I sometimes drive home with the Lounge Lizard, just off his shift at Bazaar. Maybe we’ll find one last drink in dark west Vegas or need to hit a convenience store for the vaporizer cartridge (we addicts never think ahead), but more often stop for fast food at a particular joint on Rainbow. The Lizard will yell his order through an illuminated menu obelisk before we arrive at a more modest payment window. It’s close enough to the ground that I can see hints of the inner workings. The place is not empty, but it doesn’t have the bustle of employees you’d recall from the nostalgic, paper-hat-and-a-smile days.
The transaction is, in fact, always startling fast, but I have time to notice that cups are being dropped by a dispenser and filled automatically. There’s a task gone, and thus a fraction of a job. Only a fraction, though: someone had pressed a button to start this process. The orders are a mixed process, employee and machine, but the employee rules by necessity. After all, you can’t be sure what comes out the other end of that microphone; consider the error rate from that telephone voice that can’t get you to the tech department, never mind to your right burger size and beverage choice. Someday, though, and soon, it could all be robots: voice command, payment taken, food dispensed. Then, back into the shifty Vegas night without pause, lights flickering on distant roads, the homeless in every crevice, every corner biding its revenge.
Of course, what labor made our car, its gnarly roads, this restaurant, and the giant sprawling city that even invited our transaction? The great irony of the middle-brow commentator, whom we once called the Luddite, now a third-year humanities grad who couldn’t exist without his computer, or above all, the Twitter fear-take specialist, is that all of them combine to produce so few of what they fear will be gone. Meanwhile, a million new jobs keep opening in this city, year after year, in an unquenchable thirst for the desert.
That’s not what drives fear though, and Chicken Little is right: the sky will in fact fall – in a few billion years.
For now, what people fear is automation of what they do. It only gets worse, no? AI. The Singularity.
What’s far closer to relevance – if not “truth,” which is rarely claimed in good faith – about job loss is that some human labor is both irreplaceable and cheap and for some period of time. AKA things come, things go. The restaurant industry could, perhaps, be replacing many of these humble burger masters, if not the mind of the Lounge Lizard’s precision rare skill in haute cuisine. The problem is, it’s not worth it. At some point human labor is simply less costly than its automation. Further, who checks their work? Is it worth checking? And who is freed up to do something else?
Human labor has value, endless delimited value, because there’s always too much to do, not too little. For this reason, fear, fear of decline, fear of too little always has a certain 19th century musk. It’s Dr. Frankenstein’s genius, not his monster, which we fear, and which will explain the future worship of the Mary and the Romantics, since we are finishing up with that other Mary and her consequential fib. Someone diabolical is out there, about to move my cheese and all of our cheeses, we rigorously ponder, shouldn’t we unionize and grab a slice? Cheese movers should not exist, they scrawl in zines and publications aimed at Ikea fans who just love Scott Seiss.
One lost job leads to another job or fraction of a job or some other thing, maybe more, maybe less; the job Malthusians just don’t cut it, I am afraid, and have not for a long time. Things happen both to address needs in the in short term (efficient measures are the easiest) and long-term issues (real inefficiencies require genius and efforts), each which yield their appropriate rewards.
For the short term it’s even hard to find enough workers in Las Vegas, so wages and closures are way up: equilibrium. Addressing real inefficiencies is generally more difficult, for obvious reasons, and more profitable – think breakthrough practices, technologies, and their creators. This explains why the Marxian “Law of Value,” while a thrilling Malthusian thought, one that inspires a lot of tut-tutting and shake-heading is not ultimately taken seriously by real economists – i.e. entrepreneurs – with genuine tasks nor observed in the ongoing reality of wealth creation. What? The rise and fall of profit, jobs, activities, whole markets, nations and empires, are the cycle of sun and sunset, not the Mayan eclipse of the world or your generation. Reality is not very good for really zippy, scintillating Youtube fear-porn, and hating billionaires is pretty damn unoriginal if not embarrassing: you gave them the money, dweebs.
What, you again say, tearing us away from the big picture and back to our paycheck situation. I thought my life designing code or reviewing law or putting power points together is what can’t be replaced? I went to school for this! Why should the Lounge Lizard have work and why do I have to start voting for Andrew Yang and Cornie?
The future is rarely what people think it will be. The fine motor skills, the speed, the efficiency of the human body lends it to certain tasks and not to others. It’s too expensive to replace these traits with robots when there are so many humans available; it is more likely that some unanticipated significant lack of humans would create the scenario where our food is entirely machine made. The sage judgement of the cook may in fact mean his job will be even less replaceable in many scenarios – for those of you don’t speak even my pigeon econ, that means he gets paid more until the equilibrium point. The long-term breakthrough, the inefficiency of humans themselves at work, where the machine finally has to threaten to replace him too, is what one might really fear but as far as you are concerned, it is as near as the sun swallowing the planet. Moreover, why assume the future’s values or interests? Can even be sure we can posit correctly the kinds of cultures that will exist in future?
Maybe they just won’t want a late-night burger.
It’s nearly time to go. The most awkward part of the night is not the order or its creation, it’s the exchange of burgers for cash – imagine change, good Lord, through the windows and over the rivlet of concrete. Yet this is where the ambidextrous human should shine, no? Odd. Do we need the Lounge Lizard in back, barking orders, highly paid because no one can handle the complex machinery, and so we finally get to quit the idea of the waitress, the server, and all her damn tips? Hell no, we need her and her little black dress that shows just the cusp of a green tattoo pledging her loyalty to what-was-his-name, but burger guy in the corporate cap better not drop that precious bag! NO TIP FOR YOU, Elaine should have barked.
The future is unknown, kind of its nature, some might say. The media-approved guessers are really, really bad at their jobs, and that’s why they make so little. Doing stuff now is what matters. Fear of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence is misguided when it comes to your place in the world. It can’t make art worth looking at or deliver a taco worth the shell. The middle is what keeps needing to move on, not the bottom, because the middle is full of needs and anxieties and dreams: pay the piper for your sweet dreams of seeing no crevices and sleeping easy at night. Surviving and living the simple life has never really changed. As long as all we want is a midnight burger, we have a place in the world, and that world, odd as it may seem, will work absolute miracles to make sure we can get one.