Automation of Labor: Why we should welcome AI taking over our jobs
A little while ago, I wrote this piece about work. I had just gotten a copy of John Danaher’s Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work. I was looking forward to it and wanted to record some of my pre-read views on the topic. I finished the book, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s very good, well worth the read. Now, I want to share some post-read thoughts.
The book is split into two sections, automation and utopia (shockingly, the title doesn’t lie). In the automation section, Danaher lays out the common argument that technological unemployment is likely and the less common argument that technological unemployment will be a good thing; we should embrace and encourage it rather than fight a losing battle against it. Granted my thoughts were leaning this way before reading the book, but the argument is solid and convincing.
Current technologies are unlike older technologies that displaced workers, simultaneously closing certain doors while opening others. Modern technologies replace workers without creating any new opportunities. In the first section of the book Danaher outlines our increased reliance on automation and the many facets of our lives that have become outsourced to “complex techno-social systems”. In this vein, he details how human obsolescence will then come about across industries and professions.
He goes on to explain why we shouldn’t be afraid of being replaced. The simple reason is that work is bad. Danaher broadly defines work as, “any activity (physical, cognitive, emotional, etc.) performed in exchange for an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving an economic reward.” Work is what we do for a living, so to speak. He doesn’t just say that certain jobs are bad, he argues that all work is bad; even the work people enjoy. I have a quibble here. Instead of having one category- work- I tend to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary work, with necessary work being worse.
Necessary work, in my view, is those activities that we need to do to survive. Most of our jobs fall into this category. However, unnecessary work is all the things that we enjoy doing, that can also make us money. Think of artists and athletes and chefs and the like. It takes work to become good at music, but working on music is not structurally bad in the same way as being a corporate drone is. Danaher tends to not consider what I call unnecessary work to be work, but rather play. Our misalignment is an issue with terminology, and in the Utopia section, he deals with this issue.
He explains five reasons why work is bad: “The Problem of Dominating Influence” discusses how work undermines our freedom; “The Problem of Fissuring and Precarity” is about stress; “The Problem of Distributive Injustice” is about polarization and disconnect with merit; “The Problem of Temporal Colonization” is about how work takes over our lives; and “The Problem of Unhappiness and Dissatisfaction” is about most people being unhappy with their jobs.
This discussion is lengthy, and I can’t do it justice here, but we’ve all personally experienced these problems. Basically, Danaher argues that work is a direct threat to our autonomy, freedom, rights, family, and friendships. It makes living the ‘good life’ extremely difficult. Danaher spends quite a bit of time dealing with counter arguments and objections. Like I said, he is convincing. He sticks to philosophical arguments, but I think he could have gone on with sociology, history, and psychology to make it even more nuanced.
The second half of the book addresses what we will do if we are no longer working. He explores several possibilities but focuses mainly on what he calls the Cyborg Utopia, the Utopia of Games, and the Virtual Utopia. Danaher defines utopia as, “any prospectively achievable scheme of radical social-political improvement which would, if installed, leave every affected party better off and none worse while respecting the rights of all.” This definition mostly works for me; I have trouble talking about rights outside of specific frameworks but it addresses the problems that come with utopian schemes. In fact, there is a good discussion of Popper’s anti-utopian views and how to get around those objections.
The Cyborg Utopia is what it sounds like: reaching utopia by technologically upgrading ourselves. Danaher sets forth the argument that there are lots of potential plusses associated with a so-called ‘cyborg’ future for humanity: an ever-expanding horizon for us to strive for, extension of life (possibly even a form of immortality), and more opportunities for everyone to contribute to the Good and the Beautiful .
But it also could, Danaher argues, be a way of preserving rather than abolishing work, it may not be rationally intelligible for us, and it may not be feasible. I would add two related objections. First, is the desirability of becoming cyborgs. Danaher addresses Luddites in his discussion of automation replacing workers, but I think it deserves its own section in the context of cyborgization. Most people are fine with medical interventions such as pacemakers, cochlear implants, insulin pumps, etc. I have a hunch people will be less willing to embrace technologies that could fundamentally reconfigure who we are.
Secondly, might we reach a point where we are so enmeshed with technology, we no longer qualify as ‘human’? This opens the floodgates for debate, and blurs already blurred lines: what does it mean to be human? I can’t help but wonder if creatures with more/different sensory inputs, radically expanded lifespans, different cognitive processes, and other cyborg-esque characteristics would still be considered human. It’s certainly worth thinking about.
The Utopia of Games is, again, what it sounds like. It mostly addresses what we will do if we are not working. Games are a way of replacing the things that are actually good about work. They give us goals, a sense of identity, and ways to grow. This is also where my unnecessary work concern is addressed. Danaher uses a broad definition of games where basically everything that I consider unnecessary work would be considered a game. The Utopia of Games comes out looking good. It would be an adjustment, certainly, but it’s an adjustment we can see ourselves making.
The Virtual Utopia is a discussion of philosopher Robert Nozick’s idea of utopia as meta-utopia. Danaher is right that the utopia section of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is the most interesting part. The idea is that utopia doesn’t have to be one thing for everyone. Instead, people should be able to choose the type of society they want to live in. There are obvious, practical problems trying to implement this in the real world.
If there were an imperial utopia, they would be a threat to the other utopias, for example. And how do we divide up the land so that certain groups don’t have natural benefits that others don’t? Danaher thinks that virtual worlds are a way we could overcome these problems. The imperial utopia can keep expanding in the virtual world without affecting anyone else. The virtual worlds could have whatever climate, etc. the participants want.
Personally, I don’t have much of a utopian mindset. It is interesting, but I preferred the first half of the book. Utopias are long-term things anyway. What I really want to see is some short- and medium-term ideas. How do we bring about the end of work? Are there alternatives where we can keep the good of work while losing the bad? How will everyone get what they need? What will the next 10, 20, 30 years look like? I recommend Automation and Utopia. I hope it inspires thought and discussion. And if any of you read it, I’d love to talk about it with you.
 Strides have already been made on the brain-computer interface (BCI) front, with companies such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink developing implantable brain chips that enable this so-called ‘technological upgrading’ and give the cyborg utopia a new meaning. Experts hypothesise the advent of BCIs revolutionise the way we exist in our material world, our relationship with the immaterial, and will create a vast and seemingly endless horizon of possibility.