To prepare for a conversation I had recently about creativity and stress for a podcast (I’ll add the link when it goes up in a few days), the host provided the following prompt: “Will automation make us more or less stressed?”
I love this question, because there’s an intuitive response that seems like it should be right: “Automation is one means by which we increase productivity, meaning we get the same output for less work. More automation therefore means more time free for leisure or personal growth, which are relaxing or fulfilling, and therefore we’ll have less stress in our lives.” It’s basically the argument Keynes made in the essay he wrote in 1930 where he predicted that his grandchildren could work 15-hour weeks and that we’d have to figure out what to do with all of our available time.
Yet here we are nearly a century after that prediction (and half a century into a technological revolution built on computers) and I don’t know anyone who works 15 hours a week, or who goes through life without stress.
I attribute this divergence from the prediction to two big factors: the human capacity to acclimate to current circumstances, and the Internet making deviation from ideal outcomes highly visible across all institutions and social systems.
It’s impossible to miss the instances of automation giving us the same or more output for less work, especially if you’re comparing more distant time periods, i.e. comparing washing clothes with a washer and dryer today vs. hanging clothes on a line a century ago. But as individuals, we don’t operate on those time frames, and so we get used to what we have in the present, and want more material gain/quality of life than what we’ve had in the recent past. We’d rather work the same amount to get more, or push even harder for outsized returns, rather than work very little and settle for some baseline wealth or quality of life.
Social media exacerbates this by giving an ever-wider set of Joneses to keep up with. It also exposes us to everything that is broken about the world around us, and emphasizes the broken elements we’re most inclined to engage with and get worked up about. It lets us worry about issues happening at a distance, such that we’re more stressed and less able to act to address those things that are broken. And because we carry smartphones on us at all times, we expose ourselves to social media when we have any free time to spend to avoid boredom.
These entwined forces bias us toward working more, rather than settling, and to the extent that we actually do capture productivity gains as free time, we then channel our attention away from relaxation or growth to sources of stress. Hence, chronic stress and the resulting long-term health impacts.
One idea not touched on in the above: that most haven’t seen the gains to productivity growth over the last several decades because most was channeled to capital instead of labor.
An idea I often play with is the notion of extending the model of offering equity as part of compensation to a much larger set of jobs. Basically, increasing worker autonomy and ownership over what they do by making more people feel like capitalists. This is not dissimilar from what proponents of worker collectives want — though instead of seeing the world as a zero-sum game, with a fixed pie to distribute as evenly as possible, the idea would be to make the upside to expanding the pie visible and within reach.
I don’t think you could push this too far without hurting the incentives to start new businesses in the first place. I also don’t think that it would do much to change the human tendency to acclimate to present circumstances and to want more. So, counter-intuitively, I think you’d see a bigger impact on the latter factor described above: the obsession with ever more troubling and distant problems in our world. Introduce new incentives, make it obvious how solving problems will lead to personal upside, and I think you’d see more people spend their attention on problems within their sphere of influence out of self-interest. The result: more wealth, a broader sense of agency, and less disappointment with our inability to solve distant problems with top-down solutions advocated for via social media fear-mongering.