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Japan’s Disposable Workers: Dumping Ground [video] (vimeo.com)
72 points by creamyhorror 324 days ago | hide | past | web | 36 comments | favorite

That's just the trailer. Actual documentaries are somewhere else:



"Fucking hell" describes my reaction accurately. When I was a kid and wanted a job in video games I was considering both the UK and Japan. Quite happy with my choice (of country, not career - that sucked). Every article about work in Japan I read baffles me because it all strikes me as insanely inefficient, yet they're one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Then again so is Qatar.

I feel like we will only see more of this all over the world. As production, warehousing and distribution become increasingly automated a significant portion of human population will not be able to find work. To solve this, we will need to rethink compensation and the idea of working for a living.

We have had similar dislocations in the past; while they were painful transitions, people took on different jobs. Up until the late 1800s, the vast majority of Americans were farmers, who were dislocated as farm productivity rose; some of them suffered, but almost all of their children found new and more prosperous careers. There is no reason to believe this time is different.

There most certainly is reason to believe that this time is different: because automation is owned capital that replaces labor entirely and modern automation is able to scale in ways that industrialization could never dream of. This doesn't create new jobs at scale--only so many people can be robot repairpeople. It's not "new job" territory. It's "no job" territory. And it's the recipe for a permanent underclass unless we actually use our heads for more than hat racks and re-think how a modern economy is supposed to work.

I could make the same argument about farm equipment eliminating farmers' jobs, and not leaving as many jobs for farm equipment repair. The problem is that we cannot imagine what ideas for productive work others might come up with in the future.

Have you looked into the history of industrialization? It was a huge fight on the part of workers to get a share of the profit. Companies hired private detectives who in some cases literally shot striking workers.

If we look further back in history we can see feudalism in the Medieval period. It wasn't created overnight, it was introduced over time as there was a long-term surplus of labor and concentration of wealth and power in a few elites. It was only broken in Europe by the Black Death killing 1/3 of the population. Suddenly workers were in such demand that every elite from minor Lords up to Royalty abandoned the old rules and welcomed serfs with open arms. Technically you still needed your Lord's permission to travel, marry, etc. In reality if your local Lord wasn't giving you a good deal you could just leave. That was a new.

My point is this: can we please avoid all the pain and suffering this time around?

(My guess is no, the elites always fight against taxes and "regulations" until things get so bad that society breaks and reforms along new lines... The Great Depression was merely one in a long series of bank panics and massive recessions).

> I could make the same argument about farm equipment eliminating farmers' jobs, and not leaving as many jobs for farm equipment repair.

This. 300 years ago, 90+% of population was working in agriculture - now it's around 2% in developed countries. And yet, there was no armageddon - we managed to develop all these new needs that keep people employed. People saying that "this time it will be different" ignore the almost unlimited growth potential of some industries, such as for example teaching (we could go back to the standard of one teacher per one pupil that rich people had back in the day), psychological counsel (potentially everybody could benefit from a shrink/coach), or human-based health care (more nurses -> better standard of care).

That all sounds lovely. Except modern automation means further concentration of wealth in the hands of a microfraction of society, leading to not being able to pay for any of that because a monopsonistic economy means very bounded demand which leads to crushingly low wages. And any sort of skilled-service jobs require an economic base to get into in the first place--money that you don't have because the money is not in your or your parents' hands. BRB, reinventing peasantry. Or worse.

Economic activity doesn't magically happen when all of the lubrication for the engine is left in a bottle on the shelf, which is what modern automation is happily barreling towards barring a significant reworking of society that will have all the invisible hand fiction-peddlers in the tizziest of states.

I'm not sure this is wrong, but I think it's worth recognizing the two major objections.

1. Capital ownership and opportunity: All of the careers you mention could absorb many more workers in terms of available tasks (something like teaching could easy grow 10x), but that doesn't justify a claim that they will. The farming transition was enabled by mass ownership of productivity gains - careers like entertainment expanded massively because lots of demand was newly available to support that supply. The Picketty school of thought argues that this isn't inevitable; it's possible that a few kids get one on one education, and a bunch of people starve because wealth concentration means there aren't enough buyers for their work.

More specifically, the rich won't buy arbitrary amounts of services because their time and desires are not unbounded. Even 1-on-1 teaching can only employ one teacher-hour per buyer-hour, and the returns on 'background support' don't really justify having 50 people make one lesson plan at living wages.

2. Capability: Take a look at all of the careers you outlined there. They're all skilled-service work, most of which requires having more of some trait than your customer. Teachers need knowledge, counselors need insight, care workers need knowledge or patience and emotional reserves. Crucially, a lot of this is relative - it's not enough for a teacher to know things, they have to have knowledge their customer doesn't have and does desire. Factory labor took some specialized knowledge, but the transition from "a strong back for working fields" to "a strong back for milling cotton" was far less extreme.

This is the sort of two-sided market that's hard to stumble in to. I'm not saying most people can't learn an employable social/service skill, but if you lose your factory job you can't just accept a low wage to work as a teacher. There are significant time and price barriers in that transition, and it's not clear that they'll be overcome without non-market intervention. Markets are wonderfully efficient, but they can certainly decide that it's not worth retraining someone instead of letting them starve.

To further detail the parents point on Capability and "nature of automation";

Automating processes in production activities aims to "remove" human factor(s) altogether from phyiscal activities, leaving only management and maintence personel (that is if it is not outsourced) of the automated systems in a production site. Thus, comparison between "reduction of workforce" because of more advanced tools (and animals?) and "removal of workforce" caused by automation is just... silly.

There are many reasons to automate processes, chiefly eleminating or reducing certain costs and increasing quality "consistency", as well as decreasing activity times with all the other benefits. The latter of which may be the most important for certain sectors.

Even then, if the production site managers deem it is necessary to keep workers to preform supporting activities (eg. keep an eye on dem robbits leaking lubricants), it will be either because they are still in process of being automated or quality control needs a human to "feel it" or its just a publicity stunt to show they are fullfilling their obligations to society (ha!). But automation will ultimately result in "no jobs" for workers who did the activities that became automated; there is absolutely no reason to keep workers, even with lowered wages. Remaining human workers will have to have higher qualifications and move on to a different set of responsibilities, eg. as mentioned before like maintance of automated systems; inspection, servicing... etc. instead of... y'know, doing what the automated systems do. This will effectively eleminate the need to employ low-to-unqualified workforce in a production site. Even with all the best intentions to employ maximum number of workers, total number in a production site, after fully automating production processes, will be a fraction of what it was before automation.

note: written while drunk, may not exactly be english or even engrish.

We have to move ownership of automation in the hands of the population, in order for it to become self supporting / self sufficient. We used to be self sufficient when most of us lived on farms. We can do it again, at much higher densities, with automation.

I think one of the key differences this time is the amount of retraining involved. Taking a farm worker and teaching them how to work on an assembly line involved orders of magnitude less retraining then training an assembly line worker to be a teacher, psychologist or nurse.

Also if you're into human biological differences and heretical things like IQ, the bell curve bar for "can farm instead of hunter gather" "can factory instead of farm labor" is very low, like IQ 70 or something. You don't need an IQ of 120 to put a nut on a bolt on an assembly line.

However, lets say all the jobs with IQ below 120 are replaced with an IQ 120 AI or similar automation via the efforts of over IQ 120 engineers...

Most of the population is physically unable, as best we understand, to ever obtain a MSEE or a PHD in computational fluid dynamics. It doesn't matter if we have 100M job openings for people with advanced CS degrees no matter how much we pay them, with only 300M people in the country the bell curve says we can't find the warm bodies to staff them.

Applying machine learning is not going to be requiring a PHD, especially when great libraries and model zoos are available off the shelf. I think it's going to turn into a "maker culture" like web design. People are going to enjoy a very low entry barrier to applying ML and automation. It's going to be mix and match, a bazaar of solutions. Most of ML will be assisted by meta-ML systems and thus almost automated.

> 300 years ago

What if this dramatic change happened over a span of two-three decades?

But TFA isn't talking about 'the future', it's talking about the present. Why isn't there productive work for these people right now?

> This doesn't create new jobs at scale

The idea is to not need a job, by being a direct beneficiary of automation. If you own land, solar panels and a robot you could be self sufficient.

"no job" is unlikely, salaries would go low though. And with modern automation the low salaries would allow living at a similar quality of life.

There is no reason to believe this time is different.

There is one major reason this time is different: it requires a highly educated workforce. In practice, since there are so many unemployed and so many underpaid, it means that most of those people are incapable of transition, for one reason or another.

And it's a double whammy: even if every unemployed worker went for re-qualification / re-education, and they all became knowledge workers, the market would be saturated and everybody would end up being underpaid again (underpaid meaning "not enough to live off of comfortably / normally"). In that theoretical scenario, engineers and scientists would be dime a dozen, so even that's a dead end.

Some new solution is needed. Theoretically speaking, if everything were 100% automated and dynamically produced, money would be obsolete because we could have anything built: material extraction would be automatic, processing would be automatic, resource renewal and recycling automatic, the solar energy to produce it free. But what do we do in the meanwhile?

Meanwhile, there is plenty of demand for trades such as construction. I wonder if the government's focus on everybody going to college and providing unlimited loans has caused people to end up with degrees that they cannot use and salary requirements to pay off loans that are much higher than their degree affords them?

Science job market is already well saturated. I think software engineering as a profession will be the last to go, but it doesn't mean its final days will be all glory and prosperity.

The optimists list successful nonviolent transitions where both the start and end point have roughly balanced ratios of job positions vs hungry qualified employees and ask why all transitions can't be as successful.

The pessimists point to every collapsed society or culture or subculture and every violent bloody revolution in our own past and ask why in this more cutthroat era we won't all be drowning in rivers of blood.

HN is very optimistic. Go ask the Easter Island Forestry Company what the lumberjacks are currently doing for employment. Hungry urban poor have led to all kinds of fun for centuries, in France around 1800, Germany in the 30s, arguably USA in the 60s... Arguably most transitions have been of the less than peaceful variety.

Some reasons to believe that this time, it is different:

Humans Need Not Apply (a CGP Grey video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU

"There is no reason to believe this time is different."

I don't understand the reasoning here.

Human physical work had become obsolete, so, new jobs appeared in intellectual domains.

Now, machines are going to be more efficient than humans in intellectual work, what are those new wonderful jobs that human can do but machines can't do cheaper?

We could argue that the last wave made obsolete the horse, not the humans, it's just that the new horses are so powerful that one human can control innumerable horses. This is the first time that we are the obsolete worker.

That's what makes this time different.

Every time some physical job was eliminated, workers have gone into doing work with their minds instead.

When some desk jobs have been eliminated, workers have found other desk jobs.

The problem this time around is that there seems to be no limit to what AI could do. This is the crux of the matter. How far can AI go? Can it do any desk job whatsoever? If the answer is yes, then tremendous changes lie ahead.

However, and I'm just thinking out loud here, we have come quite far as humanity through all of those changes. Each time fulfilling a certain core need. From mass production and steam engine / electricity to growing enough food. These issues are still present in many portions of the world but are we reaching a certain critical mass of progress? Are we running out of problems to be solved with large amounts of manual labor? These are just my own naive thoughts more than anything.

With every increase in technology level, we have produced larger, and more complex assemblies of parts, in greater quantities.

High volume production of the plow was once an innovation, followed by production of steam engines, then trains, then cars, then aircraft, then spacecraft. At each turn, the simpler goods were produced in greater quantity, and more complex goods were created. A modern car has tens of thousands of components, an airplane has hundreds of thousands, and the most complex spacecraft have millions.

My current belief is that humans will soon be producing items with 100k components in the same volumes that we currently produce machines with 10k components. I cannot imagine what the first products with 10 million components will be.


I think widespread automation will dramatically increase human productivity and lower prices and bring amazing new products that will help all of live a better life including for those poor people. Without the level of automation we have today do you think poor people could afford television or car or even a can of soda? Think of many more amazing things that would be easily accessible for poor people across the world because the new wave of automation.

Human beings pushed out from less productive works is a good thing for humanity in general. If some kid today grows up think she would do a job of a factory shop worker I think it is a bit waste of human talent. She can be lot more.

Getting rid of minimum wage laws might be the best way to help those who are being pushed out of the employment due to automation.

I agree. It's interesting to see some countries start experimenting with a base income for all residents, though I think if this becomes widespread we'll simply see the base cost of living increase to that number.

I hope we can put more energy into coming up with a valid long-term solution.

I guess it will depend.

Unless you are stuck in a "latte" habit, a basic income, at least if it is paid out of national coffers rather than local ones, will enable you to up and move where living is cheaper.

That is perhaps the hardest part of current day public support structures, that they lock you into staying put.

If enough people move to where it's cheaper, it causes a housing shortage, and then the price of housing rises, following increased demand. There are finite number of places where housing is cheaper. At the same time, we multiply and multiply.

The environmental impact and loss of network effect efficiency (for society) would be dramatic.

This is why I believe that we need to find the political will to make the cities more affordable (and also nicer) to live in than the outlying areas.

In Japan also highly educated people have problems finding jobs. Asia cares in general less about it's citizens than Europe I guess. System is massively skewed with little social upward mobility.

Some auxiliary watching for those who want a peek inside the life of a Japanese temporary employee is 'Japan A Story of Love and Hate' (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QH-kNnq7mFM).

It's a documentary on hopelessness, captured beautifully. Well worth an hour of your time.

The real everyday sexism.


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