Jobs are what connects us together in the yet-to-come Early Robot Era
One prescient voice back in the present day, who thought deeply about whether we were screwed or saved, was Sunny Bates. She made her name in the media during the 1990s cofounding new magazines, including publications like Elle that were dedicated to women. She then became a superstar head-huntress, scouting for talent in New York City around the turn of the twenty-first century. Bates specialized in executive placements in what was then called the “new media,” one of those previously unimagined industries that revolutionized the world by bringing people news and gossip and sex tips online instead of on glossy paper. Sunny Bates was unabashedly and electrically sunny and enthusiastic about everything and everyone, except maybe for robots that swipe jobs and suck the life out of people. She wasn’t opposed to tech. “I adore my phone; don’t ever try to take it away,” she said. But she took a realistic view not only about jobs that were poised to disappear but also about what was truly important about work as it fit into people’s lives and what was already missing for many people in an age of digitalization, even before robots became delivery drivers and judges.
Bates’s core message back in those days, when human baristas still made triple-shot espressos with a twist of lemon, was that people sensed what was coming. They felt a kind of vague existential fear about the future despite a standard of living that was much better for more people than at any time in history. Back then, c. 2018, the US was looking at upward of 95 percent employment. Brainiacs like Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker were also insisting that there was less violence, hunger, and suffering in the world. Which sounded great! But as Sunny Bates put it, “If everything is so great, why are humans so anxious?
“One reason is that we know the jobs are going,” she said, answering her own question. “And not just any job, but jobs that can support you and you might want to do. That’s fucking scary to people.” Moments before, Bates had been standing at her desk doing her consulting work, basically wired into her computer. When she unplugged from her machines, Bates locked her dazzling green eyes on her visitor (a human) and started to talk in her fast, breathless, you-won’t-believe-this! cadence.
“But it’s not just automation,” she said, moving into a small kitchen near her work space. Her office was in one of those old warehouse-style buildings near Greenwich Village that this era loved to convert into shared work spaces, with exposed bricks and pipes, and uneven, stained-wood floors where sweatshop workers used to operate electric looms before they were replaced by robots or their jobs were outsourced to other countries. She made a cup of coffee all by herself, without a robot. (Okay, she did push a button.) “We’re feeling anxious about the future in general,” she said. “Not long ago, people were optimistic that things would be better. Now we’re wondering: How do we embrace the future, lean into it or lean away from it, or run away from it?”
She took a sip of joe. “You see people in their twenties and thirties that don’t want to have children. Everyone’s freaked out. It costs a million bucks to have a kid and put him through college. And the politics is going to shit, and nobody believes the media anymore because it’s 24/7 bad news. People have this sense that they are not in control and that none of us knows who is in control. Maybe it’s the robots. Maybe it’s the computers or the internet. Or hell, maybe it’s the NRA, or some crazy dude who was elected president who thinks he’s in control, but actually he’s not. No one is.”
For Bates, one cause of this underlying fear is something that no one expected in the halcyon days when our laptops and phones first arrived, making us feel like gods and goddesses with access to the information of the ages and to websites that would sell us Jimmy Choo pumps in countless colors. We loved all of that until we realized that we were interacting with our machines more than with one another. Yes, we became more productive at work. But even in Bates’s shared work space, where a dozen people doing different jobs worked side by side in an open-floor arrangement to encourage connections and camaraderie, everyone was glued to their computers and phones—and they were hardly alone back in the ERE (Early Robot Era).
“Look, these machines were supposed to save us time,” continued Bates, “so we wouldn’t have to work so hard, and we would have more time with each other.” She took another tug of coffee. “Didn’t happen that way. We use the extra time to spend more time with our machines. Which is terrible, because what makes for a happy life? It’s being well connected. It’s having strong social ties and relationships. These are the things that help to construct our identity. This is what makes us feel powerful, and strong, and good, and connected, and loved. It’s our agency.”
Part of this “agency” could come from our jobs, she said, though that wasn’t guaranteed. Lest we forget, some jobs back in Sunny Bates’s day were still boring, and low-paid, and some remained dangerous and soul-destroying. But at least most jobs in that era provided income to a majority of people so they wouldn’t have to go homeless or to work as slaves or serfs like some of their ancestors did, even if sometimes they felt that way. Especially if they were working in a shit job that didn’t pay enough to make ends meet. Or if they were part of a middle class that hadn’t seen their real wages increase much since the 1970s. Still, sometimes even shit jobs with flat wages provided people with the human connections that Bates talked about, which indeed were lost for many when the robots took over.
“What does work ideally give you?” asked Bates. “Work gives you community. Work gives you peer recognition. Work gives you a sense of value and a sense of mastering or accomplishing something. If you’re lucky. Work can also give you a lot of bad things and can be awful, depending on the job. You also have to earn a living.”
At least you did before robots took every job.
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