Bertrand Russell’s seminal essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’ is more relevant now than ever — especially for us innovators.
In Praise of Idleness is a classic essay made all the more relevant by the rise of automation and technological unemployment.
You can read it for free right here (approx 25–30 min read time) and it’s absolutely worth the half hour or more it might take you to get through it.
Although first published in 1932 the message has proved evergreen (“universally or continually relevant”) due to the the jobs we are — or are very nearly — automating away, which in this developer’s humble opinion we absolutely should: why force humans to complete tasks that a machine can do more effectively?
The issue of automation and technological unemployment is admittedly a contentious one but when (brace yourself, incoming name drop!) Andrew McAfee thinks there is cause for concern I would rate his opinion as a damn site more reliable than that of the Steve Mnuchin’s (Trump’s treasurer who has now completely back-pedalled on his previous dismissal of automation as “…something not even on our radars”).
What’s more, Andrew is not alone in holding that opinion: Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have all weighed in on the issue of technological unemployment as a result of automation.
But I would argue that the problem is not with automation per se but rather with our attitude towards work, an attitude Russell was right to cast doubt on when he wrote this essay partly in response to the industrial revolution and the fears around how and in what ways the conveyor belt would impact business and factory-line workers (so, traditionally vulnerable and low income families).
This problematic attitude is essentially that we think of work as “good” and as a moral goal worth pursuing, which is perhaps best captured by now infamous pin analogy contained in the below excerpt from In Praise Of Idleness:
Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?
This is perhaps why some people find the idea of Universal Basic Income (or UBI) so offensive: it goes against our moral notions of work and especially the idea that people “shouldn’t expect something for nothing”, or that “dole bludgers” (an Australian slang term for someone receiving social welfare) are somehow a threat to the very fabric that holds society together.
But what does this have to do with the gifted and intelligent well-paid-tech-product-MBA-system-crushing-innovators of the world?
Well… quite a lot, really.
We also have a moral and societal responsibility to enact positive, healthy change and especially in those areas in which we are innovating.
We not only have a responsibility to write ethical (and readable) code; to raise objections if/when our company/superiors ask us to build things which we believe will be used to harm or mislead others; and to hold ourselves, our products, and our businesses accountable for the ways in which they can be used and abused (see: Cambridge Analytica); we also have a moral and societal responsibility to enact positive, healthy change and especially in those areas in which we are innovating.
If we are the innovators driving technological change and helping to automate away certain jobs it’s entirely unacceptable for us to then turn around and say to these now jobless workers that were stacking shelves, driving trucks, or even building homes, that they are lazy and should get a job, indeed that they ought to be working.
See what I did there? Normative statements are just one way we express value judgements. We cannot celebrate innovation that disrupts and automates work without fundamentally reassessing what good may come of it.
In a functioning and fit society technology would be a means of reducing the amount of time any and all people have to work without reducing their quality of life and income. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having more free time: time to spend with family, or guerilla gardening, or peacefully protesting, or writing quasi-philosophical-articles on medium, or, or, or…
And besides, is not laziness a governing principle of every good programmer?
If you’d like to read more about the morality of work (or New Work Philosophy) or if you like the following quote from Aristotle: “We work to have leisure, on which happiness depends”, here’s a LinkedIn post from yours truly that dives a little deeper.