People vs. Machines: Technology and the Future of Work

This guest post is by a PhD student in philosophy from the Australian National University.

THE FUTURE presents a paradox: no one can predict it but we are told to plan for it anyway. It is a tricky problem for individuals wanting to make provision for their retirement and for the vicissitudes of their health and personal lives. It is a diabolical problem for institutions which must contend with the vagaries of politics, economics and now of a changing climate. So it is a bold man who thinks he can predict the future but a fool who makes no attempt.

Amid the swirling uncertainty of the future, one trend looks likely to persist: advances in technology. Commerce, entertainment, our social lives are moving online; personal communications and access to the Internet are available on handheld devices. Driverless cars are just around the corner – but they will never convey passengers to the shops and libraries which are moving to the web. Maps and databases are located in clouds; the specialist knowledge of renowned experts is just a Google away. We read from tablets and will soon manufacture goods with 3-D printers. Augmented reality may change the way we see the world (quite literally) and the line between virtual and reality may blur. The ‘e’ in e-commerce has become superfluous – and one doubts this development is nearing a plateau.

Perhaps surprisingly, advances in technology throughout history have not tended to reduce the amount of work which falls for humans to do. The wheel, the yoke, the sail, the engine, the achievements of the industrial revolution and of the first part of the technological revolution of our time – these have all eventually created more work rather than less. They have made burdensome and routine tasks trivial; they have made previously unattainable tasks routine. But this has always meant that yet loftier, previously unimagined goals were now within sight – could be reached with just a little more innovation and a little more labour. For there was always the promise of enhancing and extending. The wheel and the yoke together could make a wagon; the engine fixed upon the right type of wing would give us flight.

There is reason, however, to think the story might be different this time. Consider the activities which consume your day. The mundane tasks of household management are slowly but inevitably becoming the province of machines. Washing-machines, tumble-dryers and dishwashers are old-hat; autonomous vacuum cleaners and lawn-mowers and gutter sweepers already on the market point to the possibility of homes without chores. The administration of offices can already be delegated mostly to computers. Insofar as this opportunity has not been taken up, the deficit has surely been sociological rather than technological: a reluctance on the part of humans to abandon trusted methods in favour of untried ones. And we already have the communication systems necessary for remote education. An equilibrium between the opportunities this presents and the necessity for classroom learning will doubtless be reached sometime in the mid-term. There will be ever fewer reasons to leave our automated houses and apartments.

Of course, these developments (like earlier ones) will open up more possibilities – now not yet even thought of – which we will not be able to resist exploring. What could be different this time, though, is that the new possibilities which beckon will not just be more efficient ways of meeting our existing basic needs, for it appears that we may be nearing a point at which technology attends to these without any regular intervention on our part. The rewarding opportunities of learning and thinking, of building human relationships and of leisure would be ours to pursue with more energy and vigour. What, in a little more detail, would this mean? Those who are interested and able would have more scope to investigate the mysteries of philosophy and science and mathematics, to explore the potential of literature and music and art. For others, there would be the promise of more time with family and friends, of cultivating interests and pursuing hobbies. Some (indeed, many) might squander their new-found freedom – but then freedom is always open to abuse.

If this prediction is right, then it is a cause for celebration. Humanity’s achievement in lifting itself so far out of its survivalist natural state – in which each urgent need which is satisfied is immediately replaced by another – would be a triumph. It would be a victory for the human mind and for humanity’s capacity for innovation. It would also put us in a situation, perhaps for the first time in history, in which there would be less rather than more work for humans to do.

There are a number of observations to be made here, both about how such a situation could arise and about what it might mean. First, recalling that businesses succeed by providing means of satisfying people’s needs and desires, it is perhaps surprising that businesses should have been the primary drivers in developing the technology which may make the fulfilment of so many needs and desires automatic. The achievements of technology companies would jeopardise their own (and many other companies’) futures: there would simply be less and less work for businesses to do. It gives us reason to believe that business – essentially, the exchange of goods and services for value – operates to serve human interests.

Secondly, the picture painted here invites the following question: once we have the technology which would allow people to live without working, how could people then afford to pay for anything? The current situation, in which people’s needs are not met automatically, is what creates demand for goods and services; the provision of goods and services is what allows people to earn a living. If these needs are met automatically, then opportunities for employment will also vanish. Washing and cleaning and cooking might be automated but how would anyone earn money to pay for the power for their machines, for the clothes they wear, even for the food they eat? Will it be possible to continue with an economic system where people earn a living by exchanging labour for remuneration if almost no labour is actually required? This issue is a serious one and not as fanciful as it might initially seem. One reason that employment has been slow to recover after the economic turmoil of recent years is that businesses have found ways to make better use of the technology available to them instead of hiring people.

Finally, we might wonder how happy our lives would actually be without the need for regular work. It is not unusual for people to find satisfaction even in mundane work and to be frustrated when no work is available. Some may be horrified by the thought of a future without the need for work. Indeed, if we had no work to do, what would we replace it with? Work gives many people purpose and a sense of identity. Is a future without the need for work actually desirable?

In the end, there is cause for both hope and caution. The future, albeit uncertain, has the potential to be better than the present. We just have to keep up with it, and to prepare for its surprises.

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4 Replies to “People vs. Machines: Technology and the Future of Work”

  1. The Shift: The Future of Work by Lunda Gratton of the London Business school links in very neatly with this post.

    One of the five forces Gratton believes will shape the future of our work is technology. She too speaks of the fragmentation and isolation technology will cause as we develop fewer reasons to physically see other people.

    She also speaks of the fewer job opportunities, but not because of machines replacing people, rather that technology and globalization open up the labour pool to those that were previously inaccessible and now job competition has spiked. Gratton’s answer to this is to become a ‘serial master’ where you know a lot about a few things, rather than a ‘serial generalist’ in knowing a little about a lot of things.

    There is also a shift of focus in the market from consumerism and materialism to social reform, in the opinion of Gratton. This will spike the need for frugal innovation as well as changing the leisure behaviour of individuals.

    Overall, Gratton sees that to be successful in your future of work and to ride the technological wave, rather than fight against it, collaborative work with fellow serial masters is key.

    However, Gratton’s book is not without its flaws as it lacks any acknowledgement of the state and awards total agency to the individual.

    I liked the insights of this post a lot and thought it tied in nicely to Gratton’s book. Though I believe this post is more comprehensible and synthesizes what Gratton attempts to say in 10 chapters in one articulate entry.

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