The Tumult to Come

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

On February 1, Knopf published The Fear Index, a novel by Robert Harris, who also authored The Ghost (called The Ghost Writer in the movie version), Fatherland (an alternate-history classic), and a series of historical novels set in ancient Rome. In this latest novel, Harris has crafted a page-turning thriller that also wrestles with ideas. It’s a story about financial markets and artificial intelligence, and it begins with an epigraph from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

I won’t be giving away any twists of the plot by quoting a statement made by the protagonist of the novel, Alex Hoffmann, who has migrated from CERN (the world-leading particle physics laboratory in Geneva) to lead a secretive and extraordinarily successful hedge fund:

It used to be the case that we imagined that computers—robots—would take over the menial work in our lives, that they would put on aprons and run around and be our robot maids, doing the housework or whatever, leaving us free to enjoy our leisure. In fact, the reverse is happening. We have plenty of spare, unintelligent human capacity to do those simple, menial jobs, often for very long hours and poor pay. Instead, the humans that computers are replacing are members of the educated classes: translators, medical technicians, legal clerks, accountants, financial traders.

Holding this thought, we should also consider the introduction to The Wage Slaves’ Glossary, by Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell, in which the authors quote from The Coming Insurrection, an “anti-manifesto” from the “Invisible Committee, a group of radical French activists,” published in English translation in 2009:

Here lies the present paradox: work has totally triumphed over all other ways of existing, at the same time as workers have become superfluous. Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in the manufacture of any product. We are living the paradox of a society of workers without work, where entertainment, consumption, and leisure only underscore the lack from which they are supposed to distract us.

We can ignore the hyperbole and naïveté of this “anti-manifesto,” shared with most of what has been proclaimed more recently under the banner of the Occupy Movement. We can grant that, yes, professional soothsayers of one variety or another (like the little boy who cried “Wolf!”) are ALWAYS explaining that we live in a time of imminent crisis and unprecedented revolutionary change (you can fill in the rest of the spiel). But we should remember that sometimes their message, nevertheless, turns out to be true.

We may be living in a time that resembles, in some respects, the interim between World War I and World War II. During those years, many people had a sense of great convulsions to come. For some, there were critical decisions to be made—German Jews, for example, who decided to emigrate while they could—but for many, it was a matter of recognizing the trajectory of the moment, as we might register the weather, even as they were getting along with the business of their everyday lives.

At such moments especially, if we are wise, we will renew daily our commitments to that which does not change, even if our world is turned upside down.

John Wilson's earlier article, Trouble in Paradise: What's Work Got to Do with It, began this discussion about the changing landscape of work.

Image by Nana B Agyei. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture.