We live in paradoxical times. All of us profit from digitalisation – and yet general satisfaction does not seem to increase. Many things that were previously reserved for kings have become commonplace in the smallest village. We are surrounded by digital assistants. Measured by the comfort of our lives, it is pleasanter today to be a poor person than a king 200 years ago. Most presidents or billionaires (probably) use the same iPhone as myself – technology has levelled the differences in status. Yet there are serious differences in many other fields.
Robots don’t strike
A Bavarian manufacturer of sporting goods is building a fully automated “speed factory” in Herzogenaurach in which machines are making shoes on their own – a novelty for which tax money is being used to fund the necessary research. In the summer of 2017 the first shoes will come of the production line and to all intents and purposes no humans will work in production any longer. After the jobs went to the Far East in the twentieth century and the products then had to go on a voyage by ship lasting six to eight weeks until they reached our shops, commercial routes will shorten to a few days. Just-in-time is what the economists call it. That strikes a chord with keen consumers who will be able to acquire the latest product even faster.
But the greatest benefit will accrue to the manufacturer who will make even more profit. The state will be the loser since robots don’t pay tax. Tax revenues which normally result from the work process and are collected by the state for redistribution will no longer be there. This new form of product requires fewer people. That stokes fear. Researchers from Oxford prophesied four years ago that it would only take ten to twenty years until 47 percent of current jobs in the USA would be replaced by machines. Other studies came to similar results.
It is already the case today that there are not enough income-generating jobs – in Europe youth unemployment is a huge problem, lying at 24 percent in France and over 50 percent in Spain. Its real social consequences have yet to be revealed. If every second young person in a country is told at the end of their training or university course that their labour is not required, that provides anything but a positive outlook for the future.
A closer look shows that there is of course enough work. Rationalisation and automation don’t make work disappear. It is just the case that in many fields of work robots are better because they can work around the clock without making errors and without paying tax. Furthermore, they won’t go on strike and make pay demands. That makes them cheap, predictable and easy to plan for. The issue, therefore, is not work but income.
Free to be human
For what purpose do we live and learn when large parts of the work process have been automated? In everything that can be calculated we are sooner or later inferior to algorithms. So what makes us different as human beings? Everywhere we hear that education is crucial. Young people had to learn to think entrepreneurially. But how can teachers help to teach entrepreneurship when imitation is such an important part of education and the teacher standing in front of the class is a state employee? After all, the teachers have chosen the opposite path, the “safe haven”.
As early as school the fear is rife among pupils that they will not be needed in the future. That continues into university. Here 53 percent of students are currently suffering from stress – more than employees (according to an online survey by the German AOK health insurance company).
This indicates that we continue to teach the rat race. But that is precisely where robots will overtake us human beings with the greatest speed. A forward-looking debate will consider the question how we can make everyone so economically secure that they do not need to have any fear. How can we manage to distribute the money in such a way that everyone has their basic needs covered unconditionally?
Today half the world is talking about the unconditional basic income. The results of large field tests in Finland, Canada and Kenya for example will show whether and how it can be introduced. What is clear is that if the performance-oriented society continues on its present course it will soon be people serving high-speed robots while occasionally trying to recuperate from burnout in what remains of nature; alternatively the robotic machines will release increasing numbers of people to be free – free to be human. That in turn puts the real issues on the table – the question about ourselves for instance.
When waiting is lost
But the flipside of Industry 4.0 is that consumption prevents these questions from rising to consciousness. We are the best customers if we feed the digital machines permanently with our attention. No time to be lost, no moment without entertainment, we must not miss out on anything. In the past there were places where things were slow, where people sat and waited. Today waiting rooms are disappearing from our perception. When I go to the authorities or to see the doctor an SMS tells me when it is my turn. At the airport and railway station waiting has long been replaced by shopping. On the underground platforms large screens keep me up to date. In public transport, screens mean that we stop looking outside or at the faces of other passengers so much. Even the till at the baker’s displays a brief advertising message before showing the price. As if boredom were a crime.
Boredom is valuable
Slowness has not always been a negative criterion. Until some way into the twentieth century boredom was indulged with sprawling novels. But now, permanently on the move, we find it increasingly difficult to see slowness as a meaningful experience. The middle class work ethic is closely connected with today’s linkage between meaning and work. At the same time in religious ethics Calvinism sought to stamp out idleness as a sin against God, industrialisation pounded it into the ground with mechanical power and digitalisation with its exponential acceleration appears to have irreversibly driven it out.
A beneficial method is to go to places where such flurry of activity is not (yet) predominant. But the question remains: for how long will that be possible? When some time ago I travelled by train from Moscow to Bishkek (Kirgizstan), I faced five days of boredom – what a great time. Rarely could I indulge in more intense conversations, rarely was it so peaceful in the loud, slow clickety-clack of the train over the rails. But: “The tourist destroys what he seeks in finding it,” as Hans Magnus Enzensberger already knew almost 40 years ago. Thus through our tourism we are increasingly bringing the world up to speed.
Another method is to go voluntarily to a ten-day Vipassana meditation course where the attention is fully directed to the flow of the breathing. Breathing, nothing else. That is very successful today. People are so enthusiastic about it that ten-day workshops including food and accommodation are offered for free. The subsequent donations support the organisation. But does the short break subsequently lead to greater haste because we have to catch up on what we have missed?
A new concept of prosperity
Let’s do an experiment: observe in the next two days how frequently you look at your mobile phone. And ask yourself after every time that you looked whether that was really necessary. Researchers at the “Mental Balance” project in Bonn, who watched the behaviour of 60,000 smartphone users via an app, discovered that the users switched on their smartphone 88 times – per day; 35 times to look at the clock or see whether a new message has arrived; 53 times to surf, chat or use another app. In other words, the voluntary participants in the study interrupted their activity every 18 minutes in order to go online.
There are counter movements. My friend Paul is a carpenter. He is familiar with all the technical resources available for his carpentry – and yet he decided deliberately in favour of slow, laborious working by hand. His works are unique, pure hand work. If he needed a lot of money he could not afford to make things at such a slow pace. But his pleasure and the experience of reality in the work process outweigh the difficulties. And perhaps it can also be felt in the product. I also know entrepreneurs who have exchanged their smartphone for an ordinary mobile – because they cannot afford the time and are honest enough to admit that they cannot resist the temptation.
A news concept of prosperity is forming. The fixation on financial wealth is thinking in terms which are too narrow. In her book Im Club der Zeitmillionäre (In the Club of the Time Millionaires), Greta Taubert shows how in the diversity of today’s ways of living a wealth of time is becoming an important factor. The risk investor Albert Wenger, a major figure in the startup world because he was the first to invest in a number of well-known companies, writes in World after Capital (www.worldaftercapital.com) how money is becoming increasingly irrelevant and we are already living in a post-capitalist time – even if this does not so far apply to everyone.
The crucial factor is that we have to counter the dominance of digital opportunities with new skills. Moshe Vardi, professor of computer science in Texas, says: “The industrial revolution began in the eighteenth century and we needed about 200 years to develop the modern, social welfare state (…). The next 50 years will force us to reinvent society, but in a very much shorter period of time.”
While we reinvent society, we also have to find ourselves anew because the potential we bear within ourselves is even greater than the digital opportunities. For that potential we need inner peace, will and persistence.
About the author: Börries Hornemann was a Waldorf pupil and is a philosopher and entrepreneur. He was involved in organising the Swiss referendum on an unconditional basic income and is the founder of the Neopolis research network.