Laston Kirkland
(Autumn 2013)

For generations, people have been raised from birth to go to school, pass the tests, stand in line, sit in rows, and all do the same things, at the same time. They were assessed on how well they did these things, and gained approval for doing so. Schools cranked out people who are very good at doing routine, repetitive tasks and people who were good at these tasks had long successful careers ahead of them.

This made a lot of businesses prosperous, and did wonders for our economy.

We needed fifty people to file records for a company in exactly the same way.

We needed a hundred assembly line workers for a single small factory..

We needed massive numbers of truck drivers, dock workers, fry cooks and house builders.

I’m not knocking it. Only the exceptional went to school and truly learned, went there to explore and to study deeply, regardless of whether this would help them pass the test. Or skipped the school and went their own path and learned a skill on their own.

Most of the exceptionals were singled out to assist in the non-routine, non repetitive stuff. A single lead. The foreman. The subject matter expert. The boss. The contractor.  These exceptionals got called in whenever things didn’t quite go as planned, and these exceptionals would then make a decision and implement it.

Every corporate  job you can think of can generally be boiled down to routine and repetitive stuff with occasional exceptionals to handle the unusual.

But that’s about to change dramatically.  

What’s changing, is the price and the abilities of automated systems. We might as well call them robots, but it’s more than just the machines themselves. It’s better algorithms, simpler software languages, larger databases, more efficient record keeping, integrated systems. It’s instant communication, smarter supply chains, faster delivery, and quicker prototyping. Not only are systems getting better and faster, the methods to design systems are getting better and faster too.

Most  jobs can be done by expensive automation now, if you are willing to pay the price.  A few million dollars, and you can make a machine that can do (almost) whatever you wish. Today it’s more expensive to use a supercomputer to answer the phone and make an appointment than it is to pay a person. How long is that going to stay true?

IBM’s Watson (the computer that beat two human players at the game show Jeopardy!) has been repurposed to answer the phone.  And it won’t be long before it is everywhere; a real language-using machine that can handle all the routine repetitive requests, then kicks anything unusual over to a human being. We’d welcome something that removes the terrible “Please press one” systems in use today, and replaces it with natural language. Even if, ultimately, nothing else actually changed.

Watson probably won’t win any Turing tests, you’ll know you are talking to a computer, but you will also have your appointment booked for next Tuesday, and the whole thing fits on a blade server.

Let me repeat that:  Watson fits on a blade server.  A team of forty people can be replaced by something that can be put in a suitcase.

Just recently the company Irobot announced its new robot, Baxter, an industrial robot with a great many sensors, designed to work alongside humans. It was built so that it could be “programmed”  by people moving the robot’s arms in the desired patterns, and having it do a series of tasks. The idea was that a person without computer skills could easily teach this robot. Not only that, this robot costs considerably less than previous robots with similar capabilities.

So much less, we’re talking the price of a new car, not a new house.

If corporations don’t snap this up I’d be very surprised. A robot capable of doing all the non- exceptional things, that works twenty-four-seven, and can be purchased in lots of five or six of them a year for the price of two minimum wage employees.

All of the routine and repetitive jobs are going to vanish at about the same time, leaving only the exceptionals to handle the remaining unusual situations. And that won’t be guaranteed job security, either. The jobs that the exceptionals are doing will be closely monitored, looking for patterns until there is a large enough database of THOSE situations to count as routine and repetitive again. As soon as that happens, the automatic systems will get a software update, and those routines will get added to the frontline bots, and the number of human beings needed to get the ball rolling gets dropped. Again.

These iterations are happening right now to just about every job you can think of.  

Pick a job you can do today. Not some fancy artistic endeavor, or self actualized enterprise. Think of a job. Something that you have been given training and skills to do, that you do along with a team of other people doing the same things. Can you think of a way a robot or automated system can do that job? Well, you heard it here first:  the guy running the company is trying to.

Lots of people will be out of work, all at once, who CANNOT be retrained to modern jobs. The functional equivalent of illiterate in a world where everything is written. They are good at their routine repetitive jobs and can, with training, learn to do other routine and repetitive jobs, but it’s not very easy to teach people how to be, well, exceptional!

The list of the jobs the non-exceptional person can be trained to do is shrinking fast, at the same time the pool of people out of work is growing even faster.

In the past, a prosperous nation meant jobs. But now prosperous businesses are run by a handful of people who make orders of magnitude more money than the minimum wage. Automation is reducing the need for as many employees. A single machine can do the work of many men.

Last century when this was discussed, the solution was to lower the hours worked, and increase the amount paid.

Sounds good. What the hell happened to that idea?

Ah, corporate self interest.

Paying employees is the last thing a business wants to do. They want to make money. The fewer employees, the more money. That has begun to accelerate.

Nations have tried forcing businesses to employ people in the past, unions and labor laws were created. They changed the landscape, and made many people prosperous. Corporations HATE this, they really do. Paying employees more money for less work is moving the bottom line in the wrong direction.  

Every time you try to force a corporation to comply, you end up with businesses trying everything they can think of to adhere to the letter of the law (when people are looking) while ignoring the spirit (or ignoring the laws and moving elsewhere).

This will only get worse unless things change dramatically.

The state must come up with a way to deal with this before it turns ugly, otherwise there will be constant riots, luddite style vandalism and mobs of angry people with nothing else to lose.  They will feel cheated and tricked.  They did exactly what they were trained to do, except now no one wants that sort of thing anymore. The people will not be quiet about this. They will be angry, loud, violent, and hungry.  We may have already seen the beginnings of this kind of thing in the uprisings in the Middle East that began because regular people could not pay for food.

What do you think the governmental response to all these angry people is going to be?

We know that the states “go-to” tool is violence.

They have been granted a monopoly on violence by their people, and understand how to use it. I’d even say violence has become a routine, repetitive thing. A thing that can be done by robots. This means most of the police will be out of work, too, and machines will be the violent keepers of the peace!

My father often would say to me, after watching a poor solution to a problem, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

My guess is that governments will treat these angry people as something to be suppressed, to be handled through violence. And this will make the problem far worse.  Desperate people will decide NOT to allow the state to keep their monopoly on violence. The states response to this growing violence typically will be MORE violence. I think this will escalate a lot hotter and faster than historically would be expected.

We absolutely must convince governments to try out and use some new tools.  I don’t really know what they will be. All I know for sure, is I don’t think violence is going to work this time, no matter how much of it gets used.

That’s the problem, so here’s what I think needs to happen.

First we need to get rid of this notion that the only thing a person without a job should be doing, is trying to find another job.

Why is this a thing, exactly? Why must people justify their right to be alive by numbers measured in dollars per hour? I’ve known many people in my life who were interesting, useful, happy, and jobless. People not asking for anything, just getting by. Helping each other make it through the day. Why is that a problem?

A person’s value should NOT be based on a paycheck. It should be acceptable for a person NOT to be “earning a living”. This would do more than anything else to stop the above problems.

Second, we need to become more self-reliant in the United States, yet also become more connected. Things like personal manufacturing, mesh networking, sustainable gardens, and local community support would do wonders to make individual neighborhoods far more prosperous. Ubiquitous internet connectivity can allow people to dramatically improve their lives. A neighborhood where everyone helps one another, but no one earns a paycheck, can be a very pleasant neighborhood indeed.  I think this is important in order to give people something to do, a way to be helpful, and a way to empower their own communities.

Third, I'm for a national wage paid to each and every citizen, regardless of whether they work or not. No rules on what they can spend this money on. No strings. Eighteen to death, every citizen gets the same national wage, every week.

The state won’t be forcing anyone to do anything. People who HAVE jobs will be doing quite well, while the people who do not have jobs will not be rioting.

The robots and automated systems, in the meantime, will continue to improve. They will continue making everything cheaper. The big corporations will continue to employ fewer and fewer people to make more and more products and services; and with that national wage, average non-exceptional people will still be able to afford to buy these products.  

I don’t anticipate this stipend to last forever, just long enough for us to get past the sudden, “No jobs anywhere,” phase, where our automated systems are still thought of as a way of increasing profits, rather than improving the human condition. This temporary hump where our evolving humanity has not caught up with our new methods, and where money is still somehow thought of as more important than people.

In the utopia I envision, most people would feel sorry for those who had to work at a job they did not enjoy, and would band together to help to free them of that burden.

Fourth, we should stop teaching people to be routine and repetitive. That time has passed. We don’t need much of that anymore.

Everyone needs to become exceptional.

Author Bio:

Laston Kirkland

Laston lives in a small two bedroom apartment with his wife, three daughters and an old cat.  He writes with one hand, gently holding the rest of the world at bay with the other.  He's fond of tabletop boardgames and all things nerdy.

How to cite the above article in APA format:
Kirkland, Laston. (2013).  Exceptional.
The Journal of Social Era Knowledge, Volume 1, Issue  3.  Retrieved from

About the Artist:

Peter Gentenaar writes:  

My interest in paper started while working as a printmaker, when my engravings had such deep relief, that commercial paper could not fill it. 

I decided to make my own paper and was helped by Jo Persoon at the Royal Dutch Paper Factory, KNP. He taught me about beaters for making paper pulp and vacuum systems to suck water out of pulp, to make paper. The laboratory beater I used was unable to process long fibers, so I built a beater of my own design. 

A paper sheet is thin and strong and, reinforced with very thin ribs of bamboo, can be compared to a leaf. By beating pulp a long time, an extraordinary play of forces occurs during the drying process of my paper sculpture. The paper shrinks considerably, up to 40%, and the force of this puts the non-shrinking bamboo framework under stress, just as a leaf when it drys. 

My sculptures start as totally 2-dimensional, colored sheets of pulp laying on my vacuumtable. The forms in my work are caused by pulp drying and shrinking in unison. The simplicity of the material, which is the carrier, the color, the texture and the form, in one, makes working with it wonderful and direct. 

To bring paper art to the public and to be inspired by fellow paper artists, I instigated the Holland Paper Biennial in Museum Rijswijk and CODA, Apeldoorn. With friends, Pat and I have published seven books with the first seven Biennials.

To learn more about this fascinating artwork or to reach the artist, Peter can be reached through his website at the following URL:

[Art for this essay entitled, Basket Weaver,  with a 3-d light projection on it; dimensions: 160 cm wide, 140 cm high, material linen and bamboo.]