A Post-Work Society Doesn’t Create a “Useless” Class

Unless it involves all of us handing out fliers like this…

Articles can have great titles but then go off into tangents that make you go, “What the heck? Why is this article comparing a conflict over Pokemon with Muslims and Jewish people?”

Okay, so most articles don’t make me specifically say that…but this one did.

Before we get to that though, let’s start at the beginning (the second paragraph, actually):

The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class.

People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

If, like me, you’ve read this whole article then I imagine this quote wouldn’t make much sense to you. Because, towards the end of the article, the author (Yuval Noah Harari) says:

In any case, the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles. Eighteenth-century English country squires, present-day ultra-orthodox Jews, and children in all cultures and eras have found a lot of interest and meaning in life even without working.

People in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.

We’ll get into the specifics of Harari’s arguments in a minute but I want to first highlight the contradictions here. What is so “useless” about a class of people who can still construct meaning for their life? If people are still able to engage in play, create meaning and live happy lives overall then what’s so “useless” about them?

Harari’s argument in the first quote undermines the argument in the second. If we want to think positively about a post-work future (as Harari seems to want us to do) then should we refer to the “unemployable” as “useless” of all things? That might make sense if we are trying to stigmatize a post-work future, but it doesn’t make sense otherwise.

People are not useless if they cannot work. They can build, create, relax, indulge, think, consider, philosophize, play and engage in many things that have utility. Even play itself can have a utility to it if orchestrated as a way to get people to do productive things like cleaning or helping others socialize or building a new set of skills, etc.

Let’s continue with the article:

The same technology that renders humans useless might also make it feasible to feed and support the unemployable masses through some scheme of universal basic income.

Probably not and it’s been written extensively why that isn’t likely the case on this site.

The real problem will then be to keep the masses occupied and content. People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day?

It’s important to note that not everyone among “the masses” goes crazy if they’re not engaging in “purposeful” activities.

Some of us enjoy taking random naps or doing things that don’t have any singular meaning or purpose just for their own sake and not for the sake of furthering a particular goal. Play can often be like this too. Because, besides the object of winning, play has no real central goal. And even “winning’ often comes with many side-benefits or constraints that make play an overall enjoyable experience (when done well) whether you win or not.

One answer might be computer games. Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside.

As someone who has been playing video games more in the past year or so than I had in the past five, I definitely think there’s a lot of room for video games taking up our time. Video games are already a big part of folks lives and I think that’s for good reason. But I also don’t think that video games tend to have “far more” excitement and emotional engagement than the real world. Maybe they would in a post-work future, I cant say for sure, of course.

It’s possible that things like virtual reality (VR) goggles and the like will become more life-like and we’ll enjoy worlds that will give us all of the experiences and sensations that the real world does. But it will give us these things for a lot less energy than we’d otherwise need to give for them. These are all (somewhat) possible things in the future.

But for the moment and for the foreseeable future I don’t see humanity getting to that point in technology. We’re only now starting to really think about VR and how to use it, so integrating it this deeply in our lives is likely going to take a long time. Maybe 30+ years will be enough time, that’s, again, possible I suppose.

But in any case there’s no real argumentation here.

Then the article gets…weird:

This, in fact, is a very old solution. For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions”.

Now, I didn’t know anything about this author and I assume many of the folks who were reading it likely knew next to nothing about them as well. So to have, all of a sudden, this sort of (seemingly) biting criticism of religion caught me off-guard. And is it a good comparison anyways? I’m not so sure religion is comparable to a VR game.

But let’s look at the argument(s) first:

What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together?

Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork.

What’s the implication here? Are “natural laws” any less imaginary than “don’t eat pork”? We’ve assigned random symbols to explain the phenomenons in life we can’t understand any other way such as gravity and planetary alignment. But didn’t Galileo and Newton have to use their imagination to figure these things out, at least to some degree?

And we could take this argument further in any case. Aren’t all laws imaginary? The laws from the government were not handed down from Gods or scrawled in the concrete of New York City by The Creator. They were made by people just like myself or Harari and anyone else reading my article or theirs. So what makes something meaningfully imaginary?

By Harari’s logic (and perhaps they wouldn’t disagree, I don’t know) everything is imaginary and a virtual reality experiment. And yeah, perhaps in some trivial sense this is true. But so what? If everything is imaginary in some sense (which is probably true) then what would it matter? That just means we keep carrying on as if it’s real and important.

Which it is, by the way.

I mean, look, I’m an agnostic-atheist/soft atheist/apathiest and I couldn’t care less about religion. Theological questions bore me and I think, regardless of the answers, that Gods tend to be power-hungry tyrants who are best left ignored. But even with my perspective on religion I can admit that these conversations are real and important to have…just not for me.

Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).

Okay, I’m not religious (as you may have guessed by now) but do Muslims or Christians really hold themselves accountable in this deep and personal way if they forget to pray once in a while? Isn’t casual Christianity and Muslim faiths becoming more and more of a mainstream practice? That’s my impression anyways, but I could be wrong.

And is heaven considered the “next level” or the final level?

The credits?

The metaphor just isn’t a good one…and it somehow gets worse:

Some time ago I went with my six-year-old nephew Matan to hunt for Pokémon.

As we walked down the street, Matan kept looking at his smartphone, which enabled him to spot Pokémon all around us. I didn’t see any Pokémon at all, because I didn’t carry a smartphone.

Then we saw two others kids on the street who were hunting the same Pokémon, and we almost got into a fight with them. It struck me how similar the situation was to the conflict between Jews and Muslims about the holy city of Jerusalem.

When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.

(emphasis mine)

So, just to refresh you: This metaphor is completely terrible in every way conceivable.

I’m not any sort of expert on the Middle East (far from it) but goodness, this strikes me as one of the most inane ways to get a handle on the conflicts therein. The bloodshed between these two groups is not comparable to a few kids getting in a fight about Pokemon. I can kind of metaphorically squint and see what Harari is saying here but even then…no.

Holiness isn’t something you see, it’s something you feel. Pokemon aren’t something you see per se’ but it’s something you can see on your smartphone and…really, why am I even spending time criticizing this? If you’re not convinced from the get-go that this is a terrible metaphor, then I really struggle for words.

He could have looked at his friends smartphone to see the Pokemon but you couldn’t do that with the bible and simply see holiness or feel it. You’d really have to sit down, read it, listen to those people of that faith and try to get a grasp on what they believe. And then you would have to decide for yourself whether what they’re saying has any validity.

You don’t need to do any of that with people who are playing Pokemon because they know it’s not real.

This stuff about religion is what kills an otherwise a potentially interesting article for me. Not only do I not care about religion but the ways this author brings it up are bizarre and often inane. Harari could have at least made it interesting, but instead chose to take the time to belittle the struggles of those in the Middle East.

Granted, giiven their name and their experiences (teaching at the University of Jerusalem) I am going to guess they have more experience with me these topics. They’re probably better informed of me on many things regarding this topic and I’m fine with admitting that. But someone can be a lot smarter than you on a subject and still explain it poorly.

The idea of finding meaning in life by playing virtual reality games is of course common not just to religions, but also to secular ideologies and lifestyles. Consumerism too is a virtual reality game. You gain points by acquiring new cars, buying expensive brands and taking vacations abroad, and if you have more points than everybody else, you tell yourself you won the game.

Again, this stretches the idea of “game” to almost meaninglessness. Isn’t everything a kind of game then? And are all games bad? Are they all good? What should we make of the fact that consumerism is a game of a sort?

Well, this, apparently:

In the end, the real action always takes place inside the human brain. Does it matter whether the neurons are stimulated by observing pixels on a computer screen, by looking outside the windows of a Caribbean resort, or by seeing heaven in our mind’s eyes? In all cases, the meaning we ascribe to what we see is generated by our own minds. It is not really “out there”. To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. The meaning of life is always a fictional story created by us humans.

What could be “out there”? What would it mean for something to be “out there”?

I know we’re getting off-topic within the realm of anti-work theory but this is the direction the article takes. And as someone who studied philosophy in college for a year and continues to study in their everyday life, this fascinates me.

I’m just not sure what we do with this knowledge. Saying that meaning is always artificial seems trivially true but I don’t understand what it practically means for our lives or why it would matter. And if it did “matter” wouldn’t that matter-ing be another example of a “fictional story created by us humans”?

From here the article tends to get better:

In his groundbreaking essay, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1973), the anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes how on the island of Bali, people spent much time and money betting on cockfights. The betting and the fights involved elaborate rituals, and the outcomes had substantial impact on the social, economic and political standing of both players and spectators.

Harari goes on to compare these cockfights to Judaism or video games, etc. which is not as interesting to me as the phenomenon of the cockfights itself. Of course, it’s animal cruelty and that’s terrible but it’s interesting to me how folks can create meaning out of almost anything. Perhaps this is the best part of this article that speaks to Harari’s point.

This next part is even more interesting, from an anti-work POV:

Indeed, one particularly interesting section of Israeli society provides a unique laboratory for how to live a contented life in a post-work world. In Israel, a significant percentage of ultra-orthodox Jewish men never work. They spend their entire lives studying holy scriptures and performing religion rituals.

This is really interesting and I had no idea this was a thing, so cool!

…But at the same time it’s worth noting that for something like the UBI to work (and we have no real specifics here) it takes an extremely religious community that puts most of its labor on their women.

And, come to think of it, that sounds like a pretty bad idea.

Not only is it a bad idea (that is likely based on patriarchal norms and sexism) but it’s an impractical one in a place like the US which is substantially more casual about its religious practices than it used to be. Heck, many countries and places around the world are casual about their religion compared to folks in Israel.

They and their families don’t starve to death partly because the wives often work, and partly because the government provides them with generous subsidies. Though they usually live in poverty, government support means that they never lack for the basic necessities of life.

I am curious how the stipends work and the history of all of this, so I might want to comment on this at some later point.

Though it strikes me that even with their wives taking the brunt of it and the men getting stipends from the government that they can still only live in poverty. Not that I think success is (or should be) measure in wealth, but I think it’s telling since most folks don’t share my value judgement on that.

So at the very least this would (again) be a difficult system to try to convince folks in the US (for example) of.

That’s universal basic income in action.

Gosh, is it? I hope not.

Though they are poor and never work, in survey after survey these ultra-orthodox Jewish men report higher levels of life-satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society. In global surveys of life satisfaction, Israel is almost always at the very top, thanks in part to the contribution of these unemployed deep players.

Now this I don’t find too much trouble believing. If you don’t have to work and can pursue something you’re very passionate about then why wouldn’t you be happy.

Say…just hypothetically…I wonder how the wives feel?

You don’t need to go all the way to Israel to see the world of post-work.

If you have at home a teenage son who likes computer games, you can conduct your own experiment. Provide him with a minimum subsidy of Coke and pizza, and then remove all demands for work and all parental supervision. The likely outcome is that he will remain in his room for days, glued to the screen. He won’t do any homework or housework, will skip school, skip meals and even skip showers and sleep. Yet he is unlikely to suffer from boredom or a sense of purposelessness. At least not in the short term.

This is incredibly inaccurate. This is like the depiction of gamers that South Park did in Make Love Not Warcraft (an excellent episode by the way) and that was a joke. I suspect Harari doesn’t know much about gamers because (for one thing) you typically need money to keep the good video games coming.

And eventually, people (yes even teenage boys) lose their excitement about doing the same thing. Maybe it would take a week or so, but video games (just like reality) can lose their appeal. And humanity craves diversity, whether that’s in food or the experiences we take in during a given day.

Kids in democratic schools where responsibilities are less frequent and there’s less adult supervision tend to play video games a lot and some of them even play it for whole semesters. But eventually they get bored of it and decide to do something else. Or maybe they never get bored of it but start incorporating other things into their routine.

Or maybe they never change their routine at all until they need to.

But overall, I think kids deserve more credit than what Harari is giving them here.

Alright, so what are we left with?

People in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.

But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already.

I guess that’s true.

If, you know, you reconstructed “meaning” to an (ironically) meaningless term.

An article with a lot of potential, but not enough imagination.

How ironic.

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