The Future of Imagination

Venkatesh Rao had a great piece last week on imagination as a survival skill. Here is the gist:

I suspect failure-to-self-actualize will become the leading cause of death (or madness) in the developed world.

Rao defines “self-actualization” as

the imaginative embodiment of internal realities (what the daemon feels) in the form of a dent in the universe: a surprising and free external reality that actualizes a new possibility for all

and “imagination” as

the ability to create unpredictable new meaning while generating more freedom than you consume.

The post is very good, worth reading twice. However, there is one key shift that Rao overlooks. He focuses on imagination as an essential ability for the wealthy (the “one percent”), but it has even bigger implications for a future of 100 percent unemployment.

This change is coming, slowly but surely. It’s hard to imagine a future where “the robots take over” entirely, but we are already seeing a society where the poorest have more leisure time than the wealthiest. As Arnold Kling writes:

The prediction I would make is that we would see a lot more leisure. For those whose skill adaptation is adequate, that leisure will take the form of earlier retirement, later entry into the work force, or shorter hours. For those whose skill adaptation is inadequate, that leisure will show up as unemployment or reluctant withdrawal from the labor force.

I think that if you look only at males in isolation, you will see this in the data. That is, men are working much less than they used to. For some men, this leisure is very welcome, but for others it is not. In that sense, I think that we should look at the fears of the early 1960s not as quaint errors but instead as fairly well borne out.

The availability of inexpensive leisure (think cable TV and Youtube) has increased the reservation wage of low-wage workers. This has made unskilled individuals less willing to work for near-minimum wage jobs, as detailed in this New York Times article.

Self-actualization of highly skilled individuals as described by Rao has created so much freedom for those at the bottom of the income distribution that they now choose not to work. In their own words, though, the willingly unemployed do not seem to live fulfilling lives. Self-actualization is as important for them as it is for the wealthy, but they suffer from a failure of imagination.