Bio-Automation, Dumb Machines, and our Unappreciated and Wasted Techno-Wealth
Recently I was at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens and ran across a sign which told the story of California Native Americans who hundreds of years ago would make water tight jugs out of branches from a particularly flexible bush. It would take them between 600 and 1,000 hours to make one of these jugs.
Imagine spending 15 to 25 work weeks assembling nothing more than a jug that reliably held water. Insane, right?
Now imagine that, without that jug, you didn't have a single thing in the world that could hold water that wasn't your hands or your mouth.
Not so insane anymore.
The transition from holding water inside your body and inside your cupped hands, to having a vessel that could do so reliably and without your personal effort was at one time transformative, and today is totally taken for granted. We throw vases, cups, jugs of all kinds away constantly. Imagine how having that technology changed human existence. How much further from water could we go being able to carry water with us? Now consider what domesticating horses meant, or what metal smithing or pipes for plumbing meant for regular living.
Imagine the value created just by finding and wielding durable materials and using them for housing. Today we can build a structure one time, and it will, with very limited input from us, keep us safe from exposure, which will absolutely kill you, for a lifetime.
Think about all the things you need to have for you to live: food, shelter, water. We've created technologies, both ancient and cutting edge, which make getting these key resources so efficient that we waste tons of them every year, and almost nowhere that someone can pay for them is there ever a shortage.
Go one further and consider our lungs breathing, our hearts beating, our bodies healing and defending themselves from infection and injury. Between the automatic processes of our bodies, and the massive leverage that regular, "dumb" technology brings us, human beings get a massive amount of value while only contributing a microscopic amount of intentional, effortful input.
Consider how many people it took to build the pyramids, and now how many fewer humans would be involved given our use of heavy machinery. Is it 100x less people? 1000x? We get 1000's of times more productivity today out of the same amount of human effort and yet we perceive ourselves to be the main drivers of value, rather than the pilots of value generating machines. Whether you're a spreadsheet jockey or a tractor driver, you are not the primary creator of value, you are a pilot driving a machine which does probably 99.9% of the heavy lifting that would need to occur if the no such technology existed. When someone says they built a house with their bare hands, what they really mean is with a hammer, with machined nails, with machine processed wood etc. You can't build a modern house with your hands because you can't cut wood with your barehands. Even something as basic as shoveling becomes a nightmare if we just use our bodies, un-aided by technology.
What's the point? When we think about scarcity, and how hard it is to find the funds for social or collective programs and projects, and when we think about who "deserves" to be paid or reap the rewards from various activities, innovations, businesses etc., we often use moral language asserting that someone deserves something because of the uniquely hard or intelligent effort they brought to the table, but often times we're really rationalizing a system which determines these things on the basis of power. In other words, those who have the power to make themselves better paid, usually get better pay, but then we all go along with the idea that they deserve it, replacing a power-based reality, with a merit-based fiction. This is kind of okay, except the inverse implication goes on to plague our thinking by telling us that if the rich deserve their wealth, the poor deserve their misery, and any attempt to use our own power to change anything, is unfair, even though the way things are now is the result of someone else using their power to their advantage.
At the end of the day, we humans live deeply privileged lives sitting on top of millions of years of evolutionary technology that makes our breathing lungs, our beating hearts automatic, and thousands of years of material technology which leverage our physical and mental efforts probably millions of times over. We sure deserve something for our efforts, and different rewards for different efforts make a lot of sense. At the same time, claiming 100% of the reward for taking someone 60 miles in an hour, when the car did all the heavy lifting, is a little funny. Still, it's not a problem until that rewards system ends up condemning even a single person to misery. That's the precise moment we have to revisit and correct our incentives structure, no matter whether it's a little tweak, or a massive overhaul.
Remember two things, 1. we already (pre-AI) have access to unimaginable technological power and wealth, 2. the outcomes we see in our society are more the result of how we administer the productivity of that technology, than they are the result of a materially scarce, zero-sum world.