Humans Need Not Apply – a comment


Last week I happened to come across a short video about the mechanisation of the work-place. The video examined the history of tool use and argued that we humans are constantly driven to extend our capabilities through the automation of mundane, or difficult, tasks. The central point of the video was to show that automation does not only apply to physical tasks. It also applies to mental tasks, such as computer programming. They argued that automation of manual jobs has shifted the workforce to office-based employment, but that this is a short-term change. Future automation of office-based work will lead to massive redundancies in the middle-class, which will lead to increasing levels of poverty.

You can view the video here.

The video prompted me to think about what this means for the future of our society. Do we want to live in a society in which all manual and intellectual tasks are automated? How will we earn a living in such a society?  What will be left for people to do?

A utopian vision might involve a shift in our economy. We can imagine that when everything is automated, companies will be making massive savings in wages. Their increased profits could be redistributed to the masses who cannot work. In doing this, everyone will be given decent standard of living. We could all live a life of leisure. This is a nice idea, but I wonder if it is realistic. Companies aren’t well known for distributing profits back to people who can’t work. Part of the capitalist motive is to maximize profit, so it could be the case that companies are driven to reduce their work-force with automation so that they can make savings and retain the additional profit for themselves.

But let’s assume the more positive scenario. Let’s assume that in the future, people will not have to work, and that they will be provided with the financial means by which they can live a good life. This raises questions: what is a good life? Is a life of leisure a good life? In such a world, what would we do all day? What do we need to make us happy?

I remember visiting a trade show several years ago. One of the exhibits featured a small robotic lawnmower. The salesman tried to convince me that I need one of these little gadgets. His sales pitch centered around the notion of increasing my leisure time. It got me thinking. Do I need more leisure time? I also found myself considering what I actually want to do with my leisure time. Many people enjoy mowing the lawn. They do this in their leisure time. People improve their fitness through this sort of activity and enjoy a feeling of satisfaction when they complete the task. What would I do instead of mowing the lawn? Would I vacuum the house? Probably not, because that is automated as well. I suppose I could watch a movie, but do I really want to spend more time watching movies? And if the world becomes automated, and no-one has to work, what would the movies be about? Would I be watching movies of relaxed people sitting around watching movies while robots take care of business? What sort of life is a happier life — a life of unending leisure time, or a life in which I work towards shorter periods of leisure?

Leisure time is something we all value. But we value it because we work. It is possible that continuous leisure would become dull and uninteresting. So the question is this: is a life of leisure a life to desire? To answer this question, we need to question our human nature. What do humans want to do? We want to build. We want to create. We want to feel a sense of accomplishment at the completion of a task. I don’t think we necessarily want to hand all our work over to robots simply so that we can gain more leisure time.

Now, it could be argued that the desire to build, create, or work is a social construct. Perhaps we are socialized into wanting to work. I think this is plausible. We cannot underestimate the impact of socialization on children. However, if we look at the behavior of children prior to full socialization, we see that humans are active and industrious creatures. Give a child a set of play blocks or lego, and she will build. Give a child a pencil and paper, and she will draw. Ask a child to help dig in the garden, and upon completion, she will ask for another job. So although socialization plays a role in shaping behavior and the desire to work, we certainly see that children have a natural inclination to be industrious and active.

So I am inclined to think the following. Humans want to live a happy, good life. Leisure time is necessary but not sufficient to make a happy life. This is to say, we need leisure, but leisure alone is not enough. We are naturally active creatures and we feel a sense of satisfaction from our industrious activities. We want to work. But we want satisfying work. Then, after we’ve finished our work, we like to enjoy some leisure time where we can watch movies about other people’s lives of work and leisure.

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