Will You Become a Member of the Useless Class?The development and deployment of robotics and artificial intelligence continues to affect the world of work. As we’ve discussed in previous blogposts
“Humans Need Not Apply: What Happens When There’s No More Work?”, “Will President Trump’s Wall Keep Out the Robots?”  and “Dark Factories” , AI and robotics are transforming both blue-collar jobs and professional occupations. New technologies promise to change not just how we work and are employed, but also to alter the traditional meanings of work and employment that have been central to peoples’ self-conceptions and identities.

In “How Automation Will Change Work, Purpose, and Meaning,” by Robert C. Wolcott, Harvard Business Review, January 11, 2018, Wolcott says that new technologies not only raise the question, “How are the spoils of technology to be distributed?” but equally baffling, “When technology can do nearly anything, what should I do, and why?” He cites Hannah Arendt’s writings in The Human Condition about the importance of moving from a self-conception that identifies work as purpose, to one that encompasses the idea of the Vita Activa, the active life, in which humans, when freed from much of the drudgery of labor, will need to aspire to integrate non-labor activity in the world with contemplation about the world. Wolcott asks, “When our machines release us from ever more tasks, to what will we turn our attentions? This will be the defining question of our coming century.”

In “The Meaning of Life in a World Without Work” by Yuval Noah Harari, The Guardian, May 8, 2017, Harari writes that as new technologies increasingly displace humans from work, the real problem will be to keep occupied the masses of people (i.e., members of “the useless class” as Harari defines them) who are no longer involved in work. Harari says that one possible scenario might be the deployment of virtual reality computer games. “Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside.” He likens such virtual reality to the world’s religions, which Harari says, are filled with practices and beliefs that give meaning to adherents’ lives, but are not themselves necessary or ‘real’ in any objective way. Harari asserts that it doesn’t much matter whether one finds stimulation from the ‘real’ world or from computer-simulated reality, because ultimately, both rely on what’s happening inside our brains. Further, he observes, “Hence virtual realities are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class (created by) the post-work world. Maybe these virtual realities will be generated inside computers. Maybe they will be generated outside computers, in the shape of new religions and ideologies. Maybe it will be a combination of the two. The possibilities are endless, and nobody knows for sure what kind of deep play will engage us in 2050.”

Although Harari’s sketch of possible futures seems shockingly Huxleyan, it does attempt to imagine a future in which large swaths of the population will be unnecessary to the functioning of the productive economy. Anticipating criticism of the brave new world that he’s sketched, Harari, referring to the world’s religions, writes, “But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already.”

The challenges, and some might say the catastrophies, associated with the new technologies are not merely technological. They are political, and will be shaped by the kinds of political institutions and social policies that nations use to deal with them. In the December 27 2017, New York Times article, “The Robots are Coming and Sweden is Fine,” Peter S. Goodman notes that Swedish workers appear less threatened by the introduction of robotics and AI because Sweden’s history of social democracy and the relatively strong influence of unions temper the effects of new technologies on Swedish workers. Goodman argues that, unlike much of the rest of the world, the fear that robots will steal jobs “… has little currency in Sweden or its Scandinavian neighbors, where unions are powerful, government support is abundant, and trust between employers and employees runs deep. Here, robots are just another way to make companies more efficient. As employers prosper, workers have consistently gained a proportionate slice of the spoils — a stark contrast to the United States and Britain, where wages have stagnated even while corporate profits have soared.”

How AI and robotics will affect the U.S. is still uncertain, although as we’ve discussed in “Humans Need Not Apply…” some researchers believe that within two decades, half of U.S. jobs could be handled by machines (For example, check out the video “Why Amazon Go Is Being Called the Next Big Job Killer” below). The character of work, and the consequent effects on the population will be determined, in part, by the strength of institutions that have mediated the relationship between employers and employees. In the U.S. sadly, those institutions and social agreements have largely been weakened or eliminated in the last 35-40 years. The introduction of robotics and AI in America is likely to follow a far different path than in Sweden.

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