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Technological Unemployment and the Value of Work (Series Index)

Machines have long been displacing human labour, from the wheelbarrow and plough to the smartphone and self-driving car. In the past, this has had dramatic effects on how society is organised and how people spend their days, but it has never really led to long-term structural unemployment. Humans have always found other economically productive ways to spend their time.

But several economists and futurists think that this time it is different. The type, scope and speed of technological change is, they argue, threatening to put us out of work for good. This raises two important questions. The first is factual and has to do with whether these economists and futurists are right. Is it really different this time round? Are we all soon to be out of work? The second is axiological and has to with the implications of such long-term unemployment for human society? Will it be a good thing if we are all unemployed? Will this make for better or worse lives?

I’ve explored the answers to these two questions across a number of blog posts over the past two years. I thought it might be worth assembling them together into this handy index. As is fairly typical for this blog, I focus more on the axiological issues, but I will be writing more about the factual question soon so you can expect that section to grow over the coming months.

1. Will there be technological unemployment?

     
  • Why haven’t robots taken our jobs? The Complementarity Effect - This was a more sceptical look at the argument for technological unemployment, drawing upon the work of David Autor. Although I think there is much wisdom to what Autor says, I’m not sure that it really defeats the argument for technological unemployment.

2. Should we welcome technological unemployment?

     
  • Should there be a right not to work? - This post presents a Rawlsian argument for a right not to work. It is based on the notion that an appropriately just state should be neutral with respect to its citizens conceptions of the good life and that a life of leisure/idleness is a particular conception of the good life.
     
  • Should libertarians hate the internet? A Nozickian Argument against Social Networks - This post may be slightly out of place here since it is not directly about technological unemployment. Rather, it is about the ‘free labour’ being provided by users of social media sites to the owners of those sites. It asks whether such provision runs contrary to the principles of Nozickian justice. It ultimately argues that it probably doesn’t.
     
  • Should we abolish work? - This is slightly more comprehensive compendium and assessment of anti-work arguments. I divide them into two broad classes—‘work is bad’ arguments and ‘opportunity cost’ arguments—and subject both to considerable critical scrutiny.
     
  • Does work undermine our freedom? - This post looks at Julia Maskivker’s argument against compulsory work. ‘Compulsory’ work is a feature of the current economic-political reality, but this reality could be altered in an era of technological unemployment.
     
  • The Automation Loop and its Negative Consequences - The first of three posts dealing with the arguments in Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage. This one looks at the phenomenon of automation and two problematic assumptions people make about it the substitution of machine for human labour.

John Danaher holds a PhD from University College Cork (Ireland) and is currently a lecturer in law at NUI Galway (Ireland). His research interests are eclectic, ranging broadly from philosophy of religion to legal theory, with particular interests in human enhancement and neuroethics. John blogs at http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on twitter @JohnDanaher.



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