After a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, a new version of my framework! I finally decided to get rid of Make Creativity Work and Make Community Work in favor of a more streamlined approach that’s also more deeply rooted in our history. I’ve probably got another year’s worth of work before I can say it “tight and bright.” But this is a significant step forward.
Many experts believe that between 2025 and 2040, 25-75% of all jobs will be replaced by robots/AI. Given that the rules of our economy already concentrate wealth and power at the top, this crisis could end up devastating the middle class and the poor and destroying our democracy. But not all experts agree that robots/AI could bring about mass unemployment, and there’s no way to know who’s right.
If you don’t know if it’ll rain tomorrow and you can’t afford to get wet, the smart thing to do is bring a small umbrella. It’s time to stop obsessing over trying to predict the future and start focusing on creating a strategy to build more just, prosperous economy regardless of whether robots and AI destroy many jobs. In short, it’s time for Makers All.
Before we explore solutions, first we need to ask, what values do we want a more just, prosperous economy to support? Makers All argues for the following:
- From Harlem to Harlan County, ensure no community is left behind — and heal the damage already inflicted by white supremacy and deindustrialization
- Provide income security regardless of how many jobs are eliminated
- Give everyone a chance to express their creativity, to explore their full potential, and contribute to society
Makers All’s strategy for building a economy that supports these values is based on 3 pillars: security, knowledge, and power.
Pillar #1: Security
First and foremost, we need to guarantee everyone has enough to live on regardless of how many jobs are eliminated:
– Provide everyone a Universal Basic Income so no one starves
– If robots/AI create mass unemployment, create opportunities to earn more income that anyone can take advantage of and that strengthen communities (e.g., “volunteer bucks”, income for taking care of children and the elderly). The extent to which we need to create these opportunities will depend in part on how successful the next 2 Pillars are at creating broad-based prosperity.
– Reduce the amount of income we need to live a good life: personal digital fabrication, affordable housing, etc.
In doing so, we can also give everyone the flexibility of not having to work 40 hours a week and shift the focus of our efforts from ensuring there are enough good paying jobs to ensuring income security for all.
Why Security Isn’t Enough
Most debates about mitigating robots’ impact stop here. But in an economy where robots/AI are ubiquitous, just focusing on security leaves most of the power of this new economy in the hands of a small elite. This would be dangerous even if robots don’t create mass unemployment. But remember Mitt Romney’s makers vs. takers? Now imagine an economy where more and more people will never have a job. This is a recipe for disaster.
The last time many people in our society were economically secure — the decades right after World War II — it was in no small part because in the 1930s and 40s unions built grassroots power at the heart of the economy. By the 1930s, automation and mechanization were deskilling many jobs and pushing down wages. But by organizing both skilled and semiskilled workers within a factory, white workers were able to force corporations to share the profits workers had helped create. The main challenge we face today is how to build a new form of grassroots power at the heart of the new economy regardless of how many jobs are eliminated — and ensure that this time everyone benefits.
But how do we build grassroots power in an economy dominated by robots and AI if only a handful of people know how to make robots and AI? The answer is Pillar #2: democratize the technology in such a way that everyone benefits.
Pillar #2: Knowledge
Making and editing videos used to be a skill only a few possessed. Today it’s so accessible that it’s possible to make a living making/editing videos without years of formal training (although highly trained professionals still occupy a major economic niche). Is something similar with robots and AI — or for that matter, with augmented and virtual reality, digital fabrications, wearables, and other emerging technologies that are going to become the core of the new economy? And can we do it in a way that also lays the groundwork for building grassroots power at the heart of this new economy?
We aren’t the first people to wrestle with the issue of how to democratize technology. From the 19th century agrarian Populists to the early 20th century Agricultural Extension Services to the the popular health education movement started by Our Bodies, Ourselves in the 1970s, we already know how to make complex technical knowledge accessible to a wide audience.
If we apply these lessons from the past, we can revolutionize the world of programming. We can rewire tech culture to prioritize building coding tools that are widely accessible and create an ecosystem around these tools that smooths the learning curve between levels of technical expertise. In doing so, we can ensure that in every community, as many individuals as possible can participate in the new economy both as tool users and tool creators.
But words alone won’t convince people that this coding revolution is possible; it’s going to take real-world examples. That’s why Makers All is beginning work on spinning up apart project to demonstrate what’s possible.
Finally, as important as it is to reduce the gap in technical know-how, we also need to shift the way we think about worker retraining. Today we often use an individualized, atomized model of “lifelong learning,” where workers must keep swimming towards a life raft as one economic wave after the other sweeps them out of it. Instead, we needed approach designed to knit communities back together by building a community-based ecosystem that not only teaches people to use in make tools but also how to build businesses, economic power, and strengthen citizenship. Or to put it another way, what if vocational education and worker retraining were designed like the 1960s Civil Right Movement’s citizenship schools?
Pillar #3: Power
To understand how to build grassroots power at the heart of this new economy, first you need to understand the new economy’s dynamics. Over the next 20 years, not only robots and AI but also augmented and virtual reality, digital fabrication, wearables, and other emerging technologies will become ubiquitous. In this new economy, the greatest value won’t come from physical products but from the creative works that power them: a robot’s software that lets it cook, the recipe that tells it how to make tomato soup, the patent for sensors that lets it know when a chicken breast is done.
The Internet has given us a sneak preview of what an economy dominated by creative works could look like. With websites, YouTube, and open source software, we have an unprecedented bounty of creative works at our fingertips. But the financial benefits have largely gone to the top: musicians, newspaper reporters, and other makers of creative works have a harder time paying the bills, income inequality has soared, and communities from Compton to Detroit have essentially been written off.
To avoid a future that looks like the present, we need to build grassroots power within and across communities. The goal: to ensure that everyone, not just a handful of corporations and the wealthy, gets a seat at the table where decisions get made about the legal and de facto rules governing creative works so that both the creative bounty and the profits are widely shared (e.g., “YouTube Done Right”). As we attempt to do so, we may be able to learn important lessons from the successes and failures of late 19th-century populist movements who faced surprisingly similar economic challenges.