Working hard or hardly working
Hunger and the length of a work day, in the Stone Age
Here’s one thing I doubt about AI: that it will release us to a life of luxury. We’re working harder now than our ancestors did 6,000 years ago, so it’s hard for me to imagine that zooming into the future is somehow going to release us from our current grind.
Consider the computer. In a sense, computers save an enormous amount of time. Think of how much work it is to write a letter, put it in an envelope, and take that envelope down to the post office, compared to writing an email. Think of how much work it would be to do your taxes by hand, compared to using TurboTax. With computers, we are more efficient, and we produce, on average, more goods per year, per capita. (Or so the story goes. It turns out to be remarkably difficult to quantify the effect of computers on worker productivity.)
Curiously, the increased efficiency from computers doesn’t actually save us time. Greater efficiency doesn’t give us more leisure time, it just forces us to run faster. We work the same 40 hours per week now as we did in the 1980s, before personal computers. I know a few white-collar professionals who are able to negotiate an arrangement where they work 80% time for 80% salary, but in general, it seems like, no matter how much more we work, there’s always more we could be doing.
If it were the case that present and future technologies were going to give us extra leisure time, then you would expect that, if we looked back in time, we would see the reverse effect. The further back we looked, toward times with less and less technology, we would find that people had to work more and more hours, to eke out a more and more meager living.
The data do not support this theory, depending on how your choose your point of reference. From here on, I’ll mostly be paraphrasing Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics.
Hunter-gatherers tended to “work” much less than we do. Of course there was wide variation from group to group, from location to location, and from season to season, but the standard “work” schedule was something on the order of five hours per day, with every third day off.
These numbers might sound preposterous to you, especially if you know farmers, or if you’ve tried to live off the land yourself. But there are a few things to consider. For one, there are now an incredibly large number of humans living on this planet. Whatever natural bounty there was in the world has been scooped up and used for profit. Today, foragers need to live on the margins, finding a few foods in the woods, or even picking over garbage.
Conditions of primitive hunting peoples must not be judged [...] from their modern survivors, now restricted to the most meager regions of the earth, such as the interior of Australia, the American Great Basic, and the Arctic tundra [...] The areas of early occupation were abounding in food.
If there aren’t that many people relative to the number of food-producing plants and animals, then feeding yourself can be relatively easy. If you’re ever gone apple-picking, you might have a sense of what this life was once like.
But what about winter, and times of famine? Sahlins tells the story of an anthropologist perplexed by his research subjects’ lack of concern about the future. Why weren’t the local people chopping trees, to build granaries, to store food, in case of a famine? The people looked blankly at the anthropologist. Why, they asked, would people like the anthropologist choose to live in anxiety every day about the future? The locals would prefer to do as little as they needed to do to feed themselves for that day, and trust that there would be food tomorrow, and accept the fact that, sometimes, they might be hungry. But in general, those times would end quickly, because there was plenty of food for everyone, and plenty of ways to get it.
Sahlins suggests that it’s hard for us moderns to accept that life was actually easy in the past because we expect hunter-gatherers to have expectations like we do:
But if modern man, with all his technological advantages, still hasn’t got the wherewithal [to live an easy life], what chance has this naked savage with his puny bow and arrow? Having equipped the hunter with bourgeois impulses and paleolithic tools, we judge his situation hopeless in advance.
Sahlins argues that our perplexity with the Stone Age mindset comes from our living in a totally different way. We live in an economic world:
Where production and distribution are arranged through the behavior of prices, and all livelihoods depend on getting and spending, insufficiency of material means becomes the explicit, calculable starting point of all economic activity.
Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity. Inadequacy of economic means is the first principle of the world’s wealthiest people.
In other words, we live in a world of scarcity by design. We don’t need to wait for a technological singularity to arrive, to bring us to a post-scarcity world. We are, in a technological sense, already in a post-scarcity world. We could feed and house everyone on the planet if we wanted to.
In fact, we were post-scarcity before technology:
...[W]hat about the world today? One-third to one-half of humanity are said to go to bed hungry every night. In the Old Stone Age the fraction must have been much smaller. This is the era of hunger unprecedented. Now, in the time of greatest technical power, is starvation an institution.
Beyond getting enough food to eat, hunter-gatherers didn’t have that many other desires, and they could be achieved relatively easily:
Hunters and gatherers have by force of circumstances an objectively low standard of living. But taken as their objective, and given their adequate means of production, all the people’s material wants usually can be easily satisfied.
Said another way:
[S]carcity is not an intrinsic property of technical means. It is a relation between means and ends. We should entertain the empirical possibility that hunters are in business of their health, a finite objective, and that bow and arrow are adequate to that end.
For there are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be “easily satisfied” either by producing much or desiring little.
But entering into the economic system does not allow one to remain content. Once you are in the matrix of consumption, of a sense that there are things you could have and now want, whether that be a longer lifespan or more stuff, you like in a sense of deprivation:
Consumption is a double tragedy. What begins in inadequacy will end in deprivation [...] the market makes available a dazzling array of products: all these Good Things within a man’s reach—but never all within his grasp. Worse, in this game of consumer free choice, every acquisition is simultaneously a deprivation [...] (The point is that if you buy one automobile, say a Plymouth, you cannot also have the Ford—and I judge from current television commercials that the deprivations entailed would be more than just material.)
I’m not denying the horror of poverty. But Sahlins’s argument about poverty is two-fold. First, Stone Age people didn’t go hungry as often as people did in the 20th century. There was simply more naturally-available food per person, and less inequality between people. Second, Stone Age people didn’t suffer from a compare-and-despair, again because most people didn’t have that much stuff, and not that much ability to carry it, and no one else around to feel jealous for having that much more than you.
I don’t deny that global poverty has been declining since the middle 20th century. Nor do I deny that the 40-hour work week is an enormous improvement over the labor exploitation that peaked after the Industrial Revolution.
The problem in both those situations is our choice of reference point. Yes, global poverty has decreased since 1950, and yes, white- and blue-collar work hours decreased from 1750 to 1950. But now we’re stuck in a hustle that I don’t think technology can free us from, since it was technology that got us into this hustle in the first place.
Next time, I’ll write about the transition from the easily-satisfied life of the hunter-gatherer to the hard-scrabble life of the farmer, and the role of colonization in accelerating that process across the globe.