Work in the future

Work in the FutureIt’s taken me a couple of weeks to post about this book, which was published in mid-March, so that the finished copies arrived on my doorstep (literally on the doorstep, of course, as the postman had to put them down and back away) just after the lockdown had begun.

It’s a book I’ve been working on intermittently for quite a while, and was based on a conference I ran alongside Robert Skidelsky in 2018, about the way work is likely to change in response to automation. It’s a massive topic, and one that there have been no end of books/reports/articles about in the last few years, but this one is slightly different in that it starts by looking at the history of work and the broader sociology of work, not just how tech is changing it.

And now Work in the Future has come out, in a world that’s dramatically different to the one where it went to print. That might be a problem for a lot of books appearing just now, but in fact I think it makes this one even more relevant. The trends talked about by our contributors are going to be altered by this crisis but are more likely to accelerate than disappear.

The book starts with a few chapters about the history of work, because the concept of ‘work’ isn’t as straightforward as it might sound. ‘Work’ often gets equated directly with ‘economic activity’ – i.e. money changing hands – but we all know, and the Covid-19 crisis has emphasised, that work is about more than that. In Work in the Future, Richard Sennett and Richard Donkin discuss the way work has changed from the distant past. Andrea Komlosy (author of Work: The Last 1000 Years) shows how work has changed from being mostly a household-based activity to being outside in factories and offices – something that speaks directly to the Covid-19 crisis, as it’s specifically that location of work in shared spaces like offices and factories that is now causing us problems. Then Pierre-Michel Menger, David Spencer, and I, each talk about how attitudes to work have changed: what do we think of as work? Is work a pleasure or a curse?

Covid-19 is changing our attitudes to work again, quite rapidly, as we re-evaluate whose work is most important in our society – and reassess whether those who do it are paid well enough. A few months ago, ‘key worker’ was civil service jargon for ‘doctors, nurses, teachers’ and you mainly saw it in references to London housing; new-build housing developments were meant to include a few homes offered at slightly lower than market rates to ‘key workers’ so that teachers and nurses could live a bit closer to where they worked. As of March 23rd, everyone knows what a key worker is, and the definition has been broadened to include all kinds of people who were ineligible before, like supermarket delivery drivers, adult carers, postal service workers. None of these people were doing a different job six months ago; it’s only that now the government has been forced to recognise how important they are.

A large chunk of the problems posed by automation arise not because technology ‘makes people redundant’ but because the benefits from automation don’t accrue evenly; because much of the time a few companies and the people who own them benefit from the additional profits created by automation. In Work in the Future, Nick Srnicek (author of Platform Capitalism and Inventing the Future) discusses the particular problems platform technology companies in particular pose to the chances for liveable, sustainable work.

Generally the most commonly proposed solution to massive unemployment caused by automation is to redistribute the profits, perhaps by taxing the ‘winners’ heavily and providing a Universal Basic Income (or in some formulations, Universal Basic Services) to everyone else. In Work in the Future, Rachel Kay (researcher at the High Pay Centre) and Irmgard Nubler of the ILO each discuss some of the policy options for dealing with an unequal economy, while David Graeber (author of Bullshit Jobs and Debt) rails against the whole idea of ‘policy-making’ around work and argues that most jobs don’t fulfill any useful purpose anyway.

It’s perhaps the potential responses to mass unemployment caused by automation that are most relevant now, as we face mass unemployment due to a crisis we didn’t foresee. Universal Basic Income has already been established in Spain in response to the need to keep people at home, while the UK government has opted for the more limited furloughing scheme.

The problem with furloughing is – will companies collapse when it’s eventually withdrawn? Companies that can afford the capital investment required for automation might do so because in the long term that might be cheaper, if workers require more space and more complicated, socially-distanced processes than they used to. A paper I saw shared on LinkedIn by another of WitF’s contributors, Carl Benedikt Frey, suggests that 42% of jobs that are lost during this crisis may never return – which is as bad as some of the most drastic assessments of an automation crisis.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic: it’s possible, in a moment like this, to re-envisage the world in a way that would vastly improve it. It’s true that given the governments that are currently in power (in the UK and the US in particular) I’m a bit sceptical that they’ll take the most visionary or progressive imaginative leaps. It’s still important though, for us to reimagine how technology can help us make more people better off, to make work more meaningful, and if possible to make less of it.


Why I’m never going to write a dystopia (tl;dr: because they don’t exist)

I don’t like the label ‘dystopia’. And there’s a lot of it going around. I can’t decide if people are writing more of them, or if publishers and readers are labelling them that way because it’s an easy tag. Probably it is true that people are writing more fiction that looks critically at different kinds of societies, which is a good thing, I think.  It’s probably also related to the way genres are bleeding into each other, as the boundaries of realism vs. non-realism (let alone SF vs. Literary) break down a bit. This is good. None of those rules should exist for writers, anyway.

It does still annoy me if someone suggests I’ve written one, though. Mainly because I think what we commonly think of as ‘dystopia’ – an awful situation in which terrible, bad things happen basically to everyone – doesn’t really exist. Wikipedia thinks that a dystopia is “a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening”, which is pretty uncontroversial, but what comes to mind is 1984 or The Hunger Games or Never Let Me Go. Total fascism; children forced to kill each other for fun; clones harvested for organs. Not to mention how often ‘dystopian’ is used to mean ‘post-apocalyptic’.

My problem with the idea of dystopia is that every dystopia depends on whose perspective you see it from. And once you agree with that, you have to admit that there is no society which is not ‘in some important way undesirable or frightening’, to someone. For that reason, the only difference between a dystopia and every other book is that a dystopian story is actually looking for those cracks. In fact if you decide to write a book about society or that contains any political perspective, it is inevitably going to address the problems. This is because the problems are where the drama comes from.

If you turn that on its head, it’s worth remembering that every dystopia serves someone. It has to, otherwise it’s just a random, meaningless vision of hell that has no bearing on the real world at all. In the real world, horrific unjust situations continue because they suit someone. They serve someone’s purpose – generally someone with more power than the person being hurt. But it’s vital to remember that from those comfortable people’s perspective, life is good. The world is fine. Yes, something bad might be going on somewhere, but if so it’s a necessary evil.

We also call it a dystopia when everyone seems to be happy, but we as readers (sometimes through an outside character) get to see that the people of that society have in the process of gaining contentment lost something important and human. The obvious example is Brave New World, but another great one is the short story The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi. The people in that world have gained a great deal but, from our perspective, become monsters. The best thing about the story is that they’re happy. It’s a horror story to us, but it’s just life to them. This is always how science fiction should be, because people are judged by the standards of their time.

You can write dystopic fiction either from the point of view of the people who are being damaged by that society, or alternatively from the perspective of the lucky ones. If you write it from the perspective of the lucky ones, then you’re obliged to show the cracks in the facade, the dark recesses under the riches or the contentment. Even if you only hint at them very vaguely, your smart readers  will be looking for the catch. Of course they are. Fiction needs drama, and what’s the point of writing about a fictional society if you don’t show up its contradictions and inconsistencies and injustice?

The reason I don’t like the word ‘dystopia’ is that I worry that if we can call anything futuristic that points out the cracks in a society a ‘dystopia’, then we’re missing the point. We live in a dystopia.

In fact, if you apply Wikipedia’s definition of ‘dystopia’ to fiction that isn’t commonly bracketed as SF, you notice that anything with political concerns, or concerns about societies, is eligible for the label. What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. Five-Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. Most of Dickens. In the end, ‘dystopia’ is only the label we use for any non-contemporary-realist fiction that addresses political concerns.* It’s a pity. It’s simplifying, it’s narcotising, and it pretends that the world we’re in is not as bad as the worlds we depict. I don’t think anyone should write a dystopia – instead, write a book where enough people are happy or well off for the system to survive. Then go ahead and show all the nastiness under it. And don’t call it a dystopia. Be honest and call it politics. Or call it life.

*I’m leaving utopia for another time.

how to look daft but make people laugh

Back in June Charlie convinced me that I should come and do a set at his brainchild comedy/philosophy night, Stand Up Philosophy. Seeing as I’m neither a philosopher nor a comedian I don’t really know what he was thinking, but I like saying yes to things I’ve never done before (seriously, try me). We agreed that I’d come and do it at a night themed ‘Time and Memory’.

I volunteered for that topic because I’ve just written a novel in which – I naively thought – the main themes were time and, yep, memory. Unsurprisingly, as the day got closer I realised that there was really very little in the book about time itself – or even very much about the technical processes of memory – and I wasn’t exactly qualified to give a talk about the philosophy of it. So I fudged things slightly and talked about the way our memories and the narratives we construct around our lives and our relationships affect us.

At some point I’d still like to write a blog based on some of these thoughts, but in the meantime here’s the video of me giving the only public talk I’ve ever done outside of a drunken bridesmaid speech (complete with question-heckles):