Yglesias says robots won’t take all our jobs, but might lead to more enforced happiness

So apparently there’s this big restaurant chain that’s sending mystery shoppers around to make sure that staff at restaurants in the chain act super-happy all the time. Matt Yglesias thinks this  is a sign of some more profound issues:

There’s a fairly profound issue here, however. If you think about an increasingly mechanized, digitized, and roboticized economy the case for human labor will increasingly be one of affect. And the affect economy is really everywhere. People go to yoga classes instead of watching streaming videos at home. Bartenders work for tips. Journalists are increasingly expected to “engage” with the audience through a variety of social media and put forth not just informative copy but an appealing persona. A real estate agent improves upon a computer search algorithm in part by offering a modulated emotional response that makes the client feel happier and more confident about the process.

In all kinds of fields, people who intuitively “get” the considerable advantages of appropriate revenue-maximizing self-presentation will be advantaged. Normally you think, “okay there’s a valuable job skill that not everybody has so at some firms managers are teaching it to people—that’s good, that’s training.” But enforced-friendliness policies and mandatory personae seem like a violation of people’s integrity in a way that “operate the lathe this way, not that way” don’t. Worries about an economy in which robots displace human labor and everyone sits around unemployed watching The Real Housewives of Boise strike me as overblown. What you should worry about, instead, is the growing significance of the affect economy and the problems people will have with what Pret is trying to do here.

One thing to point out here is that there’s little reason to think we won’t one day be able to program robots to act super friendly and happy too. I suppose the rebuttal to that from Yglesias’ point of view is that people might prefer to have certain kinds of work done by “real people”*  even if robo-personalities are indistinguishable from the real thing. It would be similar to how people are now willing to pay a premium for a handmade necklace bought off Etsy, even if you could set up a factory to make indistinguishable necklaces.

I still think Yglesias is underestimating the revolutionary potential of human-level AI, but it’s also interesting to think about the challenges we could face if things go the way he’s predicting.

*Apologies for the scare quotes, but I’m not actually sure what “real people” would mean in a posthuman future.

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    I don’t know about Pret, but something the management of at least some American chain restaurants seems to have done is simplify the tasks of, say, cooks and servers so that employees are easily trained and easily replaced. I guess that helps to keep labor costs down. So I wonder how this new emphasis on “enforced friendliness” will pan out in the long run. Will management come up with a way to train just about every employee up to standard — and thus continue to reduce labor to a commodity — or will they discover that only a portion of people can do it, while, say, most cannot. If the latter, friendliness becomes or remains a valuable individual skill. If the former, we’re all back to being interchangeable cogs again. Or, as Pink Floyd put it, “just another brick in the wall”.

  • SundogA

    I work in a service industry (souvenirs, not food) and I can assure everyone this is nothing new. Any trained retailer, the very first thing you’re taught is ALWAYS smile. What you feel, however down you are – deal wth it on your own time. In the shop, you’re a happy little smurf.

  • kraut

    I work as a sales person for plumbing and heating, having to work in that position (the usually problems of trades: back problems, knees shot etc.) after 30 years as a service tech in the field.
    I am not for not smiling much, but I am reasonably polite.
    I work with contractors and customers on designing heating and water supply systems for residential and small commercial building.
    I am known for my expertise and where to find products applicable to the jobs. I even get into arguments with customers and when they tell me a friend told them what to do – something I now has usually nothing to do with the problem at hand or will not solve same – I tell them to keep consulting their friend. And I am not polite that. Think House.
    This is the difference of luckily employed in a position where experience – a lifetime of it – really counts, and which I doubt will be replaceable by a robot.
    And damn the smiles – I help solving problems, guiding the customer towards the optimal solution for his design or equipment problems.

  • eric

    people might prefer to have certain kinds of work done by “real people”* even if robo-personalities are indistinguishable from the real thing.

    I’m a cynic; I think people will always want some type of work done by humans because wealth and prosperty have a relative component, they aren’t just absolute. So, one way people consider themselves wealthy is to be able to afford to buy the services of other people.
    Sure, we’ll continue to increase the use of machines to more and more things. But there will always be a human service industry, because its in our nature to want to rank ourselves against other humans. I suspect that if you gave most people a choice between having their every single need attended to, or not having every need attended to but having your needs more attended to than other peoples’ needs, a lot of people would choose the latter.

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