Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Humans are meant to do hard things

In my professional life I serve a profession called medical coding. No need to look it up; it’s quite niche and rather impenetrable to the outsider, though very important to the quality and financial health of hospitals.

I hear complaints all the time from medical coders about the difficulty of the work, and proposed fixes that would make everything better.

“If only the doctors would document acute systolic heart failure!” “If only the official coding guidelines were clearer about which diagnosis to report as principal!” “If only the insurance companies and hospitals could all agree on the definition of sepsis… 

… then all our problems would go away!”

I don’t blame them for lodging these complaints, or for wanting fixes.

But what they don’t realize is they’d be replacing their day-to-day problems with a much bigger problem. Removing all the hard things would cost them their jobs. Because medical coding could be safely automated away.

And it would also cost them part of their life’s purpose, and stunt their development toward becoming an actualized human being.

I agree that their work is complex and often quite frustrating. Byzantine and possibly overly and needlessly complex in some aspects. 

In need of some fixes.

But in general I see things with a different lens.

These “problems” are a good thing. Hard is a good thing.

Coding is not only a well-paying career, but for many actually meaningful too. Granted not for all; many consider medical coding, clinical documentation integrity and other like/adjacent professions (trauma/oncology registry, for example) mere work. They’d rather be doing something else, they work for the money and for the weekend.

But others have launched meaningful careers, made lifelong personal and professional relationships, in this line of work. Grew as people, became better versions of themselves, through the struggle of mastering their profession. 

As have I.

What happens if it all goes away? And the machines take the work?

You might say, this is just how the world is, and how professions evolve. One line of work is replaced by another, displaced by technology. Some “optimists” argue: We can now spend our time doing more meaningful work instead of these lower-order tasks.

There is some truth to this, but this line of reasoning falls apart when entire human skillsets are outsourced to machines.

Let’s use the example of something more meaningful to readers of this blog: Writing and the visual arts.

If I just enter a series of prompts, and then prompt the AI for additional clarity, and publish a book in a weekend, this is not a meaningful achievement. If I can summon Dall-e to create an image, I did not create the art, the machine did.

You put in no sweat equity worthy of celebration. Had no stumbles, and failures, and doubts, and anxieties that, when you finally overcame them and published the work, made it your crowning achievement. Regardless of whether you ever sold a copy you did something amazing.

You created something and did something hard. You.

We need to do hard stuff.

Doing hard work will disproportionately reward people with greater ability. This leads to inequity … but that’s the way it has to be.

We don’t need to spend all our waking hours doing hard things (I would not be opposed to a four day workweek, for example). Nor am I calling for an end to technological development. Some jobs will inevitably be eliminated by labor saving technology. We don’t need to return to the good old days of horse-drawn wagons and polio.

If we could replace meaninglessly hard work, I’d be in favor of any such labor-saving device. I’m sure the suffering laborer would too.

But no one seems to have a plan for a world post work. Or far more frighteningly, life without difficulty. No one has addressed the fundamental underlying truth that doing hard things is good for us.

There is no intellectual I’m aware of who has painted a compelling--let alone non-dystopic and sane—picture of what a post-scarcity society would look like, and what it would mean for human flourishing. Could we still create believable, heartfelt art without any relationship to struggle? If we didn’t even know what struggle was, because everything was easy, available with the push of a button?

I would not call such a society a utopia, but a terrible dystopia. 

The most beautiful human art is about struggle, and loss, and sometimes overcoming it. Even if the victory is only temporary.

Without anything hard to do, we’ll all be eating soma.


Paul R. McNamee said...

I might have posted this before, but somewhere (maybe Twitter before I bailed) I found a quote that summed up the use of A.I. in the creative/art space for me.

"If you couldn't be bothered to write your book, why should I bother to read it?"

Brian Murphy said...

Paul: Love it... just what I said but far more succinctly:)

Scott said...

As author Camus said "imagine Sisyphus happy".