Do we end up more like "In Time" instead of "The Jetsons"? - Why the future might suck for many
Growing up, the vision of the future that science fiction sold me was one of "The Jetsons", where machines took care of our chores and tedious tasks. Humans (and I simply assumed this was all humans) were free to do the things they wanted to do rather than needed to do.
As I grew up I naturally gravitated, both in the books I read and the films I watched, towards more dystopian visions of the future - where life generally sucked if you weren't in the top strata of society, and that top strata seemed to mostly comprise of evil people bent on ensuring the survival of that societal hierarchy. There's far too many good and bad movies that explore these worlds. For some reason, the one that's particularly coming to my mind today is "In Time" - not because its a good movie - it's ok - but because there's a tragic scene in this film where people are hanging by a thread to such a degree that a bus fare increase literally kills someone.
Now, what does this have to do with anything?
For a bunch of reasons, I spent a lot of time last week about the kinds of companies that are being created these days and the jobs they're enabling in return.
Pick your favorite "sharing economy" startup (terrible misnomer for that class of startups - but that's another post) - Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Doordash, Taskrabbit etc.
All of these use some combinations of operational efficiency that comes from scale and technology to save time and effort for those that can afford it. Getting someone to pick up your food, shopping and isn't just for the super-rich, its for the "doing-reasonably-ok" now too.
This should be awesome! Economics tells us that as technology improves and the services scale up, they should be available to even more people at lower prices. However, economics (and history) also tells us that the profits of these enterprises are more likely to accrue to capital than labor - especially since most of this labor is unskilled.
This sucks. It means the jobs being created by these companies will mostly be minimum-wage (or tend to minimum-wage) jobs. Now this isn't terrible, assuming these are the best jobs that these people can find - but that's a depressing thought.
Now in developing countries, I think this is different. The jobs the local equivalents of the US startups are creating are much better than the options people have, but in the developed world this pushes us even further down the road of having mostly service-based jobs except these are even lower-skilled - and there's robots and AI coming even for a lot of those jobs.
This quote from Sam Altman at a Stanford CS event last week took an even darker view.
"The job destruction that we're going to see due to software and tech is the number 1 challenge." @sama #StanfordCS50— Sequoia Capital (@sequoia) April 28, 2015
I'm eternally optimistic we'll figure out a solution as a society and an industry, but if our track record as an economy that cares about the widening income gap over the last few years is anything to go by (misquoting another character from a dystopian future) the odds aren't in our favor.