Peak work

Remember the groundless “peak oil” hysteria of 2006-2012? It’s now just another pessimism to add to the growing pile of failed pessimisms from the last 20 years. But the media moves on and now it seems we may be experiencing another, and even shriller, round of pessimism — the similarly speculative claims about how robots will ‘take our jobs’. Which anyone who follows the news will by now have already heard many times over. The cynical link-baiters of the British press are today down to the level of trying to divine exactly which British cities are likely to be the losers in the ‘coming robot revolution’. Thankfully EconTalk has an excellent corrective podcast which is a partial antidote to such hysteria. There used to be a trade in making harmoniums, harpoon guns, hat-bands, and hay-rakes. All have vanished. All have been replaced by other work. The same will happen again.

Once the ongoing ‘peak work’ panic has peaked and faded, just like ‘peak oil’ did, I suspect we’ll then actually be worrying about real human skills shortages. These are nearly with us already, but may well be made even sharper when there’s a proliferation of new jobs and tasks which robots and automation will have enabled in various ways. We shouldn’t be worried that the robots will ‘take our jobs’, but rather that they will create so many new jobs and possibilities that we’ll struggle to keep up.

There is a danger here, but it doesn’t seem to quite be the one currently being worried about. Social activity very often automatically re-balances itself in a sort of ‘return of the repressed’. For instance, when poetry was effectively removed from culture (in its communal-oral and memorised-rhyming forms) it re-emerged in the lyrics of a new pop music culture. Which then dominated the 20th century from the 1920s to the 1990s, larger-than-life, twice as frisky, and even more full of memorable and timely ear-worms than the suppressed oral poetry it had sprung from. Likewise when high philosophy was effectively neutered by entombing it in a dusty and sterile academia, the 20th century saw its dialectical energies rapidly re-emerge in the self-righteous politics of the extreme left and right, both sides claiming philosophy’s old mantle of personal virtue, and its claims of knowing the way to the ‘good life’. One then has to suspect that the future transformation of such a core social value as work, if and when that happens due to automation (or outsourcing to remote bot-assisted human workers in India, Africa etc, which may amount to much the same thing) and a universal income, may entail similarly vast transformations.