As I See It: The Useless Class
March 18, 2019 Victor Rozek
My father-in-law recently had a cancerous lobe removed from his lung. As surgeries go, it was relatively serious, but also relatively common. In an age of organ transplants, a lobe removal is no longer particularly noteworthy. What is notable, however, is that the procedure was performed by a robot.
Robotics is part of the so-called fourth industrial revolution that includes companionable fields such as AI and biotech. In aggregate, they are poised to radically transform the economy. But although the word “transformation” has become a new-age descriptor for optimistic change, its consequences are purely contextual. For every automated medical procedure, driverless vehicle, and package-delivering drone, there will, of necessity, be corresponding job losses. Estimates vary but conservatively about 30 percent of current jobs may soon simply cease to exist. And while new jobs are sure to be created, they will require higher-level skills. Consequently, the fourth industrial revolution is predicted to destroy far more jobs than it will create.
The dilemma for the short term is that humans need to create meaning in their lives and one of the most available ways of inventing it is through work. Void of meaning, it’s easy to begin blaming others for our travails and end up wearing MAGA hats as symbols of sentimental longing for times past.
Scores of workers have already been displaced by manufacturing automation and subsequently found jobs in the service sector, only to realize that it too is being automated. Their remaining options are limited, and their anger is growing. But, as evidenced by robotic surgeries, even highly specialized white-collar jobs are no longer immune.
The quandary is not easily resolvable and Yuval Noah Harari, writing for The Guardian, describes the challenge succinctly: “The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.”
What then? What to do with a sizeable chunk of the population with little hope for employment, and lives largely devoid of meaning? As a starting point it must be acknowledged that meaning is individually fashioned, and there is no universal instruction manual for attaining it. Harari is depressingly blunt on the subject: “To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. The meaning of life is always a fictional story created by us humans.”
The things people live for, fight for, die for; the things that fill them with joy and anticipation; the things they hold sacred and inviolate are all human inventions, true for one person, irrelevant for another. In other words, it’s all true, and it’s all made up.
Luckily, Harari’s solution to the plight of the technologically displaced is already being practiced by tens of millions who not only seek meaning, but also entertainment, distraction, refuge and escape: Computer games. The theory being that for devoted gamers, as for the unemployable, virtual reality is likely to be superior to whatever reality they’re currently grappling with.
Virtual reality, Harari notes, is nothing new. It is in fact an ancient solution to the problem of finding meaning, practiced by people in every corner of the globe. “For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games,” he says. It’s just that we called them by a different name: Religions.”
These “games,” argues Harari, all have their own sets of rules and participants gain or lose points by how closely they adhere to them. Say this prayer, chant this chant, perform these rituals, wear prescribed clothing, don’t eat certain foods, don’t have sex with certain people; accumulate enough points over a lifetime and, says Harari, you ascend to the next level: Heaven.
Certainly, the unemployed are not the only ones grappling with finding meaning in their lives. Many work at jobs that are soul numbing, and offer nothing more than minimal sustenance. Yet even people leading the most desolate lives find meaning in these alternate religious realities. The caveat is that the economy will have to perform well enough to provide some sort of baseline guaranteed income for people unable to find employment. Harari offers a successful precedent.
In Israel, a sizable percentage of ultra-orthodox Jewish men never work at all, in part because the government provides them with a modest but adequate income. The government does this so that they can “spend their entire lives studying holy scriptures and performing religious rituals.” And while to the average American this may sound more like punishment than paradise, these men consistently grade out as being happier than the general Israeli population.
Religious devotion, as a substitute for work is, of course, largely metaphorical and, I think, beside the point. We’ve all heard of gamers staying glued to their screens for days, missing meals, foregoing sleep. They were not studying sacred texts. Distractions are readily available and people whose lives are empty enough to need them will find them. The larger point is that we humans are very resourceful and extremely adaptable. Since we first began developing language we’ve made up stories to explain things that frightened us or phenomenon we simply were unable to understand. We found comfort and inspiration in our stories, some of which morphed into religions. We endured hellacious conditions for the promise of heavenly rewards. We developed the capacity to stretch into believing almost anything that we think serves us. Like those who came before, the Useless Class will have to invent its own stories.
Although many find meaning in some form of urgent or worthy work, the reality is that jobs are often light on meaning, but heavy on identity. Fair or not, we are what we do. Escape into virtual reality may provide temporary relief, but at some point each of us will have to decide who we are without the digital trappings. Perhaps the fear of becoming a member of the Useless Class will hasten that discovery.
A job is simply a task that needs doing – more accurately, a task that someone is willing to pay to have done. But not all tasks are equal and not everyone is suited by intellect or circumstance to perform grand, meaningful tasks. Mother Teresa, a woman of spiritual conviction doing secular work, understood the problem well. The nuns she directed worked among the extremely impoverished, in the most hellish conditions, doing the most menial work. “Not all of us can do great things,” said Mother Teresa, “but we can do small things with great love.”
Sounds a lot like an on ramp to meaning.