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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Star Trek, Class Warfare, and Workers' Futures

When you watch a movie like any in the Star Trek franchise, you notice that you don't see a lot of industry happening. Why? Well, much of it isn't relevant to the storyline and would even be distracting, but part of it is that so much would have been automated, by then.

Look at modern factories around the world. Cars are largely assembled by robots. Robotic shipping systems send my packages from Amazon to other receiving and sorting systems in other places so that they might make their way to me via the USPS, UPS or FedEx. 

I live in farm country. I remember doing some of the same tasks as a teenager in Summer jobs that I see being done faster and more efficiently by machines, now. Near where I live, a company makes farm equipment and is on the cutting edge of design and innovation. I expect that some of the farm tasks we currently see migrant workers perform will soon be done by machine. Tractors and other equipment are already being fitted with GPS and systems which guide them through fields to plant and harvest with an efficiency that humans alone can't match. 

So, what will happen to people? Are people going to be made irrelevant and useless? I don't think so. I think automation will free us to do the things we want to do, not just the things we have to do. We won't need to direct all of our energies to earn enough to feed our families and ourselves. We will be able to go, explore, see, research, meet, experiment, and do. Automation might be what saves us from ourselves. Think about it, if people have more time to go and meet others, that is to say to meet people unlike themselves and whom they might never meet if they're tied to a job, they're much more likely to come to understand those people and rather than war...we might wage dinner.

But one's keep would still need to be earned. Surely a future in which one need only contribute to the common weal by means other than manual labor or monotonous mental exertion would be able to find niches where each of us could help move the race forward, outward to the stars, and for those who just couldn't break the old mindset, perhaps help them to look out to new horizons beyond Earth's or even Sol's influence.

But there are roadblocks to that utopian future. First, those who currently possess the wealth aren't going to want to part with it easily. They're not going to voluntarily take on a hundred people to support who do no work for their pay, but who simply draw a paycheck. So the first obstacle is figuring out how to insure that wealth and income are more evenly distributed. This might mean massive purchases by government. As ugly as the concept of nationalization is, it might be the only means of avoiding massive unemployment. The alternative is a dystopian 'Elysium'-like future where the wealthy owners live wholly apart from the rest of us in our downtrodden world. In a sense, it's where we are now minus the separation that the future holds. We're already going in that direction; the wealthy pay less tax now than ever, meaning they get to keep their wealth and use it to avoid the very things which have come to burden the rest of us who are kept just above absolute poverty, many living paycheck to paycheck with no real hope of ever getting ahead. Make no mistake, the wealthy like it that way. 

Next, once the wealth and income are distributed more equally, you have to figure out a way to allow innovators special consideration without tipping the balance and returning to the current system of inequity. This will probably lead to more disagreement than any other area save the next one. But note that I said innovators, not investors. There will probably always be a class of people who believe that it's their right to profit as middlemen. There may be a place for them in the future, but not one that I can see.

Under our current system, wealth is usually passed on by inheritance, but inheritance will necessarily disappear - other than family mementos - in a crowded world. Do the math. If in one generation, 10% of the world's land area is owned, then that percentage will only grow in time. At some future point, it will all be owned, but the population will have exploded, increasing almost exponentially. So, because a relative few families own so much, many others must do without anything at all. That's not fair. It's not fair to future generations who would stand no chance to own something themselves.

The only fair way is the way some societies do it: When a person dies, his house and land are returned to public holding. If he has a family, then of course they can remain in that house, but it passes into their name on loan, not in perpetuity. If several family members died and left no one to occupy their homes, those would go back to public holding. Essentially, we would be saying that this Earth belongs to all of us, not just a handful of us; we just borrow it and therefore accept responsibility for keeping it maintained for future generations in return for free rent. A great deal of flexibility would accrue to the property holders so that they would be able to modify the properties as they saw fit as long as no permanent damage was done and the property was returned in at least as good shape as when it was given for use.

We would want to establish criteria for participation, too. Not work in the sense we see it now, but pitching in when new technologies need to be built or where talent could be utilized, something to earn one's keep.

On the one hand, there's Utopia, and on the other its opposite, dystopia. Our future probably lies in between those two extremes. We can make the same deal that we have for the last few thousand years and continue to go nowhere in fixing the problems that the 99% experience, or we can do as Albert Einstein suggested when he noted that insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting something different: We can change the way people see each other. We can treat others, everyone, as equals, even if we disagree with them. We can stop looking down at the family with the rundown car and clothes purchased at Walmart and we can start accepting that they too matter, just as much as anyone else.

Does that sound Utopian? If so, then it's probably the opposite that we deserve.