Re: A Challenge To All Extropians

GBurch1 (
Sat, 2 May 1998 12:02:46 EDT

[I would like to have contributed to this thread earlier, but the last few
weeks have been a period of constant work-related travel for me. So, please
excuse any redundancies . . .]

First, some comment on ideas that I recall have been mentioned. I am very
skeptical of the specific figures that have been mentioned regarding wealth
distribution in the US, for the reasons that "Warrl kyree Tale'sedrin" sets
out in his (?) post today. Government ownership, private retirement funds and
insurance tend to distribute asset "ownership" in meaningful ways for large
segments of First World societies, although shallow analyses won't reveal this
fact. I strongly suspect that the proportion of the overall economy thus
owned in a distributed or joint fashion in these ways offsets to a great
degree the much-touted concentration of ownership relative to some imagined
past golden age. Nevertheless, I don't doubt that there are meaningful
definitions of "middle class" that will yield at least some concentration of
wealth relative to say 40 or 50 years ago.

With that said, I agree with Paul Hughes that we are facing an unprecedented
obsolescence for many, many workers. I can think of only one similar period
in history -- the coming of the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 18th
through the 20th centuries -- and that example offers only poor guidance for
what we can look forward to. For most "displaced workers" during the
transition to the current paradigm of industrial technology and economy, the
shift to a new mode of living and working took place over a period of years, a
glacial pace compared to the dislocations that probably lie ahead for us now.
The one previous complete paradigm change -- from hunter-gatherer life to that
of settled agriculture, took place over a time scale of many generations, so
it would provide even less guidance, even if we knew the details of how it
really happened in human terms.

One trend that marked the transition to industrial economy will operate during
the one to a more completely automated economy: More and more people will work
in jobs of "personal service". Just as many of the service jobs we hold today
could not have been imagined even 50 or 60 years ago -- and certainly not 100
years ago -- likewise, many people will end up doing things that are valued
economically that we cannot envision now. Take a stroll through any "upscale"
retail establishment and you will see many people ostensibly working at the
job of selling who are not strictly "necessary" in mechanical terms. I could
buy most consumer item at Neiman Marcus without the "assistance" of the many
"retail clerks" there, but the atmosphere of personal service they lend to the
establishment must be economical, because the owners of the store see fit to
pay their wage. Likewise, the counter at McDonalds might be more efficient if
I entered my order directly into a keypad and had my food handed to me by a
robot, but I don't doubt that the live human face across the counter is seen
as a value by the operator of the store.

Thus, simply because it will be a luxury of sorts, having humans do jobs that
robots COULD do will likely become a significant factor in employing many
people who otherwise might become "disemployed". Such jobs won't be the most
desirable ones and, with a few exceptions I can imagine, probably won't pay
very well. (The exceptions are interesting, though -- I recall how amazed I
was to learn how much money waiters make in the most prestigious restaurants;
more than $100,000 per year. Such jobs are admittedly rare.)

Another factor I have seen mentioned here is the trend toward making
commodities that were once dear essentially free "give-aways"; examples of
matches and water were discussed. I can see food eventually falling into this
category, as well as even --possibly -- shelter. Perhaps resorts would offer
princely accommodations to their workers to encourage "qualified" people to
work in their service jobs. Such qualifications might consist of personality
and physical characteristics, rather than intelligence or "productive"
capacity per se. Thus good looks or a pleasant personality might be much more
worthwhile assets than they are today. Perhaps only the ugly, rude AND stupid
will need some kind of dole in a truly post-industrial world.

Examples such as this one tend to make me less than catastrophically worried
about total "disemployment" for the great mass of humanity. Any techno-
economic system that would make even "trivial" service jobs completely
irrelevant seems likely to be so productive that the whole problem becomes

In the transitional period, it seems likely that the majority of humanity will
continue to do what they do now -- subsistence agriculture. The largest part
of humanity really isn't even in the 20th century yet, technologically. At
the point that the first few humans/AIs experience real "technotranscendance",
the largest part of humanity will be "irrelevant" to that process. But this
says nothing of what those first post-humans will do FOR those left behind. I
find much of the discussion about fears of what posthumans may do TO the
"left-behinds" implausible; it seems much more likely that the super-
productive powers of posthumans will be employed in what amounts to
philanthropic "uplift": The "extrosattva" of discussions we had here a few
months ago.

Greg Burch <>----<>
Attorney ::: Director, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
be driven into practice with courageous impatience."