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Review: New Work, New Culture

I came across the work of Fritjhof Bergman in a philosophy podcast several years ago, but only recently got around to reading his book-length treatment New Work, New Culture (2019). Bergman supposes that automation will advance (if it hasn’t already) to a point that individuals or small communities can produce everything they need from “personal fabricators”, potentially eliminating the need for both large corporate manufacturers and welfare payments. “New Work” then has people doing the work that they “really, really want”.

Compared to basic incomes, job guarantees, and other schemes I’ve most often read about over the course of this blog, I imagine Bergman’s vision of “high-tech self-providing” to have greater appeal to “rugged individualists” who see themselves as masters of their own destinies, reliant only upon their own efforts. Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia noted that the question remains as to where the fabricators come from in the first place—in reality they were developed and built by large manufacturers operating within large economies—but the point here is the day-to-day sense of providing for oneself.

The other interesting point of New Work is that it tries to address the problem of what people would do with their time once freed from the “job system”. Bergman often works with people who (in his description) don’t know what to do with themselves after being made unemployed. He calls this the “poverty of desire” and devotes a whole chapter to finding out what people really, really want to do, so that they can use their fabricators to go do it.

Bergman seems to think that high-tech self-providing will come about more or less by itself, as fabricating goods at home or in small workshops becomes more efficient than fabricating them in giant factories. I gather that New Work has been operating since the early 1980’s, however, and society remains very much wrapped up in the job system and goods are overwhelmingly produced in large factories. The book is visionary and notably absent of concrete outcomes for a project underway for nearly forty years.

In my own world of software development, a kind of “high-tech self-providing” has existed for about the same amount of time, in the form of open source software. According to the Free Software Foundation and the like, I have the freedom to provide and modify existing software so that it exactly meets my needs—but I don’t, because I don’t have time and energy to trawl through the settings of every piece of software that I use, let alone modify its code so that it’ll perform exactly as I want it to.

Still, computer systems can function entirely on open source software, if the operators of those systems are satisfied enough with what the open source community has produced and might be willing to make a contribution here and there. Fabricators aren’t there yet, and differences in the economics of software as compared to physical goods mean that they may never be. But for rugged individualists who prefer a high-tech utopia to a cabin in the woods, New Work might be worth a look.

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