Here we are, only a speck of light in a totally indifferent universe, only a fleeting moment in what might be incomprehensible infinity, only a breath and a heartbeat in all the energy of history.
How do we make the most of this strange, precious, fleeting moment of existence? How do we survive?
“Forty years from now there aren’t going to be a lot of jobs…. People should already be thinking about what kind of society we would want if not everybody can have jobs.” – Gary Marcus, Cognitive Scientist.
I have worked in a variety of jobs during my nearly six decades of life, from waitress to hospital orderly to box office clerk to house cleaner. For the past sixteen years, I devoted my time and energy to the corporate world. Day in and day out, I ran non-stop inside an invisible wheel, desperately trying to reach a finish line that did not exist. It was a time of busyness, of repetition, of rushing, of exhaustion. It was a time of narrow vision and lost dreams, a sort of abdication of responsibility for being human, for being fully alive. I was, for all intents and purposes, a machine.
It has taken me a long time to rediscover my human self – and I’m not home yet. I still experience panic at the prospect of an unplanned day. I still have sleepless nights, racing thoughts, and one-sided conversations where I try to convey everything I need to as quickly as possible. I still feel pushed, pulled, and rushed along by some invisible current of life or death urgency. I still feel that something needs to be done immediately – or all will be lost.
Employment in the corporate world is deceptive, deceitful. There is a false legitimacy attached to it, despite the enormous costs to the employee. You’re working. You’re employed. You are not a burden to society. Full stop. Nothing else matters.
Or does it? What happened to all the other skills I once possessed? What happened to the artistic activity I once enjoyed? What happened to every other part of my life other than paid office work inside a cubicle? What happened to being alive?
Well, change is coming. No, change is here.
As robots and artificial intelligence continue their take-over of our repetitive jobs, creativity will become one of our most valued skills.* With precious time finally available to us, we will rediscover long-dormant abilities: listening, laughing, exploring, caring, and creating. We will become artists again.
Work will no longer be meaningless, soul destroying, physically and mentally degrading toil. True work will involve human ingenuity, careful thought, and passion. Valuable work will become long-lost human expression. As such, labour will become joyous and rewarding, rather than a relentless, repetitive, empty, frantic flailing about in order to meet man-made quotas and to avoid the wrath of the powerful.
True work will no longer be a kind of slavery.
One day we will look back at pictures of crowded production lines or maze-like office cubicles or stifling underground mines and we will wonder how people endured such abuse. We will ask why they tolerated it, why they didn’t rise up in revolt. And we will ask how some could have inflicted such torture on others for something as banal and meaningless as money or possessions. We will wonder why human-made “riches” were allowed to destroy the planet, and why anyone was allowed to injure a fellow human.
Eventually, being “rich” will mean being healthy and strong. Being “productive” will mean being creative. Being “powerful” will mean being caring.
Of course, as we become fully human, there will be very serious challenges with which to contend. We will have to guard against the perils of advanced Artificial Intelligence, since creating something smarter than ourselves is, as Elon Musk warns, “summoning the demon”. We will also have to ward off human extinction level threats such as global nuclear annihilation and world-wide pandemics. And we will have to ensure that those lacking the ability to adapt are not neglected, abused, or discarded.
We will have to ensure that those lacking the ability to adapt are not neglected, abused, or discarded.
We will have no choice but to implement Universal Basic Income, as the alternative will be mass starvation, homelessness, violence in the streets, and – ultimately – revolution.
We will become minimalists, not because of something once referred to as “poverty”, but in honor of our planet and our own well-being. And we will come to see people as people, not as dispensable wage slaves, and not as tireless machines.
Work as we know it will be over.
*For more information please see this Nova documentary on robots and AI.