I often read about the potential for advances in technology to “free up” workers, most recently in a Conversation article on how Australia might capture the benefits of artificial intelligence. For proponents of the technology in question, such as the author of the aforementioned article, workers are “freed up” to do more interesting and satisfying work; for its critics, such as some of the commenters, being “freed up” is a cynical euphemism for being unemployed.
What’s most curious from the perspective of this blog is that neither party talks of being freed up to do anything other than work (or look for it). For the proponents of freeing up, workers find new work presumed to make them wealthier and happier than the previous work, while for critics workers end up destitute and miserable due to lack of any work at all. A few arguably even more cynical commentators point to workers being pushed into precarious low-skill and low-paying work like driving for Uber. Few talk about being freed up to raise families, pursue hobbies, improve skills, or even go on holidays.
As I’ve noted before, this is at least in part a product of a system in which citizens are expected to work more or less full time in order to support themselves, and in which doing anything else is implicitly seen as a kind of indulgence only to be undertaken once that work is done. Of course no one refers to raising a family or improving one’s skills as “indulgences”—though they might refer to pursuing hobbies or going on holidays this way—but that only emphasises the weaknesses of the aforementioned notions of being “freed up”.
I suspect that a more useful discussion of the impact of technology on work would include a deeper and more nuanced look at exactly what it might free us up to do, and how this might be achieved. I’m writing more, experimenting with a new business, making a few improvements to my home, getting out in the community more and even taking a few holidays. I can do this thanks to savings, having no dependents, and the good fortune to have a part-time position that pays relatively well. Would other “freed up” workers do such things if they could, or should they take the advice of technology proponents and get back to work?