Building Enfranchisement Without Jobs

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Sep 2013

(jump to Building Enfranchisement without building stuff)


What are people going to do in a world that is both highly automated and prosperous?

If robots are making most of the "stuff" and doing most of the service work, what are people going to be doing that will provide their sense of meaning and accomplishment? Again, keep in mind that what I envision here is a prosperous world -- the basics needed for a healthy life are plentiful and can be reliably supplied.

Think of it this way: You're in a driverless car headed for work. You order up a Big Mac on your smartphone which is communicating with the Orderbot. The car goes through the drive-thru and the Big Mac pops out of the pickup window handed to you by a robot arm. Or, even more futuristic, it is delivered to your car by a hovering drone. Now... what are you doing at the "work" you are headed to?

What will people still need to be making in this kind of prosperous world? They will still need to be making their own sense of enfranchisement.


Enfranchisement is a feeling. It consists of two parts: feeling like what you do is important to the community, and feeling like the community respects your interests.

This is an important feeling. It is the bedrock of a community that is low in crime and takes an active interest in events that affect it.

The converse is disenfranchisement: the feeling that the community doesn't care about my interests, and I don't care how my actions affect the community. It is active or passive apathy. An extreme example of disenfranchisement is the Gaza Strip community -- "Mortar Israel from my back yard... meh." (I write more on enfranchisement here)

Having a satisfying job is deeply enfranchising. This is why it's important. The challenge of the 2010's and beyond is finding other activities for people to do that are also enfranchising -- activities that can substitute for those jobs that are being taken away by automation.

Work, Harsh Reality and Satisfaction

The satisfaction that comes from doing work has a lot of instinct helping it along. In hunter-gatherer times everyone worked; everyone contributed to the well-being of the Neolithic village. And this is the condition our instinctive thinking is built to work well in.

But conditions in civilized living are different, and this means that instinctive thinking doesn't match harsh reality as well as it did in more primitive times. Our harsh reality has changed, and our relation with harsh reality has changed. Example: We no longer personally kill, prepare and cook what we eat. We let numerous specialists and specialized machines transform plants and animals into consumable products. This means our current harsh reality is ordering a Big Mac at a drive-thru speaker and getting it in a paper bag, not catching and slaughtering a cow, and foraging to find and root out potatoes.

Harsh reality and Delusion

One of the virtues of human thinking is its adaptability. We can grow up in the arctic or grow up on a tropical island and be equally comfortable with our lifestyle. Growing up in the civilized environment is dramatically different than growing up in a primitive Neolithic Village environment, but we manage quite well at it.

We manage, but there are dramatic differences in what is "OK" between these many environments. Because we are so good at adapting we take many of these differences for granted.

One of the differences these changes in harsh reality allow is what is "OK" for our emotions to tell us. In the above example the civilized environment allows animal rights activists to gain serious community attention rather than be laughed at as strange, hopeless romantics. This 15 Sep 13 Telegraph article, Who you gonna call? Belief in ghosts is rising by Jasper Copping, is another example. This is about belief in ghosts rising in England.

As mankind's lifestyle has evolved from primitive to civilized the issue of what is satisfying work has constantly evolved as well. We have moved from tilling the land, to driving a tractor that tills the land, to designing software that makes a tractor that tills the land. Because industrialization dramatically increases the pace of change, this question of what people can do that is satisfying and enfranchising has loomed larger and larger for over a century now... and the looming is not stopping!

Historical example

During the 1920's America and Western Europe experienced the Roaring Twenties -- a time of booming economy, booming technology, optimism, and social liberation. It wasn't all pleasant. There were a lot of scary exciting things happening as well as pleasantly exciting things happening. The book The Great Gatsby is in part a description of that amazement. (the book... the amazement element gets left out of the movie interpretations.) In the 1930's the whole world experienced the Great Depression -- a time when the economic systems that were supporting that 20's optimism seemed to get mucked up and dysfunctional.

During both these periods people who thought about social institutions were marveling at the changes the current wave of industrialization were bringing to how people lived. Asimov's article mentioned above is a classic example. (although written 30 years later)

And now it's my turn to take a 2010's swing at it.

Building Enfranchisement without building stuff

Now, in the 2010's, the heart of the issue is discovering what people can do that is enfranchising, but not "work" in the manufacturing or service sense -- the kind of work that automated systems will be handling more and more.

Here are some possibilities I have come up with:

o Entertainment

The core of entertainment is channeling emotion, and this is something humans will continue to do well and enjoy doing. Entertainment and entertainers have been growing steadily in importance to the community as prosperity has grown. This is likely to continue so entertainment-related activities will be keeping a lot of people busy and enfranchised in the future.

o Creating human-crafted wares: "hipster manufacturing"

Many people buy stuff because it has mystical properties. This market will remain vibrant. Many people will be able to make a living by crafting stuff with mystical properties. This may seem like work, it may feel like work, but it's not because it really isn't supporting civilization. These processes will be hugely inefficient when compared with automated ways of making stuff, so this style of making things is icing on the cake. But it will be sustainable because the hand-crafting aspect will add a mystical nature to the product and in a prosperous community many people will be willing to pay extra for that.

Adding to the demand will be a transforming of harsh reality that will also be going on at the same time: As processes become more automated people are less aware of how stuff is really made -- the physics, chemistry and economics of production. The effect of this is that people will be thinking "Why not believe in mystical powers? My harsh reality can support it."

Update: Etsy is a website/company that is offering these kinds of handicrafts today.

o Selling urban legends

Face-to-face selling will remain a powerful way to convince people to buy stuff. One variant of it that will gain in strength is selling stuff based on urban legend. This is because urban legend gets its power from stroking instinctive/emotional thinking, and that feature of human thinking will be strengthening. Emotional thinking and the urban legends it supports will become progressively more influential as people will become more and more divorced from the harsh realities that would prove the urban legends wrong. One example: the anti-science movements that support creationism. These beliefs work just fine as long as you're not seriously trying to solve a complex science problem. Another example: selling wondrous foods and medical cures based on mystical power. These are supported by the deep instinct to worry about food and health. Another example: the animal rights movements. Animal rights can feel quite warm and fuzzy... if you're not a person who routinely slaughters many kinds of animals, such as a poor rural farmer or a hunter-gatherer.

o Supporting mythical rituals

I attended 2013 Salt Lake Comic Con. It was a deeply surprising success -- it was the biggest convention ever in Utah, and the third biggest Comic Con in the nation -- only San Diego and New York City surpassed it. The attendees were both numerous and deeply into "cosplay" -- designing and wearing elaborate costumes for other people to admire and shoot pictures of. (here is an 18 Sep 13 Forbes article, Salt Lake Comic Con Sets Record By Leveraging Social Marketing Trends by Cheryl Conner, describing some details, such as 70-80,000 attendees)

This Comic Con experience may be a vision of the future. This was an updated county fair and the attendees were getting a lot of emotional reward for their effort. Supporting mythical rituals will occupy more and more human attention as the time and attention spent on work decreases. And as Salt Lake Comic Con this year demonstrated, these efforts can bring a lot of emotional satisfaction.

That brings up the question of what are mythical rituals? My definition is a broad one: It is things we do because they make us feel better on the emotional level -- to be a mythical ritual, enthusiastic emotion matters, not correlation with harsh reality. This means it includes things such as cosplay and backing sports teams.

Disaster response

Disasters are always surprises. This means they are a time when responses have to be novel, and dealing with novelty is an area where humans will outperform automation for a long time. Humans will be at the forefront in two areas: First, they direct the automated responses to disasters. Second, they will provide a lot of emotional comforting. So preparing for and responding to disasters will remain a highly enfranchised human activity. This is similar to the activity of firefighters and other first responders we experience in the 2010's.


Humans won't need military, but that doesn't mean it will go away. There is deep emotion supporting a warrior class and being prepared to defend the homeland. What exactly soldiers will do thirty years from now, I don't know. But it's likely they will be around in some form, and being a soldier will be an enfranchising activity.

Missionary work

Spreading the good word in its various forms is likely to grow as a human-based activity. This activity harmonizes with the Chosen People and the Helping The Poor instincts. It is an activity that also supports aggressive hypocrisy and lots of promotion infrastructure. When the good word involves miracle-happening as part of its benefits, many people have to assemble the infrastructure to both document them and let other people witness them in emotionally impressive ways. Current examples of this happening are the infrastructure that supports the "saint industry" in India and Nepal and born-again religious revivals in the US.


This essay was inspired by a 30 Aug 13 WSJ editorial, Work and the American Character by Peggy Noonan, in which she discusses how important having a job is to being American. From the article, "A job isn't only a means to a paycheck, it's more. 'To work is to pray,' the old priests used to say. God made us as many things, including as workers. When you work you serve and take part." Peggy is talking here about feeling enfranchised. In the early 2010's if you have a job you feel like you're an important part of the community, and the community respects you for your effort.

I was further inspired by an interesting 31 Aug 13 Open Culture article, Isaac Asimov’s 1964 Predictions About What the World Will Look 50 Years Later — in 2014, in which Asimov talks about the changing role of work from a 1964 perspective. From his article, "Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.

The most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become 'work!' in our society of enforced leisure."

Both articles point out that as the workplace becomes more automated, the ability for humans to have a meaningful job as makers of stuff diminishes -- the machines are doing more and more. I will add to this that in the 2010's service jobs are facing this same trend. An example of losing service jobs is robots answering phones and making routine calls. A fast approaching example is driverless cars.

In sum, the challenge we civilized folk are going to face over the next thirty years is finding enfranchising alternatives to "Get a job!"

Update: This 24 Sep 13 Economist article, Working hours: Get a life, is another about how working hours have changed over the last few decades, and in prosperous countries those hours have declined. From the article, "But data from the OECD, a club of rich countries, tell a more positive story. For the countries for which data are available the vast majority of people work fewer hours than they did in 1990. And it seems that more productive—and, consequently, better-paid—workers put in less time in at the office."

Update: This 18 Jan 14 Economist article, The onrushing wave, is a nicely done article about this topic. Very inspiring.

Update: The 29 Mar - 4 Apr 2014 Economist issue has a special report on the Rise of the Robots, insightful articles quite relevant to this issue.

Update: This 4 Jun 16 Economist article, Rethinking the welfare state
Basically flawed
is describing a big step towards the Total Entitlement State, called Basic Income, and is arguing the concept is severely flawed.

From the article, "The basic income is an answer to a problem that has not yet materialised. Worries that technological advance would mean the end of employment have, thus far, always proved misguided; as jobs on the farm were destroyed, work in the factory was created. Today’s angst over robots and artificial intelligence may well turn out to be another in a long line of such scares. A much-quoted study suggesting that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated in the next two decades looks too gloomy, for example (see article). Machines may one day be a match for many workers at most tasks. But that is not a reason to rush to adopt a basic income immediately."

And if you would like to see a full book based on this idea, check out my book Child Champs: Babymaking in the world of 2112.

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