Asimov, Vonnegut, & Wendy’s: I For One Welcome Our Robot Overlords

Last week saw an announcement from fast food chain Wendy’s that they’d be rolling out some 6,000 “self-service kiosks” in their restaurants. This follows rulings in California and New York that would gradually raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.00 an hour, and as you might imagine the connection has not been lost on people.

Of course, when I say “people”, I mean the ranks of bougie suburbanites who have been gleefully cackling over Wendy’s decision. It is these folks who I’d like to address directly today.

<Ahem>

****. You.

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Seriously, what kind of demented, spiteful people are you?

After decades of stagnant wages and crippling poverty. After years of broken promises and betrayals by their supposed liberal representatives. After months and months of fighting and campaigning finally the poor have a victory.

And your response to Wendy’s giving their jobs to robots is “Serves ’em right?”

Did I say **** you yet?

Well, **** you.

You guys sound like mustache-twirling caricatures from some turn-of-the-century political cartoon.

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“Oh I say, my dear Montressor- that’ll show those filthy proles! Now let us adjourn to the smoking room for cigars and brandy!”

Livable wages?

What are they going to ask for next? An eight-hour work day? Paid lunches and sick leave?

Only for all your cantankerous whinging, you’re probably not some festering slumlord or monocled oil-tycoon. So why are you bent out of shape?

Because it’s going to wreck the economy?

If you folks are such experts, where were predictions of the mortgage crisis or great recession?

Because it’s going to drive up prices?

Prices have gone up without wage hikes.

Because it’s unfair?

Because nobody should get paid 15 dollars an hour to flip burgers?

It’s interesting how that only seems to work one-way. You can march into any restaurant, coffee shop, or retail outlet and sneeringly declare how much the workers deserve to make. But if any of them waltzed into your place of work and said that you were making too much, you’d lose your ****.

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But none of that matters.

I mean, it does. If the idea that a working stiff is making a livable wage is repugnant to you, you really need to ask yourself some tough questions about the state of your soul. But the simple truth of the matter is that Wendy’s did not roll these kiosks out in response to the wage hike. While the hike may have sped things a long a bit, make no mistake- this was always going to happen.

In fact, it started a while ago.

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Walk into any major grocery store or shopping center and you’ll probably encounter an entire section of self-checkout kiosks. And if you stop in at the library you’ll probably find the exact same thing. And predating these are ATMs, which you can find almost everywhere. And where there’s an ATM, there’s probably a vending machine nearby.

Now you might be thinking- “Whaaaaaaat? Machines doing the jobs of people? But I don’t remember the bank tellers or librarians striking for better wages. And the retail associates and cashiers got replaced by self-checkout kiosks years before the wage hike!”

These are businesses. They’re massive, multi-billion dollar corporations. They exist to  make money, and they’ll make that money however possible. If it’s by outsourcing jobs to sweatshops in the 3rd world, then that’s what they’ll do. If it’s by paying subcontractors to skirt inconveniences like “labor laws” or “environmental protection”, then that’s what they’ll do. And if it’s by replacing their workers (regardless of pay) with a bunch of machines, then surprise-surprise, that’s what they’ll do.

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It’s almost as if the rich don’t care

And if you want to get technical here, that’s pretty much what every single machine does. It replaces human effort through doing the same job more effectively. A buzz saw splits a log faster and more efficiently than a person could with an ax, and a person with an ax is going to split a log faster and more efficiently than a person without one. Spellcheck on computers takes jobs away from proofreaders and typists, and, yes, video killed the radio star.

That’s not some kind of punishment for working class greed, that’s just human progress.

But towards what?

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel Player Piano gave us a glimpse of one possible future. In his book,the overwhelming majority of all jobs had been taken by machines, leaving only two classes left. On one hand, a tiny community of physicists, scientists, and engineers, responsible for maintaining the great network of machinery that now meet man’s every need. On the other hand, a massive population of under-employed ex-workers, now miserably whittling away their time on mindless clean-up projects or general idleness.

The simple truth of the matter is that we, as a species, need work, and while Vonnegut was no primitivist or neo-Luddite he did clearly believe that we needed to be intelligent about how we used ’em. And that’s a warning we should well take into account as we do seem to be on a path towards Player Piano‘s world, with rapidly developing technology leading to greater and greater unemployment among unskilled workers and an ever-increasing technological divide. And while our government may try to create some kind of massive welfare-state similar to Player Piano’s, the great truth of the story is that an absence of work does not mean a higher quality of life.

Which is where our good buddy and muttonchop-aficionado Isaac Asimov steps in.

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Ever the optimist, Asimov manages to show us a much lighter side of technology- even when talking about how it can be manipulated and abused. 1957’s The Naked Sun tells the story of an earthling detective on the planet Solaria. Sparely inhabited by humans, Solaria has a daunting robot population who do…

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…well, pretty much everything.

Backbreaking manual labor, it turns out, isn’t so backbreaking when you can have a machine with a titanium spine do all the heavy lifting. And production. And manufacturing. And transportation. And on, and on, and on.

On Solaria, all humans live a life of charmed aristocracy, devoting themselves to socialization (sorta- read the book), art, music, and science. While they do have some weird hang-ups (again, read the book), they are for the most part a happy and intelligent people free to pursue their own interests and passions having been freed from mindless labor.

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Now that doesn’t wholly resolve the problem, but it does show us that we need some new answers- answers we’re not going to find in our present way of living. While it’s going to be a long, long while before robots and machines can take all unskilled jobs (the good news is that waiters, cooks, valets, delivery drivers, etc. will still be able to make $15/hour), we are going to get to a point in society where they presumably could.

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So what then?

Are we going to stick with our present system of depravity, insisting that everyone must work but only a handful will be able to? Are we going to keep making more and more efficient machinery and then call our working class lazy for asking for a fair break? Are we going to seriously live in some Hunger Games world where we have the means to feed, clothe, and shelter everybody, just not the inclination?

If we get there folks (and we’re already arriving), you know what my reaction is gonna be:

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Hopefully by then I’ll have some other options…

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