We could all be on vacation right now

Jan Ketil Arnulf

Automation is gathering momentum. Does that mean we can work less now? The answer is no. Fortunately, writes Jan Ketil Arnulf.

From a technological point of view, we could all be free from work now.

A brief calculation example shows how: In 1808, Norway had 906,000 inhabitants, mostly fishermen, farmers and sailors. Today, the Norwegian fishing fleet is made up of six thousand fleets but technically the three hundred most advanced vessels could carry out the combined work. Approximately 3,000 fishermen could do the job.  Little more than one percent of the Norwegian labour force work in agriculture, but ruthless efficiency could probably reduce this to just three thousand jobs, too.

Thus, six thousand people – as many as starved to death in 1808 – could feed the rest of us. Most of the remaining population wouldn’t have to work - but only if we found it acceptable for them to live as they would have done in 1808.

Can we work less now? No

Technological innovations always raise the question: Can we work less now? The answer has always been no. This is fortunate, because less work has always resulted in increased poverty rather than leisure. This is unfortunate, because life has often been worse when technology has taken over jobs.

This can be illustrated through two technological breakthroughs: porridge and email.

About ten thousand years ago, people began to cultivate food rather than chase it on foot. Seasonal seeds, fruit and migratory birds could be replaced by a leisurely life in front of the granary. But things didn’t exactly turn out that way.

Instead, the population exploded because of the increased availability of food. The gain was literally eaten up. Famine was common – in medieval Europe it happened around every 10 years – but escape had become almost impossible. On top of this, the surplus would go to the managers – rulers, soldiers, priests and tax collectors.

Hunters and gatherers worked 35 hours per week with varied tasks and a complex diet. Farmers, however, had monotonous and difficult working lives for ten thousand years, working 40 to 80 hours per week, making a meagre wage and living on rice porridge with an aching back.

The invention of porridge was a disappointment.

Work everywhere, all the time

Rescue came in the form of heavy and even more monotonous industrial work. Despite warnings from Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, people fled from farming life worldwide to join the cities. In many countries, such as China, they’re continuing to do so. In developed countries, jobs in agriculture make up, at most, 1.2% of the population, even with subsidies.

Neither agriculture, IT or other inventions have given back saved time to the user. E-mail and mobile phones gave a temporary lead as long as others had to write letters and go to the telephone booth. Now people work everywhere, all the time.

Even professors aren’t protected

Technology has never looked better than now. Unmanned vehicles are a reality. Plane crashes during the last two years have proven that it’s the pilots who cause the problems. Drone technology is cheaper and safer.

Amazon and Alibaba have taken over the retail sector. Airbnb and Uber are about to do the same for the tourism industry. Digital algorithms write today’s articles and books (for example news about earthquakes and medical issues), trading stocks and managing marketing. These algorithms would be better at hiring employees than regular managers, too. Health robotics is going to take over nursing homes and elderly care because they do not forget medicines and the equipment is easier to keep sterile.

Even professors aren’t protected. Last year we published new research where we used digital algorithms to distinguish philosophy from empiricism. This is just as complicated as it sounds, and it took a machine to do it.

Local conflict causes global hunger

Had man been able to cultivate the Garden of Eden, we would have done it a long time ago. The problem isn’t technological but political and cultural: It’s about distribution. The famines of the past centuries haven’t been caused by a global lack of food. They have been caused by a lack of access to the food that already exists.

Global hunger is the result of small, local conflicts. The farmers drove out the hunters and gatherers. In modern society, this is called “indigenous issues”. Industry outcompeted the farmers, but there was friction between the worker's movement and the farmers for a long time. While Norway subsidized the shipping industry and power industry to preserve sailors and industrial jobs, skipper houses in the south were filled up with real estate agents and stock brokers.

The conflicts are global: rich countries fight to keep their knowledge industries competitive because only then can increase in income come with a degree of leisure. Countries that can afford to work less push the burden onto those who must work more.

Slavery at a higher level

The ongoing flight from low to high productivity provides the world with a record number of university students. We take more and more higher education, hoping to outrace technology and get one of the last jobs where ‘leisure’ does not mean ‘unemployment’.

Presumably, much of this race is already a concealed welfare measure. It’s not technically, but politically impossible to manage a society where only a handful are economically active. As long as the world does not agree on who should work, who should own, and who should receive, we must invent new jobs as soon as the old ones have gone.

Agriculture freed legs from running after food. The steam engine freed hands from holding the hammer. IT is about to free the mind. Can we use this to create more leisure time, or will it become slavery at a higher level?

This article is published as commentary on NRK Freedom 16th April 2015 (Norwegian).

Published 21. April 2015

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