Men must work. A world of non-working men is a misery. But jobs are to be done in this world of machines?
In Talcott, West Virginia, there stands a monument to the folk hero John Henry. As the story goes, Henry and hundreds of former slaves were hammering through the mountains to make way for the railroad. When the railroad company brought in a steam-powered drill to replace the men, burly John Henry challenged the drill operators to a contest to see who could tunnel faster; the man or the machine. With hammers in both hands, Henry narrowly won the contest, thus preserving the jobs of his follow laborers, but later died from exhaustion.
Thinking machines, such as networked computers and the oceans of computational power that run them, represent a new kind of challenge. Wispy Ken Jennings, champion of the game show “Jeopardy!” replayed the legend of John Henry when he matched wits with an IBM computer named Watson. Jennings, brainy wordplay and trivia champion, eventually lost.
We’ve now reached the pitiable state where machines can both outwork and outthink us. This represents a clear existential problem for all humans, but more so for men, who have long attached self-worth to specialized abilities.
While the world celebrates the boundless ambitions of machine builders like Elon Musk, others contemplate a coming world where masses of human beings simply have no place in the economy. What if there are lots of people who simply have no value to add?
These folks used to be able to labor if they so choose. There were plenty of low-skill low-pay jobs around. But if trucks can drive themselves, warehouses full of robots can pack boxes that drones deliver, and 3D printers churn out manufactured goods that go in the boxes which go on the trucks and drones, where do the truckers, pilots, welders and drill pressers, all traditionally male-dominated jobs, go next?
When the farm economy was disrupted and the manufacturing economy took its place, full employment was still possible. Men accustomed to the time card of the sunrise and sunset adjusted to the rhythm of three shift factory work. This was as much a man’s world as the farm had been. Long hours, heavy lifting, sweat and swearing; this was still a place for traditional manhood, and if a fella came home from the coal mines, well, no one questioned what he did all day.
Even in the thinking economy, men still had a distinct role. I loved the AMC series “Mad Men” and I miss Don Draper more than I miss a lot of real people I’ve known. What I miss about him is his basic manliness. He may have been philandering alcoholic, but he made thinking work look manly and dignified.
Recently, a British friend introduced me to the idea of Universal Basic Income. Supporters of this idea define it as “an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.”
When I first heard of it, I recoiled as it sounded like a sort of universal welfare which would allow more people to sleep in while others, men and women, went to work.
But as I contemplate masses of people being permanently outperformed by machines, I wonder if we’re going to reach the state where we have to pay people simply because, willing to work or not, they just don’t have anything to offer. They have to be able to transact, and if they are going to be players in the economy (we’ve not yet replaced consumers with machines) then they have to have the means to transact. If they can’t earn money, because they aren’t as good as the machines, money simply has to be given to them.
But then we’re back to the problem of worth. Supporters of Universal Basic Income claim that recipients will become poets and authors and do volunteer work. They will gather meaning from the good things they do with all that non-working time. I would like to believe this, but observing the plight of men who live in the welfare ghettos of the United States does not give me hope. These places are not filled with helpful volunteers.
Men will fill the hours they are not working with chaos. Work gives shape and meaning to a man’s life and that work must involve problem solving, some hardship, and better yet, a little danger. Such a man comes home tired, and does not create chaos. Civilization is built on men exhausted by legitimate profit-making work. Universal Basic Income would destroy this civilizing process. Some men might fill their hours with joyful, meaningful, innocent pleasures, but I suspect most would not.
So, what is the answer?
The urban hipsters have at least part of the answer. When I frequent a hipster beer hall and observe the millennial guys with their crazy facial hair carrying on passionately about hops and fermenting times and all they can do for themselves, I think I am seeing the answer. They are instinctively going backwards to find a way to make things that don’t involve machines. The 19th century facial hair is a strong tell.
Maybe machines we will keep many going back until masses of people are back on farms.
My grandparents were born on farms and they never wanted to go back as far as I know. They all spoke very fondly of farm life, however. There was the simple pleasures of home-made ice cream, the sounds of summer, the discipline of the gardens and the mandate to harvest when the time was right. The only reason they left was because there was more money to be made in cities, and cities were more interesting.
Cities are a place of learning, which explains their allure, technology, brings a lot of the city to the country. The internet is the greatest knowledge distributor in human history.
As long as men can’t drop back in to welfare dependency and despondency, they can find meaningful lives making things, growing things, perhaps developing primitive barter economies, and mostly, doing something skillful, useful, mandatory, and a little dangerous. They would still be connected to the wider world via ever-cheaper internet devices.
Bottom line; men must work. It is shaming not to work. A world of non-working men is a misery. If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, then idle male hands are in the dirtiest corner of that workshop. If the advanced economy shuts most men out of the working world with superior technology, they must find and be allowed to do simpler work, working with their hands, away from machines and technology.