kortina.nyc / notes
22 May 2018 | by kortina

Kortina // Work, Art, and Dignity in the Face of AI and Mass Automation

Her (2013).

Warning: the AV quality of this video is not the greatest — sorry! Last weekend, I had the opportunity to speak at FORM with Josh Constine about how accelerating progress in AI and mass automation might change the way we think about work, art, and human dignity. (sidebar: __Arcosanti_ is a pretty incredible place that I had never heard of before this event, and I highly recommend checking it out.)_

Preparing for this talk got me to zoom out and identify a bunch of the common themes that have been running through my thinking and writing for the past few years. In this post, I want to connect the dots between some of these essays, provide a little map organizing them, and link to some related works I recommend if you’re interested in these topics.


Anne Hall. One of my favorite professors in college who taught ‘great books’ style seminars used to ask us about every work that we read, “what is the author’s idea of human dignity?” This is a question I find myself using as a framework for trying to understand pretty much all literature, film, and art. It has also become increasingly clear to me that it’s been a framework I use to understand social systems and trends, in both directions of causality: on the one hand, how might this behavior / trend / structure shape our ideas of dignity, and, on the other hand, what underlying view of dignity might have led to a particular behavior / trend / structure? Under what context might such a view of dignity been useful to humanity / a civilization?

Map of My Writing on Work / Dignity / AI

“They Say the #1 Killer of Old People is Retirement”. A thought experiment about finding dignity post-retirement, which sort of pre-supposes a strong link between dignity and work. Looking back at this now, I think this is partly inspired by my own fear of imminent obsolescence.

Panem et Circenses. Just like other industries, the media industry and attention economy has become increasingly industrialized. The structural problems (tyranny of the masses) and psychological effects (alienation of participants) of mass media are also the broader problems of modern democracy / capitalism.

Metrics, Incrementalism, and Local Maxima. Metrics are an incredible tool for motivating individuals and groups to make progress towards a particular goal. But, (i) they can also deprive you of your source of free will, and (ii) they can lead you far astray, get you stuck in local maxima, or stifle innovation if they’re not precisely aligned with your actual goals.

Free Will, Techno-Determinism, and Panache. Many companies (particularly those in Silicon Valley), advertise work as a source of meaning. This (i) is questionable, if you subscribe to technological determinism and believe all of the progress will happen independent of the involvement of any specific actor and (ii) will exacerbate the risk of mass despair if larger and larger numbers of the labor class (both white and blue collar) see their jobs and primary source of meaning taken away from them and performed by software. Perhaps we can escape alienation through panache?

Techno-Industrial Alienation, Craft, and The Calculus of Form. Ascribing meaning to craft and attention to detail dignifies means above ends, and seems to be a potential distraction and impediment to human progress (at least while there are new discoveries to be made by humans).

If We Were All Buddhists, Life Would End When the Sun Burns Out. Similarly, it seems like a mistake to ascribe the highest forms of meaning and dignity to individual experience (again, while there are problems to solve that require human attention).

The Beautiful Struggle // The Beautiful Game. Here, I begin to understand that my attitudes towards the dignity of craft and experience are perhaps not absolute, but a function of personal values which are themselves a function of a particular context — ie, it is natural to celebrate work and output under conditions of scarcity. Under conditions of abundance, where software and robots are capable of satisfying all basic human needs, ascribing dignity to doing things that are useful for the species could become outdated. In such a world, finding meaning in experience or craft does not seem as objectionable.

Consciousness as Computation // Learning from Deep Learning and Information Theory. One of the easiest responses to the question about what people will do and find meaning in once machines do all the work is ‘art.’ This is a survey of a bunch of the reading I have done recently on deep learning, which makes me skeptical that humans will be able to compete with machines at producing art when they can no longer compete with machines for work. Perhaps people will find meaning in sand mandala style art, but I would argue that this is more finding meaning in experience than in producing art as most of us think of it today.

Controlling International Trade with a ‘Crypto Customs’ Bureau // The End of National Labor Politics. Some thinking about the economics of the imminent Information Age industrial revolution, labor politics, and proposed solutions like Basic Income.

Who Owns the Future? Jaron Lanier is one of the most insightful thinkers I have read on labor and capital in the Information Age industrial revolution, current trends, and where things are headed. I’m not sure I buy his proposal for intellectual property rights for data exhaust as the solution, but nonetheless this book is definitely worth a read.

The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. To prep for the talk at Arcosanti, I went back and read some Marx. Specifically, I was interested in what Marx had to say about the psychological implications (viz, alienation) of industrialization and technological determinism. In many ways, a lot of the present day conversation about the economic and psychological implications of AI and mass automation are a re-run of conversations that happened during the industrial revolution.

Technological Unemployment: Much More Than You Wanted To Know. Lots of data and good thinking from Slate Star Codex (who, fwiw, concludes “I just don’t see the signs of technological unemployment” so much as “underemployment” in the data).

A World Without Work. When we were prepping for our talk, Josh pointed me to this sweeping essay from the Atlantic about the implications of technological unemployment. There are a bunch of good stats and anecdotes in here about some of the things already happening in the US labor market.

Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor E. Frankl gives a first hand account of living in German concentration camps, and posits a path to meaning outside of work, beauty, art, or nature:

An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.

What else should be on this list? Let me know.

Coda. A final thought I had on the talk that occurred after we discussed one of my favorite thought exercises in the Q+A, “what will be the last human job?” — gratitude?

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