atte juvonen

Argument framing with "This time is different"

2019-04-22discourseai

There’s an old saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For example, if two individuals are debating whether the sun will rise tomorrow or not, the burden of proof is on the party claiming the sun will not rise — and they would need some pretty spectacular evidence to convince anyone. However, when we move outside toy examples, it’s often hard to differentiate extraordinary claims from those which are merely ordinary. This opens up a new rhetoric tool in debates: framing the opposing argument as extraordinary to magically shift the burden of proof from your shoulders. This way you might convince people of your position without actually providing evidence to support it.

A recent McKinsey Global Institute study showed 60% of all jobs could easily see 30% of their work fall to machines. But what if we’re wrong about AI? What if it’s not the end of work but the beginning of a massive job boom unlike anything we’ve ever seen in history? I know. I know. This time is different. I’m sure the loom weavers in 19th century England thought the same. So did the stone masons, whose secret knowledge of how to put together glorious temples disappeared and yet today we create even more amazing buildings that stretch up into the endless sky. Every generation imagines that it’s radically different from the last but what if it’s not?

The quote above is Daniel Jeffries on Hackernoon arguing “Why AI will bring an explosion of new jobs”. Not only did he frame the opposing argument with “this time is different”, but he also did it in a clever way where it was seemingly accepted by everyone.

CGPGrey articulates a nice counterpoint to job creation by technological progress:

Imagine a pair of horses in the early 1900s talking about technology. One worries all these new mechanical muscles will make horses unnecessary. The other reminds him that everything so far has made their lives easier — remember all that farm work? Remember running coast-to-coast delivering mail? Remember riding into battle? All terrible. These city jobs are pretty cushy — and with so many humans in the cities there are more jobs for horses than ever. Even if this car thingy takes off you might say, there will be new jobs for horses we can’t imagine.

But you, dear viewer, from beyond 2000 know what happened — there are still working horses, but nothing like before. The horse population peaked in 1915 — from that point on it was nothing but down. There isn’t a rule of economics that says better technology makes more, better jobs for horses. It sounds shockingly dumb to even say that out loud, but swap horses for humans and suddenly people think it sounds about right.

Unfortunately, CGPGrey accepts the premise that his claim is extraordinary. He’s arguing that this time is different. There’s no need to do that. In addition to horses, we used to employ pigeons to send messages. We employed mules to carry heavy loads over distances. The demand for pigeons and mules and horses in the job market is a fraction of what it used to be. In fact, human employment seems like an anomaly in the grand scheme of things. All other species have already been displaced in the job market by technology. To say that this one species will not be displaced is like saying… this time is different.

How can we have the opposing sides of an argument successfully framing the other as extraordinary? And they were both right, kind of. It’s just that when you spin a narrative around an argument, you have a lot of freedom in what kind of narrative you spin, and some things (like a particular claim being extraordinary) may be true within one particular narrative, but not necessarily within a different narrative. Here we had 2 narratives around the same topic: one narrative made it sound like it would be extraordinary if technology would make humans obsolete, whereas the other narrative made it sound like the opposite was true.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? Since it’s possible to frame both sides of an argument with “this time is different”, maybe we shouldn’t give too much weight to those magic words. Let’s put more weight to actual evidence instead. In the case of technology displacing human jobs, we know very well which jobs are disappearing right now (“evidence”), and we have pretty good arguments why many jobs will disappear in the future (more evidence).

Everybody agrees that many jobs are disappearing permanently — the dispute is whether new jobs will always continue to replace the lost ones. Where’s the evidence to support that claim? The people holding this position are not providing any. They’re just spinning a narrative and asking if this time will be different — but we just saw how you can do the same trick with the opposite position. Perhaps it’s time we start worrying about those jobs already?