The Automation of Meaning: Finding Purpose in a World Without Work
Despite the recent scapegoating of foreign labor for the decline in domestic manufacturing jobs, an increasing percentage of the public has begun to recognize that the true driver of these much-maligned economic shifts is not labor competition but labor automation. The evidence that automation in all of its forms is responsible for the reduction in and devaluation of human labor is bountiful and nearly incontrovertible.
What’s even more harrowing is that when one examines the trajectory of technological advancement alongside employment data, it becomes clear that not only will automation eliminate blue collar jobs in titanic quantities, but it will likely obsolete office workers, accountants, lawyers, and maybe medical doctors in the not-so-distant future as well. The data to support this claim has been well document in several recent books, like The Second Machine Age, The Rise of the Robots, What to Do When Machines Do Everything, and The Future of Professions, as well as in dozens of articles in major publications.
Almost all of these works have focused primarily on examining the technological, economic, and political implications of a largely automated economy, with many authors suggesting some form of universal basic income as a remedy to rampant technologically-induced unemployment. Few, however, have discussed what role the human being will play in a post-labor society.
Beyond simply needing jobs to earn income, our work gives meaning to our lives. Work provides people with a sense of pride, purpose, identity, and value. It helps people feel like they’re growing, evolving, and improving. It’s critical to people’s sense of self worth and social acceptance. Indeed, noted psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl saw creating a work or doing a deed as one of the principal ways people find meaning in life. Even famed psychologist Abraham Maslow saw achieving one’s potential as an avenue to self-actualization, the pinnacle of his Hierarchy of Needs.
How will humanity survive in a world without work? To where will it turn for purpose and motivation? What will drive social interaction and collaboration? What will the meaning of life be if our labor-centric society no longer has to labor?
Although these existential questions may seem highfalutin, humanity’s collective response to them could very well determine the future of our civilization. These questions become even more acute in an economy where the majority of the population has to be supported by a guaranteed basic income. With no job and only a subsistence-level income for discretionary spending, the vast majority of people will have far fewer opportunities to cultivate hobbies, stimulate their senses, and otherwise occupy their time. Beyond being terribly unfulfilling and unproductive, this systemic boredom, combined with widespread financial hardship, would likely lead to an increase in crime, a link that several peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated. This scenario is obviously undesirable. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly plausible.
Beyond discussing the normativity of automation, the technology behind it, and its potential economic impact, we—as a society—need to start considering its social and existential ramifications as well. We need to start addressing the reality that our social constructs and values are ill-adapted for a world without work and that, unless we evolve our own understanding of life and its meaning, our civilization may devolve into a purposeless amalgam of nihilistic automatons devoid of the very animating drives that make us human.
To avoid this eventuality, we may have to aggressively and strategically cultivate new societal norms and priorities, emphasizing those characteristics that demarcate us as a species. I’ve identified three such qualities below as examples.
An enhanced and broad-based appreciation for artistic endeavors that depend on human beings for creation and interpretation would provide a post-labor society with aesthetic value and an avenue for productivity. I am particularly referring to art, in whatever form, that is intellectually demanding—art that requires reflection and introspection to grasp and appreciate. Programs can play the piano. Robots can generate a picture. But these are representations, not provocative creations intended to say something to someone. An art boom would also create economic value beyond the realms of capital and technology, which are quickly becoming the dominant—and one day, perhaps, the only—economic spheres. Although the art economy already exists, it’s largely confined to relatively small sub-groups, most of which are either financially or socially exclusive. The lack of demand for art has created an entire category of “starving artists, but if creativity is to play a countervailing role in a post-labor society, demand will have to increase. For demand to increase, our society must place greater value on these endeavors.
Human curiosity is, in many ways, the traditional driver of social and technological progress. Unfortunately, it’s a value that is increasingly being ignored in favor of more mundane pleasures and more banal pursuits. Nevertheless, curiosity that extends beyond immediate individual interest will be important to making life interesting in a post-labor society. Space exploration, both physical and theoretical, holds particular promise as a new frontier that can direct human curiosity in a productive and meaningful way. Indeed, the growing interest in space exploration evidenced by private sector activity and media coverage is heartening. Perhaps someday we may even achieve Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future where humans, no longer needing to work, explore space out of pure curiosity. As President John F. Kennnedy, channeling the explorer George Mallory, said in his “We choose to go to the moon speech,” we choose to go to the moon “because it is there.”
It could be argued that culture, not technology, is the pinnacle of human achievement. The fact that we have luxuries like history, philosophy, literature, norms, ethics, and religion that have little practical value evidences the accomplishments of humankind. The study of these “humanities” have been devalued because of their lack of earning potential. Yet, in a largely automated economy, these more abstract subjects may be the only courses of study that have any value at all. Interestingly, a world without work may precipitate a revival of religion and spirituality. These systems have historically provided certainty, purpose, and meaning to people’s lives, and may be called upon to do so again in a world where meaning is scarce. Religion is often criticized for making outlandish claims to truth and fostering radical behavior. At its best, however, religion helps people better understand themselves and make sense of the universe they live in—two things that may be in high-demand in a post-labor society.
While these three categories are not unproblematic and certainly not comprehensive, they do represent a few ideals society could embrace in order to ensure human existence remains vibrant and meaningful. Cultivating these values will require an open discourse that can solicit support for education reform, a shift in parenting priorities, and a reallocation of private and public funds.
Wherever the conversation about a world without work leads us, one thing is clear: preparing for it will require us to dramatically rethink the meaning of life and the role of human beings on this planet. Centuries from now when we look back on this moment in history, we may find that this conversation was the most important one we’ve ever had.