by Sean Carroll
In an ideal world we would all pursue the things that are important to us, which give meaning to our lives by permitting us to express our creativity and which also permit us to live the lives which we can call our own. Curiously we probably more or less had that before we began this experiment called civilization. Not that tribal life was perfect by any means, and some tribal cultures were very violent and brutal. However, most people in such conditions spent about 20 hours a week doing what we might call work and much of the rest doing things like playing with their children, telling stories, and generally farting around, while most of their work consisted of things like hunting and fishing. Hunting and fishing are activities in our age normally associated with R&R.
The one thing that does happen with civilization is that it is necessary to run a world with some aspect of management. That management directs these activities means that labor is by definition organized in certain ways that limits the choices of laborers. This was the case with agricultural civilization, and with industrial civilization such activities became more mechanized. The life of a farm peasant was fairly limited and the range of activities for such people was directed by seasonal requirements, sowing, tending, reaping etc. Factory workers were even more restricted in their activities, where their job consisted of a repetitive series of actions. There is a sort of tyranny to this, and it is so whether the economy is capitalist or state managed as with communism or fasicsm.
Now we are in the age of robotics. With robotics we have this promise, or so we think, that labor is less needed and we are then free from at least some of the worst of what constitutes work. We are to be free of work drudgery. It sounds great, but we need to hold on for a minute before we think this can ever happen. Clearly already the impact of robotics is a mixed blessing. Liberation from drudgery means that we can still receive the fruits of such activity. Losing a job that involves repetitive and mind numbing activity only to end up on the streets is not a particularly great bargain. If nothing else Dostoyevsky got something right when he said that people will put on any yoke of oppression or slavery for their supply of bread.
Is it possible that we can have a world where the most routine of activities are automated and people can live with the fruits of such a world? By necessity this means the benefits of this automation are distributed to more and more people who no longer fit the category of laborer. Will this happen? Not a chance, at least the current system is not going to do this. The posts by EW and BB illustrate the attitude of those who have some access or control within the economic power structure. These people, and I mean the CEOs, the bankers, the big investors and power brokers and so forth could give not one rat’s ass for the average Jane and Joe. In effect these people are in it for pure greed, they see this automated world as something they can leverage against us for greater profit, and if in the end this means mass deprivation they could care less. This really holds whether the power-meisters are capitalists or communists — they are all bastards with a different set of words they use.
There is another problem that even if people can live with the benefits of such a world, it really is a minority of people who really have much creative capacity with which they could work and create on their own. Most people are rather limited if not out right dull. So serious concerns have to be given as to what these people are to do with all this free time. There is a grain of truth to the old adage that idle hands are the devil’s playground.
In this discussion we have omitted, ignored one important human quality. All human existence is about distribution or overdistribution of products created by human society. Between rich and poor. This overdistribution has created contemporary financial crisis and we have to follow this human treat by thinking about our future. Work productivity in modern societies in recent years has increased 5-100 times and in the nearest years we will come more and more to the situation mentioned by Marx where we don’t need 7 or 8 hours/day work drudgery. We will have to shorten compulsory working time to 3-6 hours/day but we have to keep in mind that rich will fight against it. Against the decreasing the source of their enrichment. I.V.
The lack of free time is due to ego and greed, not to any type of economic necessity. Others think they know best how people should use their free time, and try to appropriate it for various uses.
In my opinion, the economy is absurd anyway. I remember taking my kids to McDonald’s occasionally when they were young because they wanted happy meals. (This was absurd in itself, because I was a foodie and fed them only organic food at home, but the advertising pressure meant that some trips to McDs”s had to be made). What a strange spectacle to see the countless little plastic toys churned out by the economic machine that will be thrown away after a few months, in a world struggling to find enough oil. I began to wonder where the one-time legacy of oil had gone, and to feel amazed at how poorly it had been used by our society. Christine Hansen