My mother feels little connection to her job now. My mother's is the kind of job that some people think robots should take over, that should be optimized and automated. After all, she would supposedly get more free time and fulfillment in life. The irony is, she stopped feeling fulfilled when her workplace became optimized, her work stripped of meaning, turned into mere labor.
Examining the relationship between work and life under automation is not new. In a 1972 article in "The Black Scholar", the activist James Boggs argued for the importance of thinking one level deeper about work itself. The problem facing jobs and work isn't merely "automation and cybernation," as he put it. Instead, the real challenge is "to create a new human meaning for 'Work as Working for others rather than for oneself; working for people' rather than for things." Transforming work into abstract, quantifiable, optimized labor erases "any of the human and social purposes or the creative satisfactions that Work has always had in other societies." It is easy to automate work using AI once you've made work devoid of meaning.
Like so many AI projects, ET Agricultural Brain naively assumes that the work of a farmer is to simply produce food for people in cities, and to make the food cheap and available. In this closed system, feeding humans is no different from feeding swaths of pigs on large farms. The project neglects the real work of smallholder farmers throughout the world. For thousands of years, the work of these farmers has been stewarding and maintaining the earth, rather than optimizing agricultural production. They use practices that yield nutrient-dense food, laying a foundation for healthy soils and rich ecology in an uncertain future. Their work is born out of commitment and responsibility: to their communities, to local ecology, to the land. Unlike machines, these farmers accept the responsibility of their actions with the land. They commit to the path of uncertainty.
After all, life is defined not by uncertainty itself but by a commitment to living despite it. In a time of economic and technological anxiety, the questions we ask cannot center on the inevitability of a closed system built by AI, and how to simply make those closed systems more rational or "fair." What we face are the more difficult questions about the meaning of work, and the ways we commit, communicate, and exist in relation to each other. Answering these questions means looking beyond the rhetoric sold to us by tech companies. What we stand to gain is nothing short of true pleasure, a recognition that we are not isolated individuals, floating in a closed world.