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Can we follow our passions a living?

Daniel Susskind spends a few pages of A World Without Work examining and rejecting the idea that people, freed from the kind of drudgery that we now think of as “work”, could support themselves through craft industries of the kind that fill tourist towns and news articles about people following their passions. His argument uses an analogy that I don’t understand very well, but I think the basic point is that people just don’t buy enough craft to keep everyone in work. While a small number of artists, musicians, actors, and so on, are able to make a living now, the great majority don’t, and there’s no reason to think this will change.

This rings true to me: even though I appreciate arts and crafts, and I can afford them, I don’t spend all that much money on arts and crafts compared to what I spend on more utilitarian things. And what would I do with the scores of scented candles, bars of soap, household decorations and other cutesy knickknacks I’d accumulate if I bought them at the rate I buy transport and groceries?

Another line of attack is to consider that such a world supposes people will pay for the pleasure of owning something fashioned by hand even though we already know that the same thing can be produced more cheaply by a machine. Yet we’ve come to the economy we have today precisely because people mostly buy the stuff produced by machines rather than the stuff produced by hand. Imagining that we go back to doing it by hand sounds not a little like Luddism and/or a make-work scheme.

In an entry of my old blog, I winced on behalf of actors who (according to an article in IEEE Spectrum) faced replacement by computer-generated avatars. In this, I saw computers replacing something that human enjoy doing and take pride in, rather than the drudgery that mechanisation was supposed to free us from. What would be the point of “freeing” actors from the need to appear on set if the alternative was forty hours a week of boring but (supposedly) necessary work?

Yet most or all of the arts and crafts enthusiasts that I know (including me, when it comes to things like cooking and brewing) don’t want to make a job out of it. I enjoy cooking, brewing, and writing largely for the pleasure they bring me in and of themselves, and having to do them make a living would likely give them the same air of drudgery that goes with computer programming or advising students five days week—remembering that I also enjoy computer programming and helping students.

The last realisation is probably the one that most influenced my decision to work part-time rather than, say, open a microbrewery in a cute country town: I wasn’t going to escape nine-to-five drudgery by following my passions because computer programming was my passion. And for those who are opening microbreweries, there’s only so much beer I can drink.

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