5 questions for Mike Masnick about science fiction and the jobs of the future

How can we use science fiction
stories to paint a realistic picture of the future? What sorts of jobs will we
see? And how can humans complement artificial intelligence and other
technologies? Mike Masnick joined the Political Economy podcast to explore
these questions and more.

Mike is the founder and CEO of Floor64 and the editor of the Techdirt blog. Recently, he co-edited “Working Futures: 14 Speculative Stories about the Future of Work,” which portrays a wide variety of possible worlds that technological progress could create.

Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. You can read our full discussion here. You can also subscribe to my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.

Pethokoukis: I’ve been
hungry for smart speculation about how tech is going to affect jobs — imaginative
speculation that’s neither dystopian nor utopian. And that’s what I found in
“Working Futures.” So how did that anthology come about, and what
were you trying to accomplish?

Masnick: All the different
stories people tell about the future of work seem to fall into one of two
camps. One is very dystopian: All the jobs are going to go away, and the world
will be awful. And then on the flip side, a bunch of people said, “Hey,
this will all work itself out. Stop worrying about it. Don’t even think about

And I found neither of
those satisfying because neither of them gave any idea on things that we could
or should be doing in the meantime. And even though I am a fairly optimistic
person and probably would fall into the, “Hey, it will work itself out” camp, I
also do believe that getting things to work well can involve people
understanding where things are going and helping to move things in that right
direction when possible.

One of the stories is called
“The Chaperone” by Andrew Dana Hudson, which follows a customer service
representative for a company that sells personalized AI assistants. And it’s
the main character’s job to make sure that men don’t get too emotionally
attached to those AIs. What does this story suggest about the future of work?

I think Andrew has said
that his thinking on that particular story was a more realistic version of the
movie Her, which felt very unrealistic. It’s a take on someone having an
emotional relationship with their Siri or Alexa, and  what that would really be like in a more
realistic world.

Craig Federighi, Senior Vice President of Software Engineering for Apple Inc, discusses the Siri desktop assistant for Mac OS Sierra at the company’s World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S. June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

It also highlighted a
theme that showed up in a bunch of the stories in the book: Yes, obviously AI
is here, and it’s getting better. And rather than replacing jobs, what it’s
often doing is creating new kinds of jobs that are effectively supporting the
AI in some manner that the AI can’t do by itself.

Another favorite of mine
was “Joan Henry versus the Algorithm” by Randy Lubin. The main character is a
virtual reality game master, which to me sounds like an excellent job. But the
twist is that there’s an AI gunning for that job. That’s exactly on point with
some of these automation issues — even if you’re doing a job well, can you
continue to do it better than the machine would in the long term?

Yeah, and one of the
interesting things about that story was the description of how the protagonist
had to adjust continually as the jobs were changing.She had some
roommates who had taken a different path — relying on universal basic income. It
was interesting how she instead stayed focused on finding useful, fulfilling
employment which she had found in being this virtual game master. And that job was
an interesting concept which you can totally see happening in the next five to
10 years. And yet, obviously, there will still be pressures from more and
better AI. And how would you adjust to that?

Now you wrote two stories for
the anthology. Could you highlight one and explain what led you to write that

One of the stories, “Prime
of Life,” came directly out of this idea that more and more businesses and
services are effectively turning into subscriptions. I started to think, ‘What
would happen if basically everything turned into that?’I think most
people’s inclination would be to take that story into a dystopian direction.
And I started to think through what that world would look like if it actually was
pretty good.

Some of the feedback I got
on my first draft was like, “This version is too happy. Everything falls into
place too nicely.” And so more things came into it, but overall, it’s a pretty
optimistic viewpoint of how that world combined with real competition among
different providers of life services could be a really compelling world. And
throughout that story I’m highlighting a few different jobs that would still be
really important. This includes one of the main characters, who is effectively
a life services broker who helps find you the right life service to take care
of all of your education, healthcare, and living needs.

Your other story, in
addition to showing a decentralized digital economy, showed how we could moderate
online content in the future. How might that look?

The idea that I have is a
transition where we move the power of moderation out from the centers of the
network — the big complaint across the political spectrum is that you have
these few companies with enormous power to handle content moderation — and push
this power out towards the ends, for a more decentralized approach.

I’ve referred to this as a
protocols approach instead of platforms approach. You could have a number of
different third-party services that compete and provide different kinds of
content moderation tools that anyone can use. And different people can make
decisions for themselves.

example, email
is based on a series of different protocols. And there are different companies
that have popped up that focus on privacy, for example, or focus on other
features. So, you have lots of options, but if you switch away from Gmail or
don’t ever use Gmail, you can still communicate with people who do use Gmail.

Meanwhile, if you leave Facebook, you can’t communicate with people on Facebook anymore. If social media transitioned to a protocols approach, you might still have Facebook being the dominant provider, but if you have a problem with what they’ve done, or you don’t trust them, you could go somewhere else, use a different interface, or plug in a different filtering mechanism.