Although he is best-known for his brilliant novel Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s genius extends beyond this one work. In his lesser-known first novel Player Piano, Vonnegut describes a dystopian world in which economic activity has been almost entirely automated, eliminating the need for most human labour. Written in 1952, the novel was ahead of its time and confronts serious questions that we are now being forced to consider.
Automation may be the most pressing personal and social challenge of our time. While there has been much discussion of its potential economic impacts, the challenge posed by automation goes far deeper. We are completely unprepared for the psychological and sociological changes automation (and artificial intelligence) will bring. These changes will require a fundamental rethink of how we order our lives.
Economics has long assumed that capital and labour are complimentary, meaning that as productivity and wealth increased, jobs would be created. This is no longer the case. Since approximately 2000, productivity in the United States has increased while employment growth has stalled. Technology is replacing many jobs and tasks, increasing productivity, and lowering the cost of production.
As a society we are wealthier than ever, yet median income is falling and job creation has stalled. Think about this in your own life. If you’ve been into a McDonald’s or a grocery store recently, you’ll probably have noticed the appearance of self-service options. These machines reduce the need for human employees, and keep labour costs lower. In Toronto, the TTC has begun using fully automated self-service fare machines. Drastic minimum wage increases, such as the coming $15 minimum wage in Ontario, will accelerate this process.
The automation of labour is unavoidable, and will bring countless benefits. Increased productivity and cheaper goods will lower the cost of living. But the disruptive impact on jobs will be enormous and unavoidable.
As in the past, new technologies will lead to the creation of new jobs. While cars may drive themselves, and machines may produce our cars, the software in these machines will still need human programmers and designers. But overall we will require less labour to produce cars now than we did in the past, as well as fewer people to drive them. Finding ways to integrate former truck drivers and assembly line workers into tomorrow’s economy will be a major challenge.
Furthermore, we are on the cusp of an even more radical technological change – artificial intelligence and advanced forms of machine learning. Soon AIs will be able to perform many of the tasks humans currently perform, displacing millions more from jobs.
It is doubtful that there will be enough jobs for all these people, no matter how much effort we put into retraining them. Instead we need to think more fundamentally about how we approach work. For one thing, the loss of jobs will require substantial reform of our current social security system. An idea popular amongst Silicon Valley types worried about automation is a universal basic income. Increased productivity should make society wealthy enough, and the cost of living low enough, that it would be easy to support all citizens with a UBI without crippling levels of taxation.
But, automation will bring about an even bigger existential and spiritual crisis, requiring a fundamental revaluation of human meaning. Since the industrial revolution, human purpose has increasingly centred on labour. As Hannah Arendt observed in The Human Condition, ever since Plato there has been a strain of thought in the western psyche that associates human meaning with craftsmanship. We endeavour to produce things that allow us to impose ourselves on the world. Instead of just constructing buildings that have practical value, we also build great monuments whose purpose goes beyond their utility. To Arendt, this is what distinguishes work from labour. Labour is simply the activity we do to survive, while work is what we do to create permanent objects that will last beyond ourselves. We consume our labour, we preserve our work.
In the automated age, what happens to humanity when robots and machines are the primary vehicles of creation? In a future where everyone has a guaranteed income, and where machines are responsible for most of our productive output, what will we do with ourselves? This is the existential question a post-work society will face.
With due respect to Plato, many of the things that provide us with the deepest sense of purpose in our lives are not things we necessarily do for income. Some of these activities, like music, sports, art, literature, spirituality, and many other cultural pursuits are pursued out of passion, not necessity. Yet even these leisure activities are threatened by technological changes. If an AI or machine can make music, create art, write essays like this, or play a sport better than a human being, do these suddenly become meaningless pursuits?
Consider calligraphy, the art of handwriting, a fading art sustained by an ever-shrinking number of eccentrics. Computers and machines are far more efficient ways of writing. But the art of handwriting is inimitably human, something a machine can never do. So perhaps a more conscious understanding of the human component of leisure and culture needs to be reasserted in the face of technology. While an AI may be able to paint an infinitely more complex and perfect portrait, part of what makes these things so meaningful to us in the first place is their embodiment of the human will and the tragedy of human finitude and limitation. No machine will ever be able to capture this, and thus it will become increasingly vital that we recognize and value humanity for its own sake, and reject the reductive efficiency of technology in pursuit of the things that give our lives meaning.
Some leisure pursuits such as selfless volunteerism are admirable and noble, and no one could be faulted for doing them in a world where work is scarce and income is secure. But could more base forms of leisure and culture satisfy the universal human desire for meaning? Faced with the choice between a philanthropic hobby and a self-indulgent one, what would most people choose? If the latter, we might see an unprecedented age of nihilism and decadence.
In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith worried about the deleterious effects that monotonous and repetitive labour could have on people who perform this kind of work day after day. Today we ought to worry about the impact of having nothing to do at all. Work not only provides an existential purpose to many by allowing us to create something permanent, it also provides structure and order in our lives. Jobs create routines that allow us to structure our activity and give us an ordered sense of time and our role in the world. Perpetual unemployment could have a disordering effect on the lives of many individuals who currently rely on this structure.
The economic dislocations being felt across much of rural and middle America today have led to the rise of what has been called “deaths by despair,” where welfare dependency, alcoholism, and drug abuse are rampant and destructive. A society in which people have no meaningful pursuits could amplify this problem. Mind-altering substances that allow people to temporarily escape their mundane existence or numb leisurely emptiness would become an attractive option to many.
A less physically destructive, but equally nihilistic and unfulfilling pursuit, could be a retreat into virtual reality and fantasy. Just like psychoactive substances would allow us to temporarily escape reality, technology could allow us to live large portions of our lives in virtual worlds where we simulate meaning without producing or experiencing anything real. Film, television, and video games and the Internet already fill this role for millions of people. Most people today would find the idea of a life spent entirely inside simulations completely pointless, yet in a world in which you wake up with all your basic needs provided, venturing into a virtual world where you have some sort of meaning might be better than, well, nothing.
None of these responses can act as a substitute for the sense of meaning work provides us. Wallowing in our own consciousness or escaping into virtual reality are phantasmic pursuits. These activities provide us with no sense of permanence that allows us to overcome our ephemeral natures, creating a sense of despair and alienation that could lead to self-destruction or angry, violent radicalism.
From westerners joining Islamic death cults like ISIS, to an embrace of radical political ideologies on both the left and the right that have killed millions of people, modernity has given birth to a plethora of dangerous reactionary movements. This trend could accelerate with the proliferation of technology and automation, as people turn to radical ideological pursuits to provide some meaning and direction in their lives. If the appetite for radical political activity became widespread enough, it could shatter the social order.
Automation will undoubtedly unlock new and exciting ways to drive economic growth, as it has always done, but the possibility of a society in which work is a scarce resource needs to be taken seriously by economists, policy makers, and philosophers. A post-work society presents enormous challenges, but also an immense opportunity to redefine human life. If done right, the rise of leisure as the dominant mode of human activity could have positive impacts on social evolution. However, if the phenomenon is ignored, then the fast-approaching technological disruption could prove catastrophically disruptive. It’s time to get to work on this, while there’s still work to be done.