The Ball & Chain: Why New AI Tech Doesn’t Benefit Anyone

20th Century fantasies

John Maynard Keynes hypothesized that the technology would liberate us; we would be more productive, work less hours, and enjoy the leisure time our parents sacrificed. Automation would break the chains of drudgery that holds each and every one of us down. Then, we would be able to pursue our hobbies and pleasures while spending only two or three days on the clock a week. Maybe even one day a week. Who knows? The future looked golden upon the horizon.

Mr. Keynes could not have been more mistaken. There will be no Techno-Paradise. The Promised Land Silicon Valley has dangled ahead of us is just a mirage. A fully-automated luxury Wonderland is pure fantasy, and we have only ourselves to blame.

The 1960’s were equally optimistic. A Senate Committee thought by the year 2000 we’d have a 14 hour work week. Could you imagine such a thing? 14 hours a week. A whole extra day a week to do whatever you’d like. What would you do with an extra 26 hours? Visit your friends that moved to a different state? Spend the extra day watching your kids grow up? Perhaps you’d take that painting class you keep seeing at the community center, but are always too exhausted to actually attend? Sleep until noon and spend the day doing nothing but watching re-runs of Futurama in your underwear? A 14 hour work week. What a farce.

We’re the Villains

It is the human’s culture, not the technology’s invention, that is the disease. Despite our frequent anthropomorphizing of ChatGPT, Bard, and similar Large-Language Models, they are not moral agents. They have no sentience or anything closely resembling it. They will not be our liberators. We must break the chains ourselves. And we could, if we had a political will for it. Instead, however, we will be kept bound by our own emotions: envy, self-righteousness, ego.

For every job eliminated by technology, we will gain a new person in abject poverty. This is not because we enjoy seeing our fellow countrymen struggle. It’s just that we hate seeing people who have it easier than ourselves more. The idea that someone, who is not us, can have a life in which their basic needs satisfied without 40 hours a week of drudgery is blasphemy.

Why shouldn’t that person have to work? I work hard for my money. Why should they freeload off Uncle Sam, when there’s many of us that go to the office everyday?

That’s not the thinking that leads to reduced work weeks. That’s not the thinking that leads to reduced hours per week. The constant refrain of making sure everyone else works just as hard as you do is juvenile.

Ask yourself

Do you do that at your job? Are you constantly looking over your shoulder gawking at your colleagues trying to ensure that they are working as diligently as you do? You, the divine arbiter of what constitutes pulling one’s weight, surely have your own work to complete. And if by chance you slowed down your work to give you enough time to check on everyone else’s, then surely they would notice that, right? And suddenly working just as hard as you do requires a little bit less. So they do less. With keen powers of observation, you notice them doing less. Do you go to your manager and point out how Tammy has not been giving it 100%? Would you appreciate a subordinate that came to you with such a revelation about another person it’s your job to manage?

It would be a dazzling exercise in embarrassing yourself to do that; sophomoric is the first word that comes to mind. That’s because it is a product of the immature, egocentric reasoning we come to expect of a 16-year-old. The same 16-year-old who thinks that the world is fair, and that it is unfair that he do more work than anyone else on this Earth.

Unfortunately, the world is not just. It has never been just. There currently are, always have been, and always will be people who work less than you do. Some of those people who work less than you do live fabulous lives with more money than you could possibly imagine. And they did positively nothing for it. They just happened to win a genetic lottery. Better luck next drawing.

What’s Underneath these feelings

It doesn’t have to end this way though. We can graduate from the high school mentality and move on. Underneath the envy, the ego, and self-righteousness lies a common set of some fears. A lot of our negative emotions are really fear masquerading as something else. The adult thing to do is to address the fear, should we ever hope to get past it.

Let’s start by identifying them: a fear of being taken advantage of; wasting your life; missing out; looking foolish; not having enough; being inferior; not being worthy. All of these fears involve thinking primarily about one’s self. That’s the issue at hand. Self-obsession drives the worst of our emotions and fears, and so far modern technology has made us more self-obsessed.

Consider the rise of social media. We are able to quantify our relative popularity through metrics such as number of friends, followers, subscribers, likes, retweets, re-blogs, reactions, and shares. Algorithms serve us up a never-ending stream of the highlight reel of everyone else’s lives, prompting us to comment upon everything with our takes. The result has been increased levels of isolation, depression, anxieties, and narcissism.

A grown-up Alternative

If we can stop fixating on ourselves and instead find joy in the successes of others, then and only then will we move toward enjoying the benefits of technological innovation ourselves. When another person gets automated out of a job, instead of bombarding them “well, now what are you going to do for work?”, talking about re-skilling them, or just hanging them out to dry, we could celebrate. Congratulations, you’re free.

To build a world where that is possible would require some significant new policies and changes to our existing ones, but that is a discussion for another post. Before we can have real discussions on new policy, we need to come into those talks with the right attitude and mindset.

We have a unique opportunity here to allow tech to liberate us. Members of our society can be freed up to experience more leisure time to pursue their hobbies, visit with family, socialize, those things that make life worth living. Or, alternatively, we can continue to toil for most of our lives bound in the chains of envy.

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Luke Data Engineer
Luke A man on a crusade against apathy. I created this website on April Fool's Day 2024, after noticing the sharp uptick in garbage writing on the internet. My day job is as a data something. I also do consulting work for small-business' trying to modernize their data situations and make a buck off them. I write a lot about technology, economics, my own antics, and opinions.  If my writing has entertained, informed, aggravated, or made you reconsider anything, then I consider this blog a fantastic success.

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