Just over a week ago, Stephen Daisley published a very interesting piece in the Spectator about “the pill-popping future of work”.
He was prompted by a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), entitled ‘Workforce of the Future‘, which envisions the gradual normalisation of performance-enhancing drugs in the workplace.
This development, occurring concurrently with other technological enhancements such as exoskeletons and implants, creates a vision of a future populated by ever more productive, but ever less human, workers.
Daisley describes this portrait as “terrifying”, and likens it to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s a view he shares with Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex, who in 2014 penned a long but very worthwhile read on how competitive pressures force individuals into a pattern which increasingly leaves everybody worse off.
Alexander quotes a poem about the resultant creature: the dedicated, impersonal ’em’, whose self is almost completely defined by its economic function:
“I am a contract-drafting em,
The loyalest of lawyers!
I draw up terms for deals ‘twixt firms
To service my employers!
“How did it all come to be,
That there should be such ems as me?
Whence these deals and whence these firms
And whence the whole economy?”
It’s a bleak portrait, to be sure. But it was a particularly interesting read for me because I’ve recently found myself on the other side of the fight between embracing change and preserving nice things: specifically, over the Government’s proposed shake-up of self-employment.
As a signed-up participant in the “gig economy” (although I believe the middle-class term is “portfolio career”), I obviously wasn’t happy when Philip Hammond outlined his plans to hike taxes on people who aren’t traditional employees. However, I can see the case for it: as more and more people shift out of traditional employment the Government needs to shift its revenue raising plans accordingly.
Somewhat to my surprise, what irritated me far more was the way the Chancellor proposed to compensate me for this tax increase by giving me more rights and ‘protections’.
Not only is it vexing to see the Government forcing third parties to cough up the quid for its pro quo, but in truth that ‘compensation’ is actually a second attack on my freelance position. The more obligations ministers foist on those looking to employ someone like me, the smaller my competitive advantage over a traditional employee.
Far from adapting its revenue-raising tactics to the new economy, it suddenly looks far more like the Treasury trying to squeeze the new economy into an old mould it knows how to tax. In truth, I’d much rather swallow the tax rise but forgo the additional “stickiness” proffered by all those new rights. Perhaps an opt-out, such as that the UK negotiated for the Working Time Directive, could be put in for those who feel that way.
But fair as that sounds, it puts me in headlong opposition to Daisley and Alexander. For I’m choosing to forgo ‘nice things’ – sick leave, and so on – because I’m content with my working life without them, and thus dragging my would-be competitors down with me.
And as a freelancer I’m always looking for ways to add value to my offer: I’m happy to pay for training courses, new hardware and software, and so on. So why wouldn’t I, in principle, sign up for performance-enhancing drugs?
There are non-self-interested arguments to advance in favour of enhancement: that raw ability without effort doesn’t produce results, and that such drugs might level the pre-effort playing field and cut down the unearned dividends of the genetic lottery.
But that doesn’t take the sting out of Daisley’s dilemma: if some of us choose to take ‘Cognitalin’, where does it leave those who don’t want to? In the same place as cottage industries, guilds, shop stewards, and small shops, is where.
For despite the science-fiction glamour lent the issue by its transhumanist overtones, the struggle Daisley and Alexander are writing about is nothing new. We probably last saw it joined in full in Britain during the 1980s, when a world of work where strong unions enforced the ‘nice’ way of doing things gave way to today’s more individualised workplace.
Nor is it as if this next revolution will even be the first to somehow tinker directly with mankind: your average first-world human is already completely adapted to life in a today’s technologically-enabled society. Are we less human than our distant ancestors because we would struggle to survive ‘in the wild’?
Change can always be, and has usually been, spun as an assault on the freedom of others not to change. Factories impinged on the freedom of traditional craftsmen to make a living as they always had; an influx of migrant workers can undercut the cosy norms to which their domestic competition had become accustomed.
All of these developments have been accompanied by predictions that the world of the future would be a terrible place. But to date every disruptive and frightening period of technology-driven upheaval has produced a human race that enjoys more material comforts and broader horizons than it did before. Most of us wouldn’t trade our world for that of yesterday’s doomsayers.
Perhaps that shouldn’t comfort us too much. After all, the Brave New World was engineered so that nearly everybody who lived in it was content: only a handful, and the distance of the reader’s perspective, were able to see the dystopia.
Maybe those of us content to compete are simply blind to the greener pastures that await if only we’d let the state shepherd us towards them. But that’s an approach which has been tried many times, and the end result is misery. Even where there isn’t a death toll, the very thing Daisley and Alexander cherish – human individuality – is worn down when a Government tries to squeeze its citizens into a mould, however nice a mould it is.
Not that the left has a monopoly on doomed attempts to curb competition and dam the future, of course. But do they find the Trump-UKIP model of nostalgic resistance to open competition any more appealing?
Even if hitting pause on the evolution of the economy were desirable, history suggests it can’t be done and that the costs of trying are enormous. The Conservatives recognised that when Margaret Thatcher was unpicking the previous order. So sign me up for a course of Cognitalin: I am a content-drafting em.