“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” --Bob Dylan With the ascension of the Internet of Things and the emergence of robotics and intelligent systems, we can now envision a future where the need for humans to work in order to survive is lower than at any point in history.
For thousands of years work has been synonymous with value in society. If you worked, you mattered. If you didn't, you were, literally a bum. The more you worked, the better you were perceived to be in your own eyes and society's. The greater the monetary value of your work, the more stuff you could acquire -- houses, boats, cars -- and the higher your status.
This is all rooted in our subsistence origins, where the capacity to feed yourself, your family, your tribe quite literally meant the difference between life and death and the extent of one's goods (the word carries its own essential connotation) represented the separation from starvation.
Throughout history work has mattered, perhaps more than anything else.
Increasingly, in my view, however, it doesn't now.
As machines and the network take over work, it will be possible to have a Gross National Product even if no humans do any labor. What will society look like when work and wealth are no longer laminated together?
Many commentators see this as a terrible development. This is Skynet, where the machines seize control and make us their slaves. Or it is Dystopia, where the few who own the machines own everything; the perfect oligarchy: obscene luxury at the summit, while the masses heave and starve. I can understand where this perspective comes from. Looking backward through all of human history, if you didn't work, you didn't eat.
But I don't accept those dark visions.
Looking forward, I think we are actually seeing the very early stages of something deep and profoundly positive: the beginnings of a world where traditional work and social value are no longer linked.
Young adults today already view life more as an adventure, a personal exploration inter-connected with others, than a rat race of work and acquisition. They believe they will not starve, and so, focus their attention not on the ownership of things but on the accumulation of experiences that reflect their worldview or perceived purpose.
Every Uber driver or Millennial urban service worker I have talked with reflects that view. Contrary to what a lot of (mostly older) analysts claim, they don't see themselves as exploited; they are making choices they see as valuable and appropriate for their lives. The part-time driving is a way to augment their art; the deliveries or task rabbiting give them time to study. The flexibility of temporary work gives them time to travel.
For these new workers, work no longer stands at the heart of the meaning of life. It is merely an expedient.
And that, I think, is just the beginning of the change we are about to experience. Already, we are seeing the emergence of a worldwide "basic income" movement among Millennials. This is the notion that, as the machines take over work, every human should be guaranteed enough income to cover the essentials of life. This could take the form of government grants or crowdfunded campaigns or even radical sharing systems. In other words, if anyone could "borrow" an apartment whenever needed or a car whenever travel was required, the need to own and therefore buy things would go down radically and so would the need for traditional income. Trials of this concept have already been undertaken in Canada, India and most prominently Brazil, and there is an active movement in the U.S., as well. More dramatically, Millennials are also beginning to take a fresh look at the fundamental concept of economic growth. The idea that economies must grow, or die, has been with us for ages. But, given the radical new circumstances in the world, has this idea possibly run its course? Facing global warming and shrinking world resources, aren't ideas like efficiency and reduction now more natural and valuable than growth, as a measure of society? Young adults seem to think so. They are aspiring not to live large, but to live small. Micro apartments. Mini-cars. Backyards turned into food plots rather than showpieces. Perhaps the economy that doesn't grow, but that maintains a serene equilibrium, will come to be seen as the real exemplar of progress. GNP comes to stand for Gross National Purpose.
Social status and work are also beginning to diverge. In Portland my son and his partner have few of the markings of traditional status. Neither has a high-paying job. They don't have many financial resources. They aren't stars in any traditional sense. And yet they are leaders and celebrities of a new type in their community. They are both featured in an online soap opera created by a friend, staffed and produced with other friends, supported by a small arts grant, that appears on a local online arts channel. There isn't any money in it; but that isn't the goal. The goal is joy, and mutual regard and creating art to share with the community and generating delight. In other words, the time they spend on this video tale is more valuable to them than traditional work, and produces the kind of status in their lives only work could have provided in the past.
I think we are beginning to see tiny early signs now of a post-work society emerging among young adults. It is a culture where character and comradeship matter more than consumption. Where purpose trumps career and work is merely a means to nominal economic sufficiency. Where inter-dependence and sharing are more important than ownership and individuals' value will be derived, in Martin Luther King's words "from the content of their characters."
If work doesn't define who we are in this new society, what will? What is the social currency of the future? To be frank, I don't know. But I suspect it will have something to do with engendering sharing and producing velocity of connection in society. Even now, big companies like Uber and Airbnb produce huge value without owning the cars or rooms they create markets around. Future value down to the individual level may well come from how people generate those kinds of connections.
From my grey-headed perspective this shift feels quite profound and positive. Maybe, as machines take over work, humans can finally be freed to get in touch with our better selves.