Summary: The next industrial revolution has begun, but this one will improve not just our machines but ourselves. How we use these powerful innovations will help shape our society into utopia or dystopia, dream or nightmare. First of 2 posts today.
Two recent posts illustrate the difficulty of seeing the next phases of the industrial revolution. Economist Noah Smith discusses “Rise of the cyborgs“, about the powerful human-machine combinations that will reshape our society, especially those using direct mental links. Brief, well-written, nothing new. Chris Bertram wrote in reply at Crooked Timber. I do not understand his general objections (he explained them in the comments & I still don’t), except for one powerful point:
“Indeed, employers could make it a condition of employment that workers undergo the necessary cyber-modifications! Actually, I think Smith missed a trick there, by failing to imagine how this might affect workplace dynamics. Oh well, I expect someone will be along to explain how such contracts would be win-win…”
As usual, the comment thread quickly went off the rails (albeit with some fascinating insights), ignoring the magnitude of issue. Some background might help. There are two overlapping means for large-scale human enhancement (physical and mental) in the near future: drugs and surgery (e.g., alterations, addition of machine parts, replacement or our original equipment with machines). These do not include most existing mechanical enhancements (e.g., glasses, helmets, waldos), but do include existing performance enhancing surgery (e.g., cochlear implants) and drugs (e.g., caffeine, amphetamines, steroids).
These all have similar implications. I find it is easier to look at the social dynamics created by performance-enhancing drugs. These have already caused problems. In some fields pressure from businesses has made their use widespread by workers (employees and almost equally-dependent independent contractors) — such as truck drivers (to stay alert on long hauls, breaking the safety regulations).
Even more powerful are steroids, which make people stronger — at a severe cost in long-term health. Employers have not required them for employees doing physical labor, but competition for the small number of remunerative jobs in sports (professional or career-enhancing amateur competitions) has made their use almost ubiquitous — starting an arms race with regulators seeking to detect and so ban their use.
I suspect this is just the first wave of the new era, where use of drugs will become increasingly necessary to reach the top ranks of many fields — where the star system often means that the income differential between the top and middle ranks is huge. How many people would trade away some of their future health for an extra 20 or 30 IQ points (the kind of trade football players routinely do)? These would make the difference between journeyman labor and stardom — middle income and wealth.
As with truckers and football coaches today, employers need not formally mandate drug use. They can merely choose the best performing players — who happen to be those on drugs. Those choosing not to do so can choose other lines of work — which pay far less.
The introduction of new technology has made the West rich beyond the imagination of people in 1700, but the cost paid by the workers affected has often been high — as this powerful comment by dSquared reminds us.
Science fiction plays these ideas out today so we can prepare for the future. Orson Scott Card wrote a short story about surgery that repurposes the parts of your brain responsible for processing vision: you become smarter — and blind. How many people would choose this?
It will be for the best in this, the best of all worlds
We have economists, our society’s sophists, to explain that this will all be for the best. Such as Brad Delong, saying “Is there any reason that Bertram’s argument does not apply to literacy, stone tools, or clothing?” My favorite comment on the CT thread is amateur economist Matthew Yglesias’s rebuttal to Chris Bertram…
Actual economist Noah Smith wrote a post explaining that “Basic Econ 101 does not imply that voluntary contracts are mutually beneficial to the people who enter into them.” It’s a minimalistic (i.e., absurdly narrow) analysis, but shows some of the problems with this typically mad Libertarian opinion.
But in the real world the opinions of employers (whom Yglesias so eloquently supports) carry more weight than Econ 101 texts, so we have labor laws being ignored by corporations employing unpaid interns, classifying workers as managers (to avoid overtime) and independent contractors (to avoid most employee protections), or just ignoring laws entirely (as Don Blankenship did as CEO of Massey Energy, resulting in the death of 38 miners).
New means of enhancing workers’ performance offers new horizons for offering employees ugly choices. This is one facet of the big choice we face in the 21st century: Will our future be like Star Trek or Jupiter Ascending? Prosperity for all, or a world where the rich own almost everything?
Welcome to life
Well worth watching. It says “ruined by lawyers”, showing that the producers are creative but lack understanding of how corporation’s extract profits from intellectual property. Lawyers are their servants in this process. The 21st century will offer many opportunities for the rich to monetize more aspects of life — and perhaps life itself.
For More Information
“Can a Pill Make You Smarter? The Brave New World of Smart Drugs” by Larry Schwartz, AlterNet, 25 January 2016 — “Can we turn Homer Simpson into Einstein? Not so fast.”
- Will our future be like Star Trek or Jupiter Ascending?
- Three visions of our future after the robot revolution.
- Automation hits the professions. Most remain delusionally confident, so far.
- Education, the glittering but fake solution
- Steps to make the tech revolution boost America, not just the 1%.
For more about this see Truly Human Enhancement: A Philosophical Defense of Limits (2013). From the Publisher…
“The transformative potential of genetic and cybernetic technologies to enhance human capabilities is most often either rejected on moral and prudential grounds or hailed as the future salvation of humanity. In this book, Nicholas Agar offers a more nuanced view, making a case for moderate human enhancement—improvements to attributes and abilities that do not significantly exceed what is currently possible for human beings. He argues against radical human enhancement, or improvements that greatly exceed current human capabilities.
“Agar explores notions of transformative change and motives for human enhancement; distinguishes between the instrumental and intrinsic value of enhancements; argues that too much enhancement undermines human identity; considers the possibility of cognitively enhanced scientists; and argues against radical life extension.
“Making the case for moderate enhancement, Agar argues that many objections to enhancement are better understood as directed at the degree of enhancement rather than enhancement itself. Moderate human enhancement meets the requirement of truly human enhancement. By radically enhancing human cognitive capabilities, by contrast, we may inadvertently create beings (“post-persons”) with moral status higher than that of persons. If we create beings more entitled to benefits and protections against harms than persons, Agar writes, this will be bad news for the unenhanced. Moderate human enhancement offers a more appealing vision of the future and of our relationship to technology.”