It’s the same old song and dance. We go to work and gaze at a screen. We come home at night and it glares back at us. It’s mechanical. It’s routine.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist Viktor Frankl explains that unemployed workers can suffer from a ‘provisional existence’. With no goals for which to direct their energy, they fail to look ahead to the future — and a deep void sets within.
Fast forward some years, and our fundamental needs could very well be taken care of by the State. Canada, America, England, Kenya, Finland, and other countries have all experimented with forms of basic income — and with promising results. A guaranteed amount of money for which to live decently, by and large, would mean little need for work. The question lurks then, how would you spend your time? And more to the point, would you too suffer from a provisional existence?
Leading thinkers of the post work movement are already planning for this possible future. And Toronto based artist, Robert Bolton takes the reasoning to the extreme in his fictional work; the proliferation of artificial intelligence finally leads to designing, “A scheme for a fair and universal basic income to be paid out via blockchain technologies.” Countless years of full-time labor finally come to an end. This hyper-abundant society finds a new ideology; luxury communism.
In this future, we are not characterized by what we do because work no longer holds the same gravitas as today. Indubitably, we continue to gawk at screens, choosing to escape into virtual worlds. We laze about in soulless, smokey, neon-heavy halls — and waste away our days in The Lonely Arcade.
We will grapple to find dignity in lives free of work. With an abundance of resources and time for leisure, we won’t really know what to do with ourselves. Bolton’s speculative fantasy is part entertainment but also highlights how the human condition is so indispensably tied to the self-worth that work yields. The Lonely Arcade is a provocation for us to have a critical dialogue about this plausible future.
In a workless world we spiral into a universal existential vacuum:
And we drudged through the mud
from the garden to be
in this lonely arcade
with its holy machines
that we made to reduce
what we do to produce
what we need to be made
to be useless and free.
Bolton’s vision of the Great Displacement, “Begins with repetitive task-oriented manual work and desk jobs; it spreads to pilots, professional drivers, lawyers, and teachers; eventually the roles of doctors and dentists, sales-people, make-up artists, plumbers, designers, and engineers are all supplanted by technology.” Given recent predictions by Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, this doesn’t seem all that implausible.
As future lonely arcaders, we face the predicament of finding meaning when society no longer values our contribution. We struggle are paralyzed pondering how to fill our days. Without anything to contribute of value, we fall victim to what Frankl surmised:
Progressive automation will probably lead to an increase in the average hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of them will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.
We’re all aware that routinized jobs can, and will, be performed by robots. For now, it’s a way for many to continue paying the bills. But the sacrifice these workers make beyond questionable labor is often suffering from a dysfunctional and toxic environment every day. The Lonely Arcade, a plot accelerated by the very technology displacing them, could just be that welcomed relief.
It’s also possible that people find meaning regardless of the outward utility of their pursuits. Since work wouldn’t hold the same social currency or cultural importance as today, intrinsic motivations and labors of love might become the benchmark of a life worth living.
A fulfilling life without work (as we know it today) could be realized through emotional labor and charity work that is so undervalued today. Volunteering, raising families, taking care of the elderly, or making art could be how many choose to direct their energy.
On the flipside, gaming or Netflixing for days on end, staring at goats, or simply doing nothing at all could be preferred choice. For these folks, life could in effect resemble a ceaseless Seinfeld episode.
To keep The Lonely Arcade running smoothly, a leisure decree is enforced by intelligent computers. “The only currency of any consequence is reputation, and much time and energy is spent trying to build celebrity status and increase followings,” says Bolton. This isn’t a far cry from today with social media addiction and clout-climbing tactics to garner influence. A quick glance at an Instagram life coach’s feed, and it would appear that a type of leisure decree has already been enforced.
Anthropologist David Graeber highlights how many people might already be working the 15-hour work predicted by the economist John Maynard Keynes. So how is the rest of their time spent?
Organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.
Graeber believes that many so-called ‘occupations’ today are really just bullshit jobs in disguise. If so, and if the trend continues to amplify our narcissistic impulses — we might find ourselves in a self-perpetuating attention-grabbing loop, with the only capital of any consequence that of notoriety. What we choose to project only continues to depart from reality.
Indeed two generations have already grown up with a worldview embodied by the internet with all its promise and perils. Millennials now face the bleakest financial future of any generation in over a century. And it’s part and parcel of the reason many talented young workers are retiring in real-time. Wanderlust and work are now natural bedfellows.
With the notion of stability a mere fable from generations gone, a leisure decree of sorts, becomes alluring. Finding purpose in the most expansive meaning of ‘work’ — that beyond a wage — could emerge as the norm.
A new workforce is hip to the fact that if a company’s values are not aligned with their own, there is little chance they will thrive in the long haul. This is precisely why two out of every three millennials expect to leave their company in the next 18 months. There are really just two courses of action: find another place to work that ‘get it’ or strike out on their own.
We need to move beyond the story of the American dream which puts the individual front and center stage. A more progressive ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude is the only thinking that is going to help design the systems we need to flourish in the future. “It’s our “unbroken human spirit” that will get us there proclaims techno-optimist Tim O’Reilly.
The Lonely Arcade may remain fiction — a story of an unrealized tomorrow. Yet it’s a cautionary tale; if we don’t change our direction, a bleak future lies ahead. What we urgently need now is for more of us to get creative, solve problems worth solving, and follow our nose. ∆
Listen to Bolton’s abundant, AI-and-robotics-enabled, post-work, leisure society— The Lonely Arcade
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