Sunday, January 29, 2012

On Hating Humanity

Western thought, both conservative and liberal, has a long tradition of viewing human beings, individually and collectively, as a scourge that must be contained. I think it goes back to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian acceptance of Original Sin. In Genesis, Adam and Eve listen to the Serpent’s twisted counsel, disobey God’s commands about touching certain fruits, and eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In consequence, they are banished from Eden before they can also eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal—essentially becoming gods themselves.

In the myth, this disobedience was the root of all human wrongdoing. Humans became differentiated from the other animals of creation which, lacking such knowledge, retained their innocence. The tiger might eat a lamb, a ram, or a human being and yet remain innocent because savage predation is the tiger’s nature. The tiger simply knows no better. But a human who lies, steals, murders, or does other harm is condemned because he or she now has understanding of moral choices and their consequences and knows right from wrong.

This ought to be an advanced state. The human perceives and understands more deeply than the tiger. The human is capable of self-awareness and self-examination, can know about cause and effect, can predict consequences, and can choose a proper course of action. The wise human will of course choose moral actions leading to a good life, but he or she is also aware of other possible, less desirable actions. The tiger simply kills whatever crosses its path that is warm-blooded and looks like prey.

Presumably, if Adam and Eve had closed their ears to the Serpent, obeyed God’s injunction, and not eaten from the Tree, then they and their progeny—the whole human race—would still be innocent. We would live according to God’s rules but not know why. We would obey without thought or conscious choice. We would not need to examine or think about our actions. It might even be argued that, like the innocent creatures, we would have no need of self-awareness, no need to identify ourselves as beings separate from the world around us and operating in the context of our own actions.1

From a religious viewpoint, where obedience to God is the highest good, this would seem to be an ideal state. Unfallen humans could not disobey. God would obtain obedience from his creatures without the troublesome effort of monitoring human actions, judging them, and disposing of the operators upon their deaths to a place of either punishment or reward. The world would function in perfect harmony: humans eating fruit, hawks eating sparrows, tigers eating lambs, and nothing to mar the peace except the occasional stricken cries from sparrows and lambs.

In such a world, there would be no distinction between humans and the other animals. Humans would roam forest and savannah eating roots and berries and now and then scavenging the bones left over from a lion’s kill. Society would be limited to the family and an extended kinship of uncles, aunts, and cousins that approached the definition of a tribe. Gorillas and chimps live this way in the wild. Perhaps Australopithecus lived this way. If one chimp or hominid happened to kill another—well, accidents do happen, and male bears have also been known to innocently kill and eat their own cubs.

Certainly, such a world would be free of organized society and its preferences for class and ethnic distinctions, ownership, trade, warfare, and hierarchical religion. That means there would be no inequality, no possessions or greed, no massacres or genocides, no climate of fear, no courts or inquisitions. There would also be no stories or plays about personal or societal conflict and choice. There could be no heroes or villains, no one to look up to or down upon, no context of action, no reason and no way to dedicate one’s life to something greater than roaming and picking berries.2

Several authors who shaped some of my early reading and whom I still greatly respect—among them C. S. Lewis in the Perelandra series and James Blish in his novel A Case of Conscience—have viewed human space travel as a potential disaster for planets with races that still lived in innocence without moral distinctions. Humans would infect them with our original sin and destroy them.

Other authors and thinkers whom I do not so much respect—among them John Muir and most of today’s radical environmentalists—apply this thinking to our own planet. Because humans have developed technologies that draw metals and fuels from the ground, cut trees for their wood, change the course of rivers, and expunge natural habitats, we have destroyed Eden. We are a scourge upon the planet, like a microbe that will consume all the nourishment in its petri dish and drown in its own wastes.3 Their view of humans—at least in the aggregate—is that we are a beast of the belly who doom both ourselves and our planet.

Like most humanists, I believe that human beings, both individually and in groups, are capable of self-knowledge, understanding of consequences, and choice of action. We are capable not only of astounding evil and depravity but also of astounding good and nobility. Further, I believe that it is only through the possibility and example of evil that the possibility and example of good can be known.

Like the ancient Greeks, I believe that human beings belong in, and function best in, the polis—the city, where strangers may meet and interact in cooperation or competition—rather than in the wilderness. The wilderness is the place of instinct and sudden violence, while the city is the place of reflection, order, reasonable debate, and reasoned action.

This is not to say that I don’t marvel at life in nature. I am fascinated by the interplay of environmental forces on established genomes to foster the development of new, unexpected traits and species to exploit previously unknown environmental niches. I look upon the energy-conserving lope of the kangaroo in pure astonishment. I am also fascinated by the physical world of stars and their origins and proper motions, of planets and their complex tectonics and geology. I look upon earthquakes and volcanoes in pure awe. But I am also reminded that the ability to know and study and respect these natural forces and their outcomes is based on a human activity—science. A human mind has experienced a mystery, applied the processes of observation and logic, tested its understanding of consequences, and used the languages of words and numbers to communicate this understanding to other human minds. Life, the Earth, and the stars do not know themselves—they are understood only by humans.

I am fascinated by technology: machines and engines that move of their own accord, circuits and software that manipulate data, structures and processes that control and oppose natural forces like gravity with bridges and dams. I am fascinated by the inventiveness of the human mind, which can conceive of a wheel and piston driven by steam, enhance and compact that engine through internal combustion, and optimize it with cams and valves and fuel injection. Here is a complete history of human thought written not in brushstrokes on papyrus but in linkages of steel.

Far from being a scourge on the Earth, I believe we humans are the best thing happening within a sphere of open space approximately four light years across—the distance to the nearest star—and perhaps in a much larger space. We may meet like minds out in the galaxy, or minds that are very different. But if they are the innocent minds of animals, lacking self-awareness and the capacity for good and evil, then they will be of little interest. We should treasure them for their oddity, as we treasure tigers and lambs and hawks and sparrows for their unique qualities. But we won’t have much to say to them.4

Various thinkers have looked on this human capacity, to know good from evil and then choose to do either good or evil, and despaired. They would create a different kind of human through education or indoctrination or breeding pressure. Utopian societies dream of forcing a new, benevolent, unquestioning lifestyle that knows only good and cannot conceive of evil. The Russian communists hoped to breed or bully their people into becoming a new race, Homo sovieticus, imbued with egalitarianism and selflessness. You can achieve much the same effect—quieting the human impulse to know and plan for the future, trace the possible course of events, and make informed choices—with an ice pick and a prefrontal lobotomy.5 But the result will always be something less than human, or at least lacking in human potential.

I don’t believe we are fallen angels. We are not outcasts from some mythical garden of peace and harmony. And we are not perfectible, except through the exercise of individual and group choices from among courses that we are free to evaluate as good or evil. That process is always going to be uncertain, messy, sometimes disappointing, and occasionally disastrous. The lobotomy or its social equivalent is certain, clean, predictable, and beneficial to religious reformers and social planners. … But it just ain’t human.

1. Presumably, we would also be vegetarians. Fruit-picking seems to have been the dominant occupation of Adam and Even while they lived in Eden. But possibly we would share the tiger’s innocence and kill among the sheep and cows of paradise in order to put mutton and beef on the menu. Certainly, as omnivores made in God’s image, our metabolism was designed to ingest and derive nourishment from meat as well as from fruits and grains.

2. This is a trend of thought in western civilization that probably started with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Discourses.

3. Of course, microbes are innocent creatures that respond only to their biological imperatives. They have no brains to evaluate resources and see consequences. They cannot choose other than to suck all the good out of the petri dish and contaminate it with their wastes. Nature itself imposes consequences and limits the spread of microbes so that land and water are not inches deep in slime.

4. In fact, I would be very surprised if creatures that lack self-awareness could even attain language—anything more complex that the warning cry of the monkey troupe or the howl of the wolf. Whether whales’ songs and dolphins’ clicks and squeaks are communication or simple echo location is still to be proven.

5. The front part of the brain’s cerebral cortex is where humans perceive future courses, plan complex behaviors, make decisions, adapt personal expression to socially correct behavior, and coordinate thoughts and actions with internal goals. The prefrontal lobotomy was supposed to make aggressive and anxious mental patients become docile and pliable. Of course, if you can’t think ahead and perceive outcomes, if you don’t have a mechanism that lets you test the future and your place in it, then you don’t have much to care or worry about, come what may.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On Being a Romantic

In the matter of music I am vaguely eclectic. I like most of the Rock’n’Roll of the last century, some New Age,1 most Celtic music and ballads, and of course Classical music. And in the latter area, I tend to lose my heart to the composers of the mid-19th to early 20th century: Brahms, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, and Wagner2 among others.

In reading, I like stories with high stakes and involved plots that test the characters’ ingenuity and endurance. I like characters who know themselves, understand their place in the universe, battle against adversity with honor, grace, and humor, and are prepared to die gallantly. I find a lot of this underlying attitude in science fiction and lose my heart to writers like Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Tim Powers, John Varley, and many more.

With such tastes, I have finally come to realize that I am, against all appearances, a romantic.3 The word—especially in the context of “romantic sensibility”—conjures images of a delicate spirit. Romantics supposedly live by their hearts, their feelings and intuition, rather than their heads, their foresight and calculation. Romantics are supposed to weep easily, fall fainting, blush at the hard realities of life, and draw back from pressing an attack with cold steel.

Well, that’s not me. But I’m invoking a more robust definition of romanticism.

I believe a romantic is someone who believes that human life has purpose and meaning. That humans collectively are not an accident on this planet. And that each human individually has a purpose in life, a destiny, to follow and fulfill. Whether that purpose is assigned by God, or chosen freely and consciously, or thrust upon one by circumstances, is not all that important. (I personally believe that part of growing up is to determine your own meaning, but not all may share that view.) Each person has something they are here on Earth to do.4

That view has a number of implications. If you have a purpose to your life, a particular meaning, a mission, then you are susceptible to success and failure. You are constantly either moving toward fulfillment (success) or moving away from it, or not moving at all (failure). With the possibility of success or failure, you have the possibilities of struggle, of ennoblement, and of tragedy. Thus each person’s life follows a path, a plot, a story arc.

I cannot imagine a novelist who does not share this romantic viewpoint. Stories might be written without it—many modern stories are, such as the works of Samuel Beckett—but they are clearly dismal, sad, and unsatisfying. To have real possibility of greatness, and emotional fulfillment, you must have purpose and the chance of failure and loss. The greatness is measured against the purpose. For reference, see the sad little aims of a movie like Sideways.

This sense of purpose also supplies the groundwork for a code of personal honor. Without a conscious sense of purpose and mission, it’s hard to have a stance that says, “I will always do this. I will never do that.” Again, some people can hold to those rules without the purpose, but then they are just routines, tics, empty strictures. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”

What the purpose one chooses may be great or small, from helping others, to saving the rainforest, to finding the white whale, to finding the perfect glass of Cabernet. For each person the mission is different, but the emotional background, the suspense, the fulfillment are all similar. In a way, this sense of purpose and the possibility of failure are what makes war such a rich source of satisfying stories—because people engaged in battle are risking their lives for a purpose that lies beyond their own satisfaction. In fact, I would say the only thing that makes death meaningful—satisfying, ennobling, worth contemplating—is when it occurs in the pursuit of a worthwhile goal, or at the end of a life filled with meaning. Otherwise, death itself is an accident.

Sometimes that purpose is wrapped up in a person, someone to love, to be together with, to strive and suffer with, to raise children with, to grow old with. A person can have more than one purpose—to love one special person, and also to hunt the white whale—and then you have the bittersweet challenge of making choices and seeing the inevitable disappointment of one or the other goal.

According to this definition, a romantic is innately and unalterably opposed to certain opinions, philosophies, and attitudes—most of them arising in the 20th century. One is Skinnerian behaviorism, the view that says people are just glorified, more complex lab rats. That all life can be reduced to stimulus and response. See the cheese, learn the maze, run to the cheese. My hostility to this view is immediate and visceral.

Another anti-romantic view is represented by most socialist/communist doctrines, the view that people are just productive units, available to line up in service to the state, cogs in the society. The viewpoint that underlies most sociology and anthropology texts has this cold, calculating view of people as indiscriminate things, and I detest it.

Curiously, most overtly capitalist—or we might say mercantilist—principles are also anti-romantic. This is the view that says every man has a price. I imagine the producers of reality television shows, from the old Beat the Clock to Survivor, crowing, “For a million dollars we can get them to eat their young!” This is also the view that every thing has a price, too, and that if you put the right price and the right advertising spin on a shoddy piece of work, you can make people buy it. Some people, some of the time, maybe, but not those who respond consciously to a purpose and see value in the things they commit themselves to own.

And finally, romantics reject the modern view of love, that people are drawn together only by the attractions of sex and lust, and that they stay together, if they do at all, only through inertia, timorousness, fear, or ennui. That people are basically interchangeable breeding rats, and there is nothing special or important about the object of one’s love. That’s Skinnerian behaviorism in the bedroom.

The romantic believes that people have intrinsic worth, based on the virtues they possess and their potential for action, as well as on the purpose and destiny that they will fulfill. That objects have intrinsic value, based on concepts like beauty, utility, efficiency, design, and other aspects to which people respond. The romantic responds to purpose, is inspired by it, hungers for it.

This view may be wrong. It may be a form of hallucination or self-deception. Life and humanity may indeed be accidents. But, deep down, I just don’t believe it.

Certainly, there are people who try to write plays and books without recognition of this romantic spirit (e.g., Waiting for Godot), make products without it (the Chevy Malibu), live in intimate contact among other people without it (“No strings, just so long as it feels good”), and form societies without it (name your socialist tyranny). But I cannot understand such people. I have no feeling for them. I don’t hate them, but I turn my eyes away in confusion and sadness. They are like men who deny their manhood, or women who deny their femininity. They ignore an essential, informing part of themselves. It is possible to do this—but why would you? How is this better? What do you gain compared with all that you lose?

Now you know why I hate the 20th century. It’s given us such frightfully barren doctrines and attitudes. Many of our wars, certainly WWII and the Cold War, have been a struggle against people who would paint all life with this barrenness, the marching morons of Nazism and Communism. But out of that struggle, for many modern people, has come a kind of despair and a resignation to the sterility of life without purpose. Dada-ism. Inanity. Shostakovich—most of whose work, except for a few bright passages,5 I consider organized noise, or prelude to a migraine—instead of Prokofiev.

You may call all this a response to God, that God makes both human and personal meaning possible. I wouldn’t call that wrong, exactly. But certainly there have been people—a whole religion full of them right next door, who worship a black stone in Mecca—who do not recognize this romantic sense of purpose and mission. To them, the purpose of life is to submit to the whim of the divine and obey the laws of their religious theorists. And some people—here I’m thinking of the Calvinists—believe in a type of tyrannical god who treats his creations as mere things to torture and abuse. No romance in either of those views. And while indeed most romantics link their mission to a religious purpose, organized religious belief is not absolutely necessary to a sense of purpose in life.

What I call the romantic sensibility may actually be a striving to define God, to make the divine instruments of beauty, justice, courage, and caring into facets of everyday life. It is the union of heart and head, thought and feeling, into a whole that works.

1. Especially composers who use melody, like Vangelis and Ray Lynch.

2. Yes, yes, I know. “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” But I still like him.

3. The word has many meanings, of course. For the purposes of this essay, I’m using a definition picked up from my reading—but I can’t say where, or whether it’s from one author or a pastiche of several. This is the dreaded gestalt.

4. Note carefully my use of the word “believe” in the first sentence of this paragraph. I am also a Darwinist and understand life on Earth to be a chemical phenomenon, a reversal of entropy, and not directed by the will or thought of a divine intelligence. So as noted above, each person must create, accept, and adopt a purpose in life that fits his or her needs. I believe making such a choice is a noble undertaking. People who don’t—who sink into a life of purposeless lechery, hopeless debauchery, or nihilistic thuggery—are less than fully human.

5. Okay, I like the Symphony No. 10. All the rest is noise.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On Writing Female Characters

As a fiction writer, I generally create stories that are told from multiple viewpoints, a technique that has recently been picked up by the best of the cable television series.1 To make this technique work, I have to get inside the character’s head, see with his eyes, and report and comment on only the parts of the story that he knows, using his limited understanding. This imposes limitations, of course; for example, unlike the omniscient narrator, I can’t be on both sides of a door when there’s a knock and let the reader know simultaneously who is knocking and who is responding. And sometimes—about half the time, actually—the viewpoint character is not a he but a she.

So, while not being a woman, I routinely have to adopt the persona and write from the viewpoint of a female character. Some writers on both sides of the gender aisle will insist that no one born into the opposite sex can really understand how a woman thinks and feels, or for that matter how a man perceives and relates to the universe. Personally, I believe this argument puts too low a value on human empathy and imagination. But when I have to write a woman character, I do adopt a particular trick: I accentuate the commonalities of human experience rather than the differences.2

Really, secondary sexual characteristics are the least part of a character’s viewpoint. My male characters don’t go through the story wondering about the orientation of and pressures on their penis or when they will next need to shave their face. So my female characters don’t agonize over the size and weight of their breasts or when they next need to wash and comb their hair. I don’t follow my characters into the bathroom and comment on their sanitary habits. Occasionally, my characters may think with their libidos and feel attraction to persons of the opposite sex. Trying to be an old-fashioned gentleman, and not caring much for eroticism and pornography, I generally keep these encounters brief and tasteful. Actually, most people do not spend their entire day wondering about their next sexual encounter and the attractiveness or availability of every person they meet.3

If writing from the female (or the male) point of view means focusing on the commonalities—then what are they? What makes a character decidedly human? I have a list of human wants and needs that my characters must reflect and project. Here are the basics.

Self-respect. Every character is a serious person and expects to be treated seriously. No one considers his or her own life to be unimportant, unexceptional, frivolous, or comical.4 The people and principles they hold dear do matter. They may sacrifice themselves to save another person or to serve an ideal, but they are conscious of the cost. They have a sense of personal honor, which means they hold themselves accountable and responsible for their actions. They hold some thoughts to be shameful, and some actions to be unworthy.

Competence. Every character has something he or she is good at. It may be a specific set of skills, or an attitude of resolve and resourcefulness that lets him or her master many challenges. When confronted with life’s or a story’s difficulties, my characters may be surprised, become fearful, or even hesitate, but they don’t back down.

Self-confidence. The flip side of competence is confidence. My characters know they have mastered their skills, because understanding when you are truly good at something is built into human nature. They are confident of what they have learned and trust they can meet challenges within their chosen field. Aligned with respect, they know they have an innate right to breath the air and walk the earth.

Survival. My characters have something to live for and, when challenged, they will fight. They may occasionally despair, but they do not surrender to existential angst and hopelessness. They see value in life and in the world around them.

Operational space. Every character has freedom of action within the limits imposed by his or her own skills, knowledge, belief, morals, and physical reality. While the character may start in a limited sphere—a prison cell, a confining job, or a smothering relationship—the story must draw the character out into the wider world to explore those limits. The world challenges the character’s competence and confidence.

Goal seeking. Every character has one or more things he or she wants to achieve: a problem to solve, a fight to win, something to prove, someone to save, a relationship to settle.

Some doubt. The flip side of confidence is realization of limitations. Every character knows he or she still has something more to learn, to understand, to become. Characters know there is reason for caution in some situations, particularly situations of impending danger or opportunity. They acknowledge their limits.

Every person reflects some combination of these traits. The conflicts between them—between self-confidence and doubt, between survival and goals, between competence and the challenges of operational space, between self-respect and the challenges of life—establish the choices a character must face and the difficulties he or she must overcome. Life is a matter of complications and choices, and so are the best stories.

There may be people living whose lives and outlooks don’t reflect these traits. Bodhisattvas and Ascended Masters may lack a need for respect or a tendency to doubt. But they don’t usually make good characters in a story. Stories arise from conflict, and conflicts involve real people.

These principles have worked for me in creating characters like Margot and Jane Dobray and Libby Wheelock in The Judge’s Daughter, Janey Pulaski and Rae Howell in Sunflowers, and Ariel Ceram and Grace Porter in The Doomsday Effect. So far, no one has criticized these books because the quality of their women.

On both sides of the gender aisle, we are human beings with human needs and conflicts that come before the demands of sexual differentiation in the zygote.

1. Think of HBO’s Rome, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire, or FX’s Sons of Anarchy. In each installment, various scenes start with and play through the viewpoint, understanding, and expectations of one or another of a broad cast of characters. For the duration of the scene, the viewer is asked to sympathize with that character and experience the story from his or her viewpoint. In my opinion, this makes for a richer experience than revelation by either an omniscient narrator or from a single-character or first-person viewpoint. Cast in the form of a novel, where the narrative comes from inside each character’s head—a technique I call “first-person narration in third-person voice”—this approach allows the writer to show the reader when certain characters are being wishful or deceitful, following a wrong trail, or being misled. That’s a luxury denied to writers who work only in the first person. And an omniscient narrator exposing other thoughts and viewpoints by hopping from head to head during a scene or piece of action can be clumsy and annoying. The formal, controlled technique of following multiple viewpoints makes for a richer reader experience.

2. Or as Orlando said (at least in the Tilda Swinton movie): “No difference at all.”

3. And, if any character is supposed to have this on the brain, most people would say it’s the male rather than the female.

4. Although, at the end of life, in the last twenty seconds or so, I would hope my characters can reach for the grand jest—the throwaway line—to show they are unafraid and hold lightly to the gift of life.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Coming Robotics Age

I keep returning to this topic because I think it’s important.1 The population of talking heads in this country presumes that the current malaise in our job market has a variety of possible causes, for which politicians of both the left and right are proposing various solutions. Prominent among these causes would be:

1. The Chinese, the Indians, the Mexicans, the Vietnamese, and anyone else in a poor but aspiring country are more productive than U.S. citizens because they live in a lower-cost environment and are willing to work harder for a lower wage.

2. Businessmen are ruthless and mean, constantly seeking to exploit workers willing to take less pay and make less fuss over work rules, and so they are moving their factories to China, India, Mexico, etc.

3. Tax rates and the regulatory environment in the U.S. have dimmed the average businessman’s enthusiasm for building and expanding factories here, and so he is eager to move production to China, India, etc.

4. The recent failure of the financial institutions and pressures on the banking system have dried up loans, so that U.S. businesses cannot obtain the capital needed to build and expand factories—and create the jobs that go with them—in this country.

Causes 1 and 2—which are actually the same situation from two points of view, with a bit of Marxist venom thrown in—would seem to be confirmed by a visit to any Wal-Mart store. And yes, inexpensive consumer goods and electronics are made offshore because (1) the goods are low value and low margin, meaning that (2) at the moment it’s easier to make them with cheap labor. But we still make a huge amount of goods in this country, and many of these domestic products are high-value goods that require precision work and could support high wages.

Cause 3 has some merit, but with any offshore move the businessman faces a whole new set of taxes, work rules, regulations, and restrictions in the host country. In addition, with many countries, the threat of nationalization hovers in the background of every decision. The biggest reason that U.S. businesses move their production to China is not so much cheap labor as the foothold they acquire in the Chinese market, which they believe will be huge in the 21st century. The Chinese government encourages this view, although their stated intention is to obtain technology on their own terms.

Cause 4 also has some merit—except that businesses seem to have the cash to expand overseas, and it’s not all a gift of the host government. And offshore companies—particularly automakers like BMW, Toyota, and Honda—seem to be able to expand their operations and factories in this country.

In my view, these are all temporary situations and transitional states. For now, Chinese or Indian hands are cheaper to employ than U.S. hands. For certain classes of goods and certain services, like customer phone centers, it makes sense—economically if not socially—to employ these offshore workers. Americans as a group have too high a standard of living for anyone to employ them making, say, lawn mowers. A mower made overseas costs $250 to $350. One made by American hands would cost $800 to $900—and the utility value simply is not there. We can also see many classes of jobs right here on American soil that the average established American worker simply won’t do—pick lettuce, clear tables, scrub toilets—and so these jobs provide a foothold for newcomers to the country, who come from lower-wage backgrounds and have not yet adjusted to our pay scales and lifestyles.

For each of these supposed causes of job loss there are proposed government rules and actions: impose tariffs on foreign-made goods and services to raise their effective cost of production and make American labor more competitive; write “made in America” clauses into government contracts, so that companies will move factories back home and hire more American workers;2 make emergency government loans and stimulus funds available to banks, so they can loan money, and to companies, so they can start building factories and provide more jobs. These solutions will work for a while, they will reverse a temporary situation—but in the long run they won’t bring the jobs back.

The reality is that any job that requires repetitive movement and simple eye-hand-coordination—other than entertainment activities, like throwing a baseball—can now be done, or very soon will be done, by machine. For example, assembling the case, circuit components, and battery—all modules made elsewhere by machines—into a finished iPhone or iPad is work currently done by Chinese hands. In future generations of these products, these components will either become a single module—a circuit etched on glass—or be assembled faster and more accurately by a machine. No Chinese need apply. (For more such examples, see the references in my blogs in Note 1.)

As a general rule, any job for which you don’t need special training and which your supervisor can teach you in a morning is vulnerable to automation. Automation comes in various forms and is not always through direct replacement of a worker by a machine. Sometimes, automation involves (1) introduction of labor-saving devices and technologies that lower the number of workers doing the task;3 (2) redesign of the work environment to employ more computerization and machine interaction; and (3) redesign of the product or service to allow for more modularization and computerization of production.

For the past twenty or thirty years, computers and machines have made the average American worker more productive and therefore more valuable to the company that employed him or her. But we’re reaching a point where, instead of employing a person who knows how to operate a machine or work with a computer, the machines and computers themselves are becoming sophisticated enough—not to mention costing less, working tirelessly, and making fewer mistakes—that the person can be taken out of the productivity equation entirely.4

Outside the factory, the internet has mechanized information transfer and is putting the printing press and the local television station out of business. Computerized logistics using barcodes, Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes, and mechanized conveyors and routing have overhauled the processes of inventorying, transporting, and stocking goods and providing services. Computerized money-handling through credit cards, direct deposit, and other accounting systems have overhauled the way we conduct business. Yes, the bank might still employ a few tellers inside a cage, but those people are basically problem solvers; for simple transactions like getting cash and depositing checks, you go to the ATM on the outside wall.

None of these advances has anything to do with the availability or willingness of workers in China and India. When the automation wave that’s now engulfing the U.S., Japan, and Europe reaches their more distant shores, it will simply put a billion people out of work in each of those countries.

The mechanization of industry will not stop. In the meantime, as more and more goods are manufactured and distributed with inputs from fewer and fewer people, the economy has been quietly shifting to provide jobs in support positions in order to maintain the lifestyle of the average middle class person. This accounts for the growth of administrative, regulatory, and compliance-enforcement positions in the federal and local governments. They establish complicated business regulations and requirements for meeting social, environmental, and financial controls and goals. In turn, that leads to the growth of corporate jobs in corresponding support departments like human resources, information technology, environmental health and safety, communications, compliance, and legal. As companies become richer from investing in machines to achieve their production goals rather than paying the salaries of semi-skilled workers, they can better afford to pay for these “information age” jobs that support the enterprise as a whole.

However, these non-productive “information age” jobs will always be less available than the production jobs they replace. So, the biggest source of this country’s malaise is our growing idleness. More people are out of work, exhaust their generous unemployment benefits, then move on to become discouraged workers. At that point, they either apply for disability insurance for non-life-threatening injuries and mental conditions, or move to part-time, temporary, or contract and “consulting” work that meets temporary business needs but has no long-term future.

In response to the temporary rise in information and support jobs, more and more young people are studying non-productive courses in college like sociology, anthropology, gender and ethnic studies, environmental science, and English literature. While these studies have traditionally prepared students for a purely academic career, they believe the knowledge will enable them to move into administrative and compliance positions with business, government, and academia. And perhaps these jobs will endure for another generation—the half-life of the people now studying for them. But if computers are good at handling anything, it’s information. The need for human brains to churn sociological, environmental, or linguistic data will eventually disappear like the need for human hands to manipulate manufactured parts.

This economic situation is not sustainable. Not the mechanization—that can be sustained and grow indefinitely. It makes perfect sense to have machines swiftly and efficiently make society’s goods, both the basic necessities and the entertaining, ephemeral, fun stuff. And now, through the marriage of electronic communications, computerized logistics, electronic banking, and machine programming, the new automated factories can respond to individual choices, making goods in customized styles, sizes, and forms for individual consumers, overwriting the economies of scale entirely.5 All of this frees human hands and minds to do the creative work we need done.6

What’s not sustainable is the notion—borne of the Calvinist work ethic and the pilgrims’ prosperity—that the man who does not work shall not eat.7 That one must be a productive member of society in order to be worthy of receiving the food in his mouth and the clothes on his back. But in the coming age of robotics, you might as well say that a person should not eat bread unless he trod the fields where the wheat was grown, sowed the seeds, and pulled weeds with his own hands. We have seed drills and pesticides to do that work. We have combine harvesters to reap, thresh, and winnow the wheat and mechanized bakeries to turn it into bread. We have computerized inventory systems to say how many loaves the factory should make and the store should stock, and trucks routed by computer to deliver them. We have payment systems based on the electronics of credit and debit cards to help the buyer pay for the bread.

What we don’t have is something for the person to do that lets him or her participate in the economy and have the money to buy the goods on display. Perhaps, since the basis of mechanization is investment of capital rather than hiring of labor, the state should tax more heavily the gains from capital investment to support our growing number of hungry but economically useless people. (It would certainly be better than having them riot in the streets!) The only trouble is, whenever the tax burden increases, the taxed activity goes down. Taxing productive capital to extinction is not a solution in the robotics age, which is solely supported by capital.

Perhaps the government should push all the businessmen aside and simply make the investment in automation itself. That’s the approach favored by socialists. I don’t like it, however, because that sets up a central authority which defines where all investments will be made. Someone in Washington would be deciding what kind of bread I’ll eat and what model car I’ll drive and when I can have it and how much of it I get. I’d prefer some aggressive businessman trying to figure out what I want and supplying it, in competition with others who will also be figuring me out and perhaps investing in different solutions. Capitalism yields better choices for consumers.

If human minds and hands are freed from work—and who really wants to do the routine, mechanical, boring, soul-deadening, put-the-nut-on-the-bolt factory jobs?—we should find something better for them to do. Society certainly has needs that machines do not yet serve, may not serve in our lifetime, and indeed may never serve. Birth a baby, hold a sick person’s hand, comfort the dying, tell a story, sing a song, create a vision, paint a picture, teach someone to dance, carve a statue, teach someone to carve a statue, help someone carve a mountain, design a new perfume, design a new and more comfortable kind of chair, design a desk or cabinet with all sorts of clever little drawers and hiding places, invent a new kind of machine, write the code to run it, bake a really flaky croissant, grow a prize-winning rose. No matter what it is, and that some machine can make really fast, there will always be certain categories of goods and services where someone, somewhere will pay more for work by human hands and minds guided by vision and inspiration.

But we still have to figure out how to pay them. What we need—and sooner rather than later—is a new definition of what it means to be a citizen, a valid member of society, with access to its cornucopia of goods and services showered down from hard-working machines. We should at least solve that puzzle before the robots acquire their own citizenship and start voting against us.

1. For example, see my previous blogs Gutenberg and Automation from February 20 and Automation, Work, and Personal Meaning from February 27, 2011. The Gutenberg blog describes the rise of automation; the Personal Meaning blog describes the response of our economy.

2. If you think imposing government contract rules isn’t a powerful tool, consider that most of this country’s largest companies sell some fraction of their products to the U.S. government. If the rule is written expansively enough, it can change incentives for the company’s entire operation.

3. For example, as recently as about 30 years ago office settings had large numbers of humans, originally called “secretaries,” whose sole function was to answer telephones, type letters, and file documents. These were often employed at a ratio of 1-to-1 with executives and managers and 1-to-2 or 1-to-4 with average employees. Computers, email, voicemail, and other labor-saving technologies have virtually wiped out the job. Now “personal assistants” hold the position but do little that is personal and nothing menial. Instead, they have higher functions like reporting statistics, coordinating meetings, making travel arrangements, and ordering supplies on a department- or division-wide basis.

4. If you don’t believe this, watch any episode of “How It’s Made” on the Science Channel to see machines at work. In many cases, the only human hands in the video are taking semi-finished goods from one machine’s out bin and moving them to storage or to another machine’s loading bin. As soon as technology develops a robot with image-interpreting eyes and flexible manipulators, that job too will go away.

5. If you doubt the ability of automated machinery to provide for individual tastes, consider the modern experience of buying a car. Within each model line, the factory makes available units in dozens or hundreds of combinations from among choices of color, trim level, and optional features. The carmaker distributes these variants throughout the dealer network based upon what each dealer thinks will be locally popular. But if you want some other mix of trim and features, the dealer can locate it at another dealership somewhere in the sales territory and have it delivered within a day or two. If no such car exists, the dealer can order it from the factory. This puts to shame Henry Ford’s original insistence that mass production meant all Model T’s had to be black. If you can have this variation in a machine as large, complicated, and expensive as an automobile, how much easier is it to code for the fabrics, colors, and button treatments on a jacket or shirt?

6. However, even many jobs that we think of as “creative” can be automated these days. For example, where once a computer programmer labored over lines of code, inventing individual operations and then writing and proofing hundreds or thousands of individual code statements, we now have computer assisted software engineering (CASE). The programming language modularizes code fragments for specific tasks and techniques. The programmer has become a kind of design engineer, simply flowcharting what he or she wants the software to achieve, and background processes select the modules and edit them together into the finished product.

7. Actually, it goes back to the Bible, Second Thessalonians 3:10, “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” Or as my mother shortened it, when I would balk at doing chores, “No work, no eat”—although she never actually starved me.