Historians on the Automated Future

Consequences for higher education, work, and the care of bodies. 

That’s a rather grandiose title for this post, which spruiks just two pieces recently uploaded by historians. But I think they are among the best short things I’ve read this year; and they speak unusually well to each other.

The first is by Frances Flanagan, an Australian historian (of Ireland) now working as Research Director for an Australian union. It is Oz-focused but speaks broadly to the question of care in an automated world; it is polished, personal and never fails to make me tear up at the end (dammit). The second is by Katherine Antonova, an American historian (of Russia), currently Associate Professor at the City University of New York. It is US-focused but speaks eloquently to the crisis in higher education across the west; it is a spontaneous twitter thread, punchy, but equally informed about its subject.

In her article, Frances Flanagan uses Hannah Arendt’s three general categorizations of human activity – labour, work, and action. Labour is, in Arendt’s phrasing, the “futile but necessary” stuff we do that never leaves a tangible trace – sustaining our own bodies and caring for those who cannot care for themselves (infants, the frail, etc). Work is the stuff that produces – what most people think constitutes a ‘real job’. Action is the expressive stuff, the stuff “by which people disclose themselves to others”—by writing, creating, communicating so as to recognise one another and, moreover, to imagine newness, difference, and the future itself.

In simplified form, these categories are useful for thinking about a world in which “work” will be – is already being – completely transformed. Automation, not to mention the certain imperatives of climate change, has plans for “real jobs” in the west that are almost unfathomable. As Antonova says, people still too often assume we are living in the late stages of the industrial revolution, “but we are living in the early stages of the information revolution.”

How should we face this onslaught in neoliberal societies that have exalted the value of work over both “unproductive” labour and creative action? Over both the immeasurable acts of nurturing, washing, sustaining, and listening to human bodies (done by nurses, cleaners, parents, carers) and the long-term efforts of researching, expressing, explaining, and re-creating ourselves to each other (done by experts, academics, artists, intellectuals)?

Flanagan gives me an answer in regards to the labour of childcare (and other low-impact, everyday necessities) while Antonova offers powerful suggestions for one major site of action – the university. As historians, both are acutely aware of the immediate postwar world when the west did briefly hold a positive consensus about social welfare as well as research-intensive higher education. They are also, though, all too conscious of the disintegration of that consensus into the 21st century, with the privatization of services and the casualization of scholarship.

The biggest point of history is how it reminds us that things do not have to be the way they are. As Antonova says, to re-invest massively in universities “may seem ridiculously utopian in our current climate,” but most western states “did think this way not long ago.” Likewise, Flanagan might add, our own grandparents placed much greater value on the labour of human sustainability than we do today.

Antonova writes: “The future is not just about STEM, folks.” It is about having a population with the skills to “recognise BS,” to communicate, to innovate. Uncannily, it seemed to me, she also adds: the skills of “empathy and perspective.”

Action and labour. Thinkers and carers. Those who create, and those who hold your hand as you walk into the future regardless.

Frances Flanagan’s piece published in Inside Story here.

Katherine Antonova’s piece storified on her website here.

 

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