The Aesthetic Life

A World Without Work

Posted in Uncategorized by jonflynn on September 30, 2009

Over the course of the last century and a half, living standards have risen dramatically, time worked per week has dropped, and the average person has access to items that not even the richest kings could obtain. Technology, both material and logistical, has been the driving force behind this change. And technology is only getting better. One can imagine a world where every person has access to machines that can construct whatever they can imagine from the base materials that surround them. Supposing such a world were to exist, where everyone can have all of their worldly desires satisfied, what would you do with your life?

I think we already see examples of this in the modern world. Many people in first world societies don’t have to work at all, and most work very little compared to their counterparts in history. What we have is an unprecedented amount of leisure time, and the only way to even attempt to answer the question above is to explore what it is we do “for fun”. I think how we entertain ourselves can be separated into doing nothing and hobbies.

Doing nothing is actually the harder of the two to define, but I think it involves a sort of destruction of the self. Zoning out, sleeping, and drug/alcohol use for the purpose of simply not being conscious are all examples. This isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. We often use these techniques to recuperate from a long day of work, a tough exam, or a bad break up. Recuperation is the key word here though. If we have no work to do, what is the point of recuperation? Doing nothing on summer break is awesome for the first week or month, depending on how bad your exams were, but it gets dull quickly. Retirees often look forward to retirement, but find that they miss having things to do relatively quickly. Those that simply stay at home and mindlessly watch TV have been shown to die much quicker than those that engage the world. I think that we actually need to do something mindful to live well, although moments of respite are not innately bad.

When leisure is plentiful, hobbies are necessary for a good life. Humans seem to have a need for something to overcome. A hobby is a self created struggle. There often is no logical reason for a person to pursue a hobby. For example, I practiced Tae Kwon Do for a dozen years, but have never gotten into a fight. In terms of utility, it has been a complete failure. Yet I still (attempt to) practice martial arts for the pleasure it gives me. Another example is a home beer brewer – it is not economical to make beer on your own, and specialty shops can sell you whatever weird flavor you hanker for. Still, people brew simply for the joy of having a hobby.

Hobbies tend to have the convenient quality of never being quite solvable. A martial artist can never have perfect form. A home brewer can never make the perfect beer. Some hobbies are about collecting experiences. Film buffs and wine tasters are always on the hunt for something new and good – there is never an end for this pursuit.

Let me make an observation about video games, something that has taken up much of the leisure time of my generation. They are challenging. It is trivial to make an easy video game, one where there is no obstacles between Mario and the Princess. In the extreme case, we could simply have a “You Win” flashing on the screen, but this doesn’t satisfy people. There needs to be a struggle to make that “You Win” worth something. Games are an artificial construction of rules – anything is possible, yet we choose to limit ourselves to gain satisfaction from the overcoming. As technology progresses and gives us more and more control over the world, I think we will simply choose where to limit ourselves rather than having nature imposing her limits on us.

Side note: In a conversation with a friend who read the paper, I used another analogy to explain the last sentence that she like a lot better. Imagine two poets – one is a traditionalist, creating poems based on rules about meter and stresses (e.g. Haiku, Sonnets). The other is an avant-garde poet, who rejects all restrictions and doesn’t limit himself with any of these trifling things. Which poet is going to have a more beautiful set of works? Who is going to have a more beautiful life – those who limit themselves or those that have no rhyme or reason?


One Response

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  1. DRS said, on October 11, 2009 at 11:47 am

    all of their worldly desires…this may not be so easy to satisfy, if ‘winning’ is one of them. Much of the desire for luxury items is ‘conspicuous consumption’, i.e. related to the quest for social status, perhaps even power. Could we have a society that gave everyone the same access to material satisfaction without having already radically transformed our mode of relating to one another? If we had already done that, might we not have already learned to satisfy ourselves with much less? Your image of the future seems not unlike that of Marx in the 1844 manuscripts, where mankind is no longer alienated from its work, other humans, or itself.

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