Universal Basic Meaning

Scratch the surface of any debate about the future of work and you’ll find there an argument for Universal Basic Income.

And certainly from a purely survivalist standpoint that’s an important consideration.

We need to know what it is going to look like for people not to have the financial resources from working. We also need to understand how this model might concentrate power and opportunity into fewer and fewer hands.

But we also need to think beyond this consideration of the future of work. Humans rely on work for more than income; we also rely on work for meaning.

Humans have historically derived associated work with what we do; we have historically derived associated work with who we are.

Our work is in so many cases our identities, as the long tradition of names, last names and family names, derived from professions demonstrates. Carpenter, Baker, Butcher, and so many others — and this happens across languages, not just English. Throughout the world and throughout human history, we have taken so much of who we are and what we are about from what we do for a living, and what our ancestors have done for a living.

As I have previously written:

We derive a tremendous amount of meaning from our work—the sense of accomplishment, of problems solved, of having provided for ourselves and for our families, of having made a contribution, of having value and self-worth.

We have to recognize the possibility of a post-human-work world, or at least a world where human work has fundamentally changed—so that as we look at automation, we see the impact on both the experiences automation creates and the experiences automation displaces. Because in the future scenario where all the human work has vanished, where do humans get the same sense of meaning? That meaning we have historically derived from work will have to come from something other than work. We need a better answer.

— from Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans

The Need for Universal Basic Meaning

My radical idea is that there needs to be some kind of replacement, or reinforcement, for the meaning we derive from work, like a “Universal Basic Meaning” that’s supplied around us.

Not to take the place of work; not to replace jobs. But to enhance jobs and everything else we do, every experience we have. What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.

Because while I do think about the financial implications of job displacement and replacement from automation, I’m nearly as concerned about people not having the resources of meaning and identity.

I wonder about what it’s going to do to us, as human jobs shift away from work we can develop identity around. What I think is going to be needed, even more than ever, are meaningful experiences in the world around us. Meaningful experiences at scale.

One concern I have is that as experiences become increasingly automated and are often selected for automation by how mundane and repetitive — and hence, how meaningless — they are, that we will be increasingly surrounded by meaningless experiences. It makes rational sense to automate the tedious tasks in our workflow and throughout our lives, but it’s easy to imagine this at scale where more and more of our everyday experiences and interactions are automated, and they’re all meaningless.

Because the interconnectedness of data and algorithms and emerging technologies are more and more part of our everyday environments, and they can create experiences that have outsized impact on who we are and how we live our lives. And it’s important that we appreciate the way these systems change us.

This is why I always say we should “automate the meaningful too.” It is important that we now, in the early stages of automating human experiences, encode them with all the enlightenment, all the equity, all the evolved thinking we can.

In the weeks and months to come, I’ll write more about Universal Basic Meaning, how this idea can inform our understanding of ethical and practical data-based experiences, and how we can build the most meaningful experiences at scale.

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