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Uselessness In The 21st Century


In a fast-changing world, economic paradigms are changing to take on the appearance of simplicity and common sense. In his book “Bullshit jobs”, David Graeber explains how the jobs created by modernity are absurd, immoral and in some cases stupid. The information technology revolution has created a parallel world in which jobs don’t quite make the sense they used to. According to Wikipedia, here is the author’s typology of jobs:

The “stooges”, used to enhance the value of superiors or customers

The “gun carriers” or “henchmen”, recruited because competitors already employ someone in this position, and whose work has an aggressive dimension

The “patchers”, employed to solve problems that could have been avoided

The “ticklers”, hired to allow an organization to pretend it is dealing with a problem it has no intention of solving

Little bosses” or “foremen,” supervising people who are already working independently.

How Did We Get Here?

The specialization of work has allowed an unprecedented gain in productivity. However, this hyperspecialization clashes with the deepest human aspirations. A human being does not want to be a cog in a wheel, he aspires to much more than that. However, money is often at the rendezvous of the most specialized professions, so we draw a line on the possibility of realizing ourselves in our work.

However, this era is coming to an end. A world in which automation and artificial intelligence are the norm, makes these bullshit jobs equally obsolete.

Being useless today can mean being useful tomorrow. We can look forward to a reversal of values as a result of this ultimate revolution.

Productivity and global wealth are increasing. What is becoming scarcer is employment and especially the new skills required to satisfy the market. This change poses the problem of people’s usefulness in so-called modern societies where work is the main source of personal fulfillment, often before the family or any other anthropological consideration.

The massification of uselessness can be a source of rejoicing if we know how to give it a salutary outcome. We must distinguish two types of utility, the one linked to society, to other humans, and the one linked to the economy. We are progressively moving towards a society in which the economic utility of the population will be close to zero. What we are witnessing is an economy of robots and algorithms that will replace humans in their productive function. This will never be the case, at least I hope, for purely human affairs such as reproduction, social relationships or assistance to the most fragile people. Thanks to this massification of economic uselessness, humanity will be able to focus on purely human functions in the anthropological sense of the term. Of course, this new model raises the question of the distribution of wealth. How can we continue to live in a society if we cannot generate our own means of subsistence? Wealthlessness implies a redistribution of wealth which will not decrease, on the contrary, it will increase and we can even reasonably conjecture that wealth per capita will grow as much as it did in the 20th century despite a demographic explosion. The 21st century therefore seems to be the death of homo economicus. But what kind of man will it produce? A homo spritus? Or a homo ecologicus? Or homo sophus (wise man) as opposed to homo sapiens (man of knowledge)?

This transformation can hardly be predicted, the trajectory of humanity will be unique in the sense that a society totally freed from work has never existed. There have been slave societies in which a tiny portion of the population enjoyed almost total idleness, but what we must expect will undoubtedly be very different. The disappearance of employment may threaten the value of work. Today, work is valued only by its mercantile dimension (employment). All work that is not commodified is either despised or hidden. A society no longer based on employment may give in to the temptation to get rid of work and its purely social and human dimension. If this is the case, we would see the advent of homo voluptas or hedonistic man. In such a situation, one can only deplore a decline of civilization which will sink by its nihilism as were the past societies.

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