Utopia, Dystopia and the Future of Work

By Dan Kervick

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the pace of automation and the impact of technology on the future of work. Many purport to see the dawning of a new robot future in which many, perhaps most, of today’s jobs will be performed by machines. This line of thought tends to spin off into one of two alternative directions, one bright and one dark: The brighter view is a kind of techno-utopianism that looks forward to a future in which formal human employment has become less important to our society, and in which we will all enjoy lives of fulsome leisure based on an equitable sharing of our robot-manufactured abundance. The darker outlook is a species of techno-dystopianism driven by fear of mass unemployment and the growth of a burgeoning and struggling underclass of unemployed former workers, displaced and excluded from the economic mainstream of their societies, and surviving on whatever handouts and pittances the economy’s owners are willing to give them to keep them docile.

Both of these contrasting visions of our robot future, however, share the idea that automation will lead to an overall reduction of formal human employment. While I suppose both futures are possible, we might ask why this shared vision has become so popular. After all, modern economies in the technologically developed world have seen tremendous growth in both wealth and productivity in recent centuries, but have generally managed to create many new forms of employment to replace the older forms as they were reduced, or as they disappeared altogether. Why shouldn’t this process continue indefinitely?

In the past, new jobs have sometimes been created by technological innovation when human beings were needed to superintend the mechanized non-human work that the new technologies made possible. Somebody has to run and supervise the new machines, after all, and organize the operations that employ them. When technological innovation enables us to make some product more efficiently, one thing that can happen is that we then want a lot more of that good, as what was once a luxury becomes a staple of everyday life. So even though fewer people are required for the production of each unit of the good, we end up producing many more units and thus employing just as many people in its production. We work as much as before, but are richer and more productive.

But some now reason that the present era is different; that modern humanity has already picked most of the low-hanging fruit of industrial and technological development; and that we are at long last running out of new, high value things to do. We are also running out of the most easily obtainable industrial inputs and energy resources that we need in order to grow, and what is left can only be extracted from the Earth at a higher cost than previously.  Future development, then, might increasingly consist in the more efficient production of the economic goods we already enjoy, rather than in the production of new goods.  And since we already possess great affluence, we may find less demand for the production of more of those goods than was the case in the past. Some argue that we should learn to say “enough!” and embrace this new world of slower growth and declining overall employment, by taking an increasing share of our future productivity gains in the form of leisure.

I’m in no position to predict our long term future. But I do think we should take note of an important phenomenon that is often left out of these discussions, and a source of job creation that might lead to the addition of many more jobs than just those on which the heralds of the new leisure are reckoning.

Let us first imagine some surge in technological innovation has the initial effect the utopians imagine, and that our society suddenly finds itself with much more leisure than it had before, leisure which is spread around in a roughly even way.  Suppose employed people are working, on average, only 20 or 30 hours a week, rather than their previously wonted 40 or 50. What do people do with their new leisure time? Well let’s imagine a single small community that begins to dedicate more time to the performing arts and their appreciation. One half of the community begins reading and performing plays, and the other half begins playing a lot of music. The people who perform the plays enjoy the whole process of preparing, rehearsing and performing them, and the other half of the community enjoys watching the plays performed by the first group. Similarly, the people who perform the music enjoy everything about composing, rehearsing and performing music, while the others enjoy listening to that music. We can see a certain kind of exchange at work here; but so far it is informal, with the new benefits gratuitously provided and unencumbered by precise requirements or enforced contracts. At this point, neither performing plays nor performing music is anybody’s job. Nor is anybody a market consumer of the plays or music.

Suppose also that there is a second community that is just like the first community: one half puts on plays for the other half, and that latter half makes music for the first half. But now suppose the people in both communities notice something: the plays produced by the players in the first community are generally better than those produced by the players in the second community; and the music produced by the musicians in the second community is generally better than the music produced by the musicians in the first community. As a result the people in both communities begin to gravitate toward the first group of players for their play-going, and they gravitate toward the second group of musicians for their concert-going.  Since there is now some travel involved from community to community, there is a tendency toward more precise scheduling and somewhat more formal communication about times and programs.

Now add more communities into the mix, with an expanded variety of arts and entertainments, including such things as educational lectures and diverting sporting spectacles. We can see where this is going. As the practice and enjoyment of these arts becomes more integrated and distributed among the various communities, the need for tighter scheduling arises. Also, given the higher resource and time costs involved in the expanded travel and production, the performers from these communities are somewhat less willing than before to perform for one another on an informal tit-for-tat basis, but begin to require more formal contractual arrangements. And rather than bartering performance for performance, money will likely become involved so that these performances become fully integrated into the entire background system of discretionary market exchange. Activities that were once leisure activities have now become jobs.

On reflection, it is obvious how important this kind of process has been in the past in turning informal sharing and gifting into more formal economic arrangements. We use our leisure, the time during which we are not working in the formal economy, to do things we enjoy and find valuable, sometimes creatively expanding our repertoire of skilled activities. Many of these activities are not solitary pursuits, but are cooperative or participatory group endeavors. And over time, some of the more desirable activities become rationalized and organized in more formal and efficient systems, and are eventually integrated into the formal economy.  Think about how many widely performed activities making up our modern economic lives were once unavailable to people struggling with more demanding economic circumstances, or were available only to a very small leisured few. There are now large economic sectors consisting of professional actors, musicians, painters, athletes, toy-makers, educators and restaurateurs, and a massive infrastructure of venues and marketing channels for the consumption and enjoyment of these arts. Many of these delights could not exist, or at least not exist in their present abundance, in a more primitive economic system in which people need to work harder and longer than they do now just to provide themselves with the rudiments of life. Improvements in productivity are continually creating more leisure, but that leisure is continually creating new kinds of formal employment. It is a cyclic process of social and economic development.

So it seems to me that it is at least possible that our future, even granting that it is one in which many of our current economic operations have been efficiently automated, will contain just as much formal employment per capita as it does now. No one can say for sure. But in the meantime, there are other worries about the techno-utopian vision worth brooding upon. Whatever might be the case for our long term future, right now there are many people who are poor, or who certainly do not have what they regard as enough.  Also, the world as it stands is in need of major structural transformations in the ways we generate energy, transport ourselves from place to place, educate ourselves, care for our planet and preserve its beauty, and organize our habitations, our politics and our communities. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. By indulging the techno-utopian vision, we may prematurely accept a new normal of stagnation, unrelieved misery, degradation of the environment, social decay and a general failure to live up to our full potential and achieve our highest dreams. We might also grow complacently comfortable with a world in which many people are unemployed or underemployed, and in which the fruits of our economic civilization are not shared in anything close to an equal fashion.

We should not fall prey to the notion that the challenges of the allocation of work and income can be met entirely through safety net programs that create a barely tolerable floor through which people cannot fall. People who are not working will generally have less wealth, less political power and influence, and fewer social and political connections. They are politically weak, and the politically stronger use their strength to make the weak even weaker over time. And when people are not employed, their skills and level of social participation may decline. Their sense of pride and dignity can be eroded as well due to their consciousness of their dependence on others, and due to their limited opportunities for making highly rewarded contributions and earning social esteem. Welfare programs are unlikely to deliver to the underemployed anything approaching the riches that the owners of the means of production reserve for themselves. So the seductions of an imagined but unachieved utopia of abundance and leisure could lead to a highly undemocratic and stratified dystopia of neo-feudal hierarchy, organized around a system of degrading human management of alienated and powerless masses. Perhaps we already have something like that system in place.

As we move forward into whatever future we decide to build, I think we should be guided by a few simple principles. Our societies should be based on ideals of cooperation, democratic participation, solidarity and reciprocity. There will always be some work to be done, and whatever total amount of work we decide as a society to do, that work burden should be shared as equally as is practically possible. And if we do move toward a form of life which contains a greater aggregate proportion of leisure than we enjoy now, that leisure should also be divided as equally as is practically possible, along with all of the other economic fruits of our common life together.

Cross-posted from Rugged Egalitarianism

Follow @DanMKervick

17 responses to “Utopia, Dystopia and the Future of Work

  1. As I read the first part of this article, I was thinking how so many of our leisure activities have already turned into careers, most especially in sports. Acting and music have been careers for many centuries, but professional sports is relatively new and rapidly growing. Watching the Olympics, it is evident that almost anything one can do athletically, not just “traditional” games, can turn into a spectator sport and be done professionally. We even pay to watch professionals play cards, for goodness sake! Can professional web surfing be far behind?

    So as the “standard” work week continues to shrink, it seems there will be no shortage of people taking up careers in the entertainment fields, soaking up all that additional leisure time and leisure spending.

    But I don’t think we need to change our ideals. I think “liberty and justice for all” is just fine, and better than “cooperation, democratic participation, solidarity and reciprocity”. What we need is to do better at living up to our ideals.

    And no need “that leisure should also be divided as equally as is practically possible”. Whether the standard work week is 40 hours or 20, I see no reason to prohibit anyone from working as many hours as he wants in the pursuit of excellence in his chosen career, or even in just the pursuit of more money, if that’s what turns him on.

    Inequality is the natural condition. The rabbit will never eat the coyote. Part of “justice for all” means that the sponsor of the economic system sees to it that it manages the system so as not to exclude anyone, or any non-zero percentage of citizens even if they are not specifically selected for exclusion. That means a job guarantee, so that there is no unemployment as a result of excessive taxation. Beyond that, free individuals will always, no matter what you try to do, choose different goals and achieve different levels of success at them. And as long as we are a free society, they will have different levels of income and will amass different levels of financial assets, in accordance with their achievements.

    • Absolutely correct about how any and all sporting activities have been turned into professional paid activities. XGames?!? A group of people suddenly invent physical activities they call sports and charge people to watch them do it. We even have fake celebrities (Kardashians). People who are paid by sponsors to pretend they are famous accomplished people who are behaving badly. Then, there are the “reality” shows.

      Sigh, it almost makes me wish we’d never invented WMDs, so surplus humans could be gainfully employed in the time-honored profession of eliminating each other.

      • “Surplus humans”, hmm? You mean the ones that we currently can’t feed? Or the ones that are not needed given current demand levels and resulting salaried positions? Or those that entertain but don’t produce “high culture”? Or just those foreigners that only want to mooch on our social security systems?

        Besides the “time-honored profession of eliminating each other” is alive and well in the Levante, Mesopotamia, Africa etc., WMDs or not.

  2. Dan, I believe that an even distribution of anything is counter-productive for the advancement of society. Advancement of general economic well-being benefits from some degree of competition for success and a suitable amount of reward distributed according to the levels of success.

    I also believe that a cumulative winner take all economic system cannot lead anywhere except to eventual collapse. If the world were a gigantic poker game how could that game continue if eventually one player had all the chips? Logic dictates that redistributions must occur for long-term social stability. The problem., of course, is that such redistributions are difficult without also risking socio-economic disruptions.

    We have to figure out how, in a damned if you do and damned if you don’t world, how to achieve ‘salvation’.

    • That’s why I added “as is practically possible” twice in the last section. It seems to me the burden should be on the defenders of inequality to make a compelling case for the forms of inequality we permit.

  3. A great article Dan, for initiating a truly constructive discussion about our future, either the future we want as a society, or the future that will be forced down our throats whether we like it or not.
    As I see it, there will always be a need for human employment at various levels within the society, but the technological advance must lead to a reduction in the quantity of that ‘need’. The issue is how that reduction is to be addressed.
    While you are probably correct to assume that technology will result in the production of more, and better quality goods, you have completely overlooked the issue of “purchasing power” for the consumption of those goods.
    History, and religion, have developed the concept that the only moral way for a person to survive is to work for their ‘crust’. They keep coming up with the old tried and trusted furphy, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Unfortunately, this believe ignores all the innovation, the inventiveness and ingenuity of our forbears who have paved the way for our current standard of society, and which “we” have inherited, “free of charge”.
    As this question of “purchasing power” is really the key to any economic future for a technologically productive society, we need to look at the options if “full employment” is no longer a necessity.
    One option is to consider the overall productive capacity of a society in a similar fashion to the way we view a Company. If a Company becomes more efficient, and profitable, it is capable of paying a higher dividend to its shareholders. In our society, its citizens are its shareholders, and if the society as a whole, becomes more productive and efficient, it should be totally appropriate that its shareholders are entitled to a dividend.
    There is no question that most modern societies in today’s world are far “wealthier” and more efficient than they were in the past, but the current, ridiculous, economic system has saddled the “shareholders” of those societies with increasing amounts of debt. Addressing this economic calamity is another issue, but MMT does offer a valid road map to follow.
    As for leisure, there is an example of a person on the “dole” who chooses to perfect their ability in some form of non-productive capacity, for example, surfing. They spend their day practising and training, entirely for their own enjoyment. A side benefit of this endeavour is that they are providing an opening for another person fill the “job” they might otherwise be doing.
    In contrast to our individual’s private leisure activities, society has little hesitation in supporting elite athletes to compete in Olympic and other international sporting events. There is an obvious hypocrisy in the way we stigmatise our individual surfer and laud the athletes trained at Government expense.
    The concept of a social dividend has been around for many years, but its adoption as a valid entitlement would remove the stigma associated with welfare payments and provide a source for “purchasing power” in a more robotic future.

  4. This article reminded me of this video: The Duel: Timo Boll vs. KUKA Robot – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIIJME8-au8 — @John Lounsbury – I think a share in the productivity gains is how I read it — “The brighter view is a kind of techno-utopianism that looks forward to a future in which formal human employment has become less important to our society, and in which we will all enjoy lives of fulsome leisure based on an equitable sharing of our robot-manufactured abundance.”

  5. Dan, this is just a wonderful essay for me. It gets down into the humus and roots which is exactly where I think we need to be. There’s dozens of roads this sends me off on and I’m not sure which one to take first! Thanks very, very much. One thought at the moment: every time I write an essay I imagine there’s a tiny chance it might make its way into the mainstream discussion and, because of that, I try—in a big or little way—to introduce the basic MMT message. This essay of yours deserves a mainstream audience, and I only wish it planted more forcefully, directly or indirectly, the message about how sovereign fiat currency makes the utopian option even POSSIBLE—which most people don’t even believe.

    • Thanks JD. In this essay I was just trying to persuade people not to be complacent about high unemployment and not to be seduced by the latest version of a technology-based diagnosis of economic stagnation, a diagnosis that has always popped up in past crises and has always proven false so far. I want people to reflect on how an economically developing society continually generates new forms of employment, even though few people can even imagine those new jobs before they are created.

  6. John Christensen

    Imagine Star Trek were the ‘Replicator’ and ‘Holo-Technologies’ or their functional equivalents exist. That is were we are headed. The only meaningful ‘work’ then left, is exercising our creative abilities, as the struggle for the diminution of the value of labor through increasing productivity reaches an endpoint.

    Long before we reach this future, many issues will have to have been dealt with. Most importantly will be how the bulk of humanity earn a living whilst decreasingly able to participate in job activity, and without capital.

    The question of ownership of the means of production will become most salient. How does any government or bank get to decide who gets what and how much in the absence of a viable economic system?

  7. On reflection, it is obvious how important this kind of process has been in the past in turning informal sharing and gifting into more formal economic arrangements. We use our leisure, the time during which we are not working in the formal economy, to do things we enjoy and find valuable, sometimes creatively expanding our repertoire of skilled activities.

    is another way of saying that automation will do away with tedious and crappy jobs, allowing people to do something truly worthwhile – political will permitted. This is in my opinion the “realistic” version of techno-utopia, but also the point on which it can turn into techno-dystopia: this outcome is not deterministic and without lots of political work to flank political development, it will not come to pass.

  8. Pingback: Utopia, Dystopia and the Future of Work | The M...

  9. Ashley Cutts

    At this stage in the human journey we should not be having to worry about the end of employment. We should all be fully employed for the next 3 or 4 hundred years. Life is distinguishable from the inanimate because life replicates itself but this is an incomplete definition. A fuller definition of life includes the fact that life replicates itself to the maximum. In less than 500 years time, barring catastrophe, there will be more than a trillion people living on Earth and as many people as there are alive today living in other parts of the universe. Most people will live in cities floating on the pacific ocean, powered by nuclear fusion and fed by vertical farming. All the bare necessities of life will be free as will be anything else that is provided by the machines and robots that serve us. There will be currency but it will be very different to how we understand it today. The main currency will be procreative liberty. The right to have children will not be free to all. People will earn the right to have kids.
    With so much to do building a future for trillions of our descendants we ought not be worried about a jobless economy but we are and we need to be. We need to be because we are in the midst of austerity peddling traitors who are telling us that we ‘cannot afford’ to use our brains, our hands and our bodies to build this future. We have government that is active only in the business of preventing progress. Humanity will either grow in number or destroy itself.

  10. Is anyone familiar with what David F. Noble has written about this issue? In a nutshell, I would say that one thesis from America By Design is that technological development is determined by human choice. That sounds a bit obvious, as I suppose it is, but the fact to recognize is that what technology gets created will depend on how people have chosen to organize themselves, and what values they consider important. Thus, speculation on what the future of work will be like is perhaps less of a technological question, or as in the post, a consideration of the history of technology, and more one of political organization.

    I think post emphasizes (but doesn’t totally rely on) a kind of “market” based approached to reasoning through what technological development will mean for human labour. Noble’s work does a good job showing the inadequacy of trying to reason in this way, I think. Specific facts concerning political organization and power relations need to be considered to understand the history, and presumably also to think about the future.

    I agree with the final paragraph: we should aim for material equality.

    • Nobel is the ideal reference point here. He also wrote “Forces of Production”, which argued that inferior technologies are introduced to reinforce existing sociopolitical hierarchies (rather than to disrupt them via superior technologies). The key question the is how to move toward egalitarian outcomes? Philosophers like Zizek are most on point. Zizek has recently defended “lost causes” like the Jacobin program. In writing about the San Domingo revolution in “The Black Jacobins,” CLR James wrote something like the rich are only defeated when running for their lives. Is everything short of that ineffective?

      Anyway, I was most disappointed with the original post in how it takes Tyler Cowen’s “low hanging fruit” technology thesis at face value. You don’t have to look that closely to see that Cowen’s support for his thesis that technological growth is slowing is basically non-existent. He talks about rates of patenting and cites scant evidence, relying on one article written by someone without any credentials or training regarding patents (not that such credentials are essential) who wrote based on doing what was probably 5 minutes of internet searching on numbers of patents issued in different time periods. He ignores entirely the more compelling argument from the likes of Robert Post that rates of patenting depend more on the attitudes of patent administrators than on inventive activity. One might also point out the famous gaff by a former patent office administrator who in the nineteenth century asserted that everything that will be invented has pretty much already been invented (!). More compelling than Cowen would be to point to Noble, or maybe Veblen or Sweezy & Baran.

  11. Susan Canton

    There are reams of type from the 60s that talked optimistically about the what was thought to be an inevitable increase in leisure time. Not a neo-brutalist equation, or sink or swim falsehood embraced by today’s up and coming philosophically militarized youth. Any one notice that small pushbacks against the perception of inevitable gloom and doom are common observations, opinions are just as novel, as if today was some period in the 1960s. Never mind Future Schlock, What is work? Why do we have to work? Why can’t we admit that Capitalism, the real kind, not the swarmy propaganda kind that pretends some rule of law or fantasy, but generally wants to keep people out of work. (and then to hell with them) For example, you can’t talk to sociopaths and careerist writers about housing on any real level and they don’t get it. Aliens, and machine like, their entire delusional dime dance isn’t about housing at all, but worship of private ownership.
    “We should not fall prey to the notion that the challenges of the allocation of work and income can be met entirely through safety net programs” Oh please, what do you think the Pentagon is?

  12. Susan Canton

    There are reams of type from the 60s that talked optimistically about the what was then thought to be an inevitable increase in leisure time. Not a neo-brutalist equation, or sink or swim falsehood embraced by today’s up and coming philosophically militarized youth. Any one notice that small pushbacks against the perception of inevitable gloom and doom were common observations, or opinions are just as novel, as if today was some period in the 1960s? Never mind Future Schlock, What is work? Why do we have to work? Why can’t we admit that Capitalism, the real kind, not the swarmy propaganda kind that pretends some rule of law or fantasy, but generally wants to keep people out of work. (and then to hell with them) For example, you can’t talk to sociopaths and careerist writers about housing on any real level and they don’t get it. Aliens, and machine like, their entire delusional dime dance isn’t about housing at all, but worship of private ownership.
    “We should not fall prey to the notion that the challenges of the allocation of work and income can be met entirely through safety net programs” Oh please, what do you think the Pentagon is?