Bloom: Division of Labor and Artificial Intelligence

In the spirit of reconsidering many aspects of economic life, questioning underlying assumptions, and finding ways of reimagining the next economy, the division of labor has received little attention. It is certainly hard-wired into the current capital-driven market economy that seeks to maximize profit. While an awareness of the consequences of this profit-seeking economy is growing, the nature of work and how to organize it lags behind even in the social enterprise world. The division of labor in its many expressions has both a natural origin and a more mechanistic application. So, it is not the concept itself that is here under examination but rather how it has been applied and, more recently, what might be considered an unintentional consequence.

Since the beginning of civilization, people have engaged the world of natural resources to meet their and others’ material needs. In other words, they have created an economy. Some people have been ingenious at working with and transforming natural resources, others in organizing that work for efficiency, effectiveness, and broader distribution.* The division of labor is an inevitable presence in both these streams and is one of those bedrock economic concepts so prevalent that one can hardly question its axiomatic function. All human beings have their own particular capacities of mind, body, and soul and thus their own relationship to other human beings and to nature. The idea of mutuality, of shared responsibility in community and the relevance and application of those capacities, is the essential foundation of economic life.

Historically, there have been two primary aspects of thought regarding the division of labor. One subscribes to the inevitable efficiency of production that results from the division and specialization of labor in the service of capital. The second identifies the dehumanizing effect of such specialization based on the notion that the developing human being wants to learn and be whole and, thus, needs to engage in a range of activities to maintain interest in life and nourish the soul. Plato actually speaks to both streams in his Republic—specialization is necessary to leverage individual capacities, but this necessity runs counter to the inherent holistic impulse of learning about the world and self. One can find elements of this argument with Adam Smith (industrialization) and Émile Durkheim (The Division of Labor in Society) as well as Karl Marx (alienation) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (self-reliance).

Economists have to cross paths with the human and social reality of the division of labor in understanding economic life—if they want economic thinking to be practical rather than theoretical and see labor as something other than a commodity. Such division is a natural result of how we organize work by self-governed social processes through which individual and organizational strengths are recognized in producing the material goods we need or want. Contrast this with a more extreme product-centric example of an imposed division of labor, the assembly line. Specialization and more granularity mark the progression toward singularly focused knowledge, limited activity, and the sacrifice of human creativity—all sparked by the relentless drive for efficiency. In some professions such as medicine, deep but narrow specializations have led to a kind of efficiency and effectiveness of practice that can border on the miraculous in what they can accomplish. This statement might seem to contradict an earlier one, but in the U.S., for example, doctors also operate in a medical-economic system that has favored these kinds of specialization and subspecialization. In a certain sense, this approach, while celebrating research and professionalism, is still organized within a mechanistic imagination.

The drive for efficiency also correlates with the needs, desires, or avarice we express in the production of capital. This is the modern condition of capitalism. It has genius and sorrow. Genius is in specificity—in the ability to replace a hip or heart effectively or store vast amounts of data in ever smaller real estate. Sorrow comes in the competitive drive for profits that plays host to all this innovation with little regard for the consequences to the human beings producing it. Capital seeks its own increase even as I experience gratitude for what capital has made possible. And people are used up or replaced in capital producing work and rarely share in the capital that accrues to the one who has the idea and organizes the labor to produce it. Here there does seem to be what I would call a disconnect that shows itself in the ascent of intellectual property—a monetizing and extractive factor of modern industry through which a fictive claim of ownership is made on what is essentially spiritual, the idea. Just as nature does, consciousness is in constant metamorphosis and evolution. Look at the invention and constant advancement of say an item such as a laptop. It is an expression of applied intelligence over time, each stage learning from the last. Thus, to commodify one part of this developmental process is a moral breach as well as a self-interested and false claim of rights.

Division of labor is a completely organic emergence in the production of goods. Within a community of work, everyone has capacities that serve economic life. For example, some are good at growing vegetables, some at making clothes, some at building. The community can recognize these strengths quickly and organize activities around them. It makes the highest and best use of skills and time, and such economic participation leads to a sense of satisfaction in the form of right livelihood. Karl Marx made an important distinction in two qualities of the division of labor: one is social and derives from mutual community agreements, the other is imposed by the needs of manufacturers and the owners of the means of production. The former is, of course, human and organic in origin; the latter is system-centered and oppressive in nature and reduces labor to a commodity.

What has yet to be addressed is a generative connection between the division of labor and the evolution of artificial intelligence, especially as applied to the production of goods and services. This is a further extension of dehumanizing labor in the service of capital. The imagination here is the movement from increasingly refined divisions or specializations to an even more reductive micro division of labor into sequences of binary (on-off) switches. Then those switches are programmed to produce mechanistic activity that imitates thought-free human actions—although, of course, it is amoral. This is a division of labor that translates thoughts—the collective memory of the history of human work—into parts devoid of feeling. What is replaced, and what is displaced? The imitation, no matter how sophisticated, is still the result of someone’s programming, although computers can now learn and program themselves accordingly as their algorithms respond to new data. In a limited way, human intelligence can be mapped, and that map can be turned into a topography of something that looks like thinking. Given the speed of computation and the management of complexity, many nearly simultaneous alternative pathways could appear intuitive. It will certainly be marketed that way, as the underlying drive is still essentially commercial—improving efficiency during the production of capital.

One result of automated labor is to free people from the consequences of redundant manufacturing tasks like those that Charlie Chaplin so wonderfully characterized in his classic film Modern Times. So, there are some positive but socially challenging aspects to the application of basic artificial intelligence. The second historical aspect of the division of labor, the question of the human qualities, resurfaces as phenomenally important. If the workforce labor as we know it is replaced or transformed, what is the function of education in the context of human development? The sense of self and purpose that has come to be shaped in modern society is primarily defined by or comes as a result of what a person does rather than who a person is. This is what the existentialists were telling us back in the last century. But if this modern condition is no longer to be the case, understanding human beings and how to support them in the self-directed striving toward becoming human is a relatively new task for education. This begs a new question: Will the surplus capital generated by the economic efficiencies be made available both for this new education and for some form of real basic income to support those people who are freed from mechanistic labor? What I am really putting forward, in the spirit of opening a new dialogue at closing time, is the idea that the redemption of the long arc of the division of labor and its adverse consequences for human beings will be the liberation of capital itself. It will be liberated in service to the elimination of suffering and the further evolution of humanity. This will signify a radical transformation of capital, our economic relationships and I would say, consciousness itself.

It was visionary to imagine the division of labor, to imagine that a motorcar could be mass manufactured. It was visionary to imagine that a computer could replicate aspects of human labor. There is a line of service to culture and moral intention in these visions even though they have made some people enormously wealthy and some others impoverished. With the recognition that the assembly line has been dehumanizing, and that computers are amoral, we have to rediscover our moral nature if we are to thrive beyond the artifice of intelligence.  And, I do not believe there is an algorithm for that.

John Bloom
© 2018

*In his cycle of lectures given in 1922 on economics and now titled Rethinking Economics, Rudolf Steiner spoke about the two streams of value creation in the economy. Stream one is the direct application of labor to land (natural resources). Stream two is the application of intelligence in organizing labor. The development of value, while important in economic thinking, is not a central consideration in this essay, but the two streams have direct relevance for the division of labor.

John is vice president of organizational culture at RSF.

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