Automation and the good work

IN 2016, futurist billionaire founder of SpaceX and current CEO of Tesla Inc, Elon Musk, declared that human jobs would soon be taken over by robots and that governments will have to sustain the unemployed by way of universal basic income (UBI).

Martin Ford has already criticised this line of thought in his book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. If UBI is to be implemented, then ha­­ving a small number of people with significant incomes would stunt the growth of a modern economy.

Such predictions are old and have been revisited many times since the turn of the 20th century. Lewis Mumford, in his magnum opus, The Myth of the Machine, noted that not only the Cartesian mechanised world picture would change our environment to be “fit only for the machines to live in”, it would also give rise to the “megamachine” – an imagined invisible superstructure that trivialises the cosmic event of Man’s creation, dominates the way he should live and finally reduces him to a mere cog for its continued existence.

While UBI is a good idea for economically rich countries, it is not so for poor or corruption-ridden countries.

The over-enthusiasm for automation that eliminates middle-class jobs would not solve high poverty levels and anxiety among youths. True enough, the Oxfam Report discussed at the recent Davos Summit states that eight individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people in the world.

In December 2016, Eurostat (a directorate-general of the European Commission) reported that the youth unemployment rates of Italy and Spain, described by the Inter­national Monetary Fund in 1987 as high-income nations, stood around 40% and 44% respectively.

Whether it devolves back into class warfare that would disintegrate the European Union or any other forms of cooperation closer to home depends on our ability to understand the roads previously trod in history.

In 2015, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said that the capital owners’ lobby against just and equitable distribution of wealth would accelerate the technological drive towards greater inequality.

In a world that confines religion, which is supposed to give Man his life’s meaning and purpose, to a sieged corner of his private life, the danger has now grown to deprive him of his work as well.

Despite the last 100 years’ great advances of science and technology, the loss of self-meaning and historical identity remains the greatest challenge of modern man, coales­cing in the pain of not knowing where he came from, where he is now and where he is going. This loss impinges on the ability to attain happiness, which is defined as certainty and conformity with the ultimate truth.

Similarly impacted, Muslim youths today are at a loss seeing the poor state of their economies and the lack of success in getting well-paid jobs.

In spite of that, automation is not something entirely new in the civilisational history of Islam.

‘Ilm al-hiyal was the discipline of building automatons known as al-alat al-mutaharrikah bi dhatiha (“devices that move by themselves”), tools to assist with construction work, and structures such as the shaduf and the saqiyah at rivers and cisterns that transport water essential to life and ritual worship.

Rather, this loss of self-meaning and historical identity was the gra­dual result of colonisation and the eventual dominance of a way of thinking and living that precipita­ted global experience of the loss of work-life balance.

For Muslims, the roads previously trod which are encapsulated in important works such as Al-Hathth ‘ala al-Tijarah wa-al-Sina’ah wa-al-‘Amal (The Exhortation to Trade, Industry and Work) by al-Khallal (d. 923) and Kitab Adab al-Kasb wa’l-Ma‘ash (The Book of The Proprieties of Earning and Living) by Imam al-Ghazali (d. 1111) may serve as guidance for today’s understanding of the correctly measured balance between automation and work.

Islam emphasises the role of Man as the worldly custodian who is charged with the duty to make it prosper, which then becomes his primary occupation.

It consecrates work as meaningful venture with noble purpose, not separated from his worship of the Creator. God states in the Holy Quran: “He Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deed” (67:2).

Even more so, Muslims affirm every time in their prescribed ritual prayer: “Indeed, my prayer, my devo­­tion, my living, and my dying are for Allah, Lord of the worlds.” (6:162).

As a final note, it may be expecting too much for the youth to chart the future of the nation when they too are in a state of perplexity. In the current state of affairs, a better strategy would be, at the same time, to consult discerning intellectuals and scholars still living among us today who could distil answers from the solutions of our previous civilisations.

Muhammad Husni Mohd Amin is Senior Research Officer at Ikim’s Centre for Science and Environment Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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