Future of Work, PBS America, writer, director and producer Laurens Grant.

Future of Work, PBS America, writer, director and producer Laurens Grant.

In this three-part series, The New Industrial Age, Future Proof, Changing Work, Changing Workers, Laurens Grant looks at the Future of Work. If you fell asleep while reading this far you are quite safe, because I’m not artificially intelligent. I’m not even intelligent. My feeble powers of fiction and non-fiction have already been far outstripped. Economics is a better bet. Quite a simple science, easy to read, with the rider that John Maynard Keynes suggested it’s not a science. The answer is demand and the question is supply. The opportunity cost is where the money meets. In It Ain’t Half Hot Mum which around 15 million viewers used to watch on BBC 1 in the late 1970s, for example, a running gag was the Punkawallah. A stereotypical half-naked Indian in a dirty turban whose big toe was tied to a piece of string which he rocked back and forth and powered an overhead fan. Look how primitive rural Indians were was the joke. The opportunity cost of a Punkawallah was electricity and a motor. But if human labour is so cheap, it makes more sense economically to employ a Punkawallah. As the price of labour rises and super-intelligent machines become cheaper the opportunity cost favours the latter and not the former.  We’re all Punkawallahs now working harder for less. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend.

Sweat bands and Bruce Springsteen in Steeltown, Pittsburgh, Byron August, for example, suggested that in the 1970s in the United States, while we were watching It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, 90% of American children born then could expect to have a better income than their mums and dads.  By 2000, 50% of children born to that cohort could expect to outstrip the earning power of mum and dad. Baby We Were Born to Run.

Rust-bucket states and outsourcing as capital went abroad seeking ever-increasing labour costs. Jobs were lost and hours were cut. The American Dream was remarketed in the blame game of political fiction, and the great replacement theory which saw the rise and fall of the moron’s moron as the first and last President to suggest injecting disinfectant as a cure-all for a virus.

Dr Jeff Rediger, in his book Cured, has an optimistic outlook on the future of medicine. In his radiant future, medical practitioners will spend more time with their patients. Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is a synonym for Pattern Recognition, will be able to read breast cancer screening incidences and probabilities better than any human, and already does. Robots will do the surgery remotely, with the aid of a surgeon. But he or she too will be replaced by AI. Machine thinking will complement machine doing. The robot cleaning the ward floors and delivering meals will be single purpose and modular in the same way as the self-driving car or drone. But when our fridge is connected to the shops which deliver food and medicine it doesn’t need a genius to work out that companies like Amazon will run our NHS. The step after that is when machine learning and machine doing work it out for themselves and not just to increase shareholder value to the 1% that own pretty much everything and us with it.

Here we step out of Future Work and into the dystopian, cuckoo-in-the-next world of Nick Bostron. In the 1950s, Alan Turing of Bletchley Park and Enigma code-cracking, like his middle-class countryman, George Orwell saw the future by design. Professor Stuart Russell of Berkley, California quotes Turing:

‘The first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided the machine is docile enough to keep it under control.’  

Futureproofing looks pointless, but we’ve still got to live. The nine-to-five regular job that paid the rent, put the kids through school and left enough for medical emergencies and retirement still exists, but for increasingly fewer people. Education and adaptation are the buzzwords here. The American high-school diploma that took those into work from the 1950s to the 1970s was enough to build a white-picket fence, home and middle-class life. The GI- Bill and grade inflation mean a college degree is the minimum needed to put workers in the job carousel. But then, of course, there are more workers with doctorates working in Walmart on minimum wage than ever before, which is our new normal.

Changing Work and Changing Workers has, for example, Xian Flores working longer hours at home during the pandemic and finding she worked more efficiently. Michael Tubbs, Stockton Mayor of California, with a twenty-percent-unemployment rate and a fear of civic bankruptcy, piloting a payment of universal credit. Tomas Vargas, a landscaper, for example, receiving $500 a month, regardless of whether he works or doesn’t. Then there’s Carl Francis, who sold his home and bought and his new home and put it on wheels, and travels looking for work with his wife and kid in their Recreational Vehicle. Others that go further afield working on their laptops from Thailand and Vietnam were the rents are much cheaper. From The Grapes of Wrath dust bowl and the Okies trading up, mule power to the promise of plenty, and enough time to sit about eating grapes, nothing new here. Move along folks. Move along. I fear I’ve already been left behind. Nothing new about that either.   

Colson Whitehead (2016) The Underground Railway.

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Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway was a winner of The National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017. There’s not a lot of room on the front cover for namedropping, but Barrack Obama describes the book as ‘Terrific’ and the New York Review of Books, ‘Dazzling’.

I guess it resonates for a number of reasons. In some ways the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia in the nineteenth century, before the American Civil War is a Bildungsroman. It deals with her formative years and that of the American nation. A Hobbesian world in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  It’s six years, for example, since her mother left, when the novel begins Cora’s narrative, which makes her around sixteen. Jokey, the oldest slave in the plantation, possibly the world, is fifty-two he said, but negroes birthdays aren’t kept track of, and it’s two years since she had been ‘seasoned’, which is another way of saying held down by young black bucks and gang raped. This isn’t a kind of black Jane Eyre, although issues of class are overwritten by issues of ethnicity and race which provide a kind of moral justification for actions. The white man was the devil, but the black man was the devil too.

‘This was a world there was no place to escape to, only places to flee from.’

The cotton crop was as important to the American South as oil is to Saudi Arabia and was built on the back of the genocide of the Indian nations and the labour of Africans stolen from across the seas. To be black was not to be a person, but a thing. There’s a cruel joke here that a black man is only treated a person when dead and his body sold to medical schools for student dissection. And Cora’s nemesis, the slave tracker, Ridgeway, never referred to a slave as a person but as an ‘it’.

Ridgeway’s eugenic ideology is the kind of the thing trumpeted by Trump supporters. Cora is a suitable test of his skills because she dared to escape, as her mother did before her. The only slave Ridgeway never returned to his master. The Fugitive Slave law allowed him to cross state lines and he had a legal right, much like bounty hunters and bond bailsmen have today, to return property to its owner. Where Cora ran, Ridgeway followed.

But here we have what a writer’s conceit, in that the Underground Railway that helped slaves escape from their brutal masters was not figurative, but actual. A railway network ran underneath the state lines of America, much like the subway system runs underneath London. We have moved from traditional narrative to something more surreal, bordering on science-fiction.

Lumbley’s words returned to her [Cora]: If you want to see what the nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.

Cora, like many of the hobos of 1920s and 1930s rode the lines, trying to find a better and more forgiving place. A utopian world, predating John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ were Okies could not make a living or find freedom and were black people were invisible.

This then is also a novel that holds a different kind of mirror up to America. Cora’s America is a place built on genocide and slavery which sells fear as a panacea and people as things. A free black man walks different from a slave. The distant pass isn’t that far whatever way you travel. Trump that?