(A 21st century add-on to Bertrand Russell’s famous essay ‘On Idleness’)
I read Bertrand Russell’s famous philosophical paper “On Idleness” and was taken aback by the man’s prescience and insight. None of which would have come without his impressive clarity of thought. He made a compelling and everlasting case for working less and living life more. The core thesis of the paper being: we need to work less, in order to amplify the subjective “meaning” as well as the objective “quality” of all our lives – without actually being complacent. He argues that work has been historically declared as a virtue mostly by the ruling few, because they seemed to have enjoyed their idleness, gifted to them by their privilege or birthright. Those who didn’t work were vilified and those who worked were hailed as important units of society – just so that the status quo could be maintained to continue the means of production.
Back in the day (and even now to some extent) only few people enjoyed the fruits of the work done by the many – money and hence plenty of time for hobbies. Time to create as well as enjoy music, literature, art; or to document history, to form philosophies, to be able to learn about science and enjoy the luxury of cutting edge technology first hand and so on. See for yourselves – Mozart, Beethoven, Descartes, Montaigne – all enjoyed some sort of privilege that allowed them to be talented and creative maestros in their respective fields (them having lived before or during the first wave of industrialization). After the first wave of industrialization had took hold – we could see plenty of scholars and artists who rose from being sons of the working men to becoming significant intellectuals and underdog artists or virtuosos. Fast forward to today – majority of the world’s top billionaires did not inherit their wealth, but rather created them by capitalising on their newfangled ideas. Although Russell’s initial paragraphs have a Marxist overtone, he doesn’t at all make the case for overthrowing the ruling class and taking charge of the means of production – his take is more empirical than Marx’s purely ideological one.
He argues (in early 20th century) that since the industrial revolution had allowed many to move from farms and live in the cities and work in factories, they may not have had more time to enjoy than the owners of the factories, but nonetheless they still had more time to enjoy life than the farmers and peasants of old or from the countryside. Factory-workers could enjoy some days off their work without having to worry about starving their children relative to the farmers of those days – who had to constantly ponder about the success of their unstable crops for survival. People could buy ready-made products directly from shops and didn’t have to waste time to make them on their own. They could divert the time spent knitting to more productive works like reading books or pursuing hobbies or going to a picnic. Russell argues in this way, how new technology will enable even the common people to better enjoy their lives by giving everyone some free time than their forebears. And this, he argues, was a continuous process which would better itself so long as progress wasn’t to be halted by destructive wars or calamities. He makes a utilitarian case for progress and the benefits technology can provide the human race as a whole.
Today we can realize, with the advent of the information age and possibly the new industrial revolution – the age of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning – that Russel couldn’t have been more correct! The talk of the globe today is about such self-thinking machines taking away jobs and people being unemployed and thus possibly miserable. This mindset, I believe, comes from the same old practice of establishing work (by which I mean mundane drudgery) as a virtue in itself. Much work people do today is those that they do not like. The very reason we make employees compete for “employee of the month” is to try and boost their mindless productivity (banal things like who processed the most accounts and which salesman sold the most number of toilet cleaners and so on). Much of the stress and dissatisfaction with life today comes from the fact that many are not satisfied by their work. They have to work for others, they have to work in times unsuitable for their wishes, they have to disregard the wellbeing of their spouse or children, they have to sacrifice their desire to learn new skills, and if they need to take a time of for their health – the inevitable fear of losing their jobs. Blue, white or red – all ‘collar’ work are done to serve a pre-supposed greater “purpose”. Mindless and uncreative work have become such an integral part of our lives for millennia since the agricultural revolution, that we even have plenty of well known adage such as “Be the first in the field and last to the couch” or “Diligence is the mother of good luck” or “A cat with gloves, catches no mice” and so on.
When the prospects of machines taking over jobs comes up everytime, widespread existential anxieties ensue. People think about their future, or the future of their kids – because that is a basic human common ground that should be guaranteed to everyone in modern civilization. And agreeing with Russell, I do think people should be compensated – just to be idle. I’m vouching for the Universal Basic Income or some kind of social guarantee of survival as ends, whatever the means. Because as efficient and self-learning machines take up much of our mindless jobs – we will probably have more time to enjoy our lives. There might be a concern about complacency, but that can be dispelled by tracing facts from history. More common people today enjoy the luxury of travel, good food, art, music, entertainment, multiple hobbies than ever before. What was something only aristocrats would’ve dreamt of before, is accessible to the common “peasants” of today. And the more prosperous a nation – more idle time their citizens can enjoy. A simple scanning of the facts is enough to support this claim. And the trend is only growing. Rich countries divert their sweatshops to poorer ones because of cheap labor. Citizens in prosperous countries enjoy clothes sewn by Bangladeshi workers and gadgets assembled by an ex-farmer in Shenzhen, China. People in places like Japan, France, Britain and the United States can enjoy more time in their lives because some people are trying to make ends meet in poorer countries.
This is where Russell’s argument in favor of technology is so important and ageless. This wave of industrial revolution that we are facing today, is for the very people living in places like China, India, and Bangladesh – so that they, just like the people that they work for – can enjoy the globalized world in their own time. But of course, if everyone is idle when machines take over everything, who is to pay for the people? That is indeed a black-and-white way to look at things. As much as new technologies will take away traditional jobs, they will be creating more than we can imagine. Much of those jobs will be less mindless and require more of our cognition than physical labor. And in terms of cognition – those requiring more divergent intellect from our part than convergent. In short: we will be paid for being more creative than for being repetitive. We will be paid for our ideas, for our art, for music. We are already seeing some effects – independent “Youtubers”, social media “influencers”, spotify “artists” and so on. These are the initial cohort of people who have already entered the “new market” of self-employment. They are generating revenues in such a way that even indices such as GDP or GNP cannot properly account for. People are establishing startups backed by new and innovative ideas – which require more people for their creativity than for their drudgery – the latter being done entirely by machines. Boring jobs like sweeping toilets, cleaning the subway tracks, building houses or cleaning the dog-poop – all will be taken over by machines – and it is ever more likely now to envision such a future than in Russell’s time. It’s only a matter of time.
And just as Russell argued for safety-nets back in his time, contemporary people have argued for likewise – in the form of Universal Basic Income. We have to acknowledge that not everyone will be divergent enough to be able to feed themselves through creative works, so we need a safety-net. What if prosperous governments (or organizations or conglomerates, whatever be the means) provided free basic annual income to everyone, unconditionally – so that they can get all the basic necessities for basic living? It is shown through many research done by economists and mathematicians, that if people do not have to think about survival every now and then – they tend to be more productive if not creative. Just compare Sweden and Somalia to get a perspective. Some people may become complacent or spend it on drugs or useless things, but most would still choose to work – to add meaning to their lives. And their only purpose for working would be to meet their surplus needs and not basic ones which are already guaranteed. They will thus be able to enjoy more of their time in that regard, spend more time with their children, contribute more to the family or community, can be freer to fight for causes they believe in and be more politically aware and active. Best of all – the more idle people become, basic needs guaranteed, the more they will choose to educate themselves or opt for skills-trainings – enough to improve the quality of their lives and perhaps even thought.
Experiments on UBI are being conducted across various regions in Scandinavia or Canada (and perhaps even India in the near future), and the results are being awaited as I write this essay. So it may be some time before this can be agreed upon by the global community. But this much is sure, if not the UBI, then maybe some other idea for a safety-net, because that will surely come into demand, no matter the size of the opposition. Because history has shown us that weaker ideas have always failed before utilitarian ones, when economics of progress is in the driving seat. If such ideas become successful then perhaps we might as well need to modify proverbs such as “Give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” to “Give a man a fish every year, and he may teach himself to fish, or if not – may give you a beautiful painting for your living room.”
Many people around the world today get angry at Indian or Chinese tourists because of their seemingly bad manners (some may even consider Europeans ill-mannered in some parts of the world – they wipe their bottoms with just paper!), but I wish to not moralize on proper methods of tourism myself. I’m rather delighted with the fact that there are Indian and Chinese people spending their free time and surplus money – touring the world! Because remember, that just about a decade ago, even using the terms “Chinese Tourists” or “Indian Tourists” would have been considered a joke!
And owing Russell a big thanks for his clear vision of human necessities and of the future, I’d like to end with an important saying I heard a random anonymous engineer give out in a random documentary about progress – “Technology is the answer, so what’s the question?”. To that I may as well want to add “Technology and cooperation is the answer, so what’s the question?”