[FoRK] Wizards: Automatium, Laborium, and the permeable membrane of the Impossible

Stephen Williams sdw at lig.net
Sun Jun 16 14:53:24 PDT 2013

Nice clarity.

Why are there Wizards?

When I was a young lad, in my first programming job (not even out of uni), an older woman who worked in accounts told me that 
programming had no future. Apparently her TAFE lecturers had been insistent on this point; programming was being brought into 
the realm where anyone could do it. Wizards no longer needed.

That was the early nineties, and it made an impression on me, because I felt it was deeply, profoundly wrong. I felt that idea 
was based in a mistaken view of why technology changes over time with respect to human society (ie: the dynamics of the 
technium), and what the true role of technologists (especially software people) is.
The Expanding Space of the Possible

Ok, stay with me here…
The Expanding Space Of The Possible

Many thanks to Sir Jony Ive for making this diagram

When you stand back and look at human endeavour, there are things we can do and things we can’t. The effects of human 
imagination, competition, and general discontent lead us to be very aware of the boundary between the possible and the impossible.

In the diagram above, points in the space represent logically consistent things we can imagine doing. Those points don’t move, 
but the boundaries in the diagram (what is possible and what is not) do.

The space of the possible expands over time, certainly in recent history this has been very hard to miss. I suspect there is a 
fairly tight relationship between population density (and so loosely with population) and the size of the possible, and that it 
can shrink when population density drops . Think of the space of the possible as what we can do using technology; this is 
totally dependent on the “level” of our technology. Jared Diamond writes about how technological level varies with population in 
his books. But in any case, at the modern global scale, expansion is a given.
The Automatium and The Laborium

I’ve split the space of the possible into two regions.

The inner, magenta region, is the Automatium. This represents all the things that we understand so well, have mastered in such 
depth, that they are fully automated. People involved in a relevant domain of endeavour can access the Automatium trivially and 
with little thought. In the consumer domain, we can go to the shop and buy an incredible variety of food, get whitegoods that 
keep things cold, wash things, cook things, communicate with people all over the globe, increasingly access knowledge about 
anything, and none of it requires much skill or understanding. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and G+, recently 
brought the job of communicating with sophisticated and intricately constructed networks of dispersed others directly into the 

The outer, cyan region, is the Laborium. This represents all the things that we can do but that are not automated. They require 
labour, effort. Often they require skilled practitioners of one profession or another, and teams of people, and capital. Pretty 
much all paid work is in the Laborium (because it’s the place where money moves). Anything that you would build a service 
business around is in the Laborium. Using a social network might be in the Automatium, but building a social networking platform 
is in the Laborium (and on the outer edges, at that).

The outer edge of the Automatium is like a hard floor (the Automation Floor) below which we wont go, while the outer edge of the 
Laborium is like a flexible membrane.

Everyone in the Laborium is either standing on the hard floor provided by the outer edge of the Automatium, or standing on 
someone else’s shoulders. So the size of the laborium is defined by some combination of the sheer amount of people involved, and 
the complexity of organisation possible. The latter is the maintainable height of people standing on each other’s shoulders.

So why does the whole thing move? The fundamental mechanism is that we keep building more floor beneath us. Things enter the 
space of the possible at the outer edge, where massive capital, huge collections of people, large chunks of time are required. 
Our competition with each other, and maybe just our drive to improve, makes some of us try to make these things simpler, 
cheaper, quicker. So things are moved from the outer edge of the Laborium toward the inner edge (shifting not the point in 
possibility space, but the Laborium with respect to it). The laborium is like a churning froth, but it also behaves like a 
ratchet; once something moves lower, it wont move higher again.

Innevitably possibilities reach the outer edge of the Automatium, and are laid down as another hard layer of automation floor. 
People step up onto that. The shift ripples upward, and the outer membrane of the Laborium stretches to encompass new, 
previously impossible things. The space of the possible grows.
Technological Unemployment

The traditional story of technological unemployment goes as follows:

“Technological unemployment is unemployment primarily caused by technological change. Given that technological change generally 
increases productivity, it is accepted that technological progress, although it might disrupt the careers of individuals and the 
health of particular firms, produces opportunities for the creation of new, unrelated jobs.”

In terms of this post, this traditional view is that people and firms work at a fixed point in space. As the automation floor 
moves past them (and people really don’t see it coming), they fall out of being able to do paid work. But the people involved 
eventually retrain/retarget/move on, often to something else very much closer to the outer membrane of the laborium, and they’re 
back in the game. If anything, the traditional situation has the laborium understaffed a lot of the time; we could reach further 
but we just don’t have the manpower.

However, there’s an emerging view that perhaps the something has changed recently. Because of modern automation, jobs are being 
destroyed faster than they are being created. That is, the Automatium is expanding faster than the Laborium.

Particularly, a divergence between productivity and job growth has emerged.

Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT thinks jobs are disappearing for good. This excellent piece in the MIT Technology Review reports:

     “Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In 
economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial 
indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress. On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines 
represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked 
each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated 
more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more 
jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 
2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. 
Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.” And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the 
healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.”

How does this fit into our picture? What seems to be happening is that the Laborium is shrinking.

The Laborium is all about people. People have all kinds of skills and talents and differences, but we all spread out on fairly 
contrained continua, especially if compared to automation.

It used to be that specific things were automated away, but now entire classes of things are being hit. This means the 
automation floor is expanding faster than the Laborium’s outer membrane, shrinking the Laborium overall.

The space remaining is biased toward certain kinds of work. What kind of work is it most biased toward? Work that further 
accelerates expansion of the Automatium and further shrinks the Laborium.
The Rise of Wizards

People who create technology are people who automate things. You can automate with all kinds of technology, but the most 
effective technological space for doing this is the space of software.

Software is a unique technology. It’s the most flexible general technology we’ve ever found for taking the imagined and making 
it real in the quickest, most malleable, and potentially most complex and sophisticated fashion.

The wizards, ie: the people who create software, are the most efficient group at moving the boundaries of the possible. Wizards 
move the automation floor and move the Laborium membrane, and at global scale the collection of such effort has these boundaries 
moving ever faster.

Other types of work tend to involve staying relatively static within problem space. But wizards, by nature of what we do, are 
continually on the move; changing technologies, paradigms, environments, everything. Or if we don’t, then we don’t get to stay 
being wizards.

True wizards tend to abhor manual repetition. The idea of someone working away in a fixed section of the laborium, with no plan 
for eventually automating away that toil, inspires revulsion.

Business loves wizards, because wizards hold out the promise of a true edge in a competitive environment.

In a static environment, everyone has access to the same technologies, talents, ideas. The kinds of things that give one 
organisation an advantage over another are size, being entrenched, having connections. This all leads to a static environment 
without much room for change, or for new players.

But the point of wizards is to raise the business closer to the outer membrane of the Laborium; that keeps the business more 
competitive (the air is more rarefied there!), keeps it away from the doom of the automation floor, and allows a smaller 
business to outwit a larger one that is not so far out. Often this requires raising the automation floor in the businesses’ 
niche, related areas, or sometimes across some orthogonal line when the technology is abstract. Hopefully it involves pushing 
the membrane further out, and temporarily occupying space that no one else has reached yet.
Why can’t everyone be a Wizard?

When someone tells you that now anyone can do what a wizard does (eg: now I haz visual basic), you know the technologies 
involved are falling through the automation floor. That’s not where wizards hang out.

Wizards live in tall towers, built high above that floor. As they sink toward the floor, they build new, taller ones.

Up high, near the outer Laborium membrane, is a hostile place. Nothing is easy. Things are possible but very difficult. Ideas 
haven’t fully coalesced, standards haven’t developed, best practices haven’t developed or are wrong. Compare contructing a web 
app using the LAMP stack (down in the lower floors of the wizard tower),  to building a massive distributed application on 
something like Heroku or Google AppEngine. Compare building a standard AJAX based Web 2.0 site to a sophisticated mobile app (or 
set of apps to reach cross platform), or a mobile friendly web app with offline functionality. The newer things are more 
powerful, but much harder to do. There’s less received wisdom, more primitive tooling, and previously developed instincts tend 
to be wrong. But the opportunity is much greater.

It seems to take a unique mindset to really be a Wizard. You have to be comfortable with constant change. Increasingly you need 
to feel good about not thoroughly understanding your technologies, never being comfortable with the technology stack you’re 
using this week, never really attaining mastery at particular concrete skills. Clearly not everyone can do this, it’s why people 
try to develop simplified, non-wizard friendly versions of programming technologies.

All you can know for sure is that if the tech you are using is starting to feel solid, understood, well developed, then you’re 
close to the automation floor and need to get moving again.
The Ironic Nature of Wizards

The supreme irony for wizards is that we’ll be the last ones in the Laborium, after everyone has given up on that kind of toil.

Step by step, all other work will be automated away. Every other area will require less and less people, as the automation floor 
expands ever more quickly, and whole industries will continue to be sucked down below it, being replaced by organisations 
working at increasing levels of abstraction, relying on smarter and smarter tech and ever fewer people.

Meanwhile Wizards keep moving the boundaries, always running toward the outer edge.

The laborium will get thinner and thinner, as technology catches up to and surpasses human ability, unevenly but inexorably. 
Fewer and fewer people will be in it, and it will come to be dominated by Wizards.

As a great example, an article by a silicon valley web developer marvelling at being paid top dollar for seemingly meaningless 
work (it’s just abstract), while his non-wizard compatriots are increasingly left in the cold: 

So by this logic, we Wizards will be the last ones working. The last of us will turn off the lights before we leave.

Meanwhile, the most recent news about the lady from accounts was that she’d been retrenched and was having trouble finding more 


More information about the FoRK mailing list