AI and the freedom of… Muße?
Preface for our English Readers
„Muße?“ You are probably asking yourself right now, what that is. It is an old German word. The direct translation is “leisure”, coming from the old french “leisir” meaning “opportunity afforded by freedom from necessary occupations”. So leisure is not only spare time – it has something to do with your free will. In that sense, it turns out, that both “leisure” and “Muße “have become quite foreign concepts in our societies. But be assured: We need them. So in this blog post, we will explain what exactly “Muße” is and why it will be important in the future.
By the way! For easier reading, this is how the word is pronounced in German:
The “value” of work in the industrialized world
We are currently experiencing an astonishing overvaluation of work, especially in Western societies. Today, if you want to make a career in management, you need to prioritize work over your private life. Some people even cut their sleeping hours to be more successful. This is no surprise, as we are well recompensed for our time. Especially in higher positions these hours are accompanied by an exponential payment. Conversely, your time at work is valued much more by society than the things you do when we are not working.
And even if you are not a manager – the service economy offers today’s knowledge worker a similar perspective. Knowledge workers now make up a large part of the population, and they work under immense pressure. The reason: our only alternative to working is unemployment. These two are the most dominant states of being in our societies.
And no longer, with rancid sweat, so, Still have to speak what I cannot know: That I may understand whatever Binds the world’s innermost core together, See all its workings, and its seeds, Deal no more in words’ empty reeds.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust I
Industrialized work: meet AI. (And your future unemployment crisis)
In this context, it is not surprising that any kind of AI evokes the feeling of an existential crisis. When there is no more work to be done, we will have lots of time at our disposal. But until now this time is either reserved for recreation (we use it to restore our energy for work) or we spend it in the state of unemployment. And that means our total loss of importance in this society.
If we do not review our relationship with work to find alternatives, we as a society will have to endure the conflicts that will result from the deflation of labor for the individual. This is the nature of the dilemma that automation brings us, no matter how fast or slow the technology will develop and upset the labor market. Even worse: it is by no means clear which professions will be the first to become meaningless and ineffective.
Now, as a designer, I feel challenged by this supposed lack of alternatives. On the contrary: of course, we will be able to come up with alternatives to the prevailing system. Alternatives, that will represent real progress.
Employment, unemployment – and Muße
As a designer, I am familiar with alternative forms of employment. Design as a profession sees itself as an applied spin-off of the free arts, after all. The draft, the sketch, the conecept, or the ingenious idea, are moments recurring in high frequency. And they can definitely be the product of hard work or at least benefit from it. They can also be destroyed by hard work.
But hard work aside, the results we produce in our industry can just as well arise from a period of leisure. So now, we come back to the German “Muße”.
The essence of virtue consists more in the Good than in the Difficult.Thomas Aquinas
Unfortunately, acting leisurely is not seen as a work-related activity. For example, our agency would alienate its customers if we were to charge them for an hour-long walk in the park instead of a design process. It wouldn’t even matter if the results were the same. This is because leisure as a concept has lost its meaning over time and is now more closely related to recreation, whereas in the German translation for “acting leisurely” (“Müßiggang”) you can still see its roots in the concept of “Muße”. But whether you call it Muße or leisure, the important thing is, that the concept isn’t present in our societies’ duality between working and not working. Even though it represents an actual alternative to these two states.
An alternative, no less, that we will urgently need in the future – for example to consider how we should approach the AI challenge.
Muße has become a stranger to the working man
Anyone who wants to learn something about Muße will feel like an archaeologist, because it has been a long time the word had actual meaning for our society. But our search proved worthwhile when we found a a small booklet by the Christian philosopher Josef Pieper. “Muße und Kult” is its title, published in 1948 by Kosel-Verlag in Munich.
Pieper’s text was written at a time when, after the catastrophe of the Second World War, a dumbfounded German population found itself struggling to rebuild the country. And they did so with unimaginable industriousness. The German “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle) became a reality. Josef Pieper shows how tight of a corset work had become at that time for the population. He speaks of a self-imposed imperative. In this situation there was no time for Muße.
So the name with which we name the places of education, and even education, means Muße. School does not mean “school” but: Muße.Josef Pieper: Muße und Kult
In his book Pieper shows how we lost our ability to act leisurely, how the concept of Muße experienced a gradual decline over the centuries. For example, our modern word school still goes back to the Latin term “schola”, which itself means nothing but Muße. But do we regard school as a place of doing something else but working? I don’t think so. In our societty, the concept can no longer prevail over the ubiquitous concept of work.
The Ancient Greeks valued Muße for good reasons
When we go way back to the Greek philosophers of the classical age this was quite different: they separated the liberal arts from the practical arts (artes liberales and artes mechanicae (serviles)), whereby the liberal arts were literally dependent on Muße. Muße is not just “doing nothing”. It is the simple beholding of things (simplex intuitus), the listening to their essence. It stands in contrast to reason or the power of discursive thinking. Therefore, Muße creates conditions in which knowledge and imagination and ideas can come into being. But while the Middle Ages could still could make some sense of the term, the Enlightenment began to critically question its purely “spiritual” aspects.
“In Kant’s opinion, therefore, human recognition is essentially realized in the acts of examining, linking, comparing, distinguishing, abstracting, concluding, proving – of pure forms and ways of intellectual effort.” And further: “…that man distrusts everything that is effortless; that he is willing to have as his property with a clear conscience only that which he has attained in painful labor”. Simply beholding something, as an essential aspect of the design and creative process, is worthless because it requires no effort.
Muße is not the attitude of the one who intervenes, but of the one who opens himself…Josef Pieper: Muße und Kult
For me, as a designer, Muße as defined by the Greek philosophers has become very important. The process of “simply beholding” is familiar to me. It is synonymous with the ideation phase, which is often mistakenly called the idea development phase, but is much more fruitful if you are willing to simply invite the ideas so that they can emerge instead of wanting to find them methodically supported. You will not succeed in forcing either your own brain or the brains of your employees or colleagues to come up with a good idea. Creative people know that. And they are therefore very sensitive to the prevailing conditions under which free creative work is to take place.
We intimately know intellectual effort – but AI will render it meaningless
Unfortunately, it is exactly Kant’s intellectual reason that artificial intelligence is after. The characteristics of intellectual work presented by Kant are all fields in which the human brain can already be beaten by machines. Algorithms are much better at recognizing patterns in data as well as drawing logical conclusions from them. And they are more willing to make the necessary effort to work through the data. This means that AI will render our intellectual effort meaningless in the near future.
Because of this, we repeatedly read predictions claiming that sophisticated algorithms will render a lot of human work unnecessary. Intellectual work in Kant’s sense is thus subject to accelerating deflation. We will not escape this dilemma, even if AI should also lead to a boom in new jobs (teachers, programmers, etc.). However, this last thing is also doubtful.
However, the important question is: would this loss of work actually be that bad? Or would it also hold a considerable potential for human freedom and emancipation?
The freedom of Muße
Josef Pieper would see an opportunity in our current situation. For the freedom of Muße begins where man consciously resists his own functionalization through work. It begins in the moment when he starts to look at the world, its contexts and its interrelations. The signs that we need to focus more on this concept are clearly visible.
What will we do with our free time? Will we, as expected from the entertainment industry, flee into the neverending adventure of Virtual Reality and lose ourselves there? Or will we look for other things to engage in? Will we perhaps look at topics we have forgotten under the primacy of wage labor?
“Muße is a mental attitude. It is not already given due to the external facts of work break, leisure, weekend, vacation.”Josef Pieper: Muße und Kult
The industrial revolution seems to be an apt historical comparison for our current situation. It was perhaps the most radical change Western society has experienced to date. During that time a social class came about that could suddenly reduce the time spent for manual labor in their lives by a great margin. This bourgeoisie increasingly earned its money through the use of economic capital.
The Bourgeois in France, the English Gentleman, the German Großbürger experienced a standard of living that in the centuries before was reserved for the nobility alone. And what happened? In the clubs and coffee houses of the big cities they nurtured a new culture of Muße that proved to be fertile ground for societal progress. Investments were made in education and science. People traveled and discovered. Many institutes, universities and museums were founded during this period and modern tourism also had its origins.
A multitude of innovations caused profound change and the achievements of the epoch still shape the face of many European cities. This was only possible because the bourgeoisie had the opportunity to truly engage in enriching life without having to worry about working.
Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.J. H. Newman’s “The Idea of a University”
Creating the prerequisites for Muße is our social responsibility
Just to be clear, we are very aware that the period after the industrial revolution was not characterised by fair distribution and had many problems. Nevertheless, the phenomenon shows what people are able to do when they have the time to truly immerse themselves in the world. This look into the past raises the question of how we want to deal with our future. Should it be a future of unemployment – or one of Muße?
As algorithms and robots free us from the burden of work in our – relatively – prosperous society, many people will have more time on their hands. They will have the chance to discover new system patterns and to break through old patterns of thought. That is precisely why we must regain the capacity for Muße as a source of inspiration.
AI can create the conditions (prosperity without the imperative to work) under which we rediscover Muße, but it cannot help us get there all the way. On the one hand, the existence of the “unnecessary” people who become unemployed must be further provided for, be it through their own capital, through the institution of the bank, an unconditional basic income or through financial compensation such as a machine or AI tax. On the other hand, AI is in principle not capable of Muße. The process of simply beholding knows no evaluations or assessments. Without evaluation, however, no AI technology known to me can be focused. The ability to get into the state of Muße is a structural advantage of the human brain.
In the coming years it will therefore not be important how much AI deflates our beloved work and how fast the process of de-proletarianization begins, but how we deal with our newly found spare time.
Will we dare to address the issues that are outside our current field of attention? Will we be able to make new discoveries and achieve real progress for society? Will we relearn the art of simply beholding and gain a better understanding of the conditions that determine our world? We will have to, if we want to face the new challenges that are coming to us through AI’s capabilities. And we should also feel motivated by the treasures that can be found outside our existing patterns of thought.
And just as in the field of goodness the greatest virtue knows nothing serious, so also the highest form of knowledge – the lightning brilliant idea, the real contemplation (ϑεωρία (theōría)), becomes a gift to man; it is effortless and without complaint.Josef Pieper: Muße und Kult