In my favorite TV show, in the series of Star Trek, the people have already dealt with poverty, they lived in sufficiency, they were able to cover everyone’s needs, they didn’t have to work, but they still worked – not for profit or to get money to fulfill their needs, but...
... they did the work which they loved, which they considered to be their purpose and they did the work where they wanted to contribute to better humankind with their natural talents. It was the 23rd and 24th century there. The people were lead to be enlightened individuals with high standard manners and to spend their lives wisely.
Note: This article is quiet longer and I divided it into smaller parts, so you can read some of them, or continue with the whole text here.
However, there is one big problem with the idea of Star Trek society. They never convincingly explained how it all could work economically. They often said that they do not use money anymore and they had machines called replicators which were something like 3D-print and it could create almost everything or every food they wanted on the molecular basis. Even if they had some miraculous and inexhaustible source of energy, there were still many occasions where the scarcity could occur. And the best example might be the condos or residences with amazing views or large properties or maybe even food or drinks which were not synthetic and so on.
I do not want to give up the idea of post-work society. However, I am very sceptical about the idea of post-scarcity or post-capitalistic society which is sometimes proposed not only by sci-fi literature, but also by some futurists or social and political thinkers. In my opinion there still will be goods which will not be free like air or water in nature are. And it seems that it is not the lack of my economic knowledge or of not being able to predict the future, but it seems that it is more about logic or physics. The post-scarcity doesn’t seem to be real if we would still be individuals with our biological or even mechanical bodies.
This all brings me to a question how our society could work if we did not have to work. Many of us would probably still work but not for money but because of the joy of their work and because they would want to contribute with their talent and time to the good of all humankind. But would it not lead to totally decadent lifestyles, wasted days in virtual reality and so on? For some people probably yes.
But I would not agree with those who think that about most people. They would be trying to demonstrate this opinion on how people spend their free time today, how students or some unemployed people live. There is a huge difference because these people today use the great opportunity of many ways of procrastination to escape from reality. They come exhausted from their jobs or they are afraid that they will have to find some job immediately so they want to enjoy at least the rest of their free time by doing nothing as their obligation.
Is our generation richer even than the kings of the past were?
It might be true that today people are better off than the kings and privileged ever were in the past. However, there is a little bit difference where they still are not. It is their time, their work and their freedom. Sure, they are free and they can do almost everything that the laws or their personal ethics do not forbid them. But first they have to have money to do that. And most people were not born into a family with huge property and almost endless opportunities.
Most people have to exchange their time, their talent, their energy and their effort for money, so that they could afford to have food, shelter, clothes and some useful stuff and experiences. They cannot do what they really want unless they earn enough money for it. And most people still cannot earn enough money to fulfill their real needs, the needs which could be fulfilled if they had millions or billions of dollars and would not have to care how much their needs cost.
And the necessity to work and not to be able to have servants for everyday routine tasks are, in my view, the main difference between today masses and yesterday privileged. It is of course changing. Many things are automatic today and more people can afford to pay someone to do things for them. However, in most cases they still have to work, and mostly more than forty hours a week.
As you will see below, I am a big supporter of the good things of our today’s system but I am also a big critic of the wrong things. Even as a centre-right classical liberal, moderate conservative and christian democrat I am still in the first place a universal humanist. And I understand the critics of what left-wing oriented intellectuals call neoliberalism.
If you imagiine behind this concept the consumerism, hurry, materialism, superficiality, commercialism, false not-added values, stress, artificiality, lack of real education, minimum time for family, for exploring, for arts, culture, humanity or spirituality, the extreme inequalities which are very often unfair, the false freedom of choice, the problem with orientation on profit and egoism, the emphasis on competition instead of cooperation, then I understand you. Before I will offer my opinions about the future of work and about what it means to be really rich, let me propose some fictional stories where I can demonstrate the problems better.
Four stories, one person, two centuries, two different lifestyle choices
Is it possible to live a fulfilled live even in our times? And is it otherwise possible to waste it in a post-work society? Let me show it on the story of one person. Let’s call him Lukas. He will be in four situations, will make two decisions and will live in two different centuries. He still will be the same person who will have the opportunity to live in two realities and in each of them he will decide to lead his life in a different way.
1) The beginning of the 21st century and the choice to conform to the system
Lukas is 28 years old and ten years ago he decided that he would not risk, that he would study a requested field diligently, so that he could find a stable and well paid job, have a good wife, have kids with her and be able to pay their mortgage and then enjoy his retirement. And so he went to a high school and then to university, then he got a good internship and his first paid job. As a relief from his studying and working he uses entertainment, mostly the passive one, such as watching serials, movies, funny and another type of videos, chatting on social media, playing computer games etc.
It is six o’clock in the morning and Lukas’s alarm clock is ringing and it tells him that his work starts in two hours. He is upset; he doesn’t want to get up. He understands his work, but if he didn’t have to pay the mortgage for his flat, which he has just bought, he would rather do something else. However, he has a fast breakfast, goes downstairs, so that he has at least some physical exercise, and he enters the public transport bus which is full of anonymous people who rather check their smart phones. And since he doesn’t want to look at them, and since he wants to spend the time somehow, he goes to check a newsfeed and new messages on his Facebook.
He spends the whole day in his job. Although his job is useful for the company, he has doubts about the usefulness of its products for society. Sometimes he wonders if people would ever want them if they weren’t be persuaded by a sophisticated marketing. Moreover his primary reason he goes to this job is not to do some useful work for the humanity, but mostly a way how to earn some money for his survival and his interests.
Sometimes he finishes his work earlier, but since he works in a big open space, where some of his super ordinates still walk behind his back, so in these moments he rather pretends that he is working or he prolongs his work, so that it doesn’t look that he isn’t working. He can visit a toilet whenever he wants and he is glad that he was studying a lot and is not for example an assembly worker who could visit a toilet only in exactly defined intervals. However with lunch it is quite similar, his company has a canteen and it is expected that also with waiting the queues he will be able to eat in half hour, so that he can return back to his work.
After eight and half hours spent in his job and half an hour of commuting there he has also another thirty minutes on the way home which are extended by an additional half an hour spent in the supermarket. At half past five he is finally at home. Tired of his job and of the contact with mostly unknown people, he launches Facebook to be in contact with his real friends, family and his girlfriend. He also switches his new plasma TV on and is preparing dinner.
Accidentally, he has seen some news where some center-right politician was saying that liberal capitalism is at least good in that we all are free and that it would be better if citizens began to care about politics a little bit more. But Lukas was just pissed off it because he absolutely doesn’t know when. He rather starts watching his favorite serial. His job is intellectually difficult and he really has no energy for issues like politics. The evening is closer, Facebook and serials has already tired him, so he at least reads his favorite fantasy book. He is glad that his first working day is behind him and he will now have only four like this, so that he will be able to enjoy the weekend with his girlfriend and also some movies, sport activities or some larger shopping.
He sometimes has dark thoughts which ask him if he really wants to spend another forty years like this until he retires. Sometimes he has doubts about his freedom but he always rationalize it with saying that the people in the past had it harder, that most people in the World are in worse situation as well as most of his former classmates. Emotionally he melts those doubts by some serial, movie or a book. Moreover he is glad that he has finally found his amazing girlfriend, he has quite a good flat and maybe he will have wedding and children in a while. Hopefully, he will have more free time for them later than he has today.
2) The beginning of the 22nd century and drowning in consumerism
Lukas has the same personality and is the same person as our Lukas from the 21st century. He is also 28 years old and he also made a decision. His parents didn’t have a big impact on him at his age of 18 anymore. He didn’t have to look for a job or to study for a living anymore. At this time everybody studies or works only if they want to. However, the achievements of this new century allow not only to have a fulfilling life in a material abundance for everyone, but also to waste it all. And this is Lukas’s story.
Our hero begins to wake up around 2 pm in his bed on the 30th floor of the residential skyscraper where his condo is placed. He has an astonishing view from his flat – other residential skyscrapers and a lot of others in the background of his megacity. Therefore, since he was already bored of the necessity to look for his smart phone everywhere, he has decided to install a minicomputer with the internet connection right into his brain. Now he can launch it with just a thought. Although, he is not such a conservative person as his parents are, fighting against this kind of progress, he says to himself that he is not even so stupid as some of his peers who do not quit their implanted computer even during their sleeps. Anyway, he tried it and the targeted ads in his dreams annoyed him.
And so Lukas checks the newest updates of his fellows on the social media site, his money account status and the courses of the stocks of his companies in which new servants of the human, the hi-tech and very often even humanoid robots work as investors, entrepreneurs and often as universal employees for everything.
Although each citizen receives unconditional basic income because of the market-efficient and socially-fair taxation of gains, and this income is a combination of fixed amount per capita plus another amount which is counted through clever algorithms from all available information which corporations and governments have about everyone, the additional amount can be created just to fulfill everyone’s individual needs.
However, for most people it is still not enough and it would not probably even be sustainable. People have always been used to being motivated by profit and by the aim to have more than others, so even Lukas invests everywhere trough his robots, so that he could one day have his condo in the orbit of Saturn, or to have genetically modified body, or to prolong his life up to 160 years.
Suddenly, it is four o’clock in the afternoon and annoyed Lukas goes to the toilet. Moreover, it has been for a long time one of the things which burdens him most. Even though he has a personal gym in his condo, as most people have, he is no longer interested in it. He just used his thought and his personal android prepared a fresh breakfast from high-quality bakery products and vegetables and brought it to his master right into his bed. The necessity to eat food physically annoys him too but he does not want to become one of the losers who already live only in virtual reality and are getting the essential nutrients through putting them directly into their veins.
Once again he checks the updates of his fellows on the social site. He has breakfast, so he had to refuse an invitation to one game in virtual space. One status of his friend from high school annoyed him. She boasts that she works on a great project which helps people to live their real life. It pisses him off. He himself spends all his days by consuming and he very often feels unfulfilled. However, he is too lazy to live somewhere near nature, to work on his self-development, to educate himself or to think how to improve other peoples’ lives. He would have to force himself too much. Fortunately, he finished his breakfast, so he can close his eyes and fully delve into the virtual reality where with other of his friends he experiences various adventures which are not yet technically possible in his current world.
Sometimes he takes a break to get the annoying food. At eight pm he quits the games and he launches a serial on his huge television which is as big as the wall in his room. He watches seven episodes and then he enjoys a virtual porn. By five am in the morning he feels fatigue. He closes the window by his thought since the bird-singing is depressive to him. He had a dream that he could live a totally different life but he would rather forget it until the new day.
3) The beginning of the 22nd century and the aristocratic life for all
It is half past five in the morning and Lukas happily wakes up next to his pretty girlfriend. She usually sleeps longer than him but this day she wanted him to wake her up at the time when he usually gets up, so that they could enjoy sunrise together. They live in an average nice part of the city which consists of family houses and bungalows covered by trees, pathways and a park with a little lake in the middle. There is an observation tower in it from which it is possible to see the kilometers far skyscrapers in the downtown of their megacity and on the other side to see the skyline of astonishing mountains. Lukas is again 28; he is the same person and has the same opportunities. Ten years ago he just decided to live his life differently than most people and even as his mirror self from the previous story.
He refused consumerism, superficiality and materialism. He wanted to live close to nature and to live much more natural authentic life and also to do some useful work for the humankind. He is aware of all technological achievements of his time but he rather as an old school uses his smart phone and he enters the virtual reality only occasionally. After the sunrise they both went to the gym in their bungalow to work out together. Then everybody did their own work in their own office. Lukas was writing an article for his global blog where he very often writes about politics and social issues and now he was writing something about how people could live in 23rd century.
After about an hour they have breakfast together which was prepared for them in several minutes by their android from some fresh ingredients. They enjoy it on the patio in their beautifully maintained garden right next to their pool. In the forenoon they both devote their time to their work. No one is paying them for it, no one is forcing them to do it, and still they both love to do it every day with enthusiasm. They could waste their days but they believe that they have their mission and purpose, so they organize their days during the week. On Wednesday they have day off and they learn to play the piano, to dance, to ride a horse or they travel or visit their friends.
Lukas is writing an analysis of arguments to current political topics. He is a convinced humanist so he thinks that robots should be used only to fulfill human needs and he is also very sceptical about the possibilities of transformation of humans into several types of cyborgs or other life forms. Once he would maybe want to be a representative of people in the parliament but now he is preparing himself for his lecture at university which he is having at half past one pm right after lunch and after some post-lunch rest with his girlfriend.
Fortunately it is possible only to walk through the park to the main route where he parked his floating mini car which can transport him to his department. He could easily use even some shared car which would be near but he often prefers personal property. After he said the destination to the computer, he can devote himself to read or to look both ways before or below him and enjoy the beauty of the clean city full of greenery.
His lectures are not crowded because most people prefer the boundless consumerism but it does not have to bother him. He is a postgraduate student and he is thankful even for the dozen of students and critical minds which are ready to discuss interesting topics. In his time the universities became true academies which do not serve as a place for bored overgrown teenagers who are trying to get some degrees, not even as a place where people would learn the necessary skills only to compete on the labour market. After an abundant discussion about the importance of old ideologies in the context of new age he is preparing himself for dinner in the historical centre of the city which he arranged together with his girlfriend.
They both are already looking forward to having their first baby in a few months. They are a little bit scared because at their time it is more usual that women let themselves artificially fertilized and very often from the best donors or even from the artificially modified, and they also very often do not want to carry their child even in their bodies, and they prefer its prenatal maturation in specialized institutions, which are by some people pejoratively called laboratories. Our couple decided that they would have it in old way and naturally even though they do not refuse sensible technologies or knowledge and experience of specialized empathetic robotic doctors which can help them with everything.
They left their automatic floating cars in the city centre and they took one of the shared ones and let themselves to be transported to a city lake where they enjoyed the evening walk during the sunset. At home Lukas checked today’s news and talked with some friends on chat. Then he enjoyed his meditation and before he went to bed with his girlfriend, he had been reading for a moment. While falling asleep together they were looking at stars above their heads and were thinking about what beautiful is going to happen to them in the new day and where they will have to overcome themselves to be able to enjoy their authentic, fulfilled and natural life.
4) The beginning of the 21st century and the freedom of enterprise
We are back with Lukas from our century. He decided that he does not want to live either as his version from the first, either from the second story. Otherwise, he realized that the only option how he could live as his version from the third story is that he would stand on his own feet and little by little he would build it through overcoming and through creating a real added value.
Of course, his motivation is also his personal interest and profit. But we would be far from the truth if we thought that this was his only motivation. He could do business in something that would not bring a real added value, which would be only parasitizing on the stupidity of other people through sophisticated commercials. But, he really wants to help the World. He wants it to be much more like the World from the third story. It was not easy. In all stories Lukas was born into a family which was in his country relatively poor. Nevertheless, his family had some values and ambition to bring up good people from their children and also to give them the opportunity to be able to fulfill their dreams.
In the past Lukas changed high school so that he could devote himself to much more general education and to decide what to do with his life later. From similar reason he started studying the field of his heart instead of going to study something that would bring him good and stable wage. During his studies he was just hanging around, he lead consumerist lifestyle, and he had no day order or clear way in his life. But the necessity to begin doing something for his living was approaching fast.
It was not from one day to another but step by step he became successful in building the habits which made a better person from him. He realized that no one will save him and also the technological progress which would allow the post-work society will probably not happen before the end of his studies. And if he wanted to be independent and one day spend his days with only those activities which fulfill him, he must start a business.
And so he arranged meetings with successful entrepreneurs who were his role models, he learnt from them and even during his studies at university he studied everything important for his success in business. He had to overcome himself very often but in several months he began to feed himself and to employ some people.
All about the age of 28 he can almost live similar life as the one in the third story. He gets up early in the morning and before he launches his computer he does some exercise. He has his girlfriend who is also trying to start some interesting projects. He likes to write and after breakfast he starts his work in his company. First at home, then he moves into his office. He works until late afternoon because he starts also another business so that he could sell one of his companies and have the opportunity to buy his own dream house without a mortgage, and also have more time for writing or for continuing his post gradual studies at university. His evenings he usually spends with his girlfriend or friends or he attends some interesting event or discussion. He is now very close to his desired lifestyle.
But, aren’t we only lazy and weak individuals with bad habits?
It would be great to live our dream lives. However it must bring us to a question if we are not only too lazy. It is possible that people who really want to live their ideal life or to do their dream job really can do so already in our time. There are examples of many people who didn’t give up and they instead worked hard to achieve what they wanted. But most people just give in and make up with the false external circumstances and do not live their real life.
Nevertheless, it is still not so easy. Even if I worked hard, surpassed myself, built useful companies so that I could live my life independently on money or time, I would still be unhappy because most people could not do this. The technologies would still not be so developed so that everyone could be financially independent of their work and their time. And of course we would still have a lot to do to improve the lives of those people who still must do the work which they would not do if they were rich, and which I believe one day robots will do.
What does it mean to be really rich?
It brings us to this important question. Someone answers that having a lot of money. Someone else would say to be happy with what you have no matter how much it is. I don’t believe it. I think that being really rich means that you can spend your time in the way you really love, on a place which you really choose, and only with those kinds of people you really like, and still be able to feed yourself and to have your needs sufficiently fulfilled at the same time. Not doing a job which you hate just to have more money for some free time to enjoy. Not doing a job which you love but making a huge compromise with your desired lifestyle. Of course, the second would still be better but we have to find better ways.
I really find it problematic that many people today do not do what they love, they have to spend a lot of hours in their jobs, sometimes even overtime, sometimes they have to take their work home, or have to have more jobs, or cannot have enough time for lunch, or cannot choose the place of their work and so on. They also do not have enough sleep, are much stressed, use synthetic stimulation to be awake and focused, and that all just to be able to feed themselves and their families. I doubt it that they could feel as really free people.
However, they are still much freer than in other political or economic systems. They do not have to be members of the “right” party to keep their jobs or to stay alive. They do not have to do the jobs which government forces them to do. It is only nature, their willpower and their habits which decide. Almost everyone was born with some potential, with some abilities and in our societies we also have an opportunity to develop our skills or knowledge through mostly free education and if not, then on the internet.
Liberal capitalism is individualistic in the way that it can make us free from the government or from other individuals and it can let us live our free lives with the money which we are able to get from our work, our enterprise, our investments or from any other form, and to choose to fulfill the variety of our needs. On the other hand, liberal capitalism is still very collectivistic because it forces us to cooperate and compete with other people, to use our skills, knowledge, time, work and effort to do the activities which fulfill the needs of our whole society.
Will we work in the future?
This is a big question. It is clear that now we still have to work because we do not have such developed machines which would be able to do everything for us. It is also true that most of us can change their jobs and that people who really want to do their dream job which they consider as their purpose probably mostly can. And it is also true that we can do some systematic improvements to make the lives of average workers or entrepreneurs better.
However, I would like to believe that one day all people will be able to live their real free lives as Lukas from the third story could. That we will be very developed society where most individuals will want to live like real aristocracy and they will want to devote their time to some voluntary work which would still be improving the lives of all people. And that they will still have a lot of free time to do what they really want to. I suppose that also our relationships and our laws would be better if people have more time for them and for politics.
So let’s create the robots which will be able to do the necessary and unpopular work for us. Let’s educate all people in the way of better humanity and let’s develop the necessary habits to be able to live truly free lives. Let’s teach our machines how to work, how to do business, how to invest money. Let’s become a society of rich capitalists who will be able to live their dream lives not from the real added values and from surplus created by other people, but from them, created by machines and robots. And keep in mind that if we want it, we cannot give them human rights.
This essay was originally written with a title “The ideology in sci-fi genre and the future of work, freedom and inequality” and it was done for a course lead by Aleš Debeljak at the University of Ljubljana during my Erasmus exchange programme. I give thanks to him for the possibility to creatively write what I wanted and also to my high school English teacher Lucie Adamusová for her useful grammar tips.