In my last Monthly Dialectic Newsletter I talked about the pros and cons of a society in which robots are the norm, like in the movie I, Robot or the show Westworld. If you haven’t yet signed up for my newsletter, you can do so at the bottom of this post. Each month we tackle one science fiction theme or question in a dialectic format, going through its pros and cons to get closer to the truth. Of course, I think it’s a fun newsletter and highly recommend you sign up!
Okay, newsletter plug over and back to the subject of this post.
In that newsletter, I argued that a pro for having robots around would be that we could outsource all of our menial, laborious tasks to them. Imagine not having to do the grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry, and other life admin tasks. If we could permanently get back that time, we’d be able to invest it into bettering ourselves and our society. Meanwhile in the con section, I argued against having slave robots because, well, we don’t want to create a slave race!
Afterwards, my big brother brought up another really interesting point for the con section of my argument. (Thanks for reading my newsletter, big bro!)
He asked, “How exactly do we change when we outsource all these tasks we consider hard or laborious or tedious? There is something else that is lost there. Working with our hands, making something…It’s easy to get ‘spoiled’ and then what values are we passing on? Who do we become?”
I think this is a great point and wanted to spend some time talking about it in this post.
The Value of Labour
Not to get communist or totalitarian, but I think most people can agree that there is a certain value to physical labour. I’m talking about things like cleaning your house (or room!), gardening, preparing food, making a chair, whatever it may be that we do with our hands in the real, physical world around us.
In his blog posts The Lost Satisfaction of Manual Competence and The Concrete Satisfaction of Deep Work, Cal Newport writes that by nature we are drawn to manual activities because it’s how we evolved as a species and because there’s something sublime about creating something real in this world. Quoting Matt Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft, he writes, “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.” When we make something, we can point to it and say, “Look, I made that. There is something of me in this world.” And that’s really profound.
A Relevant Detour into Heidegger
Indeed, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger seemed to be saying the same thing when he argued in Being and Time that the essence of being a human being is its necessary involvement with the physical world around it. Unlike Descartes, who famously posited cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am,” Heidegger argued that you can’t simply separate the subject from the object like that because there’s no such thing as being apart from the world. “I think therefore I am” makes it sound like I can exist independently of what’s around me. I am here and everything else is over there. And even if there were nothing else, as long as I am thinking, then I exist.
Not so, says Heidegger. For him, there’s no separating the thinking being from its involvement in the physical world, not least because we’re always already thinking about something, even if it’s about something abstract like the nature of our being. In that case, we’re only even asking the question because we want to know where we stand in the world. What does it mean to exist? is really what does it mean to exist in the world?
Being in the World
So perhaps the sublime value we feel when engaging in the physical world has to do with this fact (?) that to be human simply is to be engaged with the world. And when we garden, cook, clean, build, paint, or whatever it may be, we’re living authentically as humans, doing what we, as humans, are supposed to be doing.
Also Life Lessons
In addition to the philosophical arguments for engaging with the world, we can also extract additional meaning from this line of thinking by arguing that simple competence is not only how we manifest our human being-ness, but also it’s just great for self-confidence! (Of course, these two are related concepts.) Sure, it might be nice and easy to be coddled and have all of your needs and wants looked after, but there really is something to be said for the confidence and self-esteem you gain from taking care of yourself. You’re not afraid to be out there in the world because you got this, baby!
In fact, we know that when we’re coddled, we become more anxious and more incapable of engaging with the world because we get scared and freeze up on the first difficulty. We develop low self-esteem because we don’t believe we can do anything because we never have done anything. The solution is to take care of yourself and the easiest way to do that is to engage in the world, and the easiest way to do that is by starting with small tasks, such cleaning your room, cooking a meal, doing laundry, heck, even standing in line at the DMV to get some life admin out of the way. All of these small competencies add up to becoming a real honest to goodness person in the world.
And you don’t have to take my word for it, Jordan Peterson, the internet’s dad, has been recommending this course of action for years.
So yes, I think my big bro is 100% correct when he says that by outsourcing all of the tasks that we don’t usually like to do, in essence, spoiling ourselves, we risk losing an essential part of what it means to be human, and in turn, we pass on that lack/deficiency to our children and they to their children.
Maintaining Humanity in a Technological World
The question we now face is how do we integrate these analog values with our sci-fi technological world? How can we maintain our authentic being in the world when many of the technologies we’ve developed and use separate us from the physical world? Social media, dating apps, even some knowledge work jobs (not all of course), can make us feel quite removed from the real world.
My personal answer to this is to cultivate the deep life, as espoused by Cal Newport and Jordan Peterson. It’s one of the reasons I quit social media, for example, so I could spend more time engaged in the real world. And maybe that’s the simple answer. In a world where tech is ubiquitous, and we certainly want a lot of this tech because it’s super beneficial, maybe we simply have to recommit to going analog and getting back in touch with nature, life, whatever you want to call it, so we don’t lose ourselves.
Is there another, more philosophical, societal answer about how we as a species should deal with this integration? Probably. It’s why ethics in AI is such an important area today. But I think for the average person like me, the answer might just be clean your room, do your laundry, plant a garden, talk to your friends and family in real life. Engage in the world because that’s what it means to be human and, not coincidentally, that’s the path to greatness.