How will we construct our identity when machines do our work for us?

If technology frees us from the curse of labor, around which our existence currently revolves, we will face new challenges

The humanoid robot R1, designed by the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia, at the Palazzo Madama Museum in Turin, Italy, on May 12, 2021.
The humanoid robot R1, designed by the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia, at the Palazzo Madama Museum in Turin, Italy, on May 12, 2021.MARCO BERTORELLO (Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

After the embarrassing apple incident in the Garden of Eden, Christian tradition says that God condemned humanity to earn its daily bread by the sweat of its brow, that is, by working. Articles and essays have repeated ad nauseam that the word “work” comes from the Latin tripalium, which is a method of torture. Nobody likes to get up early and take the subway to work and then spend most of the day there, far removed from rest, family, friends, leisure, life. In other words, work is a curse, whether secular or divine. Now, for better or worse, because of technology, artificial intelligence and the high degree of automation, we are starting to catch a glimpse of what a world without work, a post-work world, would look like.

Almost a century ago, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that around 2030, we would be working only 15 hours a week, or 3 hours a day, in an era of “leisure and abundance.” It seems clear now that this won’t be happening. Even so, according to the World Economic Forum, by 2025 machines will be performing nearly half of all tasks, 47%; in 2020, the figure was only 33%. It is possible that the technological revolution will destroy some jobs but generate others in equal measure, as was the case in previous technological revolutions. But it is also possible that work will decrease, and the population will be driven into underemployment or unemployment, becoming superfluous and poor—in short, a dystopian post-work society. Or, in the best-case scenario, it is possible that a social system will be designed in which we can all live happily doing little work and fulfilling the technological dream of emancipation. Stubborn reality points toward a mixture of the first two options. But, beyond the debates about digitalization’s true potential and the need for a basic guaranteed income, how would not having to work for our survival affect us? Would we tolerate the dolce far niente (the pleasure of doing nothing)?

That question points to a philosophical problem of the first order: how to think about utopia or prefigure it in the present. Today, amid the “cancellation of the future,” this task is even more urgent, says philosopher Antonio Gómez Villar, one of the editors of the essay volume Working Dead (Barcelona City Council). The prophets of utopia do not usually reveal how we would live in a classless society or what exactly we would do. “Perhaps,” Gómez Villar says, that’s “because thinking of a future liberated from a present of exploitation and alienation implies that our own imagination is also trapped in those conditions.”

In any event, that work would most likely still exist in a post-work society, whether because of the impossibility of automating certain types of work or because work can be understood as something more than just what we do to survive. Nick Srnicek is one of the fathers of accelerationism (which advocates automation and calls for the Left to promote transcending human labor as part of its political project) and the co-author of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. He says that we must recognize that the issue is not a matter of work versus laziness. In a post-work world, he argues, people would not be lying on the couch all the time (although we would probably be more relaxed). The real difference would be between doing tasks that are imposed on us versus those that we freely choose to do: in a hypothetical post-work world, we would pursue what fulfills us (some prefer to use the word “labor” instead of work), not what puts food on the table.

In his book The Right to Be Lazy (1880), Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, was already fantasizing about a society that would leave behind the slavery of work and devote itself to its labors and pleasures. A society without paid work would also mean a profound change in traditional family structures and gender relations, which were built on the need to work, and would give a new dimension to care and domestic work (those other types of labor).

While that sounds good, it’s more complicated than that. Traditionally, work has not only served to provide us with the material conditions we need to exist but also to give us an identity and imbue our lives with meaning. For instance, when someone asks us what we are, we don’t normally reply that we’re “a human being” or “a dreamer”; we respond that we’re an electrician, an accountant, a nurse, a journalist... Our profession is strongly linked to our identity. That connection was even stronger a few years ago, when labor relations were less fluid and people had jobs for life. Identification with a trade or a company, socialization in the workplace (or in a union), is becoming less common. That’s not only because of automation but also because of the trend toward teleworking, even if in some places it has been truncated by temporary employment or the atomization of labor into self-employment or micro-enterprises.

As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his book Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, “the work career marked the itinerary of life and retrospectively provided the prime record of one’s life achievement or one’s failure; that career was the principal source of self-confidence and uncertainty, self-satisfaction and self-reprobation, of pride and shame.” His monograph also discusses the work ethic, which considers job performance to be a virtuous end in itself; according to Bauman, the work ethic was used as a pretext for adapting the first proletarians, who were formerly self-employed peasants, to mechanical, strenuous, meaningless and poorly paid jobs during the Industrial Revolution. In a post-work world, that work ethic would lose all meaning: post-work theorists tend to lambast that concept and instead celebrate doing non-work activities for which, in spite of everything, we have less and less time. Moreover, in addition to not having sufficient work for the entire population, the work that we do have is precarious and therefore fails to provide subsistence and social mobility.

Work is the great equalizer, beyond any individual differences, argues Jean-Philippe Deranty, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Australia’s Macquarie University. “Because of these deep layers of common and shared experiences, work has always been at the center of strong community cultures; we might call them work cultures.” These work cultures involve greetings, shared values, and ways of using space, spending time, communicating, dressing and even eating. According to the philosopher, the bond between people that emerges by joining forces in pursuit of a common goal is valuable and essential to the human condition. Therefore, instead of thinking about a post-work society, Deranty says that we should think about how to build a society in which work is sustainable and democratic.

“It is true that work often gives people meaning,” Srnicek acknowledges. However, most work today is not performed in circumstances that we choose ourselves. Making work free and voluntary means transcending an economic system that is based on unfree labor. “That does not mean that we should not fight for better working conditions (wages, benefits, conditions, autonomy...), but without also attempting to replace capitalism, this work will always remain fundamentally unfree,” he says.

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