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Ethical Problems From Technology Efficiency
James Felton Keith   Apr 9, 2011   Ethical Technology  

We’re trending towards a day where it will be impossible to create jobs in the traditional sense, and the taunting question of our time will be: How do we value human lives without livelihoods?

In both modern political rhetoric and science fiction, we humans—born of mostly-natural births and dying of mostly natural causes—could be perceived to be most terrified of the ethical dilemmas that future technologies pose, whether from a bio, nano, computer, or synthetic intelligence standpoint. Based on the popular culture that heckles our fears through horror and sci-fi films, coupled with the eye-catching, jaw-dropping news of the day, we rarely consider that the lowest hanging fruit may be the most poisonously disruptive to the lifestyles we so desperately try to conserve in our individual and institutional pursuits.

During the past decade, the technologically astute portion of humankind has been experiencing a trending set of recessions/depression exploiting the systemic risks in our PEST (Political, Economic, Social, and Technological) interactions. We all remember too well the peak in 2008 when our once-thought-robust mode of financing ideas collapsed so abruptly. While we’ve made strides to identify the culprit of depression through economic and sociocultural analysis, examining either the encouraged rational self-interest of the masses or the omnipresent mercantilistic manner in which we identify all resources as scarce, we’ve failed to factor in the political implications of our technological prowess.
Information Technology is the scariest genre of technological horror, and there is nothing sci-fi about it. A transformation has taken place before our eyes over the past sixty years that has rendered both blue-collar and white-collar workers of the 21st century relatively obsolete and clinging to little value. In the real world of right-now, engineers of sorts are charged with error-proofing on many levels. This set of methodological technologies first came to prominence in the middle of the 20th century to provide structured root-causing capability to product building companies.

Shigeo Shingo initiated Poka-yoke (ポカヨケ) at Toyota Company. His founding principles spawned an exponential growth in how humans streamline organizational efforts, further giving way to lean manufacturing and eventually to Six Sigma.

During the last four decades of the 20th century, we saw the population to employment ratio decrease dramatically in the United States’ product industries. Almost paralleled to product efficiency, the digital information industry was burgeoning and creating its own level of efficiencies to manage services and people, completing the cycle of Poka-yoke, where everything could eventually be quantified and compared for quality.

Strategies like IT service management and infrastructure library are the cornerstone of a diminishing workforce. Error-proofing ultimately eliminates redundancies and ineffective practices in human interaction (business), further depleting job growth.

1970’s US Population Growth: 30,811,000
1970’s US Employment Growth: 21,224,000 = 68.88%

1980’s US Population Growth: 20,865,000
1980’s US Employment Growth: 17,685,000 = 84.76%

1990’s US Population Growth: 21,667,000
1990’s US Employment Growth: 16,998,000 = 78.45%

2000’s US Population Growth: 26,254,000
2000’s US Employment Growth: 5,137,000 = 19.57%
(to Mar. 2009)

Per the statistics above, gathered from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the line graph represented below, the growth of these error-proofing technological resources (Tn) would theoretically trend human resources (Hn) to zero. The ethical, political, and social implications of this reality are that humankind will lose its ability to allocate value to human lives without livelihoods.


The questions should be posed: How will people exist without the work that defined their parent’s social and political identities? What kinds of equality should they be fighting for?

James Felton Keith is an award winning engineer economist and published author. He is Founder of the Personal Data Project, Co-Founder of the IBM Watson backed FinTech (financial technology) firm Accrue Inc., and Keith Institute. He specializes in the ethnography of technology and economic inclusion. Formerly CEO of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce and a Mayoral Technology Appointee in Detroit, JFK currently contributes as board and patron member to OUT in STEM, OUT & Equal, Lifeboat Foundation, Apollo Theater, The Guggenheim, and IBM Global Entrepreneurs to name a few.


When I was in my teens many, many years ago I contemplated a future where all productivity and human social needs were met by super technology, and contemplated what humans would actually do with themselves once all their needs were met and there was no longer any need for employment or even innovation – a kind of singularity if you will, long before I ever knew the meaning of this concept.

Contemplating that humans would still need to pursue some action and motivations towards value of life and to overcome boredom, I resolved that “personal development” through education and expression through creativity was the answer, and that in a world where all the technological goals had been surpassed, that art and music would be the only enterprise left for humans to explore, because there are no limits on creativity through these by technology?

As the years progressed I realised the importance upon spiritual growth also, and contemplated that “personal development” also encompasses the goals and pursuits of personal enlightenment, and that as everyone is ultimately faced with the same philosophical questions that they will take this free time to confront and try to resolve these for themselves – it all begins with the “lesser vehicle”.

Yet all of this speculation concerns humanity and societies post-singularity, so what happens to human productivity in the coming decades as technology engulfs material, economic and even sociocultural and healthcare production and services? Perhaps the Marxist has the answer, I’m not familiar enough with this philosophy myself?

It would appear that we will have to alter the ethical perspectives and our views towards the value of human life and it’s measure? No longer will we be able to measure the worth of a human by it’s productivity, unemployment will be the norm, the welfare state will play the major role in supporting populations, and competitiveness will no longer be of great importance?

Competition for the exclusiveness of employment will ultimately lead to apathy and indifference of the majority towards competition, as the welfare state establishes itself as the new social benefactor. The strive for status, and the monies and goods that support these notions in our current capitalist economies, will diminish, and lack of supply and demand will escalate the indifference and sufferings as we are no longer impressed or in pursuit of trivialities and their distractions?

It would appear that we will need to clarify and define/redefine the wants and needs of the masses, and then apply human numbers and productivity towards solving these needs? I would propose that sociocultural needs could possibly meet these vacuums through education, social nurture and the expression of learning and pursuit of wisdom. For elders to teach their children the new value and worth of humanity and social enterprise and of sharing, as well as the worth and value of technologies and of personal creative growth?

Yet even these social needs would appear to be open for technologies and automation to take root and supplant humans as educational needs are established in online networks through interconnected libraries and oracles, and where even healthcare and nursing is open to robotics and the logistics for drugs and medicines regulated, produced and distributed by machines and technology?

Whatever the future ideals and philosophies guiding human purpose and productivity may be, it would appear that a new universal charter and perhaps social contract will be required that ensures and protects the “basic human rights” and needs of food, medicines, clothing and shelter against the environment, as well as the protections afforded of right to life, liberties and freedoms to express oneself. That these “basic needs” will need to be established as default against any other further value towards human productivity.

These coming decades of human redundancy will not necessarily negate status seeking, and will most likely exacerbate the divides between rich and poor. A cultural shift and efficiencies towards centralisation of international political controls and regulations of trade and global economics, (by the uncorrupted computerised machine), may topple our current ideas of status however, and the scientist and technical innovator and creative artist may supplant the status of politicians and bankers as they become the new elite?

Excellent essay. This is, indeed, a huge issue. It is not separate from, but linked to the other “eye-catching, jaw-dropping” technologies.
“These coming decades of human redundancy will not necessarily negate status seeking, and will most likely exacerbate the divides between rich and poor. A cultural shift and efficiencies towards centralisation of international political controls and regulations of trade and global economics, (by the uncorrupted computerised machine), may topple our current ideas of status however, and the scientist and technical innovator and creative artist may supplant the status of politicians and bankers as they become the new elite?”
It is possible this could occur, but IMO it is a ways out. What is equally possible in the interim is that the divide becomes too large to overcome. A welfare state can only be supported if there is enough income and tax revenue to sustain it. As the wealthy gain more of the pie, we are then dependent on altruism for a sharing of the wealth and I wouldn’t want to see the Vegas odds for that.
What might perhaps be needed is a rethinking of several pillars that are supporting our current economy to be more in line with an emerging economy. This might include 1.) rethinking copyright and intellectual property laws. Can they be revised to incentivize the hacking, development and viral spread of their products rather than ownership of the products? 2.) systems, incentives and supports for crowd-sourcing. This might include rethinking insurance structures, retirement structures and tax structures to allow for collective purchasing among those not affiliated with one company or structure. 3.) rethinking regulations by tightening those that govern the commons such as usage of natural resources while resturcturing those that govern the roll-out of innovations. I just read the Amish article posted on the “transhumanism and Children” thread. What if, for example, the FDA had multiple designations (e.g. banned, recommend against usage but permitted, use at your own risk, approved)?
The combined effect might be distributed innovation and lowering the overall costs for the technologies. Moreover, if everyone could share in to at their own level/pace, it could potentially increase income generation.
I found this to be a great example of what might be possible from hacking innovations:
In short, can we evolve our systems towards an abundance model?

While worker obsolescence is a serious problem, it is not a new one. Improvements in technology and production efficiency have caused short term (at least) problems for many workers while dramatically improving quality of living in general. Henry Ford’s use of efficient mass production methods, for example, produced automobiles that were for the first time affordable to those who produced them. Increased population growth has certainly been dependent on lower infant mortality and longer healthier lives. To construct the model that’s being sought (How will people exist without the work that defined their parent’s social and political identities? What kinds of equality should they be fighting for? ), one needs to embrace and adapt to technical change. A stable workforce would need to be structured and supported to have these same characteristics.

A version of this plays out in the lives of many engineers - particularly those who are changing the world with computer technology. The knowledge and skills they focus on early in their careers are soon replaced by something else. A few years without a continuous effort to keep up (while working for example, in management) makes getting back in the game quite difficult.

The trick is to become independent of the temporary needs and ever changing plans of particular organizations and to define and adapt one’s own skill set to meet current opportunities. In fact, this gives people greater control of their own destiny as a result of personally defined priorities in this process, rather than leaving important decisions in the hands of an organization.

You can find other examples in which worker identity is defined largely outside of organizations being served. Construction contractors and unions are good examples. Their assignments with particular organizations are understood to be temporary and critical aspects of their training and financial needs are shifted from those organizations.

The specter of technological unemployment only exists in the context of the present ridiculous economic system. In a society rationally focused on the common good, automation would simply benefit everyone.

I would just like to add that we are discussing this as members of the developed world for the most part. I suspect thst the estimated 2 billion people trying to exist on $2 a day might not consider boredom as a major priority just at the minute.

The other possibility that occurs to me is that if we get a post-scarcity automated society in which a large number of people are bored this might help to avoid Hugo de Garis’ scenario of the artilect war. Terrans who are happy with their post-scarcity lives stay at home on Earth and those of us who want a different kind of existence would head towards the stars as cyborgs.

See also Martin Ford, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, CreateSpace, 2009.

First of all I second the above recommendation of “The Lights in the Tunnel.”

Now, I greatly enjoyed this article.  The dangers of transitioning to a post-scarcity economy are numerous enough that the more discussion of the subject the better.  However I’m not sure boredom is the main problem we need to be worrying about.  Newer generations are already well on the way to detaching our sense of personal being and worth from our jobs in a way our parents and certainly our grandparents cannot understand.  Considering that this technology is still decades off I feel that by the time it gets here many in our society will be well prepared for the idea of not having a “job.”

I shouldn’t have waited this long for responses. I’m not sure where to start.

Boredom: This term was referenced several times in the responses. I don’t think that without a “white” or “blue” collar business sector that the intelligent beings of the world(s) will become board with their prolonging lifetimes due to a lack of labor in the traditional sense (relative to the 20th century). There is such a thing as the “intellectual” sector. There are documented account of large communities co-existing to create individually and collectively to add to the arts and sciences. I’m, of the group that thinks, when people have the opportunity to self-actualize, that they will be able to explore the known and unknown well enough where time and boredom won’t be an issue…further solidifying the individual’s value in life.

Book suggestion: I’ll need to read the recommended “Lights in the Tunnel”, but based on the short description of the text I may be aligned with its ideals. In my last book “Integrationalism: Essays on the rationale of abundance” I wrote a section called “technologies will collapse capitalism as we know it” elaborates much more on the article above.

Economic Paradigm: Regarding the mentions of the “ridiculous economic system” there is (growing) a sub-movement under transhumant ideals to provide formidable progressions to the existing economic system. Before we can offer anything we’ll need to establish an ethical model that addresses the contradictions of individualism, mercantilism, and capitalism.

Defining Value: In order to define value in a model that succeeds the existing archaic, scarce, competitive paradigm of the world, we’ll have to build the infrastructure. The relative transparency of networks of sorts is the beginning of the kind of commodification that it will take in order to establish and represent the collective interest of intelligent beings.

I have just finished my electrical technologist degree. moving into robotics and automation. my goal is to remove all jobs from the market and prove how stupid we have been for over a hundred years listening to lies when we could be living in a world wide wireless world. my idle was Nikola Tesla a man who had laid out the plans for a wonderful future. but the greed of man(j.p. Morgan) and the fear of change has held us back from our potential for too long… get over yourself and stop fearing innovation and progress get on board with it.

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