The Phenomenon of Superpowers

or A glum consideration of @pmarca's robot tweet storm blogentry-essay-thing -> here

Recently there was a something of a tweet storm I must have missed on Marc Andreesson's twitter stream that had to do with the superpowers we've been given by technology. As usual, I'm late to the party, and I'm probably one of those guests who are last to leave, because this is a really long essay.

So maybe go grab a snack and a refreshment, and then settle in before proceeding.

OK? OK. Here goes...

Mr. Andreesson, that darling of the Internet, completes the decathlon tweet as follows:

It's an intriguing assertion for a few reasons (Though I won't spend too much time discussing this. There's larger fish to fry, as they say).

The takeaway seems to be, if you haven't been able to clear tall buildings in a single bound, then there must be something lacking in your life. The cure for this ailment (or failment, my invented word for an instance of failure in life) is a technological device, preferably attached to the Internet where you can find anything you need to find out about anything. Information will make you a superhero.

It hasn't worked for me yet.

There are people who genuinely believe that the addition of technology to a drab, impotent existence will improve the human condition, at least during this iteration of Moore's Law, until the chip gets faster, cheaper, better, and as our recollection of fastercheaperbetter recedes into the mists of time to be replaced by fastercheaperbetter ad infinitum.

That may or may not be true. However, by the example of my own life, I'm skeptical.

I think the problem I have is the thinking: Solutions to complex problems are simple.

         "First pour, then add water and stir."

I just don't think anything in life is that simple to fix.

Speaking about provements (my invented word for any move to prove something as true), Andrew Leonard at discusses the God Complex in response to Andreesson's superpowers metaphor of throwing-thunderbolts with electronics. Give it a look see. Leonard does speak to the sidelines, where I stand, rather than to Andreesson directly. Moreover, he positions Andreesson as emblematic of all people working in Silicon Valley, which may not be very cordial or even accurate, but Leonard does make some coherent points that are certainly closer to the earth and accessible to we mere mortals.

I'd say the very best quote from Leonard's article is:

But what [Andreesson] fails to mention is that, when everyone has superpowers, that’s the same as nobody having superpowers, and the same social inequities that give some people advantages over others will reassert themselves. The advantages of class, wealth and location don’t vanish.

Yes, I agree with this. When the tide lifts all boats, it doesn't change the size of your boat or whether it's leaky.

I'm not one to get cranky about using metaphors. I love metaphors largely because they do provide significant richness to one's message when one is limited to chopping thoughts up into 140 char cinder-block storms.

Unfortunately, the frequent solution to responding to "collapsed, abbreviated meaning" is to write things out in an essay form and do some mansplaining arms akimbo over the cacophony of tweety-birds. Which I guess is why "This is Probably a Good Time to Say That I Don’t Believe Robots Will Eat All the Jobs …" was penned, though I suppose no one writes anything in longhand anymore.

For my contribution to the blogosphere, I'm mansplaining back, if I may co-opt the term and if a woman is allowed to do her own mansplaining of mansplaining. So indulge me while I place my own arms akimbo.

Rather than fall into the teapot of whether or not technology provides superpowers, or even contemplate the actual definition of what superpowers means and what defines them, I'm more intrigued in this A16Z essay-reply because it does make for less cartoon-y discourse about some authentic concerns of mine. Concerns I've been thinking about for decades now.

I'll take a risk that I am allowed to copypasta the robot essay for discussion here, which I've done piecemeal, so I might address its arguments carefully. I hope to deconstruct Mr. A's essay as it stands and to illustrate how it makes sense and how it doesn't. For me anyway.

At the least, it leaves me open questions. This may provide Andreesson an opportunity to reply, but I'm not going to expect that. After all, he is a very busy man and I'm a mere mortal. I'm really doing this as a thinking exercise and for my own edification.

I'll take my liberties and presume that's OK with Mr. Andreesson and that I've not interfered in any way with his intellectual property. He's free to talk to me about it if he wants, though I hope he'll still favorite my tweets, which always is nice.

If you, dear reader, would like to talk to me about this essay, tweet me @BlindfoldedLady, and please reference this Tackk and we'll connect! Let's keep the conversation going.

Or you can comment below, using Tackk's new commenting feature.

Thus, Mr. Andreesson's essay begins:

Para A:

One of the most interesting topics in modern times is the “robots eat all the jobs” thesis. It boils down to this: Computers can increasingly substitute for human labor, thus displacing jobs and creating unemployment. Your job, and every job, goes to a machine.

My Reply to Para A:

We begin with the set up, the premise. I'm not sure if it's an interesting topic in modern times, but it is certainly complex and challenging. (Using the word "interesting" has become a flag to me when I read or hear it. It's a cover word to say something without saying anything). That is a minor point, but the larger one is that it's not a strong start.

First, I am not persuaded that robots eat all jobs, but evidently more people are far more concerned with losing one's own job directly or indirectly because of the indiscreet mass adoption of technology. The key word is indiscreet, and possibly reckless. I'm not sure robots have a lot to do with that. I've yet to see robots significantly displace workers. Or by "robots," does that actually mean computers, cellphone, tablets?

Still, it seems a reasonable concern because we do have history to remind us that many people lost their livelihoods to other people who leveraged machines to do work, instead of using hands and simple tools. Hence, robot technology has not exactly "eaten jobs," but rather general computer technology over the past 20 years has caused widespread collapse of cultural, financial, and social structures that many families have been depending upon to get by.

As a result of this collapse, there has been a kind of violence committed in human lives by the disruption of such changes. Let me explain:

In war-torn zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, populations there must contend with jihadists, soldiers, landmines, and drones running interference in their lives. Then there's the lack of water, food, healthcare, security, peace of mind that, combined, is enough to transform any citizen of those countries into terrorists or PTSD victims. Talk about zombie-making technology. The point here is that these are perceivable disruptions.

Although, here in our country, we are fortunate not to suffer the in-your-face bloodletting delivered by war's scythe of destruction, Americans suffer their own particular woes. This species of disruption is non-corporeal and bloodless. It shapeshifts in the form of job layoffs, faceless criminals and government agents ransacking laptops, underemployment, disconnections made while moving to inexpensive housing, forfeiture of dreams, sale of heirlooms, furloughs, or just a general funneling into further isolation and despair, all finally resulting in the bruising colors of self-blame that actually manifests from this invisible hand that is picking away at one's life in the smallest of increments until one day there seems to be nothing left. Is this exaggeration? Is this progress? Or just a plain description of what a lot of people are actually experiencing?

It's not for A1-sexy reading.

"Your job, and every job, goes to a machine," is really the general idea of computers creating unemployment, which is the exact opposite of what was promised.

So where are all the jobs?

Frankly, the contention may start by collapsing into soundbytes the meaning of those various elusive modern economic phenomena that are impossible to soundbyte without sounding dismissive, callous, or out of touch. Still, it is done regardless and with bravado.

The consequences are that something important will always be lost in the translation of hard conversations into tweet storms. This may be of course why Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century is almost 700 pages long, by the way.

Thinking about hard things takes time. Communicating about them takes more. Hence the long essay.

So it's not about "robots eating jobs," but how technology is robbing people a feeling of control over their lives, especially when technology was supposed to offer more control. Quite the contrary, technology has actually taken away control, while offering more control to a few, but to whom?

The development of technology, as manifested in its gold rush cycles of boom and bust has only begun a slow, painful game of musical chairs. Does the last chair standing become the throne of our new monarch? Our messiah? A hero?

But...where are all the jobs?

Employment traditionally has been a central part of that general sense of personal control because most people depend upon a wage or salary to get by and can't just wait for the right job opportunity to come along that is optimum or desirable. It's Hobson's Choice, which isn't exactly much of a choice.

The landlord is not magnanimous because of what is going on in the street. The rent must be paid. The children need shoes, and someone has to cook the beans for dinner tonight. A lot about living life without promising employment is just unattractive and staid as Clark Kent's eyeware. Furthermore, as much as we want to wave away our worries and fantasize that someone will save us at our most desperate times, the fact is there are hardly any telephone booths around for Clark to change into his Superman suit, which means even superheros are being disrupted from their routines as they know them. Theoretically, anyway.

Para B:

This sort of thinking is textbook Luddism, relying on a “lump-of-labor” fallacy – the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done. The counterargument to a finite supply of work comes from economist Milton Friedman — Human wants and needs are infinite, which means there is always more to do. I would argue that 200 years of recent history confirms Friedman’s point of view.

My Reply to Para B:

I appreciate the Luddism comment. I don't consider myself a Luddite. I think technology can be useful if it's inexpensive enough and designed to do no harm. However, that's likely the real Luddite complaint, that "technology is hurting me." It's not that there's a "lump of labor," but that in the middle of the night your bedmate is hogging all the blankets and it's cold.

It's also true that human wants and needs are infinite, but that doesn't mean we should always get what we want, and we certainly aren't getting what we need, especially when we need it. In light of the idea of "there's always more to do," I'll agree with that, but most tech companies are not concentrating on real needs, most tech companies are focusing on wants. Like putting rich people into the atmosphere or colonizing Mars. How is my life improved by having 1000 TV channels or being able to load 5000 songs on my iPod?

Who decides what is a need and what is a want?

Though wants and needs can be one and the same, I'd say a need is something that hurts me if left unfulfilled, whereas a want may hurt me if fulfilled. Unfortunately, a lot of tech immerses itself in wants-fulfillment, not needs-fulfillment.

Para C:

If the Luddites had it wrong in the early 19th century, the only way their line of reasoning works today is if you believe this time is different from those Industrial Revolution days. That either (a) There won’t be new wants and needs (which runs counter to human nature); or (b) It won’t matter that there are new wants and needs, most people won’t be able to adapt to, or contribute/have jobs in the new fields where those new wants and needs are being created.

My Reply to Para C:

This argument is a bit of slight of hand, and takes the focus off the real issue, which is how technology has caused injury in the lives of ordinary people. This may not be an official line from Luddism, but the issues I see today are that the wants of some are being fulfilled at the cost of creating needs in many others. Needs caused by theft, greed, corruption, and negligence.

It's not about whether wants and needs exist.

It's the relationship between wants and needs and how they are prioritized and fulfilled.

Mr. A, as a representative of Silicon Valley, is looking at the problem with ineffective words and inaccurate ideas. My opinion, not an assassination of his character.

As much as technology folks want to shine the light on technology's hero-making attributes, the reality is that technology is actually not solving problems. It has created more of them.

Tech has become fashion, delighting in the next season. Hemlines are here, and now they are here. If we don't keep up, we are considered gauche, but what was called gauche among the fashion elite is, in this context, called Luddite, because clearly if you aren't for us, you are against us.

Maybe the world isn't so binary? If it is, the lights are certainly not on.

Para D:

While it is certainly true that technological change displaces current work and jobs (and that is a serious issue that must be addressed), it is equally true, and important, that the other result of each such change is a step-function increase in consumer standards of living.

My Reply to Para D:

Actually, that Mr. A admits there is displacement of work and jobs and its sobering effect upon people is quite remarkable and deserves attention. That this paragraph was written at all is what provided my motivation to write this essay. The most important sentence of @pmarca's essay on job-eating robots is the parenthetical:

       > (and that is a serious issue that must be addressed)

You see, this is the entire point, that the most important thing is relegated to a parenthetical statement as if spoken to the back of the hand. This putting things into parentheses is the entire problem, and what is overlooked. So I'd like to examine that here.

What is this serious issue not being addressed? Whatever it is, it's not being addressed because the ones who are enriching themselves aren't the ones getting hurt, they are committing the hurt. Sorry if that hurts anyone's feelings.

It's a Walmart argument to say we are increasing standards of living by making everything cheaper.

I remember the marvel of Walmart in the mid-90s, when their computer systems were the talk of Computerworld Magazine because they cut costs by possessing no inventory. Walmart with its innovations created the practice of "just-in-time" ordering and many chain stores followed suit.

Walmart was evidently doing a service by opening stores in remote towns across America. That was the admirable thing about them. It was. If you've ever lived in the middle of nowhere, you'll know what a godsend Walmart was.

But after some years now, long after the death of Sam, look what Walmarting of America has done? They've become so efficient in cutting costs, who can afford to work there? The offloading of worker benefits upon the State so the Walton family can continue to enrich themselves can't be what American values are about. That's what corporate welfare is to you and me, and in living color.

If I can't afford a job at Walmart, health insurance, or a car to get me to work, who cares if I can buy a cellphone for $40?

This is not about looking for examples of tools or markets to support an argument. It's about being in contact with people and getting to know them, learning what they need by listening and understanding the nature of the problems that they face, not the problems that the privileged face, or more: what Milton Friedman held philosophically 50 years ago.

(Here's a parenthetical: Friedman is long gone. I'd argue that his view of markets was skewed by a narrow time period of analysis. That is, he didn't have enough data to assert his claims to the extent that we should consider them perennial truths for the 21st Century. Not that it is his failment. It can't be easy to know what is normal after two annihilating world wars. But I digress...)

To reduce a person into a consumer is no different than saying that robots eat jobs. The reality is that people are not consumers. People are people.

That I eat doesn't explain how much I eat or what I eat or the way I earned the money to buy what I eat. The problem with the way we speak about the problem is the framing that goes on while speaking about the problem.

How it is that Milton Friedman got us to talk about people as consumers and not as citizens is a task for masterful cognitive linguists like George Lakoff, but the freedom to choose that I cherish is not the freedom of choosing a latte over a Frappaccino™.

The freedoms that I cherish are those sacred rights I inherited and are located in the US Constitution, but those seem to be in jeopardy with a government that spies on me and a Supreme Court that believes freedom of speech is determined by how much money I have.

I don't want to be a consumer. I want to be a citizen. Don't you?

Para E:

As consumers, we virtually never resist technology change that provides us with better products and services even when it costs jobs. Nor should we. This is how we build a better world, improve our quality of life, better provide for our kids, and solve fundamental problems. Make no mistake, advocating for slowing technological change to preserve jobs equals advocating for the punishment of consumers, and stalling the march of quality of life improvements.

My Reply to Para E:

It's true that when we think about ourselves as consumers, and not citizens, the focus upon what we buy is more important than what we do, what we know, or the contexts in which we exist, such as who we know and love, our value systems, etc. That's been removed from the algorithm.

Doing the right thing isn't about slowing technological change. Doing the right thing is solving meaningful problems, not divulging upon us the means of producing the next IPO to subsequently be lauded by one's picture on the cover of a financial magazine.

I don't mean to be unkind in saying that, but the target of my address is the notion of being out of touch by living in a bubble of privilege. Honestly, I don't believe anyone is immune to the seduction of comfortable living. How easy it is for anyone to forget that for many people, life is hard and very very uncomfortable.

You see, fun and entertainment are what you do after you have security and not before, but until then, fun and entertainment brings security only to those selling fun and entertainment, not to those buying it. From the point of view of mainstream America, Silicon Valley, and perhaps California culture overall, is seen as a purveyor of fun and entertainment. I don't think it is that, but that's the perception.

Thank you, Ron Burgundy.

So the issue, as I see it, is that Silicon Valley is not helping with its offers of more vs. less technology. Its masters believe they are the guardians of the special sauce recipe concerning how we talk about what is valuable in our country.

If something is true, then there should be no fear of entering a challenging discussion about it. Debate should uncover false beliefs and reveal truths, not leave a vacuum that suffocates everyone in the room.

We all suffer from some form of ignorance, which is why we need one another. This is why acts of discourse should promote truths rather than promote ideologies. Unfortunately, over the past few decades Silicon Valley has become more ideological than persuasive about what is true. It's a crying shame because there was so much promise.

The only way we build a better world is by solving meaningful problems. Serious problems.

Job displacement, the decay of citizen's rights, and the destruction of the environment, such problems are directly connected to the rise of technology, which in the end, cannot increase the standard of living or quality of life of anyone, even if I can buy a cellphone for $40.

So it's not that anyone wants to slow down technology –which I don't believe is possible actually– it's that we want to see human problems minimized or eliminated. Technological superpowers don't seem to offer answers because a lot about solving problems is ugly, inconvenient, complex, costly, political and just plain hard. The problem space is not technological in the sense that our problems will be solved with fastercheaperbetter tools, even though the right tool for the job can help. A little.

No, our problems are not tool-based. They are social, cultural, and historical. The problems are distributed over an environment, a society, a culture. It's in the language that we use and its tone. Until we recognize that our problems are not tool-based or object-oriented and instead acknowledge that they are context-based and relationship-oriented, our problems will continue to proliferate unchecked.

The value of markets can't quantify or qualify the value of relationships. If you believe this, then what is the market value of love? of care? or integrity and trust? or kindness? or altruism? Even if we can determine a number for these human attributes, then how will this superpower number actually make the world a better place?

Wasn't that the whole joke about the number 42 in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

Paras F through K:

So how then to best help individuals who are buffeted by producer-side technology change and lose jobs they wish they could keep?

First: Focus on increasing access to education and skill development, which itself will increasingly be delivered via technology.

Second: Let markets work ( this means voluntary contracts and free trade) so that capital and labor can rapidly reallocate to create new fields and jobs.

Third: Create and sustain a vigorous social safety net so that people are not stranded and unable to provide for their families. The loop closes as rapid technological productivity improvement and resulting economic growth make it easy to pay for the safety net.

With these three things in place, humans will do what they always do: create things that address and/or create new wants and needs.

The flip side of robots eating jobs.

My Reply to Para F through K:

I'm not sure that the question here is well formed, or even grammatical, concerning how to best help individuals. It's a little nonsensical to ask, "How can we help people lose the jobs they want to keep?"

Was this a real question? Or a Freudian slip?

If that's a real question, then I might pose the following question:

    How can we help VCs lose the jobs they want to keep?

You see, it's really a bizarre proposition. There's a tone beneath the question that presumes a judgement that says:

"I am the decider who decides who gets to keep a job and who doesn't. You don't get to decide, because you don't know any better."

But let's give Mr. A an out and forgive him his presumptions and let's give him the benefit of the doubt that he actually means well. Let's suppose he actually wants to serve those who lose jobs that are made redundant from today's developments in technology.

His solution is offered in three points.

First point? We need more technology! More people need to know about technology, they need to use it, and we need to have more technology and everywhere.

Second point? Let markets reign! Promulgate even less market regulation than we've got now. Nevermind that deregulation has created the worst recession in American history and we are still recovering from it. You see, black is white.

Third point? Create a safety net!

Hmm... I'm not clear how this safety net is supposed to work and who will pay for it. @pmarca doesn't divulge much there. In a world where the wealthy don't want to pay their taxes, and the State is already maxed out on credit, is the State supposed to go into further debt?

Is this a set up for a proposition to sell government bonds, like the Italy of today, so that the wealthy classes can sustain their status indefinitely via the instrument of inheritable rents on their wealth, as was the case in Jane Austin's 19th Century Britain? (For more on this, see Piketty)

Or is this safety net supposed to be faith-based? Either the blind faith that someone will catch you when you fall, or is it that charity, as the realm of proselytizing religious entities, is its proper expression?

Or is philanthropy the missing link? So that the wealthy classes can decide where the best good can be done and the people who actually need help have no say in the matter.

It appears from this line of reasoning that the only role for those in need is to keep one's hand out and be grateful for the handout. Asking, "More please?" only reveals callous ingratitude or anemic understanding or worse, laziness.

Is that how it's supposed to work?

I'm just asking.

Because in all three examples I'm extrapolating about building a safety net, the people who require help seem to have been robbed a voice, not only in what ails them, but in advocating their welfare for themselves.

Instead, like doctors who exclaim the surgery was a success though the patient died, the wealthy seem to have been exalted as the purveyors of goodness and wisdom despite evidence to the contrary.

So I must excuse myself if I am not persuaded, if only because the things that created the conditions today have already been in play and for many many years. I'm not sure that life is really so good right now particularly if you are not a technology worker or a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.

So I'm awaiting with baited breath how this safety net is supposed to function. I hope we'll hear more about how that's going to work.

Ayn Rand would have found this idea contemptible. By the way.

Para L & M:

What never gets discussed in all of this robot fear-mongering is that the current technology revolution has put the means of production within everyone’s grasp. It comes in the form of the smartphone (and tablet and PC) with a mobile broadband connection to the Internet. Practically everyone on the planet will be equipped with that minimum spec by 2020.

What that means is that everyone gets access to unlimited information, communication, and education. At the same time, everyone has access to markets, and everyone has the tools to participate in the global market economy. This is not a world we have ever lived in.

My Reply to Para L & M:

Current technology has not placed the means of production within everyone's grasp. I still must pay about the same price for an Apple computer as I did in the 1990's, unless of course, I'm buying a PC clone instead and I have the technical know-how to use open source software. That would be a lot cheaper.

What might be the percentage of the planet's population who knows how to install Linux on a PC and troubleshoot when a disk doesn't mount? I can't believe it's in the double digits.

Sure, theoretically anyone who can afford a computer and keep it updated can access the internet almost for free. But not everyone can do this.

The problem is saying "everyone" when it isn't everyone.

Furthermore to the next point in Para M, given that "everyone" does become connected to the Internet using a tablet, $40 cellphone, or other device, there are significant barriers that will cause any innovation that might transpire to die on the vine.

First, there is a question as to who owns the Internet and who should maintain it and for what cost and remuneration should it be? Should the Internet, paid for by nation states with taxpayer money, be allowed to splinter into toll-charging highways whereby arbitrary companies acting as MITMers decide who gets to see what, where, and when? Can the Internet even function properly with such gatekeepers? There can be no freedom of assembly if someone is dictating the passage of packets.

In that archaic manifestation of message sending, called the US Post Office, we made it a felony to tamper with a letter getting to its destination. Technology has created a problem not only by bypassing this law but making it difficult to reinstate the spirit of why such a law is necessary in the first place. Freedom to communicate, trust, and privacy are required for a healthy society.

Second, there's the reality that surveillance by governments is now common knowledge. The story is still being written on that. By employing key search words and connecting them to proclivities for disruptive anti-social behavior on- or offline, are we not promoting a different kind of profiling whereby the right to be forgotten will be dismissed as a privilege for those who can seal records or buy off Google?

This all sounds very similar to that 70s movie, Logan's Run.

Though today, there's more than just one catch.

"Everyone" can't have access to unlimited information, communication, or education. Everyone isn't everyone. Furthermore, when is a connected person supposed to have the time for all of this information gathering if the only jobs available are service jobs? When can one have the leisure to study? Do we give up sleeping? What kind of a life is that? If I decide it's not a life I want, do I have choices to opt out? Or will it be a choice between that, penury and homelessness, or remaining an unsatisfied Digital Turk?

Given how the logistics today are a barrier to even having an online presence, as well as knowing how one can be safe online (which we are still quantifying and qualifying), how can everyone have access to global markets? Owning a device does not make every person equal and thereby all markets equal.

Inviting more people into the market only invites more incentive to manipulate the cash of more people and thereby funnel more wealth into more pockets of the privileged. In countries and cultures that don't value equality (or the tenets of the US Constitution), how is that supposed to make my life better? Are we expecting they will do business as we do business?

Have we already forgotten that ordinary wealth, in the form of home equity, accumulated by hard working people, was raided by the creation of bad mortgages? The dynamics was international, not just national. How is a similar travesty avoided by removing more regulations? No offense Mr A, but are you smoking crack?

It seems every ten to twenty years there's another scheme for fleecing naive consumers. Were people to be treated as citizens and not consumers, would they be as vulnerable to theft and manipulation?

@pmarca is right that this is not a world we have ever lived in. However, we can't even determine who should steward the Internet, what are the rights of individuals, where are the boundaries of nationalities, what defines intellectual property, and even what the meaning of privacy is in our lives.

If we can't make those determinations, then it's a world that can never happen, so we'll never even be able to see if his speculations about markets and open access to all can even be realized.

Para N & O:

Historically, most people — in most places – have been cut off from all these things, and usually to a high degree. But with that access, with those tools in the hands of billions, it is hard to believe that the result will not be a widespread global unleashing of creativity, productivity, and human potential. It is hard to believe that people will get these capabilities and then come up with … absolutely nothing useful to do with them?

And yet that is the subtext to the “this time is different” argument that there won’t be new ideas, fields, industries, businesses, and jobs. In arguing this with an economist friend, his response was, “But most people are like horses; they have only their manual labor to offer…” I don’t believe that, and I don’t want to live in a world in which that’s the case. I think people everywhere have far more potential.

My Reply to Para N & O:

The idea that open access will provide the means of production to a market utopia does not take into account the fact that barriers are not always bad. For example, consider pandemics. Nature and evolution have internal mechanisms for slowing down change, and this isn't always a bad thing. Wildfires are fought with trenches, retardants, or other fires. Markets cannot exist as frictionless entities if banks are allowed to be too big to fail. That has nothing to do with technology, but with how systems balance themselves. Just look at nature. If you remove someone's inner ear, you can't blame that person for falling down.

Moreover, creativity, productivity, and human potential cannot manifest just by being connected to everyone else. People do not possess an endless number of working years to be experimenting in startups, or trying out ideas that go sour for no other reason than the luck of the draw.

Eventually, people realize they want to just be something other than someone else's cash cow.

Why? The people who we are in our teens is different than the people we are in our 20s, is different than the people we are in our 30s, is different than the people we are in our 40s, is different than the people we are in our 50s, is different than the people we are in our 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s. Each generation has their particular wants and needs, and we should stop pretending that those wants and needs are one-size-fits-all because it's easier to measure and manipulate in a spreadsheet as data.

Similarly, "productivity" can't be made into a common denominator for all people of all ages and all sorts of diversities (i.e. social, cultural, historical).

So the assertion whether or not there will be no innovation or no new ideas is a strawman argument that is particularly reductive and even pernicious. It also doesn't make sense. It's not about creativity, it's about opportunity. Innovation which derives from creativity doesn't have to translate into a market value.

The fact is, in a markets-only universe, if I don't have significant wealth in the form of discretionary income to make investments, in such a world manual labor is all I have to offer. Remember the rentiers who eat most of my paycheck?

Unleashing the potential of people is not going to manifest solely by connecting them to the Internet. It is an oversimplification. Just because you enjoy wealth by being connected doesn't mean that's what will happen for everyone.

I agree that people do have untapped potential, but developing human potential is not something that is easily done, and it's not been a priority. Furthermore, it will never be a priority if people can't fulfill their basic needs.

Not that I expect you are afraid of her, but Virginia Woolf had her annual £500 inheritance from an aunt, a room of her own, a husband who saw her as an equal, and a caring society of friends. She was sensitive and intelligent enough to appreciate that if not for those things she could not have become a writer. It wasn't markets that allowed her to innovate, though market dividends from inherited wealth did give her the leisure to write.

I suggest that for any human being, if there is no room of one's own, no friendship, no resources, no leisure time, human potential will forever remain latent and silenced by poverty.

Studies by Martha Farrah at University of Pennsylvania show that there are significant effects upon the brains of young people who grow up in poverty. That doesn't say that poor people are fated to be poor, but it does say it is harder for them to change their status than the privileged.

Farrah's studies show that whether we will grow up rich or poor is determined by the time we are 12 years old because of the ways in which poverty can affect the brain. This is because the brain of a poor child has a lack of stimulation compounded with the stress of poverty. If this is true, then giving a person a $40 cellphone is not really going to open the doors to equality and opportunity. It may actually make things worse.

It's not that I'm pessimistic, it's that I'm pessimistic that complex problems such as poverty are easily fixed with technological superpowers and marketplace competition. If we can't understand the problems clearly, as they are in reality, rather than in our minds ideologically, then we'll continue to be victims of what poverty does to a person, a family, a neighborhood, a city, a people, and a nation.

Paras P through W:

There is a consequence to a growing robot workforce. Everything gets really cheap.

The main reason to use robots instead of people to make something is when the robot can make it less expensively. The converse is also true. When people can make something that costs less than what robots can make, then it makes economic sense to use people instead of robots. This is basic economic arbitrage at work. It sounds like it must be a controversial claim, but it’s simply following the economic logic.

Suppose humans make widget X profitably at a $10 price to consumer. Robots can make X at a $5 price to consumer.

Economics drive X to be made entirely by robots, and consumers win. But then imagine the owner of the robots cranks X price to the consumer to $20.

Suddenly it’s profitable for humans to make X again; entrepreneurs immediately start companies to make X with humans for price $10 again

Robots eat jobs in field X. What follows is that products get cheaper in field X, and the consumer standard of living increases in field X — necessarily. Based on that logic, arguing against robots eating jobs is equivalent to arguing that we punish consumers with unnecessarily higher prices. Indeed, had robots/machines not eaten many jobs in agriculture and industry already, we would have a far lower standard of living today.

Just as increases in consumer goods prices disproportionately hurt the poor, holding back on robots eating jobs would also disproportionately hurt the poor. The same logic applies to trade barriers (import tariffs): These disproportionately hurt poor consumers by inflicting higher consumer goods prices.

Therefore, with rare exceptions, there won’t be states where robots eat jobs and products get more expensive. They almost always get cheaper.

My Reply to Paras P through W:

Well now, this essay has become quite long and if you are still with me, I'd say we are about halfway through. If you need to get up and take a break, this is a good time.

We now broach a topic of importance within @pmarca's essay-blog-thing, with the assertion that robots will make everything cheap. How do we know this? How does he know this?

Everything? really? EVERYTHING? Will robots make my rent cheaper? How about my healthcare? How about my student loans? If it's not everything, then what exactly will be cheaper? And does this mean cheaper will be better? Or just cheaper as in now EVERYTHING will be poorly made. Is this what he means?

By his own musings on what the world would look like, Mr. A claims that human workers will compete against robotics, after initially losing a John Henry competition (Who dies or loses of course in this aftermath of man versus robot is not divulged).

After John Henry has laid his hammer down, the market will increase prices. At such time, John Henry will rise from the grave and inspire humans to start making what used to be expensive to make, and they'll be making it for less, even though it is for the same price as what was considered too expensive before. I'm not sure how that works. It's confusing, isn't it?  Piketty is far clearer, say, explaining the dynamics of government bonds and the difference between public wealth and private wealth. But, no matter.

I wish Mr. A's logic behind this argument were more clear to me, because as I read it, I kept thinking, "Yeah, but what about X? and what is X exactly???" If I don't know what X is, how do I grasp this X-theory?

Given X industry where this dynamic of price fluctuations has already occurred, then what?

I could see this dynamic possibly happening in the auto industry now that Tesla has set free its patents. That outcome remains to be seen. I'm not exactly clear however if we know enough about the means to measure economies and determine outcomes where IP is given away. It does provide me with some hope though as long as no one gets hurt.

So until there are contexts I can reference, I can't be persuaded by the job-eating robots argument because I don't see where that's happened. What I do see is that cost-cutting efficiencies have removed jobs from the workplace, whether because of computers or market fluctuation, it doesn't really matter. Those jobs are gone. The lack of steady, well-paid employment is what is robbing people of income, and this is what prevents anyone from buying anything beyond basic goods and services. That means the only people in the marketplace buying and selling in significant amounts are the wealthy who can spare the change for luxury items and enjoyments.

Most ordinary people (not consumers), are not being punished by prices. If they are punished, it's by not having incomes, or being paid what they are worth. In addition, they are forced to pay a growing percentage of the income they do earn to rent or a mortgage, student loans, and other forms of debt. Today, the IMF has recommended raising the minimum wage in the US. I wonder why.

It is debt that is hurting the poor, not prices. Think about Payday loans. Yeah.

Paras X through BB:

A recessionary interlude.

Progressive and smart economist Jared Bernstein has explored the productivity puzzle of robots eating all the jobs (or not). He points out that productivity growth was up 1% last year, and has averaged 0.8% since 2011. But what he really focuses on is the smooth trend that tracks through the numbers.

The trend suggests that the pace of productivity growth has decelerated since the first half of the 2000s. That begs an important question that the robots-are-coming advocates need to answer: Why a phenomenon that should be associated with accelerating productivity is allegedly occurring over a fairly protracted period where the [productivity] trend in output per hour is going the other way?

My own take. We’re still coming out of a severe macroeconomic down cycle, the credit crisis, deleveraging, and the liquidity trap. The prevailing pessimistic economic theories — the death of innovation, the crisis of inequality and yes, robots eating all the jobs — will fade with recovery.

(For bonus points, identify the other tech-driven economic force that could explain low productivity at a time of great tech advancement. My nomination — tech-driven price deflation lowers prices, reduces measured GDP and productivity, while boosting consumer welfare.)

My Reply to Paras X through BB:

I also believe that growth will shrink. Although I'll have to check the source, Piketty also said that growth will drop. This is not determined by whether we use robots or not, but by the growing concentration of wealth among a minority.

I confess I'm an armchair economist, but from what I can imagine, if a small group of people have a massive share of the wealth in this country, they are not exactly going to make it easy to give up their share.

Unless the culture of wealth changes from one of accumulation to one of distribution, nothing will change. I'm not saying how this distribution should happen, but as long as wealth sits in a bank and doesn't flow where ordinary people can access it by work or other ethical means, how can we reasonably expect anything to change?

Furthermore, the status that comes with possessing wealth is intoxicating. People change dramatically once they become a little bit rich if not a lot. They become bored, annoyed and entitled. Ever hear of the bourgeoisie? Or Madame Bovary?

If there is a threat to one's stash, even a perception of a threat, it shouldn't surprise anyone to what extent the wealthy and privileged are willing to go to thwart economic and political activities that can legitimately reduce differences in inequality.

To paraphrase Andrew Leonard, you can't be a hero with superpowers if everyone has superpowers like yours.

Another point to which I'd like respond is the idea of pessimistic economic theories. What makes these theories "pessimistic" and not realistic?

If someone is hemorrhaging in an ER room, a doctor isn't going to serve the patient by calling the injury a hangnail. "Oh, that's just a scratch, you'll forget all about it tomorrow." That's one shocking aspect of these arguments. If you can't agree that something serious is going on, then how can you realistically help solve the problem? This is what happens when everything in your life is going right. Your X-ray X-theory vision sees right through people who are hurting, as if they do not exist, as if they are the creators of their own demise by the way they conceive their economic injury.

"It's all in my head. OK, I'm just thinking negatively. That makes me feel better. Thanks!"

It sort of makes the entire argument of whether or not robots actually do eat jobs moot. I suggest looking at this in another way. If there is continual lack of growth, it won't matter if robots take the jobs, because no one who needs to work will be working, which means unless they are rich enough to survive stagnation, there will be no money to buy anything, which will continue to stifle growth.

The way to jump start growth is not to develop more robots, but to give people real, meaningful, worthwhile employment. Not that robots can't be useful, but unless robots start coming off the conveyor belt á la Attack of the Clones, and they are exceptionally cheap (yeah, cheap cheap cheap), and the conveyor belts they roll off are manned by people who can afford to buy the robots that they make, I'm not sure that robots are a meaningful part of the equation at this point in time, as intriguing as a future of robots in human society might be.

I can change my mind, but honestly? That's how I see it.

Paras CC through KK:

Thought experiment: Imagine a world in which all material needs are provided for free, by robots and material synthesizers.

Housing, energy, health care, food, and transportation – they’re all delivered to everyone for free by machines. Zero jobs in those fields remain.

Stick with me here. What would be the key characteristics of that world, and what would it be like to live in it? For starters, it’s a consumer utopia. Everyone enjoys a standard of living that kings and popes could have only dreamed of.

Since our basic needs are taken care of, all human time, labor, energy, ambition, and goals reorient to the intangibles: the big questions, the deep needs. Human nature expresses itself fully, for the first time in history. Without physical need constraints, we will be whoever we want to be.

The main fields of human endeavor will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, and adventure.

A planet of slackers you say. Not at all. Rather than nothing to do, we would have everything to do. Curiosity, artistic and scientific creativity have full rein resulting in new forms of status-seeking (!).

Imagine 6 billion or 10 billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be. The problem seems unlikely to be that we’ll get there too fast. The problem seems likely to be that we’ll get there too slow.

Utopian fantasy you say? OK, so then what’s your preferred long-term state? What else should we be shooting for, if not this?

Finally, note the thought experiment nature of this. Let’s be clear, this is an extrapolation of ideas, not a prediction for the next 50 years! And I am not talking about Marxism or communism, I’m talking about democratic capitalism to the nth degree. Nor am I postulating the end of money or competition or status seeking or will to power, rather the full extrapolation of each of those.

My Reply to Paras CC through FF:

Wow. Just wow.

I have to hand it to the bravado of posting such a thought sculpture. I'm not sure I would call it a thought experiment as experiments go. This is more a work of art.

I hate to break it to Mr. Andreesson, however a world where things just materialize is the world of the rich who don't have to consider where anything comes from. It just comes to them. But in that case, it isn't machines that aren't doing all the work, slaves are. You see, like robots in your thought sculpture, slaves don't have jobs because they are slaves, lucky if they get something to eat and a warm place to sleep.

Worlds like this have existed.

Like before the Civil War, in this country. Or in Dickensian England where children were charged with working in unsafe factories, though these working conditions were not limited to children. There are still parts of the world where people (not consumers) must work in horrible conditions that are invisible to us in the manufacture of the things that we enjoy, like computers for example. Remember Foxconn?

But let's put that aside.

What may not be obvious to you is that the leisure that the wealthy enjoy is the reason they have the freedom to do as they like to pursue what interests them. They have the time to play and experiment, the time to converse with experts, the time to just stare into the sky and think, they can take their time to sort it all out.

On the other hand, people in debt, people without networks of opportunity, people without the security and peace of mind to plan for tomorrow, people with no time, those people will never be able to develop their potentials.

To answer your apparently heartfelt questions:

Utopian fantasy you say? OK, so then what’s your preferred long-term state? What else should we be shooting for, if not this?

My preferred long-term state is to have a society that is socially and economically just.

It is one that jealously respects the individual's rights as long as no one else is harmed. I want a world that allows any person the right to decide for herself the path that is right for her.

In terms of your thought sculpture, what you describe is you deciding for her what she should do in your visions of the future and this may not be appropriate. As well-meaning as you might be, after you are gone, like Sam Walton, who had good intentions, is now gone, do you think your heirs will follow your dream or instead behave with privilege as his heirs have done?

You have forgotten that you are a mortal just like the rest of us.

With this in mind, I still have plenty of stock in the ideas set out at the founding of my country over 200 years ago, despite our privateering and slave-economies, and even though women were not much different than slaves by providing unpaid work within their families, even in this modern age.

If people would just use the tool of democracy, I think we would be OK. But the democracy you and I have today is one that is broken because of too much influence caused by an unequal distribution of wealth. Until we take money away as a distorting influence and we allow democracy to work for all citizens, we aren't going anywhere into the future, but we will return to the past. I promise you that.

Paras GG through OO (end):

This is probably a good time to say that I don’t believe robots will eat all the jobs.

Why do I believe that?

First, robots and AI are not nearly as powerful and sophisticated as I think people are starting to fear. Really. With my venture capital and technologist hat on I wish they were, but they’re not. There are enormous gaps between what we want them to do, and what they can do.

What that means is there is still an enormous gap between what many people do in jobs today, and what robots and AI can replace. And there will be for decades.

Second, even when robots and AI are far more powerful, there will still be many things that people can do that robots and AI can’t. For example: creativity, innovation, exploration, art, science, entertainment, and caring for others. We have no idea how to make machines do these.

Third, when automation is abundant and cheap, human experiences become rare and valuable. It flows from our nature as human beings. We see it all around us. The price of recorded music goes to zero, and the live music touring business explodes. The price of run-of-the-mill drip coffee drops, and the market for handmade gourmet coffee grows. You see this effect throughout luxury goods markets — handmade high-end clothes. This will extend out to far more consumers in future.

Fourth, just as most of us today have jobs that weren’t even invented 100 years ago, the same will be true 100 years from now. People 50, 100, 150, 200 years ago would marvel at the jobs that exist today; the same will be true 50, 100, 150, 200 years from now.

We have no idea what the fields, industries, businesses, and jobs of the future will be. We just know we will create an enormous number of them. Because if robots and AI replace people for many of the things we do today, the new fields we create will be built on the huge number of people those robots and AI systems made available. To argue that huge numbers of people will be available but we will find nothing for them (us) to do is to dramatically short human creativity.

And I am way long human creativity.

My reply to Paras GG through OO (end):

OK. So we come to the end of the essay. I want to thank Mr. A for the opportunity to let me critique his words piecemeal as I have here.

I suppose this is a little bit unconventional to go about it as I have, but I figure working in tech, he's got to be used to the unconventional. I hope you are too. Being open-minded isn't letting anything fly in, but rather thinking critically and asking questions. I have done that, haven't I?

I also thank you, dear reader. If I've captured your attention this long, well you deserve some kind of prize in endurance.

In the end, I also agree with Mr. Andreesson that robots will not eat all the jobs. I hope I've made it clear that a lot of the problems that we face is how we talk about problems, not always the content, but the contexts and how these are framed.

My reasons for dismissing the job-eating robots are different than @pmarca, however. Robots cannot truly care for people. Robots don't have language. They don't possess self-awareness. They will never understand human vernaculars which is always changing. I believe their obstacle for understanding is that they are not biological beings who are born and grow up in societies. They do not have a million years of evolution behind them. Robots don't sustain cultures and their memories do not include a meaning of history for themselves.

Furthermore, we don't require robots to make human experiences rare and valuable. This is a very strange thing to say.

         If (robots > humans) { ( human experience = = rare) }

Human experience is right now. It's not dependent upon anything but being human. It's not dependent upon robots doing things for us. The slight of hand that makes this illusion so convincing is that we believe that we can buy our experiences, or that we require X in order to be happy. That is the fundamental human problem.

That's why I disagree that automation and reduced prices will provide me happiness. Live music, artisan coffee, and haute couture at low prices is not what will save us from ourselves.

I agree with you that we cannot know what kind of jobs will be available to us, because it is likely that jobs will continue to be disappear. What alarms me is that the creation of jobs tomorrow will also disappear the day after tomorrow. Employment for one day even if at a high salary won't help anyone. So what I wonder is how do we plan our lives if we have no sound method of interpreting what the future will bring?

Economic violence is the problem. Not robots. Not AI. If people knew they were safe from the humiliation of poverty, whether as a reality or a threat, there might be more happy flag-waving crowds welcoming the advancement of technology. The problem is that people, ordinary people, don't have that point of view.

Mr. A, I am interested in knowing less about robots and more about these enormous number of jobs you say will be created in the future. Since you are an industry leader, or at least considered one, I'd liked to have seen more of your essay describing in earnest and with good information, which you must have at your disposal, what those jobs would be like. I would love to have that conversation with you, and I'm sure many people would.

The problem is not that people aren't innovative or that they aren't creative. The problem we face today is that ordinary people face increasing obstacles to meet their basic needs, to eradicate debt, to participate freely in society as they wish, and generally to create a feeling of safety for themselves. If these elements are present in their lives, the space and the leisure time they require for creativity to take hold will take hold.

And that's why, like you, I have a lot of stock on human creativity. Unfortunately, I'm not optimistic that everyone (I mean everyone when I say everyone) will be given the conditions they require to develop their potentials so that they can share their gifts with everyone else. That is Utopia.

Now, if you have any superpowers to unleash what might solve these particular baffling quandaries, I'm quite eager to know what they are. Please.

Related Links to Connect Your Dots

Links from the Essay

1/A Tweetstorm in Four Parts - 23 May 2014

Moore's Law
Wikipedia - Accessed 06.16.14

The tech industry’s God complex is getting out of control - Silicon Valley's brightest stars are increasingly swept up in the fantasy that technology will give us superpowers - Jun 13, 2014

This is Probably a Good Time to Say That I Don’t Believe Robots Will Eat All Jobs - The Robot Tweetstorms by @pmarca - Jun 13, 2014

The Disruption Machine - What the gospel of innovation gets wrong
The New Yorker Magazine - June 23, 2014

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Good - Accessed 06.16.14

Hobson's Choice
Wikipedia - Accessed 06.16.14

Wikipedia - Accessed 06.16.14

Computerworld Magazine Homepage - Accessed 06.16.14

The History of Walmart
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

Milton Friedman
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

George Lakoff
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

The U.S. Constitution
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

Freedom of Speech - Accessed 6.16.14

The Number 42
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

Double Speak
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

Logan's Run Movie Poster
The Internet Movie Database - Accessed 6.16.14

A Room of One's Own
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.25.14

Martha Farrah's Faculty Page
University of Pennsylvania - Accessed 6.16.14

The Legend of John Henry
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

All Our Patents Are Belong to You
Tesla Motors Blog - Accessed 6.16.14

IMF slashes estimate for US economic growth in 2014 - The annual review cut its growth forecast to 2%, citing a harsh winter and problems in housing market
The Guardian - 6 June 2014

Where's the Automation in the Productivity Accounts?
"On the Economy" - Jared Bernstein's Blog - June 5th, 2014

The Bourgeoisie
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

Madame Bovary
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

Attack of the Clones
Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

Wikipedia - Accessed 6.16.14

Wealth and Democracy
Good - Accessed 6.16.14

Additional Links of Interest