In 2036 automation has made most jobs redundant. Henri is a cancer physician and one of the few left who have a job. Most people are paid not to work. They are ‘The Absolved’.
Sounds pretty good in theory, right? This is the ‘universal basic income’ argument – it’s fine to automate more and more jobs and put more people out of work so long as they still have enough money to get by. It’s just like a lifelong holiday.
In practice, it can be thoroughly dehumanising.
The Absolved has all the ingredients you’d expect of a future dystopia – increased automation, record high temperatures, almost non existent rainfall forcing use of desalination plants, which has driven up water prices. But instead of spending time with the depressing dystopia, we get to hang out with Henri and the other successful (though morally void) world of the 1 per cent.
The whole book feels like a really big ‘F%&# you’ to 2018’s denial of climate change and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence. It has a similar feel to American Psycho‘s chilling indictment of the 1980s yuppie’s obsession with wealth, though without the horrific violence.
Henri is very immature, almost childlike, following his desires from home to an affair to the nearest bar. His job as a cancer physician is so prescribed and automated it requires little innovation from him. Although as the narrative progresses you get the feeling that, in a different context, he might have turned out to be a different kind of person. Then again, couldn’t the same be said of all of us?
His friend, Serena, is the ultimate anti-empath, focused solely on the bottom dollar and happy to fire entire hospital departments once she can automate their tasks. Society considers her massively successful.
Henri’s musings on prioritising cost-cutting over caring should have anyone working in a large bureaucracy doing a little fist pump in solidarity:
‘When I became a doctor, I harbored grand notions about what a difference I’d make, and all of the people I’d help, and all of the generous contributions I’d bestow on the world. But the truth is, the benevolence gets quickly overshadowed by the stress, the hardship, the heartbreak, and most of all the bureaucracy. It’s hard to fathom the hours I’ve wasted in meetings, discussing cost-saving efforts, tedious administrative requirements, and ways to improve organizational efficiency. I’d estimate that as much as half a doctor’s time is spent occupied with this type of work rather than with patients. And now I can’t even remember this person I managed to save.’
Can automation and AI go too far?
In The Absolved, embeddable tech is government subsidised. Every child is fitted with a ‘gram’ (short for hologram), inserted into the finger. At any time you can create a hologram screen and access anything you want. It’s basically a smartphone that you never lose and never runs out of data.
AI has progressed to the point where even music is written by algorithms:
“The machines are superior to man in almost every way imaginable,” she once said. “Why else would we have turned over all of life’s most important functions to them?”
And yet, nobody seems particularly bothered. It all sounds rather horribly familiar:
“Our increasing technological advances have driven greater and greater inequality. For decades, this didn’t seem to bother the politicians. Just as long as the overall economy kept growing, they didn’t care who was benefiting.”
Would a universal basic income solve all our problems?
No, not if you believe the future that might be waiting for us as presented in The Absolved.
Simply paying people a subsistence wage without expecting anything in return fails to provide any sort of purpose or sense of achievement. Just existing is not enough. Which in itself struck me as odd – surely we’re the only animal species on the earth for whom survival is not an achievement in and of itself?
Book club bonus
If you’re reading this for a book club, consider discussing this passage:
‘… humanity has lost a great deal from its abandonment of physical work. Even in today’s factories, workers no longer build anything. They only service the machines and software that do. Yet there is dignity in making things with your hands that will never be found in more cerebral work.’
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review.