Last Call: Will Arts Save Mankind?
Maybe it’s time to revisit the past.
I was in a very hip bar called the Hospital Club in London a few years ago. I did not belong there. With some research, time, and money, I could have probably faked it, but as it was—fresh from my coach middle-seat flight, mouth-breathing, with a “gee whiz" look on my face combined with the wrong clothes and a do-it-yourself hair-cut—I clearly did not fit in with these fabulous people. I did not engage. I nursed my £10 G&T, watched, and listened. I heard drums in the background and felt I knew the song. After about 40 minutes it hit me: This was not a song. This was one of the beats from the Boss DR-880. No added tracks, no live accompaniment—just press play on the ol' Dr. Rhythm drum machine and let it “boom-kack, bi-doom bi-doom kack" until closing time.
That's when I experienced a double epiphany.
• Epiphany #1: Sometimes the seemingly hip are not hip; they are sheep in an “emperor's new clothes" scenario.
• Epiphany #2: Soon machines will replace many humans in our workforce.
We are maybe five years out from the self-driving car. I've had a few “what seems to be the problem, occifer?" moments so I'm looking forward to eventually retrofitting a Robo-Driver into my 1996 Mercury Grand Marquis. In 2021 I'll be in the backseat playing guitar and smelling of bourbon while the Blade Runner girl drives me home. Sounds like a total upgrade when you factor in fewer car crashes nationally and ultra-efficient trucks and busses running safely around the clock, bringing down the costs of business and goods. I imagine a rosy future until I think about the 8.7 million trucking-related jobs that will disappear and how Uber and cabs will be 100 percent self-driving in less than 10 short years. That's a little scary.
Transportation is just a small sector of jobs that will go to automation. Postal worker, assembler, cook, cashier, bookkeeper, teller, loan officer, tax preparer, telemarketer, warehouse, and factory jobs will be gutted, making human labor increasingly rare. This is neither good nor bad. This is evolution. As technology replaces humans, perhaps leaving the majority unemployed, there's going to be a frighteningly wide gap between the have-nots and the have-jets, leaving a whole lot of the population wondering what the hell they should do with themselves.
I'm not worried about a Terminator-style future with robots hunting down humans. I see it as a Pixar-ian world like Wall-E, with the chubby elite drinking liquid cupcakes, their atrophied legs barely able to carry their doughy frames. Technological advances should be able to provide an era of abundance for all, with unlimited energy, food, and clean water, but eventually there's going to be some serious civil unrest because happiness is more than being fed. (Although it's probably impossible to be happy and starving.)
Google “what makes people happy" and you get 10,000 versions of this answer: There are three main things that make people happy—close relationships, a job or a pastime they love, and helping others.
A government program from 1935 may be able to provide Future World with all these ingredients. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the Federal Art Project, which employed musicians, artists, writers, actors, and directors in visual arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. FAP hired hundreds of artists who created more than 100,000 paintings and murals, and over 18,000 sculptures. The program supported the careers of such renowned artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Thomas Hart Benton, and Stuart Davis.
Once we figure out how to feed and house everybody, why not implement a new version of the Federal Art Project? If you are the creative type, you could teach or take music and art lessons, perform publicly, create public works—make life a big art project. This may sound like hippie nonsense, but the FAP worked before and could be the difference between a future dystopia or a renaissance. After all, isn't contributing to society, building community, and helping others the trifecta of happiness? A purpose-driven life trumps money when it comes to contentment. Just because the rich get richer and the poor stay poor does not mean the poor majority can't be fulfilled. Maybe even musicians.
The obvious question is how do we pay for this with fewer people paying taxes? I don't know the answer, but apparently the system worked in the past. The Great Depression was worse then we can imagine, with unemployment in some major cities as high as 80 or 90 percent—but one New Deal and WW II later, the U.S. experienced prosperity like we've never seen.
This proposal is a tad premature and I may not be around for the rebellion. I'm putting this out there now so in the future—when or if the unemployed masses go cray cray—the powers that be might consider this FDR blast from the past and embrace art and music to mollify the masses and create a more beautiful world.
There is no science fiction anymore. Anything you can imagine, given infinite space and time, will probably happen. In the not-too distant future, we could find ourselves with the wealthy minority in elite bars listening to drum machines and insipid small talk while the dirty masses roam the streets in angry gangs … or we could create a utopian future with machines doing the grunt work, a skilled working class keeping it running, and a large part of humanity focused on creativity and enlightenment. Hellscape or Utopia? It could go either way.