The Artist in the Age of Automation

 

 

Human history has come to this: for the first time since the dawn of man, work is disappearing as an inevitable part of life. Automation has replaced people already in many jobs, like receptionists and factory workers. Self-driving trucks are already on the road, and machines can now do things we thought would always be human tasks, like anesthesiology, surgery, sports reporting, and investment analysis. Many of our highest paid professions will soon be extinct.

 

As humans are replaced in the workforce, the idea of Universal Basic Income seems inevitable. Instead of dozens of government programs designed as a safety net for job loss, disability, poverty, and other problems, everyone might get a check each month, just for being a citizen. The machines do the work we used to do, and we get to do what we wish with our cash.

 

Canada, Scandinavian countries, and European countries are already testing Universal Basic Income. A Silicon Valley group is doing the same, and everyone is speculating what will happen when people suddenly have money, free of labor or the stigmas associated with welfare. Everyone gets the same amount, rich or poor—but as theorists and researchers are documenting, the same check has infinitely more value to those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

 

Everyone is also wondering what will happen when people suddenly don’t have to work. Some argue that it will turn people in couch potatoes, but studies are showing that it actually does the opposite—it enables people to do things they value, not things they are forced to do to collect a paycheck. It would not be enough money to finance a luxurious lifestyle, and people will always be looking for ways to have more income. Research suggests that many are inclined to start their own businesses. People will always feel a desire to work, somehow, because what we do is a major part of our personal identity. As Freud told us, everything in human life comes down to two things: love and work.

 

When paying work no longer defines us, and we can pursue work we love, how many people will use a universal basic income to create? Creativity comes in so many forms, and in the business world, that creativity has invented the things that are making work unnecessary, a brilliant creative strategy. But now that we have the machines that can replace us, how will humans adjust?

 

For a while, there may well be a dissonance, as our previous, work-related identities fade away, and we need to reform those identities in some meaningful way. I’m envisioning a new world where many, many people turn to acts of creation, not necessarily of fine art, but the making of things. When an automated world produces everything, there is sudden intrinsic value in things made by human hands. Value is always a function of scarcity.

 

Making things already captures the popular imagination, as we’ve seen in the rise of the Maker Faires and the community that has emerged around them. Without jobs, a lot more people may try their hand at making, to create their own furniture, knit their own sweaters, design gardens, and invent things—and given the opportunity, more people will probably make art.

 

Producing works of art, even if they don’t meet the critics’ arbitrary standards of greatness, is one of the few processes on earth that demands complete uniqueness. Art is the antithesis of manufactured sameness. Works of art, even if they don’t meet those criteria, are one of a kind, a personal visions we couldn’t see ourselves without it. In a world of robots, the emotionality, passion, and unpredictability—the humanity— of art takes on new meaning, along with those who make it.

 

It’s a terrible irony that jobs will have to be obliterated before being an artist has value in the American zeitgeist. Art with a capital A is sacrosanct, but there isn’t much concern for unknown artists. In the America I grew up in, people were rarely encouraged to be an artist or writer, professions guaranteed to pay little until fame brought fortune, which it rarely does. Success in the arts has a lot to do with who you know, what the critics say collectors should buy, and the artist’s ability to do the work without crippling financial anxiety. But as the machine made world overtakes us, that made by human hands becomes much more valuable, which does a lot for the social position of the artist. When computers can replace just about everyone in the workforce, except for those who manifest and maintain the robots that make us expendable—and a few other professions—being an artist will have more consequence.

 

Computers can even replace artists in these turbulent times. San Francisco’s Gray Area, an organization dedicated to the convergence of art and technology, just exhibited a show of art produced by artificial intelligence, Deep Dream. This undeniably beautiful machine-made art certainly has as much passion as we see in the human art of the design age, where something that looks like a 6’ strip of shag carpeting drives critics into ecstasies.

 

There will no doubt be a trend towards art produced by artificial intelligence, because, for a while, it will be the newest, most unexpected thing. But eventually it won’t be the all that new, and the public taste for something else will draw attention elsewhere. It seems likely that when robots run the earth, what is authentically human will become increasingly longed for. When that day arrives for the human race, we may finally see the age of the artist.

 

 

 

 

 

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