digital ethics in a jobless future

What would/will the world look like when people don’t need to work or at least need to work far less? Derek Thompson explores this question in a recent Atlantic article, “The World Without Work.” It’s an interesting read, so I recommend it to you. Obviously it’s a complex question, and I’m only taking up a small part of it here. Really my interest here is not on the politics or economics of how this would happen, but on the shift in values that it would require.

As Thompson points out, to be jobless in America today is as psychologically damaging as it is economically painful. Our culture more so than that of other industrialized nations is built on the value of hard work. We tend to define ourselves by our work and our careers. Though we have this work hard/play hard image of ourselves but we actually have a hard time with leisure, spending much of our time surfing the web, watching tv, or sleeping. If joblessness leads to depression then that makes sense, I suppose. In a jobless or less-job future, we will need to modify that ethos somehow.  Thompson explores some of the extant manifestations of joblessness: makerspaces, the part-time work of Uber drivers and such, and the possibility of a digital age Works Progress Administration. As he remarks, in some respects its a return to pre-industrial, 19th-century values of community, artisanal work, and occasional paid labor. And it also means recognizing the value of other unpaid work such as caring for children or elders. In each case, not “working” is not equated with not being productive or valuable.

It’s easy to wax utopian about such a world, and it’s just as easy to spin a dystopian tale. Both have been done many times over. There is certainly a fear that the increasing precarization of work will only serve to further exacerbate social inequality. Industrialization required unions and laws to protect workers.  How do we imagine a world where most of the work is done by robots and computers, but people are still able to live their lives? I won’t pretend to be able to answer that question. However, I do know that it starts with valuing people and our communities for more than their capacity to work.

I suppose we can look to socialism or religion or gift economies or something else from the past as providing a replacement set of values. I would be concerned though that these would offer similar problems to our current values in adapting to a less-job future.

Oddly enough, academia offers a curious possibility. In the purest sense, the tenured academic as a scholar is expected to pursue his/her intellectual interests and be productive. S/he is free to define those interests as s/he might, but the products of those pursuits are freely accessible to the community. In the less-job future I wonder if we might create a more general analog of that arrangement, where there is an expectation of contribution but freedom to define that contribution.

Of course it could all go horribly wrong and probably will.

On the other hand, if we are unwilling to accept a horrible fate, then we might try to begin understanding and inventing possibilities for organizing ourselves differently. Once again, one might say that rhetoricians and other humanists might be helpful in this regard. Not because we are more “ethical,” but because we have good tools and methods for thinking through these matters.



One thought on “digital ethics in a jobless future

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  1. It’s an interesting question.

    As you allude, it’s obvious that capitalism will need a replacement, but it’s not clear what comes next. Capitalism is quite good in economic systems where the main limiting factor is labour. It really sucks when you have surplus labor available across an entire economy. Take an overall labor surplus, and add a new limiting factor of raw materials (metal, food, etc) and capitalism is pretty much designed to grind the population into poverty.

    I wonder about the robotic future when I start thinking of raw material shortages. Sure, having a robotic factory is neat. But automating the entire economy may not be economically viable. Even if you could do it, the maintenance costs as a whole would be insane. Imagine what we spend on maintaining roads that are relatively inert. Now imagine the maintenance cost of holding up a robotic economy. Still, I suppose we can assume we avoid that sort of problem through ingenuity.

    So with an automated economy, the question becomes one of purpose for the population at large. Perhaps we discover warp engines, and the problem is avoided by gifting us with a universe wide colonization push. But what if it isn’t?

    The question may well become how to make socialism work. When you look at why socialism fails, there may actually be an answer. Socialism is said to fail for a few basic reasons. 1) production quality, corruption, and motivation issues, and 2) a lack of price signals to tell you when the economy isn’t doing it’s job properly, hence you invest large amounts of resources towards unwise ends.

    With humans at the helm, such problems are generally insurmountable. But what about with robots? Can we become smart enough to plan our economy with the kind of transparency you get from robots? Obviously it would need to be done well, but it might actually be possible. Robots don’t need to be motivated, don’t have to be corrupt, and their production quality isn’t a huge issue. That leaves price signals, which is really a way of tracking what everyone in the economy is doing and balancing their competing needs for available resources. Say we figure this out too, or build a giant AI to take care of it. We still have the issue of purpose.

    I can only think of bad answers.


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