For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky

If you drive down Gower Street out here it ends at Melrose Avenue, and on your left there’s that giant concrete globe on top of the old RKO building – like you used to see as the RKO movie started. That’s where Fred and Ginger danced – their Rio and their London were inside that building, part of Paramount Studios now. And the giant Paramount complex stretches far off to the east – when you’re stopped at the light there you can see all the numbered soundstages all in a row. And the massive one nearest you was home to the franchise that kept the studio afloat for decades – Star Trek, and its sequels and variants, and the Star Trek movies. The bridge of the Enterprise was in there. And Star Trek was Paramount’s bread and butter. It turned out that America had an insatiable appetite for somewhat utopian and somewhat topical science fiction – with aliens and robots and ethical conflicts masked in clumsy metaphor. It’s easier to face the problems of this world if everyone is green or reptilian or whatever. It’s real, but it’s not real. People ate it up.

And a typical Star Trek episode might be For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky – the eighth episode of the third season, from November 1968. You see, the crew of the Enterprise rush to stop an asteroid from colliding with a Federation world, but discover the asteroid is actually an inhabited generational ship, run by a supercomputer of course, the Oracle computer as it turns out. The people thought it was a god, but it is just a control device programmed to maintain the greatest good for the greatest number. Drat – and now it’s dangerous. Of course Captain Kirk and his buddies disable it with the oldest trick in the book, for science fiction movies. They force this Oracle computer to work on a question where there’s an impossible to resolve logical contradiction, and it burns itself out trying, with smoke and fire and everything. You’ve seen that in a hundred science fiction movies. It’s a cheap and lazy plot device. But that hardly matters – this isn’t Ibsen – and this forty-eight minute episode ends with a lot of talk about human freedom, and thinking for yourself, and working things out on your own, which while hard is wonderful, and so on. You don’t need that Oracle computer. The natives are skeptical of course, and now wary and frightened, but the white men from the stars have freed them, even if the natives don’t like it so much. And they don’t have much choice – the Oracle is sitting there smoldering. So they have to accept the Freedom Agenda of the guys from far away, the superior white men, who stormed in uninvited and destroyed their world as they knew it, as their world had become a weapon of mass destruction after all. This was for their own good – everyone can see that. But the pre-Bush condescending imperialism aside, the issue at hand was how dangerous computers are, or will be one day. Our freedom is at stake. And secondarily, one day it will be hard to decide what is human, or divine, and what is just good programming, raising the issue of whether we really need inefficient humans doing things at all. Humans do screw up.

Actually the title was better than the show – the whole thing was hardly subtle and nuanced. It was junk television. But they kept coming back to this theme – in a Star Trek spinoff they introduced a character named Data – an android programmed so wonderfully he might really be human. And he was certainly competent at everything. And he started to develop feelings – real emotion. And he was kind of lovable. That was creepy. Was he the future? Would we someday be unnecessary? No human could do what Data could – and he was turning out to be a cool guy. That was troubling. And he had a pet cat he doted on – that was even creepier. It seems the Star Trek folks kept making the same episode, over and over, exploring all this. At some point we will be unnecessary – and not even ornamental.

Over forty years have passed since those hapless folks on that asteroid were forced to confront the fact that their world was hollow and what they thought was pleasant reality was only pretty good programming, and it seems now it’s our turn. Consider what Paul Krugman says about the jobs of the future:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that education is the key to economic success. Everyone knows that the jobs of the future will require ever higher levels of skill. That’s why, in an appearance Friday with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Obama declared that “If we want more good news on the jobs front then we’ve got to make more investments in education.”

But what everyone knows is wrong.

We may actually be irrelevant and unnecessary, you see. Education is nice and all, but it seems to matter less and less, as Krugman notes that the day after the Obama-Bush event, the Times published this article on increasing use of software to do legal research:

Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers.

And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design. More broadly, the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.

Data can do the job, and no one is safe from irrelevancy. And as Krugman says, the data support this:

The fact is that since 1990 or so the U.S. job market has been characterized not by a general rise in the demand for skill, but by “hollowing out” – both high-wage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs – the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class – have lagged behind. And the hole in the middle has been getting wider: many of the high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have seen much slower growth recently, even as growth in low-wage employment has accelerated.

Of course it’s not like the newly unemployed are going to be walking around muttering “for the world is hollow and I have touched the sky” – but they could. What people believed turns out to be useless:

The belief that education is becoming ever more important rests on the plausible-sounding notion that advances in technology increase job opportunities for those who work with information – loosely speaking, that computers help those who work with their minds, while hurting those who work with their hands.

Some years ago, however, the economists David Autor, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argued that this was the wrong way to think about it. Computers, they pointed out, excel at routine tasks, “cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules.” Therefore, any routine task – a category that includes many white-collar, non-manual jobs – is in the firing line. Conversely, jobs that can’t be carried out by following explicit rules – a category that includes many kinds of manual labor, from truck drivers to janitors – will tend to grow even in the face of technological progress.

And you could have seen this coming:

Most of the manual labor still being done in our economy seems to be of the kind that’s hard to automate. Notably, with production workers in manufacturing down to about 6 percent of U.S. employment, there aren’t many assembly-line jobs left to lose. Meanwhile, quite a lot of white-collar work currently carried out by well-educated, relatively well-paid workers may soon be computerized. Roombas are cute, but robot janitors are a long way off; computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis are already here.

And then there’s globalization. Once, only manufacturing workers needed to worry about competition from overseas, but the combination of computers and telecommunications has made it possible to provide many services at long range. And research by my Princeton colleagues Alan Blinder and Alan Krueger suggests that high-wage jobs performed by highly educated workers are, if anything, more “offshorable” than jobs done by low-paid, less-educated workers. If they’re right, growing international trade in services will further hollow out the U.S. job market.

By the way, this is a Roomba – the little robot that vacuums your floors all on its own. But all of this other stuff is not what people expected, and Krugman says we need to rethink public policy:

Yes, we need to fix American education. In particular, the inequalities Americans face at the starting line – bright children from poor families are less likely to finish college than much less able children of the affluent – aren’t just an outrage; they represent a huge waste of the nation’s human potential.

But there are things education can’t do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.

So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer – we’ll have to go about building that society directly.

And then he gets specific:

We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.

What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages.

But maybe he should not have gotten that specific about unions, as Matthew Yglesias offers this:

That said, this is why I’ve been saying that yoga instructors have the job of the future. Nothing in these trends suggests that the actual quantity of janitors is going to increase in the future. If anything, falling demand for office workers implies that the future can have fewer. So is the future a smallish number of wealthy office workers served by an “aristocracy of labor” of unionized janitors awash in a pool of unemployed people enjoying free health care?

Presumably not. The people of the future will be richer than the people of today, and therefore will more closely resemble annoying yuppies. Nicer restaurants are more labor-intensive than cheap ones, and the further up the scale you go the more specialized skills (think sommelier) come into play. Annoying yuppies take yoga classes, or even hire personal trainers. Artisanal cheese is more labor-intensive to produce than industrial cheese. More people will hire interior designers and people will get their kitchens redone more often. There will be more personal shoppers and more policemen. People will get fancier haircuts.

But this is where he thinks education does get back into the picture:

Most of these are jobs that require some skills. Personal services generally exist on a spectrum between “things a person might hire someone else to do because it’s a pain in the ass” and “things a person might hire someone else to do because it’s difficult to do it well.”

So he says you hire a maid because you don’t want to clean the toilet, but if you want a gourmet meal, well, you go to a place where someone really highly trained does things right, or to that master yoga teacher, who knows all there is to know about such things, and can impart it to others:

That sounds like “education” to me, though not necessarily the kind of education we’re handing out.

Well, that’s the way it is, and Kevin Drum has personal experience with this:

You know those thin copper lines on circuit boards that connect all the chips together? Creating those lines is called routing, and back when I first joined the high-tech world in the mid-80s, routing was done at my company by a room full of pretty skilled, pretty well paid pros. Engineers would compete to get their projects assigned to one router over another, because some of them had an especially good reputation for being able to perform complex routes quickly and efficiently. It was as much art as science.

Within a decade, it was all science and autorouting software had pretty much taken over the job. Humans were barely involved. The same thing has happened in the document world. Defendants in civil cases used to try to bury opposing lawyers during discovery by handing over truckloads of documents and hoping they would never be able to find the one or two damning documents in the bunch. Then high-speed scanners came along, and in big cases lawyers would send the whole pile of discovery documents to a service bureau, get the whole mess scanned and OCRed, [optical character recognition] and then do keyword searches. It was great. Later, software got more intelligent and more sophisticated and humans were less and less involved.

But Drum says it’s not quite time to worry yet:

It’s useful to think of two big challenges in the world of artificial intelligence. The first is creating analytic ability. This is what Watson did on Jeopardy or what Deep Blue did in chess. The second is emulating the sensory perceptions of human beings. This is, if anything, even harder. Humans are extremely good at looking around a room, identifying objects, figuring out what they are, and then doing something about it. A robot that, say, was designed to go from room to room emptying wastebaskets would need only a modest amount of analytic ability but a huge amount of sensory ability. Right now we’re not really very close to getting there.

Still, it’s not clear to me just how far apart progress is on these fronts. It’s probably true that analytic ability is further along, but mainly because you don’t need to have a human level of analytic ability to be useful. A modest amount that merely does some of the prep work and reduces the number of hours it takes to do something is pretty handy. Sensory ability is a little different: you really do need something pretty close to full human capability to be very useful in an independent environment. So if I had to guess, I’d say that analytic ability will progress steadily, while sensory ability will remain largely limited and experimental until it gets to a useful level, at which point it will suddenly burst out of the lab and seemingly be everywhere within just a few years. This may still be a decade or two away, but really, that’s not a very long time.

Over the past few years, my guess about how soon truly useful AI will be available has gone down. Human level AI may still be quite a ways away (I don’t really know), but AI useful enough to create massive economic dislocations might well be no more than a decade away. Maybe two at the most.

Don’t worry now, but the clock is ticking, for the world is hollow – or getting there soon enough.

And Ezra Klein raises another issue, which is how we adapt psychologically:

A few years ago, I went searching for a science fiction story that I’d read as a kid and never forgotten. It was about a society in which most of the work of production was handled by machines, and as such, most of the members of society were classified as “artists.” The story, “Melancholy Elephants” by Spider Robinson, turned out to be more pedantic and repetitive than I’d recalled, but it’s asking the right question: How do you keep morale up in an economy when more people are simply less necessary than they used to be?

That’s a harder question to answer than “how do you make sure everyone has access to medical care?” But for a substantial fraction of the population – not a majority, but certainly millions and millions of people – it’s an increasingly pressing one. People get trained for a job in their twenties, and then, in their forties, that industry gets disrupted by technology, or sent to China, and even if some of those people find jobs again, they tend to be at a lower level – a drop in status and perceived usefulness that’s psychologically devastating.

This is a question for not only the future, but given the number of long-term unemployed in the economy right now, the present. And it’s not a question that we have any very good answers for.

And the whole thing is kind of like living through an episode of an old Star Trek show. The world turns out to be hollow. What we thought made sense and offered stability doesn’t. And just how did Captain Kirk explain that was a good thing, and we’ll really like it? We’re free? Yeah, and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Thanks to Janis Joplin everyone knows that too. All the answers are in pop culture. They’re just the wrong answers.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky

  1. Hey, there. I was turned on to your site by a friend of my sister’s on FB. I swing by every once in a while to see what’s shakin’. This post hit a sore spot for me, as someone who is looking to hire people.

    In the past month, I’ve looked at more than a dozen resumes (and thrown out dozens more) by people who should be more or less schooled enough in computer science to perform the tasks I need done. The resumes look like a course syllabus with no actual work done, nothing to show for at the end except what was made in the class. Maybe it’s crazy of me to expect more, but I feel that when I have a new tool in my hand (my favorite recent addition was the FuBar “Universal Wrecking Tool”), I am required by my personality to put it into use, test it out, and improve my abilities with it. (Several tons of plaster and lathe later…) These people, with more schooling than I, have no drive whatsoever to actually do. They are going to school to get a degree, not to learn.

    I think the biggest shame about the pace of technology, changes in the workplace, computer automation, etc., etc., is that we’ve lost a key facet of the language of our youth: “I want to be a fireman,” “I want to be a space pilot,” or hell, even “I want to be a fairy princess.” Whatever it is, that “be” is looked down upon: “how dare the label ‘fireman’ try to encapsulate me as a person! I’m more than my job!” Well, maybe you’re more than your job simply because you’re in the wrong job, and that job isn’t the logical expression of your self.

    Reading your post, I keep thinking back to Wells’ Time Machine. This split in our society, the widening gulf, is turning us into the Eloi and Morloch, with the former getting their nails done twice a week, doing nothing, and the other forcibly ejected from manicured lawns for lack of a green card. This movement is being enforced by the idea of a job simply being something you do, not a facet or an expression of who you are: “I’m not a lawnmower; it’s just something I do to afford beer money.”

    Contrast that, however, with one bright, shining light: I received a phone call from (literally) a friend of a friend of a friend. They were schooled in an unrelated field, didn’t like the work, and have decided to pick up programming. They loved it so much, they wanted to work in the field and were looking for help getting started without having to go back to school. In the several weeks I’ve been working with this person, they have created a larger body of work (on the side, at nights) than all the resumes I’ve viewed combined. It’s amazing: several weeks of learning by someone who loves what they do is easily able to eclipse 50-something combined years of learning by people for whom computer science is simply a set of tasks that will enable them to pay the bills.

    I’m going to take a stab at some theses to my rambling mess:
    – Technology isn’t bad. It is simply an enabler: enabling us to get a beer after work, enabling us to spend more time w/ our families (and this is speaking from the perspective of someone w/ two struggling startups and 15 hours of work a day), enabling us not to die at 30 from a heart-attack.
    – The question of automation necessarily excluding human hands is a red herring to me. Someone made that automation, and no matter how sophisticated Watson is, there is still 50-some Wizard of Ozes pulling the strings to his puppet.
    – We live in a society where automation enables us to find the thing we love to do. Without this automation, we’d be out in the fields tending to our flock or cutting the wheat.
    – People who love what they do are naturally inclined to do better in it, take pride in their work, and grow. People that don’t love what they do lament the inexorable stretching of automation, waiting dreadfully for the day that their work will no longer be required.

    PS Sorry for the ramble.

    • Alan says:

      Cool – but no need to apologize for rambling – it’s what I do, about three thousand words each evening. As for you main contention, yes, people should do what they really want to do. In the mid-eighties I fell into programming, and loved it. And it seems I was good at it, even if I was pretty much entirely self-taught. But the inevitable happened – they moved my up to management, directing the work of other hot-shot programmers – and planning and budgeting and going to endless meetings about strategic direction and team building. After two decades of that I’d had enough – the money was grand but my heart wasn’t in it and I felt like a fraud – and maybe I was. And having been outsourced twice – suddenly finding myself a CSC guy, and then years later suddenly finding myself a Perot Systems guy, I walked away. The whole business was soul-crushing. I later jumped in again, but as happens, through another upheaval the job disappeared into thin air. As Krugman notes, the whole industry was being hollowed out. At one point it was the middle-of-the night chats with the programming team in India – it was morning there of course. But it’s always morning somewhere.

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