Debate on Technology and Physical Labor

The following Facebook debate is a heated exchange between me and a fellow Facebooker on the question whether new technology should replace physical and menial labor. I take the pro-technology viewpoint by arguing that menial laborers should not have to work due to the force of starvation, but should do so under conditions that they choose, which labor-saving technology shall accomplish. My opponent takes the Luddite viewpoint, and thinks that the technology solution will merely create a dystopian future, where workers’ lives will be uprooted amid unemployment. Unfortunately, the debate has not always been civil in tone, so I decided to edit out some portions to spare the reader the intellectually useless ad hominems and defenses.

The debate was sparked off by a quote from Buckminster Fuller:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Thomas D.: Horseshit, physical work is good for the body and spirit. My grandmother tried to teach me that, and now some elitist moron, who gets to use the gym for free at Harvard, has justified his belief in his own “genius” by writing a book in which he claims to have “discovered” this reality.

Benjamin S.: I’m by no means discrediting physical labor – all i subscribe to is the sentiment of being fed up by a society that defines the value of its members – their “right to exist” – by their ability to assume the role of a gear in the myopically constructed machine that is capitalism.

Thomas D.: Ben, That’s saying something different than what Fuller seems to be saying. Fuller’s quote seems like it is arguing for the old theory of a leisured class, a moneyed aristocracy, or technocracy. Technology enables more people to live longer, but gives them less to do with their lives and their minds. Existence without form is chaos.

L. Larry Liu: The point sticks that we don’t need to work as much as before from a TECHNICAL standpoint, i.e. from the standpoint of doing x amount of work to earn a living. No one is barred from doing physical labor in any future society, whether that means planting a garden or building a boat or carrying heavy stones across country if one so chooses. The point is that we should not have to make our living based on this physical labor.

This article is also fairly instructive: http://www.economist.com/…/fre…/2013/08/labour-markets-0

Dusty H.: I generally disagree with this quote. I really don’t think we should glorify technology as the thing that is going to solve our problems, technology is not a God, and honestly the long term sustainability of our current techno-industrial system needs to be called into question. Also, we humans evolved doing physical activity or “work”, as it were, every single day. mindless drudgery serving corporate capitalist masters getting minimum wage? ok, that is total bull shit, but this idea that humans should not be doing anything productive on a daily basis is wrong.

Jason A.: If the work is interesting, keeps your mind challenged and driven by curiosity, why even retire? However I would totally agree as for repetitive jobs that don’t require human brains: cashier for instance is a job that is currently disappearing, not for bad in my view.

Thomas D.: The argument that one should always have a choice in matters of survival is elitist. Simply because you wouldn’t find fulfillment in a particular type of work doesn’t mean it should be taken away from those who would and need to do so to survive. Both Larry an Jason are not thinking far enough ahead of the consequences of the philosophies they espouse. The world they envision is that of H G Wells The Time Machine. They just don’t know it, or have made the connection yet. Reality and the future are never as neat and clean and easy as theorists in their vanity envision it.

You guys would be better off working on the conditions in which people do manual labor than trying to free yourselves intellectually of the need to do manual labor.

L. Larry Liu: Thomas, I don’t see why it should be elitist for people not to be forced to survive based on menial labor. If they do not pursue such menial labor, they will find another means of employment. The challenge will be to sever the connection between wages and labor. If I followed your logic to the full conclusion, then we should be preserving the oldest jobs in our history, i.e. farming. In most developed countries less than 5% of the workforce is engaged in agriculture. I find it hard to believe that people, who live in the city (including what you call “elites” like myself and more than half of the global population with a growing tendency, see http://www.who.int/…/urban_population_growth_text/en/) should find their meaning of life hurting our backs so we can grow food with our own hands. 

But you seem to be arguing that severing wages from labor would lead to social dislocation. I quote the summary of the Time Machine, “In the new narrative, the Time Traveller tests his device with a journey that takes him to A.D. 802,701, where he meets the Eloi, a society of small, elegant, childlike adults. They live in small communities within large and futuristic yet slowly deteriorating buildings, doing no work and having a frugivorous diet. His efforts to communicate with them are hampered by their lack of curiosity or discipline, and he speculates that they are a peaceful communist society, the result of humanity conquering nature with technology, and subsequently evolving to adapt to an environment in which strength and intellect are no longer advantageous to survival.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Time_Machine

I am not as pessimist as you. If people are not forced to work, they will find other means of employment. The non-profit sector will need to grow, the educational institutions will also need to grow, and “lifelong” learning should become the norm. You will now ask what the utility of so much learning will be if there is no job? But that would assume that the current utilitarian calculus of capitalism will exist into the indefinite future. People will learn, so they can learn, not so they can make a living! I think that we can re-direct people’s energies and resources to alternative endeavors.

Thomas D.: Physical labor is only menial if people don’t treat those who do it with dignity and respect. If you cannot do it, you should not be punished, but neither do you deserve to consider yourself above those who do it, or to create a world in which people who can do it and in fact need to do it, don’t have it to do, or are treated as subhuman because they do it. We are not all gifted equally in life, and just because technocrats are good at that kind of activity doesn’t give them the right to force their way of life on others, who might be better at other ways of working. You seem to be simply defending the notion that technocrats have a right to predetermine other people’s needs.

L. Larry Liu: Menial labor is menial, because it is hard work to do it. There is no value judgment necessary. I personally have greatest respect for people, who do it. And as of yet (with the given level of technology), we still need people, who do the physical labor. I will express it in even more frank terms: the society can afford fewer intellectuals (like myself), but it can not afford fewer menial laborers (as of yet).

However, to argue that we should desire that people do this type of labor by force of starvation is something which I can not endorse, despite your firm views on it. People are welcome to pursue physical labor if they wish to do it, but they should not stake their survival on it. Ironically, it is not the political left, which is implementing the technology to make more jobs ever more redundant, but it is the companies and businesses, who seek a profit, who will do it. The calculation is very simple: if wages rise and labor becomes a greater cost factor, the employers will want to replace workers by technology. You seem to strongly oppose these innovations. I have reservations against it only insofar the benefits of technology will not be distributed equally across society, at least not initially. But to argue that we should not have such innovation at all is this kind of “elitist” thinking by which we force poor physical laborers to perform menial work by force of starvation- and for which you originally had attacked my position!

Thomas D.: You might also want to learn more about the English language. “Menial” by definition is a degraded social term, denoting low status, and usually denoting house work (O.E.D.). It is people like you who believe it is not of equal worth to intellectual or technological work. The assumption of that point of view is condescending and rests in your own arrogant belief that you are better than people who do menial work.(…) You are someone who has not learned the right things from either the fall of the imperial system, or the follies of radical communism (…)

L. Larry Liu: Your charge is that I seek to end the freedom of the people doing menial labor. I see no end to the freedom of people to pursue their menial labor if they wish to do so in the future. Even if most of the activities will be automated, you will find people, who are curious about hitting rocks or transporting heavy packages, but they won’t do it with a direction toward survival. How can we speak of freedom for the menial laborers if they are not given such choice whether to do it today, but not tomorrow. For next week, but not the week thereafter, as they please to do it. It is your elite condescension that insists on maintaining workers in the position where they are at without any freedom to choose, whether and how much they want to do it. It is ironic that you would compare me to radical communism, when it is the communist government of North Korea that rejects any technological innovation, such as a tractor to raise agricultural productivity lest North Korean farmers become unemployed (and properly fed, and eventually educated and questioning the totalitarian regime). 

I am not principally rejecting notions of communism or socialism. My understanding of human nature is that it will be no easy feat to accomplish, nor will unequal people treat each other with the equality which is pre-requisite to such a system. This is no place to debate the possible outcomes of socialism, but suffice it to say, where it has been tried, it has gone awry. But anybody, who will wrap himself around the liberal capitalist flag has to be disappointed. The pendulum is swinging toward more wealth inequality and concentration, and society will resist it and demand equality.

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