Jackson MeadTuesday,5 March 2013

The Snap:

A conversation with Marshall Brain, in three parts. In this part we discuss his path to success and his his new book, “Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future”.

Editor’s note: Please also see Part 2 and Part 3 of Jackson Mead’s conversation with Marshall Brain.

The Download:

JM: We’ve known each other now, for nearly 30 years! Our relationship started with you being my Resident Assistant at RPI where we spent long hours riding our bikes in the triangle between Williamstown, Bennington and Troy. You even taught me how to drive standard in your old pickup truck. Since then, you have become famous for “How Stuff Works”, a couple of TV shows and authoring several books including “A Teenager’s Guide to the Real World” and “Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future”.

Did you have visions, 30 years ago, of what your life would become?

MB: The weird thing about the future is that it can be hard for an individual person to predict with any accuracy. One freak car accident, one chance meeting, one acceptance or rejection, one stroke of luck or anti-luck and a life can go in a whole different direction. When I was in college, I had my life all planned out. It looked like this: 1) Get a degree in computer engineering, and 2) Get a job at Intel designing chips. Intel, however, failed to get the memo. So did everyone else in that industry, and I was unable to get a job.

So I took some time after I graduated, and one thing I did was that I tried to start a business. I wrote a book. I created a piece of software, I ran ads in magazines, I made some sales. Looking back at that effort objectively, the book and software could have been better, and I had a couple of unlucky breaks. That particular business didn’t work out. But I think in that attempt was a seed for what was to come. A couple of key factors: 1) The ability to get out of bed every morning and do a good day’s work without anyone telling me to do that (self-motivation), 2) Optimism and hopefulness, which meant 3) an ability to continue on even when things were not working, 4) a love of writing and a desire to write, and 5) the ability to stop and try something else when it became apparent it wasn’t working.

JM: I thought of you as one of the “original” bloggers because “How Stuff Works” started as a personal project delving into the understanding of a internal combustion engine, right? Why was it so successful?

MB: HSW probably could have been started as a blog, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as effective or successful that way. Instead, it started as an “online book” – The HSW homepage acting as the table of contents and then a series of articles linked off the home page. You are right – internal combustion engines was article #1. I started HSW as a hobby, so I basically added a “chapter” to the “book” every weekend. I would find something I was interested in – pendulum clocks, batteries, water towers, whatever – and I would research it and write about it.

I think a lot of people could mimic that structure today – write a book one piece at a time on the web, where people can see it, ask questions, offer feedback. Use Google AdSense (or something similar) to make a little money. Find ways to increase traffic. What you would like to try to build is a national following in some area. There is the story of Stephanie McPhee, who turned a knitting blog into a book. Then it would be easy to create a Kindle book from your web content or find a publisher interested in tapping into your national audience. For Example.

JM: We are conducting this interview via “regular” email, fifty years ago we’d be doing this by snail-mail. How do you think that communications technology is affecting how we mature?

MB: Since you mentioned “50 years ago”, it reminds me that a colleague recently showed me an old phone book for Raleigh NC that she found in her attic. It was from the 1940s. At the front it listed long distance rates, and it was something like $1 a minute to call NY (That would be $15 per minute in today’s dollars). Today I can video call my friend in France for free on Skype. Think how amazing that is.

If you consider a person growing up in 1900, there were no cars, airplanes, radios, televisions, movie theaters. Most people did not have phones or electricity (the rural electrification act came in 1935). Yet unbelievable inventions happened in that era and great industries were built.

Looking at my kids today, they grow up faster, and are exposed to things a lot sooner. Plus they have this amazing tool that can answer almost any question instantly. I think all of us (me included) fail to fully understand how amazing that is. Just about ANY question you have, anything you want to know, you can sit down right now and get an answer (sometimes hundreds of answers) for free. Think about the implications that has for human development. Yet what most of us tend to do with the technology is far less noble for some reason.

In theory, instead of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, we would all choose the new things we want to do, then learn about them and then go do them. Starting a business, learning a programming language, playing an instrument, taking a college class – anything really – we can now learn to do it for free. It is a fantastic time to be alive, if we take advantage of the opportunity.

Unfortunately, many of us end up in a distraction vortex instead.

JM: I’ve read “Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future”. (Which I believe our readers can get free on Amazon today.) The book paints a picture of two possible futures. Why did you write this book and why do you think the futures presented are important to think about?

MB: In Manna, one future is a logical extrapolation of where America seems to be headed today, with robots/automation taking over more and more jobs. Under the American system, once you lose your job, you eventually become homeless. So as robots start taking all the Walmart jobs, the construction jobs, the transportation jobs and the remaining factory jobs, more than half of America will become unemployed. Then what? In all likelihood, people are warehoused in huge welfare dormitories constructed as inexpensively as possible. This is the institutionalized version of a homeless shelter. The people are not allowed to leave the dorm site because there is no way for them to support themselves off-site.

The other future is based on a completely different economic mindset. In this society, once the robots are able to do all the work, human beings are set free to go on perpetual vacation, and society is designed to make that vacation as amazing as possible. The key thing to recognize is that, if robots are doing all the work, every product or service can be free. The only thing that has to be monitored is resource consumption, so that resources are allocated equitably. In this society, human beings are free to do anything they like – it is an amazing combination of liberty and abundance.

The reason I wrote the book is because the economic model we use today in America, where employees trade their work for money, makes no sense in an era of accelerating automation. There will come a day, perhaps not too far off, where millions and millions of people will become permanently unemployed. This is an inevitable future, and those millions of people will have no place in the economy.

There are other economic systems that would serve humanity much better in a robotic world, if we would make the societal decision to implement one of them. Manna demonstrates one alternative.

JM: People reading the book may think that either of the futures may be desirable or undesirable. To me, they seem to be achingly similar visions of the future. Do you think they are?

MB: To me, the first society presented in Manna creates a welfare prison for most of the citizens. All of the wealth that is made possible by automation concentrates into a few hands, and nearly every worker is displaced and imprisoned as a result.

In the other society, the wealth made possible by automation has been spread out equally to everyone, and everyone has the opportunity to live in liberty and abundance, choosing whatever path they wish for their lives. The citizens of this second society are on perpetual vacation, maximizing their potential as human beings.

Would you rather live in a welfare prison, or in a place of freedom, abundance and maximal human potential?

JM: For all intents and purposes, people in different socioeconomic strata are living out the future portrayed in the novel, today, aren’t they? To some extent, for example, I am not worried about “money” – I live within my means and do what I want for the most part. How is this different from a “Vertebrane” future? Contrast that with those on welfare and living in public housing – aren’t they living the “Manna” future, today?

MB: Your personal situation is something of a bubble in today’s United States. What you are describing is the “middle class”. But the labor market is shifting, and fewer and fewer people (especially families, where the cost of raising kids exacerbates the problem) are finding it possible to make “middle class” happen. Today, for example, about 47 million people in the U.S. are using food stamps – one measure of poverty. This article points out, “real wages have been on a mostly downward slope for more than 40 years.”

Why are real wages declining? Because nearly all wealth gains made possible by automation have been going to what is now known as “the one percent”. There is growing labor displacement seen in the marketplace. So during the recession, companies laid off lots of people and learned to make due with fewer employees (compensating with automation, outsourcing, off-shoring and loading more work onto fewer people). Today those companies are able to operate with fewer people, so there is less need to hire. The jobs are permanently lost.

There is no requirement that says that a capitalistic economy must create jobs. When humans provided all the labor, jobs were a necessary byproduct of economic growth. But with automation, it is possible to build companies today that require fewer employees, and that trend is accelerating. If you can build a factory that is completely robotic, you have no need for any employees.

We used to dig ditches with shovels. So it might take 20 men to dig a ditch. Then the backhoe gets invented. Now one man can do the work of 20. That is good if the backhoe operator gets paid a lot more. But if the backhoe operator gets paid the same as the ditch digger and 19 men are now out of work, it is bad. Prices for ditches should fall, right? And sometimes they do. But they don’t fall as much as they should. And sometimes they even go up – that is the process happening with the price of cable TV, the price of internet access, the price of cell phones and wireless data, etc. There is a good article on this type problem here.

As the number of people out of work and the number of people receiving welfare grows, and more and more wealth concentrates, what will happen? There are several possible solutions in the short term (including more and more welfare, larger shelters, eventually welfare dormitories, etc.) But what is the long-term solution for a society where “work” becomes irrelevant because robots and automation are able to do all the work? That is the question that Manna is discussing.

JM: If we are on the road to one of these possible futures what is it that is driving us there and what would push us to one or the other?

MB: Right now, there is little or no discussion about using the wealth made possible by automation for the benefit of everyone. All evidence indicates that that wealth is concentrating primarily in the “one percent” at an increasing pace. So we are heading toward a future where more and more people are on welfare or they are scraping by. At the same time, there is also a loud political clamor to “cut spending” and “cut entitlement programs”. There has been an increasing militarization of police forces in the United States. At least in the U.S., my interpretation of this evidence is that we are headed toward welfare dormitories (as a way of cutting expenses) or worse unless something changes.

Hat Tips:

Marshall Brain, Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future, Web Book, Wages, Bills, Image Credit: FlickrPart 2Part 3

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  1. […] is the second of three parts of a conversation with Marshall Brain. The first part can be found here. In this part, we continue with themes written about in his new book Manna: Two Visions of […]

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