From the Desk of Jay Rainey – April 21, 2023

In his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, the English economist John Maynard Keynes observed that “the increase of technical efficiency” in the years since the Industrial Revolution “has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labor absorption”—the problem of job loss to machines—but contended that this was only a problem if we let it be. “For the first time since his creation,” Keynes wrote, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem: how to use his freedom, how to occupy the leisure to live wisely and agreeably and well.” Occupying the leisure was not a problem, however, for Mickey Mouse a decade later.

In Walt Disney’s film The Sorceror’s Apprentice, based on an 18th-century poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Mickey uses magic (or is it technology?) to transform a broom into a bucket-toting, tub-filling servant, thereby freeing himself to take a nap and dream of conducting the heavens and the sea in symphony. He awakens to find himself nearly drowning in his chair, his mindless, water-pouring servant oblivious to the overflowing state of the tub. Unable to arrest the broom by any other means, Mickey attacks it with an ax, only to spawn an army of brooms from the splinters and, soon thereafter, a raging indoor flood. “Labor absorption” isn’t the problem here, nor is “the leisure to live agreeably.” It’s “technical efficiency” run amok. Writing in 1960, the “Father of Cybernetics” and Missouri native Norbert Wiener warned of a future world in which “machines learn” and “develop unforeseen strategies at rates that baffle their programmers.” Fast forward to our world today and its consternation about the implications of generative artificial intelligence, and Wiener’s words ring true. “What makes AI frightening,” wrote Gideon Lichfield recently in Wired, “is that nobody can predict most of the uses people will dream up for it.”

It’s also worth noting that Mickey Mouse seems to be in the minority, and John Maynard Keynes—who prophesied a 15-hour work week yet worked until the day he died—in the majority. An article this week in the Wall Street Journal titled “When Will I Retire? How About Never” highlighted the steep rise of older Americans in the workforce and, more broadly, a reconsideration of the “dream” of a leisurely retirement. “As humans,” said one man interviewed for the article, “our self-worth is defined by the things we do and the impacts we have on others.” Neither of these fulfillments is accomplished by napping in a chair and dreaming of symphonies.

A future in which advanced technologies have eliminated human exertions and wreaked further havoc besides—that have, like Mickey’s brooms, “baffled their programmers”—is one we must at all costs avoid. The work of schools will be essential both to ensuring fulfilling purposeful employment opportunities for our graduates and to equipping them to manage rather than be managed by evolving technologies. My thoughts in this vein will have to wait until next week, however. I will look forward to sharing them with you then.

Always reason, always compassion, always courage. Best wishes for a happy weekend ahead.

Jay Rainey
Head of School