Can technological advancement and robots actually help us become fully human? Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, argues that an automated world could lead to happier and even more productive human beings. Like children, he says, adults are designed to play.
Many people are worried about the displacement of human work by technology and robots. One serious concern, of course, is how people can make a living if they can’t find work. But suppose we could solve that economic problem. Suppose we developed a system by which everyone worked just a few hours a week, maybe 10, and could thereby obtain all the food, shelter, and material goods needed for a satisfying life. Would that be a better world than today’s for the majority of people?
Some people think it would be a worse world. They think that human beings need work to have a sense of purpose in life or just to get out of bed in the morning. They look at how depressed people often become when unemployed or how some retirees begin to feel useless. But those observations are all occurring in a world in which unemployment signifies failure in the minds of many, workers come home feeling physically or mentally exhausted each day and a life of work leads many to forget how to play.
A world with much less work, or even without work at all, would be a much better world, not because we are naturally lazy. We are, instead, naturally playful curious and sociable. These aspects of our humanity would blossom in a world without work. Here are three lines of evidence:
Observations Of Children
Look at little children who haven’t yet started school and therefore haven’t yet had their curiosity and playfulness suppressed in the name of work. Are they lazy? No. They are almost continuously active when not sleeping, motivated by curiosity. And in their play, they make up stories, build, create and philosophise (yes, philosophise) about the world around them. The drives for such activities don’t naturally decline with age. They decline because our schools, which value work and disvalue exploration and play, drill them out of people. Then tedious jobs and careers continue to drill them out.
Studies Of Hunter-Gatherer Cultures
Anthropologists who have studied hunter-gatherers in isolated parts of the world in modern times report something quite remarkable. Hunter-gatherers did not have to work much. In fact, quantitative studies revealed that the average adult man or woman in a hunter-gatherer band spent about 20 hours a week at hunting, gathering, and performing other subsistence-related tasks. Some time was spent resting, but most of it was spent on playful activities, such as making music, telling stories, and visiting neighboring bands. Even hunting and gathering were not regarded as work; they were never done begrudgingly. Because there were always plenty of people who wanted to hunt and gather, and because food was shared among the whole band, anyone who didn’t feel like hunting or gathering was in no way pressured to do so. Some anthropologists have reported that the people they studied didn’t even have a word for work; or, if they had one, it referred to what farmers or other non-hunter-gatherers with whom they had contact did.
Analyses Of Cultural Flourishing In Post-Hunter-Gatherer Times
In the 1930s, the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga wrote a now-classic book, Homo Ludens, which means Man the Player. Huizinga’s thesis was that playfulness is the most essential component of our humanity. He argued quite convincingly that most of the cultural achievements that have enriched human lives – achievements in art, literature, mathematics, and even jurisprudence – are derivatives of the drive to play. He pointed out that the greatest outpourings of such achievements have occurred at those times where a significant number of adults were freed from work and play was valued. A prime example was ancient Athens.
Huizinga, 18th-century poet, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, wrote:
Man in only fully human when he is able to play.
We indeed are Homo Ludens, and it is high time that we free up our instinct to play. Ever since the downfall of hunter-gatherer life we have been suppressing our humanity. If we can solve the economic problem, technology may allow us to become fully human once again by letting us play.
This post originally appeared on GE Reports.