Monday, February 25, 2013

What Happened To Our Work-Free Utopia?

Happy Arcadia, by Konstantin Yegorovich Makovsky, via Wikimedia Commons
Remember the idea that technology was going to lead us to a work-free utopia?  What happened?

The idea sounded good.  With machines more and more able to do crap like washing clothes and planting food and whatever, we'd all be able to sit back and relax. I guess everyone has a different mental picture of what "sit back and relax" means, but whatever:  you could pretty much do what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it -- whether that would be lazing around, participating in Mixed Martial Arts, making art, or reading Proust.

It's not a crazy thought.  I mean, it has logic.  If work is doing boring repetitive stuff, and technology does that stuff for you, why can't you spend the technology dividend however you like?

But obviously, it isn't happening.  People are working and working and working and working.  So, WTF? 

Complex problem, obvs.  Here are a few guesses.

1.  The work-free utopia idea seriously underestimates what it takes for people to be satisfied. 

It's easy to think there's some finite bit of stuff that has to get done for your "needs" to be satisfied and then after that you're basically good to go.  In my experience, though, that's not what people are like at all.  Their dissatisfactions are endless.  If you think once they have three nutritious meals and a nice room they're going to sit quietly, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.

2.  The work-free utopia idea seriously underestimates people's needs. 

It's not just that people have an infinite capacity for dissatisfaction.  If that were all, presumably we could find some way of altering ourselves, some SOMA-like drug that would make us more able to enjoy a quiet evening of wholesome activities.  But in fact, just treating illness and injury so that everyone can live to a reasonable age has turned out to be fantastically expensive. 

Often you read about a new drug that helps with some terrible illness and costs an unbelievable sum.  It's nice to think that if could just quiet the dissatisfactions, then in the utopia you'd just need some robust crops to be able to get along.  But no:  the preventable deaths of young people are among the worst things going.  They can't be part of any utopia.  And yet, preventing those deaths requires massive investment.

3.  "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."

That's a quote from Pascal, who knew what he was talking about.  It's an uncomfortable thought, but maybe we like this absurd way of life and even being forced into it.  I remember reading once a book for new parents --  I've never had kids myself, so I was reading as an outsider -- and being quite surprised by the passion with which some parents described intentionally staying late at work, taking the long way home, and dawdling in the car, all to delay the time at which they would arrive home. 

Even if working isn't utopia, maybe not working isn't utopia either.

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