There has been a lot of discussion recently about the pace of automation and the impact of technology on the future of work. Many purport to see the dawning of a new robot future in which many, perhaps most, of today’s jobs will be performed by machines. This line of thought tends to spin off into one of two alternative directions, one bright and one dark: The brighter view is a kind of techno-utopianism that looks forward to a future in which formal human employment has become less important to our society, and in which we will all enjoy lives of fulsome leisure based on an equitable sharing of our robot-manufactured abundance. The darker outlook is a species of techno-dystopianism driven by fear of mass unemployment and the growth of a burgeoning and struggling underclass of unemployed former workers, displaced and excluded from the economic mainstream of their societies, and surviving on whatever handouts and pittances the economy’s owners are willing to give them to keep them docile.
Both of these contrasting visions of our robot future, however, share the idea that automation will lead to an overall reduction of formal human employment. While I suppose both futures are possible, we might ask why this shared vision has become so popular. After all, modern economies in the technologically developed world have seen tremendous growth in both wealth and productivity in recent centuries, but have generally managed to create many new forms of employment to replace the older forms as they were reduced, or as they disappeared altogether. Why shouldn’t this process continue indefinitely?