international analysis and commentary

John Mellencamp and the Future of Work


I spoke at Singularity University’s annual Global Summit in August; the event can be both inspiring and overwhelming, and this year was no exception.

I love the enthusiasm for what we can achieve through technology. The idea that exponential technologies can bring forth an era of abundance provides a welcome counterpoint to the dystopian fears of tech-driven mass unemployment. The Summit’s sessions offered a rapid-fire update on the latest progress in Artificial Intelligence, Augmented and Virtual Reality and much more—it was hard not to be swept away by the sense of opportunity.

And yet I came away feeling even more strongly that we need to remain grounded in today’s reality.

Yes, we should be inspired by the promise of innovation; but we should use that optimism to tackle today’s problems in a pragmatic way, not just to theorize solutions to tomorrow’s presumed challenges.

The risk of losing touch with reality was made clear right at the start of the Future of Work section: Eileen Torrez, a Princeton philosophy graduate who is now a singer-songwriter and activist in the Bay Area, sang her aptly titled  “Work”, which has the following refrain:

“Who says you gotta go to work / This economy can eat dirt.”

I thought, well, certainly if we are all happy to eat dirt, then nobody’s gotta go to work… But I don’t think that’s what she meant…

Compare this to John Mellencamp’s 1985 “Minutes to Memories”:

Now I’m seventy-seven and with God as my witness / I earned every dollar that passed through my hands
“There are no free rides, no one said it’d be easy
“You are young and you are the future / so suck it up and tough it out / and be the best you can.
John Mellencamp

We are worlds apart—and more in terms of attitudes than of technology.

Mellencamp wasn’t a cold-hearted economist, he had a keen sense of social injustice (“Rain on the Scarecrow”); but he knew life is not easy, and told us there can be pride and dignity in hard work. Another presenter argued that everyone should be able to find a job where they can express their passion. That would be great. Except that not everyone will find their passion in a job; and not everyone will be good enough at their passion to make a living from it.

I enjoy what I do, I put enthusiasm into it and I feel very lucky. But I would much rather play basketball. Playing basketball has always been my passion, but I was never good enough to turn pro.

Artificially intelligent robots aren’t out there repairing roads and collecting garbage—they are too busy playing Chess and Go… These are hard jobs, and I doubt we’ll find many people with a passion for collecting trash at four in the morning or pouring hot tar on a summer day.  But someone has to do it.

Close to 800 million people around the world live in poverty; over one billion have no access to electricity. We have a lot of work to do to raise living standards globally—and in a way that no longer places an unsustainable burden on natural resources.

Technology will help, but we all have a responsibility to pitch in.

Companies should leverage the full potential of their workers’ talent and skills, and help them grow together with the new technologies. Governments should rethink education, training and social safety nets. But let’s remember that we all can and should find meaning in pushing society forward through our work, to the best of our abilities, even when that work is hard or does not fulfill our passion. The economy is not an evil machine enslaving us for the benefit of a few—it’s all of us striving to improve living standards.

We have to suck it up and tough it out, and be the best we can.

Exponential technologies showcased at Singularity University’s Summit inspire optimism. We should channel that optimism into pragmatic solutions to today’s problems; and we should listen to John Mellencamp… Technology will help, but we all have a responsibility to pitch in.