Automation and Utopia by John Danaher

A little while ago, I wrote this piece about work. I had just gotten a copy of John Danaher’s Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work. I was looking forward to it and wanted to record some of my pre-read views on the topic. I finished the book and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s very good, well worth the read. Now, I want to share some post-read thoughts.

The book is split into two sections, automation and utopia (shockingly, the title doesn’t lie). In the automation part, Danaher lays out the common argument that technological unemployment is likely and the less common argument that technological unemployment will be a good thing. We should embrace it and encourage it rather than fighting a losing battle against it. I’ll grant that my thoughts were leaning this way before reading the book, but the argument is solid and convincing. Current technologies are not like older technologies. Old technologies displaced workers. They simultaneously closed certain doors while opening others. Modern technologies actually replace workers without creating any new opportunities.

He goes on to explain why we shouldn’t be afraid of being replaced. The simple reason is that work is bad. He doesn’t just say that certain jobs are bad. All work is bad. Even if you like your job, work is still bad. I have a quibble here. Instead of having one category, work, I tend to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary work, with necessary work being worse. It takes work to be good at music, but working on music is not structurally bad in the same way as being a corporate drone is. Danaher tends to not consider what I call unnecessary work to be work. That’s ok. It’s really just an issue with terminology, and in the utopia section, he deals with this issue.

He explains five reasons why work is bad: “The Problem of Dominating Influence,” “The Problem of Fissuring and Precarity,” “The Problem of Distributive Injustice,” “The Problem of Temporal Colonization,” and “The Problem of Unhappiness and Dissatisfaction.” I’m not going to get into detail here, but I think most people can figure these out. We’ve personally experienced these problems. Basically, work is a direct threat to our autonomy, freedom, rights, family, and friendships. It makes living the good life extremely difficult. Danaher spends quite a bit of time dealing with counterarguments and objections. Like I said, he is convincing. He sticks to philosophical arguments, but I think he could have gone on with sociology, history, and psychology to make it even more robust.

The second half of the book addresses what we will do if we are no longer working. He explores several possibilities, but focuses mainly on what he calls the Cyborg Utopia, the Utopia of Games, and the Virtual Utopia. (He doesn’t talk about the Utopia of Games as separate from the Virtual Utopia, it’s more a type of virtual utopia, but I think he spends enough time there that it deserves its own breakout.) Danaher defines utopia as, “Any prospectively achievable scheme of radical social-political improvement which would, if installed, leave every affected party better off and none worse while respecting the rights of all.” This definition mostly works for me. I have trouble talking about rights outside of a specific political framework (In other words, I don’t believe in universal human rights), but it addresses the problems that come with utopian schemes. In fact, there is a good discussion of Popper’s anti-utopian views and how to get around those objections.

The Cyborg Utopia is what it sounds like, reaching utopia by technologically upgrading ourselves. This is interesting, but ultimately Danaher decides that it doesn’t quite work. There are lots of plusses, an ever expanding horizon for us to strive for, extension of life (possibly even a form of immortality), and more opportunities for everyone to contribute to the Good and the Beautiful. But, it could be a way of preserving work, it may not be rationally intelligible for us, and it may not be feasible. I would add two other, related, objections. First, is the desirability of becoming cyborgs. Danaher addresses luddites in his discussion of automation replacing workers, but I think it deserves it’s own section in the context of cyborgization. Most people are fine with medical interventions such as pacemakers, cochlear implants, insulin pumps, etc. I have a hunch people will be less willing to embrace technologies that more obviously change who we fundamentally are. There is no clear line for when that happens, but I think it will scare a lot of people. Second, can we reach a point where we are no longer human? If we do, there’s no telling if human virtues will still be virtuous for whatever comes next.

The Utopia of Games is, again, what it sounds like. It mostly addresses what we will do if we are not working. Games are a way of replacing the things that are actually good about work. They give us goals, a sense of identity, and ways to grow. This is also where my unnecessary work concern is addressed. Danaher uses a broad definition of games where basically everything that I consider unnecessary work would be considered a game. The Utopia of Games comes out looking good. It would be an adjustment, certainly, but it’s an adjustment we can see ourselves making.

The Virtual Utopia is a discussion of Nozick’s idea of utopia as meta-utopia. Danaher is right that the utopia section of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is the most interesting part. The idea is that utopia doesn’t have to be one thing for everyone. Instead, people should be able to choose the type of society they want to live in. Maybe there will be a libertarian utopia over here and a socialist utopia over there and a social-democratic utopia across the river and everyone can move freely to whichever they want. There are obvious, practical problems trying to implement this in the real world. If there were an imperial utopia, they would be a threat to the other utopias, for example. And how do we divide up the land so that certain groups don’t have natural benefits that others don’t? Danaher thinks that virtual worlds are a way we could overcome these problems. The imperial utopia can keep expanding in the virtual world without affecting anyone else. The virtual worlds could have whatever climate, etc. the participants want.

Personally, I don’t have much of a utopian mindset. It is interesting, but I preferred the first half of the book. Utopias are long-term things anyway. What I really want to see is some short and medium term ideas. How do we bring about the end of work? How will everyone get what they need? What will the next 10, 20, 30 years look like? I recommend Automation and Utopia. I hope it inspires thought and discussion. And if any of you read it, I’d love to talk about it with you.

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