Why The Future Is Workless: Introduction

Tim Dunlop
Sep 19, 2016 · 14 min read

What follows is the Introductory chapter to my new book, Why The Future Is Workless. You can buy the paperback here and get a 20% discount if you use the code: Workless20

You can buy the Kindle version here.

Introduction

Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness.

Bertrand Russell

If you can get up early enough and miss the peak-hour traffic, it takes about ten hours to drive from the northern suburbs of Sydney where my parents live to where I live in Melbourne with my wife and son. I’ve covered that 900 kilometres often over the years, and it’s a pretty nice drive, too, if a bit long. I must admit I like the thought of sitting back and doing the trip inside a car that can drive itself, a prospect that is becoming increasingly likely. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As it happens, I was staying with my Mum and Dad back in 2013 when I wrote the first outline of this book, having got interested in the topic about a year before that. I finished the 6000-word draft one Saturday afternoon and got up at 5.30 the next morning to drive home. By the time I stopped in Albury five or six hours later to get some lunch and petrol for the car, something occurred to me. I had set an alarm on my phone to wake up for the early start. I had sneaked down the hall to the bathroom, guiding myself by the flashlight app on my phone. I had used the map app on my phone to set the route for my journey back to Melbourne. In the car, I synced my phone with a Bluetooth speaker and listened to music and podcasts I had downloaded. Oh, and when I got to Albury I actually used my phone as a phone to ring my wife to let her know when I’d be arriving.

I’d had a mobile for years by then, but this was the first time it had really struck me how central to my life that little box of magic had become. And it wasn’t as if my early morning routine had exhausted the range of things that it could do. As we all know, we can also use them to access immense databases of useful information, play games, watch movies, take and share photographs in an instant, read a book — write a book — or find out what movie is on near us, what restaurants are available, where our friends are and what they are doing, or where the nearest public toilet is (yes, there’s an app for that). We can order a car to drive us somewhere, have a three-course meal from a fancy restaurant delivered to our door, or line up a date for the night. We can even organise a job for ourselves.

The technology shines on us like a sun, no doubt. But it also casts a shadow, and sometimes the wonderful and the terrible are almost indistinguishable from each other.

Robot in existential crisis

Those devices we carry around in our pockets also allow others to track us, to know where we are and where we have been, what we have watched, what we have spent our money on, who we have spoken to and for how long, what books, music, food and perversions we have sought out. Our most intimate personal information is increasingly known to governments, security agencies and private corporations. Their ability to track us is sold to us in the name of protecting us from terrorism, or, in the case of the corporations, in the name of offering us ‘a better user experience’. In many ways it makes us uneasy, but the truth is, we have welcomed Big Brother in willingly. We allow ourselves to be surveilled because having a phone with geolocation and cloud memory and payment facilities and search facilities and a way to talk to people and to remember things and share stuff with friends and family is convenient, useful and exciting. Big Brother is also Big Santa.

This book is an attempt to understand the relationship between the technologies that are reshaping our connections with each other and the natural world, and our ability to control them. It is particularly addressed to the area of work and what it means to live in a world where technology is increasingly automating many common jobs. Work remains central to our conception of how it is we are meant to live, but paid employment seems to be increasingly scarce, unstable, insecure and — worst of all — failing to pay us a wage that can sustain a decent standard of living across a human lifetime. Under such circumstances, work looks, to my eyes, like an idea that has outlived its usefulness. I would go so far to say the era of full-time work is coming to an end and we have to stop holding out the false promise that at some magical moment the jobs are going to reappear.

Smartphones are at the heart of a lot of what is happening, but they represent only a tiny fraction of the tech that is likely to transform our lives. Endless articles and books examining what robots can and can’t do list a stunning array of technologies from 3D printers that can create human bones suitable for transplant, to driverless vehicles that have the potential to render every truck driver in the world unemployed, to humanoid artificial intelligence programs that can diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress. Developments like these leave us more than a little gob smacked and uncertain about the future. In some tellings of the story we are heading for the benign and entirely recognisable middle-class future of the Jetsons; in others, we are plunging headlong into the malign robot world of The Terminator. Indeed, the likes of scientist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur Elon Musk have been quoted at length and ad nauseum, arguing about whether artificial intelligence will eventually achieve consciousness, be smarter than us and take over. But here’s the thing: asking whether robots will take our jobs is the wrong question. And by asking it that way, we get the wrong answer.

If all you want to know is whether a robot will be able to, at some point in the future, do the job that you do, then I can save you a lot of bother. The answer is yes. Robots — or technologies of some sort will. It is already happening. Short of world war, alien invasion, the collapse of the biosphere or some similar event that blasts us back to the Stone Age, technological developments will fundamentally change what we understand by work and what it means to have a job. There might be a substantial argument about the timeframe for such changes, and there is an argument to be had about whether new jobs will be created to replace the old jobs, but none of that really alters the fact that, at some point, technology is going to fundamentally change the work we do and how we do it.

Once we accept that we are on that trajectory we are left with a much better — and much bigger — question: is the fact that a robot will take my job a good thing or a bad thing? Given that for pretty much everyone outside the Paris Hilton class of inherited wealth a job is the means by which we support ourselves, keep our families alive, and are able to have the possibility of some of the good things in life, losing your job to a robot is a bad thing. Nonetheless, I am going to use these pages to begin an argument that says the opposite. The idea at the heart of this book is that a future without work is potentially a good thing.

Think I’m gonna dance now

Even if I don’t convince you of that, I hope this discussion will at least encourage you to see work in a different light. Nothing changes, I don’t think, until we get it through our heads that paid employment is not a natural state of the universe but the outcome of centuries of particular political decisions, and that we could, if we wanted to, do things differently. In order to make that argument, I begin with the contention that speculation about the future of work requires we have some understanding about the past and the present of work, and that is what the first two chapters do. A key point of these chapters is to show how our ideas about work are not eternal truths but socially constructed. The understanding we have today that makes paid employment central to our lives is a relatively recent invention, and knowing this should make it easier to think differently about the future of work.

The next two chapters address key questions about technology and work. In ‘Will a robot take my job?’ I examine in detail the arguments about technological unemployment and look at the most reputable research that tries to answer this fundamental question. What this research shows is that serious people of goodwill are able to reach vastly different conclusions. Some suggest we are on the verge of massive job losses because of the rise of the machines; others reject this conclusion as ‘technological anxiety’ and argue instead that we will create as many jobs as we destroy. That is to say, some people see the future of work as a technological problem, one created and solved by the technology itself. Others see the future of work as a political problem in which the questions are not just about technology but also about who gets to make decisions about how we use the technology. I’m on the political side of the argument, because the technology itself will fundamentally change the social conditions in which work takes place. In the same way that a tractor changed the farmer’s relationship to the land, a driverless car will change our relationship to the city. It isn’t simply that work is done in a different way because of new technologies, but that society is organised in different ways once those technologies are in place.

The next chapter is called ‘Will an app take my job?’ and it documents how enterprises like Uber and AirBnB are affecting the ways in which work is organised. The so-called sharing economy — a term that I criticise — is not just about the creation of new jobs but also about reorganising the way in which work and wealth creation is understood. The question that arises is less to do with direct job losses than with the sort of jobs that are being created. This has huge ramifications for how secure work in the future will be. Already, middle-class jobs are disappearing and national wealth is increasingly going into profits rather than wages. Technology that replaces workers with machines or replaces full-time jobs with short-term contracts is only going to exacerbate that trend. This means we can’t just think in terms of grafting the working conditions of the past onto the technological developments of the future. We have to rethink the basic ways in which we organise our societies. To tease this argument out, I begin with a discussion, in the next chapter, of ‘Basic income’.

Under a system of basic income, people are paid a monthly allowance that is neither means tested nor taken from them if they get a job. Come what may, you receive a monthly income. So important has this idea become, it is almost impossible to read an account of the future of work that doesn’t include at least some consideration of it. Its growing popularity speaks, I think, to a deep intuition people have, namely, that paid work will be insufficient to support a decent standard of living for ordinary people. This chapter is a close look at how basic income would work in practice, about the different forms it could take and, most importantly, about how its implementation would change the way workers and employers relate to each other. Again, the issue isn’t simply about imposing a solution on top of our current arrangements, but about implementing one that changes those arrangements.

Once we understand the idea of basic income, we are in a position to consider different ways of approaching technology and the future of work. So in ‘Three paths to the future’ I look at the options that present themselves. I call them business-as-usual, back-to-the-future and postwork. The important point to remember here is that each is a gamble on the way technology will develop and each in their own way is hedged with risks and opportunities. I must admit, when I started writing this book, and especially this chapter, I hadn’t settled in my mind which position I would take. But in setting out the pros and cons of each, I found the conclusion to be inescapable: the postwork option is the one that makes the most sense. This is not because I necessarily think that we are heading for a future in which work ceases to exist, but because the other two options are simply undermined by inherent contradictions. Back-to-the-future presumes an industrial basis for work that is rapidly disappearing, while business-as-usual depoliticises what is essentially a political process. Postwork, on the other hand, is a way of understanding the world in a fundamentally different way and it therefore has the ability to make us think about solutions that would otherwise be hidden from us. It isn’t just a technological approach, but a political one, and it injects some hope and excitement into our thinking.

The final chapter, ‘Workless and work less’, pulls back and examines how technology influences society in ways that go well beyond the immediate effects it might have upon job creation. We simply cannot get away from the fact that the mere existence of new technologies will change our lives whether or not they directly take our jobs. When the car was invented it didn’t just bring forth the service station, it also allowed for the creation of the motel and, with it, a whole new lifestyle built around travel and family holidays. We don’t know yet what it will mean when cars and trucks become driverless, but we can guess the effects will be huge, especially if, as Pricewaterhousecoopers predicts, the number of vehicles on the road is reduced by 99 per cent and instead of owning their own car, people come to rely on fleets of driverless vehicles they can summon with an app.

Here’s the thing: I think we have to embrace the revolutionary. We cannot ease ourselves into a workless future by making little adjustments as we go. We need to think big now because the changes that are coming are big. Everything that is happening suggests our thinking on the topic of work needs to go beyond the practical and become mythical. Indeed, some writers suggest we have already entered what they call the ‘Anthropocene’, a period in which human activity is changing life on earth. Such people argue that human-caused climate change has so damaged the biosphere — the ecosystems that sustain life on Earth — that there is no way back. Roy Scranton writes in his book, How to Die in the Anthropocene, ‘We’re fucked. The only question is how soon and how badly.’ Under such circumstances, big, mythical thinking isn’t utopian, it is practical, and Scranton is clear:

We’re going to need new myths and new stories, a new conceptual understanding of reality, and a new relationship to the deep polyglot traditions of human culture that carbon-based capitalism has vitiated through commodification and assimilation. Over and against capitalism, we will need a new way of thinking our collective existence. We need a new vision of who ‘we’ are. We need a new humanism — a newly philosophical humanism, undergirded by renewed attention to the humanities.

That new humanism, I want to suggest, is best developed by rethinking our relationship with work.

To ask whether a robot will take my job in the future is to force a conversation in the present, a conversation about the nature of work, and we need to understand that robot talk is a proxy for democracy talk. It is a way into a discussion that politicians tend to ignore. It is an offshoot of the urgent and worldwide conversation about equality. Lying unexamined under the fear of technological unemployment is the presumption that the rise of the machines will only benefit the owners of those machines and not anyone else. We make this presumption because that is exactly the way the economy works under capitalism; it is the nature of how we have organised society. We accept this as not only the way things are, but as almost natural. Of course, it is anything but.

To compete with robots is to fight a losing battle

Here is the bottom line: work is becoming a far less reliable and useful method for distributing wealth. It is struggling to provide us with a living wage, and that struggle is only going to become more acute as the technology improves. At the moment we are going through a period of ugly transition, reflected in everything from the refugee crisis afflicting the world from North Africa to Europe to Australia; to the sort of working-class discontent reflected in support for politicians as various and as unlikely as Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders; to a generation of young people reaching working age who honestly believe they have no prospect of ongoing employment.

Academic and author Corey Robin writes on his website of being involved with some students through a mentoring program, and his experience reflects the sort of despair I am talking about:

Although all of these young men and women had some combination of writerly dreams, none of them — not one — had any plan for, even an ambition of, a career. Not just in the economic sense but in the existential sense of a lifelong vocation or pursuit that might find some practical expression or social validation in the form of paid work. Not because they didn’t want a career but because there was no career to be wanted. And not just in journalism but in a great many industries.

Where does hope lie for this generation, and for the rest of us wedded to the idea that making a living means selling our labour? Does it lie in endless promises that the jobs are coming back and to just be patient? I am highly doubtful. Increasingly, I think it will mean a growing movement around what is often called ‘the refusal of work’: not the refusal to work, but the refusal of work, the refusal to accept the proposition — central to almost every society in the world — that economic survival and personal fulfillment are tied to a willingness to do a job in return for wages. It is to suggest that there should be other ways of providing people with a living than an economic system built on work.

A postwork future is not one in which people no longer do anything recognisable as what we would today call work. It is one in which we are liberated from the compulsion to work for a wage in order to survive. Seen in this way, the robot question animates this possibility in a way that it hasn’t been animated since the invention of capitalism. As British political commentator Aaron Bastani describes it, ‘If we embraced work-saving technologies rather than feared them, and organized our society around their potential, it could mean being able to live a good life with a ten-hour working week … Cartier for everyone, MontBlanc for the masses and Chloe for all.’ Some call this movement fully automated luxury communism, and they are only half joking.

Fortunately, I am old enough to remember a better future. So even as the robots gather on the near horizon, this book argues we have choices about the manner in which we greet them.

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This is the Introduction to my new book, Why The Future Is Workless.

You can buy the paperback here and get a 20% discount if you use the code: Workless20. You can buy the Kindle version here.

Tim Dunlop is also available via his Facebook Page

Tim Dunlop

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His new book, The Future of Everything: Big, Audacious Ideas For A Better World, is released Sept 1, 2018

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