Jun 17 2012

The John Henry Fallacy


If you are familiar with American Folklore, you probably recall the story of John Henry. He was a steel driver in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. If you don’t know what that means, it basically means he drove steel wedges into rocks to cut through them for railroads. John Henry was supposedly the best of them, and is famous for the tale of his competition against an early steam rock-cutter. He won against this prototype, barely, and it cost him his life. This story is often used as an allegory of the “Man vs Machine” meme, in which we are presented a choice – either Man or Machine – without any other options presented. In these arguments, the author is generally proposing to eliminate the machine in favor of the man, and advocate the abandonment or imposition of limits on technology.

Indeed, even one of the few books which I would consider positive on the subject of technological advancement, Martin Ford’s The Lights In the Tunnel frequently falls into this dualistic view, that man is in competition with machine, and that this competition inevitably will be won by the machine. In a recent blog post he links to numerous articles showing the ongoing replacement of humans in the workplace by machines. In the next most recent blog he shows examples of how many businesses are reaching a point where it is impossible for them to keep human workers and remain competitive. If we accept that the John Henry options, man or machine, are the only two that exist, then it looks very much like man is losing, and losing badly.

Yet I titled this article as I did precisely because this “choice” is a complete falsehood based on an underlying assumption: that the economy will always be one of scarcity. In an economy of scarcity, the assumption that individual humans need to compete against each other for scarce natural resources, and that this requires them to have “jobs” in order to acquire the means to survive, makes such a “choice” seem inevitable. If “machines” win, “humanity” loses.  Everywhere you turn, machines are taking away human jobs, replacing humans in the workforce in ever greater numbers, and invading jobs which once only humans could perform, from doing basic science research, to preparing legal paperwork, to financial trading, and even medical diagnostics. It’s a bleak prospect for the overwhelming majority of humanity about to rendered “obsolete” to the scarcity economy. Looked at from this perspective, it’s a possible future that makes William Gibson’s “cyberpunk future” look positively rosy. For a rather dark and disturbing look at the possibilities, Marshall Brain’s “Manna” is a highly recommended start.

There’s just one huge, gigantic, impossible to overlook flaw in this logic. “The Market” exists only so long as “consumers” exist to “purchase” good and services. Without people to supply a demand, it doesn’t matter how much supply exists.  A completely automated system of production will destroy the economy of scarcity by creating a mode in which supply becomes effectively infinite, and demand becomes so easily met that it can no longer be “sold” and thus becomes essentially “free”. For all the logical errors I could point out in the first part of Manna, Brain’s view of the possibilities full automation could bring about are just the tiniest tip of the iceberg.

Because the dichotomy presented by the John Henry choice is not merely false, it blinds us to the reality that we want the machines to win. As I pointed out in Adding our way to Abundance the 3d printing revolution is going to force the costs of manufacturing to plunge to below rock bottom. With the addition of robotic “resource gatherers” that can mine, refine, and process natural resources, and robotic drone delivery systems, the need for a human element in the supply chain vanishes, leaving only the demand side left. With supplies able to meet demand at effectively zero cost, the only remaining “jobs” left to humanity will be in creating “new” demand. Because until we create true AI, all of those machines will ultimately have only one single purpose. To give Humanity what it wants, because only humanity can have “desires” for those machines to meet.

So like John Henry, fighting the machines is the worst possible choice. If we “win”, we will only lose.