The robots are coming. In fact, in many pockets of the world they're already here. There are signs they'll replace your pharmacist and your brain surgeon. In a decade or so, robots might take the place of your lawyer. They can already make your fancy coffee, cook your dinner, check you into a hotel, and drive your car—all without slipping up or complaining about it, like humans do. Depending on how you look at it, it's either a signal that our grasp of robotics is truly amazing, or that we're all fucked.
The problem with the so-called "robo-takeover" isn't so much what robots will do with our jobs—it's what humans will do without them. For as long as capitalist societies have existed, labor has been the linchpin of our culture. Work isn't just what we do; it's who we are.
If you ask Nick Srnicek or Alex Williams, it doesn't have to be like that. As they see it, robo-invasion is the single best opportunity to change the way we relate to work. Srnicek and Williams are co-authors of a new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, in which they outline their vision of a post-work society. Their idea works like this: Robots would replace unskilled, low-level labor, freeing people up to do more meaningful, human work, like taking care of others. We'd all work fewer hours, too, and we'd divorce ourselves from this obsession with having a job. It's basically Marxism dressed up with robotics. I talked to Srnicek and Williams about their brave new world and asked them how realistic a world without work might be in the near future.
VICE: Can you explain what you mean by a "high-tech future free from work"?
Alex Williams: The idea of the book is to argue for a different kind of left-wing politics to the kind we may be used to in America and in the UK, where traditionally, the role of the Democratic Party or, in the UK, the Labour Party, is one where we're going to help poorer people by giving them jobs. For a variety of reasons, which we go into in the book, we view that as no longer possible, and possibly no longer desirable in the same way. This is all related, in part, to the increasing role of automation—this new wave of automation that a quiet wide variety of economists, technologists, and sociologists have begun thinking about.
Right—the idea that "robots are stealing our jobs."
Williams: Right. Our kind of perspective on this is, well, is it possible that robots stealing jobs might be a good thing? What would it require to make it a good thing?
Nick Srnicek: We have all this amazing technology around us. It seems like we're in a rapidly changing world and we've got new potential sprouting out everywhere. But at the same time, our everyday lives are crushed by debt and work and all of these obsolete social relations. It seems that we could be doing much better with the technologies that we have. Our argument has to do with capitalism. This isn't fundamentally different from what Marx was saying 150 years ago, but it is a matter of capitalism constraining the potentials available within technology and within humanity.
How do robots and other technologies relate to capitalism?
Williams: This is a big point in the book. The standard picture of contemporary capitalism is very high-tech, very creative; it's a space for entrepreneurs to use business as a tool to create social change. This is a very seductive perspective—the kind of perspective of Silicon Valley, for example. Our point is that, yes, [new technologies] are producing social change in a variety of ways, but actually, their full impact is constrained. If we were able to put forth a kind of politics that were going to disrupt these obsolete social relations, then what you'd be able to achieve is a much more futuristic society.
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What would that kind of futuristic society look like?
Srnicek: Today, there are all these emerging technologies that are threatening jobs. Advanced robotics, machine learning, and big data are all transforming jobs that, a decade ago, people were very confidently saying would never be automated. A classic example is the self-driving car. Ten years ago, you could find numerous people saying, This just isn't possible. It's too complicated, there are too many variables involved in what it takes to drive a car. But obviously, that's not the case. We have self-driving cars now. This type of technology suggests that a whole swath of different jobs could be eliminated—in fact, some of the very worst jobs in society could be eliminated. The idea would be to take these technologies and use them in a way that we could reduce the overall labor necessary by society and build up the social mechanisms to enable people to live freely without just perishing.
Is the idea just to get rid of the "bad jobs" that people don't want to do?
Williams: The idea is to automate the "bad jobs" and then move the workers up what's called the "value chain." So, everyone's doing more highly-skilled jobs that require more education. This is the kind of nice story that various experts want to portray—but there's been a mixed story about how much that actually happens. There's a problem in thinking that these highly-skilled jobs will become available. First, because of the sheer scale of jobs that are estimated to become automatable in the next couple of decades. There have been a few reports on this. One was looking at the US economy, and it said that 45 percent of all jobs are liable for automation. There was another one in the UK that said, what?
Srnicek: I think 54 percent, in Europe.
Williams: Right. So then think about companies. In the past, your manufacturing plant might be making billions of dollars in profits, but to do so, you'd have to employ vast numbers of people in your factories. Today, you can have a company like Instagram, which is valued at [$35 billion], and it's only employing like 20 people. So it's clear that the very high-value companies no longer require that many people.
If you combine these two factors, you can see that it's quite likely that there won't be a new load of highly-skilled jobs to replace [the ones that will become automated]. So this presents a bit of a political problem. It's received a lot of attention across the conventional business press—outlets like The Economist and The Financial Times—and people are talking about this as a serious economic problem of the future. One of the solutions to this potential problem, which we talk about in the book, is this idea of basic income.
Can you explain how basic income works?
Srnicek: Well, we should distinguish between the libertarian idea of basic income and a leftist idea of a basic income. Milton Friedman, in the 1960s, argued for something like a basic income, [where] a certain amount of money would be given to everybody, without any questions asked. Every citizen of a country would receive X amount of dollars. For Friedman, this was an idea that basically you'd give everyone this money and then cut out the entire welfare system and privatize all of it. It was a matter of turning all of this into markets.
The leftist version is quite different. Again, it's a matter of giving people a certain amount of money, but the crucial aspect is that it's a liveable amount of money. It can't be something that functions like a wage subsidy to companies. And it can't replace the welfare state. You can't eliminate things like, in the UK, national healthcare, socialized childcare, pensions. The third aspect is that it has to be universal. There's no means testing involved—it doesn't matter whether you have a criminal record, whether you've taken drugs in the past week, whether or not you're a recent immigrant. Everybody gets this, no questions asked.
There are discussions going around right now about this idea, but most of the times, they tend toward the conservative side. If implemented, that could make the entire system much worse than it is now. So it's important to be getting leftist voices arguing about what a basic income would look like.
So how does basic income fit into your post-work system?
Srnicek: So, the four key demands we set out in the books are: First, full automation. If you look at something like Chinese labor, a vast majority of it could be automated, but labor is so cheap, so they would rather exploit workers than invest in machines. The demand for full automation would be, well, we need to get rid of these sorts of jobs where people are just really being exploited in terrible conditions, and replace them with machines.
Second, there's a demand for a reduced working week. The official working week is 40 hours, but if you look at the average full-time worker in the US, they work closer to 47; in the UK, it's closer to 42. The idea would be to reduce this down to 35, 30 hours a week, and increasingly reduce it more and more. This is useful for reducing unemployment, because you're taking the amount of work that exists and spreading it out further and further, so that's the second demand of the project.
The third demand is the basic income, and the fourth demand of a post-work future is the end of the work ethic. There's this real compulsion among people that the most meaningful thing in life is your job. We tell people you might be able to get money for free, without working for it, and people get really offended! This is all because of what we call the work ethic—in order to get money, we have to suffer in some sense. It gets played out in different ways. I'm a teacher, and often times, people say, 'You can get paid less, because you enjoy your job,' as if the only important thing about money was you having to suffer to get it. The end of the work ethic is a crucial cultural shift. We have to argue for the right to be lazy.
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That last one is kind of wild, given how much our identities are really wrapped up in our jobs. How do we overcome that?
Srnicek: Well, it's worth reminding people how shitty most of their jobs are. If you look at surveys about how much people enjoy their jobs, only about 13 percent of people across the entire globe actually say, "Yes, I feel engaged by my job." Most people hate their jobs. I think this is a sentiment that could be easily played off to build a post-work world. We can all work less; we can all suffer less. Wouldn't that be great?
Williams: That said, there is this curious dilemma where most people, even if they hate their jobs, they feel like it's part of who they are. When you meet someone, you ask them their name and then you ask them what they do. It's hard-wired into our sense of identity, even if we don't particularly enjoy it. This idea of the dignity of labor—that it's morally improving to have a job—often gets repeated by conservative politicians, especially in the UK. We've hear that having a job makes you more healthy, even though the actual medical evidence does not actually agree with that.
A world is coming into view where there will be less jobs. This creates an opportunity to change peoples' attitudes toward work, especially since a lot of people don't enjoy their jobs. But there also has to be a movement toward articulating, if you're not your job, then who are you? That's quite a difficult question to answer, and will have to be developed over time for people to find value in their lives that aren't just a matter of their job.
It's kind of dizzying to imagine how much free time we'd all have if we didn't spend 40-plus hours a week at work.
Williams: Yeah, if you're running a society and that society is capitalist, work has a disciplinary function. If people are working—if you have to get up every day in the morning, travel to your job, do your job, then return home—this is physically exhausting. It also uses up a lot of cognitive resources, your ability to think. It's one of the most extensive control mechanisms in society. If you have to get up every day and go to a job simply to survive, it makes you less politically willing to take risks.
In the proposed model, would the work week gradually reduce to nothing? I mean, do we all just get to sit around doing whatever we want all day or do we just work less?
Srnicek: I think there are limits to what work can be automated. There are economic limits. In the China example, the fact that certain labor at the present moment is so cheap that it's better for capitalism to exploit workers than invest in automation—that's an economic limit, but it's something we'd want to push past. Another one is technical limits. Even with the emerging technologies and all the astounding things that [robots] can do, they're still not very good at certain types of work. Care labor and creative labor—those are technical limits. We also have a third set of limits, which is broadly moral and ethical limits to jobs we would want automated. I think most of us would not want a robot raising a child. Maybe some of us do, but for the most part, we'd want that to be undertaken by humans.
So those types of work would still exist?
Yes, and it would be recognized by society—often times in the present moment, [care labor] is unpaid, unrecognized, doesn't even count as work in society's eyes—this would hopefully change with the reduction of work in other sectors. We would be starting to redistribute that labor across society, recognizing it through something like a universal basic income, where people are actually getting paid to be a stay-at-home parent. That sort of work would still exist, and we'd have to raise questions about how it would be distributed in a way that wouldn't just reinstitute some sort of patriarchal society.
Are there societies that have already implemented technological solutions like this?
Srnicek: Both the Nordic countries and Sub-Saharan African countries have experimented with the universal basic income. The results have so far been really encouraging. As an anti-poverty measure within Sub-Sarahan Africa, it's worked extraordinarily well. A lot of the Nordic countries are just starting to test it out now, so it's unclear how it will affect a rich country. You've got countries that have a reduced working week—Scandinavia, and in France as well—and for the most part, those countries that work less tend to be more productive as well. There are some interesting systems where they channel people into the normal working week and then channel people out—like, when you're younger, you start off with a 30-hour work week, then a 35-hour work week, then a 40-hour work week. Then as you get older, it goes back the other way, and you get channeled out of the labor market. I think that's a really interesting way to reduce the working week.
What about in terms of automation, or robots replacing menial work?
Srnicek: I think Japan is probably the best example. In Japan, they have this thing called a "lights-out factory." It's a factory where there's virtually no humans involved at all, so much so that they can turn off the lights, the heating, and just let the machines roll themselves. Japan is facing a demographic crisis where they've got so many elderly people and not enough workers to take care of them, so they started developing robots to take care of elderly people. You've got all of these humanoid robots coming out of Japan and these service robots, which are designed to interact with humans on a very personal level. It's fantastic technology—but there are some interesting politics involved. They've been developing these robots because they don't want immigrants to come in and take these jobs. So there's some xenophobia which is leading them to develop robots and the automation of care labor.
How much of this idea do you intend as theory, and how much would you want to be put into practice?
Williams: This is why the book is called Inventing the Future. We need to genuinely think about what the world is going to be like in a decade or two, and think about how we can build political ideas and new ways to think about society in advance of these trends, to get ahead of these issues. Right-wing economists are already doing their thinking about what the world's going to be like when driverless cars are ubiquitous. It's important that the left is able to anticipate this and articulate a politics which will argue for a world which is objectively better and in more people's interests.
Srnicek: I think this is the insight of a Marxist perspective: Capitalism is not built for human needs. It's built for profit, and human needs come second. So it won't build a post-work future on its own; it needs to have a strong political movement to push it in those directions. Otherwise, the future is more likely to be worse than better.
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