The Pursuit of Happiness

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A friend shared a Steven Hawking quote: “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

Hawking hasn’t said anything new. The idea of machines replacing humans has been discussed in Industrial Relations circles since at least the ‘60s, and literature is full of Dystopian and Utopian themed stories. What’s notable and quite odd is that Hawking, an expert on time and space, has so little to say about what we’ll be doing in the space occupied in that advanced time. As our premiere theorist, we expect him to define the consequences of ideas, and not involve himself in Monkey Business.

I use the term “Monkey Business” in an evolutionary context; a monkey sees a monkey do something and — if she or he’s an evolved monkey — will do it better. That, forgive me, broadly explains our advances in the earth sciences, medicine, technology, and economics.

An economist, by example, will look at an idea from which a dollar springs and track the course and progress of that dollar as it either circulates and compounds, or disappears into the Sea of Bad Ideas with a (-) minus sign stamped on its forehead. In his role as Economist-Monkey, rather than as theorist, Hawking has dimly focused on the dollar’s circulation rather than on the ideas from which it springs, and without much thoughtfulness, either.

Imagine, if you will, a life of ceaseless and unrelenting luxury and leisure, a life devoted to Pokemon Go and lunch, and then estimate the time it would take before you turned into a human kumquat. How long would it take? A month? A year?

As bad as “miserably poor” might be, living in a place where Socrates, Dostoevsky, Dorothy Day and Wendell Berry are superfluous and forgotten would be an air-conditioned nightmare and hardly worth all the robot-made Gucci handbags in the world.