Igor Shoikhedbrod, Interrogating A World Without Work [2020 C4eJ 57] (Symposium)

[➡︎ read the rest of the symposium]

Igor Shoikhedbrod*

In what follows, I offer a critical review of Daniel Susskind’s A World Without Work (Metropolitan Books, 2020). More specifically, I review Susskind’s book against the backdrop of the recent symposium on The Future of Work in the Age of Automation and AI that I had the honour of hosting through the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics. An adequate assessment of A World Without Work would be incomplete without a broader interdisciplinary conversation about the normative prospects and perils associated with the future of work. This is especially true in the present conjuncture, which has been characterized by two important developments since the publication of Susskind’s book. I am referring to the ongoing global pandemic and mobilization against racialized police violence. As will become evident in the review, the international contributors to the Centre’s recent symposium on the future of work bring to light important dimensions that are otherwise overlooked in Susskind’s book.

Susskind’s A World Without Work is very much an interdisciplinary family affair. The author makes it clear that this book grew out of previous collaborative work with his father, Richard Susskind, and draws additionally on the research of his brother, Jamie Susskind. Evidently, the future of work is a topic that figures prominently in the Susskind family, which adheres to a rather unique disciplinary division of labour. Needless to say, Susskind’s book is distinctive beyond his family’s fascination with work and its future. One of the virtues of A World Without Work is that it outlines the stakes of the debate surrounding the future of work in language that is accessible to a broader readership. This is a considerable accomplishment, not least because the future of work should be regarded as a topic of serious public interest and concern. Second, for someone trained as an economist, Susskind succeeds in weaving together relevant concepts and statistics while maintaining the reader’s attention with passing references to notable economists, philosophers, literary classics, mythical personages, as well as Jewish anecdotes and proverbs. Plato, Aristotle, Daedalus, Prometheus, Darwin, Marx, Keynes, Weber, Leontief, Hayek, Einstein, Arendt, Tennyson, Freud, Galbraith, and Golem make brief appearances throughout the book.

On a more substantive level, Susskind makes two important contributions to scholarship concerning the future of work.  First, Susskind provides a helpful historical analysis of uneven and unpredictable trends in AI technology alongside a parallel history of labour and societal responses to those trends. One notable concept that factors heavily in Susskind’s analysis is “task encroachment.” Task encroachment, according to Susskind, refers to a phenomenon in which “almost everywhere, machines are becoming increasingly capable, creeping further into the realm of tasks once performed only by human beings” (97). The invocation of task encroachment enables Susskind to overcome two problematic orientations in recent scholarship on the future of work. The first orientation involves the outright denial that intelligent machines will ever have the capacity to perform specialized tasks without relying on human imitation or design. Susskind faults this perspective for committing the “AI fallacy,” which wrongly assumes that AI will always be made in the superior image of human beings (73). The other orientation oscillates between one-sidedly optimistic and pessimistic forecasts concerning the future of work. Either human labour will be integrated alongside AI or automation will spell mass unemployment and havoc. The emphasis on task encroachment allows Susskind to overcome these extremes by considering the possibility of a world with less work rather than a world without work as such (127). In this respect, the book’s title is partly a misnomer. Susskind’s motivation is to encourage readers to consider the realistic possibility of a significant decline in the demand for human labour in the foreseeable future.

The spectre of a world with considerably less work brings me to the book’s second and arguably most important contribution, at least as far as matters of ethics are concerned. Whereas many commentators frequently pay lip service to the potential crises of meaning associated with automation and the decline of work, Susskind deems considerations of value and meaning indispensable to any serious discussion about the future of work, and with good reason. A World Without Work begins with the triumphant age of labour, proceeds by questioning latent assumptions about human superiority in an age of automation and AI, and concludes with an imaginative chapter about meaning and purpose. In this respect, Susskind is to be commended for posing the “ought” question directly and unambiguously. What ought to be done in a world with far less work? Susskind suggests a few possible proposals involving targeted or conditional basic income schemes, reigning in on “Big Tech” with the assistance of the “Big State,” alternative regimes for organizing work, and most ambitiously, the importance of “meaning creation” (236).

To be sure, posing the right questions does not always amount to offering the most persuasive answers to these questions. It is precisely by probing the various commissions and omissions in A World Without Work that critically-minded readers can acquire a better appreciation of the normative stakes involved in the ongoing debate about the future of work. In one important sense, Susskind’s book reaffirms the popular saying that old habits die hard. Trained as an economist, Susskind is at pains to show that capital necessarily comes in two forms—traditional capital and human capital (134). The drawback of this approach for scholarship concerning the future of work is that it grossly underestimates the power of “traditional capital” in the form of assets while simultaneously exaggerating the potential of “human capital,” which is expressed in terms of individual investments in education, skills-training, and networking. Although Susskind draws on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he overlooks a pivotal reason why Piketty intentionally avoids the term “human capital.” Aside from its multifarious meanings, the term rests on the questionable assumption that human beings sell themselves on the market, which for Piketty (and Marx) could only be obtained under conditions of slavery. The more pressing issue with Susskind’s use of human capital is that it undermines his attempt at linking soaring levels of inequality in recent years with increased underemployment resulting from task encroachment. Similarly, while Susskind invokes traditional and human capital in his book, he sidesteps a much needed discussion about the salience of intellectual property, patents, and control over data in the age of automation and AI, which will arguably be as important as traditional capital in a world with less work.

Another shortcoming of the book is that it puts considerable faith in the transformative power of the “Big State,” which Susskind understands as an expanded welfare state that counteracts the power of “Big Tech.” Susskind’s Big State will also aim at curbing rising inequality while generating moral leadership among enlightened politicians (236). Such an elastic and forward-looking view of the state overlooks the extent to which “Big Tech” already exerts inordinate pressure on indebted states and often holds them captive with threats of capital flight. The contributions of Cynthia Estlund, Veena Dubal, and Aleena Chia to the Centre’s online symposium underscore the extent to which the neoliberal ideological imaginary has actually weakened rather than strengthened the state’s regulative capacities at the expense of workers. Susskind’s appeal to moral leadership and meaning creation are noble goals, but they reflect the well-intentioned aspirations of a former government policy analyst more than they do the political-economic realities and constraints facing existing states.

While Susskind assigns considerable importance to the Big State of the future, he says surprisingly little about the potential impact of political resistance on the future of work. The reason for this peculiar omission may be twofold. First, he appears to leave the terrain of politics to Jamie Susskind, author of Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech (Oxford University Press, 2018), which would be in keeping with the familial division of labour alluded to earlier. Second, a prior stint in the British civil service combined with a principled belief in the untapped institutional potential of states may have inadvertently led Susskind to neglect the relevance of politics outside of Parliament. The absence of an extended discussion of political resistance against automation and AI in the present and foreseeable future is a glaring oversight. Fortunately, readers will find a partial remedy to this shortcoming in my contribution to the online symposium, which calls for a re-politicization and revaluation of work. The same is true for practically all of the other symposium contributions.

More specifically, Veena Dubal focuses on the concrete experiences of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (Mturk) workers, whose labour is compensated in a piecemeal manner. Dubal shows the extent to which the algorithmic-inspired labour regime facing Turk workers harkens back to earlier domestic and gendered forms of labour that were framed as noble familial duties to be performed by women. As Dubal points out in her contribution, the contemporary neoliberal labour regime extols labour flexibility and initiative while simultaneously instilling in Turk workers an ethic of individual responsibility for any failure. The curious fact that Turk workers are grossly underpaid and are predominantly marginalized women does not factor into the neoliberal equation. Dubal draws creatively on the work of historian E.P. Thompson, particularly his reference to the compulsion of labour-time-discipline under capitalism. Rather than abolishing piece work altogether, Dubal calls for its regulation and also highlights the importance of political mobilization among piece workers who are otherwise atomized as a result of their particular conditions of work. Dubal would be well placed to add more emphatically that the making of piece workers also carries the potential for forging a collective sense of identity among Turk workers that, if successful, can challenge existing conditions of work.

Although the present and foreseeable impact of AI on managerial functions is not sufficiently addressed in A World Without Work, it is a central focus in the contributions of Valerio De Stefano, Jeremias Adams-Prassl, and Aleena Chia. De Stefano demonstrates convincingly how algorithmic bosses, far from facilitating worker autonomy, entrench unprecedented techniques of surveillance that neither Hawthorne nor Foucault could have arguably imagined. De Stefano points to the manifold threats posed by algorithmic bosses that undermine the privacy and dignity of workers in morally troubling ways. Part of the solution, according to De Stefano, lies in a more robust understanding of worker’s rights as human rights, along with accompanying regulatory measures that are responsive to political realities on the ground. Adams-Prassl similarly brings to bear the spectre of “Black Box Bosses,” which makes one wonder whether human bosses should ultimately be preferred over algorithmic ones. I would challenge De Stefano and Adams-Prassl to consider a third option—worker control over their conditions of work, including the election of accountable managers in worker-owned and managed enterprises. While this may seem far on the horizon, it brings to light questions of ownership and control by workers. If algorithmic bosses are on the horizon, why not worker self-management? Surely, this would be another way of securing the autonomy and dignity of workers in the age of automation and AI.

Finally, Aleena Chia’s timely contribution sheds valuable light on what the ongoing pandemic has meant for the traditional dichotomy between home and work, and by extension the dichotomy between work and leisure, which is also underdeveloped in A World Without Work. Not unlike Dubal, Chia justifiably takes issue with what she regards as an antiquated opposition between home and work that the ongoing pandemic has seriously brought into question. While some workers have welcomed the apparent virtues of working remotely from home, Chia makes us think twice about the price of uncritically endorsing such forms of labour flexibility. Chia’s normative concerns resonate with those of Dubal, Adams-Prassl, and De Stefano. In place of the old binary of home versus work, Chia calls for a more radical imaginary that sees workers as products of precarious circumstances and as agents of identity and change.  However, the question that remains is whether the distinction between home and work needs to be preserved in a critical sense to ensure that there are identifiable temporal, physical, and mental limits to work—paid and unpaid.

In the end, Susskind’s A World Without Work succeeds in prompting readers to consider the possible ramifications of a world with less work. However, the devil always lies in the details and prescriptions. This is precisely where the symposium contributors have much to offer to Susskind and anyone else who takes seriously the ethical implications associated with the future of work in the age of automation and AI.


* Postdoctoral Fellow in Ethics of AI, Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto.

Works Cited

Susskind, Daniel. A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond. Metropolitan Books, 2020.