In the March 22 edition of the New York Times, there is an article entitled “Why Not Utopia”, by Mark Bittman . It is here. Much of the article is about the loss of jobs due to more and more work previously done by humans now being done by computers. This is a message that has and is being made constantly these days. Bittman goes further and hypothesizes that this adds to the increasing economic inequality that bothers us. He finishes by suggesting we go to another economic system in which the robots work for “us” (by which he must mean those who are not wealthy).
Granted, there are more employment problems coming, although probably more about the quality of work than the quantity, but while everyone seems to be worrying about the effects that the “information revolution” may have upon the economy, we seem to be forgetting that jobs are about more than money. Jobs, are a chief source of satisfaction to many of us. My wife and I have worked to support ourselves and our family, but in addition we have worked, and still do work for the satisfaction we get. In fact much of the work we do now does not pay at all.
There is still work in the world that is stultifying, and even painful. Agricultural stoop labor is an example, especially for older people in hot weather. Miners in many parts of the world must work bent over in dangerous conditions, and such work is an excellent opportunity for robots. Some work requires constant repetition, and would drive one mad if done alone. But I remember when I was young, oranges were packed for shipping by hand. This involved a large space full of women grabbing the oranges from bins that were constantly being refilled, wrapping them with a couple flicks of the hands and fingers, and tucking them neatly into the shipping boxes. I used to watch them with awe, because of the speed with which they filled the boxes. And they did it all day long, day after day. One would think they would have gone crazy, but instead they seemed to be having a wonderful time telling bad jokes, gossiping, singing, whistling at me, and generally carrying on. The packing had obviously become completely automatic, and the day became a large social gathering.
I have held many jobs that contained elements of what might be called drudgery. I grew up on a farm, and did the usual shoveling of dirt, hoeing of weeds, trimming of deadwood, smudging, and irrigating. But it was necessary, and probably added to the pleasure of being surrounded by the growing crops.
When I was relatively young (probably 9 or 10), I had a job mowing the lawns in front of the orange packing house where my father worked and the fore mentioned women packed. It happened to be on the main street of town. The mower was hand pushed, and the grass grew fast, so it was a fair amount of work, especially in the summer (no shade, Southern California) and took several hours. The work was tedious and physically hard at my tender age, but I was fiercely proud of the results. I would go out of my way to ride my bicycle past it and realize that those were “my” lawns looking beautiful for all the passers by. Did I get paid? I don’t even remember, but certainly not enough to be considered a fair wage —that was often the circumstance when I worked at something in which my Dad was involved. But later I have worked in oil fields and in machine shops, and built a barn and several additions to houses, and served a tour in the Air Force. I found it all to be rewarding.
I have also done hard mental work, as a student, an engineer, a professor, and a consultant and loved it. Now that I am retired, I am still working on writing books and restoring antique heavy equipment. The photo at the left is a classical McCormick horse drawn mower that is completely restored except for the pitman stick, which converts the circular motion of the crank wheel into the linear motion of the cutting teeth, and which I will build from scratch this weekend. I began this project with an incomplete rusted, twisted wreck, and have done a lot of work straightening it out, making the missing parts, getting it to run, painting it, and so on. I am not going to sell it, and even if I did I could not rationalize the time I have put into it from the profit. But I very much enjoy the process and the result. I am proud of having the skill it takes to do such things and enjoyed learning about McCormick, reapers, and related subjects. A hobby? Maybe but it causes me to sweat a lot.
My wife is fortunately also a fan of working. After her Stanford career, she started a consulting company. She is now doing research and writing books on historic houses at Stanford and on her family. She is also taking an enormous number of continuing education classes at Stanford, and doing all of the assigned work even though she is not taking them for credit. I am also working on a couple of books, and if you think writing books is not work, try one. She also does all of the work in her larger-than-necessary garden and I repair everything that breaks in our 100 year old house. We must love working, because we have enough money to hire help to do such things—of course they would not do as good a job as we do.
So as to Mr. Bittman’s article, digital equipment will continue to take over work that has previously been done by humans, and I say good riddance to work that is not somehow satisfying, but I do not want digital equipment to do things for me that I enjoy, and challenging and stimulating work is one of them. When all automobiles are autonomous, I will be proud of converting one to manual drive (myself) and being ticketed for driving it. Finally I will be able to be a curmudgeon.