Art, Science, and the Future of Work
Almost all technological and scientific progress is inevitable. New discoveries become possible due to the foundation of prior discoveries (and technologies). New technologies becomes possible due to the foundation of prior technologies (and discoveries). Both theory and experiment seem to find a time in which to emerge. They are buried things, and our thinking and tinkering erode the ground obscuring them.
No one laid this out better than Kevin Kelly did in his excellent and must-read work What Technology Wants. Of course, had Kevin not written the book, someone else would have written one very similar. Because at its heart is this idea of technological and scientific inevitability, and that idea was out there, waiting to be discovered and written about. Kevin’s latest work, The Inevitable, continues this line of thinking to posit what lies ahead.
Even the greatest and most creative leaps are inevitable. The theory of natural selection and the calculus are both heralded as being way ahead of their time, and yet both were co-discovered in the lifetime of the people who get too much of the credit. The best a great mind can do is push us forward a few years earlier than we might otherwise hope. The collective mind — the accumulation of ideas and thoughts around the globe — lead us to the same place as singular genius, and often a mere half step behind.
History, then, becomes a tale of giving too much credit to too few people. More often than not, we pick someone out of the noise to represent the culmination of a breakthrough. Inventors and thinkers who market themselves (or are marketable) get credit solely when it deserves to be shared. But the appeal of the singular genius persists, because we love a story about people. Complex webs of interaction and precedent are more difficult to point to or understand. Far simpler to say Person A created X.
Art, perhaps, is the one area where things would go undiscovered without the individual. But this is because art has no underlying truth, waiting to emerge. It’s an expression of individuality. To lose an artist is a much greater loss than to lose a scientist, if scientific truths are inevitable. That undiscovered art may never be reproduced by anyone, anywhere.
But the calculus isn’t so simple. Science moves forward due to an accumulation of inertial mass. The more brains pushing, the faster we get where we’re going. There are some discoveries that are time sensitive: reducing our reliance on fossil fuels; saving species; getting off Earth; getting out of our solar system; curing disease and possibly even forestalling death. Every brain not pushing against this heavy cart might be thought of as a waste.
It is a trope of science fiction to lament the dollars spent on rockets we fire at each other when we could be sending rockets to the stars. All the wasted resources on tribalism and aggression that could be spent on discovery and self-preservation. There is a naive fantasy behind the Star Trek universe that humanity would find a common goal beyond. I feel similar frustrations with more immediately achievable goals.
We could have self-driving cars that free up our creative time and save millions of lives if we gave this advance moon-shot levels of focus and funding. We could have a world that runs on renewable energy if we had similar resolve in that arena. We could get off this rock and put eggs in another basket if we built rockets for the right reasons.
What’s crazy about this little list is that Elon Musk is working on all three, and he seems crazy enough to make it happen. And while he will get a lot of credit if (when) it does happen, we’ve learned from Kevin that these things are inevitable. There are other great minds pushing on this cart. There are thousands, millions of minds making contributions. It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when. Some of us are more impatient than others.
Elon’s SpaceX company is on target to launch over a dozen missions this year. They are recapturing their primary stages for reuse, which would help plummet the cost of launches. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has already reused a vertically-landed primary stage. This is a crazy accomplishment. The landing is one thing, but just as amazing to me is the ability for a private company to repurpose tech that has undergone such abuse, and must meet stringent QA processes, and then authorize it to fly to space a second time. At some point SpaceX will do the same. And Blue Origin seems bound to use its space tourism to finance a bigger booster, which will be a great competitor to SpaceX’s hauling capacity.
It all has the feel of inevitability. Darwin/Wallace, Newton/Leibniz, Musk/Bezos. It make me wonder if we landed on the moon a few decades earlier than we might have expected to, had technology unspooled at its own pace, simply because tribalism was turned for a single generation into a force for discovery. All the money and minds thrown into the problem were due to war, in this case with the U.S.S.R. That accumulation of minds was like the birth of singular genius, giving us a bit of a time jump forward. The Manhattan project did something similar with nuclear research, again due to the concentrating lens of tribalism.
When technology disappoints, perhaps it’s because of an accelerating leap that came too soon. We expect trends to continue along that slope, when what we really witnessed was a data point out along a future timeline. Space travel got us thinking too far ahead too soon, so that we’re now not appreciative of the strides being made in a sustainable and profitable manner. The majesty is gone by the time the mystery is solved. We finally get what we wanted right as we want way more or something else entirely.
I’ve written before about my hope for a jobless economy. A jobless economy would be a moon-shot worth pooling all our resources into. If we could automate our basic needs, so that the tools of automation were self-sustainable, self-repairing, self-reproducing, then every human being could live a comfortable life and choose their work based on passions rather than supply and demand. I know it seems like fantasy, but as a thought experiment, it’s worth entertaining. Because we are approaching this future asymptotically. It’s good to think about implications now.
Here’s what it would look like: Factories of robots build and repair the robots that plant, harvest, deliver, cook, and serve our meals. All run on nuclear and solar. All automated. You ask for a meal, and a meal is delivered. The raw materials used for the construction of the machines (and things like fertilizer) all come from land designated the commons. So when you ask “where does the money come from to support this?” there is no money. There’s the upfront investment in the technology and the first factories. After that, it’s all self-running. Money is today only needed for material resources, energy, and labor. In the future, the resources will come from the commons (beneath the earth’s crust, mostly), the energy will be renewable (solar, mostly), and the labor will be designed and built by itself. At this point we will have a spinning top that lasts for as long as our sun does. The capture of asteroids (already being considered) expands the commons and makes it an infinite-enough resource. No one works for food ever again. Unless they wish to, which is the whole point.
The same tech will supply shelter and safety as well. Houses will be built to order. Land can be bought, or land in the commons given. One of the grandest benefits that I could see from this would be time spent with family. Much of time apart is due to labor concerns (moving to where the job is). And our celebration of work, because of its necessity, will move to a celebration of passion, due to its creativity.
I used to wrestle with the primacy of art over science or science over art. You have on the one hand the fact that art is not inevitable while science is — art lost will never be regained; all science will be discovered. On the other hand you have the knowledge that science only moves forward with an inertial mass of minds behind it. But the mind experiment of a jobless economy solves this paradox: Artistic minds in the future are freed by a concentration of science today. Imagine the moon-shot where we tailored the economy and workforce to achieve the jobless state. Beyond this state, when AI is making discoveries and robots are making things, people will be making ideas. Artistic ideas, but also scientific ones and technological ones for fun. People will work with the machines because they choose to. We are already in this transition, which makes it difficult to mock. We count as a “job,” the creation of video games, the profession of athletics, the filming of stories, the writing of stories, the making of music. These have always been jobs, back to gladiators and bards, but more and more of the workforce is doing something creative rather than tending to our basic needs, because fewer and fewer of the workforce is needed to feed ourselves. Tractors drive themselves by GPS and harvest our crops. IBM’s Deep Blue comes up with recipes. Fast food joints are working to automate the ordering, cooking, and serving. It’s already happening.
I believe that it will happen fully. I think in two hundred years, most of our needs will be met for us. I think the transition will be difficult because we won’t understand what is happening, and we won’t be talking about it. I think we will blame immigration for jobs that are really lost to innovation. This doesn’t make it easier to bear for those in transition, but it would be easier if we really understood the forces at play. And even easier if we planned for this transition, embraced it, and saw all that was good about it.
People like Musk and Bezos are pushing us forward faster than we would go without them. Not as fast as governments go when they are creatively at war with one another, but hopefully fast enough. Perhaps one of these tech billionaires’ side investments in fusion power or quantum computers will provide another leap ahead. I think so. I think it’s inevitable.
Check out Kevin Kelly’s work. Start with What Technology Wants. The beauty of this book is that while it may have been inevitable as an idea, how it is written is pure art. No one else could have written the same book, and I don’t think anyone could have expressed these ideas any better. Also check out Elon’s latest plan for Tesla. Flipping brilliant.