This last weekend, I decided to catch up on some sleep after my cats woke me up at 4:30 for their routine feeding. So at 8:30, I awake refreshed and decide to tackle the day. I briskly take the burlap off the plants out front and refill the bird feeders in back, all before coffee and cereal. But the bathroom calls. I have to put up some floating shelves and the toilet still wobbles. Don’t wanna, but hafta. So I drag the drill and the level and the bits up from the basement and then again for the extension cord to plug the drill in. I cleverly mark some holes to the level bracket on the wall, cleverly drill small pilot holes to discover 3 voids and 1 pipe, but no studs, and idiotically drill holes that are too big to grip the screw fasteners in the wall. Ruined my day. Did not want to talk about it or think about it, so I did other things until we had a chance to go to the hardware store and get better parts to make good the next day. It’s still not level due to a whole different set.
Why did I even try to put up the shelves? I am not a carpenter. I don’t do this daily, weekly or even monthly. It was on my list of obligations, and I wanted to be done with it. Because it was worth it.
What makes a thing worth it? How does a person earn their worth? This is a question I have backed into through a study of history and thinking about the next steps in our economy.
Worth is a value judgment of living things. Bacteria, plants, mollusks, goldfish, Daesh and Americans make value judgement all the time on the most fundamental topic: is this good to eat or not? The the fundamental driving force of life is hunger. You may have heard that genes are the building blocks of life, but the animus of genes is to make more copies of themselves. The phrase “The Selfish Gene” coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s has a certain Randroid flavor to it. An equally correct and explanatory motive is “the Hungry Gene”
For over a billion years, that hunger was not sated through predation or sex, but through eating available minerals. Archaebacteria did not have the consciousness to choose this versus that, but they did thrive where the god rocks were and died where they weren’t. They built expectations into their families. If anything was heritable about behavior, and if that behavior led to survival, then that would become more prevalent.
With predation and sex, we came to depend on each other more and more to satisfy our genes hunger. It also became important to recognize those that were more related to us, as they had more of our genes with them. Both colonial sponges and plants have chemical form of kin recognition and selection in their selection of larvae and seeds. Of course, vertebrates and mammals are much better at recognizing one another.
Kin selection is pretty amazing, in that it lets you recognize another as kin, and therefore worth more, but it is only the beginning of the definition of worth. Many species of fish, insects, reptiles go beyond this to reciprocal altruism. This mutual benefit scene lets us put out and call in favors. In some cases, such as cleaner fish, the mutual benefit is between species. We modern humans take care of cats, husband livestock, or nurse crops. Many species are solitary, only coming together for sex, but many others are more or less social, form pack hunting wolves, to sisterhoods of Ants. Even plants get in not he action, signaling to each other through leaf chemicals and mycorhizzae of parasites in the area. These societies require that individuals recognize each other and build relationships. They have to know each other to trust other, and woe betides those who are not recognized.
There are dozens of ape societies and behaviors, as many as there are species. Humanity is one of these species.
All apes are social in some way or another. These are bands of a down to a hundred individuals who recognize, cooperate and compete with each other, with their reputations and relationships evolving over time. The number of apes in a band is tied to how many individual reputations they can keep track of in their brains. For humans, that number s about 150. The only difference between us and Chimpanzees 6 million years ago was that we were more open plain hunters, and more bipedal. We had lost our life in the trees, but kept the shoulders.
Like the Chimpanzees, we lived in omnivorous bands of hunters, with a taste for fruits and nuts. By the time some bands of Homo erectus first left Africa for Asia and Europe, 1.8 million years ago, we still had not formed hunter-gatherer societies with clearly defined roles, but we had developed stone tools and the ability to identify worthy rocks from worthless ones. Metallurgy was born.
Weapons changed the equation of what was worthy to kill and eat, and by 40 thousand years ago (kya) we were using these skills on former invincible game. Weapons like spears (700 kya), atlatls (25 kya), and bow&arrows (11 kya) allowed us to survive and thrive in much greater numbers. Hunting bigger game required more cooperation. Fortunately for us, hunting bigger game fed more people to cooperate with.
There is an economic model called “The Stag Hunt” that has long illustrated the pressure to defect, but can be retold to show the pressure to conform. A group of hunters surrounding a stag in a thicket are closing in. The hunter closest to the stag when it breaks out of the thicket takes first strike, and their neighbors join in. The thicket is dense enough that the hunters can’t see each other. In the old version of economics, this anonymity should mandate defection. In the new understanding of expectation and group bonding, defection would be unthinkable. Even ill-raised sociopaths, if they kept defecting, would soon be shunned by the hunt’s duties and its boon.
This is the foundation of our work ethic: accountability. It is the same as the accountability of chimpanzees, hyenas, or vampire bats, but it is uniquely ours. It is adapted to tool use and long relationships. Our worth, acceptance into our band, and our survival depended on our ability to contribute to the work of the group. Sure the is could be gamed, which is why most human bands were also families. Blood was thicker than contract. It was the only contract, indeed.
Your worth in a band was determined by your family, but also how good you were at hunting meat or gathering berries and nuts. We spent about as much energy getting food as we did from the food itself. No one was fat. People were as hungry as their landscape. What we got from being in bands was security, both from other bands, but also food security in variety and amount. This kind of society was the first to have mortuary rituals. People were very meaningful to each other, and we could not imagine that our worth did not extend beyond death.
FROM HUNTING-GATHERING TO AGRICULTURE
For over a million seasons and 20 thousand generations, we got better at hunting with weapons, and gathering with knowledge of the landscape and what plans could be found where. As we became more familiar with seeds and fruits, we developed grain and then squash agriculture between 20 kya and 10 kya. Because of our organization and boon of grains, we attracted animals like pigs, sheep, and reindeer to our stores. I don’t know when we stopped thinking of them as pests and started thinking of them as food, but it may have been instantaneous. After all, these animals would have been good sources of meat for hunter gatherer bands. Other pests, like mice, were not domesticated until modern times, as they were not good sources of meat. Another medium sized mammal, the cat, came to our agricultural towns to eat the small rodent that were eating our stored food supplies. No wonder we welcomed them. All these domesticated animals had worth because they either provided or protected the food supply that agriculture was finally able to accumulate.
Before agriculture, hoarding and fatness were seen as clear signals of slacking off. In existing hunter-gatherer societies, hoarding of possessions is seen as a capital crime. In the new organizational needs of agriculture, clearing, tilling, planting, protecting and harvesting, the boon of food stratified us into workers, planners, and leaders. The leader could get fat. Fat was a symbol of fertility. The Venus figurines were made between 40 kya and 20 kya out of yearning for times of plenty. It may be that the strong desire for plenty, felt for a thousand generations, led to the innovations in agriculture that secured it.
With unprecedented plenty came the need to inventory it all. The first counting stick was a calendar, but by 10 thousand years ago, traders had developed tokens to represent commodities like grains, metals or livestock. The system started out with clay beads, one bead representing one head of cattle, for example, but this evolved within a generation to counting on groups of 10 or even a hundred. The goods could be traded representationally, trading a dozen goats for a plow, without having to bring the goats along for the trade. A quick shorthand for large quantities was to bake several beads of like type into a clay pouch, then write on the outside what was held within. The worth of this pouch was the reputation of the owner, who would find themselves unable to trade if they misrepresented what was inside the pouch, or the existence of the real bushels of wheat they represented.
This shorthand was both the origin of money and writing. Two ways for us to prove our worth. In bands, we proved our worth by being good hunters or wily gatherers, or being good at supporting others in doing that. With money, that worth was transferrable as a token of effort. As long as everyone you met trusted the worth of money, the money was all you needed to gain their esteem, or at least their trust. Whereas before you needed a dozen goats to buy that plow, you could now do it with a dozen shekels.
Of course, if you didn’t have shekels today, you could always give you word that you would have them next week. If your creditor knew you and trusted you, they were likely to extend this credit to you based on past performance. This notion of reciprocal benefit is at least as old as communal bats, who will share food with others based on their past acts of sharing. Bats are our arboreal cousins from 60 million years ago, after all. At the diner in the working class neighborhood where I grew up, I was struck one morning when my mom asked for credit from the cook between paychecks. Since we had been going there for years, since before I could remember, Suzie gladly extended it.
Writing, speaking, and words are other ways to build trust and worth in society. Words, like money, are mutually understood symbols of tryst. I assume that when I use words, my listeners and readers know what I meant, and they assume that I meant what I said or wrote. Because words have both codified and informal meanings, they can be misused or misconstrued to communicate more or less than the speaker intended. Spoken works and choice of written words have different emotional meanings based on their cadence and force, further blurring the line between the actually text of the words and their meaning as generated and received. I once had a problem paying for lunch at a corner store because the owner did not like the look of my tattered bill. Even though 51% of any bill is legal tender, he did not trust that he would be able to give this bill for change. So I had to go to the ATM.
Writing, speaking and even art require a level of comfort and trust that was not easy to come by when we were cold and starving, or when the limits of our ambition were to be warm and fed. The more we feel a floor of support, fed, trusted, safe, the more we feel like we might be read, heard, or seen. Words require silence to understand.
FROM WRITING TO AUTOMATION
Money and words are all shorthands for trust; for worth. They have worth because they are portable, mutually understood and useful to all who touch them. Worth, intimately, is about utility, and value. A million years ago or even today, an axe was worth more than my fists for killing or rending prey. I have forgotten how to do this and just paid for a few ounces of bacon this morning with a credit card. 10 thousand years ago, an arrow would be better than a spear for killing my food, because it would allow me to kill at a distance. I have not shot an arrow or a gun in the last 2 decades. 4 thousand years ago a crane could have hauled water or grain where I needed it far better than a bucket brigade, and with much less labor needed. Yesterday, I swiped my credit card at the pump and filled up the gas tank in my car.
Ever since the first pack of monkeys hunted like the wolves over 20 million years ago, we have been learning to get along to get things done. There, worthiness was the price of admission to the pack, and we had to steward our reputations carefully to maintain its benefits. Ever since the first stone tools 3 million years ago, we have been working smarter, not harder, using tools like this laptop in this cafe with this coffee to get to the thing we want sooner. Agriculture (ca. 10,000 years ago) and the Industrial revolution (ca. 300 years ago) both made things we used to struggle for routinely available. They both also made a lot of people in the formerly labor intensive economy obsolete, yet kept providing the boons of yesteryears at a fraction of the cost. Even though only 2% of the US population is now involved in agriculture, we grow enough food to export. I am writing this sitting at a table in a char which would cost me a days pay, in a warm room with 5 other sets of tables and chairs just like it. My great-great-great-grandparents, living in the Ozarks, could barely afford one table, much less a chair. Now I could go to a store called “Rooms to Go” or “Ikea” and pick up a chair-esque object for a pittance.
A job is a role of trust. Your employer trusts you to make them money. In exchange for your worth to the, they give you almost all the money you live on. If you are more entrepreneurial, you must still prove your worth for people to give you token of their trust. These tokens are at first money, but may be more informal over time. Or informal tokes of trust could play for more tradable money from the outset, as in sales, marketing, or confidence games. Even in the is era of readymade goods, money, and cheap food, it pays to be social,
THE END OF TOIL
But in the era of automation, it pays to be productive, too. The worth of a factory machine is weighed in the amount of things it can tirelessly make against the cost and complexity of the machine. Once the problem of how to build the machine is figured out née, it becomes easier and easier to make dozens, or thousands of the machines to do the same things. The first computer bug was a fly electrocuted in the arrays of the Harvard Mark II in 1947. The laptop I’m typing this on would not admit a fly and is millions of times faster and consumes a millionth the energy. In 70 years, a human life, technology can improve that fast when we think its worth improving.
To think about something much more useful, the plow took much longer, from the
- planting stick 10 kya, to the
- scratch plow 6 kya, to the
- use of oxen to pull plows 5 kya, to the
- mould-board plow 3 kya, then
- wrought iron reinforced wood plows 800 years ago, then
- Reversible plows 500 years ago, then
- Steel plow and cable driven plows 180 years ago, and finally
- The steam plow 160 years ago.
This long but accelerating history has been more important to human progress than any mere computer, but the progression has been much slower. Much of this has been because nature was unyielding and technology was elusive. The aim of this progression was to produce more food for less effort. To satisfy hunger. We could better trust seed to germinate and grow with deeper furrows and greater protection from mice and crows. We invented tools to automate that process, rather than having some poor shlub dig a hole for every seed.
The next step, that we are in, right now, is the continuation of that million year history. The “end of work” is the end of toil. All tedious, onerous, dangerous or repetitive tasks will be automated in the coming decades, as long as there is demand for their products.
Is this the end of money, prosperity, or motivation? Is this the end of the work ethic? Is this the end of proving my worth? I don’t know. I really must answer that question.
I do know that this desire to get more for less is older than humanity; as old as life. I know we’ve gone through this before, and we were better off ofter the transformation than before. We were also unrecognizable and worthless to our former selves. The only way out is through.