contra leisuretopia (some random thoughts).

Just wanted to make note of an interesting article by sci-fi author Damien Walter in aeon magazine about the possibility of a ‘creative culture’ arising in the near future, as the natural result of increased automation and our current, inexorable shift towards a pure-knowledge economy.

The article falls in line with current thoughts and assumptions about the Great Inevitable Future of Work. It’s not an unusual vision by now: Most of the drudge-labor gets delegated to machines. Most manufacturing is done on-site via 3D printers. The now-displaced labor class then somehow gets magically educated into the ‘knowledge economy’, and voila!, fast forward— It’s the late 21st century! And all nine billion souls on the planet are earning a living wage by doing 10-15 hrs a week of freelance work (all funded on Kickstarter, of course) on their laptops at the local cafe!

I’ll just politely note that these claims are invariably made by well-born, well-educated, well-off, well-connected and generally self-employed types who already inhabit a world that looks much like this. It’s a very nice, pleasant and well-meaning vision (though I can’t help but wonder how much of it is unconsciously driven by guilt: Don’t worry, unemployed laborers… soon you’ll all get to live and work like we do! Just be patient!) While I agree in principle that such a society is theoretically possible (and may in fact be one of the few pleasant near-futures available to us), to ignore issues of custom, law and class –not to mention human nature– when talking about the transition always seemed somewhat naive to me.

Which is why this article jumped out at me: Mr. Walter actually mentions class. Money quote:

As much as our social hierarchies are about limiting and controlling access to wealth, they are also about limiting and controlling access to creativity. Increasingly, the real benefit that money buys is the time, freedom and power to act creatively.

Bingo. I’ll also note, without comment, that only a Brit could have written the above English sentence so honestly, and gotten it published. (Here in the US, you can’t even utter the words ‘social hierarchy’ in most circles without being greeted by eyerolls– we’re quite well trained in that respect).

At least here in the first world, while we clearly haven’t banished poverty or inequity (far from it), all but the very poorest among us can afford at least some degree of what would have been considered physical plenty by their ancestors. They don’t live in rags, as the pre-Revolutionary French peasants would have done. Many have ‘luxuries’ like HDTVs, a cellphone, and often some kind of vehicle (albeit a used one). Once mere possession of an object could no longer serve as a suitable class marker, the discriminating factor became Quality. Compare a 1975 BMW or Mercedes against a 1975 Ford or Chevy, for example. Most of us got access to automobiles by that point, thanks to a half-century of Fordism… but only the Quality could afford the Best (or vice versa).

But in the ensuing decades, manufacturing has become so efficient that we now live in a world where lower-end products have almost equivalent utility to their higher-end counterparts: Going back to our car example, compare a 2012 BMW to a 2012 Ford or Honda, and you’ll note much less difference-in-quality between the two than there would have been 35+ years prior. Is the $1800 Mac better than the $900 PC with equivalent specs? IMO, yes, it still is. Is it twice as good or useful? No. No it isn’t. The surplus is for that logo– which, you’ll note, is conspicuously placed on the backside of the laptop, for others to see. Not you.

IMO, this is what has driven our current era’s obsession with ‘Branding’ and ‘Mindshare’. Our cultural wiring still requires Discriminators, so we insist they are there when they’re really not. Clothing would be another area where the only real discriminator at this point is the trademarked icon put there by the manufacturer: Since almost anyone can afford a decent shirt, pants and shoes nowadays, those little icons on your chest are all that’s left to announce your social status, economic worth, general class and tribal affiliation to any passers-by who might wish to evaluate you. Those sigils by Apple, Nike, Champion or BMW are essentially the current incarnation of tribal tattoos, put there for others to see. Not you.

Back to Walter’s article: Leisure time has of course been a class marker for at least as long as there has been such a thing as social hierarchies: It was never coincidence that the Throne was a seat, before which you stood (or knelt, or groveled). But, with increased automation and lesser need for human labor, ‘leisure’ has become available to more people than ever before (ironically, even in the case of the chronically un-/under-employed, who would perhaps prefer to be less idle). So, as with Branding, the game has to change to suit our habitual nature– and I believe Walter’s quote up above points out our current quandary very nicely.

I live in a country where people argue against food stamps/unemployment insurance because some cunning idler might use them to buy cigarettes, or booze, or cellphones (none of these claims are objectively true, since purchases are limited by category, but cross-tribal hatreds run strong in an era of perceived decline). Few seem willing to pay to educate the entire American populace up the economic food chain, either. Nor does our current economy seem able to create jobs for all those who do manage to get educated above their birth-class. So it’s not clear to me how we’re supposed to transition from our current state of affairs to some post-Labor Leisure Culture. We can’t all start businesses, Capital is too scarce (ie the banks would never fund them all). We can’t all go freelance, because there are only so many slots available, and so many barriers to entry and gatekeepers in the way.

Most serious thinkers seem to realize the necessary End Game at this point, but none seem to have a serious, believable, achievable path to get there without some massive (and very unlikely) mass-transformation in the culture and psychology of those currently living.

I’ll let Mr Walter finish the topic, since it was his article that got me started:

We need to learn this lesson as a culture. We have to place the human capacity to create at the very centre of our social and political life. Instead of treating it as a peripheral benefit of economic growth, we need to understand that our wealth only grows at the speed that we can develop our creative capacities. And we must realise that we can no longer afford to empower the creativity of the few at the cost of the many. Our systems of government, business and education must make it their mission to support the creative fulfilment of every human being.

So… how to get to this future, from here?

Or are we just kidding ourselves?


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