What’s the price of meaningfulness?

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism in a preamble to a post by John Boik, a PhD in biomedical sciences from the University of Texas, Health Sciences Center in Houston — who makes the case the economy must look to create meaningful innovative jobs to give all of us a sense of purpose — sets out the following critique:

I hate to be a nay-sayer about a well-intentioned post, and I expect some readers will disagree with my point of view vehemently. However, this article about the nature of work clearly implies that work is valuable only if it is perceived by the person doing it to be “creative”. But this is fallacious because “creative” is the new cool. It professes to be about finding meaningfulness in work in a quasi-Maslowean hierarchy of needs, that people should find some form of self actualization in work.

In fact, what has happened in America is that people have been trained to see manual work, unless it can somehow be seen as being “creative” like making artisanal pickles or restoring fancy furniture, as well as most service work, as demeaning drudgery. If you make something be perceived to be socially undesirable or not very worthy (as an excuse for giving lousy pay), you’ll breed unhappy workers merely by virtue of social contempt (see expectancy theory for more detail).

The fact is most people are not creative. And this is not just my personal opinion, this is Carl Jung. Even though Myers Briggs is over-used, it has its place (IMHO it’s more useful for looking at how certain types behave in organizational settings than in one-on-one or personal relationships). The Jung-derived Myer-Briggs framework differentiates between “intuitives” who are somewhat to very impatient with convention and rules and admire imaginative people, versus “sensing” types, who like following procedures and get very annoyed with what they perceive to be undisciplined “intuitives”. And even though this categorization needs to be taken with a fistful of salt, the population seems to skew heavily to sensing types (an estimated 70%) versus intuitives (30%).

If you believe this paradigm, this says that most people would be perfectly happy doing a routine job, with no doubt some important provisos: that it was treated with respect, that the boss wasn’t a jerk, that the workpace demands were realistic, and that the worker had a way to complete his task and feel he could see he had done a good job. In other words, I suspect widespread workplace anomie has far more to do with the widening gap in status between bosses and the underlings, ever-intrusive supervision, unstable hours and in higher-status but not senior positions, on-call demands, a lack of employer loyalty to employees, which means employees have to put up or shut up, and not work content.

The point is simple, intuitive and gets to the heart of the problem with stealth digital authoritarianism. Unless you’re a creative, society has no place for you.

In an amazing mind-meld coincidence, I’d made the exact same point in an email conversation with a reader who had reached out to me on the back of Thursday’s AI Inflation Paradox post. That piece highlighted the absurdity of creating synthetic systems to displace humans from high-paid knowledge jobs (among them administrative and bureaucratic ones) just to demote them to lower-paid jobs such as IT programming jobs, post-it note congregation jobs, or outright menial work. In the new economy it’s high-paid creativity for a handful of superstars and low-paid coding work, persuasion work (advertising and PR) or increasingly insecure menial labour and service work for everyone else.

The reader argued:

I don’t think this is happening on a large scale (yet), and these skilled workers will likely find alternative work over the long haul (such as becoming designers or maintenance programmers for said A.I. products, or go into sales to sell these products);

An alternative perspective, of course, is that programming is mostly just another admin processing job and one which is equally unappealing (if not more) to a great number of people. The only difference with programming being, as Smith infers, it takes us closer to an intrusive supervisory environment which feeds on personal data, persuasion and control to the benefit of a very concentrated set of vested interests.

But really, as my emailed reply made clear, the core issue remains the modernist obsession with forcing creativity upon everyone:

The tech utopians IMHO are forcing creativity on everyone. Not everyone is. Humanity is a spectrum of different types of personalities and natural skills. Some people crave order and security. Others love risk, mess and insecurity. To assume humanity is all the latter is ridiculous because actually the demographic evidence suggests most of humanity is pretty mediocre and satisfied with quite ordinary or material things. Ignorance is bliss etc etc.

The richness and diversity of humanity is its greatest strength. There are natural leaders (fewer) and natural followers. But this AI assumption is we can all excel in creativity. But look at the web. Where are the Rembrandts and da Vincis? Most of modern art is thoroughly mediocre. In fact most web content is mediocre. It takes passion and struggle to outperform. Artists don’t choose to be artists. They are afflicted with a compulsive need to create. It’s their struggle to be an artist that often heightens their creativity. I’m an ancient historian and I look at this from the point of Pax Romana. Society decays when there is no struggle. But this isn’t even about menial struggle. I think everyone can agree fewer menial jobs make us wealthier. It’s the absurdity of giving AIs knowledge and creative jobs to downshift them to menial work that’s crazy.

It seems logical that if we want an economy full of meaningful jobs, not just ones that pay the bills or enable subsistence, we need to cater to the full spectrum of the human condition. This means understanding that for those who are that way inclined, manual work can be deemed a fair trade for security, simplicity, a good base standard of living and a peaceful life — and that this in itself is meaningful.

Sadly, in the absence of a liberal recognition of the importance of the economy of meaning, people will gravitate to more radical groups who do recognise it, like the thinkers of the “alt-right,” among them Aleksandr Dugan and his fourth political theory.

Dugin has been derided in the West for many valid reasons, like cozying up with Vladimir Putin. But like many controversial thinkers, some of his ideas are intriguing, namely his suggestion that liberalism is broken because it lacks a compelling challenger. He argues after communism and fascism discredited themselves, liberalism triumphed in an almost monopolistic manner and in so doing succumbed to the adage that power corrupts. He further argues that, without a viable challenger, liberalism not only lost the incentive to self scrutinise or engage in introspection, but also to self correct. For Dugin, whatever ideology challenges liberalism must be grounded in something other than individualism, class struggle or nationalism. He proposes it be grounded in the Heideggerian concept of Dasein, German for being, which is most simply interpreted to signify a political economy based on meaning, purposefulness and authenticity.

Some of these ideas are not incompatible with liberalism, though it’s often difficult to point that out for fear of being shunned in polite society. But it’s worth highlighting that behavioural economists have been on to some of these sentiments for decades.

Bluntly speaking, forcing non-creative people to engage in creative life is as authoritarian as depriving creatives from the chance to express themselves. As for propagating the idea that everyone who can’t be creative should be a programmer who accepts algorithmic deterministic authority and decision making “because that’s where the future is taking us”, well that’s about as authentic and meaningful as living in an ant colony.

George Loewenstein and co-authors noted in their 2004 paper the economics of meaning” that:

People want to believe that they have some control over their behavior and hence their destiny — they want to feel as if they are more than the sum of nerve firings happening in obscure parts of their brain.

Because the act of making autonomous choices generates utility in and of itself, it can lead to counterintuitive scenarios where people act against their own self-interest just because they can. A digital society which obsessively transfers decision-making away from humans and over to algorithms (just because it judges decision-making to be a burden) thus risks destabilising society as a whole. As the paper’s conclusion notes:

If economics do not take into account meaning, it runs the risk of missing something important in the understanding of human behavior.

There’s something to that. Humans want autonomy.

Related links:

An Economy of Meaning – or Bust – Naked Capitalism
AI’s inflation paradox – FT Alphaville
Why Morgan Stanley is talking down autonomous car expectations – FT Alphaville
The misguided logic of a robot tax – FT Alphaville

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