Art, Work, and the Robot Revolution – An Essay by Laura Ellen D.

The Revolution is coming! The Revolution is coming!

In fact, it’s already underway. No, not the revolution sparked by resistance to El Cheeto-in-Chief and his band of merry misogynists. No, no, no – I’m talking about The Robot Revolution. But the two have more in common than some would care to admit.

While the term “Robot Revolution” has alliterative appeal, the Revolution is about more than just robots. It’s about technological advancement and the rise of automation, computerization, robotization, and artificial intelligence (AI) and the significant socio-economic and political implications thereof. Warnings of the Revolution have been sounding for some time, but to the plugged in masses, the threat always seemed far away, safe in the future along with cyborgs and flying cars. Now, it seems we look up from watching cat videos on our smartphones to find ourselves in the thick of it.

The Brexit and US election campaigns really shone the spotlight on the issue. Fact checkers vainly tried to point out that the majority of jobs lost in the 2000-2010 period weren’t lost to Mexicans, Poles, or Oompa Loopas but to “efficiency” and seemingly innocuous technological advances like computerization [1]. A 2013 Oxford study identified 47% of total US occupations as being at high risk of being made redundant by technology in the next decade or two [2]. This is stunning for both the high percentage of jobs at risk – almost half of all jobs in the US – and the rapidity of change – the next couple of decades. And it’s not just America; workers all over the industrialized world are facing the robotic axe [3].

These numbers have the world’s economic elite alternating between clicking their heels and popping benzos by the dozen. On the one hand, they’re thrilling at the capitalist’s wet dream: a tireless, wage-less, union-less robot workforce cutting costs across the board and exponentially boosting productivity. On the other hand, they’re experiencing tsunamis of aristocratic terror at the prospect of the under and un-employed masses storming the proverbial Bastille. Those masses pose a dual threat. Without wages, consumers can’t spend, and consumer spending is what keeps the capitalist machine humming. Second is the very real political threat now being played out in America and Europe as those who find themselves sidelined in the name of global progress turn angrily inwards and grab their pitchforks, ready to skewer the scapegoat du jour.”

All this explains why at the annual World Economic Forum summit in Davos this January there was a panel discussing implementing universal basic income to counter the imminent employment losses from technological advancement. The idea of a universal basic income has been around for centuries, but what’s new is how seriously it’s being taken in the modern era. Finland is in the midst of a two-year trial run, and numerous other countries and regions have or are considering the idea, including Switzerland (rejected in 2016), Ontario (piloting starts spring this year), Greece, and Scotland [4].

If all of this sounds futuristic, that’s because the future is now, darlings. This is the year 2017; we’re nearly 1/5th of the way done with the 21st century already. Sensor sinks and toilets, touch-screen fast food orders, automated supermarket checkouts, and self-driving cars have all arrived. In the process, they’ve booted scores of homosapiens out on their fleshy, overpaid bums. On top of that, technology is impacting our evolution; some predict that within a decade or two, even humans-turned-cyborgs won’t be able to outcompete common computers [5]. As if the job market wasn’t competitive enough.

How did all this happen? Two words: slow creep. As a recent article in The Atlantic put it: “It won’t take a computational singularity for humans to cede their lives to the world of machines. They’ve already been doing so, for years, without even noticing” [6].

The poor and middle classes are, of course, most likely to get hit. Not only are low-paying jobs like factory workers and administrative assistants at high risk of replacement, but bargaining power for negotiating things like higher wage and employment benefits risks being severely undermined. Forget scabs breaking the picket line – try striking when the boss can replace six employees with one robot that can’t talk back and doesn’t mind 24-hour shifts. Like vermouth in a Bond martini, the workforce is getting shaken up by some shiny metal things.

Who will come out on top of the robotic heap? The tea leaf readers say it will be a select few with high-level technological skills, executive and managerial types, people in professions where social skills and/or the human element is desirable (think lobbyists and hospice workers), and…*drumroll*…creatives. Creatives will be among the last humans standing.

This is partially because creativity is one of the hardest (and thus most expensive) human traits to replicate with AI. It’s not impossible, and in fact researchers have successfully produced artwork and musical compositions created by AI (e.g., via Jukedeck). However, the economic return for most AI researchers lies in producing AI that reaps wider economic benefits (e.g., crunching numbers on digital advertising revenue or making flash investment decisions). Plus, people generally value the arts as the pinnacle of human expression; no one is too keen to kick the “human” out of “arts & humanities”. The combination of high costs of production, lower economic returns, and the peculiar position of art and creativity in the global economy combine to protect highly creative professions from getting the AI axe anytime soon.

So then, we have the prediction that almost half of all occupations in some of the world’s economic powerhouses are at high risk of being automated over the next couple of decades, the prediction that creatives and creative industries will be among the most highly valued of the vestigial occupations, and the prediction that a universal basic income or some other form of economic transfer will have to occur if owners of capital don’t want another Great Depression, Civil/World War, and/or Reign of Terror on their hands. Thus not only will creative jobs be highly valued, but people will have considerable more free time on their hands in which to do creative things, like filming cats squashed beneath glass coffee tables and bedazzling our chemical weapons masks. Seems like a good time to be a creative.

But do these predictions mean the Revolution will really herald a new golden age of creativity? Alas, I am no prophetess, and the host of social, economic, and political variables at play in the Revolution make predicting the outcome for one segment of society exceptionally complex. There are clues, however, in the current state of play for creatives that help us to imagine better the possibilities for creatives opened by the Revolution.

Before proceeding, it’s important to note that creativity as a trait is valued in many professions, and there are all sorts of creative industries. For example, chefs, architects, and public-facing Trump administration folks all need superior creativity skills. (That’s one thing I’ll say about “alternative facts”. They’re creative.) Even the Revolution is in itself a type of creativity, lending itself to Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction. All this being said, I am going to focus on the creative arts as in the fine arts, theatre/acting, creative writing, and music. Specifically, I am going to discuss how the modern economy produces more of what I call “career compromised creatives” than full-time artists, and in so doing show how the Revolution could lead to an artistic revolution as well.

*

Creatives will come to rule the roost.

Of all the work-related implications of the Revolution – and there are many – this one especially excites, empowers, and infuriates me. It is the equivalent of having been told that butter is bad, then finding out it’s actually good and I could have been eating butter all these years. (Who am I kidding, I have been eating butter all these years. Mmm. Butter.)

I am excited and empowered because I am a creative. I am infuriated because I am also an intellectual, and for years I’ve been putting my creativity on the back burner while I pursue a “real career”. I am one of the millions of what I call “career compromised creatives”, people who are creatively talented but who end up pursuing a career in an affiliated or unrelated industry (e.g., artists who end up in advertising, writers who end up teachers) rather than earning a living through creative content they produce and control relatively autonomously. Why would anyone compromise their dreams like that? It’s the economy, silly goose.

Humans are an inherently creative species, with art appearing on cave walls 40,000 years ago. As the resilience of the entertainment industry and the millions of Instagrammers, Soundclouders, and Youtubers prove, modern humans love both consuming and producing artistic content. If it’s aesthetically interesting or sounds nice, we totally “like” it (see what I did there?). So it’s fair to assume that lots of us would love to embrace our creativity as our day job if we were financially capable of doing so. I read one article claiming that 80% of Americans want to be authors [7]. 80%! I didn’t even know that many could read and write (and I say that as an American). Now, that 80% figure is unsourced hearsay, but let’s just say that of the 80% of Americans who want to be writers, 40% now have been relieved of their jobs by technology, and are being paid some kind of compensation that frees them up to pursue their dream of writing. Will they actually use that time to write? And if so, do we as a society really want that many writers? Who has time to read all those books?

People whose jobs have been taken by robots.

Really though, lack of readership aside, why don’t all those people just become authors in the first place? The fact is, most people are not financially capable of living off of their creative talents. Necessity may be the mother of invention but she also does her fair share in stifling the arts. The trope of the starving artist is a persistent one, and it sticks for a reason. One reason is the overabundance of supply in artistic output, which means only the best command an economic premium. How many wanna-be Emma Stones are there who move to Hollywood every year in the hopes that La La Land (a movie that encourages following your artsy dream) is more documentary than fiction? A lot. And how many will end up with paid tampon commercial gigs, let alone multi-million dollar salaries? The odds are worse than Emma’s singing (sorry Emma, I love you, sometimes, sorta).

It’s not just that only some people have great talent, although talent certainly plays a major role. It’s also because time, aside from motivation, talent, and good old-fashioned luck, is perhaps the most important factor of a creative’s success. Time is critical because even the most naturally gifted artists need time to practice and time to create. But practice and creative development take time, and time is money. The hours you spend perfecting your oil painting technique incur opportunity costs, because those hours are hours during which you’re not earning money. (Unless you’re Warren Buffett, who likes to paint in his free time and reportedly earns $1.54 million every hour of every day). “Free time” is called free time for a reason.

Consequently, for many people, art is never more than a hobby because they just don’t have the time to do the act of creating. That’s why so many retired people take up painting. They’re no longer too busy riding the gravy train. As Virginia Woolf said, for a woman to write fiction she needs an income and a room of one’s own, i.e., she needs economic and physical security. If you spend all your time trying to secure a room and an income, that’s time you’re not spending writing fiction (I can personally vouch for this one). Some artists insist they would never dream of “selling out”. These die-hards tend to live on trust funds or shoestring budgets; if they work, it’s usually part time as baristas or gallery attendants. And some day, it may just pay off for them. But for most people, someday is too far away. It’s one thing to live the artistic bohemian artist lifestyle in your college years; it’s another to attempt it with kids and a mortgage to pay.

I should know; I received some early life lessons to this effect. My dad attended the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 60s/early 70s and had, in my non-professional and totally non-biased opinion, real talent as a painter and sculptor. For how many years was he able to support his wife and three kids with his art? Zero. As my dad found out, those college years are an investment, and they represent another opportunity cost if things don’t work out the way you planned. The time you spent painting psychedelic dreamscapes was time you weren’t learning those key professional skills like how to make Gantt charts and brown-nose management.

It’s not uncommon for creatives to settle for work in related industries, like advertising or being the press secretary to El Cheeto – i.e., the career compromised creatives. My dad eventually went this route, becoming an historic preservation specialist. Of course, some people do successfully have careers doing exactly what they would be doing if they didn’t need the money. And theoretically, capitalism is supposed to give people more free time to pursue arts and leisure activities, more time than was afforded to, say, feudal serfs (although I know some highly indebted (albeit well-paid) people working 70-hour weeks who would challenge that claim). But the reality is that, all too often, artistic talents become career compromised or get relegated to hobby status (or passive consumption status) because the financial and temporal opportunity costs are simply too high. Perhaps the greatest promise of the Revolution is the ability to lower or remove those barriers altogether.

*

In her recent Oscars acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, Viola Davis said, “I became an artist – and thank God I did – because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life” [8]. The Revolution could lead to a whole lot more artistic celebrating. If the Revolution really does liberate a chunk of the workforce, both temporally and economically, then we could potentially experience a new artistic Renaissance. We could stop thinking in the mindset of “good” creative product being that which commands a financial premium. Creativity would be widely held to be good for the sake of creativity. The world of William Morris’ News from Nowhere, where artists and craftsmen are liberated from economic chains in a socialist utopia that values aesthetic splendor for its own sake, will be that much closer to reality.

To an extent, this transition towards art for art’s sake is already happening. Now, with computers and cameras in our pockets, everyone is a photographer, a writer, a musician, Garage Band and Instagramming our way to artistic liberation. Artistic outputs are shared and critiqued without poor reviews necessarily signaling financial doom. Some people do make livings off photos of themselves sipping vegan lattes with heart shaped foam while wearing naught but leggings, but most of the millions of users do not. We persist in posting pictures of our cats with their heads peeping out through tissue boxes, not because we get an economic benefit, but because we like it and cats rule.

The popular appeal of these aesthetically centered technological platforms, like our love of movies, music, and dancing, signals just how much humans value creativity for non-economic reasons. That value is tied in to larger issues concerning art, work, and socio-economics that philosophers have been puzzling over for centuries.

When I think about the Big Questions at the heart of Art and the Revolution – what is our purpose in life, what role does art play in life, why can’t we all just do whatever we want to, and why can’t I just adopt all the cats – I think about my own life and the career decisions I’ve made. It makes me more than a little sad that at several pivotal times during my twenties, I made a conscious decision not to pursue writing as a full-time career. Not because I wasn’t good or no longer wanted to, but because I couldn’t afford to not have a steady income, and I was afraid of financial insecurity.

Things might have been different if I was born in, say, Denmark. But I was born in Reagonomics America, with its veneration of wealth and the material world (Madonna’s “Material Girl” came out the year I was conceived). And although my parents were non-materialist hippies who would never, ever have told me that I needed to make money to be valuable, their financial struggles and the lessons of capitalist America taught me that money, or the lack of money, is the root of many evils. I didn’t yearn to be rich, but I admit, I was afraid of being poor. That may sound snobbish, and maybe I’m just a brainwashed American socially conditioned to fear poverty. But when you live in a country where getting sick can mean bankruptcy (and you have a long-term condition like me), when you’ve watched your parents’ marriage break down after years of squabbling over money, when you’ve taken care of your elderly nana and seen her entire estate drained by senior care costs, and when you yourself have had to decide between paying rent and eating three meals a day, the fear is real, and it doesn’t feel like a privilege.

That fear led me to decide that a career dependent upon my “intellect” was “safer” than one based upon my creative talents. I like to think I would never marry for money, but I managed to marry myself to a profession that wasn’t my ideal choice in an ideal world, convincing myself that I loved it, in part because it seemingly offered more security than my true love could provide. Financial security translates to security of our most basic needs in life, and, for women who have historically had to depend on men, it also translates to independence and autonomy. And after all, isn’t the American dream to do better than your parents?

But while money may have been a deciding factor, it was not the only one. Which brings me to the point that people do things for many reasons, not all of them financial. If a universal basic income were implemented or people were somehow otherwise liberated from their economic chains (robots slaves, anyone?), there still would be people committing their time to causes they are passionate about. Family, Facebook, all the things that consume our time would not go away just because we no longer had to work to survive. As most artists will tell you, if it’s important to you, you can make the time, it’s just a matter of learning to manage it. That will probably continue to be true even if the Revolution gives us more free time to manage.

As for me, I still intend to someday publish my fiction, and I write all I can in the free time I have. But it would be really nice if I could afford more time to devote to my scribbling. And what would be really, really nice is if I never had that fear of financial insecurity to begin with. When I look back to my twenties when I made those fear-tainted decisions, I’m saddened that at the time I felt I had to choose between pursuing my creative dream and securing my financial future. I wish I hadn’t felt I had to make that choice. When I talk to my friends from other countries where healthcare, higher education, housing, and family support are basic rights, I am both envious and angry. Not at them; at America.

America is the “land of opportunity”, yet so much of that opportunity is wasted in pursuit of securing basic needs. Wealth is glorified, poverty is vilified, and time is supposedly wasted if it’s not spent making money. My generation is some $1trillion in debt because we bought into a dream that promised getting an education would make us more financially secure; no coincidence that the federal peddlers of that dream own $800 billion of that debt. Things are so mixed up here, El Cheeto was elected POTUS as the champion of the working class, because as a millionaire swindler from Queens he’s the best choice for that, obviously.

Nevertheless, I live in hope.

I hope some of these predictions about the Revolution come true. I hope that the Revolution will help ensure every human being has their most basic needs met, liberating the human race so we are free to pursue our creative dreams, whatever they may be. I hope that the Revolution is positive, that robots don’t take over the Earth and enslave their human masters, and that we don’t end up having to destroy all of them in a massive nuclear bonfire of the technological vanities. I hope that society’s real revolution will be no longer defining ourselves by what we do for a financial living, opting instead to define ourselves using a more holistic idea of value. I hope creative youths grow up believing their talents and passions are valuable in and of themselves, and never feel they have to compromise their creativity in order to put roofs over their heads.

The Revolution, like all moments of flux, represents an opportunity to define for ourselves and our societies what we value most. Those big questions – what is art, what is life, why do we work, what would we do if we didn’t have to – now is the time to remind ourselves of the answers, and to make those answers the pillars of our policies for managing the Revolution and the changes it brings. If the next generation of would-be creative artists don’t have the income bit to worry about, they can be that much closer to living the dream. I just hope it happens in my lifetime.

[1] http://bigstory.ap.org/article/265cd8fb02fb44a69cf0eaa2063e11d9/mexico-taking-us-factory-jobs-blame-robots-instead

[2] C. Frey and M. Osborne, The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? (University of Oxford, 2013), available at http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/future-of-employment.pdf. Although this study focuses on American jobs, there are likely to also be significant losses in other post-industrialised nations as confirmed by several studies post-Frey and Osborne. See e.g., Deloitte, Agiletown: The relentless march of technology and London’s response; (London, 2014); World Bank Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends (Washington D.C. 2016).

[3] The ILO followed with a report in 2016 that looked at 5 ASEAN countries accounting for some 80% of the ASEAN workforce and found 56% of all employment was at high risk of being lost to automation, also in the coming decades. J. Chang and P. Huynh, ASEAN in Transformation: the Future of Jobs at Risk of Automation (International Labor Organization 2016), available at http://www.ilo.org/public/english/dialogue/actemp/downloads/publications/2016/asean_in_transf_2016_r2_future.pdf

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/03/finland-trials-basic-income-for-unemployed

[5] See National Geographic’s April 2017 issue on how technology is shaping human evolution.

[6] Ian Bogost, Why Nothing Works Anymore, The Atlantic (Feb. 23, 2017) https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/02/the-singularity-in-the-toilet-stall/517551/

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-dietrich/the-writers-odds-of-succe_b_2806611.html If that 80% figure comes from a poll, that’s one heck of a sample population.

[8] http://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/news/a43301/viola-davis-oscars-speech-transcript-2017/

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