Automation and identity

Giving Up On Automation

Around 12 years ago, when I started blogging, comments were a thing. This was pre-Twitter, and before most people were on Facebook. These days, to get that kind of interaction, you need a newsletter – and I delight in the responses I get to my weekly Thought Shrapnel.

This week, amongst the replies, was one from Bryan Alexander, who picked up on my links around the future of work, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and increasing automation:

Automation versus jobs… one angle here is major cultural disruption. How many societies deeply link a person’s worth and self-conception to their jobs? I’m thinking of Japan and the US, for starters.

If we only work 30 hours/week (for example), do we suffer crises of identity?

I asked him if it was OK if I replied here rather than in the silo of our respective inboxes. He kindly agreed.


The first thing I’d say about ‘automation versus jobs’ is that, to my mind it’s ‘automation and jobs’. Things are very rarely either/or. History shows us that even quite profound cultural change happens alongside the status quo. In this regard, people often point to William Gibson’s mention of the future being already here, just unevenly distributed, while others nod knowingly.

We’re in a period of history where those on zero-hour contracts (and, let’s face it, anyone outside of the finance industry) are seen as being part of the ‘precariat’. There’s an increasing casualisation of labour which is having a knock-on effect on pensions, childcare, the housing market, and almost every other aspect of society.

While I’m an opponent of the means by which this is happening (post-2008 austerity economics), I’m not necessarily an opponent of where we could end up. I’ve often said that, when it comes to ‘knowledge work’, four hours of solid work is pretty much all anyone can do for it to remain high-quality. As a result, crazy as it may sound, I think we need to be preparing for the 20-hour week.

Of course, much would have to change for this to seem like a happy state of affairs, rather than one that’s been foisted upon us. One core thing that would have to change, as Bryan points out, is around identity. The Protestant work ethic, which ties our identity to how hard we work, remains strong despite our secular society. Over and above this, however, is the fact that the past 30 years of Anglo-American neoliberal politics in the west has normalised the atomisation of individuals so that work is almost the only place we can build an identity.

So, to turn a decreased demand for our collective intellectual and physical labour into a positive, we need to create a situation in which identities can be formed outside of work. That means stronger families, communities, and clubs. These don’t happen overnight. They take time, effort, and funding.

In the shorter-term, however, I think there’s a bit of a hack that we can apply here and now. Last year, I set up a worker-owned co-operative with some former colleagues and friends called We Are Open Co-op. We not only are paid by this, but collectively own it, and make decisions around it. Voting rights are equal, and we have a commitment to the seven principles of international co-operation. Communities built of co-ops are happier, resilient, and more democratic.

Instead of attempting to build an identity for ourselves in the increasingly-precarious environment of employment, we should focus on build it in an environment of ownership. To my mind, it’s a reasonably subtle shift in emphasis, but could lead to a huge shift in practice.

(Image CC0 Alan Levine)