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In the Age of AI, Is Unemployment a Disease or the Cure?
Thinking about AI, jobs, digital dystopia, and liberation from wage slavery, with help from Robert Anton Wilson
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
A question for our mutual consideration: Is AI-fueled job destruction a threat or an opportunity?
Those who know me are well aware that I have ridden the digital doomer-dystopian tech horse pretty hard over the years. Even a brief visit to my old Teeming Brain blog will turn up ample evidence of this. See, for instance, the tag cloud in the right sidebar, where the largest item is “apocalypse watch,” and where “dystopia” and “technopoly” are also prominent. Given this, the current explosion of cultural conversation, much of it distinctly apocalyptic, over the rise of ChatGPT and its implications for pretty much everything (education, big tech, publishing, religion, the economy), has naturally caught my attention and engaged/inflamed that old apocalyptic impulse.
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But in addition to being a digital dystopia hobbyist, I’m also a lifelong fan and student of the late, great, sorely missed Robert Anton Wilson. And this means that when I tune into the impassioned and somewhat frenetic cultural conversation that has arisen around all these things in relation to the meta-subject of jobs—“How ChatGPT Could Lead to ‘Mass Unemployment,’” shrieks one recent headline—I can’t help remembering RAW’s subversive (in our mega-capitalist culture) and vociferous argument that “unemployment is not a disease, but the natural, healthy functioning of an advanced technological society.” The rise of high technology, he said, can mean the end of wage slavery, if we will only recognize and act upon the opportunity it presents.
Implement a guaranteed annual income. Create a government-sponsored system of financial/material reward for anybody who can invent a machine that will do his or her job. Use tech to free ourselves from bondage to the Stone Age concept of workers and masters. Recognize that our collective mania for jobs is actually the unconscious functioning of an embedded master-slave program that we call “the work ethic.” Understand that the end of jobs, traditionally conceived, could mean an explosive and pervasive flowering of human creativity and Maslovian self-realization. All this, Wilson says, is ours for the taking if we will just summon the wisdom and will to take it.
His prediction of the results of such a program is winningly optimistic:
Delivered from the role of things and robots, people will learn to become fully-developed persons, in the sense of the Human Potential movement. They will not seek work out of economic necessity, but out of psychological necessity as an outlet for their creative potential. . . .
As Bucky Fuller says, the first thought of people, once they are delivered from wage-slavery, will be, ‘What was it that I was so interested in as a youth, before I was told I had to earn a living?’ The answer to that question, coming from millions and then billions of persons liberated from mechanical toil, will make the Renaissance look like a tempest in a teapot.
Note that the full essay where these words appear is available online. Or, for a more stable version, see its alternative (original) incarnation as “The RICH Economy” in Wilson’s The Illuminati Papers.
Words like these represent forthrightly utopian thinking. They may also represent distinctly and even dangerously naive thinking, especially in light of our transformation into a society ruled by surveillance capitalism in the 45 years since RAW wrote them. This transformation has progressed even further, and has sharply accelerated, in just the 16 years since his death.
But still, even as I recognize all this with cold clarity, Bob’s words continue to move me as much today as they did when I first read them in my early 20s. Cognitive dissonance? Yeah, I’ve got plenty of it, thank you.
I have opened the comments section on this post to everyone, including non-subscribers, in case anybody wants to weigh in. My extemporaneous thoughts above don’t represent a conclusion so much as an expression of inability to reach one. I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on these things.
A housekeeping note: Beginning with this post and going forward, I’m adopting a free-form publishing schedule. When I launched TLD last fall, I announced that I would publish posts on Wednesdays with a frequency of at least every other week, but often more frequently than that. As it turns out, I’ve been able to maintain a weekly schedule, plus a handful of posts on the weekend. Four months in, a flow has established itself, and I’m feeling an organic leading to send out a post whenever the motivation suggests itself. I will also move a bit toward posting shorter entries, with occasional longer ones.
Thank you sincerely to all of my subscribers, both free and paid, for your interest and support.