But several economists and futurists think that this time it is different. The type, scope and speed of technological change is, they argue, threatening to put us out of work for good. This raises two important questions. The first is factual and has to do with whether these economists and futurists are right. Is it really different this time round? Are we all soon to be out of work? The second is axiological and has to with the implications of such long-term unemployment for human society? Will it be a good thing if we are all unemployed? Will this make for better or worse lives?
I've explored the answers to these two questions across a number of blog posts over the past two years. I thought it might be worth assembling them together into this handy index. As is fairly typical for this blog, I focus more on the axiological issues, but I will be writing more about the factual question soon so you can expect that section to grow over the coming months.
1. Will there be technological unemployment?
- Are we heading for technological unemployment? An Argument - This was my attempt to present the best argument for technological unemployment, one that responds directly to the so-called Luddite fallacy. I based this heavily on Brynjolfsson and McAfee's book The Second Machine Age.
- Why haven't robots taken our jobs? The Complementarity Effect - This was a more sceptical look at the argument for technological unemployment, drawing upon the work of David Autor. Although I think there is much wisdom to what Autor says, I'm not sure that it really defeats the argument for technological unemployment.
- Automation and Income Inequality: Understanding the Polarisation Effect - This was another attempt to look at the arguments from David Autor about the effects of technology on employment. Despite being sceptical of widescale technological unemployment, Autor does think that technological advances are fueling income inequality. I tend to concur.
- Polanyi's Paradox: Will humans maintain any advantage over machines? - This was the final part of my trilogy on David Autor's views. In this one, I look at his main sceptical argument and criticise it for underestimating the potential for technology to displace human labour.
- Pushing Humans off the Loop: Automation and the Unsustainability Problem: Is the trend towards automation ultimately unsustainable? Some people think so. They think that eventually capitalism will either collapse on its own contradictions or survive by reversing the trend. I examine this line of thinking.
2. Should we welcome technological unemployment?
- Should there be a right not to work? - This post presents a Rawlsian argument for a right not to work. It is based on the notion that an appropriately just state should be neutral with respect to its citizens conceptions of the good life and that a life of leisure/idleness is a particular conception of the good life.
- Should libertarians hate the internet? A Nozickian Argument against Social Networks - This post may be slightly out of place here since it is not directly about technological unemployment. Rather, it is about the 'free labour' being provided by users of social media sites to the owners of those sites. It asks whether such provision runs contrary to the principles of Nozickian justice. It argues that it probably doesn't.
- Should we abolish work? - This is a slightly more comprehensive compendium and assessment of anti-work arguments. I divide them into two broad classes -- 'work is bad' arguments and 'opportunity cost' arguments -- and subject both to considerable critical scrutiny.
- Does work undermine our freedom? - This post looks at Julia Maskivker's argument against compulsory work. 'Compulsory' work is a feature of the current economic-political reality, but this reality could be altered in an era of technological unemployment.
- The Automation Loop and its Negative Consequences - The first of three posts dealing with the arguments in Nicholas Carr's book The Glass Cage. This one looks at the phenomenon of automation and two problematic assumptions people make about the substitution of machine for human labour.
- Is Automation Making us Stupid? The Degeneration Argument against Automation - The second of three posts on Carr. This one takes on his central argument against automation, namely that it leads to the degeneration of important cognitive capacities.
- Technological Unemployment and Personal Well-being: Does work make us happy? - The third of three posts on Carr's The Glass Cage. This one is more directly concerned with the role of work (i.e. economically rewarded labour) in the good life. Carr argues that work is essential for maintaining flow states. I express some doubts about this.
- Demanding a Post-Work World: Technological Unemployment and the Human Future - This post analyses some of the key arguments in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams's provocative book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso, 2015). Although I share the authors' positive outlook on a postwork future, I question some of their claims.
- The Philosophy of Games and the Postwork Utopia - If automating technologies take over, what will we do with our time? Could we spend it playing games? Some people argue that this would be the ideal life. This post looks at their arguments.
- The Goods of Work Other than Money in a Postwork World: Anca Ghaeus and Lisa Herzog argue that there are four non-income related goods associated with work. But are they necessarily associated with work? Can we achieve them in other ways? I argue that we can.
- Technological Growth, Inequality and Property Price Increases: A look at Adair Turner's claim that technological growth and property price increases are intimately related.
- Technological Unemployment and the Search for Meaning: Should we retreat from reality? - Some people are worried about the tendency for young people to spend more time in virtual worlds. But as their employment options narrow, maybe this will become more common. Is this a good or bad thing. This piece makes the case for virtual utopias.
- The Shame of Work: Review of David Frayne's excellent book The Refusal of Work, explores the theory of antiwork and its practical reality.