BY MATTHEW HERBERT
“There is such a doubt about the continuity of civilisation as can hardly have existed for hundreds of years,” George Orwell wrote in January 1941. The Blitz was raging at the time, but he didn’t mean simply that Britain was at risk of being conquered by Hitler’s bombers.
In 1940 and 1941 Orwell was gripped by the idea that civilization was going through an epochal change that was, if you can imagine it, bigger than the eventual military outcome of the war. He felt that human life was being transformed right under everyone’s noses, and the emerging form of society would be unrecognizable to anyone stuck in the present. “Everything is cracking and collapsing,” he wrote in a book review.
Not everything Orwell predicted about the coming changes came true, at least not precisely, but the things Orwell got right were truly astounding.
He saw that the nature of work was changing fundamentally; managers and technicians would rise to dominate the new economy. Class differences would be eroded by something that didn’t have a name yet but which Orwell noticed and would come to be called mass culture–the fact that everyone, rich, poor and middle class alike, dressed more or less the same, saw the same movies, heard the same radio programs, and increasingly went to the same kinds of schools. Orwell also saw that all big governments, even democratic ones, would have the necessary communications technology to constantly manipulate their citizens’ perceptions, attitudes and even behavior. For centuries, citizens had to be cowed into conformity; now they would be led amicably by the nose.
What I want to do today, though, is not to discuss how right Orwell was about the epochal changes of his time. Rather, what I want to do is channel his mood as he braced for the coming upheavals. Because, increasingly I sense what Orwell did in 1940 and 1941: everything is cracking and collapsing. Things are happening that are transforming society right under our noses, and some of these spring from the same seismic trends Orwell saw coming.
First, the usefulness of billions of human beings is being obliterated before our eyes, as the nature of work evolves under the influence of science and technology even faster than in Orwell’s day. As recently as the year of my birth, any human in a developed society could aspire to the kind of working life that would earn him his keep, help society, and possibly even engage his mind. Increasingly, though, the labor outputs of smart machines, foreign wage-slaves and a handful of managers are displacing almost every kind of decent, constructive work we might have once expected to do. If you’re brainy, algorithms will do your job; brawny, and a machine probably already does it. The cascading effects of automation, specialization and offshoring are creating what the historian Yuval Noah Harari calls a rising “useless class.” The masses will soon be left without a meaningful contribution to make to society. What will we do?
I am greatly distressed by this trend. As a general rule, I get about as distressed by things as a sack of potatoes sitting slightly upright, sipping a glass of whisky. In a moment I’ll come to the reasons why I believe any thinking person should be terrified by the advent of large-scale human uselessness. But first let me explain its existential horror for me in particular.
The only saving grace we humans have is love. It makes the price of mortality payable. As Orwell put it, “one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” Love might not be all you need, but it is the one thing you need to make life worth living. I don’t mean to get all Aristotelian about this, but if we analyze the concept of love down to its elements, one of these is the capacity to wish another person well. This sounds trivial, but it is not. Just before my father died, several years ago, he said he took comfort in the fact that he could see the fruition of his work as a parent in his children’s ability to go on without him. He thought we would be all right, and he was able to wish us well. He could not have formed these thoughts, I believe, without a reasonably clear idea of what the world would look like in the near future.
To wish one’s remaining children well requires an implicit act of imagination. The departing parent must not just have confidence in his children’s internal abilities, but must also be able to conjure up a vision of a world in which they have a reasonable chance of using those abilities to flourish. This used to be easy; children did much the same things their parents did in a world that remained the same. There was never a reason to question what kind of “ecosystem” the next generation of children would continue their life struggles.
But in 1941, Orwell noticed that children would presently grow up having to develop skills for a fundamentally different world–skills that were nothing like the ones that all Englishmen up to that point had acquired. Of this new competitive ecosystem, Orwell wrote:
It is a civilisation in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilisation belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely of the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.
The children of 1941 would be “technological natives,” to adapt a phrase from today. They would be significantly different from their parents, as Orwell foresaw, but not radically so. An England of technocrats and with fuzzier class differences could still be recognizably English, if just barely.
The children of today we call digital natives. I won’t attempt to characterize them; I’d just end up sounding uncool. But it is precisely the inadequacy of my descriptive powers that points to the source of my anxiety. Civilization is poised for such a disruption that I cannot even imagine the coming forms of life in which I will eventually try to wish my children well. And this failure of imagination is more or less where my own private anxieties overlap with the larger structural breakdowns that Harari and other thinkers like him foresee.
Much of this has to do with work. The world of work is changing drastically, and I feel about these changes the way did Orwell in 1940. It’s not that I’m predicting a dramatic break, but more like I’m realizing the very things we are doing today constitute that break. The leading waves of the revolution of uselessness (and a related phenomenon–pointless struggle) are already upon us.
I am no specialist in the economics of labor, so I will limit myself to a few blindingly obvious ways in which work life has changed during living memory and in which it continues to change today. One indisputable fact is that the “managerial revolution” proclaimed by James Burnham in his eponymous 1941 book has intensified into a form of technical specialization that now defines the domain of meaningful work. The most remunerative and meaningful jobs today all involve using office technology to solve intellectual or organizational problems. If that kind of work does not appeal to you, you are relegated to a second-class job or worse.
There are increasingly many of these to go around–pointless, unpleasant, and poorly paid jobs, which used to make up a small penumbra of the labor market. Today they make up the bulk of what we politely call the service industry. A handful of highly readable books can give you a useful view of this blighted landscape. Start with David Graeber’s 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, in which he lays bare the decrepit futility of “lifestyle coach,” wedding planner, and all manner of consultantships. These jobs and their ilk all involve work that is utterly unrequired by humanity but in whose utility the employee pretends to believe. They are often well paid. This fundamental, widespread dishonesty corrupts the human soul. Bullshit jobs also waste time and resources on a massive scale.
Bullshit jobs are not to be confused with shit jobs, such as dishwasher or highway worker. Shit jobs are highly necessary but poorly paid. Many American workers who used to make their living doing one moderately shitty job now must string together several shit jobs. It hasn’t always been this way. If you graduated with a high school degree or acquired its rough equivalent in knowledge between 1776 and 1960, our country held out the prospect of dignified, meaningful work. It might be hard, and occasionally shitty around the edges, but it would enable you to make do on your own terms. Today, if “all” the education you want is a high school diploma, the odds are you will end up with one or more shit jobs for a long period of time and possibly all of your working life.
Whoever maintains that any hardworking American can earn a secure living through grit and determination simply does not grasp elementary statistics. There are thousands upon thousands of shit jobs out there. Society does not functions without them being done, and people will be driven by necessity to do them. Increasingly, workers who are not phenomenally lucky (as I have been–more in a moment) will be sorted into this sector with the force of gravity.
But you can still do your own thing by taking on a gig job, right? In the age of Uber, Fiver, and DoorDash, why would any freedom-loving American ever again punch a timecard or go to a meeting? For a withering expose of how this kind of work deprives ordinary people of rights, power and security, read Sarah Kesslar’s 2018 book (whose title says it all) Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work.
The prelude to the gig trend was the discovery by employers in the decades leading up to the 1980s that they could parse whole jobs into part-time ones and leave out the benefits and much of what used to be called workers’ rights. Louis Hyman’s 2018 book Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary describes this descent into planned impoverishment and job insecurity. It is now okay in America for a working mom to have to string together enough part-time work at Target, Taco Bell and Grub Hub to feed her kids. Since the job market, like all free markets, is supposed to project a perfect reflection reality, we are meant to shrug our shoulders and accept that the vandalized, fractured nature of work is “just the way things are.” It is not. We created it.
The allure (to the employer) of downgrading all jobs to informal, poorly paid piece work has also created a new opportunity to wring the last ounce of labor value out of the old, even as they are dying. Jessica Bruder’s 2017 Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century describes how senior citizens today must migrate around America’s hinterland chasing shit jobs in factory farms and Amazon warehouses because they cannot afford to retire, or even buy or rent homes in which to retire. Add to the Taco Bell moms I mentioned in the paragraph above a new sub-class of immiserated wage slaves: older people who are openly being worked to death by the rich in the clear light of day.
This sketch of work life in the 21st century has been a bit longer than I intended, but then again, work is the focal point of our lives. For good or ill, it makes up a huge part of the life-long struggle that gives us meaning and identity. Orwell was obsessed with it because he saw that changing work conditions would transform English society, making it into something wholly new. The puffed-up, useless aristocrats who were regarded as permanent features of society were actually part of a dying breed.
Let me pause here to state the obvious. As my children survey the field of careers they might try to take up, they will have to contend with the very antagonistic structural trends I’ve been describing: a nightmare job market whose distortions are authored by a tiny elite who present them (disingenuously) as objective reality. If my kids use their brains to get on the upside of these trends, their horizons could open on to relatively comfortable but meaningless work lives, in which most cognitive labor is done by machines and a tiny technological elite. More and more shit jobs will be performed by poor people far away. The American middle class in 2020 could be as done for as Orwell’s aristocrats in 1940.
I would know. I’m in the middle of the middle class, and–believe me–I keep my ear to the tracks.
As a humanities major with no saleable work skills, I am also part of a dying breed–the last of the bureaucrats able to parlay my soft credentials into hard, meaningful work and a handsome income. On current trends, though, millions of Americans whose qualifications outmatch mine will soon be relegated to the desolation of gig work, shit jobs, and other, as-yet unimagined forms of wage slavery. A lucky few will find well paid but meaningless bullshit jobs created in the entrepreneurial wake of the audacious scientific-technical elite. You know–project managers.
In his vexation of 1940 and 1941, Orwell mentioned a strange thing several times–his fear that novels would cease to be written, at least until the threat of fascism had been defeated. Indeed he feared the whole human endeavor of creative art was at risk. The Nazis, he believed, sought to kill the very idea of human freedom and equality, which is essential for art, especially literature. But Orwell had confidence that Nazism, as strong as it was, would ultimately be defeated. Art–and humanity–would survive.
It is not so clear that the forces that are draining the possibility of meaning from human life in the 21st century can be defeated by the things that gave Orwell hope–human bravery, selflessness, common sense and solidarity. There are two main reasons to be pessimistic.
One is that the scientific advances enabling our proliferation of technology are increasingly recondite. Common sense cannot come to grips with them, and bravery may be too crude a virtue to stand up to them. The mechanisms that promise to carry technology over the horizon of human intelligibility are genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR). Artificial intelligence weaves through all three disciplines and forms the basis of the last. Learning, doing machines will shape our future. The .01 percent of the world’s smartest people will wind them up and see where they go.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will have to be exceedingly brief: GNR technologies will enable machines, some smaller than molecules, to re-assemble the building blocks of physical reality. In “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” a 2000 essay widely read by geeks but, tragically, ignored by everyone else, computer scientist Bill Joy explained why GNR constituted such an unprecedented threat–because it is a suite of technologies designed to act autonomously. It self-replicates. Yes, it will in the strictest sense do what “we” (that .01 percent) tell it to, but given GNR’s complexity, our instructions to it could trigger sequences of events we can neither stop nor control. Let one genetically engineered plant with enhanced photosynthesis slip into the biosphere and it could out-compete (kill) every other plant species on earth. Create the “friendliest” of AIs and it could still be driven by unanticipatable logic chains to exterminate all of humanity or expropriate all our resources, which would amount to the same thing. And so on.
Summarizing this class of threats, Joy sounds more like a tent-revival preacher than a computer scientist:
I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.
If Joy’s invocation of evil and “extreme individuals” sounds overblown, try this on for size: what if the overlords of the technologies poised to bring GNR threats online are not cold, titanic geniuses but just nihilistic tech bros honing their “hacker ethic” and chasing fat stacks of venture capital? Do you feel better? The clique of technology gurus who are presently assembling all the world’s useful artifacts–from emergency rooms to power plants to the locks on our front doors–into an “internet of things” literally do not care if the future they are inventing connects coherently to a past. This is the second reason I feel pessimistic about the near future. Nazism had a point, and Orwell was confident that decent, liberal people would sense its evil and resist it. Other than moving fast and breaking things, today’s technologists have no point. They just want to invent cool stuff, stuff we want. There may be an enemy lurking in their formless digital fantasyland, but we cannot recognize it.
At the very least, we should face up to how fragile of our world has been made by uploading its critical parts online, even while we race ahead toward the datafication of everything. See Nicole Perloth’s brand new This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race for a terrifying primer on this subject.
In If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, historian Jill Lepore details the underappreciated rise of data science and the pioneering company that first tried using it to shape human behavior and attitudes. This grand idea was dreamed up by a group of flawed but idealistic East Coast white liberals who wanted to improve American society in the 1960s. But the “best minds” of today who are carrying their project on “are [instead] thinking about how to make people click ads,” as one Facebook employee related in 2011. Celebrating “anarchy as a measure of . . . creativity,” the leading designers of the technosphere, like Mark Zuckerberg, seem to take pride in blanking out the past. But is this the best path to the future?
As incongruent as it sounds, the ingenious elite who are shaping our information ecosystem today are self-consciously anti-intellectual. To a great extent, they scorn the study of anything other than computing and communications technologies. In If Then, Lepore writes,
In twenty-first-century Silicon Valley, the meaninglessness of the past and the uselessness of history became articles of faith, gleefully performed arrogance. “The only thing that matters is the future,” said the Google and Uber self-driving car designer Anthony Levandowski in 2018. “I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess–the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.
Without putting too subtle a Heideggerian point on this statement of anti-human principle, let me sketch the main difference between having a “tomorrow” and having a “future.” Tomorrow is a blank slate, no more than the sun’s rising once more; it can herald anything, including the howling desolation of a civilization that has nullified itself, like the one Levandowski seems to invite. Having a future, though, is inextricably linked to having a past. One of the hopes that kept Orwell going in 1941 as the bombs fell on London was that plain, ordinary patriotism would be put to good use, and the English would summon enough unity to beat Hitler. They would look to their past, flawed and exploitative as it was, and imagine a future worth fighting for.
At the moment, I am too flummoxed to envision a coherent future. Twenty years after his essay, Bill Joy is still right that there are too few people (“extreme individuals”) in charge of it. He may also be right that its ghastly shape might have already been determined in the hidden codes of GNR technologies as they were emerging in the 1990s and 2000s without any regulatory supervision.
In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, as Yuval Noah Harari describes the wide-open possibilities of human life in the late 21st century, he comes back again and again to a central theme–the acceleration of change. Humans of the future will have to be flexible and resilient on an unprecedented scale. They will constantly have to educate and re-educate themselves and train for new jobs. Even the smart, talented and driven may have to plan to have two, three or more careers. It sounds exhausting. It sounds disorienting.
Or, if most of their work is done for them, they may have to learn to create meaning from permanent leisure. This sounds demoralizing.
I do not know if evolution has fitted us with the stores of resilience and creativity we will need to cope with such unrelenting change. But try we will. Humans are programmed to struggle. And as Orwell saw, the instinct that drives us on no matter what is the struggle to connect the future to the past. That’s why he believed England would win the war. But I cannot see my version of what Orwell saw. I cannot see the future in which humanity wins the war against inhumanity. It doesn’t mean that future isn’t out there: it just means that I have no way of picturing it. I need to be capable of what my father was at the last, of wishing my children well. But I cannot see their future world, the world in which they will try to thrive. I can only hope they will be able to.