Berwins Book Reviews:

A World Without Work by Daniel Susskind

Paul Berwin, Senior Partner of Berwins Solicitors, has delved into Daniel Susskind’s new book A World Without Work ahead of the economist and Oxford professor’s appearance at Berwins Salon North: Inner Workings on 23 January 2020. Read on to hear his thoughts:

Describing himself as an economist and futurist, Balliol College Oxford Economic Fellow and former Downing Street Policy adviser Daniel Susskind sets out to consider the impact of technology on the future of work.

Susskind describes and seeks to debunk a series of happy-ending explanations from eminent economists to the impact of past technologies on work – fears that technology would remove the need for workers, and lead to impoverishment. In each case, drawing on past examples, technology has led eventually to an increase in wealth and its distribution.

Susskind asks if this time, as machines take on not only routine tasks, but task requiring analytical skills not by human intelligence but by the application of data, whether the lessons of the past will apply to the future.  Will the future be one with insufficient work for everyone?  What will the impact of this be on the sharing of prosperity, the exercise of power, and the human need to find meaning in life?

If, this time, there really won’t be enough work – and Susskind believes this time it’s different – how can prosperity be shared? How can the political power of Big Tech (and Big Data) be controlled?  And without work, which provides for many a sense of purpose and identity, how will we find purpose?

Convincingly, Susskind describes how the boundaries of the aspects of work we believed machines were limited to are pushed back, not by human mimicry but by technology itself.  Machines can diagnose better than doctors, using data. Machines can advise on law better than lawyers, using data.  It’s not just the factory floor which will be automated, but rarefied areas which used to consider themselves irreplaceable.  Human, as opposed to economic or financial capital, will no longer be the item of ultimate value.

Author Daniel Susskind

When Susskind asks how we should respond, he argues for the state to take a role not as a producer but as a distributor, by a Conditional Basic Income – better than a Universal Basic Income, because it will have conditions.  He argues for a role for the state in distributing, by raising income at a far higher rate by taxing those who do produce wealth – it’s not the most Damascene revelation, and not the most problem-free. And he argues that the political power of Big Tech can be curbed by a regulator.  Education will help give meaning and purpose to life and provide the skills not so much to work – because the work won’t be there – but to flourish without work.

Susskind says, enumerating these solutions with informed and convincingly argued scenario-setting, that he’s an optimist about a future/fast approaching world without work. But we can ask whether, with solutions as limited, evadable and coercive as he describes, his utopia is in fact a dystopia. Tax, handouts and regulation; if we have the power to respond, would this be our response? Only time will tell.