by Thomas R. Wells
Let us assume that the automation of our job tasks by algorithms and our physical displacement by robots proceeds at a rapid pace. What is the future of work? Will it be awful or will it be nice?
Some people focus on the jobs that robots can’t do now, or not very well, such as cleaning toilets or programming other robots. But there aren’t enough of those jobs to be interesting. Others focus on who owns the robots, and what kind of jobs they might like the rest of us to do, such as Downton Abbey type flunkies. But this seems too determinedly dystopian.
It makes more sense to treat the future of work as the economic question it appears to be – at least at first. Especially since we have two hundred years of historical experience with technological revolutions. When technology displaces human employment, what generally happens to the humans? In every case, humans move down the value chain, moving into work of less economic value than before.
For example, in 1800 the overwhelming majority of people still worked on the land, even in Adam Smith’s Britain. They had to. Producing food required enormous amounts of human labour. Most people spent most of their income on bread, which is not surprising since that was the main product of the economy. As the agricultural revolution spread new technologies and methods, productivity per worker soared. Millions of workers were no longer required. Those workers moved to the cities and the new economic opportunities in factories. They went from growing food (essential to human survival) to making things that were merely nice to have (helpful to human living). A similar thing happened when factories became so efficient at making things that we could afford to transfer most of the human labour force to services (around 75% of most developed economies).
In other words, automation increases productivity, the amount of economic value a society can produce with the same inputs of labour and materials. That means we can have all the things we used to have, plus we now also have some spare labour that we can use to produce things lower down on our collective list of priorities, such as mass higher education and healthcare and telemarketing. The reason we didn’t make those things already is that they were not valuable enough to be worth the cost of giving up anything higher on the list. Technology driven economic change increases general prosperity by expanding the frontier of what an economy can produce, and therefore what the people in it can consume. (How those consumption possibilities are distributed is a different, political rather than economic question.)
Applying this logic to our current revolution in automation, it seems reasonable to conclude that the future of human work will be producing things even further down our list of priorities than what most of us do now. What might that look like?
David Graeber’s wonderful rant against Bullshit Jobs identifies a common critique of past technological productivity growth.
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones. These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’. It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.
To put Graeber’s critique in my terms, the further down the list of priorities we go, the less direct value our work creates for other human beings. The things most of us get paid to do nowadays are valuable only because of the social institutions we happen to have, not the kind of beings we are. They don’t fundamentally matter because they don’t really serve any human interest. Yet we spend 40-50 hours a week doing these pointless activities (and we are supposed to be grateful for this, since the people without a job suffer even more). The psychological price of spending the better part of the prime of our lives doing things that don’t really matter is alienation from our lives. Thus, there is a general relation between moving down the value chain and a crisis of meaningful work.
One can quibble with Graeber’s acerbic analysis. Some of the new service jobs seem quite fulfilling – I rather enjoy teaching philosophy; and many university administrators do quite helpful things to make that teaching go better. But let us suppose he is largely correct.
We should assume that all the jobs that can be routinized will be, and that most current service sector jobs will go. (Including mine. I anticipate replacement by a Michael Sandel automaton, a SandelBot, whose ability to pretend to understand Kant is far superior to mine.) The jobs the robots displace us into will be even more trivial than the ones we do now. Does that mean they will be even more meaningless?
Not necessarily. Meaningful work has several aspects. Scratching in the dirt for food had plenty of existential significance, but rather less scope for contributing to society or personal development and creativity. As we move down the value chain the things we do for each other may well become more personalised, opening up new sources of meaning. It is hard to say what this will look like. Maybe we will hire each other to be guides on video game adventures, or to design our virtual reality homes. One example that caught my eye is Theodore Twombly’s job in the movie ‘Her’: writing love letters for other people. In the grand scheme of things this is undoubtedly an extremely trivial thing to spend one’s time doing, yet it is presented very plausibly as deeply fulfilling.
As we contemplate our diminished role in the shiny AI future there is at least some room for optimism. Objectively the jobs on offer may be insignificant, yet that does not determine their value to us. Their insignificance may be more compatible with distinctly human lives than the alienating work so many of us do now. The relationship between technological progress and meaningful work may have the form of a U. As people moved from making and building things that felt like concrete achievements into office jobs like telemarketing we experienced a decline in meaning. The economic value of those new jobs – their service to society as a whole – was often hard to see. Automating away those jobs may clear away the misshapen institutions of late-stage capitalism and allow us to see each other clearly again, and to remember the value of what we can do for each other.
Thomas Wells is a philosopher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher’s Beard.