In June of this year, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) issued a report on the likely effects of accelerating automation in Australia.
Chinese well sweep.
The CEDA report, Australia’s Future Workforce, contains the startling prediction that, within 10 or 15 years, there is a medium to high likelihood that 5 million Australian jobs will be lost to automation and new developments in computerisation. This figure represents some 40 per cent of the current workforce in Australia.
When the report was first released, there was a flurry of interest in the media, but this seems to have died away. The press release from CEDA was primarily concerned with the need for “innovation”, “economic reform” and “policy development”. Some attention was paid to the likely plight of those put out of the workforce, but the proposed solutions are not all that encouraging.
Advent of machine slaves?
It may well be that “re-education” or “re-skilling” can mop up some of the job losses, but it is very difficult to see how, in a climate of ever increasing automation and a rapidly rising population, this “challenge” (no one uses the word “problem” these days) can be successfully negotiated. After all, the main purpose of automation today is to do away with costly human labour.
Of course, it is always possible to envisage a situation where, with increasing automation, humans can disengage entirely from the necessity of work and live in a manner somewhat analogous to those wealthy citizens of ancient Greece and Rome who had human slaves, not machine ones.
What is often forgotten in these discussions is the psychological and spiritual (I use this term in its broadest sense) dimensions of human work. First of all, we need to see this modern issue of automation in a broad historical context. For the greater part of human history work was not only an inescapable part of human life, but was also a hugely positive factor in establishing personal identity and self-esteem, and a sense of belonging to a community.
Pope John Paul II issued
Laborem Exercens on the
90th anniversary of
As evidence of this, some readers of this short essay may have surnames that directly link back to a particular trade – Smith, Farmer, Miller, and so on. Pride in one’s work was an enormously important facet of human existence. I have read somewhere that in many of the medieval university cities, a master craftsman had a status far higher than that of a university professor (at one stage, the latter was hired and fired by the students!).
We should not suppose that this aspect of the importance of human work was unknown to the ancients. In the Chuang Tzu, of about 300 BC, there is a story concerning a gardener, burdened with the job of carrying water to his plants. A passer-by tells him of a marvellous new invention called a well sweep, which mechanically raises water from a well.
The gardener is not impressed and delivers this reply: “I’ve heard my teacher say, where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. With a machine heart in your breast, you’ve spoiled what was pure and simple; and without the pure and simple, the life of the spirit knows no rest. Where the life of the spirit knows no rest, the Way will cease to buoy you up.”
Now, we can easily dismiss this as a Luddite response, but it pays to remember that the concern here is to do with spiritual matters, not temporal ones. In any case, to use the term Luddite in a pejorative sense does an injustice to those workers in the period of the Industrial Revolution who had legitimate concerns regarding their ongoing ability to provide for their families.
Work and the spirit
In our own time, one of the most useful documents on the whole issue of automation and human work is the Papal encyclical Laborem Exercens, issued by Pope John Paul II in 1981. While it may have been issued for a Catholic readership, much of the discussion is relevant to other Christian communions and, indeed, to anyone with a genuine interest in promoting human dignity and justice.
The document recognises that new developments in mechanisation and computerisation can have enormous benefits for humanity, but it also points to certain dangers inherent in the process: “In some instances technology can cease to be man’s ally and become almost his enemy, as when the mechanisation of work ‘supplants’ him, taking away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility, when it deprives many workers of their previous employment, or when, through exalting the machine, it reduces man to the status of its slave.”
The correct view of technology – one that has been held since ancient times – is to see machines as extensions of human faculties, not as their replacements. In other words, the human element in all labour always takes precedence.
There are certain ominous signs in our own time that suggest a radical departure from this view of things. Think, for instance, of the term “labour market”. It has the effect of reducing human labour to a mere commodity in the economic process. Or again, take that distasteful phrase, “human resource management”, so much a feature of modern government and modern business. It, again, commodifies human labour and treats it as simply another input into the production process.
Another persistent notion, running through much of the modern debate on automation, has to do with the supposition that human physical work is something to be avoided or, at least minimised. The term “labour-saving device” is always read in a positive sense.
There is something very strange involved here because the very same people who hold this view are very often those who spend hours at the gym each week “working out”. When I see a group of sweating joggers pass by my window, I am often tempted to invite them in to split my firewood for me. This, after all, would put their physical exertions to a practical use!
Perfection of man and creation
As Laborem Exercens is at pains to point out, human labour is an enormously positive attribute of human existence. Indeed, for Christians, it is divinely ordained. Theologians also point to that aspect of human work that can, in some way, be seen as a “completion” or “perfection” of God’s creation.
Finally, there is an aspect of human work that is connected to the traditional notion of virtue – a means of fulfilling human destiny. Laborem Exercens puts it this way: “Without this consideration [virtue] it is impossible to understand the meaning of the virtue of industriousness, and more particularly it is impossible to understand why industriousness should be a virtue: for virtue, as a moral habit, is something whereby man becomes good as man.”
This aspect of a human life has been particularly well elaborated by the Scottish-born moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, whose 1981 book, After Virtue, remains one of the most important publications in moral philosophy of the 20th century.
Following a basically Aristotelian approach to the virtues as the means of fulfilling an individual human destiny, MacIntyre demonstrates that the traditional idea of a human telos or final goal (earthly happiness for Aristotle, but adapted and enriched by the Church Fathers) cannot be successfully replaced by the various secular moral philosophies consequent upon the Enlightenment. Seen in this light, human work becomes no less than a means of fulfilling the Christian vision.
Work can be good or bad
To get some idea of just what is implied in this traditional approach, consider a simple statement such as “this man is a farmer”. Now since the Enlightenment (and particularly, the arguments of David Hume) it has been customary to assert that from such a statement, no functional concept is involved.
To put it another way, you cannot get an “ought” from an “is”. To say, “this man is a farmer” has, for Hume, no moral implications.
But, as MacIntyre points out, there is, implicit in this statement, some expectation of what a good farmer is. In other words, when we think of the word farmer, we have in our minds a certain conception of what such a person should do.
Suppose one of your children or grandchildren wants a pet lamb and you peruse the Yellow Pages or some such to find a sheep farmer. Upon reaching the farm, you notice broken fences, starving stock, sheep with footrot. You will say to yourself, “this person is no farmer”.
From the word “farmer”, you have a certain expectation of what such a vocation entails.
This gets to the very heart of the notion in Laborem Exercens that “work is good for man”; and each vocation, or “calling”, is a means to fulfilling a human life.
Alas, I fear it is unlikely that the CEDA report will be analysed in these terms by politicians or by the secular media.