The Long View: Forever Peace

This book review contains a remarkable prediction, one so bold that even I find it hard to believe. John Reilly claims that work has nearly no elasticity.

Would it really make such a difference if all manufacturing jobs were automated? The proportion of people in advanced countries who have such jobs is what, 25%? For most of history, 90% or more of people worked in agriculture. That is why, in political philosophy from Confucius to the physiocrats, only peasants were held to do any real work. Today, in the US, only 1% of the people are actually farmers. By historical measures, everybody else is out of a job.
One way to put it is that economics need not be about things. It can be about access to certain people or places, or about time, or about anything you please. The human capacity to make work is probably more inexhaustible than the universe's ability to provide power for the physical aspects of the activities in question.

I would venture to say that pretty much everyone disagrees with this contention. And for good reason. Sober economists have researched the subject and concluded that automation is a factor in explaining why the US still makes a lot of stuff, and has decreased the number of people employed making all that stuff. Hell, even coal-mining, much in the public mind of late, employs about 50,000 miners in the US, but produces as much coal as ever.

Yet, I'll defend it, at least in part, because it is an interesting idea. Many, many jobs are already very automated, to a degree that is surprising when you stop and think about it. And not just manufacturing or extraction work either. Word processors and email clients have made typists and secretaries nearly obsolete, yet the proportion of women in office jobs has only gone up as the positions they used to be limited to have evaporated. 

This week on Twitter I saw a reference to Moravec's paradox, which claims that it is easier to have a computer do something difficult for a human, like play chess very well, but hard to do something like control a robot walking or recognize a face easily. As stated, I think this has some truth in it, but the subsequent claim that this means white-collar jobs are in more danger from automation and AI than service industry jobs seems a little off. 

I think this because white-collar jobs are already automated heavily. If anything, all the tools and data themselves just make more work to be done. Another way of putting it is that work expands to fill the time available to do it. This truism of project management may have another meaning in the context of automation. Work really is never ending.

It would be interesting to look at employment data from the twentieth century and see if the models predict subsequent employment data we also have. Lots of men, especially, have dropped out of the workforce, but is this actually congruent with automation, or are other things in play? My bet is on something else. 

People [some people] like work, and gain immense fulfillment from it. What makes work fulfilling is an important subject. There are probably kinds of work that are intrinsically more fascinating to people with minds like ours. It also matters if you believe your work to be important. It also matters if you think you are paid fairly. It is possible that automation will eliminate some kinds of work, but I'm not certain it is actually possible to keep people from coming up with new things to do.


Forever Peace
by Joe Haldeman
Ace Books, 1997
351 pages, $6.50
ISBN: 0-441-00566-7

 

Reviewed by John J. Reilly

 

If you were suicidal because you were disgusted with the viciousness of the human race, and you knew that a certain high-energy physics experiment would destroy the world, would you try to stop the experiment? That is what half of this novel is about. The other half is about how to ensure universal peace by linking the world's population together with neural implants. These two themes are less disjointed than they might at first appear. If the human race is worth saving, then the theoretical availability of doomsday technology makes it necessary that some way be found to eliminate the human propensity to use it. Reasonable people may not all find Joe Haldeman's solution entirely plausible, but that is not Haldeman's fault. The problem is intractable.

This book is prefaced with a caveat. The author warns the reader that the book is not a sequel to his famous 1975 novel, "The Forever War," though he does allow that "Forever Peace" treats some of the same issues from new perspectives. One difference between the two books is that the later story does not take place in space, but they are similar in that they both involve an interminable high-tech war. In "Forever Peace," the war is an uneven struggle of the middle-21st century between the First and Third Worlds. The protagonist, Julian Class, is a black American and a junior professor of physics at the University of Texas. He is also an active member of the US Army (he was drafted). This means he spends a large part of every month neurally connected to a warrior-robot in Central America, as well as to the members of the platoon he commands, who all are the brains of robots of their own.

These tank-like robots, called "soldierboys," can and do make short work of merely human opponents. They are not entirely safe to operate; the actual soldiers linked to their sensors and motor controls are subject to stroke and psychological trauma. In any case, these devices have two functions in the novel. They allow for the grisly episodes that drive Class to attempt suicide, and they provide an occasion to introduce the surgically implanted neural links that play a part in the larger story. The good guys discover that very prolonged links between people have the effect of "humanizing" them, turning them into creatures incapable of violence except in self-defense.

The need for such a leap in evolution is based on some scary new physics. Well, it is presented as a new discovery of some of the characters, though you have probably heard of something like it if you follow popular physics. The doomsday discovery relates to the suggestion that a sufficiently energetic event, such as might occur in a particle accelerator, could knock the vacuum in a small region of space to a quantum background state lower than that found in the rest of the universe. This region would then expand, engulfing everything in its path at the speed of light. Physicists have even speculated that this was pretty much what happened in the Big Bang, which might conceivably have destroyed an earlier universe in the process of creating our own.

The usual objection to this hypothesis is that, if we really did live in a universe with a "false vacuum," then some event would have collapsed it already. Haldeman suggests that the expansion of true vacuum space might be limited to particular galaxies, though you can make up your own explanation for why this should be. (In any case, there is a discussion of the ethical implications of the false vacuum hypothesis in John Leslie's The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction.)

Two further conditions make a change in human nature not just necessary but immediately imperative. The first is that the human race is no longer protected by high costs. Thanks to the invention of nano-technology, which is to say machines that operate on the molecular level, the cost of manufacturing has pretty much fallen to that of the necessary raw materials. If coal is put in the top of a properly programmed nanoforge, for instance, perfectly cut diamonds will come out the bottom. This manufacturing technology made it possible to build an immense particle accelerator array in orbit around Jupiter, using an unmanned nanoforge based on Io. The accelerator, needless to say, turns out to be large enough to start the spatial-collapse catastrophe.

Then there is human cussedness. At the time of the story, an apocalyptic sect known as the "Enders" ("ultimadiadores" in Spanish) is much in evidence. Except for occasional acts of mayhem against unbelievers, they are content to wait for the Rapture. More dangerous is a powerful and widespread secret society called "The Hammer of God," which is quite willing to accelerate the end of the world should the possibility present itself, as indeed it does. Having learned of the good guys' discovery about the nature of space, they attempt to suppress it so that the world will end on schedule. (The date when the accelerator is to be tested is September 24, which may be Rosh Hashanah for that year, a favorite date for apocalyptic speculation.)

"Forever Peace," in the honored tradition of stories set in the future, seeks to be reasonably topical. Even its characterization of the American president as "the most feckless since Andrew Johnson" may be intended to provide a little contemporary resonance for people who read the book during the Clinton Administration. Still, I would suggest that this story continues to use some assumptions that may have been more plausible 25 years ago than they are today.

One such assumption is the hypothesis of a gender-neutral military. This has been a staple of science fiction for some time, in no small part because of the plausible treatment Haldeman gave it in "The Forever War." The reality does not seem to be working out all that well in the US armed services. The matter has not gone unreported, though it still remains beyond the acceptable limits of what can be discussed in the mass media. It seems probable to me that, long before the middle of the next century, the percentage of women serving in the US armed forces will shrink to the 5% or so that is normal to the militaries of English-speaking countries, with complete exclusion of women from combat missions. Of course, my prediction could turn out to be just science fiction.

Then there is the economics of abundance. In Haldeman's nanoforge economy, almost nobody works. Except for college professors and waiters, almost everyone in the advanced countries is content to live on a government stipend. For reasons that are not made altogether clear, the nanoforges are a closely guarded government monopoly. Third World client states are kept in line by the amount of nanoforge production allocated to them, though it might seem to be simpler to just give away the damn nanoforges to whoever wants one.

One of the odd things about the book is that nowhere is there an explanation for the interminable war. What are these people fighting about? If manufacturing labor costs are essentially zero, you cannot even make the Marxist argument that the immiseration of the poor countries is somehow enriching the rich ones. There are no ideological differences; the whole world is socialist, because the economy has become a government utility. Something is wrong with this picture.

The world described in "The Forever War" was also one in which most people did little but consume, since the economy was so automated that it ran itself. Nano-technology really adds nothing to the picture, which I think we can now say is probably wrong. Since Haldeman's earlier book was published, much of the manufacturing economy has been automated, and even what had been skilled clerical work is now handled by computers. The result was a labor shortage, at least in the United States, and a vast increase in living standards in the developing countries. There is a lesson here.

It really is true that technology does not cause unemployment. The assumption that more machines mean fewer jobs is based on an error that is not so different from the notion that the state exists just because there are social classes. Just as Marxists had thought that the end of social classes would cause the state to whither away, so technological pessimists thought that everyone would go on welfare as soon as "no one had to work for a living." In both cases, the assumption is that politics and economics are essentially utilitarian institutions.

This is pretty clearly not the case. As anyone who has been to high school can tell you, political activity is not something that people do just to ensure the necessities of life. People do politics for prestige, for fun, even when there is no particular need. The state is just another way that human beings interact. The same is true of economic activity. As Aristotle famously put it, man is a political animal, but he is also an economic one. People will trade and dicker and build better mousetraps even when they are already materially secure for life.

Would it really make such a difference if all manufacturing jobs were automated? The proportion of people in advanced countries who have such jobs is what, 25%? For most of history, 90% or more of people worked in agriculture. That is why, in political philosophy from Confucius to the physiocrats, only peasants were held to do any real work. Today, in the US, only 1% of the people are actually farmers. By historical measures, everybody else is out of a job.

One way to put it is that economics need not be about things. It can be about access to certain people or places, or about time, or about anything you please. The human capacity to make work is probably more inexhaustible than the universe's ability to provide power for the physical aspects of the activities in question.

Haldeman has a few other ideas about the 21st century that may be prescient, but that have not quite gelled. For instance, he suggests that dangerous machines and substances will be either illegal or closely rationed. Thus, guns are outlawed and hardly anybody owns a car. The result is that this may be the only science fiction story I have ever read in which people routinely travel on the Amtrak passenger railroad system. On the other hand, he still depicts cities as dangerous, decaying places, which in fact many American cities became after their citizens decamped in their cars for the suburbs. In the 1970s, it was easy enough to believe that this would be a permanent fact of life. Closer to the end of the century, however, we see that urban decay is not irreversible. If cars were eliminated except for special purposes, then urban sprawl would soon implode to form high-density cities. As in the past, these could easily afford to be safe and tidy, precisely because services are easier to deliver to a compact population. Futures that look like "Blade Runner" or "Mad Max" look less and less plausible.

Finally, let us consider the way in which mankind is saved. One of the great humanizing ideas of the Enlightenment is that conflict is a product of misunderstanding. The theory is that, at bottom, everybody has the same interest. If only people had the education to let them just sit down and talk to each other, they would see that their hostilities were based on errors of fact. Surely linking up everybody's brains would have this effect.

The problem is that the assumption is not quite correct. The conviction that we all have a commonality of interest has greatly enhanced the happiness of mankind, because it is true more than half the time. However, the really intractable conflicts are those in which the interests of the parties are not the same. If one is right, the other is wrong. If one expands, the other contracts. If one lives, the other dies. This is not the whole of human life, but it is enough to put "forever peace" beyond a technological solution.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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Forever Peace
By Joe Haldeman