Though few people who might ever read this article are under imminent threat of war, famine, or plague, anxiety amongst the bourgeoisie is off the charts. Given that we have so much (food, comfort, status, entertainment, time) our loss aversion receptors are turned to eleven and hyper sensitive to the thud, thud, thud of robots marching towards us.
For the parents amongst us, this anxiety is even more pronounced. We can see how cut-throat our late stage capitalist world is; how are Johnny or Jane - head down in Fortnite or @kimkardashian - going to survive in a world where machines can do everything?
Your humble correspondent of course thinks about this all the time, professionally and personally. On the one hand, as an emissary from the future, I try my best to poo-poo anxiety as a natural by product of adaptation - it simply being proof that one is paying attention. On the other, I unconsciously find myself fingering my worry beads ever more tightly as brilliant machines and Tiger Moms see Johnny and Jane drift further and further into a middle that will revert to the mean.
In trying to resolve this anxiety, this tension between optimism and pessimism, I have developed a short hand formula - a heuristic perhaps - that can be muttered in the wee wee hours of the morning as one attempts to deal with the challenges ahead. I have tried to follow Einstein’s advice, in making it as simple as possible, but no simpler. Naturally, you will be the judge.
It starts from the premise that the future will increasingly be full of algorithms. Algorithms that control - or at least suggest - how you vote, what you buy, who you love, where you live, what you do, what you wear, what you drive, how you think. And it builds from there with a second thought, that algorithms are at their core nothing more than rules.
Our relation to work therefore will stem from our attitude towards rules - whether we make them, take them, or break them …
Making the rules - the ability to write code, and specifically develop algorithms, is the primo skill of the immediate future. Though over a longer horizon software may eat software (Zudy are already putting ads behind Tom Brady’s head with that suggestion) in the monetizable here and now knowing when to make your code Greedy or Backtrack will be a crucial determinant of how many comas your W2 has. ML101 classes are already oversubscribed at Ivy League and commuter colleges across the land. JP Morgan Chase has made coding classes mandatory for incoming liberal arts graduate trainees. codeacademy, which offers free online instruction, estimates that 25m people have learned to code with them since 2011. In an era becoming more and more technical every day, being technically literate is as important as being literate. Being a Shakespeare or Dickens or Rowling of code is a means to immortality.
Taking the rules - search on Google for “classes on leadership” and 303,000,00 results pop up in 0.42 seconds. Search for “classes on followership” though and page after page of random irrelevant stuff is displayed (in 0.40 seconds) suggesting the good folks in Mountain View are not inundated with searches from those thinking the unthinkable. Following rules is an underrated but appreciating skill. In the said bourgeois world schools boast of their ability to turn out leaders. Parents beam when Johnny or Jane is made varsity captain. College admission officers (and the screening software they use) place undue emphasis on key words like “captain” and “lead”. All well and good. But leaders are defined by their followers. Being a good follower is as important - if not more important - than being a good leader. For inspiration on how to carve a niche taking the rules this is as good a primer as I’ve found. https://amzn.to/2QDATC1
Breaking the rules - making and taking rules are routes to security. But not perhaps to transcendence. For that, something more is required. For that true originality is the sine qua non. And true originality originates in breaking the rules that exist. And then getting away with it. Lots of people want to break the rules. Lots of people try. Often they end up in jail, or an asylum. Or accounts receivable. But the ones that succeed are the ones we remember. Learning to break the rules is not taught in any school or college that I know of. Perhaps it should be. [Courses on “innovation” are a poor (and somewhat dishonest IMO) attempt to channel some of this spirit]. Such a course would make ML 101 at Stanford look like a Saturday afternoon at Cheltenham football club; i.e. not very busy. Commitment to your art or your science or your project or your product is terribly hard. Every day it is easier to quit. Every day it is easier to take the rules; even to make them. But if you can break the rules and break the ties that bind yours will be a future that works.
Make the rules, take the rules, break the rules - three options available to you and your loved ones which from my point of view stand central to the future of your work. In the career or series of gigs ahead of you, there will be times when you play different roles; you may start off wanting to break the rules, find that you’re taking them, transition to making them, and then come back full circle to breaking them. Conversely you may end as you begin; taking the rules, taking the paycheck. Whatever your journey, rules will surround you. Figuring out how you play them is the work of a lifetime.