Three Visions of Our Future After the Robot Revolution

July 10th, 2015
in Op Ed

by Fabius Maximus,

Summary: During the past 2 years the robot revolution has come into view, and all but Right-winger living in fantasy-land have begun to realize it might (like the previous ones) produce large-scale social disruption and suffering.

Follow up:

Here we look at three kinds of visions about what lies ahead for us.

"We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it."
- Barack Obama's speech to Congress, 9 September 2009.

Dark futures


  1. The center-left sees the problem,
    ......and offers mild solutions.
  2. Realistic analysis and prescriptions.
  3. Visions of dark futures.
  4. For More Information.

(1) The center-left sees the problem and offers mild solutions

Slowly people have come to see the coming robot revolution (aka a new industrial revolution), even economists. The Left has adopted this issue, as they have climate change, as a means to enact long-sought changes in the US economy. Like climate change, their solutions are far too small for the problem described.

(a) "A World Without Work" by Kerek Thompson in The Atlantic, July/Aug 2015 - "For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?" Typical of The Atlantic. Long, meandering, confused mish-mash of issues. Never confronts the core issue of how people will earn money to live. Lots of nonsense about people living by selling crafts to each other.

(b) "The Future of Work in the Age of the Machine" by Melissa S. Kearney, Brad Hershbein, and David Boddy at the Hamilton Project, February 2015. See the slides and transcript from the seminar they held for academics and businesspeople. Their prescription is aggressive application of conventional methods...

The Project's economic strategy reflects a judgment that long-term prosperity is best achieved by fostering economic growth and broad participation in that growth, by enhancing individual economic security, and by embracing a role for effective government in making needed public investments.

(c) "The future of work in the second machine age is up to us" by Marshall Steinbaum at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, 23 February 2015 - They show that the robot revolution has not yet appeared in the macroeconomic statistics. But it's coming. Their conclusions are the standard center-left recipe, like those of the Hamilton Project...

So what should be the focus of public policy is to figure out ways for workers to accrue more of corporate earnings, for more unemployed and underemployed people to find full-time, productive jobs, and for the broader economy to serve the interests of the actual people who inhabit it - those who overwhelmingly derive their living from their labor. We know what needs to be done and how to do it, because we've done it before.

Clear vision

(2) Realistic analysis and prescriptions

A few people have seen that a problem of this scale will require bolder solutions than liberals are willing to take (conservatives prefer imaginary problems where the past did not happen and will not repeat).

I am no fan of Jeremy Rifkin, but his 1995 book was a prescient attempt to grapple with the problem: The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era - He advocates a kind of socialism as the solution. Publisher's blurb...

Jeremy Rifkin argues that we are entering a new phase in history - one characterized by the steady and inevitable decline of jobs. The world is fast polarizing into two potentially irreconcilable forces: on one side, an information elite that controls and manages the high-tech global economy; and on the other, the growing numbers displaced workers, who have few prospects and little hope for meaningful employment in an increasingly automated world. The end of work could mean the demise of civilization as we have come to know it, or signal the beginning of a great social transformation and a rebirth of the human spirit.

For a laser-like focus on the core issue see "Who Will Own the Robots?" in MIT Technology Review, -

"We're in the midst of a jobs crisis, and rapid advances in AI and other technologies may be one culprit. How can we get better at sharing the wealth that technology creates?"

(3) Visions of dark futures

To image what lies ahead of us if current trends continue, we can turn to science fiction, especially cyberpunk novels - as in these summaries by Diana Biller from "The Essential Cyberpunk Reading List" at io9. They describe a world in which the 1% continues winning - executing conservatives' plans to cut taxes for the rich and cut benefits for the 99%. Combine that with steady pressure on wages as jobs disappear (a growing "reserve army of the employed") and you get visions of dark futures - a

"nightmarish world of corporate control and extreme wealth disparities."

Available at Amazon.
Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

Henry Dorsett Case used to be a hacker, before his employer caught him stealing and he was dosed with a drug that made him incapable of accessing the global computer network. Now a mysterious person needs his hacking skills, and promises him a cure in return.

The book that defined the sub-genre, this 1984 novel is likely the most essential of the books on this list (it was also the first winner of the science fiction triple crown, taking the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Philip K. Dick Award).

Gibson has written many influential cyberpunk novels, including the rest of the Sprawl Trilogy (of which Neuromancer is the first), the Bridge Trilogy, and the short story collection Burning Chrome.

Available at Amazon.
Frontera by Lewis Shiner (1984)

"Corporate control, body augmentation, and other cyberpunk themes blend with golden age elements."

Ten years ago the world's governments collapsed, and now the corporations are in control. Houston's Pulsystems has sent an expedition to the lost Martian colony of Frontera to search for survivors. Reese, aging hero of the US space program, knows better. The colonists are not only alive, they have discovered a secret so devastating that the new rulers of Earth will stop at nothing to own it. Reese is equally desperate to use it for his own very personal agenda.

But none of them have reckoned with Kane, tortured veteran of the corporate wars, whose hallucinatory voices are urging him to complete an ancient cycle of heroism and alter the destiny of the human race. {From the publisher.}

Available at Amazon.
Metrophage by Richard Kadrey (1988)

Welcome to our future: L.A. in the late twenty-first century - a segregated city of haves and have-nots, where morality is dead and technology rules. Here, a small wealthy group secludes themselves in gilded cages. Beyond their high-security compounds, far from their pretty comforts, lies a lawless wasteland where the angry masses battle hunger, rampant disease, and their own despair in order to survive. Jonny was born into this Hobbesian paradise. {Publisher}

This dystopian novel by the author of the Sandman Slim series takes place in late 21st-century Los Angeles, where the rich live in unimaginable luxury and everybody else lives in a wasteland of misery. And a small-time drug dealer discovers a strange new plague, and gets drawn into the secret warfare between huge economic blocs.

For More Information

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