Zen and the Art of Inefficiency

What do we do once our work (and lives) are automated?

“Making coffee for twenty people, every morning at 4:30AM, was the best thing I’ve ever had to do.”

The man was in his late sixties, his voice gruff but deeply genuine. We were wrapping up a silent meditation retreat, and speaking for the first time to the folks we’d been sitting, working, and living with for almost a week.

After all that silence, the group was remarkably open, and willing to be vulnerable. The first we heard from this man was a description of his daily struggle with depression. He went on to explain how the simple act of making coffee for our group — at the request of the monastery’s abbot — had made it easier to get out of bed than it had been for him in years.

“I just need to find a way to keep making coffee for twenty people when I get back home,” he concluded, only half-joking.

As our lives become increasingly convenient and automated (especially in tech-centric convenience bubbles like San Francisco), it’s easy to forget that simple tasks — the enjoyable rituals alongside the shit-work — are meaningful threads in the fabric of our lives. Two centuries since the Industrial Revolution started chipping away at the basic responsibilities of our existence, we’ve embraced a view that “work” is generally a “disutility.” Our goal has become efficiency, productivity, and busyness, as we strive to acquire more money, more things, and more leisure.

Fifty years ago, E.F. Schumacher’s pointed out the fundamental risk of our economic paradigm in his 1966 essay, “Buddhist Economics”:

E.F. Schumacher’s collection of essays
[Western economics] is standing the truth on its head by considering goods as more important than people and consumption as more important than creative activity. It means shifting the emphasis from the worker to the product of work.

I remember the abbot relating how his eight year old son loved spreading concrete… that is, until the boy’s older brother explained that concrete-spreading is actually “work.” A lot of what is distasteful about work stems from our focus on outputs (many of which we are only distantly connected to) rather than inputs (our intentions and work interactions themselves).

Luckily, our existential focus on squeezing human labor to drive output stems from industrial-age assumptions that are very quickly changing.

Modern technologies — from natural language processing software to robotized assembly lines— are turning many goods and services into commodities that can be produced without much human involvement. Just as only 2% of the U.S. population is now involved in agriculture, our labor will no longer be the limiting reagent in most production processes.

This change in the fundamental underpinnings of capitalism raises two HUGE questions:

  1. How do we fairly distribute outputs that aren’t human-generated?
  2. What do we do with our time when labor is decoupled from production?

I won’t really explore the first question now, mostly because it is complex, well-researched, and I’m vastly undereducated. But in short, as economic growth is increasingly driven by capital (rather than labor), wealth concentration grows much faster than economic output. Returns to capital have historically spiked as disruptive technologies are introduced, but only temporarily — technology eventually trickles down to enhance the value of human labor. This time might be different. [1]

If current trends continue, our role in production may go the way of horses’ (an analogy I’ve often seen cited). Technological advances increased the productive capacity of horses for many years until all of a sudden, WHABAM!, the internal combustion engine put them completely out of a job. How will we distribute income amidst soaring productive capacity that comes from machines rather than people? I’ve seen proposals of guaranteed income, or large-scale public investments into research and the arts. More on this to come. [2]

The second question is more manageable as a personal thought experiment.

If our labor is no longer ‘productively’ valuable, we need to completely re-imagine the purpose of our work, and leisure, time.

To continue the analogy from a moment ago — horses are still used in countries with mechanized farm equipment and cars, but their role has completely changed. Many horses in the U.S. today for example are solely kept for experiential value (as entertainment, beauty or companionship), rather than their productive value (as tools for transport or farming).

I think this role shift might approximate what is beginning to happen to us.

What happens when machines (like the Moley Robotic Kitchen) can perform every task more efficiently than a human?

Not overnight, but gradually, productive work won’t be the chief domain of humans. Our role instead will be focused in realms of ‘experience’ once reserved as luxury.

This fundamental decoupling of our labor from productive output is existentially terrifying, but also exciting.

We may have a growing opportunity to escape the status quo of focusing on goods rather than the people who create and use them. In fact, as standard production-oriented jobs disappear, we are being forced to focus on things like empathy and creativity where humans are still better than machines. Instead of working to maximize output, we can begin to maximize individual and societal wellbeing through work that is emotionally or intellectually meaningful. I also believe (as I wrote in my last blog post) that consumers will increasingly crave and be willing to pay for human touch, unique experiences amidst a growing sea of machine-produced commodities.

And this would be a radical shift. Our current models of education, management, government, even self-worth, are built around an output-oriented notion of progress. We’re obsessed with how busy we are and how each tweak to the assembly line — and each new generation of our citizenry — produces more bounty than the last.

But art and music and thoughtful debate are not efficient. Riding a horse-drawn carriage around Central Park or having an eight-year-old spread concrete are not efficient. They do not save time or contribute to material progress in any measurable way. And as a result, they’ve historically been labeled “leisure” or “luxury.” But pretty soon, human made cups of coffee, home cooked meals, and many types of work will fall into similar categories of inefficiency. Can we celebrate these acts as worthwhile simply because they are experiential sources of meaning in our lives and the lives of others?

How can we reorient our sense of self-worth around experiences rather than output? How can we measure intrinsic sources of meaning and motivation — like mastery, autonomy, creativity and community — in evaluations of our work? How can we rewrite our social contracts so that employment feels empowering rather than oppressive?

These are privileged questions to be asking today, but I think, ones that will be relevant to more and more of the world’s population as this century progresses. As we struggle to figure out how to better distribute the world’s bounty, we should also start thinking about how to use our time once we do.

I’d love to hear what makes your work meaningful, or your thoughts on post-robotic-apocolyptic employment, in a response.

I’ll start by admitting how much I enjoy making cups of coffee.


[1] I’d recommend The Second Machine Age (Brynjolfsson, McAfee. 2014) as a primer on the technologies that are reshaping the economic and labor landscape

[2] I’m currently doing a lot of reading on producer-owned cooperatives as well as the historical relationships between technology shifts and labor dynamics. Thomas Pikkety’s Capital is next on my reading list.

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