Sean Carroll recently did a podcast interview of futurist John Danaher on the issue of increasing automation, and what it might mean for future society. Danaher sees automation taking away jobs, jobs that won’t come back. In this common view, we’re heading for a post work society, where the machines do everything, and we need to think about what that will mean.
Concerns about the machines taking jobs is an old one, going back to beginning of the industrial revolution. But while automation has always taken old jobs, new ones have always developed.
The reason, if you think about it, is pretty straightforward. In a free market economy, someone will eventually find a way to use uncommitted resources, such as out of work people. If the number of jobs necessary to produce certain products or services decrease due to automation, the economy will find a new equilibrium, either using the same number of people to produce more of those goods and services since they’re now cheaper, or producing new ones made possible by the freed up resources.
That’s not to say that the transitions aren’t agonizing for people caught up in them, and society really hasn’t found a good way to help. The current solutions are scattershot and often tainted with stigma. With accelerating automation, the result is an increasingly alienated working class, leading to the election of angry and reactionary populists. The fact that it’s now affecting professional class jobs may spur us to find real solutions.
But eventually, if we look far enough down the road, we may reach a point where the machines can do everything. At that point, Danaher’s concerns become valid. We’re probably still a long way off from it, but it seems inevitable. What kind of world would that be?
A common concern is that society might severely stratify into the wealthy and a destitute class completely outside of the economic system. I think this is unlikely. If such a stratification started to develop, those caught outside would just end up forming their own economic system. And the wealthy can only be wealthy if they have someone to sell to.
So it would be in everyone’s interest to find a way to keep people in the system. The question is how to provide purchasing power to a jobless population. One possibility is a robust universal basic income, but how would it be funded? We might imagine businesses that once employed people now taxed instead, but finding a way to do it without unintended consequences seems like a challenge.
What kind of life would this be without work? Danaher imagines a society of game players, artists, and others engaged in various non-work pursuits. Would people find satisfaction in such a life? I personally think they would, but as Danaher notes, it would be a major transition, similar in magnitude to the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
From our perspective, it might look like a utopia, although I suspect such a society would have its own issues. Our world is a utopia to an ancient farmer or forager, although any of us could tell them why it’s not all sweetness and light.
Ironically, people in this new age would probably romanticize the working age, just as many of us romanticize the past.
What do you think? Too optimistic, not optimistic enough, or completely off base?