The Collectivism of Busyness

This video re-surfaced for me last night when I was listening to an old installment of CGP Grey and Brady Haran’s podcast “Hello Internet.” Grey doesn’t address potential solutions to the problem of automation in the video, but in this conversation with Haran he reaches much the same conclusion that I have: it is inevitable and mutually beneficial that we should all begin to de-stigmatize unemployment, in preparation for a future in which it is intentional and inevitable. But, Grey says, we can’t even seem to have a conversation about this problem without running up against irrelevant, preconceived political ideas that preclude any solution.

And, really, the problem is more than politics. There’s a deeply ingrained faith in the inherent value of work among us Americans. We’ve talked ourselves out of the requirement that the work actually mean anything, that it actually be beneficial to anyone; we know only that we must work… frantically, pointlessly… until we die, or until our own investments in the toil of others pays enough dividends to keep us in cable subscriptions and light beer.

I got a strange look in the aisles of Home Depot yesterday when I was explaining to my son Henry that, yes, ants are kind of cool, but it would be very unfortunate for a person to be like an ant… to toil without individual purpose and without regard to the merits of the labor, only for a larger social good that we’re not even capable of grasping. (“Umm. Err. What’s this?” Henry replied, holding up a water shut-off wrench.)

Mindless busyness in service of vague cultural norms and ostensibly in support of GDP is little more than a form of collectivism that doesn’t necessarily bother benefiting the collective. (To be sure, it has benefited us tremendously in the past few centuries. We are quickly reaching the end of that phase.)

In a 1970 issue of New York Magazine, R. Buckminster Fuller explained this well:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Fuller was right, and we’ve scaled the heights of human capability. We stand at the precipice now, and must decide whether to savor the moment of accomplishment — perhaps take in the view, have a sandwich, and frown lovingly at an over-hopped craft beer before planning our next adventure— or keep marching into oblivion.

John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” thought experiment sought to teach us how to design moral systems by asking us to pretend, in evaluating our options, that we know nothing about our own future abilities and social/economic standing. How would you conceive a fair and just society. knowing nothing in advance of your own intelligence or potential, ignorant of your demographics, inherited wealth, etc.?

Now, imagine that veil of ignorance applied to a society in which half of the citizens might be structurally unemployable through no fault or choice of their own. These are the same kinds of people who work tirelessly at entirely unimportant jobs, willing to work on behalf of themselves and the colony. They have interests and convictions and children to raise, and an investment in a good and meaningful future for those children. Would you have them mired in poverty in a society that could afford to provide for them a place, a purpose, greater than shuffling paper and making instruments with which inspectors might inspect inspectors?

Or would you see that as a great and profane squandering of potential? Does the superorganism really exist only to perpetuate itself, to busily fortify and gather and scurry about?

We’ve gotten it into our heads that commerce is a mechanism by which we can discover and assert and sculpt our individual character and will, which will then be evaluated and graded by the machine itself (by its own measures, in terms of its own purposes). But what commerce has given us is a role as a raw material, an input that is increasingly no longer needed. Why should we continue to yield our futures and worth to such a machine that assigns higher value to our spending power than to our happiness, that sees more profit in our sickness than our health, and for which we are entirely disposable if our purposes don’t align with its own?

Automation is a good thing, a wonderful and freeing thing, if and only if we can use the self-driving vehicles and algorithms and robotic mechanisms of all sizes to finally and fully take ourselves out of that role as a cog in the machine and make something more of ourselves.

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