All the hype advertising recent advancements in deep learning and robotics as ‘AI’ has renewed public discourse about the job displacement that accompanies technological revolutions. Those concerned that a significant percentage of the population will soon not be skilled enough to compete for jobs (eg, with autonomous vehicles) are exploring ways to mitigate the resulting economic impact like Universal Basic Income.
What’s more interesting to me than the details of economic policies for redistributing wealth in a world of accelerating technological productivity and inequality (which btw are very interesting and important in their own right) are the social implications of mass unemployment. In many of the serious, practical discussions I’ve had with folks trying to get basic income programs up and running in a real way, one of the primary concerns is that potential recipients of basic income might oppose the program out of pride: ie, you might view government assistance in the form of cash as a paternalistic accusation that you’re incapable of providing for yourself and your family, embarrassing in the same way that you might find cashing in food stamps.
The fact that this sort of social stigma is a real concern in the implementation of basic income policy is a testament to one of the greatest triumphs of capitalism: convincing workers that labor is ‘meaningful’ and a fundamental component of human dignity.
But this idea of work as fundamental to human dignity is a way to shape mass behavior that co-evolved with (and, very likely, in order to to solve) a specific set of problems. So, as we seek to address the impact of mass unemployment on human dignity, we should also consider whether or not it’s still useful to tie our conception of dignity to work so strongly (or at all).
A Long History of Celebrating Work
When I consider how I might react to automation making me unemployable, I have no doubt I would feel some loss of dignity. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether there is something that is ‘mine’ here to lose. As I’ve grown older, I have come to more deeply appreciate the ways in which luck and circumstance are responsible for the skills I have developed, the opportunities I have enjoyed, and even the values I have chosen.
Certainly hard work has played an important role in my life. But, I also think that (i) environmental or genetic factors can set someone up to be more or less likely to work hard, and (ii) even the idea that hard work is a virtue is, in a large part, the result of cultural programming. My own work ethic is the product of a long study of the progress of Western civilization and the Enlightenment, the influence of the Protestant work ethic on the American dream, the technological imperative, survival of the fittest, stories I’ve read, teachers I’ve had, etc, etc, etc.
Despite my recognition of this cultural programming, my beliefs and virtues feel deeply embedded. I wrote, for example in They Say the #1 Killer of Old People is Retirement, about my concern that I feared I would lose my vitality, purpose, and will to live without feeling like I could do work that I believed was important.
And, perhaps even more strangely, I’ve always had a sort of unnatural aversion to responding yes when someone asks if I’m happy. I recently concluded that this must at least in part be the result of reading stories dominated by the monomythic hero throughout my life.
Consider the fairy tale phrase ‘happily ever after.’ Excitement and adventure lie in the entire story leading up to the ending. The narration of a story maps to our experience of unfolding consciousness and experience of life. The ‘happily ever after’ is where the story ends, the death of the hero from our perspective.
Our heroes are immortalized for their struggles and adventures, not for whatever comes ‘after.’ Within this narrative framework, achieving happiness feels like a form of suicide. A premature happy ending robs us of the immortality that might be made possible through the narration of our struggle.
A Useful but Destabilizing Virtue for Capitalism
It’s not surprising that we celebrate struggle and abbreviate the happy ending in the stories we tell children from birth, in our religions, in our myths, because hard work and struggle are values that, in a world of scarcity and uncertainty, aid human progress toward abundance and stability.
But as work has become increasingly central to our shared set of values, this also destabilizes society in some ways. For example, increasingly secular mores and an erosion of faith and religious obedience as the virtues of primary importance mean the loss of work can be more catastrophic to an individual’s sense of identity and dignity. Likewise, the importance of constant growth for capitalism, the dominant global economic system, entails that even as we see productivity increases, there is also a constant pressure to squeeze more margin out of labor. Firms in competition for scarce skilled labor have tweaked the idea that work is generally dignified (because it enables you to provide for a family and for the future) into a new myth, that some work (typically the ‘creative’ work) is more meaningful than other work.
The idea that only specific categories of work have meaning or dignity is useful for attracting talent, but is a big part of the reason we see a crisis of meaning accompany each technological revolution. In the industrial revolution, as Marx observed, the shift from artisanal work to factory production resulted in alienation because workers valued their craft and connection with their customers and communities. When we ascribe different levels of dignity to different types of work, we make it harder for people to find dignity in a new type of work when their old job is no longer necessary. Not every cobbler will be satisfied working in a Nike factory.
Luckily for the displaced, industry has been fairly adept in creating new ‘meaningful’ labor opportunities. The media industry, for example, has had much success with this. The digitization of media made it cheaper to produce (with cheaper / minimal hardware), made it cheaper to distribute, and gave it a longer shelf life (since it’s essentially free to store and replay). All of this increased the supply of quality content available and drove down the need for creative content producers. Theoretically, far more ‘creatives’ should have been without work before workers in many other industries. But, the clever trick of the media industry has always been to convince lots of people who are not actually directly authoring creative content that they can share in the ‘meaningfulness’ of the work despite having less creative roles (eg, ad sales people, middle managers, etc). A quintessential example: perhaps the greatest ‘hack’ in Silicon Valley history was not any technological invention, but the extent to which technology companies were able to leverage a story about the reach and ‘openness’ of the internet to convince an entire generation of labor that working for them was somehow the most meaningful possible work in the world, while in reality, it was just working for the next batch of corporate American giants.
What makes this game unstable is that (i) there’s no guarantee that industries can continue to skillfully repackage the meaning of work in this manner and (ii) accelerating technological progress threatens more and more jobs within and across industries, so the stakes get higher with each iteration of the game.
The other big risk is that we lose sight of the fact that ascribing dignity to work is just a tool for organizing people, and we get stuck in our game deploying this tool past the point where it’s useful for some broader purpose. You might argue that we’re already in a sort of failure mode, where our ability to assign dignity to arbitrary work and motivate people to work bullshit jobs is more efficient than our ability to allocate labor towards industry that would have greater social benefit, like education, healthcare, food, etc. If we’re already in this failure mode, it’s kind of the worst of all worlds, because not only are we assigning meaning to work that doesn’t need to be done, but, also, we could be redeploying that labor towards efforts that are actually important today.
Virtues of Scarcity and Abundance
If the historical utility of regarding work as a virtue has been to increase group productivity and reduce uncertainty in a world of scarcity, then as we consider how our conception of dignity might change in response to the mass automation of labor, it may be useful to examine virtues that exist within systems of abundance.
One behavior common in groups that enjoy abundance and wealth is material consumption, which essentially boils down to a form of hedonism. Probably the best argument against hedonism as a great choice for a virtue is that it quickly becomes boring when pursued for its own sake.
Those bored with material consumption often turn to conspicuous consumption, which is a piece of a larger social game where participants compete for position in some sort of social hierarchy. This is Instagramming. It’s The Great Gatsby. It’s Anna Karenina. While arguably more interesting than material consumption to the ultra rich because there’s some amount of scarcity of social capital, ultimately, this game becomes a bore as well and terminates in ennui.
A popular way out of this game is the rejection of material wealth and social status in favor of the pursuit of contentment. An example: seeking to transcend fixation on material opulence, the Zen masters Sen no Rikyū and Murata Jukō developed a minimalist tea ceremony called ‘wabi-cha’ – it was a reaction to cultural decadence. The ultra rich of this era, who indulged in more opulent tea ceremonies that had been popularized in and imported from China, had the means to possessing everything they desired, but still remained unfulfilled by material possessions–and, they were no longer distracted by the pursuit of wealth. The only remaining way to find fulfillment then, suggested the Zen masters, was through asceticism.
Interestingly, a philosophy of ascetic contentment like Buddhism also has appeal at the other end of the spectrum, in a world of disparity. For those who have nothing and have very little hope of changing their position in life, looking inward for peace is a strategy with at least some hope for success when all material and social goods are beyond your reach.
At the high end, the game is no longer interesting because you can’t lose. At the low end, the game is not interesting because it’s impossible to win.
What makes this high/low appeal of contentment doubly attractive in a world of mass automation is that we would simultaneously have a super abundance of material provisions and a super scarcity of dignified work for humans to do.
One of my critiques of Buddhist philosophy has always been that it doesn’t effectively motivate contributions towards human progress (see If We Were All Buddhists, Life Would End When the Sun Burns Out). My distaste for Buddhism and my view that work is central to dignity are no doubt colored by my own ability to participate in work if I want to, however. My attitude mirrors the American working and ruling classes’ typical interpretations of a disinterest in participation in corporate America as crises of apathy: consider, eg, the attitudes of the establishment in works like On The Road (1957), The Graduate (1967), Slacker (1991).
But as Alex Hagan astutely observes in The Crisis of Lonely Atoms, non-participation is a rational, optimal strategy for those outcompeted for ‘meaningful work.’
[Technology both] decreases demand for workers, and increases the allure of not-working.
…. There is no meaningful work, but there is a glut of meaningful leisure [(video games, social media, VR, the internet)].
For me, ‘VR’ feels like indulgent leisure–but this is only because I have access to meaningful work. A more precise (and tolerant) framing of my attitude would be: today, I anticipate finding more meaning in reality than in virtual reality. My ‘R’ is pretty good. But as accelerating progress in software and robotics threatens my ability to participate in work that I find meaningful, it would be rational for me to reconsider my attitude toward ‘VR’ or the pursuit of contentment.
Nonetheless, I can also imagine that in the days when I am stripped of my current sources of meaning and dignity that rationality might be equally likely to lead me to descend into nihilism and the ‘happily ever after’ death of the fairy tale hero.
It is imagining myself on the brink of this abyss whence comes my reverence for absurdity. Another kind of hero, Don Quixote, celebrates and survives through imagination rather than finding vitality through work. He descends into melancholy and death when he regains his senses and ceases to play.
When you consider Don Quixote in the world of scarcity, he looks insane. But it’s possible he’s just looking further out towards the end state, has recognized that everything is just an absurd game, and the only way to stay alive is to play. Alan Watts would agree:
Existence, the physical universe, is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere. It doesn’t have a destination that it ought to arrive it. But it is best understood by analogy with music, because music, as an art form, is essentially playful. We say you play the piano, you don’t work the piano. Why? Music differs from, say, travel. When you travel you’re trying to get somewhere. And, of course, we, being a very compulsive and purposive culture, are busy getting everywhere faster and faster until we eliminate the distance between places…what happens as a result of that is the two ends of your journey became the same place. You eliminate the distance, you eliminate the journey. The fun of the journey is travel, not to obliterate travel. So then, in music, one doesn’t make the end of a composition the point of the composition. If so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest and there would be composers who only wrote finales. People would go to a concert just to hear one crackling chord because that’s the end! Same way with dancing. You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room because that’s where you will arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance.
– Your Life is Not a Journey
So should we all ride off and start tilting at windmills now?
Not yet, at least not all of us. While there is still important work to be done, I think it’s worth doing, because it can still be a path to dignity just as it always has been.
But, as we give more and more work to software and machines, I think it’s worth asking why we’ve historically regarded work as fundamental to human dignity and whether or not it’s still useful to do so.
I record these thought experiments looking back and projecting forward in time, as I hope they’ll help me be more tolerant of virtual (and other) paths to dignity that don’t involve work. And I hope they’ll help me confront my own obsolescence.