Living in a world without work

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on July 19, 2020

Title: A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond Author: Daniel Susskind Publisher: Allen Lane Price: ₹799

Cohabitation with machines is an inevitable future that awaits us. But is it going to be easy?

Daniel Susskind is a doomsayer. In a good way though. His 2016 book, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts (first edition), co-written with his father, Richard Susskind, told us in no uncertain terms the unpleasant truth we have been avoiding ever since we’ve figured out machines can do most of our jobs — human exceptionalism is kaput, especially in white-collar professions (lawyers, doctors, accountants, teachers, etc). Living in denial will get us nothing. The sooner we come to terms with the fact that our professions are doomed, the better.

The Susskinds began The Future of the Professions with a future-ready quote from John Maynard Keynes: “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.” This Keynesian praxis is reflected throughout the book, and was also concluded in a Keynesian tone. “In the long run, increasingly capable machines will transform the work of professionals, giving rise to new ways of sharing practical expertise in society,” the authors had written. This transformation will indeed make for inclusive progress. In that world, most people, rich or poor, will be able to access most services without fail thanks to technology.

But the transformation has its costs. The tectonic shifts technology will cost are unprecedented and their scale will exceed imagined levels. Making sure that we survive requires introspection and action. “We must remember that inaction, as well as action, is a choice,” the authors had noted. “If we choose to do nothing, and we decide to default to our traditional ways and discard the promise of technological change for fear, say, of rocking the boat, then this is a decision for which later generations can hold us accountable.” No wonder, Financial Times picked it as the ‘Book of the Year’ for 2016.

Cut to 2020. Machine intelligence is more real and present than ever. And Daniel Susskind is a stand-alone author. In A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond, he continues the journey he started in 2016. Today, the world has come to terms with the threat of automation and artificial intelligence. Last year, Brookings Institution, a US-based think-tank, released a report — Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Affect People and Places — which said in the US alone (where advanced machines have greater presence) nearly 30 per cent of the total jobs face the risk of automation. Several studies, policy papers and books have corroborated the fact and predicted scenarios for other markets as well.

Technological progress

Still, we are not really worried about the future. Machine intelligence is now creating jobs we never imagined possible. Technology consultancy firm Gartner says that in 2020, artificial intelligence will wipe out 1.8 million jobs, but will create 2.3 million jobs. That’s one of the reasons why Susskind says “this book is optimistic about the future”. It is designed to be less about doomsaying and more about addressing what he calls ‘Leontief’s fear’.

Wassily Leontief is a Russian-American economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1973. He had said that technology would drive humans out of work, much like how combustion engines drove horses out of work in the West in the early 1900s. But this fear is somewhat baseless. Machines will not do everything in the future, says Susskind. “But they will do more.” He predicts that as machines take on more and more tasks “slowly, but relentlessly”, and humans will be forced to retreat to an “ever-shrinking set of activities”.

This scenario is tricky. It is unlikely that every person will be able to do what remains to be done, says Susskind. And “...there is no reason to imagine there will be enough demand for it to employ all those who are indeed able to do it”. So what should be done?

Susskind calls himself a technological realist, and not a subscriber of technological determinism (which basically is the belief that technology’s impact is so powerful and inevitable that it influences almost everything that happens in a society). He wants us to believe that technology will make us progress faster and address most of the problems that haunted us in the past, including poverty and wealth inequality.

Indeed, technologies will continue to grab jobs from the hands of humans. And technology companies will amass more power than ever, raising concerns over the way they exert control in societies. But Susskind says such issues “are, in the final analysis, far more attractive difficulties to grapple with than the one that haunted our ancestors for centuries — how to create enough for everyone to live on in the first place.”

Fast-tracked transformation

In 12 succinct chapters, Susskind explores these concerns, delving deep into the history of technology, labour and social systems. In three parts, the book covers a large canvas of history, starting from how technology started enhancing human productivity, contributing to economic growth to how it has become what it is now, a formidable force with Frankenstein-like features that threaten to destabilise societies and reverse progress. The bibliography works as a great resource for all those who want to explore further into the relationship between technology, work, human productivity and all the allied economical and philosophical questions that emerge in the discussion.

Susskind’s book comes at a time when the world is battling an unusual pandemic. Technologists and labour experts expect Covid-19 to accelerate “the robot takeover of human jobs”, as the MIT Technology Review puts it. There are also concerns that the pandemic might expedite the process of automation, as businesses and governments are cutting costs across sectors in order to optimise work. In a way, Susskind’s predictions of technology upgrading life and work are happening at a faster clip during Covid-19. In the post-pandemic world, this might create more, previously unimagined repercussions with Big Tech (powerful tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon) controlling societies in concerning ways.

Even though Susskind says Leontief’s fears are not baseless, Covid-19 is forcing us to have a rethink on that given technology’s shift from an enabler and enhancer to one that enslaves human productivity and imagination. Even though Susskind says he is optimistic, the setting against which the book is read makes us think otherwise.

Meet the author: Daniel Susskind is a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford, and the co-author of The Future of Professions. He has previously worked with the British Government

Published on July 19, 2020

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