Q&A with John Danaher on Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World Without Work
Earlier this year, Aliah Yacoub had the pleasure of speaking with John Danaher, the Irish author and academic, about his seminal work Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World Without Work (2019). Danaher, who likes to imagine, navigate, and analyze the future of humanity - as his Twitter bio famously reads - does just that in his aforementioned work, which has radically shifted the discourse on the topic.
In what follows, he shares his thoughts on the philosophy of technology, the ethics behind the technologies that have become so integral to our daily lives, and his unique conceptualisation of a future without work. Danaher is reflexively anti-work, a stance he defends in his book and discusses in further detail with Yacoub. He answers some pertinent critiques and entertains questions surrounding the potential reproduction of societal inequalities in his imagined future/virtual utopia.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure. I’m an Irish academic, currently based at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway, for short). I teach in the School of Law, but I’m not much of a lawyer. I’m primarily a philosopher. My academic work is largely associated with the philosophy of technology, but I like to think of myself as having a more eclectic set of research interests. For example, in the past, I’ve written about moral philosophy, philosophy of religion, linguistic philosophy, and legal philosophy, in addition to the philosophy of technology. I also write a blog, called Philosophical Disquisitions, where I explore a wide range of topics (from parenting to probability theory).
How did your involvement with the philosophy of technology begin?
I was always fascinated by science fiction and philosophy as a child. The opportunity to turn this fascination into a career was too tempting to resist. More generally, unlike many philosophers of technology, I tend to think of myself as an optimist about technology and its role in human history. I try not to let this bias me into ignoring the dark side of technology, but I undoubtedly try to find the silver lining in the dark cloud.
Is there an area that particularly interests you (ethics, epistemology, phenomenology…etc.)?
Ethics definitely. I’m interested in the practical role of technology in our daily lives. This raises a number of important ethical questions concerning equality, autonomy, fairness, harm (and so forth). I like to engage with those issues. I am also, reflexively, something of a contrarian and like to see how received wisdom on certain topics might be wrong.
In Automation and Utopia, you make the case for a jobless future. What part of the argument came to you first? Were you always reflexively anti-work?
It’s worth distinguishing two claims here. One is that a jobless future is possible and the other is that it is desirable. Technically, I only defend the desirability claim. I have views on the possibility claim, but I am more sceptical of that. I focused on the desirability point because I felt it was underexplored. In the mid-2010s there were lots of books being written about technological unemployment and many of them assumed, without much argument, that this was going to be bad thing. I wanted to explore the alternative point of view. As I said above, I’m something of a reflexive contrarian; that’s why the anti-work position appealed to me. Most people that I know believe that work is integral to their sense of purpose and meaning in life. They cannot imagine not having a job. I suspect this attitude is largely a product of (a) not seriously considering the alternative and (b) thinking it is impossible not to work.
In the book, you make the claim that all work is bad. Is there any distinction between necessary and unnecessary work? How do you conceptualize working with the arts?
I don’t associate the term ‘work’ with any particular activity. I see work as a condition under which activities are performed, specifically the condition of economic necessity. In other words, work is anything you do in order to secure an economic reward, which in turn allows you to access the goods and services you need to survive and thrive. It’s getting rid of that condition of economic necessity that is important (in my view). Lots of the activities that people do for economic reward are meaningful to them, but lots of people find that they are drawn away from their true passions due to economic necessity. There would be more room for fulfilling and meaningful activities in a world without work. That’s my argument, in a nutshell.
You argue that automating technologies can present endless opportunities for a ‘utopian moment’ for humankind - do you think the roll-out of a utopian existence will manifest itself equally across the global, digital divide? Or will access to this utopia be limited?
I think we can assume that technology will not be rolled out equally to all people, across the globe, at the same time. Our current social, political and economic structures don’t seem to allow for that. All that said, technology can supersede or surprise these traditional institutions. The widespread use of mobile phones, for example, is surprising. As far as I know, about 80% of the world’s population now owns or has access to a smartphone. This suggests that, in the right circumstances, we can distribute the benefits (and, sadly, the risks) of technology more equally than we might suppose.
Is it possible for societal inequalities to reproduce themselves in the virtual world? If so, how do you envision the regulation and governance (or the lack thereof) of Utopias? Would there be mechanisms in place to prevent injustice?
If we are going to realise their utopian potentials, I think it is essential that we treat virtual worlds as political projects, not as private corporate projects. There would need to be regulatory systems in place to prevent injustice and abuse.
How close do you think your conceptualization of the Virtual Utopia is to Zuckerberg’s Metaverse? Are we closer to a Virtual Utopia than ever before?
I would say that my conceptualisation is a long way removed from Zuckerberg’s. He is looking on the metaverse as a private corporate project. I think that’s a bad idea. “Who owns the virtual commons?” is the key political question for proponents of the metaverse. It cannot be Facebook/Meta, given their history.
One final point, Zuckerberg and others see the virtual utopia as, in essence, a computer-simulated reality. In the book Automation and Utopia, I have a very different view of virtual reality. I don’t think it is necessarily something that is instantiated in a computer simulation.