Taxonomy of Technological Unemployment Solutions (and Defeaters)

This post represents my latest attempt to categorize the possible solutions to technological unemployment. It’s largely based on episode 14 of my Review the Future Podcast so for a more detailed treatment of this topic, you can listen here.

To begin, I’d like to talk about some of the defeaters to technological unemployment that could mean either (a) it won’t happen or (b) it won’t be a problem.

DEFEATERS

Lowered Cost of Living – The technological bounty produced by new technologies could be so great that high rates of unemployment may not be that big a deal. If current trends reverse, and advanced technologies begin to drive down the price of key goods like housing, health care, and education, then people might be able to live reasonably comfortable lives with very little income. The small income required could come from just a few odd jobs performed throughout the year, or alternately people might cluster in households where the income of those who are fortunate enough to still have work is shared and used to pay for everyone’s expenses. In addition, with high returns to capital and low costs to living, interest on even very small investments might allow for a reasonably comfortable life. And for those who still fall though the cracks, non-profits and charities might step in. Such philanthropic activities will be greatly empowered since the cost of doing good will be much cheaper than ever before.

Intelligence Augmentation – If people are losing jobs to smart machines then one solution is to make people smarter. The obvious first step is simply better education, enabled by technological advances such as online distribution, augmented reality , gamification, individualized learning environments, and so on. However, it may eventually become possible to actually enhance human intelligence, whether through drugs, genetics, or brain implants. As a result, people could become upgradeable in the way that machines are today, thus closing the competitive gap between the humans and machines.

New Demands and New Platforms – This outcome has two components. First, there may be a growing market for new kinds of goods that cannot be automated away or that directly monetize “humanness.” These include positional goods like status, time-limited goods like attention, and human-centric goods like shared experiences. Second, new peer-to-peer platforms might enable the monetization of these somewhat intangible goods in a way that allows the participation of significant portions of the population.

SOLUTIONS

If the above defeaters do not happen (or do not happen soon enough) then technological unemployment may require solutions that are more governmental in nature. I have broken these solutions into four categories.

Technological Relinquishment – If technology is causing the problem, we could just give up certain technologies. In its most extreme form, relinquishment would mean banning certain technologies outright. However there are many softer forms of relinquishment, such as incentivizing businesses to hire human workers instead of using machines. While on the surface such policies might be seen as “pro-human” they can just as easily be viewed as “anti-technology.” The idea here would be to limit the spread of technology into areas where human jobs are being threatened.

Artificial Scarcity – A world of technological unemployment is also probably a world of abundance. This abundance has two dimensions: labor and goods. An abundance of human labor will exist because we will have more people willing to work then can find jobs. Thus, we could artificially constrain the supply of labor by limiting the amount of hours people can work. This could be done through shorter work days, shorter work weeks, or shorter careers (early retirement).

An abundance of goods will exist because of the ever increasing digitization of everything. Digital goods can be hard to monetize because of their near zero marginal cost to reproduce. Thus digital goods are vulnerable to both cheap imitations and piracy. Therefore one solution might be to constrain the supply of goods artificially through the use of intellectual property and digital rights management. We already do this today, but it might be theoretically possible to institute a revised version of this system that better compensates the growing numbers of amateurs producing valuable digital content.

Expanded Social Safety Nets – Another solution is to expand our social safety nets to guarantee the livelihood of the growing unemployed. There are many ways to implement such safety nets. Here’s a partial list of methods, ranging from the more decentralized to the more paternalistic.

  • Unconditional Basic Income (just paying people for nothing)
  • Conditional Money Transfers (that require means testing or participation in some sort of program)
  • Vouchers (to be spent on only certain high priority needs)
  • Direct Provisioning (just give people food, housing, health care, directly)
  • Government Created Jobs (paying people to build infrastructure, do community service, read books, dig virtual ditches, etc)
Automation Socialism – This would be a reorganization of society along socialist lines, but with the added benefit of automation to solve some of the traditional problems of socialism like worker incentives (machines don’t need to be incentivized) and inefficient distribution of resources (technologically enabled abundance could make any efficiency loss negligible).

9 thoughts on “Taxonomy of Technological Unemployment Solutions (and Defeaters)

  1. I don’t understand the first defeater. The tendency has been for housing expenses to rise. In the past, the standard was that housing would cost 33% of your gross income, but today it’s not unusual that people pay 50%. Other things like healthcare and education have also increased in price.

    Computers have become incredibly cheap, but sleeping indoors costs more than the cost of a computer each month.

    • I’m aware of those trends. In fact those trends are why I chose to mention housing and health care specifically. However such trends are not set in stone and it’s possible those trends could reverse in the wake of speculative technologies that we don’t have yet like automated housing construction or software based medical diagnosis and monitoring. They also may not reverse but my goal in this post is to list possibilities not assign probabilities.

  2. Hey Jon & Ted

    I wanted share my appreciation for your blog and how you work through these contemporary and urgent theme’s. I’ve been following it for a while, an I am personally also very much engaged with the theme’s you guys are discussing. We (Monnik) have elaborate these in an essay that might interest you titled “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot” http://edwingardner.com/monnik1/pdf/%22Tea,Earl%20Grey,%20Hot%22%20-%20Monnik%20(2013).pdf

    Also these might interest you (perhaps you’ve already come across these)
    — Four Futures by Peter Frase – a great essay, exploring four future scarcity/post-scarcity scenario’s with some Marxist analysis and SciFi anecdotes. very nice
    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/12/four-futures/

    —Four P2P Scenario’s – http://p2pfoundation.net/Four_Future_P2P_Scenarios

    I also recommend following the P2P Foundation blog – a lot of interesting stuff comes by there: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/

    good luck,
    and all the best!

    if you guys every in Amsterdam let me know!

    • Hi Edwin,

      Thanks for following the blog! Recently we’ve been putting a lot of energy into our podcast as well. I hope you will check it out sometime, if you haven’t already.

      All those links you’ve provided look extremely interesting and relevant. I will start working my way through them right away. Thanks for sharing!

  3. One other possible solution might be decentralization. After all, maybe it doesn’t matter so much if you can’t get a job if you (or possibly you and your neighbors working together) can produce everything you need at home. Technologies like rooftop solar and 3D printers might help here, along with things like the maker’s movement and the open source hardware movement.

      • Well, a decentralized system wouldn’t necessarily “cost” less, at least in terms of labor; you might still be working 40 (or 50 or 60) hours a week to produce the things you need.

        • Okay, I do see what you mean. But having that decentralization option is still contingent upon some of these technologies “making things cheaper” otherwise such collaborative living wouldn’t be possible. And lowered cost of living as doesn’t necessarily imply a life of leisure. One’s actual day to day life could, as you describe, be filled with survival/maintenance tasks that are sort of job-like but not in the sense of “wage labor.”