Life After Technological Unemployment: Not Necessarily Gloom & Doom

Many people lament about the potential of some technological advances to render some jobs obsolete resulting in mass unemployment. Technological unemployment is the unemployment that arises from technology replacing jobs. While technology can, and will replace some or many tasks currently done by humans, we have a historical track record of how employees, employers and the market has found new tasks for humans to do. But this is not another article about how the education system needs to change to better prepare students for the market needs of the future, how employers need to have an up-skilling program as part of corporate social responsibility to those who will be technologically unemployed, nor is this an article about what the government can do about it. Instead, this is an article about life after technological unemployment.

According to some, technological unemployment in the industrialized world is going to affect over a quarter the labor market, and it will happen faster than the market can up-skill itself for the new skills. Building on these predictions, others have painted a picture of a world of technological unemployment filled with questioning the meaning of life, experiencing severe boredom and identity crises. The logic behind this being that a job is more than a paycheck and even if universal basic income was provided, jobs play a big role in how we perceive who we are and our value in society. This logic also assumes that if people didn't need to work they wouldn't know what to do with their time and thus become depressed and bored.

In the event that there was indeed mass technological unemployment coupled with universal basic income, I believe there are other very human alternatives for how people would spend their time, define their identity and find joy.

Humans: The Social Butterflies

Humans are social by nature, cooperating with others and being part of a tribe played a big role in our survival. Through out the thousands of years of homo-sapien existence we have created a plethora of ways to showcase our story. Story-telling is one of the most fundamental ways in which we understand our world, our place in it, and determine our perspective on it. Our species has been incredibly imaginative in telling our story in the form of cave drawings, oral stories, through song, dance, poetry, fiction, opera, musicals and theater plays to give some lively examples. All of this continues today and there is no sign of it abating. In a world of universal basic income as a response to technological unemployment, I do not see why thousands of years of human story telling would stop, in fact new technology will provide new ways to do this.

Original watercolor painting ballerina dancing by YuliaSheArt

I can imagine a beautiful ballet where roboticists would ingeniously create aerial robotics that would match the elegance of movement of a human ballerina, or perhaps experiencing a story of post war life of someone far away through an immersive virtual reality story. Each day there are people who feel compelled to share their stories (fictional or real) with the world and they are not motivated by money to do so, but instead by their conviction that their story is worth sharing. With the democratization of technology more people will have more access to technology and find ingenious ways to socialize and share experiences through innovative story telling methods.

Humans also socialize through movement with each other such as with dance, sports and games. While these activities may be done professionally, there are still significantly more people in the world who do these activities for leisure and joy. For example, there are exponentially more people in the world who play soccer for joy instead of compensation, as there are exponentially more people in the world who salsa for joy instead of compensation. They are not compensated, and most do not play soccer or salsa dance because they have an ambition to become financially compensated professionals, instead they do it because they enjoy gathering with others to socialize and connect through movement in some cases to be part of a team, in other cases to feel the thrill of competition, in others just to have fun. There is good reason to believe that people will continue to do this — even continue to do this in Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) and whatever other reality comes next!

The Curiosity of Humans

The moment the Wright brothers flew for the first time. Kitty Hawk, 1903

If it weren't for human curiosity we would not have made as much progress as our species has made so far. It is our curiosity that takes us to far ends of the world to see experience other ways of life, it is curiosity that makes us spend hours watching YouTube instructional videos for the passion projects we are determined to see succeed, and it is this curiosity that has spawned billions of makers around the world across space and time. People continue to make gadgets for fun, experiment on their free time and dabble in new activities because their curiosity and interest has driven them there. There are countless conferences, workshops and festivals that cater to this where people pay out of their own pocket to further these activities of curiosity and interest, where they go to meet like minded people and socialize on these curious elements that set their soul on fire. In a world without jobs, there is much reason to believe that mustang engine lovers, fury creature lovers, fantasy pastry chefs, near field communication enthusiasts and many others will continue to want to meet and pursue these interests and continue to invent, dabble and create.

If people can find time outside their working hours to pursue their interests and feed their curiosity, they will most likely continue to do this when they have more free time as work weeks will inevitably become smaller.

Human Sharing and Caring + Growing

Humans are social and curious creatures, these qualities also come hand in hand with sharing, caring and growing. Whether it is sharing their physical or intellectual resources, providing care and support through words and/or deeds, or growing relationships or agriculture.

There are some people who may not be professional educators or teachers but are the mentors of their community and provide lessons, guidance and leadership — teaching their community how to succeed. Some come in the form as an unexpected mentor who is incredibly passionate about what he/she does and feels joy in sharing it with others without any expectation of financial compensation. Some professional educators retire but cannot let go of the profession and continue to teach in retirement through volunteer capacities. The wealth of knowledge of our species is greater than what google has been able to index, some of it has been lost forever, some has been passed down by word of mouth but remains un-digitized, and some is digitized and available on demand in multiple forms through the world wide web. It is not hard to find people who share their knowledge in blogs without any financial compensation.

Caring plays an integral role in our humanity, whether it is a parent caring for a child, a family member caring for another family member, or simply one human-being caring for another. There are countless examples of human care-giving. Some people chose to adopt children who have been abandoned and care for them, or animals who have been abandoned. The motivations to do this are not employment related, they are human caring and human compassion related. They give meaning in a different way compared to how jobs give meaning.

Image Credit: Alamy

Most of the global population is moving to urban environments, despite this you will find people who find tremendous joy in agriculture and gardening. There are countless magazines on how to sow seeds and care for flowers and vegetables across the seasons. Interestingly, the target audience of these magazines are regular people who enjoy growing plants as a hobby, in fact in the industrialized world there are very few farmers around less than 5% of the population. These hobbyists relish in the contact with the earth, watching their seeds grow, caring for the plants through out the season and in the case of vegetables take pride in eating the food they tended to. Even in the case of universal basic income, there will be people who will spend their new found free time with plants. New agricultural technologies such as vertical farming, aeroponic techniques and the Internet of Things (IoT) will give them new and exciting ways to grow plants.

Beauty is in the Eye of Human Civilization

There is something tremendously beautiful about our species, and that is our attention to detail where it is not necessary. No where in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will you find the need to have sculptures in a garden, or intricate iron work on your front door. But yet, around the world across time and space you will find our species spending countless hours, effort and resources to creating visual beauty.

Vassa Museum, Stockholm Sweden

Whether it 16th century military ships embellished wooden sculptures, spoons with mermaid lovers embracing each other, swooping lettering that lifts the spirit, decoratively painted ceilings, ornate water fountains, window rim designs, intricate flower paintings on macaroons, or decorative mobile phone covers

— humans create visual beauty in seemingly unnecessary places.

1700s Spoon with mermaid lovers embracing each other, on the right a goblet handle with fantasy creature lovers kissing. (From the Design Museum in Berlin, Germany)

This eye for beautification must be somewhere in our genes as throughout history it seems to be second nature. While significant financial resources are needed to build an ornate wooden ship with wooden sculptures all around, today with everything being digitized it is possible to transfer what is in our imagination into digital form with free tools and free online learning resources. All that is needed is time. Today, battleships are made of different material and do not have ornate sculptures, however we may be able to see a modern ornate battleship in Virtual Reality made by someone who wanted to recreate a modern aircraft carrier to have a unicorn at the front and a recreation of our galaxy in the back. Another person may love the experience of that unicorn aircraft carrier in VR and decide to print a 3D replica of it with recycled plastic. Another person may decide that is their dream home and find a way to make it into a canal boat. Point being — human enthusiasm for visual beauty (as defined by the individual) is something that will continue to be developed and pursued; with the democratization of technology it just got easier for anyone to try to make their imagination a reality in one form or another.

Boredom — perhaps not.

If our future is one of fewer jobs, or shorter work weeks, or no jobs but universal basic income, perhaps instead of thinking about how people will be depressed and bored, we should instead think about how people can find their human passions. Perhaps instead of thinking about how people can bring financial value to the market, we could think about how they can bring human value. It is a matter of a mindset shift.

Digital Grotesque Architecture Michael Hansmeyer & Benjamin Dillenburger

Perhaps instead of boredom, we will be dancing in augmented reality ballrooms with large digital grotesque sculptures. Perhaps instead of depression we will have a renewed sense of purpose. Perhaps instead of an identity crisis we will find an expanded sense of self.

Perhaps what technological unemployment will ultimately bring is a new mindset on human capital.

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Dr. Lydia Kostopoulos’ (@LKCYBER) is a Senior Researcher at the Digital Society Institute in Berlin. Her work lies in the intersection of people, strategy, technology, education, and national security. She regularly speaks internationally on disruptive technology convergence, innovation, tech ethics, and national security. In efforts to raise awareness on AI and ethics she is working on a reflectional art series [#ArtAboutAI], and a game about emerging technology and ethics which is expected to be out early 2019.

Dr. Lydia Kostopoulos

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