Source: HBR, Jan 2018
The promise of AI and automation raises new questions about the role of work in our lives. Most of us will remain focused for decades to come on activities of physical or financial production, but as technology provides services and goods at ever-lower cost, human beings will be compelled to discover new roles — roles that aren’t necessarily tied to how we conceive of work today.
Part of the challenge, as economist Brian Arthur recently proposed, “will not be an economic one but a political one.” How are the spoils of technology to be distributed? Arthur points to today’s political turmoil in the U.S. and Europe as partly a result of the chasms between elites and the rest of society. Later this century, societies will discover how to distribute the productive benefits of technology for two primary reasons: because it will be easier and because they must. Over time, technology will enable more production with less sacrifice. Meanwhile, history suggests that concentration of wealth in too few hands leads to social pressures that will either be addressed through politics or violence or both.
But this then raises a second, more vexing challenge: as the benefits of technology become more widely available — through reform or revolution — more of us will face the question, “When technology can do nearly anything, what should I do, and why?”
historian, and journalist Hannah Arendt, who in the 1950s designed a far-reaching framework for understanding all of human activity. In The Human Condition, a beautiful, challenging, profound work, Arendt describes three levels of what she defines, after the Greeks, as the Vita Activa.
Labor generates metabolic necessities — the inputs, such as food, that sustain human life. Work creates the physical artifacts and infrastructure that define our world, and often outlast us — from homes and goods to works of art. Action encompasses interactive, communicative activities between human beings — the public sphere. In action, we explore and assert our distinctiveness as human beings and seek immortality.
Most ancient Greek philosophers prioritized contemplation over action as the pinnacle of human endeavor. Arendt did battle with this notion, arguing on behalf of action. Contemporary culture appears to agree. Ultimately, though, action and contemplation function best when allied. We have the opportunity — perhaps the responsibility — to turn our curiosity and social natures to action and contemplation.
When our machines release us from ever more tasks, to what will we turn our attentions? This will be the defining question of our coming century.