The Employment Problem

by stephenpalmersf

In recent months much has been written by various media publications about the likelihood of jobs being “taken” by robots and other automated systems, including by AI (or AGI – Artificial General Intelligence – as it is often called now). There are various possible scenarios: hyper-rich individuals owning AGIs and thereby removing the need for employees, resulting in mass unemployment; a huge change in the types of jobs being done, as with the change from manufacturing to services in the case of Britain over the past few decades; or perhaps a strengthening of the exploitation effects inherent in the capitalist system. In my novel No Grave For A Fox I had the latter option prevalent, with the nexus embodied in various android-type bodies. In Beautiful Intelligence the effect was not so obvious, the main employment effect being a decentralising one.

But in the Factory Girl trilogy I also considered these options, despite the 1910-11 setting. The automata (or horas as they are sometimes known) which are one of the mysteries of the novels are owned by Sir Tantalus Blackmore, a classic Victorian entrepreneur who exploits everything and everybody to become as rich as possible – or so it seems at first glance. But, whatever his motives, Sir Tantalus does own outright the ability to utilise the automata made by his Factory. In this regard he is deemed one of the sources of the wave of mass unemployment affecting my alternate Britain, as shown in this early conversation between Kora and Dr Spellman:

They stepped out of the hansom cab, waiting on the pavement while the automaton lifted Dr Spellman’s luggage off the rack. “Will you pay it?” Kora asked. “No.” “Why not? You paid the one in London.” “Yes,” said Dr Spellman, “but he was human.” “That is not fair. How can the Factory make money if nobody pays the automata?” Dr Spellman chuckled. “A very good point! You’re not daft, are you? Well, you see, the local Council pays your father for the automata who do all the work.”

In other words Sir Tantalus has a monopoly, which even extends to public use, as exemplified by the Sheffield Town Council having to pay him.

Although there was unemployment in Edwardian times, I did have in mind future possibilities when I was preparing the scenario for the three novels. Sir Tantalus is a private individual. He has broken the link between people giving their labour in return for a salary. Labouring individuals can associate into unions, which gives them power, since, if the business is dependent on labour, they can go on strike. This is not the case with Sir Tantalus or with any private individual who might use an AGI. If, rather than changing the mode of employment, an AGI owner bypasses labour entirely via their AGI then that labour loses its power of strike; and this is perhaps the worst danger of future AGI use. Such an owner would have the ability to accumulate capital without any hindrance – and that has never happened before.

Sir Tantalus enjoys exactly this option. Although there is mystery behind the creation of the automata, he in essence – especially in the early days of his operation – can accumulate as much capital as he likes, since the automata, like AGIs, have no power of strike.

And Sir Tantalus does what any self-obsessed Victorian entrepreneur would do in the circumstances – he sucks up to nobility:

Roka … nodded. “Is [Sir Tantalus in Parliament], then?” “Not in Parliament, no. What he does is far more cunning. He influences from behind the scenes to get what he wants. Why, he’d like to be a lord, you know, but…” “But what?” Dr Spellman shrugged, standing up to continue walking. “He was born into a poor Yorkshire family. Real lords don’t want him anywhere near them.” “That’s not fair.” Dr Spellman chuckled. “It’s one of his weak points, his obsession with nobility. His envy eats him up, Roka.”

Regarding unemployment, there are two sides to the argument in the Factory Girl novels, one which sees the automata as beneficial (pro-hora) and one which sees them as usurping (anti-hora).

Rather surprisingly, Sir Tantalus stands in the latter category:

Sir Tantalus continued, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder whether the achievement of hora emancipation – of Abolition, as Parliament would have it – would in fact be a hollow victory. In Sheffield you perhaps do not see the cruel tide of unemployment that affects London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. My Factory gives work to more people than you can imagine, and I am glad for that. But as an older man, with little time remaining to him, I can see that there are too many horas in the world today. They do all the work we ask them to. But what of the little man? What of the ordinary man? It is for them that I worry.”

Later in the trilogy the reason for this becomes clear. But others are pro-hora:

“Regardless of the origin of the hora,” Lenin continued, “the hora is a worker, and as such acquires rights such as any worker should enjoy. Though we use the hora as an automatic worker to do tasks such as we do not wish to do, the hora is part of the great commonality of the working class – and it is being exploited by capitalist masters. In the essential regard about which I speak, the hora is akin to the man.

The above speech by Lenin should not perhaps be too surprising. (Lenin lived in Britain for a few years from 1902, so I thought it would be appropriate to have him play a small part in my novel.) But there is another aspect to these considerations which I wanted to use as a main part of the plot, and that is the way capitalism, unlike nature, posits no limit to growth. Though Lenin rightly saw automata as workers, he did not in my novels grasp the dangers of their mode of manufacture. He only saw the end result – employment in Sir Tantalus’ Factory for the men of south Yorkshire, and a force of hora workers who deserved rights. But the danger becomes clear in the third volume, The Girl With No Soul:

Agricultural fields lay littered with inutile horas, thousands of them, their steel exteriors glittering in the sunlight. In distant lanes he saw hundreds more walking apparently at random. The sheer quantity horrified him, and he realised that the Factory was still over-producing. What was Sir Tantalus doing inside?

The outer streets of the city were also strewn with horas, and with hora parts, as if a kind of grisly mechanical fury had ripped through the place. Through a gap in the blinds he observed lines of men at soup kitchens, elsewhere rubble and shattered glass; and everywhere a chaotic press of people with pale, starved faces. Police patrolled the streets in groups – never alone – and there were even a few army officers in uniform.

Over-production – a small, curious, and mostly ignored effect in the first novel – has by the time of the third novel become an overpowering concern. As Erasmus later says:

“Roka – you already know this to be true. You, a Marxist, can see the madness of capitalism, which uses resources as if they are unlimited. Capitalism posits no natural limit to economic growth, and therefore dooms the culture in which it exists – and its environment too. Now do you see?” She nodded. “Capitalism is cancer…“

This is the equivalent of the first option presented in the introduction to this post. A proliferation of automata, like a proliferation of AGIs with nobody to control their creation or use, swiftly gets out of hand. Humanity is blithely doing itself out of an existence. At a time of global population explosion that’s not wise…

The second option is a change in employment styles. In Edwardian times, with severe social stratification, there was little chance for such ‘portfolio careers’ as they’re known today. Most people, especially on the lower rungs of the ladder, had a trade for life. It is in fact the far-sighted men of the Malthus Brigade who change the options for the malformed horas which they collect and adapt:

AutoRoka continued, “Malthus wrote about a future where disease and famine checked the growth of population, suggesting there was a limit to such growth.” Roka said, “Do you believe then that people will all die of starvation in the future?” The man [Ernest] shook his head. “Not people. We’re talkin’ about automata. Thee not noticed ‘ow many of them there are these days?” Roka shook her head. “It’s why the police waste so much time gatherin’ up the loose ones. Soon we’ll be drownin’ beneath them.” Roka grimaced at the image. “You really believe that?” “Oh, aye. It’s inevitable. So we’re takin’ malformed automata, which otherwise would do nowt, to make a force.”

And Ernest sees further, albeit under the spell of mass unemployment:

“ … The whole bloody Empire is built on automata labour, thee sees. No automata – no Empire. No nothin’, in fact.” “I suppose so,” Roka agreed.

Employment not only brings a salary to an employee, it offers far more. Human beings live in entwined worlds of meaning, and employment is one of the main sources of purpose in life. In previous centuries it was obvious to some that making an individual perform the same task over and over again militated against humanity. We cannot do production-line work and remain sane.

If we create a future in which AGIs dispense medical diagnoses, direct trade deals and trade itself, drive cars, trains and planes, or perhaps run all our personal finances, we are creating a future with far less space for meaning. We’ll be making stressed, anxious zombies of ourselves – and there’ll be billions of those.


The Girl With Two Souls