Finding Purpose in an Increasingly Automated World

There has been a lot of discussion about automation, artificial intelligence, and how technology in general will impact our future. Most of these discussions are centered on concerns of how income and wealth will be distributed when only a small fraction of humanity can be meaningfully employed. However, while these are incredibly meaningful and pertinent conversations that we should absolutely be having, they focus almost entirely on the practical while ignoring our emotional needs.

Suppose for a moment that humanity as a whole is able to successfully make the transition to a post-scarcity economy. Universal basic income becomes a reality. Each and every person in the world has enough food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over their heads with only a small fraction of the population having to work (let’s say a quarter just to throw out a number). What does the other 75% of the population do with all of their newfound free time?

Faced with this question, people inevitably envision a utopia where the public at large will endeavor to better themselves. People will finally have the time and energy to pursue a doctorate in history, learn to play the guitar, paint a masterpiece, write a book, or otherwise chase their dreams. But to what end?

The trouble is that nobody ever strives for mediocrity. People don’t just want to write a book; they want to write the next Harry Potter. They don’t just want to learn to play the guitar; they want to be a rock star. But achieving greatness in a world where the majority of the population has all the free time in the world to do the same is difficult to say the least.

Let’s take writing a book as an example. Getting noticed in the publishing industry is becoming more and more difficult every year. Writing software like Scrivener, Storybook, and dozens of others have made organizing your writing easier than ever and free online tools like discussion forums, critique groups, and even free classes by famous authors have given aspiring writers more than enough tools to hone their craft. This is great news for readers because the stories that make it big are well written. They have to be in order to stand a chance. But this also means that standing out in the writing world is becoming more and more difficult, to the point where many writers elect to self-publish just to get their work out. With literally millions of people devoting their lives to writing literature, writing a book that a significant number of people will read requires you to be the best of the best, which by definition, most people are not. This trend will only become more pronounced with time.

Of course, plenty of people write for themselves (and perhaps for a few select others) without expecting to see a dime, purely for their own enrichment. Or to be more specific, for the enrichment of themselves and those around them. Writers write for the same core reason that artists paint and musicians play: their artistic pursuit of choice gives them purpose. People need a purpose in life, and whether that purpose is something as grandiose as changing millions of lives or providing entertainment and comfort to a select few, the common thread is that people want to impact others.

This can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Some people want to entertain others. Others want to build a tool others will use. Or help other people achieve their dreams. Or any number of other things. But other people are the key. Writing a book is a hollow accomplishment if nobody else ever reads it. Learning to play the guitar is not nearly as fulfilling if nobody ever hears you play a note.

But that is the problem with a large population with all the time in the world to hone their skill of choice. The more people write books, the harder it will be for a writer to share their work with others. With so many options to choose from, it can be easy for an amazing story that the author has poured his heart and soul and years of hard work into to be overlooked. Buried. Ignored.

At least on a large scale.

Above all else, people want to make a difference in each other’s lives, and there is no better place to do that than in one’s community. Houston Oasis is fully run by volunteers. None of us make a profit from Oasis and none of us expect to. We aren’t doing it for financial gain, but to make a difference in each other’s lives. Oasis gives our lives purpose, and in the future, the need for Oasis, and communities like it, will only continue to grow.

It is true that very few people change the world, but not that many have to. Countless others find purpose and meaning in changing the lives of a select few around them, whether it be their families, their circle of friends, or their communities. It is in these close personal relationships that the future of humanity lies.