The National Catholic Review
Will we be ready?

Las Vegas falling quickly behind us, Manjul jacks the rented BMW X5 up to 95 m.p.h. as we race past Lake Mead. Sanjay shoots him a quick smile as I shift nervously in the back seat. These bright, successful men from Silicon Valley are more taken with the rental’s giddy-up than with the “bathroom ring” of calcium carbonate rimming the reservoir’s shoreline. I interrupt their chatter about the virtues of V-6 engines by pointing out the 100-foot drop in water level, adding that rationing is next after years of drought.

Manjul assures me that advances in desalination and water recycling will solve the problem as he edges the BMW into triple digits. Sanjay chimes in that his relative Manoj, a billionaire philanthropist, has developed an affordable desalination device called the Rain Maker. A few thousand of them stacked up on a few hundred barges off the coast and California’s all set. No more eco-apocalypse.

Sanjay’s ambition soars even higher than that. We will be off to other planets sooner than people realize, he says. What Elon Musk is doing with Space X is just the beginning. This prompts Manjul, who works at Netflix, to mention that “Planet of the Apes” was filmed up at Lake Powell. When I suggest we visit the Nevada Test Site instead, neither is amused.

We are rocketing along now at 105 m.p.h. as we cross the Hoover Dam Bridge. A mild vertigo sets in. Perhaps sunset at the Grand Canyon will bring us to our senses. With Manjul at the wheel, it will not take long to get there.

Building huge dams and detonating atomic bombs in the desert seemed like a good idea in 1951. Two years before that, Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard of Paris observed in his final pastoral letter, “The Priest in the City,” that “modern inventions produced with increasing rapidity cannot be for Christians just another news item or a mere scientific curiosity...for they are the making of a new universe. And this is the universe we are called upon to save.”

The cardinal’s reflection on the res nova of his day seems prophetic in light of today’s emerging technologies. Robotics and artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, nanomaterials and the Internet of Things are poised to disrupt one industry after another. As digitalization, machine learning and other innovations scale up, productivity will soar. Yet accelerating automation also will generate higher levels of unemployment.

Consider the fate of workers in the living-wage movement. As fast-food employees fight for $15 per hour, a burger-bot built by Momentum Machines in San Francisco cranks out 360 gourmet hamburgers an hour. The start-up is opening “smart restaurants” and marketing their invention to major players in the industry. Projected cost savings are considerable, as is the expected impact on the 3.6 million-strong fast-food workforce.

The fate of fast food exemplifies what Pope Francis calls “rapidification”: the relentless process of social speed-up driven by technological innovation for the sake of profit. In “Laudato Si’,” Francis warns against our worship of power, speed and efficiency and urges adoption of sustainable practices that respect the slower pace of natural and social ecologies. In light of the pope’s vision of “integral ecology,” Catholics would do well to address not only climate change and inequality but also another looming inconvenient truth on the horizon: technological unemployment. Meeting the challenge of accelerating automation requires a new ethics and politics of time.

The Second Half of the Chessboard

To convey the power of exponential technologies, the futurist Ray Kurzweil tells the story of the Indian emperor and the inventor of chess, who presents the game to royalty as a gift. Delighted, the emperor invites him to name his reward.

“Rice for my family, your majesty, that is all I need,” the inventor replies. Impressed by the show of humility, the emperor tells him to name the amount. Looking at the chessboard, the inventor says, “A dozen large sacks, or the amount accumulated on the chessboard after the grains—starting with one—are doubled from one square to the next until all are filled. Emperor, please, you choose. My family’s welfare is in your hands.”

Smiling, the emperor commands, “Fill the chessboard, one square at a time, doubling the number of grains as you go!” At square 12 the emperor is still smiling: there’s hardly enough to fill a bowl. But once the first half is filled, he’s staring wide-eyed at four billion grains. Before his servants begin to fill the 33rd square, the enraged emperor halts the amassing of rice and orders the inventor beheaded.

In The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue that we are nearing the second half of the chessboard, with mounting evidence that automation will accelerate dramatically in the decades ahead. When farm jobs were mechanized, workers moved into manufacturing; when those jobs were automated, they moved into services. As services of all kinds are taken over by smart machines, where will workers go? Not into science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM disciplines. Growth in STEM-related jobs is moderate, and significant percentages of STEM graduates are not finding work in their chosen field. Meanwhile, engineers are designing automated systems that will replace well-paying jobs—including theirs.

A study in 2013 of future U.S. employment by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University shows that low-wage workers are most likely to be automated away first. The four most common occupations—retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk—employ a combined 15.4 million people, almost 10 percent of the U.S. workforce. All are highly vulnerable to automation. Such findings are what we expect after watching bank tellers and travel agents being replaced by automated teller machines and But Frey and Osborne’s research goes further: advances in smart-machine design will enable companies to automate many jobs characterized by nonroutine cognitive tasks. These white-collar jobs were considered immune, but no more. Software may have generated the recap of last night’s ball game, not a sports writer. According to Frey and Osborne, 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being eliminated over the next two decades.

This alarming prospect is not confined to American workers. As the global labor force grows to an estimated 3.5 billion in 2030, accelerating automation will throw hundreds of millions out of work at a time when there already exists a 1.8 billion shortfall in formal jobs across the globe. In short, any serious effort to make integral ecology a reality must address this inconvenient truth, if only because societies plagued by high unemployment are less likely to sacrifice economic growth to environmental protection.

BIG Ideas

During the late 19th century, workers organized around the slogan: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.” The labor wars were, in essence, time wars. In today’s fast-changing economy, too many are simply surviving, too few are truly flourishing and no one has enough time. As unemployment climbs higher, we need to imagine transitioning to a post-jobs society in which the 40-hour week yields to 30 hours on the job and more time for self-provisioning, family life, community service and other worthy pursuits. A new politics of time asks how we might get there from here.

On the policy front, the sociologist James Hughes argues that emerging trends are creating a strategic opening for acceptance of a basic income guarantee, often shortened to BIG. A battle over entitlements is coming as less-advantaged younger and middle-aged workers demand fairness from well-off seniors. Meanwhile, 3D printing and desktop manufacturing will eliminate much of the work between inventors and consumers. With rising technological unemployment and longer lifespans, we “will need to figure out an equitable solution to the growing ratio of retirees to workers and tax-payers,” says Hughes. Hence the appeal of a BIG, which renegotiates the social contract between generations and provides economic security for both workers and retirees.

The BIG idea finds support across the political spectrum for its streamlined approach to combating poverty and respect for autonomy. Unlike means-tested programs, a BIG destigmatizes marginalized groups and supports caregivers and others involved in nonwage activities that contribute to the community. Labor activists highlight its potential to alter the balance of power in favor of workers, who would no longer fear getting fired or launching out on their own.

From a Catholic perspective attuned to the plight of the poor yet also wary of socialist solutions, a basic income guarantee offers a practical way to balance respect for individual rights and freedoms with the demands of the common good. Where an excluded minority caught in a poverty trap faces a resistant coalition of the better-off and, in frustration, turns to deviance and violence, a basic income offers a viable alternative to further polarization. And rather than foster indolence, it provides a solid floor upon which the excluded—and everyone else—can build a future through education, work and savings. With a BIG, we can take an important step toward institutionalizing Catholic social teaching on ensuring the basic needs of all without undermining personal responsibility and initiative.

The rise of distributed manufacturing and self-provisioning makes the transition to a post-jobs society a real option rather than fantasy. In Mass Flourishing, the historian Edmund Phelps describes how a dynamic U.S. economy during the 19th century fostered innovation on a wide scale: “Even people with...modest talent were given the experience of using their minds: to seize an opportunity, to solve a problem and think of a new way or a new thing.”

With digitalization soon reaching ubiquity and with the rapid advance of affordable 3D printers and other do-it-yourself technologies, artisans and entrepreneurs will own or enjoy access to sophisticated means of production. Etsy, Columbus Idea Factory and other maker-spaces present working models. A politics of time built around a basic income and 30-hour work-week aims to create the conditions for a post-jobs society in which people enjoy the time and resources to pursue meaningful work and create innovative, sustainable enterprises.

Putting Work in Its Place

How we spend our time is a profoundly ethical question. Moving beyond live-to-work habits may be the most difficult challenge of all, given the cultural hold of the work ethic. As we envision the transition to a post-jobs society, a revision and retrieval of Catholic social teaching on work and leisure needs to occur as well.

As with St. John Paul II in “On Human Work,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis ascribe a two-fold meaning to work. First, human toil is always in some respects a “curse” stemming from the Fall, an onerous and unavoidable task that invariably strains both body and psyche. Second, work provides opportunities for self-development and fraternity; this is the personalist dimension of work that grounds, for example, John Paul’s notion of “the priority of labor over capital” and a critique of alienating, exploitative forms of work. In “Charity in Truth,” Benedict calls on governments to take measures necessary to ensure full employment under dignified conditions. While Francis takes note of automation’s negative impacts in “Laudato Si’,” he says much the same thing and does not contemplate the possibility of a transition to post-jobs society.

In the not-so-distant future, Catholic social teaching will need to rethink the relationship between work and leisure within a new context—namely, an emerging society in which labor of many kinds is outsourced to smart machines. To be sure, the personalist meaning of work will retain its force as a powerful moral critique of neoliberalism and technology-centered automation. At the same time, we must challenge the overvaluation of work itself and not simply the alienation and exploitation of workers.

Here a retrieval of the church’s social wisdom on the right use of leisure is in order. The “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” of the Second Vatican Council affirms that in addition to a right to dignified labor, workers should also “enjoy sufficient rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious life. They should also have the opportunity freely to develop the energies and potentialities which perhaps they cannot bring to much fruition in their professional work” (No. 67). A new ethics and politics of time places a priority on having a life beyond wage labor and maximizing opportunities for developing these other energies and potentialities.

A post-jobs society promises to provide more time for deep play and fruitful leisure, which are antidotes to modern work compulsions and the commodification of leisure. Deep play refers to our intense engagement with life through the arts, games and sciences—all privileged sites for optimal experiences of “flow” and personal growth. As Diane Ackerman puts it: “Deep play is the ecstatic form of play. In its thrall, all the play elements are visible, but they’re taken to intense and transcendent heights.” Fruitful leisure includes the joys of communal celebration as well as various contemplative practices.

For Catholics, traditions and practices of sabbath time, the rhythm of ora et labora, gratitude and choosing with Mary the better part are vital sources of spiritual renewal. Specific forms aside, leisure becomes spiritually fruitful whenever our capacity for contemplation, awe and wonder awakens and grows; it occurs whenever we shift to receptive, noninstrumental modes of consciousness that allow us to connect at the core of our being with the sacred within and all around us. In “timeless” moments of deep play and fruitful leisure, we sense our envelopment within an unfolding plenitude so great as to defy description. What energizes and inspires us most fully are these encounters with divine superabundance.

What to Do With Ourselves?

The advent of automation, Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition (1958), promised to put the age-old dream of freedom from labor’s toil and trouble within reach, yet the prospect of a post-jobs existence was threatening to production-obsessed modernity: “It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.” Beyond reproductive and wage labor, moderns know only commodified leisure. Politics, Ms. Arendt lamented, is now reduced to another job category.

Is contemporary, high-speed society capable of taking up “higher and more meaningful activities” that make freedom from work a genuine advance? Pope Pius XII believed so. In 1957 the “pope of technology” delivered an address to machine-tool industry leaders in which he affirmed automation’s relentless advance and liberating potential. With automation yielding higher productivity, workers faced a new challenge—the right use of leisure—which required growth toward intellectual and spiritual maturity: “We hope that the most profound needs of the soul will find their satisfaction in the greater amount of leisure time available because of modern machines.”

Was Pope Pius overly optimistic or was Hannah Arendt too pessimistic? While I am inclined to side with the pope, Ms. Arendt’s prescient observations regarding the eclipse of politics as well as our compromised capacities for deep play and fruitful leisure should give us pause.

Integral ecology requires an ethics and politics of time if we hope to retain the dynamism and benefits of technological innovation while also resynchronizing natural and social ecologies. In practice it will involve setting more speed limits, an entirely new sense of work-life balance, development of self-provisioning skills and experimentation with alternative models of community (for example, co-housing). Family life will be an important site of struggle and emancipation for a post-jobs society in the making. We can hope for a fulfilling post-jobs family life only if married partners are able to rebalance roles and power within the household.

Given the cultural hegemony of the work ethic and its time-is-money logic, it will take quite some time to realize the full potential of a post-jobs society, in which we no longer spend our days rushing about breathless because we have discovered what activities are truly worth our time.

Ted Nunez is a strategic-communications consultant based in Paoli, Pa. A former member of the Catholic Worker, he has taught environmental and social ethics at several U.S. colleges and universities.


Ted Nunez | 2/25/2016 - 4:00pm

I would support a shift to an energy (or carbon) tax, though it remains a non-starter in the U.S. despite the recent oil glut and low prices at the pump. To fund a BIG at the national level, a value-added tax may be necessary.

The points made regarding building codes, zoning laws, and affordable housing are well taken. We need to develop an integrated, new-distributist policy agenda that addresses the basics--affordable education, housing, and healthcare--in light of a broader vision of sustainable community. A BIG and reduced work week would free up time and energy for grassroots political engagement with these issues.

Ernest Martinson | 2/21/2016 - 4:11pm

A basic income guarantee (BIG) is just what the pope ordered in Laudato Si. Pope Francis is concerned about income inequality, the environment, and the economy. BIG could be big on all three beginning with these caveats. The basic income must be funded from environmental taxes and not economic taxes. That means no tax on individual income, corporate profits, sales, or property. Just a tax on the earth or garden that we are still trying to kick others out of. That also means no subsidies other than an earth dividend distributed to each adult. No Wall Street bailouts, no energy subsidies, no housing subsidies, no entitlements. No government so big it prowls the earth looking for monsters to destroy.

B & M NELSON | 2/18/2016 - 5:44pm

A basic income guarantee can go a long ways toward alleviating poverty, however it does not address the economic segregation and the associated primary and secondary education disparities. The current zoning and building code practices essentially eliminate "affordable" housing in many urban and suburban areas. In deep rural areas this is not an issue because there are often barely enough students from a large geographic area to comprise a school and too few wealthy families to support an elite school.

Ernest Martinson | 2/21/2016 - 3:32pm

It is with great regret that I inform you that zoning and building codes have eliminated affordable housing in rural areas of Wisconsin. Wisconsin has a progressive legacy in which do-gooders deem the state knows what is best for you, though it drive you out of house and home. I was unable to build an alternative and affordable homestead in northern Wisconsin due to the Wisconsin Uniform Dwelling Code.