With­out work, who do we be­come?

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - OPINION - MARK KING­WELL

The re­al­ity of labour is chang­ing, and not for the bet­ter – at least, not if you’re a hu­man

Pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Toronto

Peo­ple are nat­u­rally distressed by re­cent events in the world of work. Plants shut down, of­fices down­sized, goods and ser­vices off-loaded to gig work­ers with no ne­go­ti­a­tion rights, health care or pen­sions. Unions are no longer busted in old-school violent fash­ion, just phased out of rel­e­vance in so-called “right to work” states, where em­ploy­ees can avoid dues but still de­mand the ben­e­fits of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing.

This is labour re­al­ity, 2018 style. One of the bleak­est, and fun­ni­est, de­pic­tions of the work in North Amer­ica was a re­cent episode of the satir­i­cal tele­vi­sion show Port­landia.

Two of the char­ac­ters por­trayed by Car­rie Brown­stein and Fred Ar­misen try to ex­plain to some school­child­ren, on Ca­reer Day, why gig­ging is great. The free­dom to work as many hours a day as you want! The grat­i­fi­ca­tion of de­liv­er­ing some­one a pizza! One of the kids then or­ders a pizza dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion.

Work is chang­ing, and not for the bet­ter – at least if you’re a hu­man. The most com­mon worry about the fu­ture of work is that robots are go­ing to take jobs away from flesh-and-blood en­ti­ties. Given that the non-hu­man work­ers are likely to be more ef­fi­cient, faster and with­out need for food or shel­ter, this sounds like a le­git­i­mate con­cern.

Of course, the more re­al­is­tic cur­rent is­sue is that al­go­rithms of var­i­ous ad­vanced kinds are re­plac­ing hu­man judg­ment. Al­ready med­i­cal di­ag­nos­tics, fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions, and air­craft func­tions, among other things, are run by

(some­times bi­ased) ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gences. We stress about self-driv­ing cars, but con­sider: The last time you flew on a large com­mer­cial air­liner, it was landed by one com­puter in­ter­fac­ing with an­other. The four-stripe hu­man pilot, while doubt­less re­as­sur­ing on the in­ter­com, was there mostly for show.

Most ques­tions are more ba­sic. How do we make ends meet, feed our fam­i­lies or af­ford a home when em­ploy­ment be­comes so elu­sive?

Labour used to be the rock-solid an­swer to life’s ques­tions, even though op­por­tu­ni­ties were un­equally dis­trib­uted and of­ten tied to legacy ad­van­tage. When I was in grad­u­ate school at an “elite” univer­sity, it was just as­sumed that all the un­der­grad­u­ates would have their pick of jobs in Man­hat­tan, Bos­ton or Chicago. The chant at foot­ball games, af­ter scores by less pre­cious but ath­let­i­cally su­pe­rior op­po­nents, was this: “That’s all right, that’s okay, you’re go­ing to work for us one day.” Those of us in the phi­los­o­phy PhD pro­gram had a less com­pla­cent view.

But we should al­ways re­call that cur­rent anx­i­eties are never new. More than two mil­len­nia ago, Aris­to­tle, in the Ni­co­machean Ethics, ar­gued a fun­da­men­tal point: The essence of hu­man life is not work. Work lies in the realm of ne­ces­sity, not phi­los­o­phy. Leisure time, un­der­stood as the con­tem­pla­tion of the di­vine, is the true aim of life. Granted, else­where Aris­to­tle de­fended slav­ery, so – easy for him to say, ob­vi­ously.

Still, the leisure ques­tion is more com­pli­cated than just not work­ing, as any re­tiree will tell you. Or, if you cel­e­brate Christ­mas, for ex­am­ple, this month’s bills are likely to be larger than usual be­cause of gifts. Jan­uary will be lean, say; but you might also be tempted to lever­age the shiny new pur­chases with a loan. House­hold debt in Canada has grown ev­ery year for more than a decade be­cause peo­ple want things that their work earn­ings don’t in fact un­der­write. There’s no way out of debt if in­come falls short of spend­ing. You don’t need Aris­to­tle to tell you that.

Work also pro­vides mean­ing to our lives, and this is where we need more re­flec­tion and dis­cus­sion. My own lat­est work, just out in Ger­man, is called Nach der Ar­beit – “Af­ter Work.” In it, I ask: What comes af­ter work? Ob­vi­ously, that doesn’t just mean how we spend our post 9-to-5 time (happy hour!), or our week­ends (liv­ing for it!), or even re­tire­ment (free­dom 55! golf ev­ery day!). If work were no longer what it used to be, how we would cope? Who would we even be?

These are the deep, es­sen­tial ques­tions. Sure, let’s talk about job-steal­ing robots. But robots are just a clue that we must think more deeply about our­selves and our de­sires. I’m one of those lucky ones: I do some­thing I love so, as the say­ing goes, I’ve never worked a day in my life. (Ex­cept, of course, when I’m grad­ing es­says, like right now.)

Sure, let’s talk about job-steal­ing robots. But robots are just a clue that we must think more deeply about our­selves and our de­sires.

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