Dreams of the future: what happened?

I have fond memories of emerging technology from my childhood. I remember listening, in awe, as my father put a pair of headphones on me and played a track from Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma with wonderful sounds clearly coming from the left and right, and a bee buzzing in one ear and not the other. I remember my father getting a car phone. Not a mobile phone, not a cell phone, but a car phone. Hard-wired into the car, with a pigtail antenna fixed to the back window and wired through the car to the phone in the center console. We watched the Jetsons and longed for the days when a robot would cook for us, clean for us, and make our lives easier. We had this vision of a world in which automation and technology let us sit by the pool and sip margaritas that a robot would make and bring to us with a tiny umbrella. What we never imagined is that the robots would take away the pool also.

The future is here. We have robots welding cars. We have robots packing pasta into factory boxes. We have robots doing so many of the jobs that we used to do. That was our dream. Let the robots work while we relax. But something went wrong. Companies got the robots that would let the workers relax, but the workers never got the chance to relax. The robots, instead of providing the chance for the workers to sit by the pool and sip their drinks, put the workers out of jobs. The money kept rolling in, but the workers got left out and it all went to the top. The executives reaped the benefits, and the workers all got locked out of the pool.

It seems inevitable now. Why should the workers get paid to sit by the pool and sip their drinks? But that was what we envisioned when we imagined the new efficiency that the robots would bring. And why couldn’t it have been that way. The executives could have maintained a robust employee group. We could have distributed the money to those who wanted to sit by the pool and sip drinks. Those who didn’t want more than that life (which isn’t all that great in reality). Those who didn’t want a chance at a bigger house, or the chance to travel in luxury to distant lands, or get a bigger, faster, more luxurious car. We could have used the efficiency that the robots brought to let people not work, if they didn’t want to, and still survive. Not thrive, but survive. And not barely survive, but survive reasonably well.

An analysis by the Brookings Institute estimated that the United States has enough wealth that if evenly distributed among the population, each person would get more than $300,000 each year.  I’m not in favor of this kind of wealth distribution, for a number of reasons, and even though I’m not an economist, it’s not hard to imagine that giving every single American a base salary of $300,000 per year would lead to inflation and make that money worth a lot less than it is now. It’s also not hard for me to see that it takes incentive away from those who want more, if they can’t get it no matter what they do. I get all that. I do. But it also seems wrong that the benefits of the robots went exclusively to the top. The top 1% holds more wealth than the entire middle class.

I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t know how to legislate it, but it does seem unfair that the future only made life easier for those who were lucky enough to not be replaced by the future. There has to be a better way.


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