If Everyone Has Something to Hide, Then It’s Not Surveillance that is the Problem

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution recently wrote a post called No One is Innocent:

“I broke the law yesterday and again today and I will probably break the law tomorrow. Don’t mistake me, I have done nothing wrong. I don’t even know what laws I have broken. Nevertheless, I am reasonably confident that I have broken some laws, rules, or regulations recently because its hard for anyone to live today without breaking the law. Doubt me? Have you ever thrown out some junk mail that came to your house but was addressed to someone else? That’s a violation of federal law punishable by up to 5 years in prison…

“One of the responses to the revelations about the mass spying on Americans by the NSA and other agencies is “I have nothing to hide. What me worry?” I tweeted in response “If you have nothing to hide, you live a boring life.” More fundamentally, the NSA spying machine has reduced the cost of evidence so that today our freedom–or our independence–is to a large extent at the discretion of those in control of the panopticon…”

All good points. Government surveillance now has the ability to find dirt on everyone. However, it is not necessarily surveillance that is the problem in this scenario. Rather, isn’t it bad laws that are at fault? If we are all by definition criminals, something is wrong with our legal structure. Surveillance just exposes what has always been a big problem. As we move into a world with less privacy, we are going to need fewer and more lenient laws, or else society will grind to a halt.

Imagine every person who used illegal drugs, broke a traffic rule, or violated copyright was immediately caught and punished. I’m guessing that in a matter of days at least half the American public would end up on the wrong side of the law. That’s because these laws are poorly designed. They always have been.

The same principle holds true when talking about cultural norms. If surveillance technologies are used to out a closeted homosexual against his will, then what is to blame? Is it the surveillance technologies? Or is it the screwed up culture that demonizes gays and forces them to hide in the first place?

I believe that more than anything else, a society with less privacy is going to have to become more relaxed. Most likely we’ll end up more tolerant of drug use, atypical sexual behavior, and minor rules infractions. And in many ways that might be a very good thing.

“Now With Enhanced Privacy!”

In a previous article, I mentioned how privacy as a commodity will only increase in value. This is because in a surveillance-heavy future, privacy will become more scarce. Therefore, we can expect new products to arise and fulfill this market need. Increasingly, products will advertise their privacy-enhancing features (whether or not these privacy enhancing features actually work). I see inklings of this trend already in mass market products like “Snapchat” which turn self-destructing data into a feature. Likewise, when Google+ first appeared on the scene, it attempted to distinguish itself from Facebook with its privacy-enhancing “circles.” And now that Facebook and Google appear to have been compromised by the NSA’s Prism program, the door is open for a new social network to step up that claims to better protect us from government eyes (again, whether or not it actually can). This principle applies offline as well. In the near future, we can expect bars and other businesses that institute “no-surveillance” policies as part of the way they attract clientele.

Is Technology Increasing or Decreasing Inequality?

In the case of wealth, as measured by money, the answer appears to be increasing. In the case of capabilities, as measured by utility, the story is more complicated. A big CEO may have orders of magnitude more wealth than I do, but he does not necessarily have comparably better access to information, communication, and entertainment. For example, we both probably have similar cell phones. This partly has to do with the diminishing marginal utility of money. But technological acceleration is also playing a role.

The usual trend with a new technology seems to be that at first it is very expensive, and then as time passes the price drops dramatically. Thus over the long haul, access tends to equalize, but there is a critical delay that occurs during which some people have a technology and some people don’t. These delays can be very significant. To cite a classic example, imagine it’s the fifteenth century and your civilization has access to firearms while your enemies do not.

With technological acceleration the delay times are shortening (a good thing for equality), but the comparative advantage of having a technology first is potentially increasing (a bad thing for equality). These two countervailing forces make assessing the overall effect rather complicated. My guess is we will see increasing democratization up until the point that the first mover advantage becomes insurmountable. Having a smart phone a month before your neighbor is not such a big deal, but having brain-enhancing implants first is another thing altogether.

Ideas are Not Easily Quantized (or Why Systems of Intellectual Property Will Always Have Abuses)

All ideas are based upon previous ideas, and all previous ideas are based upon even earlier ideas. The chain of ideas extends backward with no clear beginning. Sometimes people come up with the same idea at the same time and sometimes ideas overlap a great deal without being identical. Drawing clear lines of demarcation between one idea and another, the way you might draw a line in the sand to divide a piece of land, is a problematic task. The fuzzy spectrum of ideas does not easily divide up into neat quantized little pieces of property.

Periodically, abuses of intellectual property law end up in the news. Today the issue being discussed is patent trolls. One might conclude that patent trolls are the result of a broken patent system. I would argue that patent trolls are just the inevitable consequence of trying to divide something which cannot be cleanly divided. As long as you allow ownership of ideas, there are going to be specious arguments that can be made—many which even sound quite reasonable—that one person’s idea is somehow being infringed upon by someone else’s. Ideas on the whole are just not very distinct from one another.

There are new patent reforms on the table right now, some promising, some probably ineffectual. Not surprisingly, the reforms most likely to be effective are the ones that result in less patents being given out in the first place.

Fourteen Things That Will Remain Scarce (and Drive Future Job Growth?)

Let’s imagine that current trends continue, and technology continues to drive down the price of various goods. We could eventually end up with a world in which artificial intelligence equals human beings in most tasks, household devices can manufacture physical goods with atomic precision, transportation is fully automated, solar energy is plentiful, and high volumes of useful data freely flow from person to person.

It might take a while to reach this point, but that doesn’t mean such an outcome isn’t worth thinking about. Articulating our eventual destination is important since there are likely to be economic effects of getting closer to such a destination long before we actually get there.

In such a scenario, what are the goods that remain scarce and might therefore continue to drive a human-based economy?

I have attempted to assemble a list. I’m sure my list is not complete. But I think trying to make such a list is important, because these are the goods we will have to build upon if we want to keep our current economy going. If proponents of the luddite fallacy are correct, and technology always creates as many jobs as it destroys, then these are potential areas of job growth.


(1) Attention — Attention is irreducibly scarce. Attention is constrained by the physical property of time, as well as by the limits of the human mind. People only have so much attention to give, and paying attention to one thing most likely means not paying attention to another. Attention is most often monetized through advertising. In a future full of attractive options for spending your time, attention may actually increase, rather than decrease in price.

(2) Convenience — Any good that can save you even small amounts of time may become a commodity. For example, imagine today’s consumer who, despite knowing how to pirate a TV show, chooses instead to buy a Netflix subscription because this option is more convenient.

(3) First Release — Even if you produce a digital good that is susceptible to unlicensed copying, you still retain control over the initial release. In certain cases customers will pay to have a product even a few hours before everyone else.

(4) Novel Realtime Experiences — It has always been true that a good restaurant doesn’t just sell food, it sells an experience. In wealthier neighborhoods, we increasingly see the balance of businesses shifting in favor of experiences rather than just consumer products. For example, the types of retail stores that are surviving today are those that offer some extra experiential factor, such as a bookstore that sells coffee, hosts events, and provide useful recommendations to shoppers. On the pure experience side, we see classic businesses like theme parks and bowling alleys, but there is room for a lot of growth in this area. Even in the wake of full immersion virtual reality, there will still be a market for novel and realtime (as opposed to pre-recorded) virtual experiences.

(5) Originals — What separates an original work of art from a perfect replica, or Jimi Hendrix’s guitar from another similar model? The difference is the history of the object in question. Marketing the history of a particular good is a natural antidote to a future overrun by a sea of high fidelity copies. No matter how many times a book is produced there can only ever be one “first” printing.

(6) Potential — In some cases it is possible to monetize potential products that don’t yet exist. This is essentially what Kickstarter does. The creator has a promising idea in his head that the fans want. The creator then ransoms the idea, saying “If you want to see this idea come to fruition, you will need to pay up.” When you fund a Kickstarter, you are buying a potential creation rather than a finished product. This business model allows creators to bypass the issue of piracy. After all, people can’t pirate something that hasn’t been made yet, or design a knock-off of something that is still locked up in someone’s mind.


(7) Land — Space on planet Earth (or on other newly habitable planets) will continue to be scarce for the foreseeable future. Thanks to new automated construction technologies, housing prices may fall, but not necessarily the price of the underlying land.


(8) Computation — As with today, goods and services will continue to be subsumed by computers. This will obviously save you money on other goods, but you will still need to purchase the computers themselves. Computation will be cheap, but probably not free, and chances are you will always be able to use more of it than you currently have.

(9) Raw Materials — Even with advanced molecular manufacturing, you are still going to have to feed some sort of raw materials into your new-fangled nano-assembler device.


(10) Empathy — Robots will have convincing human likenesses but will probably not share the human experience (unless for some reason they are raised from birth by human families). And there is no way to know if a robot is actually conscious in any meaningful sense. For this and other reasons, people may prefer to visit a human therapist over a robot therapist, or enjoy works of art made by humans over those made by robots.

(11) Goodwill — It is not only convenience which makes people forego piracy. Many people, when given the choice, will willingly pay for products they could otherwise get for free, as demonstrated by the numerous successful pay-what-you-want schemes. In these cases, people are purchasing a “positive feeling” of goodwill that comes from supporting what they believe to be a worthwhile endeavor. Sites like HumbleBundle play up this goodwill aspect by incorporating charitable donations into the sale.

(12) Belonging — People wish to form associations with other people, and this desire can be monetized in a variety of ways. This is a future proof commodity since it is not clear how technology can automate the feeling of belonging (short of literally reprogramming people’s brains). Belonging can be monetized directly, as in the case of a club membership, but it can also be an intangible component of other sales. For example, successful Kickstarter campaigns often foster a feeling of “being involved.”

(13) Privacy — Privacy, like attention, is a commodity that will probably only become more scarce and thus more valuable in the future. Preserving your privacy in a surveillance heavy future will be increasingly difficult, and businesses that can protect you from spying eyes (or who claim to have that ability) may become very profitable.

(14) Status — Humans often measure themselves in relation to other people. This psychological trait creates potentially endless new scarcities. Status can be attached to almost any good, increasing its value. Status signifiers can also be created out of thin air (as in the case of a knighthood, an honorary degree, or a superfluous producing credit).


So the question one should ask while looking at this list is: do you see the seeds of a new labor force? Or do you just see a bunch of fringe commodities that will never give rise to the level of employment we’ve grown used to?

Reallocating Labor Takes Time (or Another Problem with the Luddite Fallacy)

Technology both destroys and creates jobs. But this truth does not eliminate the possibility of technological unemployment. As Andrew McAfee, author of Race Against the Machine, is fond of pointing out, “there is no economic law that says that technology, by definition, has to create as many or more jobs as it destroys.” But even if there was a 1:1 relationship between jobs destroyed and jobs created, we could still have an issue with technological unemployment.

Finding a new job takes time. In addition to the standard matchmaking process that must occur between workers and employers (applications, interviews), securing new work may require new skills (retraining) or a new location (relocating). The result is an inevitable delay between losing a job at point A and getting a job at point B.

When technology is changing rapidly, even short delays become increasingly significant. What happens if the average delay time between jobs exceeds the average time it takes for a job to be automated away? In short: you get technological unemployment.

The Information Economy is Primarily Based on Attention, Not Data

A lot of current conversations regarding the information economy are too focused on data, and not focused enough on attention.

True, data is extremely valuable. And we are recording, storing, and exchanging data in larger volumes than ever before. But data does not make a great commodity.

For a commodity to have a price in the marketplace it must be scarce. To ensure your data is unique and therefore scarce, you must fight two uphill battles.

First, you must possess data no one else has. Unfortunately, the tools for creating, collecting, and storing data keep getting cheaper and more accessible. And since data is not rivalrous, there is no reason why data on your computer can’t just as easily exist on someone else’s.

Second, you need to ensure the data is not copied without your consent. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to limit copying in today’s environment.

This does not mean that proprietary pockets of data won’t periodically exist. But it does mean that those pockets are extremely vulnerable to the ongoing process of technological disruption.

So if your proposed business or utopian vision is based on buying and selling data, you might pause and consider the inherent difficulties of such a model.

Attention, on the other hand, is irreducibly scarce. Attention is constrained by the physical property of time, as well as by the limits of the human mind. People only have so much attention to give. And attention, unlike data, is rivalrous. Paying attention to one thing most likely means not paying attention to another. Attention, because of its scarcity, makes a great natural commodity.

Attention is most often monetized through advertising. Businesses routinely take the attention of consumers, repackage it, and sell it to advertisers.

When analyzing new business models, such as those employed by companies like Google or Facebook, what is important is not so much the data, but the attention. The attention is what is generating the revenue.

Yes, Google and Facebook collect our data. And that data is valuable to them, just as it is valuable to our friends. But what Google and Facebook really want—what they really need—is our attention. They are in the attention business.

Consider how data plays a supporting role to attention. Data helps businesses determine our preferences, so they can more effectively sell our attention to advertisers. Alternately, data powers algorithms whose goal is to attract our attention in the first place.

The fundamental transaction is people trading their attention for services. True, data is thrown in on the deal. But this should be no surprise. All of life is just a continuous data exchange, between you and your environment and you and other people.

Over time the supply of recorded data will continue to grow, which should create downward pressure on the price. Meanwhile, wiith so much access to data and so little time, people could have an increasingly difficult time answering the question, “What do I pay attention to?” Competition for people’s attention could become increasingly fierce, implying that attention may actually go up in price as data proliferates.

However, some words of caution: Much of the attention market now is based upon a type of speculation, where the advertiser speculates that your attention today will lead to a consumer purchase tomorrow. If the link between attention and spending grows weak, which could happen for a variety of reasons, then the bottom might fall out of the attention market. In this way, the health of the attention market, in its current form, is very much tied to the health of the consumer market. A problem with the latter may lead to trouble with the former.

Why the Market and Technology Aren’t Playing Well Together (and Five Possible Solutions to Fix the Problem)


The impact of new technologies on the economy is a hot topic right now. Just a few years ago, the idea of machines replacing human labor was widely dismissed, but now a growing number of pundits and economists are expressing concerns about the impact of automation technologies and the possibility of technological unemployment.

People tend to approach this complex issue in different ways. It can be a difficult topic to think about, so for the purpose of discussion, I’d like to present a simple syllogism as a possible framework for understanding what is happening.

MAJOR PREMISE: Economic opportunities arise from the monetization of scarce commodities.

This is Economics 101. For a good to have a price on the market, it must be scarce. That is, the good must be in demand and exist in limited supply. If you have only one of these two elements, the good will not be worth anything.

For example, breathable air is in high demand but it does not exist in limited supply. Good luck putting air in a bag and trying to sell it. Conversely, your old dirty socks might exist in limited supply, but since no one demands them, they are probably unsellable.

The market rewards people who are able to take a scarce commodity—whether a physical good like a chair or a service like massage therapy—and monetize it. In this way, scarce commodities are the source of all economic opportunities.

MINOR PREMISE: Technological progress reduces the number of scarce commodities by creating abundance.

Technology is a tool that humans use to get more of what they want. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that over the years technological progress has made a wide variety of goods—from food to music—less scarce and more abundant.

Today in the economy, a few trends in particular are having a big impact:

  • Goods are being digitized. Example. Mp3s have digitized music.
  • Services are being automated. Example: Self driving cars will automate driving.
  • Processes are being disintermediated (cutting out the middle man). Example: The web has made travel agencies unnecessary.
  • Markets are being globalized, allowing superstars to crowd out competitors. Example: MOOCS enable a few top-tier professors to lecture to world-sized classrooms.

All of which are part of the same bigger trend: technology is making all manner of goods and services—music, driving, travel planning, education—less scarce, more abundant, and therefore lower price in the marketplace.

It should be acknowledged that abundance in one area often gives rise to new scarcities in another. An abundance of fatty foods gives rise to a scarcity of healthy choices. An abundance of entertainment options gives rise to a scarcity of time to enjoy them all.

That being said, I still believe we are making progress towards a more abundant world. I think it would be wrong to suggest we are just treading water. Like a mathematical limit that approaches zero but never quite gets there, we are getting incrementally closer to the post-scarcity ideal with each passing year, even if such an ideal is fundamentally unreachable. The result is that progressively fewer scarce commodities exist as technology moves forward.

CONCLUSION: Therefore technological progress reduces economic opportunity.

I believe this is the simplest way to understand what is happening. Our technology and our market system, once comfortable collaborators, are increasingly on a collision course. This is because these two institutions have fundamentally opposing goals. The goal of the marketplace is to find and exploit scarcity. The goal of technology is to find and eliminate scarcity. The second goal undermines the first.

If true, this conclusion would partially explain both the unemployment and the inequality we see. Unemployment could arise from the fact that it is increasingly difficult to find a scarce resource to exploit. More and more people find themselves without a scarce service to offer or a scarce good to sell.

Inequality arises from the fact that the few remaining scarce resources are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. We can think of the economy as like a game of musical chairs where the chairs are scarce resources. As the chairs get removed, fewer and fewer people have a place to sit.

In the past it has been possible to find new chairs to replace those that have been taken away. It might still be possible to do so. But it increasingly feels like the game is being played faster and faster—that the chairs are being removed much quicker than we can replace them.


Actually developing a detailed solution for this problem is a complex policy question that I do not hope to answer in this article. However, I think the above framing makes it possible to categorize broad types of solutions.

SOLUTION ONE: Freeze Progress

If technological progress is undermining our market system, one option is to try to stop technological progress. This could take the form of government bans on automation technologies that displace human workers.

However, this hardly seems like a good choice. Aside from the fact that technological progress is generally desirable and gives us lots of nice things we want, such an initiative is probably infeasible given that it would require muzzling scientists and inventors the world over. In addition, without avenues for continued growth, the market might stagnate or collapse.

SOLUTION TWO: Artificial Scarcity

If we are running out of scarce commodities for ordinary people to exploit, then one response is to create new scarcity by artificial means.

Our society creates artificial scarcity all the time. We create artificial scarcity when we grant an author exclusive copyright over a book he’s written or an engineer exclusive patent on an invention he’s developed. We create artificial scarcity with licenses that make it illegal to practice law, drive a cab, or sell alcohol without permission from the government.

It might be possible to greatly expand our current system of artificial scarcity and thereby create more economic opportunities for ordinary people. With regards to the musical chairs analogy mentioned above, you might view this as one way of creating more places for people to sit. Less favorably, you might look upon this solution as counterproductive: essentially encouraging people to put air in bags and charge each other to breathe.

One possible artificial scarcity scheme is to treat all data like property. Ordinarily, data is not scarce. Just as their is no limit to the number of times you can tell a joke, there is no limit to the number of times you can use a piece of data. However, in the future it might be possible to turn every idea, photo, or bit of text you generate into an artificially scarce commodity to be monetized. Enforcing such a system would require either a universal operating system or an overarching surveillance system to strictly monitor and regulate all instances of copying.

I view this solution as less extreme than solution one, but still counterproductive to technological progress. A growing body of evidence suggests that artificial scarcity in the form of intellectual property hinders rather than helps innovation. In addition, by creating artificial scarcity and erecting walls around various goods, we are working at cross purposes to what one might consider the primary goal of technology: to have more access to the things we want.

Still this is a solution which might gain some traction since it could be seen as one way to empower ordinary people. At the same time, elites might like this system because it would afford them numerous levers of control in the form of legal bureaucracy. However even with broad support, it is questionable whether a full-fledged artificial scarcity regime would actually be enforceable. History suggests that decentralized technologies are hard to contain. Our failed wars on drugs and piracy are prime examples.


There are some commodities that will always remain scarce. These include intangible goods such as authenticity, status, good will, and belonging. Is it possible to carve up these remaining scarce resources in such a way that we can continue to create economic opportunities for ordinary people?

For example, could we have an attention market that allows broad participation? Right now the attention market is dominated by a few advertising middle men like Google. Perhaps with further disintermediation, we could all become our own localized advertising platforms—the digital equivalent of wearing your friend’s band t-shirt and getting paid for it. Alternately the advertising giants might find it worth their while to start paying users for their continued attention/loyalty. These are just a couple (not very imaginative) ideas.

(In Race Against the Machine, McAfee and Brynjolfsson discuss how “new platforms leverage technology to create marketplaces that address the employment crisis by bringing together machines and human skills in new and unexpected ways.”)

In addition, there are bound to be temporary pockets of human ability that cannot yet be duplicated by machines and are therefore still scarce. Although these pockets will shrink and vanish with time, if we can find and exploit them quickly enough via some sort of crowd-sourcing scheme we might be able to ease unemployment in the short term.

Effectively monetizing the remaining scarce resources may require the creation of new economic platforms, along the lines of current platforms like Kickstarter, Flattr, HumbleBundle, and Mechanical Turk, but on a much larger scale. We can think of these platforms as being like “apps” that run on top of the market “operating system.” They do not rely on artificial scarcity; instead they find novel ways to facilitate the exchange of existing scarce resources.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether it is possible to develop a platform or platforms that can actually come close to replacing more traditional forms of employment. I think there is great reason to be skeptical such an outcome is possible. However, we cannot entirely rule it out. This solution is highly desirable because it would cause the least disruption to our current system.

SOLUTION FOUR: Expanded Welfare

(An expanded social safety net could take the form of a universal basic income. In his essay Robotic Freedom, Marshall Brain asks “What if we, as a society, simply give consumers money to spend in the economy?”)

If ordinary people are being crowded out of the market, then one solution is to reduce our dependence on the market as a means of providing for people. We already have a variety of social safety nets that seek to accomplish exactly this goal. So we might extend these safety nets to ensure that people who are no longer economically viable still have access to food, housing, and essential services. This could get expensive, but advanced technologies might help make up the difference by lowering cost of living.

This solution would not require getting rid of the market entirely. Under such a scenario, the market could continue to do the important job of distributing those commodities which still remain scarce. However, over time fewer and fewer people might be active market participants. This could be a smooth transition or a disastrous one, depending on how things play out. To prevent market collapse and maintain the cycle of consumer spending we may need to ensure that people not only have money, but continue to routinely purchase products from the marketplace. Like shaking any addiction, weaning ourselves off the market could be a slow and painful process.

SOLUTION FIVE: Automation Socialism

(Futurist Jacques Fresco has long advocated abandoning money and markets in favor of what he calls a “resource based economy.”)

We could decide that since the market is no longer working well with our technology, we ought to just get rid of the market system entirely. A central government body would then have to take over the distribution of resources. Ideally wealth would be shared equally amongst all people.

Obviously a socialist system would have many detractors. However, some of the traditional problems of socialism—lack of motivation on the part of workers, inefficiency of central planning—could perhaps be mitigated through aggressive use of new automation technologies. It would be incumbent upon the government to aggressively invest in the sorts of technological breakthroughs that would make a fully automated society feasible.

In a best case scenario, automation socialism could speed us on the way towards a utopian society. In a worst case scenario, automation socialism could lead to tyranny and stagnation.


The above solutions can be placed on a loose spectrum that runs from those which prioritize the market over technology (freeze progress) to those which prioritize technology over the market (automation socialism). My personal opinion is that the best path is somewhere in the middle, utilizing a combination of artificial scarcity, new platforms, and expanded welfare.

Specifically, I favor new platforms if they can be made to work. Barring that, I would vastly prefer to move in the direction of expanded welfare rather than artificial scarcity. My intuition is that scarce resources are best handled by markets, care of people is best left to governments, and abundance is best left unfettered by artificial scarcity.

What do you think?

A Dystopia Based on Pleasure and Manipulation is More Likely than One Based on Pain and Repression

People are fond of imagining futuristic dystopias ruled by sadistic elites who crush the people into the ground at every opportunity. Hunger Games is a recent example. Hunger Games is, of course, fiction, but it’s indicative of a common attitude. When you tell people that things might get better—that technology might bring us greater peace and abundance than we’ve ever had before— their answer often is that the elites won’t let that happen. Which I admit is possible. But while it’s rational to consider powerful interests that might be lined up against positive changes, it’s a strange leap to expect active sadism from elites when they have little to gain from it—when in fact, giving people pleasure might be a more effective strategy for maintaing control. In other words, I think somas probably work better than hunger games.

Along these lines, I was amused to discover a letter by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell in which he argues that Brave New World is a more likely outcome than 1984:

“The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World…

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency…”

We Need to Start Shedding Our Old Romantic Ideas About Wage Labor

Technological advancements increasingly allow us to conceive of a world without wage labor. But the fact remains: a lot of people are very attached to the idea of having a job. Many pundits who talk about these issues are aware of the possibilities of automation but still maintain that jobs are an important source of meaning and purpose in our lives.

Andrew McAfee, MIT economist and coauthor of Rage Against the Machine, is fond of quoting Voltaire: “Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need.” In a live hangout on Google+, McAfee’s partner Erik Brynjolfsson suggested that there is an important psychological value to people having work, which is why a universal basic income would be a bad idea.

People do need meaning in their lives, but nowhere is it written that people must get this meaning from wage labor. Our reverence for wage labor is culturally determined. In America especially, identity is very much tied to what one does for a living. But this is not how things have to be, and I think we ought to start changing this value system if we want people to feel happy and well adjusted in a future rife with automation.

Wage labor is a mechanism that forces you to work on what the short term market finds important, rather than what you yourself find important. This is perhaps the dominant form of coercion in our lives. Do your job or lose it. Lose your job and face poverty, debt, and loss of status.

I’m not saying all jobs are bad. But let’s not celebrate the glory of wage labor without also reminding ourselves of how terrible and soul crushing jobs can be. How many questionable or even terrible things have been done because someone was scared of losing their job? How many times have people uttered the common refrain “I’m just doing my job” in order to justify behavior entirely contrary to their conscience and character? Where is the dignity in that?

As automation advances, it’s not even clear if wage labor is economically efficient. Wage labor has a built in bias towards short term outcomes. If you are living at the low end of the wealth spectrum (as increasingly many of us are) the imperative of living expenses forces you to fulfill short term market niches to the exclusion of more long-term economic projects. What is the opportunity cost when smart, talented people take on taxing day jobs that preclude them from innovating or starting entirely new businesses?