Work, Play Extremes

Humanity’s mix of work vs. play has varied over the millennia. Farmers played less less than foragers, and with industry we’ve moved back to, and even past, forager levels of play. In the future, the work-play mix could move in either direction, possibly to extremes.

Pause for a moment to ask yourself: which extreme do you most fear, a mostly-work future, or a mostly-play future? Yes, all else equal play is probably better than work, but all else may not be equal – ask yourself what knowing that a world is mostly-work or mostly-play would tell you about the rest of that world.

Me, I more fear a mostly-play future. I fear a world of people so overwhelmed by the pleasures of music, movies, games, virtual reality, drugs, etc. that they don’t build for the future, or even maintain support structures inherited from the past. Failing to invest in capital or children, humanity shrinks and falls into oblivion.

Yes, there are things to fear about a mostly-work future. Mainly, the opportunity cost of fun not had. Play is often more fun, and even fulfilling, than work. Given a momentary choice, we tend to choose play over work, and for good reason. Even so, I’d expect a mostly-work world to continue to invest and grow, building to a larger population and capacity. So that if later that world devolves into most-play, at least more people will have more fun on the way down.

Notice that this issue suggests that status isn’t such a bad thing. Locally, the possibility of efforts to gain status seem to cause a market failure, as your status gains come at the expense of the status of others. This would seem to make us work too hard to gain status. But since we can more reliably gain status via work than via play, the existence of status pushes us toward work, and away from the more dangerous mostly-play extreme.

I’m not thrilled that the em future I envision is a mostly-work world. But it at least seems safer than the other extreme to which the work-play mix could have evolved.

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  • Toni

    If you look at “play” such as music, learning to play the piano is probably the shittiest yet most fulfilling thing you can do with your life – even more so than having children. Learning to be any good takes years and practice is terrible, and then you have to continuously do boring practice just to stay on that level. So as such, learning to at least do or participate in music can teach people a lot of useful morals.

    So, if everyone learns to master musical instruments, requiring lots of satisfaction-postponement, boring goal-oriented work, etc. how does that actually differ from working when considering individual people, their character and intrapersonal morality?

    Then again, either doing or watching movies or books most likely attracts us because of beautiful stories, which often are in-line with our forager morals. This is, of course, not good, as it reinforces poor morals. From this point of view, for the “fabric of society”, movies, books and other stories can be devastating, especially if while watching them people are not exposed to real life via work. (I believe the rise of left-wing politics since 1800 is mainly attributed to the fact that people don’t have to face the market anymore. People don’t know what it means when you can’t sell your products because they work in large organisations and can’t experience market realities first hand, and thus they attach a forager narrative to layoffs in large corporations such as bad leadership, evil capitalism, etc.)
    Can you be more concrete in what you think the ills are of play? Is it intrapersonal morality development, lack of real life teaching from capitalist morality (as I suggest), or what? You point to “lack of capital accumulation” but what’s not rational here, if we have decreasing marginal returns of capital?

  • Guest

    Typo – 4 paragraph, 1 row

    • Robin Hanson


  • Toph

    Industrious societies did not move beyond hunter-gatherers in playtime. In modern H/G-societies five-hour-workdays seem to be normal; a workload of 35 hours/week, which is very much in range of the typical 40 hours/week we see in modern industrialized countries. 

    • Robin Hanson

      The average US adults works 24 hours per week at a job.

  • If ems ran fast, say they get 100 days of experience for every earth day, they could play with 75% of their time and still outperform humans.

    Would such a civ fail in the ways you fear, or just grow less fast than it could?

    • After the ems outperform humans, they will be competing with each other. An em that works 75% of their time could take jobs of 3 ems that work only 25% of time; but later even this em will seem lazy compared with their competitors who work 90% or even full 100% of the time.

      (Also we don’t know what kind of *signalling* will ems have. Maybe self-modifying to hate playing will be a part of standard job contract.)

  • Prfehprakash Chandrashekar

    It is possible that there might be a convergence with the current trend of gamification of work. It is only when you’re dealing with complete unknowns, for eg. Science, that it becomes impossible to gamify the work content.

  • Wonks Anonymous

    I mostly-play causes humanity to diminish due to a lack of children, I’d expect Darwinian pressure to select for more workers. The implausibility of the mostly-play future makes it less frightening.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    With easy availability of psychoengineering among ems (both individually initiated and forced), and strong selection pressures, I think that ems reward circuitry will be re-designed to make work into fun.

    They will be working 24/7, individually destitute and as happy as needed for their societies to remain more powerful than competitors, and immensely, by many orders of magnitude, more powerful than us.

  • gwern0

    > I fear a world of people so overwhelmed by the pleasures of music,
    movies, games, virtual reality, drugs, etc. that they don’t build for
    the future, or even maintain support structures inherited from the past.
    Failing to invest in capital or children, humanity shrinks and falls
    into oblivion.

    If anyone else said this about anything else, you would immediately pounce on their economic illiteracy and smugly point out how this is obviously wrong.

    >> I fear a world so overwhelmed by oil addiction that they don’t build for the future, or even maintain alternative energy inherited from the past. Failing to invest in energy capital, humanity shrinks and fall into oblivion.
    > This commenter clearly has never heard of concepts like marginal returns or even just selection; imagine that his scenario did come to pass and oil ran out, what would happen? Why, obviously the marginal returns of other energy sources would surpass that of oil and people would use those other sources, and life would go on! I’m shocked to see such pessimism especially right now, when the world is almost suffering a *glut* of natural gas and oil prices have fallen dramatically from their peaks just a few years – exactly as economics would predict.

    Replace ‘natural gas’ with names like ‘Amish’ or ‘Orthodox’…

    I fear futures of mostly-work more, because they may be more stable and never permit any periods of ‘more play’. The poor also smile – for now, with unuploaded brains.

    • Dremora

      The poor smile, but they have lower quality of life. Compare

      On a scale of 0 to 10, the average resident of a low-income country rated their satisfaction as 4.3 – while 0 means “the worst life possible” and 10 means “the best life possible”.

      Note that there is a *huge* difference between those extremes. Assuming symmetry between good and bad (which is false, cf. the metastudy “Bad is stronger than good”), we would assume that 5 is a neutral life, i.e. equivalent to non-existence. In conclusion, this indicates that the current poor don’t have lives worth living.

      It is unclear to me why we point out that the poor smile and not that they cry. They do both at times, like almost everyone.

      It is also unclear why we don’t use such propaganda memes for the rich, e.g. “rich people who lose all their wealth still smile”.

      • gwern0

        My use of that sentence was a semi-sarcastic reference to Hanson’s previous post titled that, which was relevant to the topic.

      • J O

        I’m not sure it’s realistic to stick the “should you bother being alive” cut-off point at 5 out of 10.  People in unpleasant situations don’t necessarily want to die, even people in misery don’t necessarily decide their lives aren’t worth it.  I wouldn’t have concluded that your life isn’t worth living if it’s below 5, and I find it a peculiar statement.

      • Dremora

        “Pulling through” is not the same thing as enjoying life. Not wanting to die is not the same thing as feeling more happy than unhappy. Death is scary for most humans. That doesn’t mean the experiences of those humans are subjectively good, while they are alive.

        Would you want to conceive a child if you knew it would have a sub-5 life on this scale? I personally wouldn’t.

    • Robin Hanson

      It is possible to imagine a world in which working to build a bigger future becomes much harder, so that even though we are willing to work hard, we aren’t willing to work that hard, and so we also don’t invest much. For example, imagine an acid rain quickly erodes all machines and permanent structures. Bur running low on oil isn’t remotely that big an increase in the difficulty of working to build a future. Our losing our inclination to work for the future, that would have a much bigger effect on whether a future gets built.

      • Mark Bahner

        “It is possible to imagine a world in which working to build a bigger future becomes much harder,…”

        I can’t imagine that world, except in cases of global war (which seems unlikely, though not impossible). And of course terminator machines (the odds of which are hard to calculate at present).

        How do you imagine a “world in which working to build a bigger future becomes much harder…”? We’ve had about 300 years of continuous global GDP growth, and the growth has actually accelerated over every 50-year period from 1700 to 2100:

      • Mark Bahner

        Oops. Obviously, that should have been:

        “We’ve had about 300 years of continuous global GDP growth, and the growth has actually accelerated over every 50-year period from 1700 to 2000:”

      •  It’s happened. Look up the history of Easter Island, for example.

  • BDG1

    It seems there’s a growing set of activities that satisfy both work
    (generate enough external value that markets can induce someone to do
    it) and play (generate enough internal value that people will do it,
    whether or not they get paid).

    For instance, when Mick Jagger plays a concert, is it work or play?  When a software engineer designs an exciting new app?  When Robin Hanson writes a blog post?

    It’s easier nowadays for people to find jobs they enjoy.  Not perfect, by any means, but significantly easier than in forager or farmer times.  I would expect it to become even easier in the future.

    • Robin Hanson

      Growing maybe, but small, and likely to long remain so.

  • Mark M

    I fear a future that’s either mostly work or mostly play.

    A future that’s mostly work implies scarce resources, and lots of effort to secure a living or comfortable wage.

    A future that’s mostly-play implies a lack of initiative or ambition to be productive, which implies a lack of improvement.  Over time, children raised in an entitled society grow up lacking the skills needed to maintain the infrastructure of society, and expecting everyone else to fix their problems.  As you say, humanity shrinks and falls into oblivion.

    A balance is what’s needed, but it won’t be found.  Social disruption in the form of new technology and world events (war, peace, Facebook, etc.) will continually rock the boat.  But we’ll Weeble our way out of it – as society goes too far in one direction we’ll bounce back, but go too far, and bounce back, but go too far, and so on, and so on, and scooby-dooby-dooby.

    Umm…  What was I talking about?

  • J O

    I’m not even quite sure if this post is serious.  The number of humans could easily shrink, that I agree with.  But what exactly is “falling into oblivion”? How does having AI do all your work for you plus having The Matrix and futuristic wonder-drugs lead to that civilization shrinking away? Gwern’s analogy with peak oil seems apt.

  • Fred Burnaby

    Robin, if our wealth is currently leading to more forager values, which you are saying here include “more play”, then wouldn’t you expect any “mostly play” society, as it becomes poorer, to begin adopting more farmer values and switch to “mostly work” as needed?

    In my own life, my desire/willingness to work much overtime tracks my the difference between my (expected) future wealth and my desired future wealth.

    • Robin Hanson

      Yes, eventually either selection or the psychology of poverty would kick in. But it could be a long dark fall before that later return.

  • Maybe you’re afraid of a more-play future because your idea of “play” is all passive.

  • Jon Perry

    What about work reaching an equivalence with play, since it can be hard to articulate the difference even now and seems like it will be even harder to do so in a wealthier future. What is the fundamental difference between work and play? Is it that work represents things you do out of necessity and play are things you do for fun? But this definition breaks down if little necessity is present because we can cheaply meet human needs. So then maybe work becomes defined as something you do to gain status and/or money? But of course you can definitely gain status from play, and possibly even money. Like for example if someone’s idea of play is putting up silly youtube movie reviews and those reviews start garnering popularity and possibly earn modest ad revenue… I feel like it may become very difficult to tell the difference between work and play and maybe the distinction that will make more sense in the future will be community oriented behavior vs. solipsistic behavior, e.g. the difference between engaging other people in your work/play and just sitting at home by yourself mind-masturbating inside of a VR machine.

  • Mark Bahner

    Me, I more fear a mostly-play future. I fear a world of people so overwhelmed by the pleasures of music, movies, games, virtual reality, drugs, etc. that they don’t build for the future, or even maintain support structures inherited from the past. Failing to invest in capital or children, humanity shrinks and falls into oblivion.

    To see this is clearly not so, one simply needs to look at the list of Forbes 400 richest people. None of them needs to work another minute. Yet almost all of them do. As Mark Twain correctly noted, the only difference between work and play is that, “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
    Just ask yourself, if the entire world consisted of people with the wealth approximating that of the Forbes 400, would the world be worse off?

    • daedalus2u

       I fear a future where the few extremely wealthy “play” using the rest of humans as disposable playthings to be used and used up. 

      • Robert Koslover

         I almost agree.  Just replace the word “wealthy” with “powerful.”  History proves beyond any doubt that individuals exercising extreme power are a far greater danger to humanity than those merely accumulating great wealth.

      • daedalus2u

         To the extent that power is fungible (as in Citizens United), wealth and power are the same thing. 

        To the extent that monopoly power on necessities is allowed and not regulated, that monopoly power can/will capture all other wealth and power. 

      • daedalus2u

         Wealth and power are the same thing.  The only thing the Drug Lords in Mexico have is wealth from selling drugs.  With that wealth they are able to buy police, guns, assassinations, politicians, governments.

        They can buy dump trucks, buy people to fill those dump trucks with dead and dismembered bodies, and then buy people to dump those dead and dismembered bodies any where they want. 

        The Drug Lords don’t need dumping permits to dump dead bodies. 

        The only thing that keeps that from happening in the US is that the wealthy choose to not do so. 

  • Misaki

    There are many people with children who play MMOs like World of Warcraft (still the most popular in the West). Sometimes these people talk about how the game’s playerbase has “matured”, other times people will talk about how the game is aimed at and attracts a much younger audience than it once did.

    This is only one example of “play” but is informative on how people feel that entertainment relates to their life goals.

    Of course, the argument of this post is that current problems in the world, such as unemployment, are preventing things like MMOs from maintaining a high quality standard.

    A recent post by one of the authors of this blog mentioned flow; does the end of this video suggest that easily available sources of “flow” will lead to abandonment of physical survival or other goals?

    >Locally, the possibility of efforts to gain status seem to cause a
    market failure, as your status gains come at the expense of the status
    of others.

    Counterexample: a retail shop based on commission where all employees do extremely well compared to the corporation’s average.

    Also see…

    And grade inflation. Accurate standards of achievement are accurate; inaccurate standards are just that.

  • My hamsters have a mostly-play lifestyle. Their nutritional and hygenic needs are all met by a super intelligent (relatively speaking) 10 year old.
    A mostly-play future could be a curated future, managed by strong AI. Of course it’s hard to predict what would motivate such an intelligence, but in our experience there’s little reason to think that anything that intelligent would not “build for the future”, whatever future that might be.

  • Michael Wengler

    I know Robin’s shtick about ems is that you don’t have to understand how the brain works in order to create ems.  And so ems will not be modifiable, they will be vanilla human brains running on a different substrate.

    I doubt this is how it will work.  One will have to learn a LOT about how brains work in order to get them running on electronic circuitry.  As a middling analogy, consider the level of understanding required to get a Chevy engine to run in a Ford car.  Or to port an app written for Windows in C++ to an app written for Linux in C++.  As ONE example of the kinds of things you will have to learn about to do the port:  Impact of hormones and other body chemistry on brain state.  You will not have a proper emulation unless you have some analogy to the relevant chemicals “washing” over the emulated brain.  Which means you will have to know a fair amount about how/when/why these chemicals are produced and effectively what kinds of activities they are required for in the brain.  

    Which suggests to me, without knowing near enough to build from scratch an electronic creature that competes with an em, I will be modifying the crap out of ems in any economy in which they are getting used much.  And what IS the difference between playing a game and working?  And how hard would it be to wire-in rewards for work that we normally find showing up for play?  Maybe we can’t do “Ender’s Game” and have the actual job be something the em THINKS is a video game.  Maybe we can, though.  I have planned cities and rails systems as part of my game playing, after all.  

    The only reason I can think that ems would not enjoy life is that it was particularly expensive to make them enjoy life.  And I suspect that it will more likely be a wash in terms of cost, equally expensive to make them enjoy the things they enjoy and not enjoy the things they don’t enjoy.  And that design economy would dictate you make them enjoy the things you want them to do and not enjoy the things you don’t want them to do.  

    Indeed, the only reason there is such a gap between human work and human play may be the totally outrageous rate at which our technology has changed compared to the rates of evolution.  Did hunter-gatherers experience a distinction between work and play?  Or did they just play all the time, and thus feed themselves, make babies, and otherwise thrive?

  • Floccina

    Given a momentary choice, we tend to choose play over work, and for good reason.

    I spent some time in Honduras and that made me think that people generally choose to work more and to have most stuff rather than work less and have more time.  We in USA have much more than the typical Honduran and yet we work.