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Technological unemployment: panacea or poison?
George Deane   Mar 5, 2013   Ethical Technology  

“We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” Buckminster Fuller

In an age of ever-accelerating technological advancements, a fear that goes back to the early 19th century – that machines will take our jobs – seems more pertinent than ever. Automation promises to give us more leisure time, but it is uncertain what a society without work would look like, and whether a desirable social and economic structure can be preserved.It is not just unskilled labour, like supermarket checkouts or factory work that is becoming automated. Domains of skilled labour previously thought to be immune, like translation, legal research and data analysis are becoming increasingly threatened.

If machines reduced the amount of work that needs to be done by human labour to a small amount then it makes sense that humans share this amount of work among them. It seems absurd, then, that all the hard work being done for us could actually incur worse living conditions due to economic collapse.

A major problem to be faced by economists is how the money is going to be distributed. Without work people will not be able to buy the products created by automation and so economic collapse will become inevitable if monetary flow is not maintained. A possible, and unappealing, solution to this is to create new jobs just for the sake of having people employed. A more appealing solution is to have structured unemployment that increases leisure time without negative impact on quality of life. Some critics regard this is an impossibility due to the sense that work is not just a means but an end in itself- subjective estimations of life and purpose often appeal to employment as a contribution to wider society as an important component. Therefore rendering a large proportion of the population functionally redundant at the societal level could have negative social implications; the lack of meaningful work and an abundance of leisure time could exacerbate drug and alcohol problems as well as temptations into crime. Existential considerations that have been quietened thus far by the need to subsist may become a more prominent. Radical restructuring could easily result in disharmony without proper precaution, and it seems a shake-up is going to occur regardless of our efforts to delay it.

There are, however, optimists who think the issue is illusory. It is almost 200 years since the of the concerns over mechanised solutions to human jobs were pronounced, and they have proved so far to unfounded. The optimists claim that this time is no different, and the job market will shortly be flooded with the existence of jobs we could previously not anticipate. Just like when manufacturing provided a new job market in the wake of the dirth of jobs in agriculture, a hereto-unanticipated solution will present itself. Although a possibility, it is not at all clear that this will be the case. As Robert Skidelski notes in a recent article ( on Project Syndicate, Twitter employs a mere 400 people worldwide despite being a $9 billion social-media giant. Increasingly jobs in education and healthcare, previously thought to be largely immune, are also being subsumed by automated analogues. It is also not clear, if we’ve got machines to provide our every need, is the arrival of a whole new set of jobs a desirable outcome?

So, on the one hand automated labor seems like a great asset, both to productivity and to freeing up greater leisure time for everyone. On the other hand, it is unclear how society could be structured to allow for this to happen and ignoring the problem could eventually result in economic collapse and widespread poverty, a terrible irony in a time of unprecedented supply. So what might a solution look like?

First of all we want the work that people are doing to have a genuine purpose. If a machine can do a tedious task cheaper and more efficiently than a person then let the machine do it. This will result a large unemployable class and will require a reconceptualization of how work is viewed. Subjective quality of life assessments are tied closely with employment and a change in the social mindset about work needs to occur. Conceptions of employment as a measure of social commitment or character should be expunged. Increase in living standards and entertainment enabled by technology could address the problems of boredom, and a society that fosters creative and intellectual pursuits could minimize any uncomfortable feelings regarding lack of purpose.

Improvements in education could help assuage the problem. Automation of education could offer a high level of education worldwide for minimal cost. This can allow for individuals to deploy their cognitive abilities to more complex problems facing humanity, as the intellectual and creative capacities instrument in solving these problems have at least partial immunity from automation in the near future. Governments should therefore make it a priority to improve intellectual capacity to safeguard economic stability. There are valuable social benefits in that people will be better able to utilize their abundance of free time to contribute to flourishing culture and utilize their cognitive abilities to contribute to science. Of course, it is not just a reconfiguration of societal values that’s necessary here, structured unemployment will require a universal basic income guarantee that will take the place of the welfare state. It seems that this should be a gradual process of gradually decreasing the work hours required of people overtime, with vigilant watch and research on how to mitigate the negative aspects of unemployment both economically and socially.

Automation of menial and unfulfilling labour is surely a desirable result as it allows for greater leisure time for everyone, but there are two crucial issues that need to be addressed. How we reconfigure social values so unemployment is celebrated rather than denigrated, and how economists and governments orchestrate a gradual transition to structure unemployment to avoid economic collapse and catastrophe.

This is a call to economists to stop an absurd conclusion. Before long we will have the means to provide comfortably for everybody, and human labor will be subsumed almost entirely by machines. This leaves a problem; currently we distribute wealth through the trade of goods and services. If there is no service for people to provide there is no money flowing back into the population in wages. If there is no money flowing back into the population people will have no money to spend, and no money to pay the tax that provides the welfare. Automation is demanding a new way for resources to be distributed before seemingly inevitable economic catastrophe happens, and the solution will need to include a plan for a smooth transition from our current wage based economy to a economy where there is a basic income guarantee for everyone. How can we change all the parts of the machine while keeping the gears spinning?

George Deane is currently studying for and MSc in Cognitive and Decision Sciences at University College London. George's undergraduate studies were in Philosophy. He is especially interested in Neuroethics and the implications of technologies for cognitive enhancement.


Before we get to confront the issue of how to enable people to have a
good life when there is no need for them to work, we need to overcome
the rich people who would prefer to condemn the unemployed to poverty
—and who currently dominate the US government.  Meanwhile, their
policies are directing the world towards a global heating disaster
which will greatly interfere with food production, which could easily
mean that the unemployed die.

BRAVO, my boy!  You have picked a great nut to crack!  As an old mentor of mine used to say “Question the assumptions, and solutions will appear.”  The assumptions you make, when questioned, will show the way that the future, at some point, must be handled.  May I suggest Paul Kingsnorth’s “Dark Ecology”
as a place to start.  Kingsnorth presents a picture of a society (ours) that is dependent on technology to fix the problems that the last round of technology (that fixed the previous problems…) created.  It seems like a perpetual cycle of employment; people designing ways to fix their parents’ short-sighted decisions, right?  As long as there are people, they have got to eat…so there will always be jobs fixing the mistakes of the fathers and feeding folks.  There is much more in his article, but for now, let us look at an assumption you make; that money is essential for a society to exist.  I submit that the necessity for money is true in a society that is conditioned to accept money as the measure by which value is determined, but there are more fundamental ways to establish value.  For instance, the “value” of a bottle of water to a fisherman on Lake George in New York is different than the value which a Bedouin would suggest for the same article.  In a society where value is determined by need, rather than a standardized script, jobs/occupation/creativity, etc.,  flow from personal skills which one choses to develop in order to entice the articles of value one desires/needs (which are beyond his capability) from one person to another.  Remember the episode of MASH where Radar tries to get something from the Colonel, but the Colonel wants something else in return and Radar trades article X from another person so he can get article Y from another to trade to still another to get article Z to trade with person W in order to obtain the sought apple of the Colonel’s eye?  THAT is a real economy.  It is run by the people involved, not the academic economists who are under the thumb of government grants or threats of being fired, but it depends on local conditions and local people.  At some point, THAT is the economy humans will adopt.  It will be the last economy because it is the only one which will not fail due to disassociated psychopaths on a certain street in a certain city deciding their greed isn’t yet sated and thus changing the rules of the game.  Ask your economist friends how we get to that economy, to a real economy.  Kingsnorth suggests one way.  I gather you’d like to find another?

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