Can We Create a Future of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose?

I was reminded today of this Dan Pink talk which I love. It lays out what’s now the consensus view from behavioral economics/behavioral psychology on how to best manage people who do creative work during the day (increasingly known as ‘the employed’ as routine tasks are automated away). It got me thinking about the three motivators of human action, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. I know, in my own experience, that these are my strongest motivators. And, though we are transitioning to a jobless future, I wonder whether we can, positively, architect these qualities into the future world. So here’s a quick thought experiment about how these aspects of life might fare in the future. Please add your thoughts in the comments!

  • Autonomy

Without employment or tyrannical government, autonomy is the default. If you don’t have work, you don’t have a boss. So I see few short-term threats to autonomy. One can argue that mind hacks like advertising decrease autonomy, and perhaps that stuff gets better at manipulating us in the near term. Real mind-control might be possible in the long-term, and that’s truly frightening. One only hopes that the mindware anti-virus is good enough to keep up with the evolving threats.

  • Mastery

Getting good at things is a prime motivator of creative work. This is likely to continue in the future because, for example, no chess lovers gave up chess just because a computer can now beat them at it. People will continue to do new things like writing new software, and old things like woodworking and playing musical instruments, for fun long after the economic incentive is gone. The future seems full of opportunities for mastery.

  • Purpose

In the short term, it’s easier than ever to connect with a group of people who share a purpose and take collective action. Local and global concerns are tremendously more powerful than in the past as a result, and people have far more opportunities to collectivize than before. That said, many people especially here in the U.S. define their work — their employment — as the institution that provides that purpose. We are seeing many companies adopt a purpose-driven frame as a result, but we are also seeing fewer and fewer people working their whole lives at one company (or in some cases working ever again period). That’s a major source of purpose — work — that will be more scarce in the coming years. This is dangerous, because a purposeless generation or two could see reduced productivity or worse.

In the medium to long term, I see us replacing that source of purpose with our families, hobbies, faith, and cultural pursuits of altruism, science, and art. These are already valued in human culture. The only question is whether they can close the gap left by employment, and if so, how quickly.

So to conclude this little thought experiment, I am hopeful and positive that the abundant future will provide opportunities to be autonomous, challenged, and part of something larger than yourself, which I believe will motivate further creativity on the part of humans and our creations, but there are cultural and technical challenges that we must face along the way.

The Strugglers vs. The Slackers

Let’s assume for a moment that technological unemployment is real, and that there will be fewer and fewer jobs for people in the near future. Let’s also assume that some combination of new technologies and welfare policies props up the growing underclass of poor, unemployed people and keeps them from just starving to death.

On the surface it seems there are two ways one could respond to the scenario above:

  1. Become a struggler. Take advantage of all available intelligence augmentation technologies. Order the latest augmented reality glasses, sign up for the best online classes, and wash down a healthy assortment of smart pills with your morning coffee. Compete aggressively for a spot in the ever-shrinking labor market.
  2. Become a slacker. Let go of the idea of having a job. Scrape by on government welfare. Keep your costs low by using free open source technologies whenever possible. Retreat into virtual reality worlds that get more and more compelling every day. Make fun of the strugglers for trying so hard.

Is Programming Really as Future Proof a Profession as People Think?

While the job market as a whole is troubled, in certain high tech fields, such as programming, labor demand is still quite high. But while times are good for programmers, is programming actually a future proof profession over the long haul?

One line of reasoning would suggest that yes, programmers are going to be safe in the new economy. After all, the logic goes, even if robots take all our jobs, someone still has to tell the robots what to do, and those people are programmers.

But let me suggest a different way of looking at things: A programmer is really just a translator. A programmer essentially translates a natural language idea, like “I need an app that does X” into machine-friendly code. And translation is a data processing task that computers are getting increasingly good at performing.

Imagine an extremely high-level programming language, one almost identical to natural language. You simply describe the program you want to build and the compiler handles the rest. Generally high level languages carry a performance cost, but in a future ecosystem rife with cheap computing power, such a cost might be negligible.

If that scenario seems too far-fetched, let’s try a different angle: how big is the possibility space of useful everyday programs? It certainly can’t be limitless. Remember that the goal of a good programmer is not necessarily just to write code that works, but also to write code that is modular and reusable for a wide variety of tasks. So as the library of useful code grows, is it possible that eventually most of the important everyday programming tasks will have been handled? That there will be an ever shrinking frontier of new code to write, and an ever shrinking group of programmers exploring that frontier? I’m not saying there will be no programmers. Just that after a while there might be far fewer than current demand would suggest. In other words, programming could be one of those ironic professions where doing it truly well means making yourself obsolete.

Along these lines, here’s a revealing quote from programmer Jason Lewis on his blog Practical Elegance:

“Marc Andreessen famously explained ‘Why Software Is Eating The World’ in the WSJ a couple of years ago. What he failed to mention is that the snake of software is also quietly eating its own tail.

“I’m not just an old-fashioned Job Destroyer, replacing secretaries and mid-level bureaucracy with CRM and accounting suites. By using the most efficient possible languages (Ruby and Clojure, in my case, rather than Java or C#) and relying on free and open source software (Postgres rather than Oracle, for instance), I’m potentially destroying jobs in my own sector!”

Nick Bostrom on Technological Unemployment and a Possible Premium on Human-Produced Goods and Services

Nick Bostrom recently did an interview in which he discussed a wide range of fascinating topics. At one point Bostrom raises a question relevant to this website: will some jobs be resistant to automation because culturally we prefer they be done by authentic human beings?

“…once we have general machine intelligence, then a much wider range of human work becomes irrelevant. That you could have machines that can outperform in every cognitive domain. At that stage, the only kinds of jobs for which humans would still be competitive would be those where the customers have a particular preference that the job be carried out by humans.

“Right now, a lot of people will pay extra money if some good has been made by hand. A handmade little wooden doll might command a price premium over a machine made doll, even if the actual object is the same because people might care, for whatever reason, about how it was produced or if it were produced by indigenous people, or if the workers were treated ethically.

“There might be all these basic preferences we have, in certain circumstances, regarding the causal processes that produce the product we’re buying. So in those areas, including some service areas, where we might just prefer the service to be provided by a human being, it might be that humans could remain competitive, even after machine intelligence can outperform on all objective metrics.” (link to full interview)

Can Capitalism Continue? (Part 1) “Searching for the Jobs of the Future”

Are we about to experience large-scale technological unemployment? I believe we are. Every where you look, old professions are under attack. Self-driving cars threaten to make legions of truck drivers, cabbies, and body shop operators obsolete. Robots that make 360 hamburgers per hour could displace your local fast food employees. And massive open online classes are poised to undermine the very foundations of the higher education industry.

When you really ponder the promise of near future technologies, very few current jobs appear to be safe.

However, the economic data is still inconclusive, and predicting the future is never reliable. All I have is my intuition, which is founded on two main points:

  1. Technology today appears to be moving extremely fast.
  2. No one seems to have a clear vision of what the new jobs of the future will be.

But just because we can’t easily imagine the jobs of the future, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. As is often pointed out, people working on farms in the eighteenth century couldn’t imagine the jobs created by the industrial revolution. Maybe we are in the same position today—ignorant of the economic activity that is just around the corner.

So should we just take it on faith that new jobs will appear, as they’ve done in the past?

I am reluctant to do so.


Really what might the jobs of the future look like? Can we actually come up with a plausible answer? One that employs a substantial number of people and allows capitalism to continue? Without resorting to some sort of welfare mechanism, like an unconditional basic income?

To tackle this question, we might start by asking:

“What are the things that a human can do that a robot can’t?”

But this may not be the most useful framing. For the time being, humans can do lots of things robots can’t. For example, only a human can enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich, or feel moved by a piece of music. But generally no one is going to pay a human to do those things. While these things make us human, they do not guarantee employment.

Moreover, this framing essentially just takes us back to where we started. The farmer back in the eighteenth century could not have come up with the answer “only humans can do assembly line work.” (Which was true back then.) The farmer didn’t know what an assembly line was.

Instead we need to frame the question in a way that stimulates new thought experiments and also takes into account economic realities.


Economics is based on scarcity. Every successful business is engaged in the monetization of a scarce resource. A grain farmer sells scarce grain. A consultant sells scarce advice. A radio station sells the scarce attention of its listeners. Scarcity enables businesses and businesses create jobs.

Conversely, it is because technology creates abundance, that jobs are destroyed. Thanks to digital files, music is more abundant than ever before, and as a consequence the record industry has shrunk.

So if we want to locate possible areas of possible future employment, we need to ask the question:

“What are the resources that will stay scarce?”

Or put more specifically, if we assume a near future full of 3D Printing, intelligent software, dextrous robots, and frictionless communication, where do scarcities still exist? Where, perhaps, do new scarcities appear?

In coming posts I’m going to examine various resources—both tangible and intangible—that may be resistant to technological abundance. Resources that are likely to stay scarce, and could form the basis of future economic activity.

First Up: “Authenticity”

James Hughes: “Policy Makers Have Not Wrapped Their Minds Around Structural Unemployment”

James Hughes covers a lot of ground here in close to twenty minutes. I agree with most of what he has to say. There’s a lot of highlights. Here’s one:

“They’ve been talking about things like slashing senior benefits—the entitlement debate as it’s called—raising the retirement age to try to force more seniors into a labor force that is already not creating enough jobs for the people already there. So they’ve been talking about the old age dependency ratio. But they haven’t been talking about the coming welfare dependency ratio as a consequence of structural unemployment. Because they just can’t wrap their minds around that. Every single policy maker that you hear on national public radio or CNN are talking about: ‘Well, we’re in a rough patch right now, but we’ll be getting back to full employment. It’s just right around the corner! It’s coming! The president’s policies are gonna have some effect pretty soon!’ They just can’t think about it yet.”

Also this:

“What’s missing when we talk about the fact that society is going to profoundly change? I heard recently one of the directors of the Singularity Institute talk about this, and he was asked the question, “So you’re saying that all necessary labor’s going to be eliminated. And there’s gonna be nano-boxes. Is there gonna be a gap between the elimination of human labor and the nano-boxes?’ And he said ‘Well, maybe ten, fifteen years.’ Well, a lot can happen in ten, fifteen years! A lot of riots, a lot of starvation, a lot of social dislocation.”

Superstar Cabbie

Here’s a great post on the Atlantic Cities blog on Rashid Temuri, the ingenious Chicago cabbie who has used Twitter to improve taxi service in Chitown and in the process become a kind of one-man taxi service himself. This is supposed to be a heart-warming story and it is, showing how superstar economics now apply to everyone with an internet connected clientele (which is to say, virtually everyone in a major metro and many others too). In the short term, Temuri is publicly outperforming his competitors and as a result he’s taking their market share. Of course, none of this is going to help in a few years when driverless cabs provide an even better service than Temuri can, and cheaper.

It Doesn’t Matter Who’s President, He Probably Can’t Do Much About Unemployment

Such is the thesis of this Forbes article, which I largely agree with:

“Then this morning, I read an editorial by Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, which made me think of a bigger problem with all the political rhetoric about job loss and job creation: the rise of structural unemployment. Romney can cut all the taxes he likes, and Obama can try to pass more stimulus programs, but no policy can remedy this deeper trend in the economy…

“Technology has meant that increasing numbers of routine tasks are performed by machines. We see this in manufacturing, but I also see it when I go to my corner Walgreen’s, where three automated check-out stands eliminate the need for cashiers (except when the things break down, which is frequently, and a human has to reset them). It’s not just lower-level work like repetitive manufacturing jobs or checkout counters, as Freeland points out. Machines also do the work of travel agents and even legal discovery that used to be handled by well-paid associates with law degrees.”

Our political discussion really needs to begin addressing how to smoothly transition out of a work-based society. However, things aren’t quite bad enough yet that any politician could dare be so radical. The economy will have to get a lot worse first. Even 2016 might be too soon. We’ll have to wait and see.