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AI Won’t Save Us From Pointless Jobs Unless We Let It

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In his amusing but all-too-real essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, anthropologist David Graeber argues that an epidemic of made-up jobs is subjecting grave psychological harm on the populous. “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working,” he wrote. The side effect is a “scar across our collective soul” that virtually no one talks about.

“Rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations,” wrote Graeber.

These jobs are great at feeding, clothing and housing us – even allowing millions to live well beyond their needs. But the trade-in for workers is too often their humanity. Already we are running the risk of civilization grinding to a halt, said Gallup CEO Jim Clifton when commenting on a study that found only 30% of Americans are engaged in their jobs. Diving deeper into the despair of meaningless work, we could indeed find out if the dramatic 80-year rise of depression and anxiety has a breaking point.

‘Bullshit jobs’ obviously do add a certain kind of value, namely moving more ‘money’ around the ‘economy’, and that’s essentially why they exist. But all they really do is paper over the ever-widening cracks that appeared when an economic system designed to put people to honest work became incompatible with modern-day post-scarcity, making hordes of people profoundly sad in the process.

Graeber was far from the first to notice the predicament we find ourselves in. Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell all dreamed of freedom from unnecessary wage slavery. In his 1935 essay In Praise of Idleness, Russell lamented that far too much work was still being done in an industrialized world of abundance. The passivity of entertainment – “seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio” – was a result of energies needlessly being taken up by long hours, he believed.

Freed from this toil, people would focus on what they really wanted to do, Russell argued. In his ideal world, “every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving. Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia.” He wouldn’t like how things turned out.

Today, however, there is a new hope. Although many see danger in AI and robotics all-but-eliminating the need for human labour, displacing those with ‘real’ jobs in the process, others think it can virtually free us from jobs altogether. They consider mass-scale automation our big opportunity to reframe the whole concept of work, liberate people to find a true purpose (or at least something that doesn’t crush their soul), and eradicate the psychological trauma that comes with pointless jobs.

The idea is that if we are smart about preparing for ubiquitous AI and robotics – perhaps finding ways of rewarding work that helps people or adds something positive to the world – we might just be able to come full circle and return our psyches to their happier pre-industrial states.

At first glance, the biggest hurdle in the way of achieving this goal appears to be redefining wealth distribution. “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed,” said Stephen Hawking. “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared.”

But how? A universal basic income might be tried, but could be exposed as a quick-fix. The risk of a basic income is that the current techno-capitalist system, while making us very comfortable and infinitely amused, might have produced too many creatively, intellectually and spiritually-hollow human beings for free money to magically make us all fulfilled overnight. So rather than give in to such path-of-least-resistance temptations as distributing wealth indiscriminately and creating what historian Yuval Noah Harari fears will be a massive ‘useless class’, we might take the more difficult road of reshaping society to encourage the pursuit of more purposeful and dignified work.

Looking back to thinkers like Lewis Mumford could provide us with a stronger philosophical foundation for adapting to the new era. He argued that wealth distribution technology should focus on concrete wealth because using money as an abstract measure of wealth had driven our irrational and destructive accumulation of excess. It’s been suggested that blockchain and cryptocurrencies could become those technologies, with the decentralization of major industries such as food production, energy, manufacturing and media helping along the formation of a more naturally cooperative, humane and ‘bullshit job’-free market.

Sadly, there’s little reason to believe we are anywhere near recognizing and acting on such idealistic visions. In fact, there’s evidence of the opposite in the studies saying AI will in fact create more ‘jobs’ than it kills. They’re probably right, but how many of those jobs will fall under Graeber’s definition of ‘bullshit’? Not all of them, but likely most, and with a grim predictability, we’ll do them. Without a miraculous rethink of work and a fundamental shift in what we value, the scourge of pointless jobs will spread even further simply to keep feeding the economic growth machine.

It’s easy to blame corporations, capitalism or the ‘ruling class’ for perpetuating this situation, but unhappy workers must shoulder the responsibility for change. There is no conspiracy to keep them in soulless jobs. The reality is that too many, given the choice of a dehumanizing ‘steady job’ over striving for more satisfying work, settle on the former. “I’m not really there to tell people what to do with their lives,” said Graeber in an interview with Vice after quotes from his essay were plastered across the London Underground. “But if you can find something that actually helps other people and you can still afford to feed your family, you might want to consider that.”

The rise of AI and robotics should be seen not as a job killer but as an opportunity for people to find more spiritually-nourishing work. We can see ‘bullshit jobs’ for what they are before the problem gets much worse, somehow overcome what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm famously called our “fear of freedom” from those jobs, and have the courage to re-humanize the world and our souls. The robots can save us from pointlessness, but we will have to let them.

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