“I will build a car for the great multitude.” Those were the words of Henry Ford. He didn’t invent the automobile, but he did make ownership of the automobile common.
Which leads us to what made the creation of transportation abundance a possibility. Ford’s answer was as old as the profit motive: work divided. In Ford’s words, inexpensive cars would spring from each of his employees “performing a minuscule task.” Yes. It’s that simple. People working alone can produce very little of extremely primitive quality, while people working together in specialized fashion can turn mostly useless, unreliable scarcity into staggering abundance.
With production, work divided is the brilliant division of tasks in ways that accentuate the talents of those doing the specialized work. That’s not a model, or a theory, as much as it’s a statement of reality. The brilliant wordsmith Peggy Noonan is doing what elevates her unique genius when she writes columns on the world of the present, and she was doing the same back when she was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. One senses that while she worked extremely hard, it wasn’t work. Doing what reinforces us never is.
At the same time, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that if assigned to Reagan’s advance team, Noonan wouldn’t be Peggy Noonan today. Nothing outre there, and it’s certainly not a critique of Noonan. It’s just an acknowledgement of what’s true: work divided is the path to unearthing unique skills in individuals that are thankfully very different. And when we’re doing what animates our skills, we thrive.
What worked in Henry Ford’s factories similarly worked in the Reagan White House for Noonan. In which case it’s useful to imagine what could be, or will be, if we humans are increasingly able to divide up thought and reason not just with other humans, but with machines.
With machines we know what the end result was, and continues to be. Machines don’t put us out of work as much as they propel us even faster to work specialization. The result of this specialization is spectacular plenty that those who lived before machines and automation couldn’t possibly comprehend.
Which brings us back once again to the multiplication of thought care of machines. When it’s remembered that individual genius is what brought us to our present state of abundance, can anyone seriously contemplate what the future will be for us if genius is multiplied? The answer is that there’s no way to speculate on how brilliant things will become, and those who claim they know what an AI-powered future looks like are lying. Importantly, that’s not a bug about the future, rather it’s a feature.
That is so because what we do know is that more knowledge, and more unique knowledge working in concert with other specialized genius can only be great. Realistically, it can only be amazing simply because we are where are thanks to thought. Imagine once again multiplying it.
Where it becomes challenging is that wise people like Noonan and technological marvels like Elon Musk want to pause this leap into the future. Musk says six months, while Noonan contends that “six months won’t be enough.” She wants a few years. Which is firstly mistaken precisely because a pause is a delay in the production of knowledge.
From there, Noonan presumes that people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have all the information about the future. In her words, “We’re putting the future of humanity into the hands of…Mark Zuckerberg?” Zuckerberg is surely flattered, but certainly bemused. The future of humanity is in his hands? If so, why the annual multi-billion dollar outlays from Meta on new ideas? Which is the point. It’s precisely because Zuckerberg is not clear about what’s ahead that he and other innovators like him are investing so much.
As Zuckerberg would surely tell Noonan, much of what is invested will be the technological equivalent of a dry hole. That the future is opaque is a waste of words. How dangerous to pause this, and in particular pause efforts to multiply thought, when we know just how bountiful the multiplication of effort was and is.
Notice that none of what’s been written here addresses what would be the source of any presumed “pause,” and the kind of people who would wrest the discovery of the future away from people like Zuckerberg. It’s a waste of words. Readers get it. The only danger to humanity is stasis that comes from the suffocation of knowledge. Let’s not go down that road.