Showing posts with label work. Show all posts
Showing posts with label work. Show all posts

12 March 2015

Riders of the Purple Wage

by Eve Fisher
Lately, a number of very famous people have been getting their knickers in a twist over Artificial Intelligence, or AI:
black and white photo of Hawking in a chair, in an office."The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."  Stephen Hawking
“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out."  Elon Musk
Now I can sort of understand why.  The general premise for decades has been that some day the computers/robots will take over, and run us, with only two possible scenarios:
  • Great - Robots and computers will do everything for us, and we will live a life of luxury (according to the late great Frederick Pohl, too much so), comfort and security thanks to Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics that protect mankind from the revolt of the machines.  
  • Bad - Everything by Philip K. Dick, and, of course, "The Matrix".  
Which it will be depends upon the mood of the times.  Currently, we're not a particularly optimistic species, so the common response is, "We're doomed! We're doomed!"  (Unless you're Sheldon Cooper, and then it cannot happen soon enough.)
Maybe.  Maybe not.  But what concerns me about the takeover of the machines isn't that they use my stasis body as a heat source while providing my mind innumerable alternative reality jaunts to keep me a content and unquestioning host organism.  Or even AIs killing us all (for one thing, logically, they'd do it quickly - only humans are sadists.  And cats.).  What concerns me is the simple matter of a paycheck.  Eating.  Rent.  Utilities.

Look, the main reason we have computers and robots is to do our work for us.  Anything boring, repetitive, heavy, dangerous, etc. - eventually, we'll make a machine to do it.  Calculators mean I don't have to add up the columns of figures for which they used to hire Nicholas Nickleby.  Payloaders mean we don't need an army of physical laborers hoisting earth. Tractors, etc., mean that today's Pa Ingalls doesn't need to muscle his way through the sod with horse and plow.  Computers mean I don't have to write everything out long-hand, or type it over and over again until it's perfect.  It's great.

hamburger robotOn the other hand, modern technology has eliminated and is eliminating a whole ton of jobs. Typesetters; typists; clerks; gas station attendants; innumerable factory workers; graphic designers; paralegals; low-level tax preparers; most farm hands; most farmers; bank tellers; airline check-in agents; retail clerks; accountants; actuaries; travel agents; most reporters, etc.  Soon there will be far fewer surgeons, teachers, and other high-level jobs as robots take over.  And in the fast food industry, the robots are coming to flip those burgers and make those fries.

The point is that, as we use technology to do 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90% of the work, we will also unemploy a significant number of people.  There will still be jobs, at all levels - just infinitely less of them.  Perhaps only a handful, here and there.  Which leaves the elephant in the room:  what do you do about the people?

Yes, everyone talks about retraining.  See a typical chirpy article on "The Future of Work" .  BUT, I've always had two basic questions:

(1) There is a significant number of people who can't be retrained.  Some will be too old, some will be too set, and some - frankly - whose mental ability to learn complex problem-solving skills is extremely limited.  I run into some of them at the pen.  (In case you don't know it, prisons are the modern housing facility for many of the mentally disabled, as well as the mentally ill.)  These are the people who are never considered in future planning talks, the ones that are ignored by all economists and pundits, but shouldn't be.  As I once said about a former student who was caught stealing, "Well, how else is he going to make a living?"

(2) If you have 250 people in a town, and there are only 100 actual jobs, it doesn't matter how much retraining you do.  There are still 150 people without work because there are no jobs.  Urbanize that.  Nationalize that.  Globalize that.

In Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage", he posited a society in which they coped with the problem of almost complete unemployment by giving everyone a salary just for being born.  It's enough to keep them housed and fed and hooked up to the Fido, a combination cable TV/videophone, along with a little wet-ware called a fornixator (you translate it).  To get anything else, you have to prove your exceptionality, but most people are happily occupied without it.  For those who aren't, well, there are wildlife reserves where they can go off and be weird - but they have to give up the purple wage.

Soylent green.jpgIt's a successful society, in its own way - and perhaps the only logical one. Because the truth is, sooner or later, in a society where technology is doing 90% of the work, there will have to be a "purple wage".
That, or
(1) society comes up with innumerable "make work" jobs, like picking oakum in the workhouse.  (Personally, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(2) the unemployed masses (a la "Soylent Green" or "Zardoz", etc.) will be pounding at the armored enclaves of the fabulously wealthy.  (As I said, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(3) a whole lot of people are going to have to die, leaving just enough to run the machines, and do the few jobs that still cannot be done by machines, and the fabulously wealthy (there is always a group of fabulously wealthy) to enjoy unending leisure.  Wall-E, call home!
      That, or
(4) The Matrix.

Anyway, here's the question:  As we pursue technological advancements, can we let go of the Protestant Work Ethic?  Let go of the idea that we are what we do?  Must people work or starve, even if there's plenty of everything except jobs?  Can we tolerate, support, even design a society where the norm for everyone (instead of just the wealthy) is "the leisured class"?

Now, you may think the last question is nonsense.  For one thing, we've been promised endless leisure for a century now, and most people are still working their butts off.  On the other hand, we do have more leisure than almost any other society in history.  This began with the industrial revolution, and one of the most interesting things about reading "Consuming Passions" by Judith Flanders is watching the development of ways for the working classes to spend their new-found leisure.  (Hey - they had all of Saturday afternoon and Sundays off!)  Thanks to advertising, sports, vacations, theater, and literature were turned into major industries.  (Drinking had always been a favorite activity.)  And, instantly, the pundits, poets, philosophers, and religious thinkers started decrying the horrible waste of human time and energy on trivia.  And talking about the nobility of hard work, piety, thrift, self-denial and sobriety:  for the lower classes only, of course.

File:Victorian cricket team 1859.jpg
Victorian cricket team

We have pretty much the same discussion going on today:  in certain circles, if you don't have a paying job, you're worthless.  (Unless you're wealthy enough not to.)  And the idea that someone who's unemployed has a television, a cell phone, and computer games for the kids - well, they're obviously spending too much money on all the wrong stuff.  Not to mention, if they have such things, they can't be "really" poor.

NOTE 1:  In Florida they give cell phones to the homeless, for a variety of reasons.  (Contact from parole officers, call-backs on jobs, etc.)
NOTE 2:  I'm always amazed at the people who check out other people's grocery carts and then post, outraged, if someone who's on food stamps buys candy or other luxury items.  (See this article for the alternative view:  People on Food Stamps Make Better Grocery Choices.)  God forbid the poor eat something other than gruel...

Basically, I'm leisured, you're lazy, and they're useless.

Anyway, today we've got smart phones, social media, computer games, Netflix, and innumerable other ways to waste what time we have (on the job or off) in the modern equivalent of Fidos and fornixators.  And it seems like the list is going to expand at algorithmic rate. Meanwhile, the list of available jobs is decreasing, at least geometrically, every time we turn around.  IF we get to where technology performs most of the work, and IF we get to where we have a regular unemployment of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 percent, can we change our thinking from "unemployed" to "leisured"?  Can we develop a new idea of what people "should" do?  Of what people are "supposed" to do?

Without work, what are people for?
"Tompkins Square Park Central Knoll" by David Shankbone -
David Shankbone, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

06 June 2013

The $3500 Shirt - A History Lesson in Economics

by Eve Fisher

One of the great advantages of being a historian is that you don't get your knickers in as much of a twist over how bad things are today. If you think this year is bad, try 1347, when the Black Death covered most of Europe, one-third of the world had died, and (to add insult to injury) there was also (in Europe) the little matter of the Hundred Years' War and the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (where the pope had moved to Avignon, France, and basically the Church was being transformed into a subsidiary of the French regime). Things are looking up already, aren't they?

Another thing is economics. Everyone complains about taxes, prices, and how expensive it is to live any more. I'm not going to go into taxes - that way lies madness. But I can tell you that living has never been cheaper. We live in a country awash in stuff - food, clothing, appliances, machines, cheap crap from China - but it's never enough. $4 t-shirts? Please. We want five for $10, and even then, can we get them on sale? And yet, compared to a world where everything is made by hand - we're talking barely 200 years ago - everything is cheap and plentiful, and we are appallingly ungrateful.

Let's talk clothing. When the Industrial Revolution began, it started with factories making cloth. Why? Because clothing used to be frighteningly expensive. Back in my teaching days I gave a standard lecture, which is about to follow, on the $3,500 shirt, or why peasants owned so little clothing. Here's the way it worked:

NOTE:  As of 4/6/16 I have updated the mathematics of this here at this blog post.  It's still astounding.

See this guy below, lying asleep under the tree? And the guys still working in the field?  They're all wearing a standard medieval shirt. It has a yoke, a bit of smocking and gathering around the neck, armholes, and the wrists would be banded, so they could tie or button them close.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Harvesters - Google Art Project.jpg


Oh, and in the middle ages, it would be expected that all of the inside sleeves would be finished. This was all done by hand. A practiced seamstress could probably sew it in 7 hours. But that's not all that would go into the making. There's the cloth. A shirt like this would take about 5 yards of cloth, and it would be a fine weave: the Knoxville Museum of Art estimates two inches an hour. So 4(yards)*36(inches)/2 = 72 hours. (I'm a weaver - or at least I used to be - so this sounds accurate to me.) Okay, so hand weaving and hand sewing would take 79 hours. Now the estimate for spinning has always been complex, so stick with me for a minute: Yardage of thread for 4 yards of cloth, one yard wide (although old looms often only wove about 24" wide cloth), and requires 25 threads per inch, so:

25 threads * 36" wide = 900 threads, which each needs to be (4 yards + 1 yards for tie-up = 5 yards long), so 900 * 5 = 4,500 yards of thread for the warp. And you'd need about the same for a weft, or a total of about 9,000 yards of thread for one shirt.

9,000 yards would take a while to spin. At a Dark Ages recreation site, they figured out a good spinner could do 4 yards in an hour, so that would be 2,250 hours to make the thread for the weaving.  Now, A lot of modern spinners disagree with this figure, saying they can spin much faster than that.  So let's say they're right.  And we'll say that the spinner is in a hurry to make this thread because the shirt's for her or someone she knows (all spinners were female in medieval times), so we'll say she worked her tail off and did it in 500 hours.

So, 7 hours for sewing, 72 for weaving, 500 for spinning, or 579 hours total to make one shirt. At minimum wage - $7.25 an hour - that shirt would cost $4,197.25.
And that's just a standard shirt.
And that's not counting the work that goes into raising sheep or growing cotton and then making the fiber fit for weaving. Or making the thread for the sewing.
And you'd still need pants (tights or breeches) or a skirt, a bodice or vest, a jacket or cloak, stockings, and, if at all possible, but a rare luxury, shoes.

NOTE (1/30/15) - Please see a further commentary on this piece at:  Is Time Money or is Money Time?

NOTE: Back in the pre-industrial days, the making of thread, cloth, and clothing ate up all the time that a woman wasn't spending cooking and cleaning and raising the children. That's why single women were called "spinsters" - spinning thread was their primary job. "I somehow or somewhere got the idea," wrote Lucy Larcom in the 18th century, "when I was a small child, that the chief end of woman was to make clothing for mankind." Ellen Rollins: "The moaning of the big [spinning] wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out of the lengthened monotony of the spinner's life." (Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 26)

Anyway, with clothing that expensive and hard to make, every item was something you wore until it literally disintegrated. Even in 1800, a farm woman would be lucky to own three dresses - one for best and the other two for daily living. Heck, my mother, in 1930, went to college with that exact number of dresses to her name... This is why old clothing is rare: even the wealthy passed their old clothes on to the next generation or the poorer classes. The poor wore theirs until it could be worn no more, and then it was cut down for their children, and then used for rags of all kinds, and then, finally, sold to the rag and bone man who would transport it off to be made into (among other things) paper.
File:KellsFol032vChristEnthroned.jpg
And speaking of paper, that was another thing that had to be invented for our society to exist: cheap paper. Good rag paper (made literally with expensive cloth rag) was always pricey, just not as pricey as parchment which was goat, sheep, or calf skin. (This is why medieval manuscripts were so few and why they were often kept chained up for fear of theft. It took at least a whole herd of animals to make the Book of Kells, for example. On the other hand, well-kept parchment can last thousands of years.) In fact, paper remained expensive long after clothing got cheaper, because it took a long time to figure out how to make paper out of nothing but wood pulp, without all that expensive rag content. It wasn't until the production of wood pulp paper was perfected in the mid-1800's that books (schoolbooks, fiction, non-fiction), magazines, and newspapers became available to the general public. Including pulp fiction - the first was Argosy Magazine in 1896 - a genre that was named for the cheapest of cheap fiber paper that it was published on. And without that pulp paper, where would our entire genre be?
File:Argosy 1906 04.jpg