Automation threatens our sense of purpose

Automation is both an exciting innovation and a deep spiritual threat to our communities.

To be clear, I think it’s great. The 5-year-old in me loves watching robots build cars, navigate the world, and make food. Now they’ll deliver it too.

This morning, the WSJ was talking about food delivery robots. Everyone’s mega stoked to get their burritos delivered by a cooler on wheels, according to the companies that make the robots.

In this lighthearted video from 2017, you can see Doordash’s delivery robot weathering some staged hooliganry perpetrated by BuzzFeed’s entertainers.

I worked for Doordash for a little while. It was a fun side hustle and a good way to get to know Eugene’s twists and turns after I’d recently moved here.

Food delivery has for a long time been a widely-accessible decently paying job. Whether it’s pizza delivery or modern options like UberEats and Postmates, there’s always money in bringing lazy people their food.

The funny thing about these delivery apps, though, is that they’re actively trying to innovate the humans out of their business model.

All major food delivery apps have partnered with startups such as Marble and Starship Technologies to make delivery bots for the “last mile” between restaurants and our hungry bellies.

Even Domino’s, the pizza chain that delivered 24% of online orders in 2016, is taking big steps to remove humans from its pizza machine.

Once these robots are adopted, one of the ubiquitous side hustles of the modern age will disappear overnight. For people who need the extra work to live, this will be catastrophic. Financially and spiritually catastrophic.

No jobs, no hope

When people can’t provide for themselves and their families, sadness, alcoholism and suicide rise. Researchers at universities all across North America found strong correlations between poverty and suicide following the ’08 financial collapse.

But this is nothing new:

“The positive association between poverty and mental health problems is one of the most
well established in all of psychiatric epidemiology.”

-Deborah Belle, Boston University

As we automate away more and more jobs, we create a crisis of purpose. Left with fewer options to provide for themselves and their families, people fall into listless despair.

Many modern people lack the mechanisms to create purpose in their own lives. We use work as shorthand for life purpose, so the slow drying up of jobs is a drying up of purpose.

More people are talking about automation lately, especially with Andrew Yang running for president. He promotes the idea of a guaranteed income for all Americans, but that’s only half the solution.

If there is no external force (jobs) telling us how to spend our time, we’ll have to make that decision for ourselves.  We need to resist the urge to spend all that money on drugs and video games. We’ll be happier if we invest our time and money in art, entrepreneurship, and community development. We need a system of values that makes that a priority.

Religion used to provide a scaffolding for everyone. Nowadays, though, kids grow up with nothing but superficial #values they get from reality tv and social media.

As Johann Hari says in his incredible book Lost Connections, junk values are one of the major causes of depression. It makes sense. If all you work for in life is more likes and retweets, you add nothing to the world and live a vapid, empty existence.

Even a food delivery job helps you feel like you’re part of something outside of yourself. I believe that’s where meaning comes from. What do you contribute to that is not yourself?

Create meaning to create peace

When people’s lives are meaningless, they often hurt themselves or others. Violence makes sense to everyone, as horrible as it is, and that can add a base level of meaning to an empty life. Violence fills the void.

Among other things, I attribute the rise of political street violence to boredom and apathy that come from living in this superficial society. People with fulfilling lives don’t put on masks and assault bystanders at political rallies.

We need to help the Antifa goons find meaning and a sense of belonging outside of their domestic terror cells, ASAP.

Woman happy food delivery robot
No one will be this happy to see the robots coming

Meaning creation is hard. It takes a lot of responsibility to decide what gives your life a greater purpose.

Deciding for yourself what’s important is a key part of living well though.

Lacking religion, though, what do people turn to for meaning? a lot of times it’s political bickering, Netflix, or social media.

Most people look to external sources to create meaning because they don’t know how to do it themselves.

That’s why everyone spends their time arguing on twitter. Choosing a side in this manufactured conflict makes you feel like you belong to a real group.

We need to get off the internet, return to our communities, and create a purpose for ourselves. Volunteer. Start a band. Build a house. Plant flowers. There are countless ways we can live more meaningful lives.

And it’s not going to be easy. But we need to stop looking for lives free from difficulty and conflict. You’re going to argue with people in the band you start. GEtting materials and a location to build a house is hard. Your flowers might not grow.

Find peace in the struggles of life, though. Suffering means your alive, and if you’re alive, you can change the world.

Once all the jobs belong to robots, our options will be to create a meaningful world or to watch as we burn it all down.

Which will you choose?