I went to a business seminar the other day about the future of work. The speaker, a woman with a Tony Robbins headset who was billed as a “futurist,” explained how artificial intelligence and automation will make our lives easier, freer, and more creative. And with the free time that technology will afford us, we will spend less time on menial tasks and more on things befitting human beings like strategy, leadership, and critical thinking.
But, as they say in the infomercials, that’s not all. She claimed that AI in the workplace will enrich our personal lives as well, calling it a “positive externality.” She even had a chart to accompany the claim. I thought about my own relationships. I have never thought of them as externalities, positive or negative, but maybe that’s just me. I know some people look at relationships from a profit-loss standpoint.
I also thought of the estimated 40% of workers who will be displaced by automation in the next decade. I suppose they will have plenty of time to sit at Starbuck’s and reflect on their own externalities, but that hardly counts as enrichment.
Enter Forbidden Planet, the 1956 “techno-horror” film about an advanced race of beings known as the Krell whose psychological maturation lagged far behind its technological prowess. In the end, technology could not save the Krell from their inner demons. One such demon, offspring of the all-too-human Dr. Morbius, can be seen below in the form of a red bull (no relation to the caffeinated energy drink).
I bring this up because I saw the movie again recently, and it is fresh on my mind. There are plenty of other movies treating technology in the modern world, of course. Think of 1984, Soylent Green, The Matrix, and Total Recall. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is perhaps the most iconic treatment of a dystopian workplace in the future. And then there is Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein (1823), which shows what happens when technology suppresses inner drives and desires. I suppose you could call the monster a negative externality.
As I sat in the seminar, it occurred to me that the speaker paid little attention to historical perspective, which seemed ironic since it was a talk about the future. After all, how can you talk about the future without considering the past? As I used to remind students, we all walk into the middle of the movie and have to figure out how we got there before making any decisions about where to go.
To be clear, we have been here before. Business leaders have assured us for years that technology would save us from ourselves. Remember DuPont’s “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry”? But if you consider the fallout from telephones and typewriters to mobile phones and self-driving cars, the result has not been more time to reflect on the human condition. If there has been any reflection, it has gone into making current technology faster, smaller, integrated, and more pervasive (e.g., quantum computing, 5G). We find ourselves more dependent on machines now than at any other time in history. Well, excluding the wheel.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not an anarchist or troglodyte. I welcome technology and the fruits it has given us in areas as diverse as space exploration and immunology. And I certainly don’t rail against vaccines. But to believe that AI will give workers more time to do things like write symphonies or square the circle is naive. It is more likely that we will work more, stress more, and medicate more. Why do I say that? Because it is happening already.
I’m not looking forward to a future of video games, legalized drugs, and other forms of entertainment like professional sports, which may become more violent to relieve the stress of overwork (or no work), especially when this leads to socio-economic classes drifting farther and farther apart. But we’re headed in that direction slowly, surely, inexorably.
And as technology turns and starts to consume us just as we have consumed it, will we have the fortitude and historical insight to escape the plight of the Krell?