Life after work

Some random and ill-researched speculation on automation

In Automation may mean a post-work society but we shouldn’t be afraid, Paul Mason paints a picture of a positive future in which automation makes way for new opportunities, rather than vast unemployment. He says:

“The automation revolution is possible, but without a radical change in the social conventions surrounding work it will not happen. … The solution is to begin to de-link work from wages. … But to properly unleash the automation revolution we will probably need a combination of a universal basic income, paid out of taxation, and an aggressive reduction of the official working day.”

While I largely agree with him, he leaves out what I feel is the most interesting part of this whole scenario to speculate about — where does the “paid out of taxation” money come from? What are the social, political, and economic changes required to make this work?

Modelling this type of future scenario is right up my ally, so with very little research I thought it would be fun to speculate about what this might look like. Take this for what it is, a bit of fun on the Thursday afternoon, not a deep analysis of economic and political progress. If others want to discuss the finer points of the feasibility of my scenario that might be fun down the line. For now, I set out to imagine what one possible answer to these questions might be, not worrying too much about how we get there or the global implications of such a journey (doubtlessly painful and wrought with many many deep problems). This speculation also comes from a very western perspective, as these types of changes would have huge impacts in other part of the world where most of our manufacturing takes place today (i.e. China), and those cultures and governments would have very different perspectives on it.

So, with some caveats and disclaimers in mind, keep reading if you want to see where my procrastination/mind game has taken me.

I’m imagining a scenario where automation leads to unemployment, but also to vast savings for corporations. What if they took those savings, even a portion of it, and pooled it to help fund a basic income for everybody through a new form of taxation (along with other forms of government revenue). This would effectively decouple work from wages, and reframe “value” on a personal and corporate level. Corporate value would be based on how the organization contributes to society, good for their image and sales. A person’s economic value would be a combination of how they contribute to their society/community. People would also have the ability to take bigger risks, start their own businesses, and still work “regular” jobs at various companies, albeit for shorter hours and differing compensation.

This is a narrow utopian view, something unusual for me, but it was fun to play around in this narrow and biased world for a short time.

It’s the year 2092. May, a musician and photographer, sets out on her daily walk to capture images and motion-impressions of her city, a sprawl that connects Boston by high speed train to most of the eastern seaboard. She passes the turnstile to board the train and head to Philly for a music festival, the gate silently registers her passing, the first person of the day, and activates the waiting area. She quickly checks on the progress of her last picture show, still ongoing in a gallery in Queens. 5,345 visitors, and nearly 40% decided to replicate one of her prints for their wall. That’s not bad, and will add to her growing, but still small, contribution to her collective.

May lives mostly on the lifewage she gets from the government. She can’t imagine what it was like for her great-grandparents who worked 40–60 hours a week. Back then it was so hard to make a living as an artist and people didn’t even try, they did it on the side as a hobby when they could fit it in. The mid-2000’s, when most jobs went auto, was a painful time, a lot of people haven’t fully recovered. People then put so much stock into their work, it was hard to know your value without it. But with the redefinition of corporate social responsibility, culminating the CSR Act of 2064, it’s now mostly the big companies that contribute to the communal systems that let May focus on her own directions.

With growing automation, unemployment, and corporate tax breaks (and evasion), eventually something had to be done. It was clear that after the initial investment, companies were saving millions each year in wages that they used to have to pay people. A rare progressive government was able to build on that and reform corporate tax laws, essentially putting all of that extra savings back into public services rather than entirely into profits. The companies are still profitable, but now they also play a central role in maintaining the public welfare through the lifewage system.

Each company that went auto starting taking a portion of their savings and paying a revised corporate tax, which becomes a basic living income for every citizen. Contrary to fears at the time, this didn’t make people lazy. At least not in the long run. What it did is allow people the freedom to create value for society without attaching all of that value to their ability to work pre-defined jobs. People started taking time to help each other, make art, build things for their communities, and start new businesses. Sure, there are some people who just do nothing, but they probably wouldn’t have been very productive in the old system anyway. And lots of people still work for the corporations or small companies, but May didn’t want that. She wants to explore, to make her own way in the world, and to contribute using the skills she knows best on her own terms. It means she might not get the latest v-chip like her neighbours, who both work as inno-curators at KoshlaBuffet, but she can’t imaging dedicating even two of the seven days in a week to something like that.

Nope, as she gets on the train and thinks about her 2,138 replications, she’s satisfied with how things are going.

What do you think about the coming automation revolution? I’m tempted to try another one of these in a more dystopian view, even looking at the same basic scenario from the perspective of somebody who’s not as happy about it. But one thing at a time…

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