Life and living

The Automation Revolution

Did you go to work today? Did you feel useful? Good.

But did you feel happy?

If you didn’t, you probably go to work only for the money. I believe that this should not be necessary. In fact, I have come to believe that every citizen should get a fixed amount of money for doing absolutely nothing. The concept – often referred to as universal basic income – might seem a bit insane, but it is now being tried out in several countries. The results so far are interesting: When people receive a fixed allowance of money on a regular basis, no questions asked, they tend to contribute better to society by taking initiative to generate something of value (crafts, part-time jobs etc), and they tend to spend more time with their kids.

How can this be? Most of us were brought up with the notion that work makes you happy, that we all need to work. We need to be productive citizens. If not, we do not fulfull our puroses and we are not as good as those working their butts off, right?

Well, let me tell you that if there is one thing I am really sick and tired of, it’s the concept of productivity. In other words, the idea that we, as citizens, should produce something of value and — by the value of that work, and by the taxes we pay — contribute to society. Not only is this an outdated theory, but it is also the direct cause of much unhappiness and misery.

The idea that we should all contribute to society by working, seems sensible. I get that. We may still be able to cling to that theory for a while, I notice that almost every politician does. But nevertheless, it is a theory that won’t last more than one or two decades from now. The idea that we need to work a lot in order to keep our society financially healthy, and that we must be prepared to work even more in the future, as some politicians love to claim, is incorrect. Fact is that neither Norway, where I live, or most of the other Western countries, are financially healthy today, and the current financial model doesn’t seem to make things better.

Why? Because it only makes sense to work a lot if you buy a lot.

The Work Society can only exist alongside The Consumer Society. But The Consumer Society is simply not sustainable, and the concept of buying things isn’t going to be that popular in the near future. Corporations are already aware of this, so they’re trying to make us pay for things that are neither real products nor services, like cell phone subscriptions, credit cards etc. I would even claim that your house mortgage isn’t a real product, though the financial explanation for that claim goes beyond the scope of this blogpost.

If we take a step back and look at ourselves, it’s quite obvious that we find ourselves smack in the middle of the end of one era and at the beginning of another. That is, we are witnessing the decline of The Work Society and the dawn of The Automation Revolution.

Some like to call it The Digital Revolution. I saw the Norwegian prime minister talking about that the other day — she said we need to get rid of cash because of «The Digital Revolution». Well, the word «digital» doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just a pretty word and by the way, getting rid of cash is a terrible idea for very obvious reasons that I will probably get into in a future blogpost. Saying «digital» whan we’re really talking about «automation» is just silly. It sounds less threatening, I get that. But we need to realize that digitalization is only a way to automate, and the revolution is not about digitalization, it is about automation of as many of society’s functions as possible.

We will soon have computers replacing workers by the millions. The Automation Revolution will create a some new jobs, however small in number compared to those that will be lost. The corporations driving this revolution are only interested in lowering costs and less employees means lower costs. Furthermore, the rise of AI will send people who used to look at themselves as the cultural, political and financial elite out of their offices faster than you can spell «inflated ego» and as a result the employment rate will go through the roof. Entire professions will be run by AI and almost 100% automated. Just to give you an idea, here’s a list of some of the people I believe will be affected in the near future: bankers, stock traders, lawyers, the whole governmental administration with all its subdivisions, university teachers, salespeople and insurance agents. Crafts that can only be done by hand are safe, so are people creating art. But even among those who get to keep their job, there will be problems, as the income will tend to get too low to cover basic needs; not only are we moving into The Automation Revolution, we are also at the beginning of an era of less ownership and less consumerism. This is not because of some environmental concern. People will simply have less money on their hands because they no longer have a job, and the new generation will probably not be motivated to own as much as their parents did.

Our Western society will get more effective, possibly more environmentally friendly (but that won’t be noticeable because of the rise of population in Asia and Africa). It will be a lot more productive and profitable. Ironically, we can only reach that utopic high-achieving society by getting rid of people where machines do a better job.

So where does this leave us as individuals?

It leaves us with no other option than understanding that a nation’s productivity is not necessarily connected to its inhabitants, that it can actually become more productive by paying those inhabitants not to work. It leaves us with the idea of handing out some sort of pension or monthly allowance to everyone and hoping they will use those money wisely. Some won’t. Drug addicts will probably use them on drugs, gamblers will gamble and so on. But in the future, we really don’t have much choice. I know it’s not fair to just give everybody money. But if you think about it, is modern society really fair the way it is now? Also, having a poor population is simply a lot more expensive than keeping the population healthy and somewhat wealthy, even if they aren’t working. I think most people will use their time wisely, that we will spend more time with our kids and live a better life than we used to. I also think we will soon believe that there is nothing shameful about being unemployed. Take a hike with your family in the woods. Sail around the world. Spend more time growing and cooking healthy food and working out. Live a better life. Doesn’t that seem like a good deal to you?

-Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen