WORK (Part 3)

In the second post of this series, I attempted to enumerate only a few of the pros and cons of technology with an emphasis on Artificial Intelligence, the current hot button issue for those knowledgeable about this high tech stuff. It all began with my speculations as to the effect the total absence of work would have on people and culture. Granted, the idea of a culture where there is no work is hypothetical, but as I mentioned previously, there is some evidence that we are headed in that direction.  


We ordinarily think of work as an activity used to gain some kind of reward. Compensation of some type is the first kind which comes to mind, yet there are obviously some emotional or spiritual needs that are satisfied by our labors. In this regard I am frequently reminded of an incident from about 60 years ago when I was working on the “yard gang” at a local factory during the summer. I may have mentioned this in a previous blog; it was one of those trivial but unforgettable experiences, which addresses some of our less negative feelings about work.

Orrie was an amiable fellow in his late sixties, and he and I had been assigned to clean out a boxcar that had carried potash.  I can attest to the fact that the inside of a boxcar that has sat in the sun on a 90 degree day is not a very pleasant place to be, especially when one is soon enveloped in potash dust mixed with sweat.  I can also assure you that placement of a bandana over one’s mouth is not a very effective way to keep  the stuff out of your lungs.  After what seemed like hours of shoveling and sweeping, the last vestige of potash had been disposed of, and Orrie stood in the door of the car, reached in his pocket for a fresh cud of chewing tobacco, surveyed our handiwork and said, “A mighty pretty piece of work Doc.” (The guys all called me Doc, as they knew I was a pre-med student.)

As you might imagine, an overgrown, snot-nosed kid like me thought that was about the stupidest thing I had ever heard. It certainly was not analogous to the creation of some marvelous piece of art. On the contrary, I thought that boxcar was the ugliest thing I had ever seen, and I was convinced that it was the closest thing to hell one could experience while still alive. If work is defined as an activity seeking a reward, the only reward that I can imagine for Orrie was the satisfaction he felt as he savored his accomplishment. I suspect that this same need to achieve is the opiate which motivates us to build sky scrapers and clean boxcars.  If such is the case, then the term “workaholic” may describe another form of addiction.    


Now that I have become older and hopefully a little wiser, I have come to realize that it was men like Orrie with their incredible work ethic who have made it possible for me to sit here in relative luxury.  In my opinion, “trickle drown” economics is not what makes things work, but that the “trickle up” factor is even more important.  The wondrous plans of our great thinkers and planners would have had little chance of success without the sweat equity of the Orries of the world.   

Throughout recorded history and beyond, we seem to have been ambivalent about work. We often praise its value but at other times say we hate it.  We look forward to retirement, but when it comes, we start to look for something to do, as there are no 12-step programs to help us gain remission from this compulsion.  It has often been said that in order to have a successful retirement, one should remain active. Consequently, many of us end up engaged in activities such as volunteerism, gardening, woodworking or blog writing, which, under different circumstances, would be seen as work. In my own case, I looked forward to retirement, but I found I missed working. Since there was a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists, I had no problem finding a job and went back to work until senescence caught up with me 12 years later.  It is amazing how goofing off feels so good when you are working, but is so boring when you don’t have a job to do.


Of course there have been enormous changes in the nature of work over the last century.  We have become much more specialized especially in manufacturing. Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly line introduced a new level of efficiency in production at the cost of massive levels of boredom among the employees, who found themselves performing the same action hundreds of times every day. I can speak of this from experience, for I once worked in a glass bottle factory where a river of glass bottles came at me from a conveyor belt as I attempted to pack them in boxes. It was a position I felt was sorely lacking in job satisfaction. The good news is that these kind of jobs are the type which robots can do more efficiently and with fewer mistakes than can humans, but the bad news is it eliminates a lot of jobs held by those with limited training.  

The automobile industry, which has long been a major component of our economy, is a good example of the changes wrought by technology on employment.  According to a study by Washington University, the number of people employed in auto manufacturing decreased from 1.1 million in 2004 to 670,000 in 2011, presumably due largely to the introduction of robotics.  Now with the introduction of artificial intelligence to these machines, the game is changed drastically.  Fewer and eventually no people may be needed to make cars and trucks.

As mentioned in a previous blog, this work thing had its origin when Joe Caveman discovered he could make a spear point or axe from a piece of rock, which helped him to procure food for himself and his family. It wasn’t long until he found he could make other stuff, which eventually led to my being able to sit here in my nice warm house and peck away at a machine. With the development of group work, people depended upon each other to “carry their own weight,” work was highly valued by society, and slackers were looked down upon and even shunned.


However, it seems unlikely that Orrie’s motivation in cleaning out that boxcar had anything to do with social pressures, for he appeared not to be pleased until he surveyed his handiwork after the job was done. For me, though, it was all about the money. The only satisfaction I felt came from being able to get the hell out of that boxcar.  This would lead one to believe that Orrie’s sense of accomplishment was the primary source of that mildly euphoric feeling.  I doubt that it was much different than the emotions an artist would feel upon completing a painting or sculpture. As a matter of fact, I find it interesting that Orrie used the word “pretty” to describe his accomplishment, and I suspect that when Joe Caveman turned that piece of rock into an axe he might have thought it to be a pretty piece of work, too.  


The human body has evolved to make us particularly suited to do things and make stuff.  When we learned to stand upright and developed fingers with an opposing thumb, we were equipped to do all kinds of things, and an enlarged cerebral cortex allowed us to learn how to do them. In answer to the question of why we work, it would seem there are multiple factors involved, including: as a means to supply our basic needs of food, shelter and the like; because of cultural influences; as a tool to ward off depression; because it is an addiction; and perhaps even because it’s simply part of our genetic makeup.


Since we ordinarily spend at least half of our waking hours at work, what we do contributes in large measure to our identity, e.g. who we are.  For example, if I am asked who I am, I likely will reply that I am a retired psychiatrist. Work is so important that it tends to define us.  It is difficult to imagine how different I would be had I grown up in a world in which there was no work to be done.  Would I still be competitive?  If so, for what would I compete, and how would I do it?  Would we need to have a monetary system?  If not, what tools could we use to distribute resources?  What would we do with all that extra available time?  We couldn’t all be bloggers.  There are already too many of them.  With no need to train for a career, would education be needed?  Would we become even fatter and lazier? Would our native curiosity remain intact?  Would our brains atrophy?  Would we be dumbed down?  

Those are only a few of the questions raised as one contemplates a workless society.  As discussed in a previous blog the total absence of work could only happen with the development of robotics endowed with Artificial Intelligence.  As computers store more knowledge and learn more, they become more intelligent and in some ways have already become smarter than us.  Their decision making is not influenced by emotion, they are always logical, and they never forget.


We all participate in the transfer of power to machines.  For example, in the past I carried a few phone numbers in my head as a matter of convenience. Now I have no need to bother as those numbers are all programmed into my phone. After relieving my brain from the job of memorizing those numbers, I found myself doing exercises to improve my cognition and memory.  How crazy is that?  A recent drive to another state would have involved studying road maps and planning a route, but now I only need to tell Siri where I want to go. I have always taken pride in my ability to spell and had even won some spelling bees as a kid, but now I am dependent on spell check and Google.  

As computers become more intelligent, we will undoubtedly become more dependent on them for more important things than directions or spelling. We will be perfectly willing to turn over more and more responsibility to robots, and to enjoy the fruits of their labors, which is certainly not all bad. Lest you think I am an anti-robotic bigot let me assure you that I feel they have the potential to eliminate much suffering in this world. Unfortunately, as Bill Gates has said, there is also a very frightening, largely ignored, possible down-side. As we cede more power to technology, we risk losing control of our world. You might think this not such a bad idea considering how we have screwed it up, but I suspect it wouldn’t be a fun place to live. I doubt many robots would be lovable little guys like R2-D2 in Star Wars.


With no frame of reference, we can only make guesses as to what it would be like to live in a world without work, but I feel certain it would be much different than just taking time off for vacation. IBM’s Watson and his buddies would personify the spectacle of tail-wagging dogs as robots became our masters. Speaking of dogs, perhaps robots could domesticate us as we did the wolves, and teach us to sit, stay, and roll over.

2 thoughts on “WORK (Part 3)

  1. I watched a video of a Tesla drive itself down the road at a reasonable speed. It stayed in its lane, stopped at stop signs, hesitated or stopped for pedestrians, and, overall performed flawlessly. The “driver’s” hands never touched the wheel. Who needs bus drivers or cab drivers?

    FIAT makes an engine called the Fully Integrated Robotized Engine (FIRE) that is essentially built by robots. Only a few humans are involved.

    OH, love the word “senescence”


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