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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Thursday, April 14, 2022

AI won’t steal your job, just make it meaningless

John Danaher
Originally published 18 MAR 22

New technologies are often said to be in danger of making humans redundant, replacing them with robots and AI, and making work disappear altogether. A crisis of identity and purpose might result from that, but Silicon Valley tycoons assure us that a universal basic income could at least take care of people’s material needs, leaving them with plenty of leisure time in which to forge new identities and find new sources of purpose.

This, however, paints an overly simplistic picture. What seems more likely to happen is that new technologies will not make humans redundant at a mass scale, but will change the nature of work, making it worse for many, and sapping the elements that give it some meaning and purpose. It’s the worst of both worlds: we’ll continue working, but our jobs will become increasingly meaningless. 

History has some lessons to teach us here. Technology has had a profound effect on work in the past, not just on the ways in which we carry out our day-to-day labour, but also on how we understand its value. Consider the humble plough. In its most basic form, it is a hand-operated tool, consisting of little more than a pointed stick that scratches a furrow through the soil. This helps a farmer to sow seeds but does little else. Starting in the middle ages, however, more complex, ‘heavy’ ploughs began to be used by farmers in Northern Europe. These heavy ploughs rotated and turned the earth, bringing nutrient rich soils to the surface, and radically altering the productivity of farming. Farming ceased being solely about subsistence. It started to be about generating wealth.

The argument about how the heavy plough transformed the nature of work was advanced by historian Lynn White Jr in his classic study Medieval Technology and Social Change. Writing in the idiom of the early 1960s, he argued that “No more fundamental change in the idea of man’s relation to the soil can be imagined: once man had been part of nature; now he became her exploiter.”

It is easy to trace a line – albeit one that takes a detour through Renaissance mercantilism and the Industrial revolution – from the development of the heavy plough to our modern conception of work. Although work is still an economic necessity for many people, it is not just that. It is something more. We don’t just do it to survive; we do it to thrive. Through our work we can buy into a certain lifestyle and affirm a certain identity. We can develop mastery and cultivate self-esteem; we make a contribution to our societies and a name for ourselves.