After Robots Take Our Jobs, What Will We Buy in a Society Without Money?

Could we redesign shopping as a system of “catch-and-release,” so that, like sport fishing, it’s the adventure and not the prize that becomes central?

After labor, not all of us will want to explore inner consciousness. Abundant leisure will not turn everyone into the Buddha. Many of our tastes are in the gutter, and I have no objection to leaving them there. I’m not a fan of shopping per se, but buying stuff is deeply satisfying and motivating for many people. Is it possible to rethink the pleasure of conspicuous consumption in a way that decouples it from the competitive labor economy? The post-work world I’m imagining will have little surplus money for unnecessary shopping, even if robots and computers can dramatically lower the overhead of such production. So, a non-consummatory form of shopping will have to be cultivated.  


Some people marshal all their evolved predatory skills to hunt down the perfect sweater, shoes, or watch. Could we redesign shopping as a system of “catch-and-release,” so that, like sport fishing, it’s the adventure and not the prize that becomes central? Maybe we will hunt for luxury items, but then instead of keeping them, simply photograph ourselves wearing the items (like a fisherman holding a giant pike). It's an unlikely adjustment, I’ll grant you, but I never thought catch-and-release fishing would be fun until I did it, and it was. The way some people already buy and return items suggests to me that catch-and-release shopping is not impossible.

Recently French economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that the vast majority of us will never catch up and close the wealth gap. ... If the wealthy bully on the block takes the footballs and baseballs away from us, we can either cry at his door, or play a different game altogether.

Social networking like Facebook entails careful and personal curating of the self — many people post themselves engaged in activities and experiences, finding this sufficiently gratifying. One need not “own” or “consume” the experiences that one is pursuing and sharing in order to enjoy some pleasures of status.

Recently, French economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that the vast majority of us will never catch up and close the wealth gap. The concentrated wealth of the elite is rising four times faster than the world economy (which is labor income based). In the future, most wealth will be concentrated in a 1 percent international elite, and while I agree this is worrying for our meritocratic ideals, there is a kind of “cultural cure.”

If the wealthy bully on the block takes the footballs and baseballs away from us, we can either cry at his door, or play a different game altogether. Those of us in the 99 percent — currently called the labor income demographic — will need to do two things: (a) become stoic about luxury, and (b) become virtuosos of intangible culture. With those two adjustments, we not only survive the second machine age, but also actually flourish in it. 

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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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