Ah, “the leisure society” – that utopian idyll where humankind, unshackled from the need to work to live, is free to indulge in arts, crafts, exploration, self-actualisation and similar noble pursuits. Automation is generally regarded as the key to delivering the leisure society, but despite successive waves of technology, it always remains tantalisingly out of reach at some near but indeterminate point in the future. At the same time for many of us grappling every day with packed diaries and overflowing inboxes, each wave of new technology seems to result in us all working more, rather than less. The leisure society seems further away than ever…
A tipping point for change?
That might be changing though. We now stand upon the brink of a new threshold in the advancement and capabilities of the technologies of automation – artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotics. Dire predictions are being made about a widespread and imminent loss of jobs from the factory floor to the professions. There is tremendous uncertainty as to whether new forms of work will emerge fast enough to offset the jobs lost; equally uncertain is the fitness of current models of education and training to prepare us for a more automated future. One possible future outcome of these developments might be that we all have a lot more free time.
Boredom, vice, and need
So the question then is would that be good or bad for us? Voltaire famously described work as saving us from “boredom, vice, and need”, but how does this stack up in the 21st century? Would we really be less bored working on a factory assembly line than walking in a wood, reading a good book, volunteering in our community, or socialising with friends? Would we all be driven to criminal activity if spared the need to commute into an office twice a day to work on a spreadsheet? Or is it really Voltaire’s third point - our need to work – our need to earn money - that requires most scrutiny.
Time to think more radically
Perhaps it is now time to think more radically about the nature of work and how it is rewarded. Many have debated and will continue to debate whether technology really does drive inequality or whether people adjust to new circumstances and new ingenuity brings new markets and new jobs, ones that were previously unforeseen. In my view, we should at least be giving consideration to a range of possible future scenarios and by implication, more radical interventions to better prepare our society for the impact of automation and the changes it brings.
One such scenario is that the fruits of automation flow upwards to those that own the capital – the factories, the robots, and the algorithms. These deliver ever greater efficiency, at lower cost but lead to mass redundancies that place strain on health, education and welfare services as tax receipts decline. The private sector also suffers as without income from work the market for their goods and services shrinks.
It is interesting to see that there is now increasing discussion of how to deal with such changes and, what have been regarded as fringe concepts, such as the minimum guaranteed income are now receiving more mainstream attention. There are plenty of other worthy ideas out there that should also be given great consideration and attention, for example insurance schemes that protect workers against the automation of their jobs, or placing of the technologies of automation in “the commons” so that their benefits are shared amongst the many and not just the few.
The productivity gap scenario
Then there is the possibility that the doomsday scenarios are not right. Science fiction often provides us with glimpses of our future and amidst the many dystopian outlooks on offer, there are some examples of positive visions of societies that have adapted to a world without “traditional” work. Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) outlines a post-scarcity society with abundant energy and resources where passion, curiosity, and exploration are the prime motivations for work. Iain M. Banks (The Culture novels) highlights a utopian, post-scarcity society of humanoids, aliens, and very advanced artificial intelligences living in semi-anarchist habitats. These offer up a view of how humankind might look in both near and far futures where society has removed need to work for a living, as energy and fabrication technologies that deliver abundance, and automation.
Our only certainty – a different future
Perhaps some of these ideas seem far-fetched or utopian, but one thing that I have learned as a futurist is that the most dangerous thing one can do when planning for the future is to assume continuity or an endless extension of “business-as-usual”. There are many possible futures and the future is continually created by the actions that people take today. Yet, when I look around, I see very little serious planning by businesses or governments to prepare for the impacts of technological automation on work and society.
Maybe you know different? Perhaps I'm missing something?