Life in the Robot Age: When We’re All Unemployed
“You’ll never get a good job, son, if you’re smoking pot all the time!”
That’s a scolding you won’t hear in the future. Besides the fact that pot smokers can become president, the future will not require you to get a good job. The traditional motivation to keep your mind orderly and bourgeois will be gone, so let your mind fly its freak flag and wander the Technicolor pathways already cleared by St. John of Patmos, Salvador Dali, and Carl Sagan.
In the near future, we may all be unemployed. We are entering what is generally called the “second machine age.” And, optimistically speaking, it may become the best thing that ever happened to the human being. Andrew McAfee says the median American worker is in the sweet spot of emerging machine intelligence. High-skill professions are under pressure too.
As far back as the 1930s, British economist John Maynard Keynes coined the term “technological unemployment,” when he predicted that the displacement of workers by machines would usher in an era of shorter workweeks and increased leisure. The last century has seen a gradual decrease in working hours, from 60 hours a week in the late 19th century to 33 hours a week in the contemporary United States. Some prosperous nations, like the Netherlands and France, are doing well on 27 hours and 30 hours a week respectively — with the Netherlands striving for 21 hours a week.
After the world of work, we will have the time, energy, and ambition to do philosophy, make art, and study history.
Is it time for all of us to realize the Socratic maxim: “The unexamined life is not worth living”? When technologies have eliminated huge swaths of the managerial and labor classes, we will either be fighting a Lord-of-the-Flies-type battle for food, clothing, and shelter, or (if benign governments have planned carefully — insert laughter here) we’ll be actualizing the human potential. After the world of work, we will have the time, energy, and ambition to do philosophy, make art, and study history.
We will need to have a modest social safety net — usually called “basic income” — if we are to avoid a Hobbesian future of crime and revolution. The socialists argued that basic income could be funded by social ownership of the means of production, but even capitalists like Milton Friedman argued that “negative income tax” could provide a base income for food, clothing, and shelter. This is a very complex problem or hurdle, but not impossible. Imagine for the moment, then, that we are on the other side of the hurdle.
Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he is also Senior Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture. He is the author of ten books, including The Evolution of Mind and Against Fairness and writes regularly for The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Skeptic magazine. Asma is also a blues/jazz musician who has played onstage with many musical artists, including Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy. His website is www.stephenasma.com
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