Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm for a universal basic income follows naturally from a techno-utopian ideology of abundance. As robots displace human workers, they’ll provide more and more of the goods and services that humans need, faster and cheaper and better than we could. We’ll just need to be paid to consume those goods and services.
This narrative reveals a profound failure of imagination. Our greatest tech visionary, Doug Engelbart, wanted to augment human workers, not obsolete them. If an automated economy can free people from drudgework and — more importantly — sustain them, I’m all for it. But I believe that many people want to contribute if they can. Some want to teach. Some want to care for the elderly. Some want to build affordable housing. Some want to explore a field of science. Some want to grow food. Some want to write news stories about local or global issues.
Before we pay people simply to consume, why wouldn’t we subsidize these jobs? People want to do them, too few are available and they pay too poorly, expanding these workforces would benefit everyone.
The argument I’ll make here applies equally to many kinds of jobs, but I’ll focus here on journalism because my friend Joshua Allen invited me to respond to a Facebook post in which he says, in part:
We thought we were creating Borges’ Library of Babel, but we were haplessly ushering in the surveillance state and burning down the journalistic defenses that might have protected us from ascendant Trump.
Joshua writes from the perspective of someone who, like me, celebrated an era of technological progress that hasn’t served society in the ways we imagined it would. But we can’t simply blame the web for the demise of journalism. We mourn the loss of an economic arrangement — news as a profit-making endeavor — that arguably never ought to have existed. At the dawn of the republic it did not.
This is a fundamental of democratic theory: that you have to have an informed citizenry if you’re going to have not even self-government, but any semblance of the rule of law and a constitutional republic, because people in power will almost always gravitate to doing things to benefit themselves that will be to the harm of the Republic, unless they’re held accountable, even if they’re democratically elected. That’s built into our constitutional system. And that’s why the framers of the Constitution were obsessed with a free press; they were obsessed with understanding if you don’t have a credible press system, the Constitution can’t work. And that’s why the Framers in the first several generations of the Republic, members of Congress and the President, put into place extraordinary press subsidies to create a press system that never would have existed had it been left to the market.
It’s true that a universal basic income would enable passionate journalists like Dave Askins and Mary Morgan to inform their communities in ways otherwise uneconomical. But we can do better than that. The best journalism won’t be produced by human reporters or robot reporters. It will be a collaboration among them.
The hottest topic in Silicon Valley, for good reason, is machine learning. Give the machines enough data, proponents say, and they’ll figure out how to outperform us on tasks that require intelligence — even, perhaps, emotional intelligence. It helps, of course, if the machines can study the people now doing those tasks. So we’ll mentor our displacers, show them the ropes, help them develop and tune their algorithms. The good news is that we will at least play a transitional role before we’re retired to enjoy our universal basic incomes. But what if we don’t want that outcome? And what if it isn’t the best outcome we could get?
Let’s change the narrative. The world needs more and better journalism. Many more want to do that journalism than our current economy can sustain. The best journalism could come from people who are augmented by machine intelligence. Before we pay people to consume it, let’s pay some of them to partner with machines in order to produce quality journalism at scale.