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AI and the Future of Work

Who’s afraid of utopianism?


It is absolutely true, and an entire historical experience confirms it, that what is possible could never have been achieved unless people had tried again and again to achieve the impossible in this world’

— Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1919.



The vision of a post-work society


Will Generative AI replace my job? Perhaps you’ve been asking yourself this question. Even if you haven’t, it’s nigh on impossible nowadays to browse the news without encountering sensationalist warnings about a workless future, ‘courtesy’ of AI.


Against such warnings, others (including Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Aaron Bastani, and myself) argue that work—at least in its current state—is not worth saving from the grips of AI. On the contrary, if AI-driven automation were to increase productivity and shared prosperity, it could usher in a post-work society. A society of this sort would be organised such that work would occupy a peripheral or minimal rather than a central role in human life, offering the time, headspace, and resources needed for engagement in fulfilling activities, which would not be sought for monetary or other instrumental purposes.


Nonetheless, this vision of a post-work society is often dismissed as utopian. Yet, is this characterisation necessarily bad or even accurate?


The meaning of utopia



In 1516, Thomas More coined the term ‘utopia’, which lends itself to two interpretations based on the word’s ancient Greek etymology. The dominant interpretation is that ‘utopia’ derives from ‘ou’ + ‘topos’, meaning ‘no place’. Concurrently, though, ‘utopia’ sounds the same as ‘eu’ + ‘topos’, meaning ‘good place’. For More, this non-existent yet happy place denotes a self-sufficient and egalitarian community of islanders.


This was neither the first nor the last time that such an ideal community was envisaged. Utopian communities, albeit not explicitly named as such, range from Plato’s Republic in ancient times and the medieval Land of Cockaigne to Francis Bacon’s technological utopia in New Atlantis and William Morris’s property-less paradise in News from Nowhere.


Post-WWII, however, the term became associated with the experiences of fascism and communism, gaining highly negative connotations. For thinkers such as Karl Popper, Lionel Trilling, and Isaiah Berlin, utopianism was not innocent wishful thinking but a dangerous enterprise, inevitably leading to illiberalism and totalitarianism.


Today, within and beyond the debate on the future of work, utopia is likewise invoked in a largely pejorative sense. In what follows, I instead set to challenge the perception of utopianism as something necessarily or exclusively negative as well as the characterisation of a post-work society as utopian as such.


The contributions of utopian thinking



Utopianism as an antidote to the imaginary crisis


The accusation of utopianism exerts a chilling effect: it pre-emptively discourages reflection on the viability of the idea or prospect that is labelled ‘utopian’, bringing the exploration of alternatives to a halt. By contrast, in the future of work debate, where Cassandric prophecies abound, a post-work vision expands the range of alternatives.


Such an expansion is urgently needed in light of the current imaginary crisis, that is, the increasingly hampered ability to picture positive, desirable scenarios for societies of the future, owing to a deficit of social imagination. This reduced capacity for imagination is not inconsequential, since the ability to materialise desirable alternatives requires the ability to imagine and articulate them.


Besides, utopian alternatives may complement realistic ones in a mutually supportive division of intellectual labour, whereby comparisons between the two could illuminate what’s lacking or undesirable in the existing state of affairs and, more specifically, in present-day working arrangements.


Utopianism as a response to the monopoly of imagination


Despite the surge in technological imagination and the increased ability of technological products/services to shape the world around us, there has not been comparable space for imagination in terms of users’ interaction with and co-shaping of such products/services.


Contrary to the reproduction of desirable arrangements reflecting the interests of a few technology entrepreneurs, imaginative utopian thinking allows more diverse and counter-hegemonic actors (e.g., social movements) to assume control of the narrative and nurture a kind of oppositional as well as motivational hope.


Under the constant threat of AI replacement, workers are left with no option but to accept worse working conditions. Conversely, sketching alternative ‘futures’ that would be ideal for workers themselves would demonstrate that there’s nothing inevitable about them bearing the brunt of automation, ultimately motivating the pursuit of such alternatives.


More broadly, utopianism counters deterministic narratives of automation by shifting our thinking from what ‘can’ or ‘might’ happen to what ‘ought to’ happen.


Utopianism as a complement to incremental thinking


Instead of utopianism, Popper suggests a more modest, rational project of ‘piecemeal engineering’, implying step-by-step goals that eliminate ‘concrete miseries’. Accordingly, with so many issues affecting work and workers in the here and now, it would arguably be preferable to concentrate on short-term, feasible suggestions rather than lofty ideals.


However, society will likely always be afflicted by short-term ‘miseries’ requiring immediate resolution; an exclusive focus on these would thus preclude us from making progress towards a greater good.


As John Rawls argues, ‘until the ideal is identified, at least in outline…nonideal theory lacks an objective, an aim, by reference to which its queries can be answered.’ Utopian visions for the future of work may indeed serve as abstract ideals providing direction while being complemented by concrete, short-term goals.


Oscillating between ideal and non-ideal thinking, we could thereby refine both the vision and the means of achieving it along the way.


Utopianism as a challenge to the limits of realism


Ultimately, labelling the post-work vision as ‘utopian’ is itself questionable. Aside from constraints imposed by the laws of physics, for example, the contours of what is feasible or alterable in a society are not a given but are themselves a matter of debate. What is perceived as necessary or inevitable may equally be contingent or reflect political, social, and cultural conventions. As Gerry Simpson observes, ‘[t]he description of things as they are is merely the adoption of some other’s act of imagination as one’s own.


For instance, why is the post-work vision utopian if that which it requires is a reorganisation of society? Is it not possible that visions considered utopian by one generation will be proven realistic by its successors, or the reverse? Could accepting the inevitability of certain (technological) developments reflect complacency or fatalism? Or might it even conceal a vested interest in the status quo and established hierarchies?


Although such questions do not permit easy answers, they are necessary for identifying what characteristics of the post-work vision render it utopian rather than merely inconvenient or disruptive to existing power structures.


Conclusion



Far from being a neutral description, the accusation of utopianism stifles much-needed enquiries into that which is possible and that which is fixed; it should therefore be challenged and reappropriated.


Particularly in relation to the future of work, the articulation of an alternative, post-work vision is a form of resistance to the existing and projected state of affairs. It illustrates that there is a compelling case to be made for a desirable scenario, irrespective of whether this is ‘utopian’ for those vested in business-as-usual, paving the way for normative rather than deterministic futures of work.


Utopianism urges workers and citizens to become co-producers of the narratives around the future of work, not passive recipients of others’ acts of imagination. As such, it may foster workers’ agency and collective action around shared visions.


Overall, faced with dystopian scenarios suggesting that there are no alternatives other than the deterioration of working and living conditions due to AI, utopianism grants us the theoretical scaffolding to counter-argue that things could, in fact, be otherwise.


Interested in learning more? This blogpost is based on my paper Towards a Post-Work ‘Utopia’: a Political and Legal Exercise in Imagination


About the Author

Anastasia Siapka is an FWO PhD Fellow at KU Leuven’s Centre for IT & IP Law (CiTiP). Her doctoral research evaluates the AI-driven automation of work from a neo-Aristotelian perspective. She was previously a research associate at CiTiP, carrying out ethical and legal research on emerging technologies, as well as a visiting researcher at King’s College London and the University of Edinburgh.


This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.

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