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Book Review: Manna

Manna” is a 2003 novelette that points to two futures of automation. While fiction, the novelette shows us some of the technology that had already been implemented by 2020. For example, clerks to operate cash registers and take simple orders are becoming more redundant. It’s not that hard to believe that the other automation predictions in this novelette will eventually come true.


I’m going to fully summarize the story for you. If you want a better and more entertaining one-hour read, stop reading this Medium article and go to The author is offering his book for a free online read!

PART 1: Automation at its Finest.

The protagonist is working in a retail occupation. A new kind of software—Manna—has just been implemented in his workplace. Employees wear special headsets that connect them to Manna, which monitors their activities. Manna directs each employee to a task deemed most efficient for the organization at that time. For example, if a food spill is observed, Manna uses its algorithms to direct one employee to go clean it up. After the spill is cleaned up, Manna evaluates the employee for cleaning up the spill, giving a performance rating. The employee is incentivized to always be “above average,” but the standards get higher over time. Employees with too many “below average” ratings are dismissed—and their record stays in the software. It becomes more difficult to find another job because many workplaces are linked to Manna.

“Manna” is short for manager. But I wonder if the Biblical reference of “manna” might also apply. Such software will be “manna from heaven” for the corporations who employ low-wage workers.

The protagonist survives this new retail culture. But he is determined to get an education that can’t be automated. He gets training to be a teacher.

But the Manna software finds its way into more and more occupations. The world needs fewer teachers than it did before.

PART 2: The Unkind New Society

The protagonist no longer has an income. He can’t afford food and rent. He has no family capable of supporting him.

The authorities move him to a dormitory away from public view, where displaced workers are to spend the rest of their lives. The protagonist is given a small room with a bed and TV screen. He eats in a cafeteria. Robots do all the cleaning and cooking. He is free to associate with other displaced workers, but there is not much to do. Whenever a former worker tries to move out of the designated compound, robots intercept the worker. It would be futile to fight the robots. The cafeteria food is laced with contraceptives to prevent any pregnancies.

The government pays all expenses for the camp. In the government’s mind, it is being kind and generous to the displaced workers, allowing them to live a long life under their care.

Part 3: The Much Kinder New Society

In a contrived plot, the protagonist is relocated to a better society. In this society, the wealth (mostly generated by robots) is distributed equally among all citizens. This wealth pays for the basics of life, and there is a surplus for each individual to engage in their life passion. So if someone wants to be a writer or a musician or a researcher, that life path can be pursued full time. And that person need not even get good at this passion. If that is what the person really wants to do, let him or her do it. After all, the robots are doing most of the real work to keep society going!

A lot of citizens want to play video games. So that is what many people do. The author points out that video games do not consume many resources.

If someone wants better video games, he or she can allocate some of his or her surplus resources to organizations that design video games. The organization may “hire” that person to test out the new games, finding bugs for the software developers to fix. Or maybe the person uses his or her surplus to fund the education to write software or to  build mathematical models for building new video games. The person then takes on a higher role in this industry—and is now pursuing his or her passion.

If the person’s passion is to develop better robots, the surplus will allow him or her to get the education to pursue that passion. When the education is complete, he or she can be “hired” by those organizations that design better robots. “Hire” is in quotation marks because no money is exchanged between the organization and the “employee.” The person “works” there because that “work” is his or her passion. There is no need for a paycheck—basic needs are already taken care of.

And building better robots generate more wealth to be shared. This society just keeps getting better while all citizens are pursuing their passions.

If the passion is to raise families, that passion is encouraged. But parents do not have to struggle for an income in this new society. They can focus on their kids.

The protagonist decides to settle in a small town in this new society. He has a small garden, tended by hand and small tools, not robots. He does lots of socializing and cooking and becomes an “uncle” to many of the town’s children. Those are his passions. He is much happier than being in the displaced worker warehouse of his former society.


I think the author is asking us some serious questions. Who should get the benefit of the generated wealth that comes from automation? Should it be the inventors of automation? Or should it be society at large? Which of the two societies is more likely to create a better world?

While the author did not directly say it, I think he is making a case for Universal Basic Income. If we have a functioning UBI in place when the Manna software is eventually created, we will not have to go to the great expense of warehousing displaced workers—and losing whatever gifts they may have for our future society.

Published on Medium 2020

Negative Welfare

Building a Kinder, Wiser Democracy