Provocation # 27 The leisure promise of technology. – what happened?
The promise of technology was often told as relieving humanity of boring, degrading or exhsusting tasks.
But the result, the relief of humans from drudgery, has not been realized in leisure but in unemployment for the many and a kind of weird leisure for the 1%
The robots, invented to free humans, instead unemployed them. Employees were replaced by robots owned by those who before hired those now unemployed.
The shift from slavery to wages was beneficial to owners because the workers did not need to be supported when they got old or sick, and they went home at night.
The shift from wages to robots takes us back to ownership with all benefits going to the owners of the new automations. Uber now pays the driver 80% but with self driving ubers…
We have come a long way, from the ox and the horse, the axe and the saw and the knife, the potters wheel and the loom, to steam engines, electricity. The story is well known.
Over and over the benefits of the new were moved upwards, not outwards.
Economists went along not “noticing” that the broad benefits to humanity (hidden by “per capita GDP”) were not being realized. Unemployment is not leisure.
Standard definition of leisure is time away from work including school. But the word school comes from the Greek skole which was the Greek word for leisure: time for the education through conversation and public assembly required to be knowledgeable, to be a citizen which required leisure for thinking, contemplation and philosophy. Leisure for the Greeks was time for the active pursuit of wisdom and self development.
Today leisure is perverted. “Leisure studies” (wiki) says that the categories of leisure currently studied are those such as sports and entertainment that are matched to consumer products. Thinking about the meaning of life, the quality of the city, the fate of relationships, is gone from the modern leisure agenda. Even the making of art is absent. We are reduced to the convertible parked next to the blond at the country club.
The provocation is, what is the role of new economic thinking in understanding how to get back to the promise of technology in a more equal world with climate treated as parks and gardens rather than as septic tanks for pollution?
Veblen gave leisure a bad name. A class of afternoon cocktail drinkers..
(For a full history see Sebastian DeGrazia, Of Time, Work, and Leisure, 1962)
There used to be a field called socio-technical analysis. (Disclosure: i was in the mainstream of its development, coming mostly from Norway and England )The idea was that each new technology required a new social system to manage and benefit from it. The technical and the social had to be co-invented.
Reconciling technical innovation with democracy, or at least social sustainability, is an undeveloped task. Technology now is mostly a technique of wealth extraction from a gullible society.
Techne, the greek for craft, and logos, knowledge of craft, is worth some thinking. Very different from looking at an economy as simply a machine to produce GDP.
Technology and society. Can material progress be aligned with other values we hold dear?