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Beware the AI leisure class Free time won't translate into real freedom

Are we turning into consumerist marshmallows? (WALL-E)

Are we turning into consumerist marshmallows? (WALL-E)


June 12, 2024   4 mins

When my girlfriends proposed moving into a rental house without a dishwasher, I was appalled. After all white goods had done for feminism, here we were willingly returning to the dark ages. Would I have to quit my job to scour a pullulating pile of dirty dishes?

It turns out it isn’t that bad. I actually don’t mind the time I spend mulling over my day with the warm, soapy water flowing over my hands, for once neither tapping nor scrolling. And it’s all been much easier since my flat-mate brought home a “Scrub Daddy” — not an obliging older boyfriend, but a grinning, all-American sponge.

Fear not: this isn’t the start of some trad-wife manifesto, calling all the hunnies back to the kitchen to be kept barefoot and pregnant. But rather, as technology and Artificial Intelligence take control of our everyday existence, to hail those mundane tasks which allow space for thought. As if we were to forsake them, what would we do instead? The chances are we’ll just spend more time in a high-tech trance: already, we spend nearly three hours a day on our phones, and even longer on laptops.

Consider the dreamy tranquillity of Vermeer’s muse The Milkmaid as she pours milk from a terracotta jug. While there is nothing to envy in her domestic servitude, there is something beguiling about how lost in thought she is while engaging in a mindless task. Her thoughts seem away: perhaps on a lover, or perhaps she has just struck upon the idea of oat milk. Such moments of serene reflection are vanishingly rare nowadays, as we whip out our phones to kill time as we sit on a train or wait for the kettle to boil.

Yet it’s not just our thoughts we are surrendering to technology; it’s our memory too. When my grandfather was a child, he was made to learn great chunks of poetry by heart. I by contrast, like my whole generation, have outsourced my memory to my phone, where I set reminders, keep phone numbers and compile vast to-do lists. Why bother to remember the words of the Bard — or even my new postcode — when I can look them up in an instant? And you can forget about learning a foreign language once we each have our very own Babel fish.

I hear of small acts of defiance: one acquaintance is memorising everything that matters to him, from phone numbers and flapjack recipes to the most elegant of maths theorems. It might seem foolish — resistance is a little futile at this stage. But just because we can delegate our duties to machines, does that mean we should?

Unlike a human, AI can’t find fulfilment in the fruits of its labour. The sense of pride, identity and community so familiar to Philip Roth’s glove-cutters in American Pastoral is alien to the machines that replace them: “Though they considered themselves to be men more aristocratic than anyone around, including the boss, a cutter’s working hand was proudly calloused from cutting with his big, heavy shears. Beneath those white shirts were arms and chests and shoulders full of a workingman’s strength — powerful they had to be, to pull and pull on leather all their lives, to squeeze out of every skin every inch of leather there was.” These noble men were the last of their kind, soon to vanish into the pit of industrial decline.

But maybe there are finer ways to fill your days than a vocation. While AI doomers fear an age of melancholic unemployment, others preach a glorious utopia of unlimited leisure. In this future paradise, we will be liberated from the drudgery of work and chores. Our working days could be shortened, leaving us time to devote to higher things: family, culture, nature, charity, contemplation, amusement. We could revive and democratise the ancient Roman concept of otium, cultivated leisure practised by the elite. And thanks to a generous form of Universal Basic Income — supposedly to be procured through Sam Altman’s iris-scanning crypto Orbs — every one of us could become a lady or gentleman of leisure. It would be an aristocracy for all.

In this Eden, AI could bring an end to the tyrannical rule of Lord Time, which began with the chiming of medieval church bells and intensified during the Industrial Revolution with the invention of railway timetables, factory shifts and the working week. It was not long before every human breath was commoditised, deployed for maximum utility in the labour market. And rest became strictly defined and heavily regulated. Now, however, we could simply clock off.

“Just because we can delegate our duties to machines, does that mean we should?”

But free time doesn’t necessarily translate into actual freedom. Who can afford to recreate the charmed existence of a Roman philosopher — all splendid villas and strutting peacocks? It’s more likely we morph into WALL-E-style consumerist marshmallows — all Deliveroo meals, Hinge and TikTok reels. We would live for dopamine kicks and little else.

How, then, might we balance the human desire for meaningful work with the need for AI-fuelled economic growth? Already, PwC has predicted that global GDP could be up to 14% higher in 2030 as a result of AI. Perhaps, with AI to grind away on our behalf, work will become a dalliance. Much as the appalling KidZania allows children to pay to spend the day pretending to work “jobs” for corporate sponsors in Westfield shopping centre, similar capitalist playgrounds might emerge for adults; we would pay for the satisfaction of doing a good day’s work: blowing glass, bricklaying, or writing a chapter of a novel.

We may, however, never reach such fantastical extremes. But the trick with AI is sensing when to stop. We should hold up every aspect of our lives to the light and wonder where AI could enhance or degrade our humanity. While inaction is the bĂȘte noire of humanity, it can sometimes be the wisest course; as Pascal wrote in 1654, “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. For every AI innovation we discover, we should consider: what, exactly, are we saving all our time and effort for?


Olivia Ward-Jackson is a Commissioning Editor at UnHerd.

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Steve Hamlett
Steve Hamlett
1 month ago

Three cheers for dishwashing! The tangible feel of the plate, the water, the soap, the rag. And at the end, a clean pile of dishes that YOU made happen with your own two hands. These days, that’s slightly glorious.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Hamlett

I agree. It’s the last thing i do every night before bed, and it provides a much-needed interval between the day and (hopefully) restful sleep.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

People are different. Someone will sing of the rapture of rising in the morning to a sinkful of dirty dishes. A bracing way to start the new day.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Hamlett

I thought exactly the same when reading that bit. I find both dishwashing and ironing sooo pleasant and calming. It is almost meditative. Some quiet time for myself – and seeing the results is so rewarding ( aka dopamine surge 😉 )
Btw, am wondering about the two downvotes under your post. I do know people who do not like washing the dishes, but couldn’t imagine that zealous dishwashing-haters do not tolerate even the mentioning of dishwashing. Hmmmm


Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago

Have you considered taking in laundry to supplement your income? You would find a surprising number of takers.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
1 month ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

To be honest, I did not think about it and now, that you are suggesting this, it does not seem an appealing option for me. Sorry!
On the other hand, I know that very few people do ironing, so this might be a good market niche for me 😉

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

Quite an impressive article from OW-J.
It seems she understands something of great importance – our use of time – and has found the means to express her ideas. Combining understanding of activity that’s meaningful and the inexorable rise of technology that only someone immersed from birth might do, she raises serious questions that go right to the core of whether we’ll succumb to AI or remain in a position to utilise it for our benefit.
Our evolutionary psychology is struggling to keep up with the pace of change, and some of the results can be seen in the everyday news feeds where young people (and not so young) just can’t grasp what’s happening around them and therefore resort to simplistic explanations.
I hope we’ll see more articles from her, although i’d always prefer quality over quantity.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Agree this was an enjoyable article. I appreciate how Unherd gives young journalists opportunities for publication. I recall one of their employees called Nicholas Harris published two or three excellent articles, but I haven’t seen anything from him recently.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs
1 month ago

PwC’s modelling is woefully shortsighted and limited – conducted by people who are (ironically) trying to position themselves so as to always be selling something to someone.

What their modelling fails to take into account is that most, if not all, markets have limits. This means that if AI helps increase productivity for everyone, then companies will very quickly find themselves coming up against those limits.

For example, if AI increases employee productivity by say 46%, and that increase is applied across all companies in that industry, but the market demand for products and services can only accommodate a 23% increase. Well
 that means a lot of the workforce starts to become superfluous, and we know what comes next after that.

And with an increasing number of the population out of work, ironically, the market limits will shrink even more, leading to even more lay-offs.

Fun times ahead.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
1 month ago

AI and robotics will allow everyone who wants one to have a robot servant. I certainly want one as will many others so nobody is going to succeed in slowing this down or stopping it I am pleasedcto say.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 month ago

Everyone who wants and can afford one, you mean. Of course, we’ll eventually see broken down sex robots piled up at the recycling centre and ploughed into landfill.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
1 month ago

They will be very cheap because their production costs will ten towards zero.

Saul D
Saul D
1 month ago

The free-time thing is a bit of a myth. Economies run on the exchange of labour. If machines take over something, we just switch to swapping another type of labour. It’s in our nature to find ways to work for each other.

Steven Connor
Steven Connor
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul D

A lecture by J.A. Froude in 1876 appears to be the source of a nineteenth-century joke that there are some communities that are so poor they are reduced to taking in each other’s washing.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

I guess we have not made ourselves captive enough to our inventions given people’s seeming inability to walk facing forward rather than down at a screen. AI, like anything else, comes with tradeoffs. People, however, like to act as if that truism is not true at all, but it is. I hear talk of UBI but no rational explanation of how it will be funded.
But the trick with AI is sensing when to stop. —-> That seems the trick with all technology, yet we have never demonstrated an ability to stop.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago

“…kept barefoot and pregnant”. These sly references to Islam will not be permitted forever. A policeman will come calling or, worse, a man with a knife.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

The term was introduced in the early 20th century by an American physician, AE Herstler, entirely unrelated to Islam.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Dr. Herstler is thought of no more, alas. Islam is where the barefoot and pregnant philosophy is regnant.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago

The time is coming when there will be a market for Victorian-style jobs. Putting in a shift at some dark satanic mill or working at the face of a seam of coal in a mine three miles deep will be needed to appreciate the value of leisure. But you will pay plenty just to get on a waiting list.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago

Ironically the stimulus of modern tech and fragmentary media allows us to ‘sit quietly in a room alone’ more easily than we ever have before.
Wall E is a great film btw.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago

Most of us will have no say in how AI is used. The living standards of the great unemployed will fall to subsistence level. We are already being conditioned to consume less energy so that the energy demands of AI can be met. And if the serfs get uppity, a new drug will be introduced to destroy their communities and any revolutionary potential.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
1 month ago

In our flat the dishwasher, seldom used and inclined to be smelly, went two years ago.

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
1 month ago

From the puritan work ethics we seem to inherit the elitist idea that leisure is bad, especially for the common man. The wealthy leisure class might write poetry and philosophy but what are the poor going to do? To prevent unholy hedonism, perhaps ‘normal people’ should remain in a work place so they can be disciplined, even if it is work for the sake it? In fact, if David Graeber is right, many might already be doing this in their Bullshit Job.
Of course, as the author points out, the Puritan work ethic is a remnant of industrial and feudal society. Some scholars think that in hunter-gatherer societies we were only really active for about 12 hours a week. So perhaps we are much better at being free than the puritan work ethic told us we are. People tend to want to compete and do something extraordinary regardless. Of course, as the author points out there certainly a lot more distractions now. Still, in general an equal society without repression, where basic needs are met produce a much kinder society than the other way around. People are very adaptable.

J B
J B
1 month ago

+1
I’m partly in thrall to modern, internet, tech but do like to lose myself in the guilty pleasure of steam ironing.
Nothing like producing a razor sharp crease whilst contemplating the Universe.
Those damn robots are going to have to pry my Morphy Richards from my cold dead hands
🙂