Note: There are spoilers in this review.
In the book Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, journalist Kevin Roose is not merely laying out the strategies for remaining gainfully employed in the age of automation, it broadly presents his thesis for preserving our humanity as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated.
It is not an alarmist book about a robot uprising, but neither is it optimistic. Instead, it is a call to action to tech users like you and me to be a little more discerning about our tech usage and to keep these big tech companies accountable.
“This is the truth about the AI revolution. There is no looming machine takeover, no army of malevolent robots plotting to rise up and enslave us. It’s just people, deciding what kind of society we want.” — Kevin Roose, FutureproofTweet
“AI is too important to be left to the billionaires and bot builders.” — Kevin Roose, FutureproofTweet
Those two quotes essentially capture the author’s goal for the book, but there are myriad examples discussing the little ways humans can succumb to machine drift. Machine drift is a term he coined for the mechanical feeling associated with surrendering day-to-day decisions to machines—when to exercise, when to eat, WHAT to eat, which products to buy etc.
The takeover of pushy productivity apps and algorithms can often turn you into a robotic and predictable version of yourself. You are essentially drifting from task to task without thinking too much about it. You would think that humans would be managing the machines, but they’ve been promoted to middle management!
So, if we want to avoid the dystopian versions of the future, it is important to be active users of technology and not be lulled into submission because of the promise of convenience.
Fortunately, there are balancing forces in society. In the Pixar movie Wall-E, humans of the future are depicted as lazy, fat asses. But in our reality, especially the recent lockdown reality, people are leaning into health and wellness with Zoom workouts, meditations apps, and healthy meal plans. Those are the types of apps we can actively choose to use instead of engaging trolls or bingeing conspiracy theory videos.
There has also been a noticeable rise of artists, artisans, and creators promoting their creations on platforms like Instagram. It is heartening to see people actively finding ways to participate, to keep creating, and not regress into big, hungry blobs of consumers. The road is long, but we have time to course-correct.
And then there’s social media.
As illustrated in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, big tech is profiting off of our personal data and causing deep divides in society. We can sometimes make the mistake of equating online with real-world conditions. As Roose wrote, what people see online is a “… version of reality that is more extreme, more divisive, and less fact-based than the world outside their screens.”
This book gives a sobering look into the subtle ways AI and automation can force us into submission or our jobs into obsolescence, but it’s also all sorts of hopeful. The reminder to be “surprising, social, and scarce” is one of the rules put forth by the author to futureproof your job.
To be surprising is to thrive in unexpected circumstances and to adapt to changing work environments. To be social is to leverage social skills and experiences to infuse humanity into your work. Lastly, to be scarce is to choose a career path which only a few people can perform.
Barring that, if you’re no genius or singular master, you can always use your blend of interests and skills to add unique value to your work. Whether it’s using your artistic skills to incorporate illustrations to a report or presentation or using pop culture references to connect with your clients. It’s this marriage of creative and technical skills which can give you a leg up over machines. Capitalize on that!
Roose also mentioned the inevitable evolution of work. With the progress in AI and automation, new jobs will pop up. Jobs like SEO specialists and social media managers were non-existent pre-internet, so there will always be a need for other skill sets. There are even AI auditors now to keep this tech in check.
Some people want to stand out because it’s so easy for them to fit in, but then there’s Keiko.
In Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, the 36-year-old protagonist is an NBSB (No Boyfriend Since Birth) who has been working in the same convenience store for half her life. She keeps getting into absurd situations as she tries to find ways to fit into society.
You get the impression that she’s this rational, pragmatic robot learning to be human. She copies her supervisor’s choice of clothes and she mimics her co-worker’s enthusiasm. Then again, one of the ways we learn is through imitation (i.e. modeling or observational learning). We follow influencers, get hooked by ads (#soandsomademebuythis), so what’s the difference?
What’s peculiar about Keiko is that she does not get subtext, the concept of morality, and the subtleties of human interactions and relationships. And in Keiko’s struggle to meet societal expectations, like marriage and a traditional job, she exposes the absurdity of our social contracts and sometimes even the hypocrisy of humans.
For example, when Keiko was a child, she found a dead bird and her instinct was to grill it, but then her mom and the other kids predictably wanted to bury the bird. They think her attitude is disturbing. In another scenario, her sister coaches her to keep her answers vague about her love and sex life, or the lack thereof, so her friends can just come to their own conclusions instead of grilling her about being a 36-year-old virgin.
“You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange—maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to ‘cure’ me.” — Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store WomanTweet
This need to “fix” people or put them in nice little compartments to fit our perfectly ordered life is hilarious when presented from Keiko’s perspective. Why do we do it?
Things really come to a head when the god-awful character Shihara enters the scene. Keiko at least has found her place in society, while Shihara truly seems lost. While Keiko happily plays her role as a cog in society, Shihara is simply a freeloader.
If this is a book about finding your purpose, then we don’t have to worry about Keiko.
“It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.” — Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store WomanTweet
The book itself is pretty convenient. Brisk. Short, punchy lines. It is an easy and short read at just 163 pages. The 2019 Granta Books edition even lets you choose between three color choices: yellow, blue, and pink.
The author is just as fascinating and singular as the protagonist Keiko. You can read more about her in this interview with The Guardian.
The book’s blurbs are funny, too.
“Quirky, memorable… it could only be Japanese.”—The Times
Um, what? That is exactly what we do, we try to find points of comparison, boxes, something to make an out-of-the-box idea make sense. We stereotype, we categorize, we label, so we can exist in a well-ordered plane. This can be frustrating and ridiculous. So, who’s the strange one now?