Built-in Obsolescence

I want you to imagine a world in which you do not go to work. Work comes to you. Purchasing, buying, selling, manufacturing, everything, comes to you. You don’t come into the office, but take the office with you and leave it wherever you choose to leave it. There are no sprawling corporate headquarters, no skyscraping teeth of the industrial-financial beast. If you sit down outside your home, it will be at a café or on a park bench. The whole world will be your playground, your leisure spot, your backyard, and if anyone is out and about: they will not be working or running errands and what have you, but enjoying life and each other.

There was a time in the industrial age that the scholarship theorized we would soon only have four hour work-days. The theory put forth was one in which automation and mechanization would free the worker, in a sense, granting a full wage for half the work of yesteryear. It was a comforting myth that had the potential to be realized, but instead materialized into an unchanging work-day that produced twice the output for corporate and private stakeholders.

Unions fought hard against capital just to set in stone an 8 hour work-day, let alone any lower. Blood was shed for sick days, and blood may need shed again for sick days; but there remains a brutal caveat: in the past, no matter how bad it got, capital still needed us. Still needed us to man the assembly line, the stockyards, the docks. Fight us all you want, but someone still needs to go down and mine the coal or haul the steel and we knew it. That’s rapidly transitioning.

We’ve reached a point in the modern world that, for some occupations, all the work has been automated or its necessity removed. The borders are tightening on much of the remainder, with service jobs such as fast food and conventional banking being replaced entirely with machines. Developments in AI are on the horizon that will sap the labor market of rudimentary programming and paralegal work, performing the jobs entirely or streamlining them to the point of a skeleton crew. You’re not safe with an advanced degree and 10 years in the financial sector. Your bargaining power on the scale of time and technological advancement is dictated by the specificity of your skill set.

We bought in to the corporate culture too much over the past 30 to 40 years, seeing human value only where humans can add value to something else. If we are not needed, we are useless. The sheen on the windows of the skyscrapers were perhaps too alluring, too bright and mystical with the light of the sun, for us to see the eclipse rounding the corner on the age of labor. Now they’re coming for our healthcare, which most of those undesirables from the manufacturing days depend on. The same forces evicted them from their jobs, and then their homes. The same forces infiltrated and corrupted an electoral system designed to protect the public from them. The same forces enjoy rigged games and enjoy rigging them.

It’s a long trail that only leads back to one place: capital. And capital would be quite contented to operate at the whims of Amazon drones delivering Whole Foods packages, filled with food grown, harvested, reared, and butchered by rudimentary robotics. There’s very little that a sufficiently advanced AI can’t be programmed to do. Smart phones were a myth 20 years ago. Day-to-day, I hold the processing power of entire terminal bank from the 1980’s in the palm of my hand. Maybe more. Machines perform surgery with more precision than a human hand ever could, and they don’t get arthritis.

I want to return to the image I painted at the start of this article. It’s a bright future, a possible future, but at present it isn’t designed to be ours. We don’t exist there, except in some marginalized capacity, hidden away behind walls that shut out the day. We fend for ourselves while we all slowly expire, returning to the sludge from whence we came. It would be among the most unjust existences, so deprived of dignity that we are not afforded even the concept that we should have it at all.

All of this is to say that the future is coming, as it has always come, and will bring with it what the future will, as it has always done. The means of production is a shifting goal post, but it is one we must keep holding fast to the idea of seizing. Labor is obsolete. As a species, we’ve outpaced the need for our numbers and often create work for ourselves to fuel the needs of a system trying desperately, consciously to destroy us and all the while trying to justify its existence to us. In fighting back against it, we should not seek to reclaim labor from capital. I don’t believe that was ever Marx’s intent. We should be fighting to reclaim capital from capital, value from the system, to dictate its meaning and place for ourselves.

It would be a better world to no longer live at the behest of a paymaster, no matter the nobility of the job or the work. It would be a better world if the technologies we’ve built made our lives simpler, easier, instead of more convenient ways to distract us or replace us. The future should not be something we fear to meet, for fear that we won’t be a part of it. We must acknowledge the fruits that technology brings as the fruits of our labor heretofore, not reject them as the product of a system to perpetuate that system. Technology, like labor, can free the individual to pursue their own goals and aspirations, detached from necessity and unbound from livelihood. That should be the future for which we are fighting, not a restructuring of the scraps from the table of profit.

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