In the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck describes evocatively man’s relationship to the land. It’s a highly reciprocal, ancient and deep pact. The farmers treat it tenderly, working generation after generation on the same patch, protecting it from the elements as best they can. They expect a bountiful harvest – and sometimes they get it. There’s a grudging respect, a deep love, a feeling of purpose it gives them.
“Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, and emerges ahead of his accomplishments.”
Times change. Tractors come and slice into the land with steel blades. One machine can do the job of 100 farmers. Families are uprooted – and so begins the journey to California, the exodus from the Great Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, and onto supposedly greener pastures. But nothing awaits there. The promised land is full of nothing other than violence, disappointment and misery.
“Muscles aching to work, minds aching to create – this is man.”
We find meaning in work. In being useful, in earning and providing. The powerful force of creative destruction challenges this need every few generations, as jobs are simultaneously created and snuffed out of existence. Where are all the cart makers and armourers? They’ve been replaced by management consultants, bloggers and freelance delivery drivers. We’re all better off as we benefit from the luxuries of new technology – and on the most part, we are. Across the globe, poverty rates are dropping, violent deaths plummeting, and literacy is on the rise.
But there’s a friction here – we can’t all just hop from one career to another. We’re not all capable of it. And, on top of that difficulty, it seems less and less jobs are being created to fill the void. 800 million jobs will be gone in about ten years. Automation is a seemingly unstoppable, immovable force.
Thomas Frey is a futurist. He recommends in this excellent, critically needed article 78 skills that will be tricky for machines to replicate. Frey points out:
The key point here is that when it comes to automation, the marketplace will decide, and the market is not always logical.
- We still go to concerts even though listening to prerecorded music at home is safer, more comfortable, and oftentimes better quality.
- We still go to museums even though we can witness most of the images online without having to wait in lines and fight crowds.
- We still go to coffee shops even though we can brew the same kind of coffee at home for far less money.
Our minds ache to create. So let’s start figuring out how we’re still going to matter in the future: the importance of a firm handshake, a good conversation, and doing the ‘right thing’ (whatever that means).
If you’re interested in the future of AI, I recommend this excellent podcast with Sam Harris and computer scientist Stuart Russell: