Sean Carroll blogged recently, in Is Work Necessary?, about a quote attributed to Buckminster Fuller, which seems to be trendy (or, how is trendy to say, "it became a meme"). I reproduce the picture from Sean's lucid blog.
I very much agree with the part of the quote saying that the technological progress should allow us to work less. Indeed, since we could make a living before the invention of machines, and especially computers, it seems logical that now we can make a living by working, say, one day a month or so. Because it is indubitable that technological progress multiplied dozens of times our productivity. And in this rhythm, who knows, maybe in twenty years or so there will be robots doing 99.99% of our jobs.
So, why cannot we be unemployed in this society? If you don't pay, you can't get even a glass of water, or a place to sit. Not to mention the luxury of medical care. So, with all this progress, why do we still need jobs? Some of us need them just to live. Others, to live and, in addition, to be able to buy the most recent stuff, like the latest iPhone version, a new car, TV, computer, game console you will not get enough time to use, etc. Add to this that having a job is fun sometimes, even if only during the lunch breaks. At job, you make friends, some for a lifetime, others just for the duration of the job. But the sad truth is that many of us can't even conceive to be unemployed, simply because it will be boring. It takes imagination to work at your dream, instead of building your employer's dream.
Obviously, if we decide to consume less, we can work less and still make a living. We can choose downshifting (this is something I did). But, the paradox is, whenever you try to work a smaller amount of time, the employer tends to consider you lazy for this (even if you are more productive than some full-time employed colleagues). Your salary remains small forever, because you lack full-time experience. And you can't find another employer to hire you part-time with reasonable salary, because you raise suspicions for wanting more free time. In the meantime, the expenses keep increasing, so eventually you have to give up and become another brick in the wall. Of course, some of us can build successful business, which allow them to do nothing for the rest of their lives. But how many can do this? How many small businesses have fail, bankrupting entire families, for a single one to be successful?
So I think that the main idea from the quote, that most of us can do what we like instead of working, is a romantic lie.
But one can say, "did you test Buckminster Fuller's advice, to criticize it?". Well, this is precisely what I did for several years.
Here is his concluding remark
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.
After living a Bohemian life as a student and as high school math teacher, I had to find a better paid job. So I built a successful career as a computer programmer, specialized in something that guarantees high salaries even in Romania (geometric algorithms, especially for cad/cam).
After several years, I decided to go back to school and do my Master and PhD, in something I like, geometry and mathematical physics. Soon I will defend my PhD (the thesis is done for almost a year). I like physics, I love to think at unsolved problems in foundational physics, and try to solve them. I do this for fun, without being paid (not that I don't want to be paid).
For my thesis, I researched the problem of singularities in General Relativity, but in the meantime I also activated in the foundations of Quantum Mechanics. Against all standard approaches to the problem, I wrote and published several papers in well rated peer reviewed physics journals (here is a continuously updating list of my papers). In the meantime, I have to earn a living for me and my four member family, to pay the mortgage and bills, and sometimes attend conferences. So, I have to work, as part-time as I can, as a computer programmer. There is the alternative that, after I finish my PhD, I can join a team as a postdoc, and be paid to do what I love. I like this idea, but will I find a position that guarantees me the freedom to research what I want? Or the only way is to help senior researchers make their dreams come true?
So, Mr. Fuller, at thirty years after your death, your beautiful idea is still a romantic lie. And if, in another thirty years, robots will be able to do 99.99% of our work, chances are that society will still find a way to keep us busy.