The Robots are Coming

A casual discussion about the automation of work and the decreasing relevance of humans to productivity.


November 09, 2014

Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future is a novel set sometime in the future with a protagonist living in Cary, North Carolina and working at a burger chain.

The first three chapters present a compelling dystopian scenario for how minimum wage workers were displaced by a new software system ("Manna") designed to increase efficiency.

The switchover to robots was proceeding with remarkable speed, and for some reason it seemed like no one had really thought about the effects of the transition. All of these people being replaced by the robots needed some form of income to survive, but the job pool was shrinking. The American “service economy” was what replaced the “factory economy", and America now had about half of its workers wrapped up in low-paying service sector jobs. These were the jobs perfectly suited for the new robots. The question was, what would happen to the half of the population being displaced from their service sector jobs?

From there, the book descends into bad science fiction as it lays out a hypothetical perfect society in Australia where things like private ownership have been overcome and humanity proceeds forward in perfect enlightenment. As the Wikipedia page mentions, several controversial points are simply assumed as true.

The book was apparently written as an attempt to indict our current society and system of governance. The author’s distaste for our current path is heavy-handed and obvious. His longing for the dream society is breathless and simplistic and essentially disregards basic principles of our (admittedly flawed) human nature. I found myself resenting the author for assuming I’d be on board with it all.

The first third of the book where the author (Marshall Brain of the “How Stuff Works” empire, incidentally) lays out the case for mass automation of work is very, very good. The rest of it, considerably less so.