It was a moment that was broadcast nationally, but nevertheless, one that few people noticed. But more people should have been paying attention, because even if only briefly, automation was mentioned in a presidential debate. That’s right. That robot apocalypse where none of us have jobs anymore was a serious talking point by senator Marco Rubio.
In a response to a question about the minimum wage, Senator Rubio said:
“if I thought that raising the minimum wage was the best way to help people increase their pay, I would be all for it. But it isn’t. In the twenty-first century it’s a disaster. If you raise the minimum wage you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine. And that means all this automation that’s replacing jobs and people right now is only going to be accelerated.”
Politics aside, Marco Rubio is wrong about one thing. Automation is going to replace jobs no matter what we do, minimum wage increase or not. While exactly how many new jobs can be created to replace old ones is a matter of debate, it is widely accepted that many jobs will be lost. If you think this is an alarmist fringe prediction, The Bank of England has recently warned that 50% of jobs in the United States and United Kingdom are at risk of automation.
However, just as economists recognize this as an inevitability, so too do they acknowledge that this is not necessarily catastrophic. Automation of industry combined with cheaper sources of energy will lead to a global abundance of resources. As supply increases, prices will go down, and the average person will not need to work long hours for his or her basic needs to be met.
But one big question remains: How will we spend our time? With less time to work, and less time spent on tasks that are now automated (think self-driving cars), there’s going to be a glut of free time.
To some extent, this is already happening, and people are filling their time with technological distractions. That grown man or woman sitting next to you on the subway on the way to a business meeting is more likely playing candy crush than reading a book. People spend inordinate amounts of time streaming Netflix at home, and spend much of their time at work on Facebook and Buzzfeed. We just have less stuff we need to do, both at home and on the job, so we end up spending much of our time sitting down glued to a screen. When virtual reality becomes mainstream, I can only imagine this problem being exacerbated.
Where does this leave us? Will we continue like this, or will something begin to change? Every once in a while we’ll hear murmurs of someone going on a “social media break,” or listen to someone explain why they like reading from a physical book rather than a Kindle. Someone will prefer to speak rather than text, or go camping to “reconnect” with nature (not new, see Walden). People are beginning to take “tech sabbaths,” and work at standing desks where they feel more active.
The point is this: People like tactile experiences. As fun as Netflix-while-lying-on-a-couch can be, it doesn’t satisfy some deeper human need to act human. We like birthday presents that come in packages and big boxes, and contain something that we can touch and feel.
We will begin to see a large trend to use all of this new free time towards “real experiences.” This is not some Luddite fantasy where we smash the machines and delete our Instagram accounts. We will still have all that stuff, but rather than that being our baseline activity, many people will “revert” to our “primal” activities.
Ironically, this can be seen as a reversal of the industrial revolution, where people left the fields for the cities and replaced the day/night cycle with a watch. With extended free time, people will go hiking more, continue to learn instruments, learn whittling, ride horses again, and spend more time cooking. Some will read, write more, and draw art by hand. And rather than put our phones away during these activities, technology will compliment them. 3-D printing is a good example. As they become commonplace in people’s homes, traditional hobbies will be transformed and improved.
With less work, people will actually choose to go to sleep earlier to be in line with our natural circadian rhythm, or, if we’ve done something about light pollution, spend more time stargazing like our ancestors. In a later post I will discuss the future of the city, but people will spend more time urban farming and going for walks. Maybe even more time volunteering.
While parts of this trend will quickly become mainstream, it will, most likely, remain fringe for quite some time. People will quickly realize how destructive an excess of screen-based leisure can be, but they will be slow to change their lifestyles. Activities like watching TV and checking our cellphones are easy sources of dopamine, and it will be tough to make more tactile experiences feel as rewarding. We must be sufficiently convinced these activities (again, in excess) are doing us more harm than good. But for many, this change will come.