Think Tank

If it’s ok with you, I’ll flush the toilet myself

An automated future looks dizzying. But visions of a wonder-clad world where everything is done for us mustn’t disguise our fundamental need to be productive

Words by
Robin Swithinbank

Forgive me for starting with my trousers around my ankles. I was in the gents at an airport recently when mid-visit – if we may – the loo flushed of its own accord, giving my nether regions an unexpected and most unwelcome dampening.

There are sound hygienic reasons a toilet might flush without the need for human intervention, but on this occasion my mind was instead flushed with what is becoming a growing phobia of automation (rather than parcopresis, or shy bowel syndrome, I’m relieved to report).

The creep of automation into daily life has been greeted with opportunistic enthusiasm by Silicon Valley start-ups, and scepticism by those of us who are increasingly convinced the 1990s was the last decade of self-reliance.

We hear more and more about automated cars. Fatal accidents involving early consumer models are easy headline fodder, but it starts to look a certainty that before long, none of us will be held responsible for driving ourselves anywhere.

“Cars are just the tip of the iceberg, what about work? Our jobs?”

The irritation for those of us who enjoy driving is that no doubt there will come a time when there’s a premium attached to driving oneself. Insurance will put paid to aspirations of putting pedal to metal first, and then maintenance and ultimately the cost of purchase as the supply and demand curve bends the other way.

But cars are just the tip of the iceberg. What about work? Our jobs? Futurologists surmise that machines will make many of us redundant. ‘Machines could take 50 per cent of our jobs in the next 30 years,’ said Moshe Vardi, a professor of computer science at Rice University recently.

What becomes of us in a future where everything is done for us? Shorter working hours are being touted as the work solution, but do we get, or even can we be paid the same for those fewer hours? And what are we supposed to do with the free-time surge this would create? More time on Snapchat?

And what of home life? If we aren’t needed to work anymore, then it stands to reason we won’t be needed to run our homes or our lives any more either. How sad. We don’t much acknowledge it, but we have a fundamental desire to be useful, productive and necessary, and to be of benefit both to ourselves and to those we care about, and it would be detrimental to cede that to machines. What of a life where we can’t make a cup of tea for one another any more?

The paradox for those in the home who cook, clean and wash is that while a future free of those chores sounds liberating in theory, it would also rob them of some of their capacity to care for others, to show love. The same is true for breadwinners. Work’s a chore, but keeping a roof over the heads of our nearest and dearest is rewarding. And anyway, if we’re not working anymore, who’s paying for that roof?

This is why there’s such a close link between unemployment and depression, and, by even unhappier extension, suicide. The life of leisure promised by a world where all the jobs are done by machines is a life of worklessness. Retirees talk of keeping mind and body active to avoid losing them. Staying healthy in mind and body requires us to get up off our backsides and do something. Playing computer games all day is no route to contentment. It’s a ruinous path to misery and an overbearing sense of self-worthlessness.

“What becomes of a future where everything is done for us?”

Of course, we’ve been here before. Sort of. My father talks of university in the 1970s and being challenged by his sociology lecturer to consider how he would use the additional free time and leisure automation would bring. But that challenge never arrived as instead technology tied us to our work. Will it be different this time around?

It’s not hard to see what’s stimulating this automated future. The technology is awe-inspiring. But we mustn’t let our lust for wonder outweigh our need for a sense of purpose. There are echoes here of the fake sound of progress. The irony of poet Anatole France’s words comes to mind: ‘Without lies, humanity would perish of despair and boredom.’

We need to feel necessary, to contribute, to be productive. It’s what gives us purpose and, more than that, what makes us procreate. We must resist the temptation to let the machines do everything for us. Particularly if that means I can go to the gents without getting a soggy bottom.