Monday, June 29, 2015

Technological Unemployment and Personal Well-being: Does work make us happy?

Let’s assume technological unemployment is going to happen. Let’s assume that automating technologies will take over the majority of economically productive labour. It’s a controversial assumption, to be sure, but one with some argumentative basis. Should we welcome this possibility? On previous occasions, I have outlined some arguments for thinking that we should. In essence, these arguments claimed that if we could solve the distributional problems arising from technological unemployment (e.g. through a basic income guarantee), then freedom from work could be a boon in terms of personal autonomy, well-being and fulfillment.

But maybe this is wrong. Maybe the absence of work from our lives will make us miserable and unfulfilled? Today, I want to look at an argument in favour of this alternative point of view. The argument comes from Nicholas Carr’s recent book on automation. Carr has a bit of a reputation as a technology-doomsayer. But I think he sometimes makes some reasonable points. His argument on work is quite interesting. When I first read it, I didn’t think much of it. But upon re-reading, I saw that it is slightly more subtle and interesting than I first supposed.

Carr’s argument rests on two main claims: (i) the importance of the ‘flow’ state in human well-being; (ii) our inability to be good judges of what will get us into such ‘flow’ states. These two claims directly challenge the typical anti-work arguments. Let’s see exactly how it all fits together.

1. A Simple Anti-Work Argument
We start by considering the anti-work view, i.e. the one that is opposed to what Carr has to say. I won’t consider any particular proponent of this view, though there are many. Instead, I’ll consider a simple, generic version of it.

The anti-work view is premised on the notion that work is generally unpleasant and undertaken against our will. Proponents of the view highlight the valorisation and glorification of the work ethic in contemporary capitalist societies. They claim that we have all been duped into making a virtue of an economic necessity. Work is labour undertaken for some economic reward (or hope of such a reward), but we don’t really get to choose our preferred form of labour. The market dictates what is economically valuable. If we are lucky, we get to do something we don’t hate. But even if we are lucky, we will soon find that work invades our lives. We will spend the majority of our time doing it; and the time that we are not working will be spent recovering from or preparing for it. And it gets even worse. In the modern era, there is a creeping erosion of our leisure time, and a collapse in the possibility of achieving a work-life balance. Communications technologies mean that we are always-contactable; always-switched on, and always-working.

Wouldn’t it be so much better if we could remove these work-related pressures from our lives? If machines could take over all economically important labour, we would be free to spend our time as we wish. We could pursue projects of genuine personal, social and moral interest. We could rebalance our lives, spending more time at leisure, engaging in what Bob Black has called the ‘ludic life’. Surely, this would be a more healthful, meaningful and fulfilling existence?

To put all this into a slightly more formal argument:

  • (1) If we are free to choose how to spend our time (rather than being forced to work for a living), then we will engage in activities that confer greater levels of well-being and meaning on our lives.
  • (2) If there is technological unemployment, we will be free to spend our time as we please.
  • (3) Therefore, if there is technological unemployment, we will be able to engage in activities that confer greater levels of well-being and fulfillment on our lives.

There are several problems with this argument. For one thing, I suspect that premise (2) is unpersuasive in its present form. The notion that freedom from work will automatically free us up to spend our time as we please sounds naive. As hinted at above, a lack of employment could lead to a severe existential crisis as people need to find resources to meet their basic needs. That might make them even less ‘free’ than they were before they lost their jobs. Unless that distributional problem can be addressed, premise (2) will be a weak link in the chain of reasoning.

But as I mentioned above, let’s assume that this particular issue can be resolved. Focus could then shift to premise (1). This is the one that Carr seems to cast into doubt.

2. The Importance of Flow and the Paradox of Work
Carr’s argument centres around the concept of the ‘flow state’. This is something that was brought to popular attention by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is a state of mental concentration and immersion that is characterised by a strong positive affective experience (sometimes described as ‘rapture’ or ‘joy’). It is distinct from states of extreme mental concentration that are characterised by negative affective experience. A flow state is something you have probably experienced at some point in your life. I know I sometimes get it while writing.

The interesting thing, from Carr’s perspective, is that the flow state seems to be an important component of well-being and fulfillment. And, perhaps more importantly, that we aren’t very good at identifying the activities that help us to bring it about. This is due to the ‘paradox of work’, which was also described by Csikszentmihalyi.

In a series of experiments, Csikszentmihalyi used something called the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) to gauge what sorts of activities most increased people’s feelings of subjective well-being and happiness. The ESM tries to sample experimental subjects’ moods at separate intervals during the course of a typical day. The subjects’ wear a device (in the original studies it was a pager) that beeps them at certain times and asks them to complete a short survey. The survey itself asks them to explain what they were doing at that moment in time, what skills they were deploying, the challenges they faced and their psychological state.

In the 1980s, Csikszentmihalyi used this method on groups of workers from around Chicago. The workers came from different industries. Some were in skilled jobs; some were in unskilled jobs. Some were blue-collar; some were white collar. They were given pagers that beeped on seven occasions during the course of the day, and complete the associated surveys.

The results were interesting. Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues found that people were happier working than they were during leisure time. People felt fulfilled and challenged by work-related activities; whereas they felt bored and anxious during their time off. And yet, despite this, people said that they didn’t like working and that they would prefer to be taking time off. This is where the so-called ‘paradox of work’ comes into play. According to the results of the ESM, people are happier at work than they are at leisure; and yet people still express a desire not to be working.

What are we to make of this? Carr thinks that the results of Csikszentmihalyi’s study provide an example of a broader psychological phenomenon: the problem of miswanting. This is something that has been documented by the psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson: people often want things that they think will make them happy but end up having the opposite effect. In this respect, certain social conventions surrounding the importance of spending time with one’s friends and families may be encouraging people to block-out the positive feelings associated with work, and biasing them in favour of activities that don’t really make them happy.

But why is it that leisure time is not as fulfilling as work? The answer comes from the importance of having some level of challenge and pressure in one’s life. Csikszentmihalyi identifies nine different factors that contribute to the attainment of the flow state. These include achieving the right balance of mental exertion and anxiety. Too much external pressure, arousal and anxiety and you won’t be able to enter a flow state; too little and you will also miss it. The problem is that during ‘down time’ we often fail to have the right amount of pressure, arousal and anxiety. Consequently, we lapse into the bored and listless state that Csikszentmihalyi found amongst his experimental subjects. Work has the benefit of imposing a structure and schedule that encourages the right level of arousal and anxiety.

Carr sums up the position in the following quote:

…a job imposes a structure on our time that we lose when we’re left to our own devices. At work, we’re pushed to engaged in the kinds of activities that human beings find most satisfying. We’re happiest when we’re absorbed in a difficult task, a task that has clear goals and that challenges us not only to exercise our talents but to stretch them. We become so immersed in the flow of our work…that we tune out distractions…Our usually wayward attention becomes fixed on what we’re doing. 
(Carr 2015, 16)

In short, as Carr sees it, we are often happiest while working.

3. The Case against Anti-Work and Technological Unemployment
How does all this translate into an argument against technological unemployment? The simplest thing to say is that the evidence introduced by Carr casts into doubt the conditional claim embodied in premise (1). This premise seems to be claiming that there is a causal link between the freedom to choose how to fill one’s time and the level of well-being and fulfillment that one experiences. This now seems to be in doubt. It looks like mere freedom to choose how to fill one’s time is not enough. One must fill one’s time with the right kinds of activities. People might be able to do this without the rigid structure of a job — Carr himself concedes as much — but often they will not. They will be tempted to rest on their laurels and won’t have the pressures and challenges required for truly immersive engagement.

This then is the problem with technological unemployment: The kinds of automating technology that take away human jobs will taken away the pressures, anxieties and structures needed to attain flow. Indeed, the situation will be exacerbated if the same kinds of automating technology filter into our leisure time as well (e.g. if people start to use automating technologies to assist with the challenging and difficult aspects of their hobbies). In short:

  • (4) The attainment of flow states is an important component of human well-being.
  • (5) If left to their own devices, people are often bad judges of what will get them into a flow state: they may need the pressure and structure imposed by employment to get them to engage in the right sorts of activity (support: Csikszentmihalyi’s work)
  • (6) Therefore, mere freedom to choose how to spend one’s time is no guarantee that the time will be spent engaging in activities that confer greater levels of fulfillment and well-being.

The result is the negation of premise (1).

Is this argument any good? Even if I concede premise (4), I have a few worries. For one thing, I worry about the over-reliance on Csikszentmihalyi’s work. I know the concept of the flow state is widely endorsed, but I’m not so sure about the paradox of work. The study Carr refers to was performed during the 1980s. Has it been confirmed in subsequent studies? I don’t know and I simply have to plead ignorance on the psychological science front here (if you know of follow-up studies or similar studies please let me know in the comments section). One thing that does strike me, however, is that in discussing this one example, Carr refers to the notion that people were socially conditioned into thinking that leisure time should be more pleasurable than work. It seems to me that there is a countervailing type of social conditioning that tries to glorify the ideal of being ‘busy’ and ‘working’. Could this be tricking us into thinking that our working lives are more valuable than they actually are?

The second worry I have relates to premise (5). As someone who effectively sets their own agenda for work, I see no reason to suppose the absence of the employment-relation would rob us of the ability to achieve true flow states. In particular, I see no reason to suppose that waged labour is the only thing that could provide us with the pressures, challenges and structures needed to engage in truly immersive activity. Indeed, it seems somewhat patronising to suggest that employment is the best way for most people to achieve this. There are plenty of other pressures and challenges in life (e.g. self-imposed goal setting and reinforcement from one’s social peers). Indeed, modern technology may actually help to provide a framework for such pressures and challenges outside of waged labour, for example through social-sharing and gamification. I’m not saying these are good things; I am just saying there are other ways of achieving the end that Carr seems to desire.

That said, I do think there is something to worry about when it comes to automation and personal fulfillment. There is a danger that automation will be used by people to avoid all seemingly unpleasant or challenging activities, in the private sphere as well as in the economic sphere. But the danger associated with this must be kept in perspective. There is tendency among automation doomsayers to assume that automation will take over everything and we will be left with nothing. But this is just as naive as the view that being free to choose one’s activities will make one happier. Automating some activities can free us up to pursue others, i.e. to exercise our creativity and ingenuity in other ways. The potential benefits of this, when weighed agains the degrading and negative aspects of waged labour, ought to be kept in mind.

Anyway, that’s it for this post. To briefly recap, anti-work enthusiasts often make the case against work by appealing to the notion that being free to spend one’s time as one chooses will allow one to engage in activities that confer greater fulfillment and well-being. Carr, relying on the work of Csikszentmihalyi, argues that this is too simplistic. People are often bad judges of what kinds of activities confer the most benefits. In particular, they are bad at choosing activities that will help them to reach a flow state. Cskikszentmihalyi’s studies suggest that people are often happier working than they are at leisure. This is because they need some pressure and challenge in life. Work may be the best source of this pressure and challenge. Although I think this is an interesting argument, and I agree about the simplicity of some anti-work arguments, it seems to me to have several weaknesses. In particular, it seems to over-rely on one study; ignore many of the negative aspects of work; and assume too readily that work is the best (or only) source of pressure and challenge.

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