It’s good to see Jerry Pournelle back on his feet again, or rather, back at his desk. As usual, he is full of technological insight:
As of Summer 2014, a large percentage of jobs – I now believe more than 45% within ten years – can be done by a robot costing no more than a year’s salary to the current human worker. With the government keeping interest rates low this raises the temptation to borrow capital and – instead of paying it to a worker – using it to buy a robot that will pay for itself after a year, and thereafter require only maintenance and power, and when that robot is no longer useful it can be scrapped rather than being paid to retire. This will have an inevitable effect on the economy. It may have a direct effect on you.
I got into the computer revolution when my mad friend Dan MacLean talked me into investing $12,000 dollars in 1978 money – a considerable sum in those days – in an S-100 bus 2 megahertz 64 Kilobyte computer, a large green screen monitor that displayed 16 lines of 64 characters, and a Diablo printer that looked like a huge typewriter and which would print several pages a minute on fan-folded “computer paper”.
My wife thought I was mad, but my productivity increased enormously. No longer did I have to use Correcttape and various liquid paints and carbon paper. What I wrote improved, because I could rewrite sentences when needed as well as fix the torrent of typographical errors I made without having to retype the entire page after an edit.
The system paid for itself in a few months. I had already published a number of science fiction stories by the time I met Carl Helmers and we agreed that BYTE needed a User’s Column written not by a computer scientist but by a writer doing useful work on these little beasts. I still continue that tradition.
The point of that story is that in their forty or so years of existence, affordable small computers have completely changed the writing profession, and the changes continue now. It’s the same with the music profession: before small computers, performers were at the mercy of producers and publishers who had the enormously expensive equipment needed to make professional quality recordings, as well as the means for publishing musical works.
That’s all changed. For the past decade any competent performing group can either buy professional quality recording and editing equipment, or hire that work done for reasonable fees. They no longer have to sign egregious contracts giving nearly everything – sometimes including their own names – to the publisher, resulting in the ridiculous situation of one major performer changing his name to “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” so that he could publish his own works once he could afford to.
Similar advances in technology are changing the movie industry and the health profession. They have caused the invention of podcasting, and improved many other human activities – and of course technology is changing computer programming.
From Iain M. Banks and Charles Stross to John C. Wright, science fiction writers have contemplated the Post-Scarcity economies, but few appear to have thought very deeply about Post-Labor economies. The two have similar attributes, but they are most certainly not the same. Unfortunately, that extension of the so-called Knowledge Economy appears to be rapidly upon us; there are few things so inaptly misnamed as the so-called “knowledge worker”, who for the most part doesn’t need to know anything at all.
It reminds me of how a friend in the tech-investment sector says that he’s never seen bigger deals, or fewer of them. And of how the mid-list authors are being abandoned by publishers, who increasingly insist their authors go big or go home. It appears we are increasingly living in a winner-take-all world where the robots work and the rest of us are all in the entertainment industry, competing to entertain one another.
How can this be sustainable? And who, beyond the winners taking all, is going to want to sustain it? Compared to some of the nightmare scenarios one can envision, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the 7th century philosophy of the neo-caliphate looks attractive by comparison.