Written in 1995, at the height of the downsizing of the world economy as a result of automation.
We’ll soon need to reflect on how to create employment for the many people put out of work by automation and offshore-outsourcing. How do we think about it?
I’m aware of a number of principles that others have described that may help those of you who have the expertise to identify new areas of work, new ways to work, or new ways to think about work. Please take them, if they’re suggestive, and use them as you will.
1. Only Unworkability is Visible
Workability is invisible; only unworkability is visible. Any tool or machine that works usually does not attract our attention. But the squeaky wheel does and gets the grease. My computer, so long as it works, receives little or no thought from me. However, the minute it ceases working, I order it to be repaired or replaced.
There’s a principle of job creation behind this and that’s that only unworkability comes to our attention. All our work, all our jobs, address some aspect of unworkability.
Therefore all opportunity consists in recognizing the unworkability around us and making that unworkability work. This principle invites us to sharpen our ability to notice unworkability.
Here’s an example of a service that addresses several urgent areas of unworkability and produces profitable workability in several other areas in the process. A company named Changing World Technologies has designed a process that will turn a wide range of waste materials into oil, gas, metals, and carbon, producing as its only byproduct water safe enough to be released into municipal sewers.
It promises to alter our way of handling municipal effluent and garbage landfills, producing in the process such products as oil, gas, fertilizers, carbon black, and minerals. It’s estimated that, were all municipal, industrial, and agricultural waste to be treated using this process, the United States would realize a significant reduction in foreign oil imports.
It could relieve the world of a massive animal-waste problem by turning animal waste into gas. It could provide a means of getting rid of hazardous wastes such as anthrax spores.
This process moves the situation in question from being one of urgent unworkability to one of high workability. How many unworkable conditions are to be found in our world? Drought, famine, poverty, epidemics — these are just a few. These unworkable conditions are where we should look for the source of new jobs.
2. Value is a Function of Social Agreement
A second principle that we might want to be clear on is that a change, solution, or opportunity has value only because we say it has. Take the case of nuclear missiles. To the best of my knowledge, every intercontinental ballistic missile that I’m aware of has only either sat in a silo or been launched up into the air to fall into the ocean. In fact they had value only because someone regarded them as valuable. They served no direct useful function as, say, a car serves a function by transporting passengers.
Moreover, though they served no direct useful function in the same way that a car does, yet they were massively funded by people.
Thus, a new solution or opportunity shouldn’t be measured in terms of fictitious ‘inherent’ value, but in terms of the value that a group attaches to it. If a country deemed the ending of hunger and poverty within its boundaries as valuable, then money would be found to end them.
This principle gives us permission to allow ourselves to explore unheard-of or unthinkable opportunities and to focus our attention on how to create agreement around value rather than looking for non-existent inherent value. Value is not inherent in a thing or event. Like beauty, value is in the eye of the beholder.
3. Social Solutions Must be Global
Albert Einstein reminded us that global problems cannot be solved at the level at which they were created. Real change occurs at the level of the problem’s overarching context. Thus, as automation shrinks the work force, we cannot solve the problem of unemployment that has resulted by additive, arithmetic answers like giving each of the unemployed a computer and setting him or her to work.
We can solve the problem by looking at the context in which all these workers fit — the context of the world — and tackling a context-wide problem like hunger, poverty, epidemic disease, or illiteracy. Such a multiplicative or geometrical approach creates whole new areas for employment rather than single jobs. This principle encourages us to avoid add-on, band-aid solutions and look for system-wide solutions.
4. Alignment Requires Deadlines
Successful social change requires social alignment. Social alignment requires targettable, society-wide deadlines. If we want to attain a system-wide goal, we cannot agree to accomplish it “some day.” Putting a man on the moon succeeded because John F. Kennedy gave all of society a targettable deadline of 1970 for the attainment of the goal. Similarly, any other large-scale program will require a firm, fixed deadline to succeed.
5. Win/Win Solutions Dis-solve a Problem
Win/win solutions leave no one out. Only they solve problems without creating new ones (that is, only win/win solutions dis-solve problems). Many society-wide programs do not work because they create as many new problems as they solve old ones. They leave a festering residue, transferring a burden from one shoulder to another.
Programs to fight crime, help minorities, or combat disease usually go on within a fragmented context, with some people left out of their scope, some people winning at other’s expense, and some people identified as the cause of the problem and penalized.
Thus a residue of injustice among one group is the price paid for bringing justice to another. Later the injustice visited on the first group must be redressed and redressing that in a win/lose manner creates yet another class of victims. Only win/win solutions, which leave no one out of their scope, have a hope of creating large-scale projects that will benefit all of society without creating new victims of unworkability.
6. The Resolution of Dissonance Creates Paradigmatic Breakthrough
Most paradigmatic breakthroughs occur as a result of the personal resolution of dissonance. Max Weber created a distinction considered fundamental to sociology out of resolving an ongoing family disagreement. His father, a rabbi, disputed Weber’s sociological arguments with unprovable religious arguments. To distinguish between the two domains of argumentation, Weber called one ‘values’ and the other ‘facts’. His intellectual solution to the puzzle he constantly faced remains a basic distinction in the sociologist’s toolbox.
Martin Heidegger discovered always-already-available ways of being out of not being able to find answers to his ontological questions from any of the accepted authorities of his day (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle). Failing in his search, he turned to his own always-already-available ways of being. As well as finding the answer he wanted, he discovered an important patterning mechanism in thought.
Benjamin Lee Whorf, before he became an anthropologist, was a fire insurance investigator. He found that people often caused fires out of misunderstanding linguistic labels. A worker would see an “empty” oil drum and drop a lit match into it, overlooking that it was “full” of flammable vapours.
An office worker would throw a coat over a cone heater and toggle the “light switch.” When no light went on, the worker mistakenly left the “light switch” in the “on” position, triggering the cone heater and setting the coat ablaze.
In the course of studying these linguistic miscomprehensions, Whorf stumbled upon what has become known as the principle of linguistic relativity – that things will be for us as we see and describe them — called after him and his teacher, Edward Sapir, the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.
Finally, Thomas Kuhn, working as a historian of science at a junior college, found the writers of outdated history texts each touting their own age as the pinnacle of progress. This was so even though the science of that age might go nowhere. Puzzled at how all eras could so blithely regard themselves as the height of attainment, he arrived at the notion of temporocentrism – that people self-servingly tend to represent their own as the best of all possible eras.
Therefore, by generalizing our solutions to the dissonance in our own life or work, we can arrive at paradigmatic breakthroughs in thinking and acting that have a wide social application. The importance of dissonance in facilitating paradigmatic breakthrough should lead us to welcome paradox, confusion, double binds, dualisms, and the clash of opposites in this area of life.
7. Critics Identify Their Own Expertise
A seventh principle encourages us to look upon our critics in a productive way.
Any genuinely new activity cannot be fully planned in advance. The answers to many of the problems it addresses are found in the course of accomplishing the activity itself. The example of changing animal waste into oil produced large numbers of nay-sayers on blogs dedicated to the discussion of current affairs.
Some project planners see them as detractors and try to answer them. Others see them as potential contributors, speaking from their own areas of expertise and identifying important actions that need to be taken. The latter group co-opts these critics and reassigns them to bring their expertise to bear towards the solution of the problems they point to.
Thus, two things are important for the project’s success when viewed from the standpoint of this principle: (1) someone to hold the space for the project succeeding, and (2) someone to co-opt its critics and have them take charge of finding solutions to the problems they point to.
John F. Kennedy co-opted critics who said the right construction materials were not available to build adequate space vehicles. The founder of the Hunger Project, Werner Erhard, put those critics who could see distribution and political problems in the way of ending hunger on the planet in charge of finding distribution and political solutions. This principle reminds us to turn the negative to our advantage and harness the energy of those who can foresee the problems that stand in our way.