I was invited to participate in a panel on "automatization and digitalization as a strategy for reaching a social-ecological just future" by my sometimes colleague Ulrika Gunnarsson-Östling at the conference "Undisciplined environments". The conference was held at KTH and I will write a separate blog post about it as this blog post only treats the panel I participated in.
The background to me being invited to the panel has to do with my background/position (computer science), my report on the future of work two years ago and my involvement in organising the symposium "After work - Life after jobs disappear" one year ago. While preparing the symposium, we really only worked on extrapolation from current trends and I commented a couple of times that sustainability and disruptive change (for example the possibility that we are experiencing the end of economic growth) was a perspective that wasn't represented at the symposium. Such perspectives were instead the focus of this panel. Below is the invitation to the panel including some questions that me and the other panelists were asked to think about when preparing for the panel:
Automatization and digitalization as a strategy for reaching a social-ecological just future
In many of today’s sustainability policies, continued GDP growth is taken for granted. Sustainable growth is thus seen as an overall political goal. However the rhetoric around this concept has become increasingly criticized by researchers pointing to that there is no evidence of nations having decoupled growth from environmental degradation, given that the global footprints of these nations are accounted for. Besides, GDP growth is still reliant on access to cheap energy, and in the context of climate change and peaking resources, it is predicted that energy costs will rise.
Questioning GDP growth often means questioning the belief in technological development as a savior for the environment. In this round-table we will turn this starting point upside-down and instead imagine automatization and digitalization as a scenario for social-ecological liberation. In the discussion, we imagine that the automatization and digitization has enabled human labor power to be replaced, but also that our consumption has changed so that land use has become social-ecological just and climate impact radically reduced.
Questions will include:
• Can we imagine that automation takes place within the planetary boundaries? How? Why/why not?
• Can automatization be imagined in an social-ecological just and post-capitalist way? How? Why/why not?
• What would this mean for our way of consuming goods and services?
• Can production systems in this scenario be democratic?
• What would we do with all the spare time that would materialize in this scenario?
• Is automatization a provoking issue to consider within the research field political ecology?
Ulrika moderated the discussion the other two panelists besides me were Ann Bergman, Professor in Working Life Science at Karlstad University and Henner Busch, Ph.D. student at Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS).
We were not only invited to think about questions in the intersection of automatization and sustainability, but were also tasked with thinking about the almost utopian possibility of the near-future machines liberating humans from the toil of work and creating an equal and just society for the benefit of all.
None of the three panelists had an easy time and we all raised critical questions about the possibility of even imagining such a world. I suggested that we would have to turn to fiction to find such happy endings based on the extrapolation of current trends. I personally even oppose the use of the term "sustainable growth" (see the description above) as I think it's an oxymoron and a "softer" version of proposing that we should aim for "sustainable overexploitation"(!).
I made copies of some book covers that I thought could be useful to invoke in the discussion and I did in fact referred to a couple of books that I have read; Mitchell's "Carbon Democracy", Nikiforuk's "The energy of slaves", Beinger's "Control revolution" and (unread) Brynjolfssson and MacAfee's "Race against the machine" and "The second machine age".
In the panel itself, I took every opportunity to inject an energy perspective into the discussion. I assume that technological progress as well as economic growth are dependent on access to plenty of inexpensive oil (energy) and we can't really be sure about that so there are no guarantees that the machine-dominated futures we discussed will ever appear.
As to the utopian visions of an equal and just society, I suggested that that wasn't really an option, or, at least possible only with difficulty and then dependent on struggles and strife for workers'/citizens' rights. Machines might solve the challenge of producing goods inexpensively but they wont solve the problem of distributing the "spoils" evenly. Someone will own those machines and it is hard for me to see that the profits will "automatically" be evenly divided between all citizens in a society. A perhaps-positive alternative vision is to rethink what "affluence" actually is and so I went to the panel armed with a great quote by Marshall Sahlins from his book "Stone age economics":
"[hunting and gathering] was, when you come to examine it, the original affluent society. ... For there are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be "easily satisfied" either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception ... makes assumptions peculiarly appropriate to market economies: that man's wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable: thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity. ... But there is also a Zen road to affluence ... that human material wants are finite and few .. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty - with a low standard of living. That, I think, describes the hunters."
Based on the quote, it is hard to imagine that we would ever have any problems with "too much spare time" (the second to last question above). A vision of affluence in terms limited wants and needs (e.g. low standards of living) but plenty of time for leisure and social activities is unfortunately hard for us even to imagine in this day and age. It sounds only slightly more attainable than returning to the garden of Eden...
A final comment was that it was great to have a professor of working live science ("arbetsvetenskap") as a discussion partner. That is something I missed when I read up on and wrote about the future of work. Ann brought up several really interesting points about work and salaried labour; perhaps it is possible to imagine a utopian society that is based on critical feminist thinking that does not put reproduction and reproductive labor (caring for the young and the old) at the sidelines, but instead at the center of what a society is and does? Ann also raised other interesting points including the role of resistance and meaning-making characteristics of work (related to important issues of identity, status and self-respect). We work not just to earn money and buy food, but also to get the respect of other (and ourselves).
I came to the workshop prepared with a mixed bag of jotted down notes and quotes and will end this blog post with a quote I did not have the opportunity to use in the panel. It might be that it aptly describes both the panel and many other activities in the academy and in modern society where we tend to obsess about issues that in the end are not the most important ones - perhaps our eyes habitually glaze over the elephant in the room? The quote comes from G.K. Chesterton's book "Heretics" from 1905:
"And the weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon."