Book review A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond

by Daniel Susskind

Allen Lane 2020 £20  ISBN: 0241321093

In the last issue of Green Socialist (GS 90), I took a quizzical look at the brave new world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how it will make an impact on the way we live and work in the future – or don’t work, because the robots will have taken our jobs. The stark message of Daniel Susskind’s A World Without Work is that the future has already arrived, and we better get used to the idea of AI invading every aspect of our day-to-day lives if we want to find a solution to the intractable problem of how to close the inequality gap and redistribute wealth from the One Per Cent to the rest of society.

But the past was the future once too, so Susskind begins his survey way back in the 1890s, with the Great Manure Crisis. The ‘parable of horseshit’, as Elizabeth Kolbert recently called it in the New Yorker, has been repeated many times over the years. By the end of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of horses were employed in big cities like London and New York to pull buses, trams, cabs, carts and wagons through busy streets, with the inevitable build-up of collateral waste, shall we say?

For a long time, the parable was told and re-told in a somewhat optimistic light, as a technological triumph in which these dirty beasts were eventually put out to grass by the ‘cleaner’ internal combustion engine. However, as Susskind points out, the same story also lends itself to a more unsettling conclusion. He notes that the Russian-American economist Wassily Leontief won the 1973 Nobel Prize for retelling the parable in terms of a creature that had played a central role in economic activity for thousands of years suddenly becoming obsolescent as a result of the invention of the motor car.

Nowadays, thanks to AI, Leontief’s parable is back to haunt us – except this time we humans are the useful creatures possibly on the way out. Susskind notes that about a third of the people in the UK believe their jobs will be taken by robots and computers over the next 20 years.

‘Technological unemployment’, to quote the phrase coined by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, was once a utopian fantasy. At the same time the metropolitan authorities of London and New York were having nightmares of a manure-filled future, Oscar Wilde was dreaming of a world without work. In The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) he imagined a society emancipated from industrial slavery: ‘While humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure … or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work.’

Susskind’s book tries to explain why we need to take Leontief’s fears and Wilde’s fantasies seriously, even if he argues that it’s possible to reach a better understanding of the past and a clearer view of the future of work.

He begins with an historical look at what has happened to employment and income on previous occasions when new technology or machines were introduced. He defines the Age of Labour, roughly speaking from the middle of the nineteenth-century to the invention of the personal computer in 1975, ‘as a time when successive waves of technological progress broadly benefited rather than harmed workers’.

In Part Two, ominously entitled ‘The Threat’, Susskind examines the development of automation in ways that might be regarded less positively from humanity’s point of view. He dismisses the idea that human intelligence will ever be replicated per se but outlines the threat that could arise – or perhaps has already arisen – from entrusting the unlimited power of data processing to companies such as Google.

The author also looks at the likely impact of AI on education and a skills mismatch that corresponds to the inequality gap, with too many people vying for too few jobs, typically causing a reduction of wages and of working conditions, which look set to become even more unstable and stressful. We already have ‘zero hour’ contracts, irregular hours and job insecurity.

Susskind’s gaze into the crystal ball at our future is extremely thought-provoking, if a bit anxious-making too. However, I do have a few minor criticisms of the book. Perhaps unreasonably, I had expected him to come up with some answers instead of just posing his array of very intriguing questions. Also, in spite of the fact that Susskind is a British economist who teaches at Oxford University, most of the examples in his book are drawn from the United States, and so may be less interesting to a reader in the UK. He writes with great clarity and style but also illustrates his arguments with numerous graphs, which I felt were often superfluous as the text itself is perfectly clear. Too clear for comfort perhaps!

By Juliet Boddington

Juliet Boddington is the AGS’s membership officer

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