Automated Poverty


I posted this as a comment in a thread, but I think it deserves its own thread.

25 years ago, at my first real tech job, I was approached by one of the administrative assistants for help getting some information for a spreadsheet she was working on.

As it turned out, the new information she needed was easily available in batch form, as was all the other information in the spreadsheet. She was spending all this time copying it out of different places into her spreadsheet every week.

It was all available via the network, so I just wrote a quick perl script that gathered it all up, stuck it in an excel spreadsheet, and emailed it to her. I stuck it in a cron job and moved on.

Monday rolled around, and she was less than thrilled. It turns out, generating that spreadsheet was her whole job. Now, it was just in her inbox first thing Monday morning.

The thing is, this is what Silicon Valley does. It’s really all it does: take boring, repeatable tasks that are wasting real humans time, and make computers do it instead. We’ve been doing it steadily for the past 25 years. We’ve automated whole industries out of existence.

That’s great, if you take the perspective that humans should be spending their lives experiencing the universe and making art, rather than compiling spreadsheets; but we haven’t done the other half of the work.

The other half of the work is unlinking the doing of all that boring, automatable work from the system of distributing resources. Letting the old system run itself out is going to mean ending up with a world where the people who own the most computers have all the resources, and everybody else gets to go back to living in shanties and villages.

This is what I hear people to mean when they say they want to “end capitalism.” We, the people are the collective owners of our nation, including its roads and resources, but we also own its system of law and its comfortable environment for doing stuff. Private enterprise’s ability to do big, interesting things depends on all those things. The idea that we, the people are owed a reasonable standard of living in exchange for those things is not particularly radical.

This is what I imagine when people talk about some sort of UBI: imagine that we’re all the children of an extremely wealthy family. The oldest son shouldn’t be the only one who gets an allowance.