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10 September 2015

Labor: The Future of the Mental and the Physical

All work is some combination of mental and physical labor. The industrial revolution started us on a trajectory that is limiting the physical part. Many worry that AI/robotics is encroaching on the mental part. Here is a good primer on the subject to catch you up. I think this line of thinking--even if potentially prone to hyperbole and overreaction--poses some important questions, a few of which I'll tackle here.
  1. What is an economy?
    • I think a pretty basic definition of an economy is that it is a social institution (among others) that deals with the production and exchange of goods and services. I think it has become easy for us to think about the economy as somehow essential to humanity because capitalism, our current form of the economy, forces us to reduce humans to their roles as consumers and laborers at the expense of their roles in other social institutions.
  2. What does a post-human economy look like?
    • If a future economy employs "bots," or whatever, instead of humans, it's important to realize that humans could no longer serve as consumers in that economy either. After all, if I am not being paid a wage, I have nothing to spend on things that I would otherwise purchase. The implicit fear is that a post-human economy would lead to widespread deprivation and inequality, that a relative few would benefit to the detriment of others (a decidedly odd fear since that is precisely the kind of system that we already endure with capitalism).
  3. What do humans do in that kind of an economy?
    • Let's assume that we figure out how to get the bots to work and provide for humans' wants and desires relatively equally. I think that we already have some hints at what humans would be doing if we consider how we artificially re-created the benefits of physical labor through recreational exercise. Once we realized that there were some negative health effects from "working" behind a desk instead of working (no quotes) out in the fields (e.g. heart disease), we invented activities like jogging, weightlifting, and Jazzercise™ to counteract the harm. I don't think it's too difficult to imagine a world in which we do mental exercises to replace the lost mental labor. (Note to self: register the trademark "Mentalcize.") If this seems odd to you, imagine having to explain recreational running to someone in the 19th century.
  4. What do humans do if they're not doing economy?
    • Again, I think the notion that humans are primarily economic animals, homo economicus as it were, is a part of the false consciousness necessitated by capitalism. As a creative species, we can recognize that we are much more than this. A post-human economy would open up an enormous expanse of time and psychic potential for all of the other social institutions and endeavors, like family, friends, and the arts. We would be limited only by our own imaginations.
I, for one, welcome our new insect bot overlords.

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