The Redemption of Work in the AI Age

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Guest post by Charles Eisenstein Ever since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, futurists have promised an imminent Age of Leisure, a paradise of comfort in which machines would do all the work. Rene Descartes promised it in 1637, John Maynard Keynes in 1930, Alvin Toffler in 1970, and just this year, Elon Musk has RFK Jr.’s Policies + PoliticsRead More

Guest post by Charles Eisenstein

Ever since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, futurists have promised an imminent Age of Leisure, a paradise of comfort in which machines would do all the work. Rene Descartes promised it in 1637, John Maynard Keynes in 1930, Alvin Toffler in 1970, and just this year, Elon Musk has predicted, in tones of warning not celebration, the imminent obsolescence of human labor at the hands of artificial intelligence.

In the Dickensian depths of the early Industrial Revolution, people worked more, not less, than they did in medieval times. A 14-hour workday was commonplace in the coal mines and factories of early 19th-century England and Prussia. Moreover, factory labor exceeded all precedent in its tedium, danger, and degradation. Who, under such conditions, would not aspire to eliminate work?

It was not technology but rather organized labor and associated social movements that ameliorated these conditions. Nor did the second wave (electrification) or third wave (information technology) of the Industrial Revolution deliver on the promise to eliminate work. Few questioned the possibility of that end though; fewer still questioned its desirability. Now, as we step into the brave new world of artificial intelligence, it may be time to question both.

The work of the machine induces its workers to become like machines themselves. They occupy standardized roles where they perform repetitive tasks; they participate only incrementally in the final product; they are disconnected from tangible results and human relationships. Who wouldn’t want to automate the numbing tedium of the assembly line, the clerical pool, or the data input team?

Yet certain forms of labor have always been different. Chief among them is what Mike Rowe calls “dirty work” — the work of plumbers, electricians, and carpenters, the “trades,” farm workers, linemen, heavy machinery operators, mechanics, welders and pipefitters, and technicians in the medical industry. Significantly, Rowe observed that people in these jobs — even the people picking up roadkill — are happy in their work compared to the norm. Perhaps that’s because, unlike those performing the abstract, screen-mediated work of the cubicle, they have the embodied experience of completing a tangible task for an obvious purpose. They are in direct relationship to material reality. Furthermore, each iteration of the job is a little bit different. No two plumbing or carpentry or masonry jobs are identical. (They only become so when factory-like conditions are imposed onto businesses like home construction to produce thousands of identical units.)

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It is a notable coincidence that such jobs are also the hardest to automate. Perhaps we can extract from this coincidence a set of guiding principles, values by which to guide future developments in labor and technology:

1. Embrace materiality, not just abstraction

For millennia, those least involved with material labor have enjoyed the highest social status. The king was above all labor; in some places his feet were not allowed to touch the ground. In our own society, the “pure scientist” dealing in abstractions has a higher status than the mere engineer, who has a higher status than an electrician (and all who do the “dirty jobs.” Of course you get dirty when you touch the earth.) And we conceive “progress” in terms of a continued migration into the digital realm. The result of this rejection of the material world has been catastrophic: the neglect of our physical infrastructure, our bodily health, and the natural environment. It is time to embrace the material world again and to celebrate those who work with their hands.

Mike Rowe with Oklahoma “Roughnecks”

2. Orient toward qualities, not just quantities

Our society, supposedly the wealthiest the world has ever known, is rich only in the measurable. Our buildings, for example, are greater in num

er and floor area than ever before, yet mostly devoid of beauty or what the architect Christopher Alexander named “the quality of soul.” We gain countless social media “friends” even as real community and the extended family atrophy. We access millions of songs with the tap of a finger, while the once-everyday experience of singing together recedes into memory. We are awash in cheap manufactured goods, which, no matter their quantity, fill our lives with cheapness. Our anti-materialism hides beneath a veneer of crass materialism stripped of its sacred dimension. Satisfaction in work comes not just from meeting a quota, but from meeting one’s responsibility to the creation. You will probably feel uneasy if you do any job, even one as humble as cleaning up roadkill, in a careless, slovenly manner.

We must recognize this deep human need to participate in a creation where we can say, as did the Creator, “This is good.” We must orient our economy toward jobs that can be done well. And we must understand that the product of such work nourishes us on a level that bigger, higher, and more never can.

3. Value uniqueness and relationality, not just efficiency and scale

Most people have experienced the difference between a meal their mother cooks for them, and one cooked by a stranger. A song sung directly to you reaches a different part of your being than one you download from Spotify. The objects most precious to us are rarely those purchased from a store, but those that have a story attached to them, a relationship — family heirlooms, gifts from a friend. These things embed us more deeply in an ecology of relationship, helping meet the need to belong. Manufactured objects, on the other hand, bear little trace of the social and ecological relationships of their origins. You will never know the person who refined the silver ore that ended up in your e-reader, which appears as if by magic, ex nihilo, on your doorstep.

None of this is to repudiate standardization, scale, or the division of labor. None of this is to suggest that we use only smartphones handcrafted by our neighbors. But we must recognize authentic human needs that mechanized, automated, and digitized goods can never meet. Some of these needs are quite mundane, such as those met by plumbers and carpenters. Others are more intimate, such as those met by mother’s cooking or a lover’s serenade. All have in common a direct physicality, relationality, and uniqueness in a moment.

How do these principles translate into public policy? We can subsidize and encourage enrollment in trade schools. We can encourage economic localization by shifting government procurement and subsidies. We can end the primacy of the cost-benefit analysis, and allow qualitative considerations into our decisions. We can establish regulations to undo the financialization of the economy (financialization is the economic dimension of the aforementioned abstraction and anti-materialism). Policies that favor Main Street over Wall Street, too, are part of the revival of satisfying work.

Clearly, the redemption of work can happen only as part of a broader shift in our defining social narratives. Ultimately, it touches one of the deepest questions a human being can ask: as Wendell Berry put it, “What are people for?” It isn’t just to consume. Nor is it to do what a machine could do. Leave to the machine what we can standardize and to the computer what we can digitize. And preserve, celebrate, and honor what we cannot or, more importantly, should not reduce to formulas and bits.

Charles Eisenstein is Director of Policy for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s presidential campaign.

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