T. S. Eliot’s ‘Is That All There Is?’

In The Idea Of A Christian Society, T. S. Eliot wrote:

Was our society, which had always been assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?

Eliot wrote these lines shortly after the 1938 Munich Agreement, as Britain and France bowed and scraped before Hitler’s demands for more territorial gains in Europe.¹ The idea expressed at their heart has not lost any of its pungency. Eliot sought to contrast the faith of the Christian, a belief in something more permanent, lasting, morally-inflected, with the commodified, fashionable foundations of the commercial society. But even if you, perhaps of secular persuasion, do not want to fall back on religious faith as an alternative to the call of commerce, there is an acute question that remains raised: what is the great prize of our civilization, the one we offer and hold forth and aloft in front of the gaze of those eager applicants, ‘our youth,’ ‘our best and brightest’?

Something like the following: Go to school, go to college, get good grades, study business, or accounting, or finance, get to work, make ‘good money’–or rather, as much as money as you can, your money-making endeavors unrestricted by any kind of moral impulse. Disdain art and the humanities and all else as not being the real world, as useless and impractical, unsuited to the needs of our times. Regard the history of the world as a mistake, one to rectified by throwing money or weapons at all of its recalcitrant problems. Regard the weekends as a bonus allotment of time to ‘catch up on some work in the office that needs to get done by Monday.’ Birth, (business) school, work, death? The physical details of this are as equally grim: rise and shine, dress up, put on a tie, get in a car and get into traffic, or get into crowded public transportation, and then spend roughly ten hours–if you’re lucky–indoors in climate controlled environments. Rinse and repeat. The utter vacuity at the heart of these pursuits is almost frightening in its blandness, its lack of emotional and spiritual sustenance; the commodification of life and love it promises is genuinely terrifying.

Small wonder so many who live this dream ‘stumble’ from boardroom to bar to coke spoon to therapy couch to the grave. And small wonder that when the allure of something more substantive, more emotional, is held out as bait, so many snap and bite. Perhaps religion, perhaps a ‘new-age cure,’ perhaps, in the most extreme circumstances, an abandonment of family and an older life altogether. We will join these travelers, like all others, in their final destinations, the grave, but we can exercise some measure of control over the paths we take there.

Note: As quoted by Edward Mendelson while reviewing Robert Crawford’s biography of Eliot and a collected edition of Eliot’s poems.

If Machines Do All The ‘Work’, What Will Humans Do?

At The Atlantic Moshe Vardi wonders about the consequences of machine intelligence.  Vardi’s article features the subtitle ‘If machines are capable of doing any work that humans can do, then what will humans do?’ and is occasioned by the following:

While the loss of millions of jobs over the past few years has been attributed to the Great Recession, whose end is not yet in sight, it now seems that technology-driven productivity growth is at least a major factor.

As Vardi notes, worries about the loss of employment caused by growth in technological innovation are not new and have often been met by varieties of techno-optimism: ‘new technologies will create new jobs!’ Such optimism includes that of Keynes‘ who

[I]magined 2030 as a time in which most people worked only 15 hours a week, and would occupy themselves mostly with leisure activities.

Vardi is not reassured:

I do not find this to be a promising future. First, if machines can do almost all of our work, then it is not clear that even 15 weekly hours of work will be required. Second, I do not find the prospect of leisure-filled life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being. Third, our economic system would have to undergo a radical restructuring to enable billions of people to live lives of leisure.

But a life full of leisure is only problematic if we conceive of leisure in extremely impoverished ways: perhaps watching television sitcoms endlessly, sitting around twiddling our thumbs, working through one bag of potato chips after another. Why is leisure somehow imagined to be non-intellectually or physically taxing? Why couldn’t leisure involve physical recreation, reading and writing books, proving theorems, painting, or writing poems? Can all these only be done for gainful employment? Perhaps the problem with a world ‘run’ by machines that relieve of us of ‘work’ while leaving us free to pursue ‘leisure’ is not the presence of machines,  but the absence of a richer vision of the human life.

Of course, the worry about an automated future really seems to be that if humans aren’t ‘working’ they aren’t getting ‘paid,’ or rather, they aren’t making ‘money’ to ‘support’ themselves. So this vision of the human future is only frightening if we imagine humans made destitute by machines doing all the work. But then those humans are not going to be in a position to pursue ‘leisure.’ They’ll be too busy robbing, stealing, scrounging and begging to feed their families and themselves. They’ll be ‘working’ pretty hard.

Vardi’s third point is the one he should truly be worried about.The problem is not one of work or leisure. The problem is reconfiguring a political economy centered on massive automation to ensure human beings will not be destitute. Work and leisure are traditionally opposed to each other because we cannot fill our time with pleasurable, leisurely activities (understood broadly as above) without being economically deprived. A world in which the economic needs of man are taken care of by machines leaving us free to do non-coerced work does not sound unpleasant to me; if the automated economy of tomorrow makes it possible for us to do less work-for-wages to meet our needs our leisure time may be devoted to pursuing our intellectual and physical goals. The real problem is the economy of tomorrow is only too likely to be like the economy of today: massive, skewed concentrations of wealth in the hands of monopolists. We won’t have much time for leisure in that one.