Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work, by John Danaher, Harvard University Press, 288 pp, £31.95, ISBN: 978-0674984240
The ongoing drama surrounding Brexit and Trump and other dangerous characters, combined with the worsening environmental threat to the planet, have diverted attention from another existential issue which will preoccupy us for the rest of the century: what to do with our hundred-year lives when we have no jobs to go to.
The problem can be simply stated. Most people born today can expect to become centenarians but the world is still built around a model based on a decade of childhood and introduction to learning, another decade or so of study, four decades of work, followed by a few years of retirement. This model is now under attack from two sides; the reality that retirement could last thirty to forty years and the threat to jobs from automation, AI and robots.
This has been well-flagged, especially from the widely quoted Oxford University survey from 2015 forecasting that 47 per cent of current jobs will shortly disappear. There has been an increasing flood of business magazine articles, academic papers, online discussion and books written on different aspects of a jobless future, but a new contribution, Automation and Utopia, from Galway University-based law lecturer John Danaher opens up the subject in exciting new directions. His published academic papers have a strong philosophical bias and he has written about the regulation of enhanced technology, the philosophical case for robot freedom and the ethics of AI assistants. He is therefore well versed in the opportunities and problems of a more automated future and his new book provides one of the most wide-ranging discussions of what might be in store.
He begins with the now familiar tale of how automation and its allied technologies pose a threat to almost all forms of existing employment. He notes that new categories of employment emerge all the time ‑ there were no social media advisers thirty years ago ‑ but doesn’t expect any possible new work categories to be remotely capable of replacing the waves of redundancies we are about to witness. Then, in one of the first counter-intuitive moves in a book that’s full of them, Danaher welcomes a world that does not require us to work for a living. He accepts that, beyond income, work has its compensations, providing opportunities for mastery, contribution, community and status, but argues that the changing nature of work in the current globalised phase of the late capitalism “gig” economy is eliminating many of these advantages through the diminution of trade union power, the increased surveillance of the workforce by electronic equipment and ever widening inequality between a small elite at the top and everyone else. In answer to the question what has work ever done for us? Danaher’s reply is: not a lot.
He doesn’t regard a world without work in the conventional sense as a disaster because new technologies could produce all the goods we need at little or no cost and any residual problems could be solved by “redistributive changes in the welfare system”. He does concede however that life without work would need to be carefully managed and accepts that the new technologies pose difficulties for enjoying a flourishing and meaningful life. The main problem is that the availability of machines to do everything breaks the link between humans and the objective world, leaving us floundering rather than flourishing. There are also problems deliberately created by the tech companies to enhance their profits; making the world less comprehensible, nudging our behaviour in a direction that suits their interests, keeping us under constant surveillance and ultimately interfering with our autonomy. But we still have choices; we can take back control (sic) or cede control to the machines and seek meaning elsewhere.
In the second half of the book Danaher presents a lengthy case for each option, dealing first with taking back control under the heading; Cyborg Utopia. As the title suggests this would involve integrating ourselves with technology. It is a process that is well under way. First we had dentures, then hip and knee replacements, and now, if the Silicon Valley boyos have their way, any part of us that’s past its sell-by date will be replaced by a new part that will be infinitely more efficient and effective. There are obvious advantages to this option: in particular we would live even longer than a hundred years, with an improved lifestyle. But perhaps the most intriguing notion is that it would enable us to explore space, “the ultimate arena in which to act out the never-ending march to the horizon of possibility”, and given the way we are in the process of messing up the earth we may soon need somewhere else to live. Cyborg Utopia would also enable new forms of scientific experiment and artistic expression. However Danaher doesn’t believe that we should be aiming for an indefinite existence, arguing that if death were to be eliminated life itself would be meaningless. Having stated the case for this option he concludes by arguing against it on the grounds that it would make us too dependent on technology and would still demand a life of work, which he has made clear is damaging to our health and happiness. He then moves on to his preferred option: Virtual Utopia.
This Danaher defines as a retreat from the world of work into virtual worlds where we devote ourselves to playing computer games, claiming that “the arc of human history bends towards the utopia of games”. He defends the concept from the raised eyebrows of people like me by arguing that it would be technologically agnostic, would balance stability and dynamism and would allow us to pursue craft skills. He also alludes here to the parallel with Herman Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game, set some time in the twenty-fifth century, where selected intellectuals in a future reserved for the life of the mind play a sophisticated game involving music, maths and cultural history. He defends the virtual aspect of this view of the future by pointing out that the distinction between the real and the virtual world is more fluid that we think. So we have a choice; join the transhuman movement, discarding our tired and weak bits and replacing them with silicon and metal or immerse ourselves in a life of stimulating games. The author favours the latter option because it frees us from work, which he still regards as detrimental to a flourishing life.
I suspect not everyone will agree with all of Danaher’s conclusions but he raises issues which we will have to take into account in a debate we cannot avoid. I have some reservations about the end of work. I could match the Oxford University research report with a more recent Future of Work seminar in the US which concluded that there is little evidence that the process of technology-driven work displacement has speeded up in any significant way. I also think the author places too much emphasis on a recent Gallup Poll survey suggesting that only 15 per cent of workers globally are “engaged” by their work. Surveys of this general nature, where respondents are forced into a single answer to a very complicated question, can be misleading. I would also have liked to see more attention paid to the opportunity for further study and the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake as people, for whatever reason, exit the workforce. One way or another, better preparation for the fulfilling use of expanded leisure time is a subject that needs urgent attention. But in spite of my little quibbles this is a stimulating and thought-provoking book, fizzing with ideas on a subject that will assume greater importance in the future.
John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the Smurfit Business School in Dublin.