Object 17

The Half-Life of Skill

2024, Earth

Fast-food chefs. Drivers. Supermarket checkout attendants. Bookshop managers. Street cleaners. Call centre operators. Teaching assistants. Bookkeepers. Pilots. Soldiers. Lab technicians. Publishing executives. Warehouse fulfilment workers. Fishermen. Farmers. Copywriters. Couriers. Assembly-line workers. Actors. Bank tellers. Financial traders. Parking attendants. Personal trainers.

The value of a skill decays over time. Some skills have a half-life measured in decades, such as automobile repair or secretarial work. Others are highly unstable, such as the custodians of mayfly technologies such as Betamax. A few skills may last for centuries or millennia, such as politics or writing or hunting or acting, but even those are not immune. Time, chance, technology, and artificial intelligence affect all skills.

There is a limit to the speed at which normal humans can learn new abilities, and if what they choose has too brief a half-life, even the fastest learners can fall permanently behind.

That was the way of the 21st century; a wave of machine-powered creative destruction engulfing the human-powered economy, machines that didn't just magnify human productivity but replaced human thought. Entire tracts of society found their skills literally worthless within the space of a decade. The resulting reduction in costs saw individual productivity rocket — for those individuals who still had jobs.

Why should we continue to work so hard, Bertrand Russell asked, with such productivity? Why can't we spare time to luxuriate in our wealth? It was "only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, [that] makes us continue to insist on work in excess quantities now that the need no longer exists". He continued, "There is no reason to go on being foolish forever."

Unfortunately, a century was not quite long enough for us to grow out of our foolishness — or to put it a little more charitably, the virtues of hard work that made so much sense for so many millennia are not so easily abandoned. Idleness and relaxation were to be punished; only work could make you valuable.

This archaic view survived well into the 21st century, propped up by the resentment of the privileged who were forced to successively compete against women, ethnic minorities, gays, lesbians, the transgendered, young, old, atheists, and countless others for the jobs and wealth that they had believed were their birthright. Even as the jobs dwindled and wealth was sucked past the event horizon of the plutocracy, those who preached the gospel of competition and the so-called free market couldn’t imagine an alternative, so they taught us that we should have loyalty to no company, no city, no country, no community, no-one. Only to the 'brand of me'.

A competition needs winners, and for every winner, there must be losers.

Few professions were immune; not even 'creatives' or the highly technically educated, those anointed classes of the turn of the century. By the 20s and 30s, a massive oversupply in programmers, fed by shortsighted education policies in the teens, caused wages to plummet. And with the low-hanging fruit of the digital transition now thoroughly picked clean, profits had become shrunken and more concentrated.

Millions of computer-science graduates wondered what had happened to the promises of a safe career as they replicated and automated their way through the economy. Anything they produced that was remotely original was copied within weeks or months. It was hard to stay ahead of the curve, but a few individuals and corporations managed it, insulated by thick layers of capital and connections. Others, such as the amplified teams and the hive minds, were so fast they looked like they were cheating. These winners were unaccountable, transnational, transplanetary. Hard to understand. Hardly human.

But even they weren't invulnerable, their fear belied by their desperate grip on the last vestiges of an unfree market. They wielded patents, copyrights, monopolies, planned obsolescence, addiction, locked-in ecosystems, regulatory capture, advertising, and lobbying; they guzzled social contributions such as open-source software and crowdsourcing and incoming personal data and gave nothing back other than free-if-you-don’t-look-closely services. Anything to maintain their position in a vanishing 'capitalist' system. It worked too well, for too long.

The fall came from within. Median wages stagnated as automation took its toll and margins were squeezed tight. With fewer people earning money, who was left to buy what the machines were making? How many servants and entertainers could even a billionaire employ? And then there were the burgeoning non-profit and mutualised services, organisations that made everything and required zero return to shareholders. They could operate leaner than the best — but they only benefitted a select group of the most organised. It was a slow fall, but it didn’t stop for a century.

The basic minimum income, funded by a wealth tax, was first introduced in Northern European countries in the 20s, decoupling living standards, health, and wellbeing from the need to find an increasingly scarce job. In halts and starts, it spread through the rest of Europe, South America, and parts of Asia in the following decades. It was not a panacea; China still had to deal with its massive environmental damage, Japan walked farther down its path to becoming a empty, haunted fortress, Europe struggled with maintaining democracy.

Yet there was reason for optimism. The cost of labour had dropped, but so had the cost of capital. A billion companies bloomed. Desire modification, co-ops, free digital entertainment, open-sourced designs, reduced patent lengths, the coming Long Congress — they all reshaped the world, over and over again, faster and faster.

The march towards the basic minimum income seems inevitable. It was not. Political and economic power had become fragmented and chaotic, spiralling out of centralised control. The admirably and infuriatingly cautious grand old tradition of representative democracy was crashing straight into the newborn speed-of-thought digital democracy. Both challenged the other's legitimacy. Both were needed to enact change.

Yet they shared the same ideals: that we are all equal before the law, and that, as humans, we all have rights.

That if jobs can't be found, we shouldn't go begging.

That there is virtue in working less and flourishing more — pursuing what makes us humans, not automatons.

That productivity is a solved problem, but wellbeing is not.

The half-life of tradition is long. The half-life of empathy is even longer. A culture that values toil over all does not die overnight, even when faced with suffering. But it does change, atom by atom, person by person — through the hard work of campaigners who believe in a better world.

Utopia is not a place. It is a process of unending struggle, hard fought and hard earned, to make a more perfect world.