Chapter 17: The Purpose of Life
If you live in the United States, Japan, and many countries in Europe, you probably heard your friends saying how busy their are. “So busy.” “Crazy busy!” All the time. They can’t even take a walk in the park without checking the calendar on their smartphone several times over, or spend unstructured, unplanned time with their kids. They are busy indeed. And they are also pretty stressed. But why is that?
I believe one reason is our socially-induced, compulsive urge to keep ourselves occupied, or rather to constantly “look busy”. We start at a very young age, in school. Why do we have hour-long lectures when our attention span drops after twenty minutes?1 Why don’t we let children work at their own pace?
Then we continue in the workplace. Why do so many companies check on their employees as if they were babies? Why do they primarily pay based on hours of work, instead of performance? Why do we keep meaningless jobs alive, while desperately trying to create novel ways to keep people occupied?
I had many discussions regarding the issue of technological unemployment, particularly during my Graduate Study Program at Singularity University, NASA Ames Research Center, where I had the opportunity to speak with some of the greatest minds in the field, including the authors of the book “Race Against the Machine” Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, founding executive editor of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge. I stand by my thesis, that the economy will not be capable of creating new jobs at the same pace with which technology destroys them. Many disagree with me, and we could have a discussion about that, but I think that is missing the point.
I can envision a plethora of futures where everyone has a job. One job could be to show up at the office, sit down, look busy, and read emails all day. Another could be to look at robots working, and make sure nothing is going wrong. The fact that only one in ten thousand robots fail over the course of a week, and that one supervisor per facility would suffice matters not. We can have hundreds of supervisors. And then supervisors of supervisors. And then managers, and managers of managers, at the top of the food chain. We can fabricate new diseases, and then create professions to cure those fictitious illnesses. Finally – desires, as economists teach us, are infinite, therefore we can perpetually generate things to fulfil those desires, however frivolous or whimsical they might be. While this may sound laughable to some of you, it may also sound striking similar to what we are already doing today.
After years spent pondering and contemplating on this matter, I came to this radical conclusion:
We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognising this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, they must justify their right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.
I know, these words are radical. And possibly naive. The result of a young mind, oblivious to the intricate fabric of society, who has nice dreams, but no real understanding of complex systems and economic behaviour. As it turns out, that is almost a word-by-word quote of the great genius futurist Buckminster Fuller, interviewed in 1970 by New York Magazine.2
The point is that “We prefer to invent new jobs rather than trying harder and inventing a new system that wouldn’t require everybody to have a job.”3 With this book, I have posited that robots will your job, but that’s OK. I will go one step further. I would argue that the purpose of life is to have robots steal your job.
OK, let us be serious – that is not the purpose of life. But today, I think this is a necessary, yet not sufficient condition for finding your life’s purpose.
I do not know my purpose of life, let alone your purpose, or that of everyone else on this planet. But I am pretty sure what the purpose of life is not. How many people have you heard, sitting on their death bed, saying: “Geez, I really wish I had spent more time checking that accounting spreadsheet for errors.” Or: “Had I had a 2.5% return of investment on that deal instead of a pitiful 2%, my life would be whole”. Nobody says that. They might be thinking “I wish I spent more time with my kids”, “I wish I told my husband I loved him more”, “I wish I confessed to my high school crush that I liked her”, or “If only I had travelled more, I would have seen the world”.
I was really moved by the story of a woman, who was a terminal cancer patient. She had two months to live, but her life’s dream was to learn calculus. Then she discovered Khan Academy, and realised that she finally had that opportunity. And so she did – she spent the last two months of her life learning calculus. And she was happy.4
Another notorious slacker and good for nothing stated that: “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” This is no light statement, considering that it comes from legendary author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama), who first conceived the idea of using geostationary satellites for telecommunication (we now refer to the geostationary orbit as the “Clarke Orbit” or the “Clarke Belt” in his honour).
But what does it mean ‘to play’? It might be that Clarke was paraphrasing Confucius – “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”. Or maybe he meant something different. Finding a job you love – one that is fulfilling and that allows to follow your moral code – is very hard today. In fact – according to Deloitte’s Shift Index – as much as 80% of people hate their job.5 We have to adjust our expectations to what the economy allows to do, and the sad reality is that many jobs are not fulfilling, and do not create value for society either. As if that was not enough, they are also going to be automated fairly soon – I suspect within our lifetime.
But – I am happy to tell you – there is light in the tunnel! The purpose of this book is not to convince you that automation will soon make you obsolete, but rather what to do about it. I have pondered, researched, and shared ideas and suggestions about this with hundreds of people; and I have compiled them in Part III of this book.
This is my gift to you – I hope it can be useful.
1 The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health Care Team, Dianne Dukette and David Cornish, 2009. RoseDog Books. pp. 72-73.
2 The New York Magazine Environmental Teach-In, Elizabeth Barlow, 30 March 1970. New York Magazine. p. 30.
http://books.google.com/books?id=cccDAAAAMBAJ\&printsec=frontcover\#PPA30,M1 . Fuller was of course also an architect, an engineer, an author, a designer, a most notable systems theorist, and he is considered by many to be one of the greatest thinkers of the last century; having coined the terms “Spaceship Earth”, ephemeralization, and synergetic, among others.
3 Philippe Beaudoin, 2012.
4 Rice University’s 2012 commencement, Salman Khan, 2012.
5 80% Hate Their Jobs – But Should You Choose A Passion Or A Paycheck?, 2010. Business Insider.
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