To do or not to be. That is the question.
We are living days in which we don’t stop hearing about how machines will replace humans in most of our jobs. It is a compelling headline, as coherent as it is apocalyptical: machines not only will be able to do the same tasks, but they will do it faster, more effectively and more efficiently. As a result, many millions of people will no longer be necessary for companies and they are at risk of losing their jobs.
250 years ago, something like this happened for the first time and we called it the Industrial Revolution. We are now seeing its fourth iteration, but there is one concept that I miss in all the analysis I have read so far. Maybe it is not very relevant, but I would like to share it with you nonetheless.
When the machines started their dominion, production soared. The mechanical horses never got tired. I remember reading stories of those days when men fought lost battles against machines and were buried, along with their pride, just like Deep Blue had Kasparov bite the dust many years later.
There is one question that all factory owners are asking themselves. For which buyers will I be producing? If the workers stop working, and stop making money as a result, who will buy what the machines are producing, however cheap the new product may be? In the years and centuries following the Industrial Revolution, the equation was solved by transforming the entire society into working class, women and children included. As the amount of people making money increased, so did the amount of people consuming. And things have been like that since. Making production cheaper reduced the cost of labour, but increased the number of workers, or, if you will, consumers.
But machines do not consume what they produce. Nor are they able to spend. Every time I hear about the jobs that are going to disappear, I cannot stop thinking about where the new consumers will come from. Will minimum income be the answer? Will it be the brand new world? Terminator, the Matrix?
Our society is beginning to face a dilemma that is taking aim directly at our way of understanding the world for thousands of years, ever since we began to organise in groups and distribute tasks.
To this day, all of us have learned crystal clear what our duty is when arriving to this planet. Work, be productive, to fulfil our role through our activity. Our social hierarchy was derived from that specialisation in the workplace and from the success with which we performed it. For centuries, no one has asked himself ‘What do I do here?’ We learned it on the go, without questioning. Study, learn a profession, find a job, improve, reach your highest level of competence (or incompetence), retire. Die. All our life organised around our activity.
As in a Maslow pyramid, once the basic question of why we have come to this place was resolved, we had a lot of time for philosophy, that is, for the questions we have been using to define ourselves: Who am I? What am I? What do I think? How do I see the world? What is my ideology? First things first. We are what we do and we differentiate ourselves by how we do it.
But now neo-machinism forces us to rethink that essential question that we have not addressed throughout our history. What the hell have I come to do here? Frankly, my dear reader, the "who I am" no longer matters. What am I on this planet, now that my work is done by a machine? How do I measure the value of my life? And this is, forgive me for underlining it so strongly, is a very, very male question. Because women have always known what was their mission on earth: it is called Life.
That is why, when I read that female employment is the one most likely to suffer the impact of "machine learning", I suspect it will be because men will be the last to relinquish their jobs. We will cling to our jobs like those hanging off Titanic’s lifeboats. Because if we no longer have employment as a measure for differentiation, what argument will men have to sustain the gender hierarchy on which western society is based? For this dilemma the machines do not have the answer yet, but their growing relevance may force us to ask ourselves the question that we have been delaying for a long time. How do we make our world more human?
Communication Strategist and Presentation Specialist