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November 13th, 2006


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02:08 pm - Musings on labor, agriculture, and nature
In This post and the responses in my college friend heronheart's journal, the following exchange too place:

Me: "Meanwhile, I love the idea of completely automated agriculture where human involvement is only required to test the food and service the equipment."

heronheart: "Can you expand on why this is so emotionally attractive to you? I'm not trying to attack, I'm actually curious about this. It's one of those things I wonder about our culture but can only theorize about since it's so foreign to me."

I posted the following response and was quite pleased at how clearly I managed to present my general thoughts on labor, nature, and the human future. Here is this response:

I regard mindless & near-mindless menial labor (which makes up the majority of agricultural work) as not something humans should be doing. From my PoV, menial labor should be reserved for machines and hobbies, not as a way that a sentient being must make a living or (more ideally) satisfy their labor obligations to the state, I regard it as beneath sentients.

Beyond that, I also very much like the idea that the essentials of human survival are all completely automated because that means that poverty is essentially ended. One of the hard limits on production is having to pay labor. Automated labor does not need to be paid and if energy costs can be reduced (relatively easy by a wide variety of fairly obvious methods involving low cost renewable energy that sadly are not being used) and machinery can be built to last for a moderately long time, then production costs plummet and goods produced in this manner can be made one of the benefits (like health care) that a civilized government provides to its citizens for minimal or no cost.

People will continue to create value and scarcity, because that's one of the things we do, the thriving market in antiques and collectibles clearly demonstrates that. However, there is a difference in collectible baseballs being scarce and AIDs drugs or housing being scarce. From my PoV, the only truly humane society is one where the necessities of life (including food) have ceased to be scare.

In the short term, I'm interested in improving society, but in the long term, I want a post-scarcity, post-human socialist world. Automating things like farming is an excellent step in that direction (at least until someone figures out how to create food via self-replicating nanotech, if such proves to be possible). I find the idea of people having to dig in the earth to grow food that they or others need to survive to be utterly barbaric. Automation can also help remove natural problems like weather (my ideal agriculture (assuming the nanotech option doesn't pan out) is actually some sort of organic hydroponics). I fundamentally don't trust nature and wish to separate humanity from it as much as possible, because nature thrives on scarcity, inefficiency and other problems.

This in no way means I wish to eliminate or reduce wild nature, far from it, just to separate humans and human civilization from it, except as a place to visit. My ideal world would have a couple billion people and large wilderness areas that by law were declared to be pristine areas, so that visits were fine, but people would be required to pick up after themselves (with some especially robust robotics taking care of repairing serious problems like artificially caused forest fires, and also managing the wilderness in the event that this was needed).
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

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Comments:


[User Picture]
From:alobar
Date:November 13th, 2006 10:37 pm (UTC)
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> I regard mindless & near-mindless menial labor
> (which makes up the majority of agricultural work)
> as not something humans should be doing.

Are you also against menial near-minless work of those who work in corporate cubicles? How about factory workers?

In the abstract I can agree with you about wanting an end to minless drudge work. However, I feel automation of low end jobs is putting the cart before the horse.

There is also the problem that what constitutes drudge work for me, may be a fun job for someone else. I have worked on farms. I have also worked in an office. I would much prefer farm work to working in an office of a corporation or state institution. I never did factory work, but I suspect I would prefer agricultural work. For me, working as an accountant or as a nurse would be utter hell.

Poor people have been given a shitty education so they could serve as drudge workers. Putting them out of work thru automation leads to greater poverty, more unemployment, and more homelessness.

Before one can get a post scarcity situation, the fat cats need to have their lifestyles scaled way back, and the poorest of the poor need to have jobs which can pay the bills so they can affdord to eat, pay rent & utilities, and have some cash left for having fun.

Once the unemployment rate has been drastically cut, and poor kids have been edcated so they can enter the workforce in well-paying skilled jobs -- then I feel it is time to automate low end druge jobs. But cutting out the drudge work before those changes just leads to greater poverty and more competition for the limited jobs which can be performed by people with a shitty education.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 13th, 2006 10:44 pm (UTC)
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Are you also against menial near-mindless work of those who work in corporate cubicles? How about factory workers?

Yes and yes. Some corporate work is not mindless, but most of it is both mindless and ultimately pointless as is the vast majority of factory work. In much of the first world, we are going to need to figure out what else the middle class can do, because factory work is now largely either automated or done in the third world and office work is increasingly being outsources to the third world middle class.

Poor people have been given a shitty education so they could serve as drudge workers. Putting them out of work thru automation leads to greater poverty, more unemployment, and more homelessness.

That is why (as Western Europe, especially the Scandinavian nations have done) it is essential for a civilized government to provide both a well-done social support network and effective retraining. Neither exist in the US and that lack drastically needs to be remedied.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 13th, 2006 11:49 pm (UTC)
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I think some of the gap between you and your friend comes from smuggled-in adjectives. Not all toil is mindless or menial, if you have have the right knowledge. To take an example that may be close to home, gardening involves a lot of tasks that might be unsatisfying or boring in the abstract but give great satisfaction in the concrete to the people doing them because it's tending a specific place they know, with the end in mind of beauty, good eats, and the like for themselves and people they wish to share with. Furthermore, there are times when people actually do wish not to be thinking intensely, and seriously sweat-building hard labor has direct physical benefits, starting with increased lymphatic system action.

I'm a city kid myself; I don't want a life with a big dose of manual labor. But friends of mine from college and after speak with love and appreciation of lives that do have it - they talk about learning a farm, or a stretch of river or sea to fish, or some other site of labor in much the way that my gardening friends speak of their gardening. There's an element of stewardship in such work, bringing out the place's strengths and protecting it for the future. And the way they talk about the satisfaction of looking on a project and being able to say "I did that" sounds very, very much like the way I sound when I talk about the writing that helps me.

I think that hard labor as such is tangled up with a lot of things that it doesn't necessarily have to have, like being grossly unhygeneic. But it seems to me that in a world where people could choose their vocations, a fair number would in fact like to do something that requires them to work hard, a lot, and that this would be good for them, even though it's not what you or I might wish to do.
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From:heron61
Date:November 14th, 2006 01:14 am (UTC)
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Agreed, but the equation of toil or starve bothers me a great deal. The idea that someone might want to farm or garden as a hobby is perfectly reasonable. The idea that someone must perform farm labor (or work on an assembly line, or perform any similar hard work) in order to obtain the necessities of survival is from my PoV barbaric, especially given that the people they work for do not need to do this.
[User Picture]
From:lyssabard
Date:November 14th, 2006 09:08 pm (UTC)
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I fall more in line with Bruceb's thinking on the above here--and that a lot of the problems on how work is labeled is directly tied to what is percieved and constructed as the value of work.

I remember once when my teacher put forth, from one her favorite utopian fiction reads, that, what if the words for "work" and "play" in our society were synonomous? What would that mean for the way we construct activities we call work?

I would shun a society that disregards and devalues the work of human hands, be it gardening or artistry, or even the pleasure of cleaning a house. We degrade it as menial, the task as beneath all but htose who 'must' do it, for something they are said to lack--education, $, opportunity, etc. It's a very Marxist problem, here, imho.

I want a society that does not play with falsely constructed values to create social haves and have nots--as you say, toil to necessitate survival, but value work as it contributes to society, whether that be someone's chosen task to grow a garden, paint frescos, program, cook in a soup kitchen, or even raise children.

Heh, and if tech is properly employed as an equalizer (sans issues of Access, etc.), we could get closer to such a state, I'd hope.
[User Picture]
From:bruceb
Date:November 13th, 2006 11:51 pm (UTC)
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Er, guess who'd forgotten to sign in when switching browsers?
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From:rjgrady
Date:November 14th, 2006 12:46 am (UTC)
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I am sure there are gardners and farmers who would feel the same about automated farming that I do about the microwave oven. I like turning raw ingredients into food, and I like doing it using my own hands and using the simplest, most ready at hand tools, such as knife, iron skillet, wooden cutting board, and so forth. On occasion, I've been known to whip cream by hand.

One disadvantage of such farming would be that it would move us further away from our food, our animal nature, the ultimate reality of our situation. While, I too, favor a post-scarcity society, scarcity is a relative term. In a world where food is grown by machines, we have no connection to the food except as consumers. We have not worked for it. In a sense, we don't deserve it, we have merely inherited it.

[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 14th, 2006 01:12 am (UTC)
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I am sure there are gardners and farmers who would feel the same about automated farming that I do about the microwave oven.

I love microwaves, they are excellent tools for thawing food, melting chocolate or cheese or performing many similar tasks. I am a skilled cook and choose techniques that are highly effective at producing good food, but find the idea of whipping cream by hand to be needly drudgery, and I strive to avoid all needless drudgery in my life. I do not in any way see simplicity as a virtue. I want to use the tools in cooking that produce the best result with the least effort and do not see these goals as being in conflict with one another - Alton Brown on the show Good Eats exemplifies the sort of cooking I do (as well as being a frequent source of new recipes for me). From my PoV, hard work (like whipping cream by hand) is both an obvious opportunity for improvement and an indication that one is not doing something in an optimal manner.

One disadvantage of such farming would be that it would move us further away from our food, our animal nature, the ultimate reality of our situation. While, I too, favor a post-scarcity society, scarcity is a relative term. In a world where food is grown by machines, we have no connection to the food except as consumers. We have not worked for it. In a sense, we don't deserve it, we have merely inherited it.

From my PoV, that's all a good thing. Advanced technological societies are sufficiently wealthy that I do not see citizens in any way having the earn or deserve this bounty, it is and all citizens deserve a share in it simply by virtue of their humanity. I also do not see working for a living as inherently virtuous. Our ancestors struggled and toiled so we don't have to.
[User Picture]
From:rjgrady
Date:November 14th, 2006 02:44 pm (UTC)
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From my PoV, hard work (like whipping cream by hand) is both an obvious opportunity for improvement and an indication that one is not doing something in an optimal manner.

To me, it is an opportunity to learn from the essence. If you have never whipped cream by hand, you don't really understand what whipped cream is. The first time I did it, I had a boggling, sudden awareness of the disproportionate enjoyment of wealth in the pre-industrial era... I pictured the small army of cooks and drudges doing just such labor to provide merinques for extraneous aristocrats.

But that's beside the point.

To me, the point is that strength requires exercise. Discipline requires strength. The end of work is the beginning of endless play... I would consider the human race dissolute if we did not continue to contend against something.

To me, the future of humanity is a new kind of "work." And to prepare ourselves for aeaons of study, contemplation, and great creation, we have to retain the ability to labor. What is the purpose of efficiency if its product are hothouse flowers, ticks, and a race of bathetic poets? I would prefer an inefficiency that creates an Olympian... a human race that is graceful, wise, powerful, and vigorous.

I hope that at the end of time, the last human being will be tending a garden.

Our ancestors toiled for a living so that they could survive... if we forget how to toil, we lose the memory of what they did.
[User Picture]
From:kitten_goddess
Date:November 14th, 2006 02:36 am (UTC)
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Heh. Thanks for a rebuttal to the idea that man must work for his food, since it is "natural." We're already removed from nature in the developed world as is. Automating farming technology would end poverty, if the government doesn't decide to artificially make food scarce as a means of controlling dissent or something equally nefarious (as certain African governments and China have done).
[User Picture]
From:arethinn
Date:November 14th, 2006 02:46 am (UTC)
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"Automated labor does not need to be paid [...] production costs plummet and goods produced in this manner can be made one of the benefits (like health care) that a civilized government provides to its citizens for minimal or no cost."

Because that's exactly what would happen. No company would ever just keep the sky-high profits they would make by not needing to actually employ anyone. Surely they would lower prices. Of course.

Pie in the sky, me thinks. It's unfortunate that so many otherwise wonderful systems of economics and government depend on people wanting to be nice to one another and not get as much as they possibly can, because that just doesn't seem to be how people are. They have to be forcibly restrained, in many cases, from doing one another harm (of whatever type). There needs to be some much more fundamental change in consciousness before most people will do things just because they would make life easier for others.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 14th, 2006 04:53 am (UTC)
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Because that's exactly what would happen. No company would ever just keep the sky-high profits they would make by not needing to actually employ anyone. Surely they would lower prices.

That is why I'm a socialist and believe that all essential industries should be nationalized. I'm fine with capitalism being used for entertainment, consumer electronics, and similar things, but I am firmly convinced that food, electricity and similar things should be either government run or run by government administrated corporations, like power companies in the US were before libertarian idiots started deregulation.

It's quite true that if unregulated people will screw each other over on a regular basis. However, even in the wretchedness that is the US, prior to the mid 1990s, electricity in the US was produced by corporations and sold at a reasonable price because of strict government regulation. Automated the heck out of it, and do the same for food manufacture and the results can be very similar.
[User Picture]
From:andrewducker
Date:November 14th, 2006 08:59 am (UTC)
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Because that's exactly what would happen. No company would ever just keep the sky-high profits they would make by not needing to actually employ anyone. Surely they would lower prices. Of course.

You have noticed that food prices are at an all time low, haven't you?

Because the supermarkets war with each other over prices, and put pressure on their suppliers to lower their prices.

It's one place where capitalism seems to work pretty well.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 14th, 2006 02:17 pm (UTC)
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If you use machines to dig dirt/ plant seeds/ harvest food, you find a new type of scarcity emerge:

- Running out of oil (and coal and natural gas and...)

Which means the machines will stop.
And either we will starve.
Or we will put humans back to work digging, planting, and harvesting.

[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 14th, 2006 08:01 pm (UTC)
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There is nothing resembling an energy shortage, only a shortage of common sense. I can name half a dozen technologies, from pelletized-bed thorium breeder reactors (impressively safe and capable of making their own fuel) to ocean thermal energy that could easily supply all of the world's energy needs with far less pollution. I wish such technologies were being used now, but once fossil fuel prices become high enough, they certainly will be. The one thing I am certain of is that our civilization will not collapse because of a lack of energy.

It is also worth noting that this changeover will likely not happen anytime soon, since turning coal into liquid fuel is a mature technology that was used during WWII, and the planet has coal reserves that will last it for the next couple of centuries. The luddite dreams of machines stopping because they ran out of fuel are simply dreams.

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