Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Welcome to the Fourth Arena @3QD

That’s my latest article at 3 Quarks Daily:

Welcome to the Fourth Arena – The World is Gifted, https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2022/06/welcome-to-the-fourth-arena-the-world-is-gifted.html

I suggest that we may be moving into a new Cosmic Arena, from inanimate Matter (1), to Life (2), to Culture (3), to . . . just what? Let’s simply call it the Fourth Arena while we’re figuring it out.

A Complex Universe

I begin by arguing that the universe is basically complex. Here’s a recent tweet that makes the point:

Beyond that, read the article.

We need to rethink how we live

But I will leave you with the question that Michael Liss posed to me, and my answer to him. The question:

Bill, how does society adapt to the potential that so many who worked in jobs that required human interaction/conversation find their careers made obsolete? We've had waves of displacement in the past, but mostly at the "mechanical" level--artisans who were pushed out because of industrialization, farm work replaced by machinery, even secretaries replaced by word-processors and spell checks. This has pushed some people to reach higher, but a lot of the rest accept jobs in low-wage industries, and find their status and family's potential for advancement diminished. Businesses, driven by profit motive, will adapt or close, but government can't do that. When a large section of the population in both traditionally blue and white collar jobs realize that their government either has no answers, or is beholden to a few, what next for civil society?

My reply:

That’s a complicated question, Michael, and I might have to write a book, albeit a compact one, in order to come up with an answer. I can’t answer it now. But I can say a few things that I’d have to take into consideration.

I’d start out with a famous remark Keynes made in a 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” in which he argued that a 15-hour workweek should suffice for all our economic needs.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me—those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties—to solve the problem which has been set them.

I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.

It's quite clear that we have utterly failed on that last count. Those of us with jobs devote more time than ever to them. The convenience of email has made us available to our employers 24/7 365. And while the necessity of working from home during the pandemic has led many to question the wisdom of going into the office 5 days a week for 8 to 10 hours a day plus commute time, I’m not at all sure how that’s going to work out. I should think the boss class will do its best to see that distant-work tech means that work haunts you wherever you are, 24/7 365.

And people will put up with it? Why? Because they don’t, in the end, know how to use their leisure. I’m sure Netflix and the rest will do their best to keep us supplied with binge-worthy video. But, come on? Is that life?

I got a shock when my father took early retirement at 62; he was in perhaps the earliest cohort who had that option. He spent his career as an engineer with Bethlehem Mines. He was very good, and certainly loved (aspects of) his job. And still he retired as soon as he could.

How did he spend his time? He spent an enormous amount of time playing solitaire. Every day, several hours a day. This was an intelligent man, with many interests, golf, stamp collecting, wood-working, and he read a lot. And, yet, when he had the time to devote to them, he spent it playing solitaire. Yes, he did play golf, more often, he found some guys to play bridge with, he ramped up his stamp collecting, but never did anything with his wood-working. So he spent less and less time at solitaire, but it never tapered off to zero.

And he’s not alone. I’ve read articles about retirement coaches, people who work with retired executives and such to help them figure out how to spend their time when they’re retired. I’m pretty sure these coaches to not work for minimum wage. I suspect they’re more likely to charge lawyers’ rates, though probably not at the top of the range. The only people who can afford those rates would be highly skilled people working relatively high on the totem pole. Why for god’s sake do those people need help unwinding? Why don’t they just buy some Hawaiian shirts and join the Jimmy Buffett parrot-head crowd – which, by the way, some of them are doing. As you may know, Buffett has become rich from various businesses, the most recent of which is retirement communities for people who want to sit around with friends sipping margaritas and eating cheese burgers in paradise.

More Keynes:

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semipathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

THAT’s what we’ve got to think about.

Now, yes, we’ve got global warming to deal with. We aren’t going to be able to do that by simply munching on paradise cheese burgers. That’s going to take a lot of work, though of what kind and by whom and where, that’s somewhat up in the air. And we’ve got to do better on pandemic preparedness, which is a matter of both political will and bureaucratic will (the CDC and FDA failed us miserably). And then there’s the specter of war. Somehow in the middle of all that we need to rethink who and what we are.

And then there’s these new machines. What do they mean for the law, your profession? What aspects of the law require a high-level of face-to-face interaction? There’s acquiring clients and maintaining the relationship. There’s the actual back-and-forth of negotiation. And there’s litigation, which may require theatrical skills as well. But there’s an awful lot of routine paperwork of varying skill level. You’ve got to review warehouses full of documents and produce boilerplate prose. I’m guessing that lot of that is done by paralegals and junior associates, many of whom are bored witless. That can all be replaced, is being replaced, but computer systems. I know that document discovery has gone way beyond keyword search (I’ve got a cousin in the legal AI business). I’d think that the latest AI chatbots can be trained up to draft boilerplate and I assume people are working on it now, though I have no idea whether or not any of it is being deployed.

Meanwhile Neal Stephenson has written a smashing book in The Diamond Age, in which a young girl is given an interactive book that helps her mature. And we’ve got bots cranking out some very interesting images. We’ve got lots to work with.

But we’ve got to revise our conception of what makes a good life. Let’s take Keynes seriously.

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