"The belief in technology as a benevolent, self-healing, autonomous force is seductive. It allows us to feel optimistic about the future while relieving us of responsibility for that future. It particularly suits the interests of those who have become extraordinarily wealthy through the labor-saving, profit-concentrating effects of automated systems and the computers that control them. It provides our new plutocrats with a heroic narrative in which they play starring roles: recent job losses may be unfortunate, but they're a necessary evil on the path to the human race's eventual emancipation by the computerized slaves that our benevolent enterprises are creating. Peter Thiel, a successful entrepreneur and investor who has become one of Silicon Valley's most prominent thinkers, grants that 'a robotics revolution would basically have the effect of people losing their jobs.' But, he hastens to add, 'it would have the benefit of freeing people up to do many other things.' Being freed up sounds a lot more pleasant than being fired.

"There's a callousness to such grandiose futurism. As history reminds us, high-flown rhetoric about using technology to liberate workers often masks a contempt for labor. It strains credulity to imagine today's technology moguls, with their libertarian leanings and impatience with government, agreeing to the kind of vast wealth-redistribution scheme that would be necessary to fund the self-actualizing leisure-time pursuits of the jobless multitudes. Even if society were to come up with some magic spell, or magic algorithm, for equitably parceling out the spoils of automation, there's good reason to doubt whether anything resembling the 'economic bliss' imagined by Keynes would ensue. In a prescient passage in The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt observed that if automation's utopian promise were actually to pan out, the result would probably feel less like paradise than like a cruel practical joke. The whole of modern society, she wrote, has been organized as 'a laboring society,' where working for pay, and then spending that pay, is the way people define themselves and measure their worth. Most of the 'higher and more meaningful activities' revered in the distant past have been pushed to the margin or forgotten, and 'only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living.' For technology to fulfill humankind's abiding 'wish to be liberated from labor's "toil and trouble" ' at this point would be perverse. It would cast us deeper into a purgatory of malaise. What automation confronts us with, Arendt concluded, 'is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.' Utopianism, she understood, is a form of miswanting.

"The social and economic problems caused or exacerbated by automation aren't going to be solved by throwing more software at them. Our inanimate slaves aren't going to chauffeur us to a utopia of comfort and harmony. If the problems are to be solved, or at least attenuated, the public will need to grapple with them in their full complexity. To ensure society's well-being in the future, we may need to place limits on automation. We may have to shift our view of progress, putting the emphasis on social and personal flourishing rather than technological advancement. We may even have to entertain an idea that's come to be considered unthinkable, at least in business circles: giving people precedence over machines."