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Kevin Drum’s fantastic piece on our robot future is best read in tandem with Peter Frase’s piece Four Futures. Whiel Drum’s piece is much more detailed on the likely path technological progress will take, Frase’s piece by virture of its author’s more heterodox perspective more easily grasps something Drum struggles with. Namely: work is not the point.

We (meaning those humans lucky enough to live in the developed world) currently live in a society where, to a large degree with some variation, the social contract is as follows: if you can work, you likely must; but in exchange, your needs will be met and above-and-beyond that you will be given claims on the output of our socioeconomic system, and if for some reason you are temporarily without work you need not fear the worst.

This system developed because it was optimal; it was optimal because, in a post-industrial world aggregate social wealth is a positive externality, ie, the product of everybody working was more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, while the system could bear a certain amount of free riding, too much and you lose the broad sense of stability and security that knits the whole thing together and therefore implosion.

However, systems that emerge for practical reasons often become reified into self-justifying ideological constructs; that is, when it is advantageous for humans to believe in something, they do, and once the belief system takes hold widely and firmly enough it tends to persist past its usefulness. And so it will be with work – the idea that hard work is in-and-of-itself a good, as opposed to merely a means to an end both individually and collectively, will die hard.

But, die it must. For when the robots and computers lead to prosperity not merely orders of magnitude higher than we currently experience but orders of magnitude of orders of magnitude higher, tethering the rights to claim a share of that prosperity with once’s willingness to toil, despite both the uselessness of the toil and it’s lack of meaning to the toiler, will be simply cruel. Therefore, when Drum says “we’re not prepared for [a future of mass unemployment]” and frets about redistribution of income and capital he’s implicity buying into the idea that employment is the end and not merely the means to broad-based prosperity. A world where nobody is employed and everyone has everything is utopian, not dystopian. This world will be so different from ours that it will be difficult to even apply the current frame of post-industrial early-informational capitalism to it.

This is not to say we are in for a future of couch potato-ism. While some will certainly opt for that, there will likely still be a value on participatory activity and a value on things created by humans. Which is to say, there will be a lot of artists and artisans, a lot of restaurants, a lot of informal sports leagues, a lot of therapists. People will still compete for status, always, forever. But what there won’t be is a necessity to sit in a cubicle or stand on a factory floor or behind a cash register for forty hours a week. And we’ll all be better off for it.

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