Automation and Alienation in an Anti-Work Society

Look at this picture long enough and you may feel alienation.

I decided to take some suggestions from fans of the site about what topics they’d like to see me talk about. Here’s my stab at the question of whether some folks (e.g. primitivists, anti-civ folks, green anarchists, etc.) may be right about the idea that automation in an anti-work society would lead to more alienation.

First off, as I like to do, let’s define my terms, here’s what I mean when I say alienation:

a feeling of disinterest or mental separation from controlling something you are attached to physically such as a position or an object, e.g. your job or your possessions.

At its heart alienation is about a feeling of separation from something you, ostensibly, should feel connected to. Or it’s a feeling of separateness from something that people would expect that you wouldn’t feel separate from. This is especially the case for things that you spend a lot of time with, such as a job you hold or an object you use a lot.

But in reality, you do not feel like you are in control of these things. You might feel like they control you or that there are other people who have more control over you than you do. Or you may feel like you have some level of control but that this level is completely dwarfed relative to other folks degrees of control.

Whatever the case may be, here’s a few illustrative examples from my own life:

  1. I work a job 15-20 hours a week at a big corporate retail store. I spend a lot of time at this job, get to be the “face” of the company, I had a degree (though small) say in my hours and how much I get to work. My pay and distance to work isn’t terrible and neither are my co-workers or managers. In a social vacuum, you might expect me to feel really engaged with this job, but I’m not, often I’m just going through the motions and acting pleasant.
  2. I rent an apartment building from a very nice woman and her family. I live with three great housemates who respect me and two of which are some of my closest friends. I’m in a relatively stable place of living for the first time in my life and spend most of that life in this apartment building. Yet, there’s also a part of me that recognizes that I don’t really “own” it. I’m not even one of the sublease landlords (that would be two of my other roommates) which gives me a degree of legal freedom, should I ever want to move out. But it also makes me the lowest on the economic and social totem pole in terms of “owning” the space I live in. That doesn’t make me feel like I’m home.

So I take it as obvious from my definitions and examples that alienation is a bad thing and that any anti-work society worth its salt would aim to minimized alienation as much as possible. But the claim from some folks about anti-work advocates (such as myself) is that a more technologically positive future would mean more alienation.

Is this true?

I think it’s important to recognize that the jobs we have are alienated from us for many different reasons. It wouldn’t be enough to simply go “back to the land” or “rewilding” industry. I’ve spoken before about my (relative) love of manual labor over retail labor. There’s something to working in nature as opposed to in a giant faceless corporation for sure.

In fact, I’d agree with some milder criticisms such as that industry and civilization can sometimes aide in our disconnectedness from the fruits of our labor. And that, at least relative to our usual options, working on farms or working among nature can be a deeply enriching and gratifying experience that may at least warrant a look-see.

That said, this doesn’t require all of society to be like that. I generally reject the idea that there are panaceas for society and how it should function. There are good general guidelines that promote human happiness and virtue best but that doesn’t necessarily mean they do so in every situation. I think that the criticisms of civilization have some merits but ultimately what we need to do is beat civilization at its own game, not play a losing one.

My position on the “rewilding” tactics and the like from primtiivists and others like them is that they’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle. From my point of view there’s no way to effectively get us back to a point where none of us have access to the technologies we do today. Some primitivists say that we won’t have a choice due to global warming, etc.

Though if that’s the case, it seems like we’d have a lot more to worry about then just civilization.

Automating jobs we don’t want to have to begin with, doesn’t strike me as a way to increase the amount of alienation in society. We can only be more alienated if we actually want the jobs and by and large it doesn’t look to me like people are working the jobs they want to have. In the cases where people wouldn’t be able to work the jobs they want, what then?

Well, my claim isn’t that there wouldn’t be any alienation in a more technologically accepting society. I’m sure that new forms of alienation could plausibly spring up and would have to be dealt with. But I also think technology gives us better tools to work with than nature does. I think the advancement of tools (which is technology itself) is better than the earlier forms. These earlier forms of tools inherently have less to offer and give us less choices, hence less freedom.

The idea that we should limit our abilities and choices in the name of freedom strikes me as almost Orwellian.

If we want to embrace the freedom that comes with human life then we should embrace (however critically at times) the benefits of having a more technological society. Perhaps up to and including ideas such as transhumanism.

In which case it seems like the claims of alienation wouldn’t be accurate at all. If we’re the machines then how can we be alienated? Perhaps we’re alienated from some previous human experience but if that experience is shown to be of lesser quality in terms of happiness, utility, encouraging virtuous behavior, etc. then what would it matter?

I’m not necessarily a transhumanist myself (though I’ve mentioned it a few times over the course of this blog) so I can’t say I can rigorously defend the position. But I can say that what I know from transhumanism vs. primitivism that I’m much more inclined to take the former over the latter as a possible model for an anti-work society.

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One thought on “Automation and Alienation in an Anti-Work Society

  1. Pingback: "Why should I care about Abolishing Work? I have a Job I Love!" - Abolish Work

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