We are told that shortly a great many jobs will cross the event horizon of the techno-singularity, and thus will, like a ship passing over the actual horizon, disappear — probably forever. Mostly we think about the jobs of burger flippers, waitresses, or warehouse workers. The think-piece reading audience is tempted to say good riddance, believing that there is no way for a dignified human life to play out in such conditions.
Surprisingly the job of actors may go first, along with a slew of related Hollywood creatives. Digital is moving many of these former creative jobs into potential obsolescence. Recently a short film was made by a machine learning program based solely on the input of a few sentences of text. Given that other algorithms can auto-generate text, how many years can we be from a possible reality where a self-contained creative obsolescence descends like ouroboros upon a colder, darker globe?
Gone will be the epiphanies for future generations which occurred to Nicholas Nickleby, on the advice of Mr Crummles. “Does any profession occur to you?” Crummles asks. Seeing that Nickleby has no response, Crummles offers his own profession: “the stage, the stage!” And so Nickleby tries his hand at the human vocation of the imitation of human life. And we should note that the imitation here is at least two fold. First, Dickens is imagining the life of a young man finding a vocation. Second, that vocation turns out, for a time, to be that of an imitator. Who gave us the sponge to wipe away this horizon?
There is bitter irony that the job of mimicking humanity is among the jobs that the bots have taken first. What are we that you, O algorithm, are mindful of us?
Jon Askonas’s essay put me in mind of the recent film Everything Everywhere All At Once. It functions as a thinly veiled allegory for the rise of the internet, perhaps more particularly of social media. The film focuses on a more or less traditional Chinese American immigrant family, the Wangs. They own a laundromat and have a strong sense of pious filial obligation towards their parents, and their grandparents. But their problems are many: the business is failing, the marriage is failing, and, most importantly, the daughter, who is a heavy internet user, is incredibly depressed. She has fallen into a “metaverse” which is symbolized humorously as “the everything bagel” but in the visualizations of the film it resembles an undulating black hole. Via access to the internet, the lesson goes, one is exposed to an unlimited horizon of possible ways of being, of identities, and of life paths.
The opening up of everything is an absolute relativization of the self. How could one help but dissociate from reality? This unbinding, this absolute liberation, is indistinguishable from annihilation. Humans require limits. Limits are a part of what it means to be human, as Aristotle knew. Consider the skin of the human animal, it is a sort of wall which separates the body from the world outside the body. The skin renders the world intelligible by displaying the limit of what you are. Such limits, once noticed, are everywhere. But they are something that the film does not recognize. Rather, in the film, to solve the family’s problems the young woman’s mother must throw herself into the “metaverse” (read: social media) and adapt herself to its ways in order to rescue her daughter. By the end of the film, in the comedic tradition, the family’s problems are resolved, but they are not the family they were.
The lesson is that of Askonas’s essay: at the end of the process of engagement with technology we will not be the same. The embrace of dissociation from reality which the internet offers will not leave you unchanged. Asian America must adapt to the world that the technological disruptors have made, or die. And this adaptation, the film teaches, is good. While the film is technically brilliant it is, sometimes, a bit on the nose. It is also perhaps unrealistically rosy about the impact such adaptation will have on a family like the one it depicts. Will becoming a person who is proficient in the uses of swear words, drug use, multiple identities, and (forgive me reader) butt plugs really help save the marriage and business of the average Chinese-American immigrant family? How exactly does it help a young woman suffering from depression? Askonas would read this film and argue that we need to admit that technological disruption is not limited to finance or manufacturing; it impacts all of us. Therefore, he implies, we should limit and direct technology before it limits and directs us. Applied to this film perhaps he would argue that instead of throwing herself into social media the mother should slap the phone from her daughter’s hand.
I am not a technologist and do not claim to know what it would mean to direct technological progress along the lines that Askonas suggests. Some have suggested that we need to de-anthropologize the machines since in making them more human they are more likely to distort our self-understanding, as a bent mirror, constantly used, can make a tall man believe himself short. Such a de-anthropologization might, however, lead us into more dangerous territory. Humans do have a bad history of fashioning things with our hands that look less like humans than like animals which we end up worshipping as gods. I do not know how to direct the tech. If Askonas does know I’d like to hear more. But I do know something about how to restrain the atomizing forces of the current technological trajectory in neo-liberal capitalism.
The restraint is a social technology which can disrupt liberalism’s preference for the individual in all cases over all other claims. What the Wang family needed was the ability to place the legitimate claims of the Wang family over the claims of the daughter (or husband or wife, etc). Marriage was the traditional way of doing this in the United States, but as divorce laws liberalized marriage too took a back seat. However even in its heyday marriage enforced recognition of the rights of the institution of marriage over the rights of the individuals inside the institution. It only implicitly defended the rights of the family as such.
One solution to restrain the atomization, then, is more such illiberal social technologies which can enforce the rights of the group over the rights of the individual. Such things set and hold horizons in place establishing the limits for individuals which constitute the knowable and the beneficial for that individual. And these limits, of course, can only be legitimated if they are chosen by the members of the group, just as marriage is entered into by a couple. The children of such a union are understood to have chosen the institution in their parents. Take the case of actors losing their jobs. These actors, at least for now, require their likenesses to be used in order to digitally reproduce them for audiences. An actors’ union could place and enforce restrictions on such use and reproduction in perpetuity which will enable the profession of acting to carry on into the future, even as technology advances.
Such radical acts of solidarity are necessary if we are to pass the technological event horizon with our humanity intact. This is because solidarity is a necessary component of the political animal we call man and because it is only through such acts of radical solidarity that we will be enabled to preserve, or even in some cases, recreate forms of life to which some are called, strange though those ways may appear to us. The marriage, the workplace, the church, the nation. Each one makes claims on us and the question before us is whether the ever expanding infinitude of individual choices are allowed to trump, in all cases, the claims of these naturally bounded limiting institutions. If we do not re-empower these institutions, and perhaps others like them, what is at stake is humanity itself.
Which leads us back to all those line cooks, and warehouse workers. These jobs might not sound appealing to you but each one of them constitutes a life, and as a protestant that means it constitutes a potential vocation. It is possible to find God as a writer, but it is also possible as a waitress. The attentiveness of one who is called to wait, the dance of grabbing the steaming bowl of pork loin ramen from the kitchen counter and pirouetting it to a table avoiding customers and co-workers alike. The laying of this sustaining food before a recently widowed father, and his daughters, who needed a night off. These acts can be imbued with love by a waitress in a way that a robotic server never can. Solidarity may itself end up being the act of love through which all acts of love are preserved.