The week of February 28, 2016

The future ain’t what it used to be

By Jesse Hicks

Uber. Patreon. Robots. From the on-demand economy to crowdfunding to algorithms and automation, the idea of work is changing. In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at what’s happening right now, and what our jobs may look like in the future.

First, there’s the robot dilemma. Asking about the future of work often seems like asking, “Beyond a certain point of robotic advancement, how many jobs are left for humans to do?” As Greg Nichols found out, butchering—one of the few occupations in our system of industrialized food preparation that can’t yet be done by robots—may be on its way to being automated. The job requires a deft hand that can’t yet be replicated by a machine. That’s changing, though, and when it does, even more people may see their livelihoods replaced by ’bots.

You might not think of poet as a vocation threatened by artificial intelligence, big data, and machine learning, but writer Sasha Chapin looks in the mirror and asks whether he’s really so irreplaceable. Is there something innately and irreproducibly human about poetry? Must we imagine another human soul behind the words on the page? Or is poetry simply a very complex algorithm—one that machines are on their way to learning? And when machines start to write poetry, who, exactly, will they be writing it for?

Before the perhaps inevitable robot takeover, though, we’re still part of an economy that means dealing with other humans. Noah Berlatsky details his experience with Patreon, trying to convince other human beings to support his work. His appeal was… less than successful. He was surprised and maybe a little humbled to learn that Patreon wasn’t for him. But through his failed campaign he learned who it is for, and why its brand of sustained crowdfunding can mean real opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise have them.

Nithin Coca looked at the real opportunities offered by what used to be euphemized as “the sharing economy.” Most people have come to called it the “gig economy” or the “on-demand economy,” in which labor is casual and at-will, with few responsibilities for employers and few protections for employees. Thus far, it’s a phenomenon enabled by closed platforms and near-monopolies that consolidate power in the hands of dominant players such as Uber and Airbnb. But now labor advocates are looking to change that, through a combination of open technology and cooperative organizing.

Finally, I talk with author Douglas Rushkoff about his new book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity. Rushkoff’s been commenting on business, media, and digital culture since the dial-up days, and in his new work he asks why technological innovation seems to have exacerbated wealth inequality rather than mitigated it. The digital world, he argues, far from being a new economic environment, has simply recapitulated the mandate of the Industrial Revolution: Companies must grow at all costs and by any means necessary. It doesn’t have to be that way, he says, and if we dare to recognize the opportunity, we have a chance to remake our society in more just and equitable ways.

Enjoy the issue.

GIF by Jason Reed