiting their guts, technological systems cannot process much of the arbitrariness of the world (Amazon’s Mechanical Turk illustrates this most dramatically at scale). This is requisite-variety schlepping, for which we can expect to be paid in proportion to the true creativity involved (which may not be easy to convert into sexy status currencies).

Put the two together and you get a view of technology as a giant child we’ve given birth to, that is probably never going to grow up and take care of us in our retirement. Instead, we’ll have to live in its guts and take care of it forever, doing the complex schlep work it cannot do.

So one way to understand the historical change transforming human society today is by analogy to parenthood. Life as we know it is over. It’s all about taking care of the big, messy brat now (this is another way of describing what I called hackstability in an earlier post). It likes to play chess, drive cars, fly fighter planes, make coffee mugs, win at Jeopardy, compose music and maybe in the future design clothes, do elegant mathematics and so forth.

So what is it like to do thankless parenting work like data refining, while living in the guts of a giant, developmentally disabled savant child?

It’s chimney-sweep work. Not bard work. Thankless parent work. But work that just might help us evolve rather than atrophy.

The Fate of Artisans

If you want to be a bard, prepare for misery. And not the soul-uplifting kind either.

Artisans are going to have a bad time in the next few decades. They will spin their wheels trying to sell nonessential variety just out of reach of machines, that require unprofitable amounts of customer-education marketing. They will hawk under-priced artisanal coffee, food, clothing, jewelry and handbags to a shrinking class of consumers with enough discretionary income.

This phenomenon isn’t new. Photography — another savant-child machine capability — put a lot of painters out of work by taking away the most reliable and profitable supply of requisite-variety work (what we call photo-realistic art today, which I find deliciously ironic).

In every sexy-work market, automation takes away the most profitable irreducible-variety segment and leaves behind a pure attention economy segment subject to the highly random celebrity and fashion dynamics of the Internet age.  This follows from the fact that people choose sexy work mostly due to conspicuous production (status and identity) considerations. They are effectively working for attention, not money.

But much of the attention (which is the scarce commodity all sexy sectors compete over) is cornered by a few at the top, leaving dregs for the rest. The Internet merely creates pocket change in the long tail and more churn in the short head. It doesn’t really change industrial-age winner-take-all dynamics.

Certainly, there is room for a few artisan-of-the-week spots in the hand-made coffee mug sector. Every year, maybe a few hundred such artisans will have a profitable year. The rest of their careers will be spent waiting for the next break. The majority will have no breaks at all and crash out of the sector, to be replaced by new hopefuls.

The role of technology in sexy work is to take away the algorithmically scalable, high-requisite-variety market segments that actually generate profits, leaving behind a casino economy for a class that is destitute in the median case. It is democratization in the sense of turning an unfair lottery that you can at least game with some cleverness (such as pitching a gullible movie producer with more money than taste) into a true lottery that you cannot.

The Fate of Tradesmen

The chimney sweep represents schlep work. Dull, check. Dirty, check. Dangerous, check. No bard options in the posterity memeplex economy? Check.

Today, the dangerous part is being engineered out of sector after sector, starting with drones replacing human pilots in war zones. We value human life in ways that cannot be easily modeled in economic terms, so we allocate more wealth to eliminating dangerous than a free market would (whether that allocation is effective or not is a different matter). But dull and dirty enjoy no such moral protection from economic logic, so long as they can be rendered safe.

Fortunately, machines are not quite as good at carving away the profitable parts of schlep work as they are with sexy work. Which means that when you subtract the algorithmically scalable varieties of dull and dirty work, you’ll likely have more than a casino economy left over for humans.

The early example of information-age chimney sweep work are just emerging: data cleaning, image interpretation, human customer service as a differentiator  from voice-prompt hell, various kinds of machine repair. Some of these categories will go away, but I suspect new kinds of schlep work will emerge faster than old kinds vanish. That’s what happened the last time around.

Chimney sweeps emerged with early industrialization because more people had coal-heated homes with narrow chimneys in every room. Those in the trade began life as small children climbing down chimneys until they were too big. If they didn’t die of cancer, they had a shot at becoming master sweeps with their own troops of children.

Regulation, appropriate machinery and the slow replacement of coal with gas and electricity eliminated the profession.

But before the trade declined, it helped establish the industrial age middle class, marked by varied kinds of schlep work.

We are just beginning to discover the schlep work in the information economy. From solar panel installers to driverless car debuggers, several schleppy professions are starting to emerge. Those who are fixated on saving sexy work are most likely to miss schleppy opportunities.

What unites all these trades is that they accept roles based on kinds of schlepping that machines are bad at rather than insisting on work that humans like to do.

I think of them as forming an emerging Hamiltonian middle class — a class that accepts and adapts to large-scale technological systems as a part of life (the kind that Alexander Hamilton promoted in early America). Unlike the Jeffersonian middle class, the Hamiltonian middle class is willing and able to redefine its identity and evolve with machines rather than remaining attached to a static, romanticized notion of what it means to be human.

I’ll talk about the two middle classes another day. I am still working this stuff out. Including figuring out where blogging fits in the grand scheme of things. It’s less sexy and more schleppy than it looks, so there’s hope for me yet.

Thanks to Nick Pinkston and Kartik Agaram for helpful conversations. 

Markus July 10, 2013 at 5:06 am

Haven’t been past Ribbonfarm for a while. First entry and there you go again, Venkat.
You are a bloody brilliant purveyor of inspiring epistemic compression algorithms. Scientific and artistic POV’s meet and have beautiful children :-)

I do believe you are a bit of a bard yourself in this context…? On the other hand I would argue that the Jester – albeit of a unusually solemn variety – would perhaps be closer to the mark. You know, sort of Tyrion Lannister minus the hedonistic streak ;-)

In short, you got the worker vs the artisan, but I’m seeing a 3-part monster and miss the head: Where’s the artist, the conductor, the Man, so to speak? Trialisms is so much more potent than dualisms….

Venkat July 10, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Hmm… not sure this orchestra has a conductor. I think this is a natural outcome of slowing growth.

Alexander Boland July 10, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I might just second what Markus said, if only because the artisans seem like the clueless and the schleppers seem like the losers.

Markus July 11, 2013 at 4:43 am

Agreed, there’s not much detectable conduction/leading going on.
Let me put it another way:
I miss a representation of whoever puts the art in the prevailing artisanships? Even if we are talking a leadership of the “chasing butterflies” variety, I’m sure there’s some detectable patterns here as well?
Maslows heierachy of needs, the decline of the middle class and Malthus/The Verhulst equation seems like potent starting points for triangulation.

Alexander, thank you for providing the junction to the Gervais Principle, there was something “tickling my spidersense” regarding the missing part of a trialism and I just couldn’t nail it down.

Micah Redding July 14, 2013 at 12:51 am

To jump on this theme, it seems to me like the third part of this is the person who discovers the algorithmically scalable work, and sets up the machines to do it. This is, I think, what startups attempt to do. Their reward is different than that of the schleps – they benefit by showing up at the right time, and finding the right industry to sell to the machines. Yes, ultimately this is just a scaled-up version of schlep work, but the difference is that schleps are maintaining an already-running machine, while the startup is claiming new continents in the name of the machines.

Or am I misreading this?

Kay July 14, 2013 at 3:37 am

Hasn’t the startup business in the last couple of years being mostly about services being moved from the professionals to the users? For instance each time I’m doing a journey I spend quite some amount of time for booking hotels, flights, trains etc. instead of delegating them to a travel office. So it isn’t the algorithm which solves the schlep work but instead the algorithm enables me to do it. In a sense the industry discovered the user for unpaid schlep work, which otherwise costs us nothing as well. In reward for that gratitude we give them our data.

Goblin July 14, 2013 at 10:51 am

Kay, I think the prevailing paradigm you mention, the only one some start ups seem to think exists. Algorithms and “user” driven is just part of the picture. Not all work at a firm that makes heavy use of algorithmically enhancement is capable of being strictly user driven. In larger industries the user feedback loop has long since hit its peak efficiency. The new algorithms merely open up a new angle for competition and marketing to smaller industrial startups.

The companies still need professionals, if fewer of them, to do whatever it does. And that sets aside the other services that those specific industries require to remain functional within society. So people are less consumerist nowadays.. but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to invest in “well-crafted” products that will actually last and remain fully functional for years on end. It isn’t as pretty or as full of growth as the Kayak.coms but it still is there, and has been witnessing a small rebirth of its own.

Venkat July 14, 2013 at 11:30 am

I think I agree with Goblin here… 9/10 of “work” is hidden in the B2B world where it isn’t as easy to trade higher skilled workers for lower-skill+automation. But the same forces are emerging there. Except that machines take away the “middle” — you still have a need for a few high-skill schleppers (like people who can program robots or master machinists) and a bunch of low-skill schleppers. In consumer “shadow” labor, like in self-checkout, you often see the same split, except unpaid humans share the middle with machines.

Alexander Boland July 16, 2013 at 8:34 am

Venkat, would you say then that machines generally widen income gaps?

Chang Lee July 10, 2013 at 7:01 am

Great analogy between machines and children, Venkat. I’d just like to point out that bacteria in the intestines are referred to as flora rather than fauna.

Anyway that biological analogy also led me to wonder, what if symbiosis occurs between humans and machines? Such that our need for sexy bard work can be derived from opportunities carved out by the nature of a machine society? Just as children occasionally require bard work from their parents in telling them bedtime stories, might the machine society desire optional variety? After all, some work exists at the intersection of creative and sexy, where creative is the work face of the coin and sexy is the worker face. And one requisite of creativity is challenge. Algorithmically unscalable work can be unscalable because unprofitable to scale or because irreducible to algorithm. Satisfying demand for the latter type may require creativity, and at the same time come to be regarded as the sexy work within the remaining schlep work that the machines have left/imposed on/opened up for us.

Venkat July 14, 2013 at 11:31 am

Intriguing speculation, but I can’t think of good examples of essential “reading bedtime stories to machines” type work. Do you have any in midn?

G July 17, 2013 at 10:54 am

“Reading bedtime stories to machines” isn’t the right metaphor. The purpose of reading bedtime stories to children is to give them pleasant sleepy emotions: essentially to put them in a trance from which they’ll go easily and happily to sleep. The metaphor fails because machines don’t have emotions (nor will they, as emotions are the sensation of neurochemicals affecting neurons, and chemistry + biology != electronics).

What I think you’re looking for there is, the use of human-optimized skills and subjective judgements while engaged in building or maintaining technology. For example a high-skill automobile mechanic who modifies a vehicle in some manner to suit the particular needs of a customer. There are plenty of these types of jobs for those who wish to develop the skills, and they span a large portion of our range of technology. For example a friend of mine who graduated from Cal Berkeley, chose to work as a machinist. Smart choice, he has a good job while a lot of his classmates are unemployed.

Your use of chimney sweeps to make a point, reminded me of this quote from Martin Luther King:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

And as for real creativity (not the kind that conflates with sexiness), it often flourishes more readily when someone has a job that involves primarily physical labor rather than mental labor: this because you get home at the end of the day physically tired but not mentally tired, so you can sit down and write another chapter of your novel, or compose a song, or whatever.

Whether the novel or the song ever sells is immaterial if one creates because one _must_, because it’s intrinsically fulfilling regardless of anything else. The market is not an altar, too often it is a Procrustean bed.

Chang Lee August 12, 2013 at 7:54 am

Reading bedtime stories to machines would be a human input of optional variety. When would optional variety become requisite? When optional variety is itself the thing that is being modeled, becoming one more data point, for instance machines seeking to understand human psychology. When optional variety is a step in a process, like a designed genetic algorithm, causing exaptations to arise. When optional variety is needed for unpredictability by other machines. However, all these scenarios require the optional variety to actually have an impact, i.e. if they lead to functional differences.

Venkat August 13, 2013 at 1:02 pm

That’s a good point.

netcan July 10, 2013 at 8:34 am

Nice write-up. An articulation of the “all these artisans are bullshit” sentiment. with an artisanal style.

I wonder how new this desire for artisan status is. If it is really a product of our current status as a leisure society, it might tie in to you ideas on legibility nicely. Material needs (shelter, food) are trivially met (in some cases by a generous welfare state). Beyond that, the value of wealth is relative, a game most are destined to lose. Artisanship is a way out of that game and into a game where without winners and losers.

Alexander Boland July 10, 2013 at 9:30 am

The bits on narcissism and identity broadcasting really struck a chord with me, as I’ve been reading a lot by a blogger known as The Last Psychiatrist. She (he?) writes a lot about narcissism, pointing out that it’s about prioritizing identity broadcasting and preservation over all other things, which leads to a kind of mental atrophy based on refusing to acknowledge the uncertainty and limitations of the real world.

As for the question of what constitutes “creativity”, narcissism also seems to play a role here. I don’t have a solid definition of creativity, but most “creative” work actually seems to be much schleppier than people want to believe. Executing just about any project requires a great deal of tedium, and the main reason why so many people never commit to taking such a risk is because they know it but nonetheless want to continue to preserve the identity of being a potential (or worse, “misunderstood”) artist. And, yes, I might be saying this from personal experience.

Still, if I use the concept of synthesis as a tentative definition of creativity, I’d say that “creative” work of some kind is needed in order to discover ideas that are outside of the phase space of the current infrastructure. The conflation I see, however, in both popular media and in Jaron Lanier’s new book (I assumed the title was a play on “You Are Not A Gadget”), is one between the existence of innovators, and the ability of the middle class to be a class of innovators. The truth may be, however, that truly creative work may be a privilege of the super-affluent or some kind of clergy, the way it was in older times.

Kay July 10, 2013 at 11:24 am

She (he?) writes a lot about narcissism, pointing out that it’s about prioritizing identity broadcasting and preservation over all other things, which leads to a kind of mental atrophy based on refusing to acknowledge the uncertainty and limitations of the real world.

Yes, but isn’t this just a desperate attempt to operate in a mode we would judge as self-confident in less instable societies, where social differentiation isn’t coupled to some weird personality trait but to class inclusion/exclusion which inhibits social mobility?

I perceive freedom + creativity as modern answers to the meaning of life in a universe with a dead or absent God, where devoutness didn’t make sense anymore. Maybe Venkat’s child metaphor for our huge, noisy, interconnected machine and the insistence on requisite variety offers a slightly more catholic working ethics after we have worshiped the entrepreneur to death? A refactoring of the kind we love this blog for.

Alexander Boland July 10, 2013 at 1:26 pm

A lot of things to answer in that question. For one thing, class mobility does not seem all that prevalent in America (though maybe I’m wrong.) “Artisinal” pursuits, insofar as they can be seen as conspicuous production, themselves seem to be a reflection of status.

On the other hand, I may be jumping the gun to conflate narcissism and identity signalling so tightly, considering that it seems to be a very normal human behavior. On the other hand, some behaviors that may seem more genuinely narcsisistic may include: an extreme fear of commitment (to either projects or lovers) because it’s a forced encounter with reality and interferes with someone’s desired identity, over-identification with something specific (such as your occupation, your choice of a spouse, or some brand you wear), and/or a constant need for validation in the form of attention (better to be hated than ignored, etc.)

Of course, you may be absolutely right that if it’s the case that narcissism is the result of a lack of social anchors. I myself have believed most of my life that self-expression is the best way to find some kind of “meaning”, but this seems more and more to be a sort of irrational religious belief, and possibly a little bit narcissistic. Still undecided about that.

diozen July 10, 2013 at 10:12 am

The Etsy Effect?

tfnw July 10, 2013 at 11:15 am

I’m sure I am being dense, but I am finding it difficult to see the connection between the three following things; fiat currency (currency backed by a government, right?), shareholder value maximization, and deficit spending, and the disconnection between income and useful work. Maybe you could clarify?

Venkat July 10, 2013 at 11:56 am

Fiat currency allows for easier deficit spending than with gold, since it can be financed with bond issues (Keynesian economics). This allows governments to “create” work to keep people employed, and such work need have no relation to economic necessity (you can pay some people to dig holes and others to fill them up again, as the joke goes, and many real-world scenarios come close to this). The US actually doesn’t have too many outrageous examples of such make-work, but that might change. Besides directly distorting incomes, it also allows governments to use subsidies and tax incentives to make some professions artificially attractive etc. For example, incentives for “local” businesses that may be far more inefficient. This can be done in non-deficit, non-fiat regimes as well, but is obviously a bit harder to pull off. Governments often use this capability to appease the artisan sector.

Shareholder value maximization creates perverse incentives for corporations in similar ways. You might cut essential functions to show paper profits next quarter to prop up the share price, and deliberately spend money on “vanity” projects that boost share prices by manipulating investor perceptions while doing nothing for company value. In a way this too is similar to deficit spending, since high shareholder value allows corporations to borrow money more easily.

James July 11, 2013 at 9:05 pm

For the consummate analysis of this mode of economic existence, one need look no further than Moldbug:

http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.co.nz/2013/03/sam-altman-is-not-blithering-idiot.html

Through this process, make-work is distributed at the margins across all sectors, without as much cognitive dissonance (near/far).

neil21 August 29, 2013 at 12:25 pm

> The US actually doesn’t have too many outrageous examples of such make-work

There’s a case that the suburban experiment is close to such a system. Heavily subsidised car-first infrastructure that demands billion dollar repairs, street designs that force car-buying, maintenance, fuelling etc. Regulatory mandated but useless “green space” (strips of grass that aren’t parks) that have to be maintained, sprinkled, cut.

No clear improvement in wellbeing compared with compact, walkable etc. towns as built throughout human history up to ~WW2 (coincident with fiat). Indeed many costs – oil wars, obesity, social isolation, lack of serendipitous innovation from proximity and diversity, etc.

Greg Borenstein July 10, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Great post, Venkat. I’m interested in poking a bit more into how our idea of “creativity” relates to your sexy vs. shleppy distinction.

The essence of “creative” fields (cultural production) appears from the outside to be about making choices and expressing preferences. It seems to be on a continuum with “liking” the artifacts of that production. As a comic book fan, the essence of being a comic book artist seems to be making good decisions about what the art should look like, i.e. having good taste, like you perceive in yourself as the fan. But actually becoming a comic book artist is a shlep. It involves learning drawing which can only be done by slow repetitious effort. It’s a complex visual-muscular skill and acquiriring it is more like body building than “having good taste”. There’s a complex interpay between your taste, what skills you choose to shlep towards, and your critical self-evaluation of the actual virtues and limitations of your work. With enough shlepping you might be able to become a good comic book artist, but your taste will only be one contributing factor to the resulting style of your work. This holds for all creative/cultural production fields. It’s what every artist or programmer refers to as the “craft” part of their work. This kind of skill acquisition in general is also pretty clearly not algorithmically scalable. From expert systems to the endlessly fiddly application of machine learning algorithms (every book and article I’ve ever read about using SVM for machine learning has described the designing of the vectorization and the tuning of the kernel parameters as “more art than science” or something you’ll “get a feel for”) is completely dependent on human capabilities built-up through shleppy craft-acquisition.

I think part of the move towards “conspicous production” that you’re describing has to do with the radical increase in the visibility of our taste preferences in the era of social media. This has raised the profile of “liking” while the shlep of acquiring craft has stayed invisible. Also, the democratization of media production means that people undergo the stages of producing media (creation, distribtuion, public dialogue) without ever passing through the craft stage of creating a feedback loop between their taste and how they exercise their craft. They feel they are “being creative” or “producing media”, but they’re never choosing to shlep. They then project this onto cultural producers who do shlep, imagining that their own production is the same kind of activity as that of these actual craftspeople. This kind of shlep-free cultural production happens as (if not more) frequently in technical fields like web programming as in cultural ones like drawing, partially because our pedagogy for technical fields is still so primitive, whereas we have drawing books like Niccolaides The Natural Way to Draw, that have been the definitive text for 100+ years and specifically spell out a schlep schedule.

Greg Borenstein July 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Been thinking about this a bit more from the perspective of teaching and learning.

It seems to me that the job of educational materials is to support shlepping: to make it easier or to increase its effort-to-reward ratio.

In my experience as a teacher (and learner), there are two kinds of shlepping necessary in skill acquisition. The distinction is something like the difference between static and dynamic friction.

Dynamic shlepping is what happens when you have good educational materials and/or you understand the conceptual bounds of the task you’re trying to learn. You have to put in the time and do the repetitions in order to move forwards, but there’s a clear effort/progress tradeoff. This is where I’m at with drawing. The more practice I put in drawing from photographs or life the better my drawings look.

Static shlepping is like static friction. It happens at the start of learning tasks when you don’t have a good mental model of the domain you’re trying to learn — you don’t even necessarily know the right search terms that will turn up the material you’d then need to shlep through. You can put in huge amounts of shlepping without making any relevant progress. This is where talking to an expert or finding the right text or other educational material is invaluable. This is the most important part of what schools do as institutions: enable you to move from static (or meta-) shlepping to dynmaic shlepping.

Now, static shlepping is truly deadly because it also presents a second danger. In addition to having low effort/progress ratio, it also has the tendency to dissolve into “sexy” production. Before you figure out how to shlep dynamically, you can find yourself reading _about_ other people’s acheivements in your field, watching behind-the-scenes material that’s really lifestyle branding for the industry, even researching and buying professionally-branded gear — all tasks that are fueled by your shlep, but move you away from the “no pain no gain” mindset and back towards lifestyle defintion through “creative production”. There are whole industries designed to capture shlep-willingness and convert it into this kind of consumption.

As a teacher and author of technical books, what I try to do is eliminate the barriers to dynamic shlepping. I provide conceptual overviews so you know which pieces of the problem you need to learn about to acheive your goals. I provide incemental problems for you to work on that will guide you through the shlepping required to gain skills. And I try to unlock problems by providing converting vague expressions of interest into search terms and names of technical fields that will themselves yield large amounts of unblocked dynamic shlepping.

Venkat July 14, 2013 at 11:38 am

I’ll have to think more about this static/dynamic schlepping distinction and its relation to learning.

I agree that to actually get *good* at many sexy things takes serious schlepping, but in many fields, you can get away with just looking the part and delivering a mediocre effort. Coffee is an example. The taste difference between a good and exceptional cup of hand-pour is not noticeable to most drinkers, so you can easily get away with pretending to be an artisan if you dress the part, talk semi-knowledgeably etc.

Singing/dancing (both activities people start enjoying as children) are somewhere in between. I am consistently saddened by the number of mediocore (not laughably bad) people who show up on shows like American Idol/America’s Got Talent, clearly having built their entire identities around singing/dancing, but just not good enough to succeed or sustain themselves in that market.

Lumiere July 10, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Take a look at Google Brain and other recent deep learning systems. It is definitely becoming less of a schlep. The amount of human-feasible work that isn’t computers feasible is dropping fast.

Brandon July 12, 2013 at 5:53 pm

I agree. I think Verkat’s position is predicated on the idea that human and computer intelligence are fundamentally different. Indeed, this is currently true. On the other hand, Kurtzweil gives us an upper bound on how long this state of affairs will be sustained. Roughly speaking, we will have complete human brain simulation by the 2030s, at which point human and machine intelligence would be entirely equivalent. Hopefully, I’ll be retired by then.

Kay July 12, 2013 at 11:52 pm

I think Verkat’s position is predicated on the idea that human and computer intelligence are fundamentally different.

It’s quite likely that they won’t converge even if they are built on similar biological principles. It can also turn out that super-human AIs are fair energy suckers and are at least as expensive to build and maintain then human workers. Finally it is not clear that humans even want them and their use wouldn’t be severely restricted by law to research institutes, the military and a few other special purposes that need approval by state authorities.

LC3 July 10, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Wow. Mind blown. That is all.

Greg Jorgensen July 10, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Thank you for this — great read.

As a professional computer programmer I’ve been able to have the best of both worlds in some ways: My “work” is usually perceived as creative and maybe even sexy (or at least lucrative) by non-programmers, but the work is schleppy enough that it has resisted automation, so I’m employable even in my fifties.

Among software professionals there’s the sexy/creative world of startups and new technologies, and the schleppy world of maintenance programming, database cleaning, debugging, testing, and so on. Anyone who wants to make a decent living working with software would choose the schleppy side, the bottomless pit of boring but non-repetitive work on old and usually ugly software (much of it produced by dilettantes and “rock stars” who have moved on to sexier projects). But that kind of work isn’t sexy, so thousands of good-paying programming jobs with low geek social status go unfilled while vanity startups and public showing-off open source projects provide the artisinal coffee mug niche for programmers.

lelnet July 10, 2013 at 2:29 pm

I was pretty much with you, until you flat-out advocated “discarding anthropocentric categories and human desires”, as if incorporating such categories and desires were a priori erroneous.

It can be argued that the particular categories we use are bad ones or the particular desires we feel are self-destructive, certainly, and consequently that we ought to use different categories and focus on different desires, but going into a discussion about the organization of human society with the baseline axiom that said organization ought to fit itself to humans seems pretty basic, to me.

Sean Fleming July 10, 2013 at 5:14 pm

`Discarding`may be a word choice with unnecessarily negative connotations.

It seems to me that the major idea prompting the article is that the forces driving economic value creation, when juxtaposed with the cost of that creation, are changing in distinct ways as a result of ongoing technological progress. This point is not really disputed as far as I know.

Rather than advocating the wholesale abandonment of human desires in the face of these technological shifts, it`s my interpretation that the author is merely recommending that the reader put aside these concerns for a moment in order to better examine the forces that will shape the reorganization of society along new patterns of value creation and personal fulfillment. It is a request to put aside preconceived notions in order to reach the heart of a phenomenon, not a plea to leave humanity behind.

The basic point underlying this interpretation is that it is more likely (read: easier) for us as a society to adapt to new economic realities and still find a level personal fulfillment, than to change or halt the economic shifts currently taking place. For this reason we have to step outside of current assumptions and base predictions of future societal organization on the changes occurring , not current notions of human desires and potential paths to fulfillment.

Peter Christensen July 10, 2013 at 4:38 pm

This post seemed like an exercise in trying to philosophize away people you don’t understand or don’t agree with.

I think that the sexy/schleppy division is real, but not as fundamental as you make it out to be.

When people choose what to work on, they’re making a trade off of the cost of the work to them vs the rewards they expect to receive. Money and “doing what you want” are both forms of currency, and each person has their own exchange rate between them.

Peoples’ needs for money and fulfillment give a 2×2 matrix of the kind you love:
– Low need for money, low need for fulfillment: shiftlessness, non-working or odd-jobs to scrape by
– Low need for money, high need for fulfillment: sexy jobs – fulfilling low-paying jobs (camp counselor, artisan baker, yoga instructor, etc)
– High need for money, low need for fulfillment: schleppy jobs – payment systems, enterprise software, B Wayne Hughes
– High need for money, high need for fulfillment: photo sharing + social media websites, non-profit leadership, veterinarian

Also, like a geek dismissing fashion, your statements like “producing hand-crafted coffee mugs in Portland at a cost of $20 apiece is work rather than conspicuous production” display a misunderstanding of what’s being bought and sold. People don’t buy the $20 handmade mug because they think it’s better at containing liquids – they buy it to reinforce their feelings about themselves and what they value.

You organize conferences and visit trainyards because it reinforces your values, and that’s your consumption that probably looks crazy to others. The fact that people find it worth their life to make those $20 mugs is supply and demand in action. If they could only sell them for the price of the Chinese mug, they would find other work. But since they’re selling taste, style, community, and someone is choosing to buy it, then they are producing value. It might not be value that you ascribe any value to, but that doesn’t make it vain, wrong, or wasteful.

Venkat July 10, 2013 at 4:54 pm

The coffee mug example is about producers, not consumers. I am perfectly fine with the logic of consuming premium-priced fashion goods. The question is whether the *production* model is sustainable or whether a rotating cast of starry-eyed artisan-wannabes is providing underpriced products for a while before crashing out of the market.

There may be no price-point on the hand-crafted coffee mug supply curve that can be sustainably served, so there may be no rational market there. Which means the producer is subsidizing the customers in return for something besides money. If the producer stays in business, it means an indulgent parent or other investor is subsidizing it.

Your point about money and “other stuff” having an exchange rate between them only applies in one situation: a leisure society where basic needs are easily taken care of either through patronage/inheritance or the state. The issue is that a lot of people are *acting* like they are in a leisure society when they are not, and are being encouraged to do so via a narrative that assumes the currencies are far more tradeable than they are in practice. This is causing people to adopt callings with extremely over-optimistic expectations.

Writing is a great example. Tons of aspiring writers provide work for free or nothing trying to convince themselves that what they’re being paid in “exposure” is worth it. Most drop out when they realize the equation doesn’t balance. The odds of any “exposure” leading to breakout profitability are so low that you are effectively supplying underpriced product on the strength of an unfounded expectation. Others (I count myself among these) enter the game with more realistic expectations, including the expectation that the cost of the self-indulgent line of work is schlepping in a cross-subsidy line of work (consulting in my case… almost pure schlep).

Hrishi Mittal July 13, 2013 at 5:19 am

“the cost of the self-indulgent line of work is schlepping in a cross-subsidy line of work”

That reminded me of the gapingvoid Sex & Cash theory –
http://gapingvoid.com/2004/03/25/the-sex-cash-theory/

James Bach July 15, 2013 at 8:45 pm

I enjoyed reading your post, Venkat. As usual it’s a feast of new mental models; stimulating and sensible.

What I’m struggling with is your apparent concern with economic unsustainability of types of work people want to do. So what? What difference does it make if my son “crashes out” of writing his novel? I guess he’ll try for a while and either “succeed” or go and do something else. I’ll support him if I can, because not only is he my son, but he’s providing a valuable service to me: I find his process entertaining.

People crash out of lots of things, but it seems to me our society is culturally and artistically richer for it. I’m glad there are mugs for sale, and whole shops devoted to weird art that I, personally, will never buy. I don’t know how they stay in business, but my village is better for it.

Humans, above all, are story-making creatures. We live in cocoons of meaning. Although reality always asserts itself, reality is never seen for what it is. In the end, the story therefore trumps reality.

I suppose your point must be that the overriding societal narrative has beatified the meaning of sexy work and damned the meaning of schleppy work, and that in turn has made our economy less robust. That’s a fair point, except that you don’t have to sneer at artisinal work to rehabilitate schleppiness, do you? It is no sin to seek satisfying work, is it, regardless of what you might define as “success?”

Venkat July 23, 2013 at 3:25 am

I think what bothers me is the conflation of self-actualization and self-indulgence. Your reading of my argument is basically correct.

Minor Heretic August 27, 2013 at 10:55 pm

An observation: Self actualization requires some self denial.

A personal definition: If you are sleeping indoors, eating three meals a day, and doing what you love, you are better off than 99.99% of the world.

I started off out of high school as a blacksmith. I apprenticed to an experienced smith for, quite literally, room and board. I worked on my own for a couple of years and realized that it was a tougher buck than I wanted to earn. Decades later I am an installer of solar energy systems and a renewable energy consultant. I happily hammer hot iron in my spare time. Both career paths involved sacrifice on the way to mastery. Both have their own kind of social status. Blacksmithing went from a necessity to an indulgence, while more recently renewable energy went from being an indulgence to a reasonable investment and a necessity.

Back when I was smithing we had a derogatory term for the work of undisciplined smiths: spaghetti iron. That was swoopy, organic form that hid (or displayed, to an insider) a lack of control over the material. Observation and practice led to work that “looked like you meant it.”

Tastyfrizzle July 11, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Think, then, of the young woman(man) who goes to law school because of the status the profession. She then goes to work for the government (funded by fiat spending), e.g., the EPA, which is increasingly dedicated to addressing ever-smaller environment threats to the point interfering with “real”, “schleppy” work which produces actual (hard currency, balance of trade+) goods, such as energy. She then migrates to the private sector, helping clients minimize their exposure to the increasingly complex and arbitrary web of regulations she helped promulgate. Her education funded by subsidized loans at a subsidized institution, she has a long and successful career without producing anything of value.

Lawyer July 11, 2013 at 4:42 pm

People think lawyers don’t produce anything of value until they need a lawyer.

Anthony July 11, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Lawyers don’t produce anything of value. At best, they keep other people from getting in your way when you want to produce something of value.

Lawyer July 11, 2013 at 10:12 pm

You think that because you don’t understand that society is more about humans dealing with other humans than it is about chairs or software or whatever it is that you do.

Tastyfrizzle July 12, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Not true. I’ve both needed and “needed” lawyers. The difference between them is the subject of the my first response. Given my misspent youth, I realize that an attorney is sometimes all that stands between one and the ever-increasing plenary powers of the state. But I don’t “need” a $500/hr average intellect to guide me through the elaborate kabuki dance that is employment law, but for the thicket of regulations created by (perhaps) well-meaning dolts seeking “self actualization” via the bureaucracy. Two fools in a he said/she said about who showed whom their genitals first(in a manufacturing environment) both deserved to be summarily fired. This is not what occurred. The difference is pure waste driven by exactly the type of “sexy” work (I’m a lawyer!) that yields a negative net contribution to the real economy

G July 20, 2013 at 10:39 pm

IMHO lawyers are part of the category I refer to as “protectors” or “defenders,” whose role is to protect others from attack by predators and parasites.

Protectors & defenders include: military, police, firefighters, health workers, and legal workers.

Other categories: makers (primary-producers such as farmers, builders, engineers, factory workers, etc., also includes scientists), educators (teachers, professors, also librarians, museum curators, etc.), managers (organization, logistics, administration), capitalists (provide capital and business expertise for creating the means of production), culture workers (the media and performing arts including athletics), and arguably a category for government (that includes the executive and legislative branches and the judiciary, all of which are directly or indirectly chosen through elections). (Some of this language sounds vaguely Marxist but is not intended as such.)

The idea that lawyers “produce nothing of value” is like the idea that vaccination or street cleaning is a waste of money: as long as there isn’t an active disease epidemic, people don’t recognize the value of these services. And as long as someone isn’t under legal attack, they don’t recognize the value of legal services.

The root of the problem is that the human brain doesn’t do a good job of representing negatives or “the absence of a narrative.” For example “heroic surgery” has an obvious narrative, but the success of vaccination, clean drinking water, clean streets, etc., is in the absence of disease: benefits that have no obvious narrative.

Venkat July 23, 2013 at 3:26 am

I like this taxonomy.

Anthony July 25, 2013 at 9:34 pm

At best, lawyers and the other “protectors and defenders” are like janitors, repair technicians, doctors, or other maintenance workers. They don’t build up anything, but they prevent things from falling apart. That’s actually a pretty valuable service, as they’re preserving the capital (social and private) which makes additional wealth creation easier, and they can free the “makers” from having to deal with those issues themselves, letting them make more.

(Incidentally, I’d include many non-primary producers as makers. Teachers, for example, generally make people more effective at whatever they’re doing, so they are creating value – they’re building people’s individual “intangible capital”.)

However, the “protectors and defenders” have a terrible tendency to degenerate into predators or parasites themselves, justifying their parasitism by preventing others from preying or parasitising the community. While most of history is littered with the actual police or military performing this role, lawyers too can go from being useful to being oppressive parasites. In the U.S., the legal field is largely engaged in deflecting attacks made possible by other lawyers, or in actively trying to tear down what others have built up, primarily for their own benefit.

Goblin July 25, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Anthony,

I think your biases are getting the better of you. You would never be in a position to make the statements that you have made so far without first having been living in a (reasonably) secure environment.

It is wrong to pretend that graft and human malfeasance only rests with one category or profession. The human condition is full of angelic and demonic deeds alike; all that have little bearing on what profession a person has chosen. This goes for lawyers just the same as your neighbor.

If we accept your premise that lawyering is bad we might as well accept that anyone with the knowledge of any accepted social-speech-oriented-process is categorically a “bad” person. That entire premise is baseless.

It is one thing to call an individual lawyer morally corrupt, but to extend that critique to even the overworked public defenders and pro-bono/ Non-profit work that (possibly) carries great value for you is simply irresponsible.

If you want to put the Electronic Frontier Foundation and its lawyers on the level with Trial Lawyers and Ambulance Chasers, then by all means, just don’t expect everyone to accept that the two are categorically the same, even if both are colloquially know as “Lawyers”.

Prakash July 11, 2013 at 2:52 am

Ashwin Parameshwaran’s blog raises slightly related questions.

http://www.macroresilience.com/2011/12/29/people-make-poor-monitors-for-computers/

http://http://www.macroresilience.com/2013/07/08/explaining-the-neglect-of-doug-engelbarts-vision/

A money quote from the second post is

“But in a world where machines do most of the work, how do humans become skilled enough so that they can take over during the inevitable emergency when the machine breaks down?”

You’re thinking of a scenario where the edge cases can be handed off to humans. Ashwin’s fear seems to be that when the time for the handoff occurs, there is no one with the big picture to take over and actually solve the issue, leading to utter breakdown.

Venkat July 23, 2013 at 3:28 am

Yes, the breakdown question is a serious one. I attempted an answer in http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2012/04/18/hacking-the-non-disposable-planet/ but am not satisfied with it.

Daniel Lemire July 11, 2013 at 8:29 am

I know what you mean but, for the record, chimney sweepers are still around. I’ve got a chimney and I get visits from desperate professional cimney sweepers every year.

foo July 11, 2013 at 10:33 am

You’ve almost got me feeling good about cleaning the house, but not quite.

I like your use of the word ‘heuristic’ where I might have put ‘meme’, it implies a bit more personal thought was invested, (rather than just mindless rule replication)

‘refining of crude data’ love that term

Creativity can be simulated by a program. A bit of random selection combined with a data mining/ranking can create an idea-generating program that can continually surprise me and hold me transfixed like a moth.

I can envision a program that deconstructs the rules behind the application of ornamental elements and creates a grammar for itself to follow and generate new configurations. It then lets you select from patterns you consider ‘elegant’ while generating more like them.

Home decor, for instance, observes a grammar which varies only slightly
year to year. A computer could be trained to observe the current color,
pattern, theme trends and generate ‘unique’ permutations on them – causing
interior decorators and architects to one day go the way of travel agents, perhaps.

Somewhere in here you are hitting on a notion dear to me: the ‘surprising’ variation on a theme as safe expression of ‘individuality.’ Meaning: you’re paying attention to what’s going on currently, reassembling the building blocks of contemporary ideas and memes and reacting to it conversationally by tossing in a little combo maybe others had not thought of, producing amusement

Have you considered making Ribbonfarm t-shirts? What would be the image elements in this ironic context?

Venkat July 23, 2013 at 3:30 am

I don’t think there’s really a way to do schwag ironically.

foo July 23, 2013 at 11:39 am

hyuk! I can only think of the most literal visual translations. I’ll bet one of these days though you will come up with just the right brain bending image suggestion.

David C July 11, 2013 at 11:17 am

Frederick Pohl dealt very effectively with the future of work in a novelette written almost 60 years ago, “The Midas Plague”. Read it:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005QQO90A/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title

shannon July 11, 2013 at 1:04 pm

You are a great thinker. Your ideas would come across better if you proofread more, however. For example I think you mean Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor.

Lots of good food for thought here.

An Onyx Mousse July 11, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Hi Venkat,

I think you are on to something very interesting here, especially the algorithmically scalable vs. unscalable distinction. But I think you are also missing another dynamic in the economy – the return of the aristocracy due to scale effects. People who win the various cultural production lotteries can now become fabulously wealthy, such as J.K. Rowling, professional athletes, movie stars, etc. due to effects of scale of distribution and global culture. Those who can do “schleppy” work that can be scaled algorithmically become even wealthier – think hedge fund traders and Facebook founders. Most people will not be winners as it is often a ranking competition – the top 10 authors, actors, painters, programmers, etc. enjoy extreme wealth while most are poor / average. Many more of the rest will now become, directly or indirectly, servants to the rich… providing goods and services at “premium” prices to the wealthy class, similar to the peasant farmers, maids, butlers, & cooks of old, under the protection of a wealthy patron. There will be increasing numbers of people whose primary economic value is that they are a human and not a robot, and these will end up as servants to the wealthy people who can afford to hire humans, while robots will handle mass production for the poor and middle class. Good social skills & manners, personal beauty for “marrying up”, and having a good reputation will return as being valuable assets to the ne0-servant class, with falling returns to job credentials and formal education that aren’t top-tier (already happening). The proliferation of six-figure nannies and personal chefs, high-end designers, and many of the “artisan” type jobs fall into this category, which are growing with the wealth of the 1%. Opera and dance companies are already under the patronage of the wealthy few, many artists live off of grants from non-profits paid for by wealthy patrons (plus the workers at the non-profit), and there will be more like this until the next big social upheaval overthrows the new aristocracy.

Anthony July 11, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Onyx Mousse – you’re missing a point. (I’m not sure if it’s Venkat’s point, or if I’m reading it into this essay.) Part of the reason we’re ending up in such a winner-take-all society is that people are “irrationally” valuing conspicuous production over actually-creative schlep-work. (Both people working in those jobs, and people who pay for them.)

Kay July 12, 2013 at 12:28 am

No Anthony, our economy is really driven by capital, not by working class desires for status and turning hobbies into jobs. It is not the artisans who determine the prize of schlep work.

Unlike Onyx Mouse I don’t believe there is any significant contradiction between the artisan class and the new aristocracy which owns it. So why should there be an upheaval which overthrows the aristocracy? At worst it will be taxed a little higher.

Craig July 12, 2013 at 3:07 am

Some fantastic stuff there.

There are “communities” of conspicuous consumers and producers who “support” each other. I’m not sure how they make money!?

Venkat July 23, 2013 at 3:32 am

Me neither.

Alexander Boland July 12, 2013 at 6:42 am

The Oatmeal seems to have it right about artisinal coffee:

http://en.ilovecoffee.jp/posts/view/71

Robin Turner July 12, 2013 at 10:28 am

This article makes some good points, but what it mainly comes over as is a picture of the absurdity of late capitalism. Come to think of it, Marx said something similar, but of course with the opposite conclusion: if capitalism is deskilling and alienating the artisans, the solution is to get rid of capitalism, not to celebrate alienated labour.

Kay July 13, 2013 at 1:01 am

Marx category of “alienation” had little to do with the distinction between sexy work and schlep work which is a purely socio-psychological one. The sublation of alienation was about the self-appropriation of the working class whose work was owned by capitalists. By no means did he believe that this would turn the working class into artisans.

Marx work is puzzling for several reasons. He introduced Hegel’s sophisticated dialectics into economics, which wasn’t done before him and no one tried this after him in a different way. Intellectually this was already a dead end. More importantly he had little to say about microeconomics: there were just no enterprises, no complex, layered economic entities, no management theory as a discourse. Instead the capitalists and the workers were opaque social classes with antagonist interests in a macroeconomic theory.

Robin Turner July 21, 2013 at 3:43 am

Kay, with regard to Marx, I’m working from a memory of reading “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844″ about 30 years ago, so I could be off the mark a little! You’re right of course that the alienation Marx talked about was primarily the alienation of workers from the products of their labour. However, as far as I remember, there is still a socio-psychological aspect to this; one thing that makes work psychologically satisfying is seeing the end result of your work in your hands (or the abstract equivalent). Actually, in this respect, sweeping chimneys isn’t the paradigm of schleppy work; that would be working on a production line. Sweeping chimneys is dirty, claustrophobic and possibly painful (grazed knees etc.), and the child-labour side is obviously problematic, but in some ways it’s closer to sexy work. If coal was still a popular way of heating homes, I’m sure there’d be hipsters advertising hand-cleaned chimneys ;-)

Kay July 21, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I agree, there is such an undercurrent in Marxism, but it is ambivalent and the asexual Organization Man with its belongingness to the corporate organization may express another, high modernist undercurrent. Marxism is complex, not only because of its Hegelisms, but emotionally: it has a voice, is not bipartisan, it is compassionate with the lower classes but still full of admiration for the violence of modernity. It’s hard to get done with it, despite the regimes which based themselves on it were an epic failure.

Goblin July 12, 2013 at 11:18 am

In an odd sort of way Venkat buy using “tradesman” rather then “craftsman” you kind of hit at a debate that goes on within “The Trades” (ie Mechanics, Millwrights, Welders etc) themselves.

I like to think of the distinction as the difference between Jesse James and Paul Tuttle Jr. Both have a re markedly different take on their shared “trade.” Paul Tuttle Jr. is defiantly the artisan often building semi-functional objects that really are nothing but a status symbol. After all who among the well-to-do “doesn’t” have one?

James still appears to care more for “the craft” and seems to like to build fully functioning objects that revels in the “creative” (or whatever you might characterize it as) use of applied principles. But when you get right down to it most of the work is manually intensive and fraught with many frustrating problems (schleepy).

I’ve always been more partial to the ideas of craftsmanship/ “trademanship” (I understand these terms as interchangeable) that values concreteness and functionality over flashiness. You are also the first person I know other then myself who has made the shift to think about the new economy in terms of “trades.” In hindsight this was the principle lesson I took for Shop Class as Soul Craft (as strange as that might sound)

The whole concept of “trades” or “technical education” is looked down upon by The Academy and academia. Even still as returning to “trade” school with an Arts degree has been fairly common practice for many years. Regardless it seems those of us who do are always shunned at by those who remain overly attached to their liberal arts institutions and might have found a schleppy spot of their own nearby.

John Gorman July 13, 2013 at 3:22 pm

I love this:

“People substitute creative for sexy in describing their aspirations (to themselves and others) because it sounds less narcissistic. If you seek sexy work, you could be viewed as self-absorbed, entitled and attention/status seeking.

If you pretend it is creative work, you’re suddenly God’s gift to the world, basking in the gratitude, admiration and adoration of all simply for existing.”

You’ve hit upon an idea that I’ve been feeling for many years but have been unable to articulate. Thank you.

Though you bring forth many, many ideas in this post which could all be expanded upon, the general takeaway for me is that you’ve come up with new ways to describe elitist vs. non-elitist ways of thinking and behaving. Living in the DC area, I see a lot of sexy jobs. The people who hold them and are able to make lots of money (without generating value) in these kinds of jobs don’t even know word one about schlepping. Subsequently, they can’t connect emotionally at all with schleppers, and I think it’s one reason people have become so divided politically. A little more schlep and a little less sex might rightsize the values of the elites.

Josh W July 14, 2013 at 10:03 pm

I think when people talk about creative work, they are talking about work that is responsive to human values. There’s definitely also that aspect of “work that is too awesome for machines”, but it’s also about the non-mechanical, non-functional domain of what we are deciding to do at all. As computers get into marketing or politics, or even philosophy, this will very likely change, but we aren’t there yet.

Then there’s the second category that you rightly recognised is based on what computers need us for. Although, given the way genetic algorithms are being applied to some of these “bug-fix” problems, that might not work forever:

If we can make programs that can create unit tests and specifications for changing situations, then they could also apply genetic processes to them step by step, knowing what the correct functionality should be, and so the human level moves on into “strategic” sense, observing areas of change and the adaptions that should be made.
This is obviously still a huge task, sort of a superset of sanitising inputs and statistical data analysis (or the observe side of “orient” in ooda, with evolutionary algorithms going towards the other half ).

The world of machines continues on at least two fronts then, the first is becoming more and more in tune with not only our current needs and desires but the way they are formed, and the other is in replacing those information processing functions supplied by humans.

On the broader scale, people become less necessary to support machine infrastructure, and machine infrastructure becomes more effective at solving people’s needs instead of other people. What then begins to matter more is the needs of the different systems of infrastructure that remain when people are removed, or that act as substitutes for them. Fuel, raw materials for replacement parts, and probably heat sinks eventually. Developing countries nationalising their oil supply and rare earth minerals becomes about people reappearing as gatekeepers who must be paid off before the infrastructure can be fed.
So there’s a sci-fi world for you, even schleppy work gets eaten by machines, and we just ransom the raw materials they need to live off in return for the food and cultural products we need. Humans as oppressive land owners!

Even in this doomsday scenario for work, I’m not sure which side of the pie looks to be shrinking faster, is it the robot vacuum cleaner or the robot musician that has further to go? As well as that, and where you’ll find the most competition from other humans, the other criteria to consider is about where best to set up your own algorithmic army to roll out and conquer some problem space, seeing if you can ride the front of work destruction instead of running from it.

Kay July 14, 2013 at 11:56 pm

Since this has become a lively discussion, I have a question to the audience:

Does anyone expect that the quality of human life in the developed countries will still increase in the future by means of technological progress or has it essentially peaked? By quality I mean “well being”, something which might or might not have already decreased.

The intention to ask the question this way is to side step technological determinism for a moment, which, together with capitalist totalitarianism, is our current mainstream ideology.

Metatone July 15, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Kay – I think if you apply some kind of utilitarian calculus – “most benefit for most people” – then there are two conflicting trends at work.

1) The spread of technologies, both technical and social across the world will lift a lot of people to a better life than before. (Notably regarding basic diseases of sanitation and simple vaccines.)

2) The re-creation of an aristocratic/feudal society. Destruction of the middle class etc.

At some point (1) will peak, but it’s probably decades away. Once it does, (2) becomes the dominant trend and “well being” goes into decline.

Connected to this – I like Venkat’s conception here, but I feel there’s a missing reality, which is that the “schleppy” work is of much smaller volume than chimney sweeping.

Venkat says:

“The early example of information-age chimney sweep work are just emerging: data cleaning, image interpretation, human customer service as a differentiator from voice-prompt hell, various kinds of machine repair. Some of these categories will go away, but I suspect new kinds of schlep work will emerge faster than old kinds vanish. That’s what happened the last time around.”

But there’s low evidence of these as mass-employment opportunities. Indeed, away from the artisanal coffee shops the largest category (human customer service) is in retreat. Machine repair has been static for a while, because technology creates centralisation.

Metatone July 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm

To add an extra wrinkle, some of these schleppy jobs (e.g. data cleaning) are in the main never going to be valuable enough to sustain middle class living. There are some islands of data where the cleaning is important enough to spend on, but for most there’s no economic case for paying a middle class salary.

Goblin July 15, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Kay, any walk through the Smithsonian will show the innumerable attempts to “improve the quality of life” of the developing world. For example, there is a one/two person “stand up” helicopter at Udvar with a placard containing sentiments similar to those you mention. I remember shaking my head as I walked by it.

As you may or may not know, I’ve spent significant time in some parts of the developing world; I think most people are genuine when they speak of “increasing” the quality of life in such places but I also don’t think that most people really consider the weight of action such pronouncements carry. I’ve been involved in such actions and the high flying rhetoric, regardless of the source, never – ever- matches the hard realities.

I agree with you, or at least I think I do, when you question technological determinism. As someone who is more of a “doer” I think that such matters like discussions over Technological Determinism are used specifically to gather around the proponents who use its arguments an aura of rhetorical morality without any of the real questions of implementation, or consequences. It to me is the fundamental flaw of technology borne civil-libertarianism

I suppose you could apply this standard to things “closer to home” and ostentatiously or at least rhetorically related to OWS as many of them seem to argue, via determinism, that technology will somehow vis-a-vis bring about the fall of capitalism by its mere existence.

I sometimes get the feeling that the technology has the exact opposite effects that proponents of determinism claim, namely that it has actually centralized (or as Venkat says, guts out the middle of) things rather then “decentralizing” or “democratizing”. The fact such activists even encourage “Darknet” projects and “Freeing All The Information – Except Mine” seems to bely their points about technological determinism.

So if a proponent of technological determinism does not put their boots on the ground in such developing nations then I think it follows that they will not have any meaningful influence through their rhetoric alone.

The internet is a newspaper when related to technological determinism .

Jack Tame July 15, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Thankyou for your interesting article. I’d like to know where you consider yourself in this cycle. Is your article conspicuous production? Also, how do you address your very middle class assumptions about work ‘choice’? I’m not entirely sure that that career choices are that simple, or so binary as you make them. Perhaps these are not simple socio-economic lines here but the delimiting lines of ‘taste’ as you see it (I notice your clear distaste at the ‘smelly tradesman’ attempting to transcend his class boundaries by his using of terms that you consider now unfashionable). I am also confused by your use of the word ‘sexy’. Are these the jobs that you don’t find sexy? I’d like to know which jobs you find the most viscerally sexy. Is being a mechanic a sexy job? Perhaps it is a sexy job to one class, to whom being a poet is distinctly effete and distinctly unsexy. This brings me to my other confusion is that ‘sexy’ by your definition seems too fixed in time as well as class – surely what is sexy changes over time, and to which class is viewing it? Where does changing fashion intersect here?

A Bad Pun About The Word Artisanal July 22, 2013 at 10:48 pm

A fascinating article.

I may have missed a key point here, but you seem to imply that the value (in terms of satisfaction rather than $) created for the artisanal / conspicuous / sexy producer through the enjoyment of their work is of lesser importance than value created for their conspicuous consumers; in fact, that artisanal production is in some way a contemptible decadence. You also deride the inefficiencies of local vs. centralized, global production.

If we take these factors to the logical extreme, we would have a world of local communities of individual artisans providing a highly specialized service to other artisans. Wildly inefficient, utterly meaningless, totally impossible, and infinitely more satisfying and conducive to happy individuals and communities than a life cleansing data or replacing cogs for The Machine. Schlep work tends toward being crushingly awful for humans to do; arbeit does not macht us frei in this context. The guarantee of an income under our child-machine overlords is not a very satisfying vision of our future as a species. We must hope that the Is which you so accurately describe does not come to be taken as an Ought.

Especially given the fundamentally arbitrary nature of advanced capitalism, perhaps a more human-friendly discussion would be around how we can make the creation of enjoyable, sexy, artisanal roles and communities more economically viable, rather than advocating a faster descent into us all being paid $2.50 a day by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to post comments like this ;-)

Venkat July 22, 2013 at 11:05 pm

“Totally impossible” is your key phrase here. It makes your thought experiment uninteresting in the same way speculating with literal-minded belief on the nature of a hunter-gatherer vision of heaven from 4000 BC is uninteresting. Unless there is fictional entertainment or a more direct allegorical lesson there, I don’t see the point in even thinking the what-if through, let alone living it by censoring reality artfully. It’s angels on a pinhead stuff.

Perhaps there is a way to do machines so we can all be happy artisans without killing off the extra people, hiding truths or giving up the very real non-artisanal/non-human joys of participating in technological evolution. If so, I’d be happy to repudiate my position and join that religion.

A Bad Pun About The Word Artisanal July 22, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Thanks for the fast and thoughtful response :-)

I think the Is-Ought issue is the key one, actually. Your accurate and creative insights into the role of sentiment in our choice of career should serve as a warning to people who plan to pursue the sexy path; you’re right to note that these are the people who too often end up being exploited by providing free or unsustainably cheap labour. You’re also right to note machines will steal a lot of so-called ‘creative’ jobs in the near future – an obvious example is web design, where professionals are increasingly displaced by easy-to-use consumer tools.

I don’t agree, however, that this is a necessary or inescapable truth now or in the future. I don’t agree that the wise alternative is to abandon this path for all time in favour of sensible and difficult-to-replace schlep work, although that does of course have its own value. I don’t even agree that given the current market realities, pursuing the sexy work is totally inadvisable: I can think of dozens of examples in my city (not Portland, I swear) of fetishistically conspicuous producers surviving and thriving. Will they be there in 10 years? I don’t know. Are they happier carving locally-sourced meat / selling organic flowers / doing latte art than digital chimney-sweeping? Certainly.

I’d be interested to hear more about what you see as the non-artisanal and particularly non-human joys of participating in technological evolution? Do you mean finding joy and meaning around the edges of your life, while consigning your day-to-day existence to data cleansing and gear polishing?

G July 23, 2013 at 1:30 am

What a lot of people mean by phrases such as “the non-human joys of participating in technological evolution,” has something to do with their hopes for immortality via “upload” into an artificial intelligence. Toward that end, all human values are rendered obsolete.

This sort of thing, in an earlier era, was referred to as being “assimilated by the Borg”. But now the Borg has been re-packaged and slickly marketed, and gains eager converts day by day.

See also my reply to Venkat’s reply to your posting, re his comment about “join(ing) that religion.”

Venkat July 23, 2013 at 2:12 am
A Bad Pun About The Word Artisanal July 23, 2013 at 2:25 am

Thanks for the links – I’ve actually already read the Aeon one (another interesting piece and a great publication) although I didn’t realize it was by you!

Will read up and respond if my questions are unanswered.

Kay July 28, 2013 at 4:28 am

Yes, Venkat weaved together lots of themes in the Aeon article, which were presented here before in greater length. The intellectual level of articles comments is disconcerting. At best people complain that they get fooled, that their Jeffersonian village illusion is not perfect, despite longing for nothing else. This is a cynical loser attitude if there ever was one.

Structurally the article is basically classical metaphysics, discerning the real world from its mere appearances and public opinion. I do think many of us can relate to it, but would avoid the use of the word “religion” to emphasize the authors “decoding” activity. It is somewhat strange of course that the metaphysical attitude has been stronger discredited as religious belief and we see now that it is badly needed for the ongoing life of the mind.

G July 23, 2013 at 1:22 am

Re. “join(ing) that religion.” Be careful what you wish for. There’s another new religion afoot, which is highly-promoted beyond its actual number of adherents. The primary tenets of that religion are:

1) Computers are the new deities that humans must serve.
2) Humans who are successful at serving the new deities will be given a rewarding hereafter.
3) The rewarding hereafter will consist of immortality through nanotech reincarnation into an AI.
4) Humans who do not serve the new deities will suffer cessation of existence at death.
5) The appropriate ethical stance is harsh social darwinism with post-facto justifications built in.
6) There is no room for mammalian values, much less human values, only machine values and market values.

The name I would propose for the new religion is “neo-golem worship”, or just “the Computer God cult,” but somehow I don’t think its adherents will appreciate either of those.

Venkat July 23, 2013 at 2:09 am

No, this is not at all what I mean. You’re reading something unrelated into my remarks.

G July 23, 2013 at 3:02 am

Hi Venkat- Sorry about my lack of clarity, I didn’t mean to imply that you meant those things. Only that those beliefs are popular in certain circles, are being highly promoted, and that we should be aware of them and their implications, and view them with healthy skepticism.

We are living in a somewhat unusual time when many new belief systems are emerging. Many of them have non-obvious ethical implications that are troubling upon closer examination. Some of them “look like but are not” others, and are easily confused with others. For example the “nanotech immortality” crowd are not the same as the “singularitarians.” Progressive libertarians are not the same species as regressive libertarians (the latter I call “propertarians” who are big on property rights but regressive on person-rights).

The present times resemble earlier eras when numerous new religions and philosophies emerged. I’m tempted to say “a kind of Biblical era,” similar to the Middle East at the time when Christianity emerged and many other new or minority religions flourished and underwent a kind of ecological selection process. (Zoroastrianism still exists to this day, and interestingly there has also been a re-emergence of ancient Greek polytheism.)

The major difference is that a substantial number of today’s new belief systems are overtly agnostic or atheistic, locating their ground of being elsewhere than in a deity. Absent a deity to provide a first-cause for ethical principles, very often the question of ethics is not directly addressed, or is addressed in a manner that leads to numerous unintended consequences. (And to be clear, here I am not promoting the idea that belief in a deity is a necessary precondition for a grounded or complete ethical system: theistic belief systems can and often do have significant holes in their own ethical fabrics as well.)

(More later, meanwhile back to work for me, yes at this hour, and it’s going to be a long night…)

A Bad Pun About The Word Artisanal July 23, 2013 at 3:13 am

G: agree with the general thrust of your argument. Can you link to anything on new Greek polytheism? That sounds fascinating.

Kay July 23, 2013 at 1:40 pm

G, all of this exists mostly on the level of pop-science and pop-philosophy and I guess its impact is much smaller than the belief in science and technology has been in 1960s.

About the Neo-Golem. There has been a Stanislav Lem novel, GOLEM XIV from the 1970s. The English version is part of the book Imaginary Magnitude.

GOLEM XIV is somewhat like the singularity for grown ups, approaching the event without religious fervor. GOLEM delivers two speeches, one about our anthropocentric delusions and the other one about the abyss, which separates us from him as well as ANNIE, a next generation supercomputer which surpasses GOLEM just like he surpasses mankind. Lem’s conclusion is one of existential solitude: the new God has spoken and now he leaves us alone again. He is neither our judge nor our messiah, nor our nanny. He just explains how the world is like from the viewpoint of a being which begins to control its own evolution, after this had been an accidental and stupid path like any other – written in the 1970s, GOLEM is a child of the cold war. Today he would possibly be created with even more stupid goals then winning the war against the USSR.

A Bad Pun About The Word Artisanal July 23, 2013 at 2:30 am

G, I’ve come across those beliefs before, and agree that there’s a whiff of that in any discussion of ‘non-human’ values or ‘technological evolution’ of which we should be wary – but don’t quite think that’s what Venkat is talking about here.

G July 23, 2013 at 3:11 am

Agreed, I don’t think Venkat is promoting that belief-set, any more than he’s promoting any particular economic class orientation in his original posting (it can be read in various ways). He writes in a manner that often appears to have one set of meanings when read on the surface, and a substantially different set of meanings when one really pays attention. That’s also a good method for selecting in favor of a more thoughtful audience (as we’ve seen from the commentary on his blog generally).

I’d be interested in where and what context you ran into the beliefs I mentioned, and how you responded to them, and how your beliefs differ. Reason is, I think we are at a point where strong assertions of human values (or in a broader sense, natural-person values) are called for, to explicate the differences between some of these emerging belief systems, and to engage a broader debate about beliefs & values. The economic and personal values associated with work are one instance, there are many others.

Josh July 25, 2013 at 6:54 pm

I’m a little confused by the conflation of “sexy” work with psychological atrophy and “shlep” work with psychological growth. I hear the point that a lot of sexy work is easy work masquerading as demanding work, and thus the presumption that sexy = growth is wrong, but I would think atrophy / growth is a dimension orthogonal to all the categories on the table. (For instance, you’re associating sexy work with a state of flow, which I tend to associate with psychological growth, since achieving and maintaining flow generally requires continually improving one’s skills).

Also, I don’t think one can really consider the question of “saving work” without separating out the current role that works plays as a means of economic redistribution from the role that it plays in creating a purpose / narrative for one’s life. Computers and automation threaten the former; the latter is only at stake insofar as it remains tied to the notion of work.

Anyway, interesting, thought-provoking post…

G July 29, 2013 at 9:49 am

Since it appears that reply-comments don’t exist after a certain level of reply-and-reply in threads, I’ll post this reply to a bunch of replies here:

Re. Venkat re. my taxonomy: Thanks, and there’s plenty more where that came from;-) I wonder what you think of this: definition of “civilization” as “a type of society within which knowledge increases and violence decreases.” Those two items entail the development of law and provide the precondition for the development of cities. That is, law and cities are effects of the two conditions I identify, rather than causes or spontaneous arisings. The development of law and cities then has a relationship of reciprocal reinforcement with knowledge increase and violence decrease. There are exceptions such as the Nazi regime, wherein violence increases and is exported as a primary product of the regime, but so far those exceptions don’t appear to rise to the level of falsifying the definition.

Re. Anthony and Goblin, re. corruption among those in the “protectors & defenders” category: In general corruption, as well as predation and parasitism, can be defined as an illegitimate attempt to coerce others to perform energy-conversion for one’s own benefit, usually toward one’s own energy-surplus. This occurs in all categories in my taxonomy. Financialization of the economy, and takeover by the managerial/administrative sector, are obvious modern examples. But any individual or group with power, particularly in the absence of checks & balances, can behave in a parasitic or predatory manner, and can exhibit corruption. IMHO the solution to this requires further social evolution in terms of cultural norms that can be effectively enforced.

Re. “A Bad Pun” re. link to info on Greek polytheism: There was an article in BBC News recently. Sorry but I didn’t save a link, but you can probably find it by searching BBC or using DuckDuckGo or Ixquick (thou shalt not use the name of Google as a synonym for search engines, lest thee sacrifice thy privacy and with it thy liberty).

Goblin July 29, 2013 at 5:41 pm

I suppose from my “doer” perspective I find the notion of “social evolution” somewhat at odds with my own experience. I’m of the mind that the culture and its norms, though often helpful, aren’t the really the crux of the matter. Fundamental human need is, and in my it view remains the best, and often only motivator of consequence.

Fictional works of lucid prose can portray: graft, malfeasance, or sloth as “morally acceptable” within certain circumstances. Yet these narratives don’t always have to be fictional. Who after all holds it against the fast food worker if they, only working part time as an only job, might not pay for a meal or two; or the openly slothful office type who feel justified in dragging his/her feet over an important project because of… let’s call them corporate factors?

These corporate factors are what I am assuming you are making reference to when you refer to “cultural norms”? If this is the case I would argue you aren’t actually dealing with culture but rather with the fundamental linkage between what work pays and what that pay gets in fundamental needs.

I suppose you could call all worker-boss relationships “coercive” and Venkat unpacks these at length in his writings on this site, but I think that definition alone doesn’t give you much to work with. Not matter how you cut the fat, it’s still the fat. In the end all thats left is the carving game, and some players are naturally better than others.

This is the sort of nihilism of Universal values, I’ve described it before, (in job interviews of all ironies!) as a sort of “Existential Crisis” of a certain sub-set of us in the economy. We “followed or dreams” and realized that they weren’t tenable, and so now we seek to find “meaningful” work that also is “needed” work, always with a drift towards the “needed” category.

I could write fictional prose of my own about the “corruption of the system.” Indeed some radical political movements ostentatiously tried, and still continue, to exploit this avenue making it their reason-for-existence. Yet what do we keep coming back to? its all a game!

And a game where the rules are only based upon agreement between fluid individuals. Sure there are some areas of agreement across the sweep of humanity but even still the expression thereof, and thus the rules so written, may motivate one person to act one way and another individual to act another. The only fix is more ink, and the process repeats. without any true “evolution.”

Sorry for being long winded about it, but I think the prefix-“social” anything is simply a way to smudge in ambiguity under the guise of morality, and in this day and age of internet communications that is simply the easiest way to kill the dialogue between two individuals that may have in fact been in agreement, or at least “near enough” to not warrant a complete severance of their ties no matter how weak those ties might have been. It’s one of those strange inverse functions of internet.

G July 30, 2013 at 7:54 am

Re. Goblin:

Social evolution is at odds with your own experience? Do you live in a part of the world where child-beating and spouse-beating are increasing rather than decreasing, where slavery is making a comeback, and/or where racism and antiSemitism are becoming newly institutionalized in law?

Strictly speaking, evolution is change over time in the heritable characteristics of species, as a function of natural selection. However we as humans use the term with the semantic implication of increase in the characteristics we value in our own species, notably intelligence. A more accurate term for what I have in mind would be “social progress.” And make no mistake, there has been social progress during the 20th century, which continues on numerous fronts today, with (among many examples) a black American president and a gay-friendly Pope. That progress is not a straight line: as with many natural phenomena it moves in fits and starts, and occasionally moves against the prevailing trend, but the overall trend continues.

Cultural norms != “corporate factors,” and the meaning of that phrase is unclear. Where I speak of “cultural norms” I’m referring to pluralities and majorities within entire cultures; and by “cultures” I mean societal groupings that are associated with the elements of personal identity and are not identical with national boundaries.

Worker/employer relations are not coercive in an economy where workers have real and effective capacity to bargain for pay and for terms & conditions of employment. That capacity may come in the form of collective bargaining, or in the form of true choice of jobs in a full-employment economy, or in the form of ready access to capital for starting new businesses. In the present economy none of those conditions obtain to any realistic degree, so worker/employer relations are more likely to be coercive, and examples of coercion abound.

The rest of your paragraph about “the carving game” is unclear.

“Needed” work is inherently “meaningful” by virtue of its necessity. However one of the perversities of our economy is that the most necessary jobs are very often radically underpaid, for example farm labor. And here is one of the grand ironies of late-stage crony capitalism: “jobs Americans won’t do” is a Big Lie to mask an obvious truth: Jobs Americans won’t do _at that wage level_. That’s what’s called a _market signal_, and the law of _supply and demand_ requires a _wage increase_ to increase the supply of labor. But the crony capitalists instead seek to circumvent the very market principles they claim to worship, by opening the floodgates to immigrants and thereby artificially drive down the price of labor! Socialism for the cronies, social darwinism for the masses, about which I say: socialism for all or socialism for none.

“…its all a game …where the rules are only based upon agreement between fluid individuals.” Nope. And “…the prefix-”social” anything is simply a way to smudge in ambiguity under the guise of morality…” is not even wrong, on two counts.

I’m highly cynical about the use of the term “social” in the context of “social networking” and all of the hyped internet-fluff that very often is used as a disguise for promoting a panoptic surveillance dystopia. But I refuse to concede the definition of “social” to its Newspeak derivative in that context.

Humans are social animals, that form societies in order to increase their probability of natural selection success. Social progress entails (among other things) explication and codification of social rules, and bringing social rules into alignment with empirical realities.

Lastly, an explicit and unambiguous system of morality can ultimately be derived from empirical facts about the characteristics of living organisms. Yes, I’m heading straight for deriving Ought from Is. I’m going to publish a lengthy piece on that subject elsewhere, and my reasoning will stand or fall on its own merits.

Goblin July 30, 2013 at 4:29 pm

G

You beg the question. Is there any place where such behaviors do not exist?

Human trafficking still exists, even in the 1st world, even though there are both laws and active enforcement efforts made to suppress and eliminate its practice. The very recent Ariel Castro Kidnapping case, seems apropos here, and the existence of such cases is central to my point. Are you suggesting that “social evolution” will prevent such cases as these in the future? If so how?

History is filled with failed utopias.

The frameworks, and settings of societies change but how that structure changes over time doesn’t fundamentally affect the fact that humans still behave the way they do. Show me a human who does not thirst and then I will believe that his morals and morality are fundamentally different.

I guess as the “knuckle-dragger” of the discussion board I want to take away something that is reliant upon a framework that is based on empirical fact and thus be readily recognized within the rubric of everyday life. Since my Liberal Arts days I have been very skeptical of any claims of an “unambiguous system of morality” I provided examples in my last post , where does the morality fall for the starving fast food employee, what about the also under-payed small boss between that worker and the middle-class owner?

“But I refuse to concede the definition of “social” to its Newspeak derivative in that context.”

So far you have not demonstrated or defined “social” in any meaningful way. It is that failure to demonstrate or define on your, and other’s, part that is the source of this comment. I have more or less defined “social” as “ambiguous” and I think it is notable that you rather then dis-disambiguating or defining the term promote further ambiguity by simply stating what “it-is-not”. That is all well and good, but what exactly is it within the framework your phrase “social evolution”.

I would be very interested to see how that term defines and fits into your thinking, and your response to the continued existence of bad actors within that system.

With regards to “Corporate Factors”: it was a poor reference to Venkat’s lengthy writings on what he calls the, “The Gervais Principle”

How do you refute the idea that the rules themselves are fluid? You are dismissive of this idea, why? What allows you the freedom to make this judgment if not the very fluidity you seemingly deny? Not even Kant and his “empirical facts” could derive fully accepted rules for morality and as I stated earlier I am skeptical of such attempts to move such theory into action. Implementation is everything.

I would be interested to read the article you are working on whenever you are finished.

Thanks for the engaging discussion.

G July 31, 2013 at 7:04 am

I do question, but I work so I don’t have to beg;-)

Yes, human trafficking still exists, but the key point is that it is no longer tolerated in civilized cultures. (The fact that diseases still exist does not mean that there is no progress in medicine.) Just this week the FBI rescued over 100 underage girls across the US, and busted their pimps.

Social evolution means that in America, Ariel Castro is a criminal who has been brought to justice and sentenced to life in prison. In Saudi Arabia, conduct such as his still has a legal avenue via arranged “marriages” to underage girls, but if Saudi culture evolves, that type of conduct will no more be tolerated there than it is here (there are signs: Saudi women are starting to demand the right to drive automobiles, which is a beginning). The pace of change and the steps forward are not the same everywhere. China has made an enormous leap in industry and technology, and is going to catch up in workplace conditions. The US still has to catch up to certain countries in Europe on a number of measures of quality of life. Etc.

Humans everywhere yearn for freedom and dignity, equality under law, economic security, and improving quality of life. As long as any country is moving ahead on any of those, and the information has any way of spreading (even North Korea can’t keep the news of life in South Korea from spreading), there will be demands for progress. Occasionally a regressive regime will take power (such as the Taliban in Afghanistan) but those exceptions don’t invalidate the generalization. In the 1930s it appeared as if dictatorship (both fascist and communist) was the wave of the future. We all know how that worked out;-)

The core ingredients for social progress are built into living organisms: hardwired all the way down the phylogenetic scale. Every organism seeks to preserve its own existence (altruistic sacrifice does not invalidate that generalization). Even the fruit fly demonstrates behavioral evidence of free will (Maye et. al., PLoS One). And even the planarian (1/4″-long flatworm) demonstrates preference for pleasure over pain (learning to seek sugar water and avoid electric shock). That’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” respectively, an empirical and intrinsic Is with an automatic Ought.

History is more than filled with untried options, both utopian and dystopian. Human imagination always extends the range of the possible beyond the range of the existing.

Humans thirst, lions eat gazelles, and mosquitos carry diseases. The difference is that humans have the choice to satisfy their thirsts without harming others, and lions and mosquitos do not.

I am skeptical of unambiguous moralities, highly skeptical of moralities based upon “revealed truths” (even those that exist in my own system) and overtly cynical about rigid moralities that fail to deal with changing empirical realities and with their own internal contradictions. But I am also skeptical of ambiguous moralities, majoritarian rules, and post-facto rationales.

You’re quite right, I haven’t defined “social,” so I’ll do that now, right off the top of my head (or out the bottom of my bottom if you prefer;-)

“Social”: of or pertaining to the characteristics of a society.
“Society”: a recognizable group of individuals living under a common rule-set.

“Social evolution” or more accurately “social progress” at its most basic level consists of increase of knowledge and decrease of violence within a society: this may (hypothetically) be operationalized and measured as an increase in the quantity and longevity of embodied information.

One can always construct apparent exceptions, but beyond a certain point, those sorts of constructions are themselves invalid when it is clear they do not obtain empirically. (For example the “ticking bomb” torture scenario is, according to FBI and military sources, wholly unrealistic and thus an invalid basis for justifying torture.)

Ahh yes, you spotted my Kantian influences;-)

What you identify as “fluidity” in rules, I identify as their “fractal dimension”: sets of rules and exceptions nested “all the way down” like the proverbial turtles, scaling with magnification. For example, “you should obey the law.” But an exception is, “where the law requires you to harm others, you should not obey the law.” And an exception to that is, “where harming others is necessary in the course of defense of self or innocent others (or defense of one’s own or an innocent other society) against aggression, you should be willing to do so, within the limits of a Just War theory and the laws on justifiable uses of force.” And the exception to that is, “where a society claims to act in self-defense but the manifest facts demonstrate such claim to be fraudulent, you should be willing to disobey.” Notice that at each step, there is a “conscience call” to be made.

Fractal rules and exceptions all the way down. For which reason, the practices of mindfulness and concentration improve the capacity for moral discernment, including the ability to parse out the difference between conscience, convenience, and self-interest.

What allows me the freedom to say these things (and attempt to live by them), is my intrinsic nature (neurophysiology) plus my citizenship in a free country. What makes what I say correct or incorrect or “not even wrong” is whether it comports with empirical facts, experiential facts, and logical reasoning.

Kant didn’t have the findings of 20th and 21st century science at his disposal. We do. A few centuries from now, people might say “G and Goblin didn’t have the findings of 22nd and 23d century science at their disposal.” And onward they’ll go.

BTW, what I’m writing is more than an article, though I wouldn’t be so hubricious as to call it a book, particularly if self-published online. Nor is it popular philosophy since I do not have the academic credentials of a philosopher nor the public recognition of popularity. It was and is an exercise that needed to be done, and to be published on the chance it may encourage others to do similar exercises for themselves.

Meanwhile, tonight I have to get back to chopping wood and carrying water… (15% artisanship, 85% schlepping)

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Laure August 9, 2013 at 9:27 am

You obscure your entire point by using BARDS as an example.
All bards were paid in roughly similar fashion — with SEX.

In this, they served a highly necessary biological function —
decreasing the rate of inbreeding.

You call “Creative Class” …sexy. And then drop the fucking ball on it, completely.
Not everyone is interested in money — a lot of folks just want to have sex (or, alternatively, find a cool life partner).

neil21 August 29, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Asimov: “Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders.” http://www.buzzfeed.com/charliewarzel/isaac-asimovs-1964-prediction-of-2014-is-frighteningly-accur

June Gorman September 1, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Asimov: “Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders.”

The most “unsexy” and “meaningless” work of all. But then again, who needs sex as both its functions will have lost their point in this model of what is valuable human work or life. Since the machines will be our new “children” we can slavishly work for until we, not they, die and since the alienation will become even more acute in this emotionally unintelligent model that means we won’t even need the “porn” for faked human intimacy. Their is no intimacy between “machines” and their now intestinal flora/fauna tenderers, who will be reduced to parasites upon them.

Though a cognitively interesting discussion to some, I suppose, this is not a world I would want to bring either more real and thus human children into, or myself find value in continuing to live in at all. I think I do truly prefer to me more “creative” in what else I can imagine in that world instead.

Strange how many premises of determinant uber-value assumptions underlie this original post and how bleak and cold, its ultimate conclusions. As if we have to resign ourselves to the dominant (and increasingly ugly and narrow) current economic/production model and make our unhappy peace with becoming machine-slaves in every sense of the word. And accept it all because that’s the “logic” of this economic model.

I don’t. :-) I don’t think that logic is the actual counter to this model of life or value. And think there is plenty of creative, hard, complex alternative-modeling work that is indeed “sexy”, as working with other people who themselves aren’t so resigned to the narrowness of these paradigm restrictions , and who can imagine and create together a far more exciting and “human” alternative, can actually be a real “turn on”.

But I’m demanding that way — preferring real human interactions and still believing them far more “intelligent” and creative and complex in all the truly important ways than machines can ever be. And thus far more attractive.

Just kinky that way, I guess.

Madge October 17, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Schlep work is not doing what machines don’t do well, it’s doing what the other various types of bards, who are still increasingly employable, don’t or won’t touch with a 10 foot pole to save their own lives.

Ultimately the real schlep in the information age becomes a completely unemployable jack of all trades. So it’s ironic that the real hard work results in unemployable status and the conspicuous consumption aspect of work specializations is used to get a job.

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