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The future of work and the future of education

Roy Bahat is the head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture fund backed by Bloomberg. He also works on the future of work, and – like a lot of people in Silicon Valley – is a vocal supporter of Universal Basic Income (UBI). I met up with him in San Francisco to talk about the future of work and the importance of lifelong learning. 

How worried should we be about automation and AI threatening our livelihood?

Extremely. The narrative on it is mostly wrong. The typical narrative is ‘the robots are coming and in the future your job will be eliminated and you should worry in the present’. The right way to think about it is that all of our jobs are constantly being eliminated all the time, it just happened over a longer time scale in the past, so people could basically tough it out. The classic example is the transition from an agricultural to a mercantile economy, where the received wisdom is humanity weathered it just fine. What really happened was the parents stayed on the farm and the children moved to the city. If I think about the timescale of transitions now, all of us are mastering new tools to do our work at a rate that is much more rapid. The amount of uncertainty is going up, so the right response is preparedness, vigilance and an attitude of constant learning and reinvention. People often ask me what percentage of jobs will automation eliminate and the answer is 100%, but we don’t know over what timescale.

Hopefully it will create new jobs too.

Sure. I just went to a small town in California, where there is no large export employer. The largest employer is the hospital, the second-largest is the university and so on. And I met a number of people working in ministry – they were in the practice of creating spiritual and religious venues, generally Christian, where people could come and pray and gather. That’s an area where there is limitless demand. Culture and ideas, there’s also limitless demand. So we will continue to define whatever we spend our days doing as ‘work’, and maybe the social definitions evolve. I do think there will be jobs – or ‘work’ anyway. There’s a valid question of whether that work will pay a sufficiently high wage for people to thrive and have the material needs in life. That’s why I’m involved in the guaranteed income question. There’s no rule that just because you’re working the market clearing wage will be sufficient to live on. One of the issues we’re seeing now is, in part because of automation, the market-clearing wage for many jobs is below what is required what to exist. People say ‘oh if you’re doing empathetic jobs you’ll still be OK’. That’s BS.

Why?

Because nobody knows what will be safer or less safe. There are bedtime stories we tell ourselves to feel safe, but those stories provide reassurance, not actual information. It’s very clear that people are perfectly happy to accept the care of the machine. There’s a great book called The Man Who Lied To His Laptop about how we anthropomorphize our machines.

In Japan, for example, there’s a lack of labour in elderly care so those roles are being filled by machines.

Sure. There’s a great little indie comedy called Robot and Frank, about an ageing man with dementia and the love-story with his robot caretaker. It’s part of the movie Her too – he falls in love with a robot. I always think what’s the first trigger in many of the changes in our cultural views about technology, and I can’t find an earlier trigger than science fiction. The earliest indications for many of the transitions we go through come from story-tellers. One reason is the variety of experimentation that can take place when the physical cost of it is zero. The other is we don’t appreciate how rule-bound fiction is. Reality obeys fewer rules that narrative – narrative has a structure that is quite constraining and therefore powerful for focusing the imagination on possibilities. I’m involved with a non-profit that did a contest for science fiction stories about futures that include guaranteed income. Just to start to imagine what that might like feel like in a more complete way than policy thinking which is often ‘introduce a change, imagine one effect of the change’ which makes it hard to imagine the system of unintended consequences.

Are there sci-fi writers you really rate at the moment?

I don’t think I can rate them on their predictive value, it’s unknowable, but…

Who do you like?

Well, Charlie Jane Anders is a science fiction writer who I read recently. Octavia Butler. All the science fiction traditions that emerge which are not straight white men probably will have a different imaginative substrate than what we’ve got in the past from nerdy straight white men. What I’m looking for is focused imagination and trying to discover other sources of insight. That was with a non-profit, but Bloomberg Beta is also often thinking about what ideas to introduce into the conversation about the future of work. We’ve had film directors, including the director of Robot and Frank, we’ve had the author of a sci-fi story called After On, about a machine that gains consciousness. Those conversations between practitioners building things and imaginers framing how those things may unfold is a really valuable dialogue.

What’s your working story about a future with Universal Basic Income (UBI)? How is it different to now?

In many ways. My fear scenario is that a culture outside of the West does it first, and then we’re copying an example from Chinese culture, say – it will be very different for different cultures, and I  don’t want us to over-generalize. Setting aside many difficult implementation questions, I believe there is a possibility of much less human suffering – instead of being forced to live within distant-commuting range of a service job that barely pays you enough to cover your commute, you could choose to live somewhere else. In the woods, say. My family is Israeli, and the kibbutz model of families pooling their resources feels very familiar to me, and a guaranteed income might facilitate guaranteed income communes, I don’t know. So there could be unpredictable stuff in terms of geography. There is a case to be made that many people will refuse to do work that is demeaning and low paid, which is both bad – if the economy needs those jobs done – and good, in the sense of honouring the humanity of those people. There’ll be an interesting tension there. I also think people will take more risks professionally.

And creatively?

Yeah. It’s difficult to imagine risk without creativity.

I think of artists like Geoff Dyer talking about how important their early years on the dole were for creative experimenting.

I love that, and should read more about it. I feel the difficult thing about the dole is it binds together two things – a resource which enables you to practice your creative profession, and shame. It’s hard to flourish creatively, or has been for me, when I feel shame. One of the cool things about a universal guaranteed income is it allows people to subsist while feeling proud to participate in the commons. That would be very cool, I don’t think we’ve seen that before, other than artists’ patronage. It’s sort of like patronage in everybody and a belief in inherent human potential before it’s proven, and without dependence on a single person’s favour, which is the danger of the patronage model.

There’s also the view that necessity is the mother of invention. You can have rich kids who struggle to find meaning because they don’t have to do anything.

Yes, I think that’s valid in the sense that, sure, people could sit in their mother’s basement, watch Netflix and play video games. They do that already by the way. It’s foolish to think that having something makes you stop wanting more. If anything it allows them to escape the poverty trap that prevents them from participating fully in the profit-motive-oriented society. We don’t know. That’s why I’m looking so closely at experiments – Stockton, California is doing one. There’s 20 programmes doing some kind of cash transfer, and I’m curious to see what unfolds as a result. The thing that is hardest to predict is what the received wisdom will be: what will we call this? How will we think of people who choose to live on this? We define work right now as labour in exchange for wage. That is not a decision given by the physical laws of the universe, that’s a consensus formed by propertied white men who said ‘it will be hard for us to count in gross domestic product domestic labour, if money is not exchanged it may not be valuable’. People exchange things other than money. They exchange love. For all the people who care for an elderly relative without being paid, guaranteed basic income is an opportunity to recognize that and allow people to do that and feel proud of what they do. We have in the US the beginning of relatives being paid to be nurses to their relatives through state programmes, and I think that’s a step in the right direction.

What’s the probability of UBI being introduced?

Great question…I don’t know. It’s hard for me to see an alternative to it. The best is the continued expansion of the welfare state, but we see how poor government is in general at administering programmes, and the complexity and size of government creates as many difficulties as it solves. The most interesting questions may come in countries which already have healthcare figured out. In the US, if we give someone a guaranteed income without figuring out how to pay for healthcare, have we actually helped them at all? We’ll need solutions to both those issues simultaneously, along with others like housing and education. So I’d say it feels necessary, not sufficient, and I have no idea on the timing.

What’s your working scenario if UBI doesn’t happen?

We did a year-long study with an NGO called New America to try and envision some scenarios. In all of them there were some common features – individuals need to be less reliant on corporations to provide the benefits required to sustain modern life, so more self-sufficient. All the things that I think are inevitable in the future probably already exist now – as they say in science fiction, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

I’ve been freelance since I was 25, I have a portfolio career of a few different streams, quite self-reliant but still attached to larger institutions. Is that the way things are going?

It’s an option for some people. Another model is the campaigns model – you work intensively for some time. Why is the retirement all bunched up at the end. They may work hard at one thing and then stop for a while.

Will people invest a lot in self-development? You see that a lot in the Bay Area.

Yeah. As societies get better at handling the bottom level of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy – food, clothes, housing – what remains is investment in our own minds and hearts. The particular brand of North Californian self-development is a peculiarity of a single place at a single time, I don’t know if Burning Man is a fixture of the future.

If we’re all more self-reliant, how will we find belonging?

I think finding belonging through the work-place is a relatively new phenomenon.

But think about the longer history of humanity – the tribe, or your place in a feudal system.

Sure. One of the issues is the activities you spend your days doing were very much attached to social class and place. But work can be detached from your class, your place, your gender. Workplace identity might get attenuated, but there’s lots of alternatives, everything from which sports team you’re part of, or what religion, secular or otherwise.

What do you think of secular religion?

Well, religions have historically provided a place of belonging theoretically open to everyone. But as science has gained in authority, it’s been harder for people to believe in theistic religions. There may be alternatives to it. A journalist used the phrase ‘contingent families’ – we spend longer now living with friends who are not your family, forming familial bonds with them. I do think we’ll see a multiplication of sources of identity and belonging.

How do we educate people for the future of work?

This is a topic I’m deeply interested in without claiming much expertise. Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society is interesting on this. The central argument, that modern school prepares us for institutional life, to me is borne out. Educational reformers say the skills you should teach are empathy, creativity and problem-solving. That’s valuable for top-level institutional managers. I’d offer some other contenders, like how to manage risk, how to set priorities, how to sell. Why isn’t there a secondary-school level on salespersonship. Those are vocational skills deeply involved in the tradecraft of economic self-determination.

Is that best done in big or small educational institutions?

Universities come from the legacy of teaching clergy how to be clergy, and teaching academics how to pursue knowledge. We’ve grafted onto that professional training and it feels an awkward fit. There are new models emerging, like Olin College, which was ranked by MIT the top engineering college, and they’re teaching the method of creating new things. It’s a powerfully different view of what higher education might be. And, back to unpredictability, we probably need more lifelong education. San Francisco has Free City College, which is interesting because it allows citizens to choose what to learn themselves. I don’t know how effective the education is but the intent feels spot on.

Does your fund invest in adult education?

Sure, all the time. There’s a company called MasterClass that provides online video classes with world-famous experts like Werner Herzog or Margaret Atwood. The cost of communication is so low we can access our heroes, which we’ve done in many ways through media, now we can do it focused on this use. General Assembly is an example of a company that does in-person teaching. There are many experiments right now – we’re in the Cambrian Explosion period of adult education. The cool aspect of it is that everyone is focused on the student experience. It’s worth looking at the educator perspective. We’ve assumed educators should be professional educators or academic researchers who teach on the side, most of whom don’t like it. It’s entirely possible that the right way to practice the learning of these skills is through practitioners who spend some of their time practicing and some of their time teaching. Imagine 50 mid-level managers of Intel sharing some of their insights on day-long courses.

Absolutely. That’s what the senior managers at Rowntree’s did – they invested a lot in adult education and would teach themselves every weekend.

Everything old is new again. Invention is recombination suited to its time.

I guess you’ve seen various different moods in Silicon Valley, from 90s optimism to the present shock that maybe tech disruption is making the world worse. Do you see that?

Yes, for the culture as a whole. I’m unsure how that plays out at specific company. Google just had a letter from employees asking them not to work with certain military clients. It’s a function of power. When you’re powerless, which the internet was at the beginning, it’s easy to focus on principles. Now the facts are the facts of power, it includes wonderful things like the ability to organize a democratic process, and awful things like the ability to put citizens under surveillance at a level we’ve never seen before. The management of power is the new challenge.

Does that mean that tech engineers are having to consider ethical questions for the first time?

Well, they don’t have to, because clearly they’ve done things without that. Should they? Of course. The question is how skilled people are at anticipating consequences and understanding different ethical frameworks. These are the ageless right-versus-right questions which Silicon Valley is grappling with for the first time.

Perhaps the incredible optimism that entrepreneurs need can blind them to unintended consequences?

Yes…The unreasonable nature of the most successful founders can blind them to lots of things. Or sometimes they can be painfully aware. We want these tidy stories that makes sense to us, and reality is not that tidy. I know plenty of entrepreneurs who worry deeply about the consequences of things. How that plays out is a major question for our world. That’s why when we invest in companies we give their managers the opportunity to be exposed to people and ideas from outside the tech monoculture, in the hope that their worldviews and skills will become more developed.

It was great to talk to such a thoughtful investor as Roy. I asked him at the end whether he thought I could successfully set up an adult education venture in California. He gave me some great advice. He said there are various different models of the CEO – the CEO as general, the CEO as servant and so on. He likes the CEO as scientist. ‘Make small experiments and see how they work out.’ Be prepared for surprises and respond to the results. I like that advice. 

Perennialism and fascism

Aldous Huxley and Rene Guenon

While I was in San Francisco, I got the chance to meet Michael Murphy, one of the founders of the Esalen Institute. It’s a cross between a spiritual retreat centre and an adult education college, perched on the cliffs of Big Sur next to some hot springs. It’s been very influential on transpersonal psychology and American spirituality.

Murphy and I discussed the cultural influence of the ‘mystical expats’ – Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts and Christopher Isherwood – on the vision of Esalen and on American culture in general. They helped to popularise the idea of the ‘perennial philosophy’ – the idea there is a common core of wisdom at the heart of all the great religious traditions, and one can use spiritual practices from various traditions. That idea is now at the centre of American culture – being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the fastest-growing demographic in American religion.

It was a treat to hear Mike’s fond reminiscences about them – how he and Esalen co-founder Dick Price were turned on by hearing Huxley lecture on ‘human potentialities’, how they went to meet Gerald Heard in LA and came away mesmerized and burning with the desire to found Esalen, how Huxley and his wife Laura came to meet them in Big Sur and insisted on seeing the local butterflies, how they first dropped acid with Laura, how Alan Watts was the greatest spontaneous speaker Murphy ever heard.

I was particularly interested to hear Murphy make the connection between the San Francisco Renaissance – the cultural movement ranging from the Beats to the Hippies and arguably still ongoing in Silicon Valley – to the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Bengal Renaissance was a cultural flowering involving creative thinking in politics, science, the arts and religion. One of its chief ideas was the perennial philosophy.  One finds perennialism in the religious movement called ‘Brahmoism’, which was started by the great Bengali thinker and reformer Ram Mohan Roy in around 1850, and which suggests that all religions are partial formulations of the transcendent divinity within us. One also finds perennialism in the teachings of Vivekananda, dashing Bengali prophet of Vedanta, who caused a sensation when he visited the Parliament of Religions in Chicago and declared that all religions are true.

I often encountered the same cheerful perennialism while travelling in India last year – in the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Chennai (which has temples to all the major religions), in the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I spent two weeks in a Zen / Jesuit retreat in Tamil Nadu, where we bowed to both Christ and the Buddha. This perennialism was a breath of fresh air after a period of desperately trying to be a Proper Christian.

Murphy pointed out to me that the ‘mystical expats’ helped to transmit the perennialist fire from Bengal to California. Heard, Huxley and Isherwood popularised Vedanta, the Hindu mysticism brought to the West by Vivekananda; while the evolutionary spirituality of Sri Aurobindo was transmitted into the Bay Area through the American Academy of Asian Studies – a small college that Alan Watts helped to found, which evolved into the California Institute of Integral Studies (Murphy was a student there). Watts also helped to transmit Zen and Daoist thinking into San Francisco, inspiring everyone from Jack Kerouac to John Cage. The perennialist spark caught fire in American culture, and now it’s widely accepted.

Perennialism and renaissances

It’s interesting that the ‘perennial philosophy’ was transmitted from one famous cultural renaissance to another. It got me thinking about perennialism and renaissances. If one looks back at the ‘American Renaissance’ – the sudden flowering of American literature led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and including Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and others – one also encounters the perennial philosophy, particularly in Emerson and Thoreau. The stern Puritan soul of America suddenly relaxes, expands, and sees its smiling reflection in other cultures – in Platonism, in Hinduism, in a blade of grass.

One also finds the hot spring of the perennial philosophy bubbling up in the Romantic era, in Coleridge and Blake (‘all religions are one’) and, earlier, in the Italian Renaissance, at the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino, who translated the works of Plato and ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, and sought to find a harmony between Christianity, Greek philosophy and Kabbalah. The optimism and creativity of this movement sings in the ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ of Pico della Mirandola, and shines in the radiance of Botticelli and Raphael.

The perennialist stream bubbles up yet again in the Islamic Renaissance (more usually known as the Islamic Golden Age), which is usually connected by scholars to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars translated the works of Greek and Roman philosophers and scientists.  One can trace the connection between the perennial philosophy and cultural flowerings all the way back to the Athenian Golden Age of the fifth century BC, when again, the human soul looks up from narrow tribalism, and smiles. Socrates declares: ‘I am a citizen of the universe’, leading the Stoics to suggest that all humans have a spark of the divine logos within them.

These are important moments of collective epiphany and cultural evolution in the story of homo sapiens. What they seem to have in common is a strong sense of cultural self-confidence – ‘we are Indians!’, ‘we are Americans!’, ‘we are Athenians!’ etc – with an openness to other cultures and the best they have to teach. And there’s a sense of optimism in progress, a sense of humans rising up and realizing their inner divinity – you see this in Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration, in Emerson’s great sermon on self-reliance, in Huxley’s lectures on human potential.

The varieties of Perennialism

But then I thought, perennialism isn’t always optimistic and hopeful. While researching the perennial philosophy, you can’t help but come across a movement called Traditionalism. It was started by a French thinker called René Guénon in around 1920. Like the mystical expats, he was initially inspired by Vedanta, then he flirted with Catholicism, got into Taoism, before moving to Egypt and becoming initiated into a Sufi order. He inspired other traditionalists including Fritjof Schuon, Julius Evola and Mircea Eliade.

There’s a lot of similarities between Huxley et al’s Perennial Philosophy, and Guénon et al’s Traditionalism – they share the idea that western civilization has lost its soul in mechanical materialism, and that only a return to the core of wisdom at the heart of the great religious traditions will save civilization from collapse.

And yet Traditionalism is a much more pessimistic movement. Guénon and his successors, like the followers of Gurdjieff, thought wisdom could only ever be esoteric, reserved for the initiated elite. The masses would never get it. Traditionalists were constantly joining or creating esoteric secret societies, like the Gnostic Church, the Masons, the Maryamiya, the ‘Fraternity of the Cavalier of the Divine Paraclete’, or the ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’.

They typically despaired of democratic politics, and flirted with the far-right – in Julius Evola’s case, this flirtation was quite explicit, as he tried to ingratiate himself first with Italian fascism and then with the Nazis. Mircea Eliade also had connections to the Romanian far-right. Where Huxley et al became cheery prophets of human potential, the Traditionalists were doom-mongers of the Apocalypse – they insisted we’re in Kali Yuga, a Hindu dark age of conflict and spiritual mediocrity. Humans aren’t ascending, we’re on the down-elevator, so the elite should withdraw and prepare for the deluge, or possibly seize power.

Reading about the Traditionalists yesterday, it struck me how human destinies can flow in such different directions from similar plateaus. I can well imagine Huxley et al becoming authoritarian Traditionalists. Huxley, like many modernists of his generation, was an aristocratic elitist – whenever he writes about bourgeois or proletarian mass culture, he invariably uses the word ‘squalid’. He and Gerald Heard often wondered if the perennial philosophy was suitable for the many, or just the initiated few. They pondered this in the 1950s and 60s with regard to psychedelics (Huxley decided they should just be for the intelligentsia). Heard, who in his last years became a guru to wealthy libertarian CEOs, suggested that spiritual education should focus on an elite – whom he called the ‘neo-brahmins’ – who could then rise to power. Particularly during World War 2, one finds the same note of deep cultural pessimism in Huxley and Heard’s writings as one finds in Guénon and Evola.

Why, then, did the mystical expats not become gloomy quasi-fascist Traditionalists? One reason is surely California. While Guénon was fulminating in a Cairo bedsit, Huxley and his gang were picnicking with Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin in the Hollywood Hills. They were living in gorgeous pads in Santa Monica. They were having too much fun to be fascist. Maybe the LA weather made them cheerier. Or maybe they found a culture more hospitable to their ideas – they were on the radio, on TV, lecturing away on campuses and at places like Esalen. Perhaps that gave them an optimism in human potential.

Another reason is Huxley and Heard had more faith in scientific progress than Guénon, who thought the urge to quantify everything was a symptom of the Kali Yuga. Huxley and Heard thought psychology could shed new light on the human psyche, that new psycho-spiritual methods could be discovered and disseminated, new drugs discovered. They may be right, although quantified spirituality has all kinds of risks – both Huxley and Heard can be over-credulous in their faith in new research.

Whatever the many causes, their lives ran in a different direction, and they took a bet on democratic mysticism – mysticism for the many, not the few.

Today, more and more of us are perennialists – a quarter of adult Americans are ‘spiritual but not religious’, and 35% of American millennials. Yet we can still see how many different directions a tide can break. We can see that Bay Area spirituality can easily become elitist – we the 1% are the spiritual supermen, the rest of society is screwed, let’s move to New Zealand, or space. We see that the perennial philosophy can still become deeply pessimistic and quasi-fascist – Steve Bannon and other alt-righters sing the praises of Julius Evola (my dark namesake) and argue that western civilization needs to re-embrace spiritual wisdom before it is over-run by immigrants.

I feel a strain of cultural pessimism in me too. Are we in an age of cultural ascent, or cultural decline? I’d probably go with Guénon and say we’re in the Kali Yuga. Thanks to people like Watts and Huxley, we have a very wide spirituality, with more and more people practicing wisdom techniques from Stoicism / Buddhism / Hinduism etc. But the width of participation seems to come at the cost of the height of attainment – where are the saints? Where are the masters? Every guru turns out to be a sex-pest. And, like Huxley, I worry about over-population and the damage we are doing to the ecosystem. It seems more likely to me that this century will be one of cultural collapse than spiritual ascent.

Clearly, I need to move to California and cheer up. Anyway, width of participation in spirituality is probably more important than height of practice. If several million people learn a bit of wisdom and suffer a bit less, that seems good to me. The ascent of humanity is very slow, but we’re getting there, together.