Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work by John Danaher

Reviewed by Michael Pitts.

Danaher, John. Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work. Harvard UP, 2019. Hardcover. 248 pg. $99.95. ISBN 9780674984240.

Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work is crafted as a response to fears over an automated future in which humans are made obsolete by technological developments. Written by John Danaher, senior lecturer of law at the National University of Ireland, Galway, the text consists of two main sections, which cover automation and the possibility of a utopian future, respectively.

After outlining the scope and purpose of his research, in the first chapter Danaher forecasts the obsolescence of humankind in an automated world. But this is not as catastrophic as it may sound since, for Danaher, “Obsolescence is the process or condition of being no longer useful or used; it is not a state of nonexistence or death” (2). In the rest of the automation section, Danaher responds to two propositions: that automation in the workplace is both possible and desirable, and that automation outside of the workplace is potentially dangerous and its threats must therefore be mitigated.

After making his case for why automation should be conditionally embraced, in the second section Danaher turns to two possible, ‘improved’ societies with automation fundamental to their economies, the cyborg and virtual utopias. While the cyborg utopia enables humankind to remain valuable members of the economy, occupying the cognitive niche that has historically provided an initial evolutionary advantage to the species, Danaher posits that such a future will likely maintain the degradations of employment, enhance our dependency upon machines, and disrupt humanist values while, due to the technological advancements it requires, ensuring no worthy improvements to human wellbeing in the near future.

Following up this analysis of the cyborg polity, Automation and Utopia concludes with a presentation of what Danaher views as the ideal, improved society, the virtual utopia. This improved society, in which humankind ventures into the virtual world to enhance its flourishing, is presented by Danaher as an ideal goal towards which humankind may aim since, as the author posits, it will ensure human agency, pluralism, stability, a myriad of alternative utopias, and a meaningful connection to the non-virtual, real world. 

Pivotal to Danaher’s assessment of automation, and a possibly utopian future, are his views on labor and the avenue he identifies as optimal for human flourishing, the virtual utopia. For the purposes of his argument, he adopts a definition of work which he acknowledges as unusual and likely controversial, since it excludes “most domestic work (cleaning, cooking, childcare)” as well as “things like subsistence farming or slavery” (29). Defining work as “any activity (physical, cognitive, emotional etc.) performed in exchange for an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving an economic reward,” Danaher builds the case that obsolescence is almost certain and could result in as low as 10% or as high as 40% of the future population remaining employed (28). Such a development is framed as a positive result since work, he emphasizes, has a negative effect upon employees and improving it in the current economic milieu is, according to him, a more difficult route to take than shifting towards a virtual utopia. Specifically, Danaher argues that improving work, which often involves fissuring, precarity, colonization, classic collective action, domination, and distributive injustice is unlikely in our current system since it “would require reform of the basic rules of capitalism, some suppression or ban of widely used technologies as well as reform of the legal and social norms that apply to work” (83). Though this dismissal of the possibility of improving working conditions is short-sighted and ignores the likelihood that labor organizing will prove necessary as technological advances continue, this weakness of the text stands on its periphery. More important to Danaher’s vision of the future is his adoption of an approach that is interestingly more radical than such efforts to protect workers: the introduction of a universal basic income and the normalization of technological unemployment in current economic systems. 

Danaher envisions this radically different distribution of economic power as a salient feature unique to the virtual utopia. Danaher rejects the cyborg utopia, believing it will threaten the prospect of universal basic income and technological unemployment and ensure the continuation of work and the injustices endemic to capitalistic systems. In considering the virtual utopia, Danaher’s audience must consider the ethics and consequences of a nation in which utopian games and escape become a salient feature of its culture. This ideal society is marked by its focus upon virtual worlds as the mechanism by which human flourishing may take place. By venturing into simulations that are shaped to satisfy the desires and needs of individual users, it avoids the problems of a single utopian ideal that must be enforced upon all citizens. It can therefore, as Danaher explains, “allow for the highest expressions of human agency, virtue, and talent… and the most stable and pluralistic understanding of the ideal society” (270). 

Yet as with the cyborg utopia, the virtual utopia is plagued with ethical complications. The question of what actions are permissible in such a simulated environment is closely related to the ethical considerations surrounding cyborgs and artificial intelligence. In very briefly confronting this topic, Danaher asserts that the same moral constraints that shape human interactions in daily life will impact those occupying the virtual world. He supports this argument by pointing out that some of the characters inhabiting the simulation will be operated by human players and that interactions with such players will have ethical dimensions. In addition, he asserts that other actions may be deemed intrinsically immoral even without a corresponding ‘real-life’ consequence.  Danaher asserts that, though there will be some moral frameworks unique to the virtual utopia, there will be no major alteration to human ethics. The virtual utopia, he claims, is therefore a reasonable goal for the post-work society since it enables human flourishing and protects values such as individualism and humanism.

Danaher is also keen to emphasize that “the distinction between the virtual and the real is fluid” (229). He rejects the “stereotypical” science fictional view of virtual reality, as something that is only produced within immersive technological simulations, like the Matrix or Star Trek’s Holodeck. On the other hand, he also rejects the “counterintuitive” view that everything humans experience is virtual reality in that our reality is constructed through language and culture. Instead, Danaher offers a middle position. Some things may be more virtual than others, but nothing is wholly virtual or wholly real. He sees virtual utopia as being filled with emotionally and morally meaningful interactions, but in the context of relatively inconsequential stakes (rather than survival, or struggle for hegemony). A Holodeck-style simulation is only one of many ways this could be accomplished. 

Automation and Utopia delves significantly into the topic of possible futures at the intersection of ethics, technology, and humanism. It is a valuable resource for scholars, students, and laypeople engaged with conversations surrounding the advancement of automation in the 21st-century, its impact upon economics and workers, and optimal approaches to accommodating such new technologies through the advent of a post-work society. The work continues discussions at the intersection of technology and labor, but necessitates broader considerations related to the virtual utopia Danaher proposes. Namely, it does not convincingly explain how virtual utopia will avoid the ethical pitfalls outlined in relation to the cyborg utopia. It also does not thoroughly discuss how such simulations may be safeguarded from economic exploitation at the hands of those owning or operating these systems, or address the potential for intersectional inequalities. Finally, Danaher does not comprehensively discuss how such escapism and the further minimization of human interaction in the natural world may impact climate and the environment. Though it is difficult to accurately predict, estimations of both the ecological and psychological effects of a society in which the main mechanism of human interaction is not within nature but instead within a virtual world are vital to identifying optimal utopian aims.

Overall, Automation and Utopia productively dives into the topics of technological advancement and labor policy, proposes thought-provoking socioeconomic policies related to the challenges of automation, and necessitates further discussions concerning ‘the ideal society,’ its connection to technology, and the impact it may have upon human psychology and the environment. 

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Intimate Earthquakes: An interview with Sensory Cartographies

This interview originally appeared in Vector 292.

We’re lucky to be talking today to Jonathan Reus and Sissel Marie Tonn, whose collaborative work appears under the name Sensory Cartographies. Their work includes, among other things,  the creation of wearable technologies that explore the nature of sensation and attention. […] So like many great collaborations, there’s quite an interdisciplinary aspect to Sensory Cartographies, is that right?

Sissel: Yes, we both have our different backgrounds. Jon really comes from a music and performance background, as well as instrument building and media archaeology. And my background is more in visual arts and arts research.

So tell us how Sensory Cartographies came to be.

Sissel: It started in 2016, when we got an opportunity to do a residency together in Madeira. Sensory Cartographies really grew out of that residency. I’d been to Madeira before in 2013, and started this drawing project, to do with Madeira’s position in the Age of Exploration, which you could really call the Age of Colonization. 

Continue reading “Intimate Earthquakes: An interview with Sensory Cartographies”