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Bring me a rock - and join the future of jobs debate!

Denis Pombriant Profile picture for user denis_pombriant December 1, 2016
Plenty of readers had spicy comments for Denis Pombriant's future of jobs and automation series. Now he issues a challenge: share your own view on where we go from here. He seeds the challenge with some provocative questions. Now it's up to us to "bring our rocks."

It’s a children’s game. I say bring me a rock and you dutifully do so only to have me say, “No, no, no! That’s not a rock! Bring me a rock!” It goes on like that indefinitely until one party quits. Think of it as an updated version of the Myth of Sisyphus, the one where the protagonist pushes a rock up a hill all day only to find that it rolls back down on its own just as he reaches the top, his job almost at an end.

Sisyphus was a hero of sorts to the existential movement, I am not exactly sure why. Perhaps they saw the rock, or more precisely the task, as giving some modicum of meaning to life. Camus and Malraux loved Sisyphus and I think one of them claimed he was smiling as the boulder rolled back down the hill. I dunno.

Beyond philosophy and kids games, it seems to me that we’re in a Sisyphean moment in the West. Sisyphus had it easy by comparison—at least he knew the objective. In contrast in the modern game one player is clueless about what a rock is in the mind of the game’s leader and the game never gets us any closer to that understanding mostly because the leader doesn’t want that to happen. I see this phenomenon happening too much these days, especially on the Internet and even on sites like this.

The recent discussion of automation and the future of jobs is a case in point. Never mind that I was one of the writers taking the optimistic position and that my post, An optimistic view of bot driven automation on the future of jobs, stirred a lot of discussion (Editor's note: also check Pombriant's follow up, Still optimistic about the future of jobs in a bot driven world, where he responds to reader arguments). I am okay with receiving criticism, that’s the nature of this place, but what I find odd is the Sisyphean nature of what passes for dialog today. One side presents a reasoned argument with back up and the other says I don’t believe it. End of story.

My colleague, Jon Reed, brought up the spirited discussion about the topic in a recent summary of activity on the site saying among other things,

While I don’t share Pombriant’s optimism, a well-thought take grounded in historical views is welcome.

Obviously, if you read comments or even contributed some (good on you!), you know Reed is not alone. Still my response to this is, “And?” as in, and what’s your hypothesis?

This is the form of the discussion about evolution led by people like Richard Dawkins but this vein—i.e. what to do about automation ostensibly gobbling up jobs—is far more important and deserves more thought. We can live with a few of us arguing about whether the chicken or the egg came first and we will be fine. But we can’t live for long, or very well, without jobs. So the automation discussion is of far more import.

My point is that several voices like author Vinnie Mirchandani contributed to presenting a fair amount of information to which we got a resounding, "That’s not a rock!" To which I say, And?

Most people don’t have time to figure out solutions to societal problems and expect others to do that, especially those we give political office to. But someone has to come up with the answer to And? This is too important. Ideally, the solution will exist in a stew of proto-solutions of varying degrees of completeness and workability.

So my challenge to you, dear reader, is this. You have the whole Internet where knowledge is doubling right now at the rate of once every eleven hours, according to IBM and you have a variety of browsers and search engines. So comment on this:

  • How does the human-automation disruption get worked out?
  • Does silicon-based life finally do us in like some Sci-Fi novel plot?
  • Do we successfully rage against the machine like the Luddites of the UK Industrial Revolution or the “Know-Nothings” of the US?
  • Will there be some form of universal basic income and who will pay for it? Under such conditions who would hold a job? Why?

I am looking forward to seeing your ideas.

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