Automation, Subordination, and the Future of Employment

By | September 6, 2013

Blogger Michael O. Church (don’t click if you can’t stand f-bombs) says that it isn’t just automation that is putting our economic future into jeopardy. Rather, it is is a deadly cocktail of automation taking up all the subordinate jobs combined with an employment model  that has made most of us — naturally — subordinate.

Per Church, the workplace in both its industrial and post-industrial incarnations trains us to be underachievers, curbing (and eventually quashing) our creative capabilities in favor figuring out how to get positive evaluations and thus keep the paychecks rolling in. Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment knows that most companies fall far short of the kind of pristine meritocracy they more or less universally claim to be.  A real meritocracy would be a competitive environment in which the most capable and productive rise to the top, with good performers spurring each other on to better and better performance through the natural competition that arises. Unfortunately, in the real world good performers don’t get to be the role models they should because there is an entirely different value system operating under the surface.

…[E]ven in the relatively broken world of white-collar work, one never really has to worry, when doing something genuinely worth doing, about others who are better at the work. One has to worry about nasty people and political adepts, not superior craftspeople. In fact, people who are genuinely superior are usually quite nice about it, at least in my experience. It’s those who are inferior but politically powerful that are most dangerous.

….It’s not the objective difficulty, but the erratic and corrupt evaluation, that gets to most people. When the reward is divorced from the quality of the work, people lose interest in the latter. Most people, after all, associate work not with physical or mental difficulty (which people enjoy) but with economic humiliation. In a work world driven by non-meritocratic political forces and therefore subject to constant shifts in priority, they also lose a sense of coherence, and the ability to focus atrophies, since responding quickly to political injections is more valued than deliberate performance. Eventually, full-on disengagement sets in, and people lose a sense of ownership or responsibility. Over time, this creates a class of people conditioned into permanent subordination.

You know, even if machines weren’t coming along and snatching up all the good, reliable subordinate work — which they are — conditioning people into a state of permanent subordination doesn’t sound like all that noble of an objective. Not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with being subordinate to someone else; one of the commenters to Church’s piece points out that the military, for example, wouldn’t work very well without the concept of subordination. (It also comes in handy when rearing children.) But we don’t train soldiers (or children) never to think for themselves; ideally they are given a context into which they balance doing what they are told with doing what they believe, in the moment,  to be the best course of action. Ideally, there is an objective to be achieved — take the hill; learn how to successfully get through the day without relying on a diaper — that both orders / instructions passed down and actions taken on one’s own initiative will work towards achieving.

But in the highly skewed corporate setting that Church describes, the true objectives of the business often get lost in the background noise when one is trying to decide, day to day, which course of action will yield the best paycheck-ensuring results. So you end up with a workforce that is good at following instructions, and good at conforming to a set of evaluation criteria, and not terribly good at all at coming up with independent ideas for how to generate value and acting on them. So businesses have been cheating themselves out of a good deal of the value the workforce might have brought to the table (not to mention the toll such a setup takes on the workers’ lives.)

Meanwhile, here come the machines. Awesome at following instructions. Not terribly good (for now) at thinking up and acting on value propositions independently. It is an evolutionary inevitability that as machines become more capable, they take more and more work away from humans who were conditioned to be as machine-like as possible, but will never be as accurate, tireless, and so forth. There was a time when automation merely pushed human workers higher and higher in the subordinate food chain, but it looks like soon that will no longer be the case. The only humans who will be employable will be those who can make an independent contribution; that is to say, who can create value that machines currently cannot.

So what do we do with all those unemployed and unemployable humans? Church suggests:

The result of this is that the market value of subordinate work, on the market, is falling inexorably to zero. People who are afflicted by the long-term conditioning of subordination will have no leverage in the modern economy, and (as much as I am cautious about such things, being more strongly libertarian than I am leftist) I suspect that central intervention (socialism! gasp!) will be necessary if a nation is to survive the transition. All that will be left for us is work requiring individual creativity and personal expression, and the people who have lost these capabilities to decades of horrible conditioning will need to be given the help to recover (or, at least, enough sustenance while they can bring themselves to recover). The real discussion we need to have– involving economists, business leaders, educators, and technologists– is how to prepare ourselves for a post-subordinate world.

Well, let’s think about this. Sharing some of Church’s libertarian leanings, I’m not at all fond of the idea of socialism. I don’t even like the word very much, because it is so laden with baggage that it’s hard to have a reasonable discussion about these ideas. When we had Martin Ford on FastForward Radio a few years back, I remember him talking about the need for the government to make payments to individuals as the only way to keep automation from destroying the economy. In his view, establishing what we would normally call “socialism” is the one and only sure way to save capitalism. The problem is that our economic concepts are human-centric, where technology has always been an amplifier of human productivity and participation in the economy. If technology becomes the primary player in the economy, and most humans become irrelevant to it, our existing models begin to break down. So I think these ideas have to be on the table. We have to work through them, even if people’s knees tend to jerk when they hear either the word “socialism” or “capitalism.”

But having said that, I have a hard time seeing how a socialist system can remedy the problem of people being conditioned for subordination. Socialism subordinates all economic activity to the common good, as defined by the (we hope) benevolent state. But if individual corporations haven’t been terribly good at creating an environment in which people maximize their creative contribution, how can we support the idea that a powerful central state will somehow do better?  If people currently associate work with economic humiliation, how will they feel about being handed a free check for doing nothing every month? If evaluation criteria are introduced by which some people can do better than others, those criteria are at least as unlikely to be wide of the mark (And what is “the mark?” And who decides?) as the ones currently used in corporations — which we have already established represents a huge problem.  And let’s not forget those inferior performers with advanced political skills. Seems to me that they will be more of a problem than ever.

On the other hand, it’s important to note that Church suggests the S-word as a transitional strategy. It’s not a permanent solution. That last bit about defining what a post-subordinate world will look like is the truly crucial part.

Personally, I think that’s the part we should be working on now. A number of models have been floated around how society and our economy might be reorganized in light of the robot takeover. Maybe we all get straight-up government payments. Maybe we get them on a sliding scale based on efforts to better ourselves, serve our communities, clean up the environment (see caveat above about evaluation criteria.) Maybe we all get stock in companies and manage our portfolios for a living. Maybe we all do each other’s laundry. Maybe the whole economy gets reorganized around consumption with us all competing in some highly complex frequent shopper program. Maybe we push for advanced 3D printers and tiny nuclear reactor generators in every home so that everyone can just produce whatever they need without the old money economy at all.

These ideas all need to be explored, modeled, tested. And we need a lot more of them. A lot more. Perhaps it’s time to organize an X Prize around new economic models. Okay, sure, that sounds like a good idea, but there’s one problem. What would the prize be?

Some related thoughts at Transparency Revolution.

  • Andrew Barras

    Great post. I just wrote about this on my blog and linked back here. Basically the problem you are describing starts in public education where the emphasis is on conformity and standardization. This is the opposite of the sorts of skills you need in a post industrial age economy. Pre-K children are usually very creative and non conformist. Schools take that away from them. (see: Sir Ken Robinson)

  • David Govett

    Perhaps we humans could get jobs in bars where robots went to relax after work.

    • PhilBowermaster

      Finally, a sensible idea!

  • AD_Rtr_OS

    As per W. Churchill, the one thing that Socialism assures is the common sharing of misery.

  • Pettifogger

    Machines taking over non-creative work will free those with creative capability to pursue meaningful careers. I don’t know what will happen to those of us who are creative. I do expect to see greater value placed an handcrafted goods.

  • Kirk Parker

    I think there’s a few words that got omitted during editing. Here, let me FIFY:

    as defined by the (we hope, against all experience) benevolent state.

    Seriously, what hope have we for that???

  • Dan Campbell


    Can you mention to Stephen the book

    Pardon the Disruption: The Future You Never Saw Coming.

    It was mentioned in a review of Michio’s book, The Future of the Mind.

    The second part of Pardon the Disruption is about the changes, past and present, to the economy, because of technology.

    The first part of the book, is about the changes to our legal system – so perhaps Stephen might be interested in browsing through it. 2 of the authors are lawyers; the other is an economist.