Human Work and Automation. Negotiating the Tension Between Solitude and Relations

Marta Bertolaso

1. Introduction

It has been rightly said that “the massive irruption of automation in the production process, although not a new phenomenon, is advancing with particular intensity in what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, based both on the knowledge and information economy and the accelerated transmission of data and digital flows” (cfr. introduction to the program of the conference). It has also been rightly highlighted that between 20 and 50% of current occupations run the risk of being automated in the next decade (ibidem, cfr. Oxford University, the World Bank, the IDB, the ILO, the OECD). In this scenario, humans easily become ‘data’ that can be collected and organized by machines.

More importantly physical, domestic and social barriers, i.e. the ‘places’ we used to consider part of our identity and cultural boundaries, become transparent to this process. Consider, for example, the number of cameras recording people’s movements and actions in China and other countries while AI technologies organize the huge amount of information derived from such cameras combining it with that from phones and tablets. Such a flow of data can easily allow private and public actors to reshape the narrative about the history of human lives through data management.

The automation of such processes of information management also justifies current concerns regarding the automation of scientific discovery that poses the question whether even scientific reasoning and work will eventually be mechanized, that is, whether they can be reduced to algorithmic calculations (Bertolaso and Sterpetti 2019). If this turns out to be the case, even science will be clearly out of the control of human beings, leaving them alone in a world in which they will become foreigners.

Consistently, the new alliances between technology and data-driven sciences have had a crucial testing ground within the economic and political fields, which have been accordingly shaping their own paradigms and transforming the ways we conceptualize and deal with human activities.

The emphasis I want to share in this paper is on how new technologies and current perspectives on progress are orienting on the one hand, and challenging on the other, not only our desires and expectations but also our own perception of the world and of our own biographies. Concerns regarding the future of human work are precisely at the crossroad of these scenarios. To tackle these scenarios and to discuss them, I will take the path that Pope Francis indicates when he says: “[a] certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us (Francis 2015, p. 101). As we will see, the above-mentioned trends reveal a fundamental reduction we have inherited from modern philosophy and social sciences, that is, the reduction of our understanding of life and human relationships with mechanics, so that velocity and autonomy, together with an (in principle) possible reversibility of processes, have become the axiological reference point of human work too and easily confused with a reflection on the desired autonomies.

In this paper, therefore, instead of analyzing past causes of current situations, I am more interested in reasons we can develop to build an integral human development through work. This justifies the literature I consider here and the methodology I adopt by focusing on conceptual and explanatory convergences of contemporary understanding of the problems related to work and society. Starting from a contemporary philosophical perspective on human work and technological developments for the automation of processes, I propose an explanation of a main reason for the increasing experience of human isolation (Section 2). The working hypothesis is that suffering generated by isolation reveals profound truths about being human that seem to be threatened or downplayed by trends in current technological developments (Section 3). Such a working hypothesis also implies that we are clearly facing today, as many times in history, a challenge that can help us dig into the particular epistemological and axiological status of human work and technology. The future is not determined and a renovation process of what it means to be human could take place precisely within the current technological and social trends of human organization and work through the new technologies as well.

Moving from the idea that suffering reveals profound truths about being human, I discuss in depth some reasons why human work is threatened more by the current understanding of scientific developments than by technology itself. The emerging reflection on the particular nature of human work relates to the capability of human beings of creating living places, worlds in which the reciprocity with asymmetry typical of all living beings and its particular role in human relationships, is restored and allowed to be open to further developments. It is thus necessary to move from a make-ability paradigm to a realize-ability model, an expression I introduce to account for the capability of human beings of generating and pursuing values, culture and real understandings through their work (Section 4). I finally draw some conclusions about the intrinsic difference between good and bad solitude, through a relational account of the dignity of human work (Section 5). A concluding section summarizes main results of this analysis and closes with some outlooks for future research agendas.

2. Suffering the tension of autonomies

Humans have always changed their environment with work, aided by increasingly effective tools. On the other hand, things have happened that have caused work to gradually be conceived more and more in terms of automation. This tendency was already evident two centuries ago. Naville writes about the dominance “of an autonomous technical society, superimposed on human society that has been commanded by it in symbiosis, in conditions that are still largely unpredictable and do not seem stoppable” (Naville 1961, cit. in Negri 1981).

This shift is determined in large part by the irreversible transition of neo-technical civilization towards automation through the convergence of the “cybernetic principle” with the “mechanical principle”, and then the substitution by it, that also progressively constrained our understanding of life, mind, human work and society in relation to the mechanical paradigm (ibidem; Bertolaso 2014, Bertolaso and Sterpetti 2019). In particular, the succession of spatially and temporally equivalent events (facts) with their feedback mechanisms has become the dominant interpretative perspective of every organic, community-related, economic process of growth and development.

Parallel to this convergence, there is the so-called imperialism of exact natural science, mainly understood as an impulse to transform the world into an object or – more precisely – into a thing (Litt 1972, pp. 31-51). A double feature characterizes such imperialism. At the epistemological level, science has always been considered a universal and autonomous system of knowledge, so that its endeavour to reduce the content of the world to mathematical relationships and fundamental parameters and variables has quickly become the desired result for all human activity, including human work. From a pragmatic point of view, the possibility of theorizing about everything we encounter in the world easily has reinforced humans’ belief in a complete control of that world. Human work has been thus understood as a means to power and control over nature, including human nature (Litt 1972, Guardini 1993, Habermas 2001).

The legacy of logical positivism, which aims at a strict and empirical definition of the validity and meaning of knowledge, has reinforced the aforementioned ‘thingified’ and ‘factual’ logic that still enjoys the prerogative of immunity with respect to possible critical analyzes, revisions and interpretations. This philosophical culture is responsible for having transferred Cartesian dualism to our general understanding of human work, condemning it to a sterile self-referentiality. The modern idea that machines will perform better than humans in the execution of work is, therefore, the obvious outcome of such a trend.

Even the very concept of innovation suffers from this intrinsic bias when it becomes no more than the implementation and application of existing technologies. A strongly pragmatic criterion of utility that prevails is in turn measured in terms of speed. Consistently, human activity and work have been thus progressively understood in terms of a mere high-speed progression of facts and the production of things and data.

But such mechanistic paradigms lack the epistemological foundations needed to understand which human capacities can still claim an identity of their own that does not derive ultimately from machines and cannot be substituted by them: “The reduction of relations between man and his world to mathematical and only mathematical relations silences one of the fundamental faculties that leads to the construction of a theoretical world, and a scientific universe: the faculty of direct observation, typical of sensitivity” (Negri 1981, p. 106). Experience and the possibility of different interpretations and understandings of reality by humans, in facts, completely lose their value and relevance if they do not move from epistemological and philosophical assumptions that are different from what a mechanistic view of the world and human behaviour impose. Within this latter scenario, in fact, human work cannot be considered but a tool, a contingent piece in a necessary and progressive chain, autonomous and self-consistent in itself in which the discontinuity of facts and events is lost.[1]

The social and anthropological implications of the above described trends for science, knowledge and human work are well described by C-H Han in one of his now popular texts where he offers an extremely concrete analysis of a society of burnout: we work (ibidem, p. 26) with an obsessive focus on producing more and faster and better. In this sense people are more and more subjects of “performance” (Han 2017, p. 21). Freedom and compulsion coincide becoming self-exploitation. Heir and veteran of Taylorist functionalism, the professional world and society in general today are, in fact, suffering from performance hyperactivity that is very much related to a generalized absence of a socially shared direction and goal. We invest in speed and functional efficiency, and activity becomes autonomous in the sense that it is self-referential, closed in its own processes and goals.

This condition is not just about our actions, but also about our very selves: our goal is no longer to get-to-be (flourishing and developing) but to implement the possibility of its being possible: the speed of transformation is to action as indetermination is to being. Humans end up being replaceable pieces of a mechanical chain, where the main objective is maturing the capability of continuously being-able-to-do-and-being-everything. Such a make-ability paradigm shapes and changes our expectancies and perception of our work and of the relationships that emerge from it with the world and with others. The tiredness of the society of performance and automation reported by Han is therefore a solitary tiredness that separates and isolates. As Polany and Florenskij also stress (Tagliagambe et al. 2019, p. 154), modern man thus lives in loneliness.

3. Automation and procedures

What also follows from the previous section is that automation is but a part of the current technical renewal whose main influence on human work is not directed towards change but towards speed (Goodman 1961). Let us now thus consider how the isolation of workers and the consequent forms of solitude described above can also be traced back to the non-trivial coincidence of autonomy and automation understood as spontaneity. Autonomy, in fact, deals with what governs itself, while automation refers to the ability of machinery to regulate its own functioning and control the quality of the work produced. But automation and autonomy have in common the Greek suffix ‘-auto’ which means ‘self’ in English, and in both cases indicates ‘by oneself/itself’, by one’s/its own means (as in, for example, the Italian ‘autodifesa’ and English ‘self-defense’ or the Italian ‘autostima’ and English ‘self-esteem’), or that which takes place or happens autonomously (as in the Italian ‘autodidatta’ and English ‘self-taught’, the Italian ‘autogestione’ and English ‘self-management’). In a ‘thingified’ world and understanding of human action, this coincidence implies another fundamental reduction, of spontaneity to a procedural feature of the autonomy of activities. A reflection on the contents of such activities disappears, cancelling the possibility of deepening the axiological value of humans being as natural workers, i.e. that change the world by imposing meanings (names, in biblical language) on living beings and other entities. Not surprisingly, Negri decades ago already observed that the automatism understood as the spontaneism of the new scientific and technical revolution – while making possible a new type of work and worker in the industrial era – has been changing the foundations of work and paving the way to a new relationship between work and social relationships, between work hours and free time (Negri 1981, p. 92).

The impact of this shift in the meaning of spontaneity to autonomy and automation is double. On the one hand the recent debates on the use of AI technologies focus on the question of how the use of time by people changes if automation is completely absorbed by machines. But, interestingly, the market trend is also to create games and pleasures in which people become engaged in an almost automatized way again. Expanding leisure time is not equal to improving spaces and time for real ‘spontaneously’ human relationships, with an increasing difficulty to find a meaning beyond time being available for games and/or pleasures. On the other hand, and by no coincidence, such a shift is changing our understanding, evaluation and the very concept of risks. Given the common definition of AI as a growing resource of interactive, autonomous, and self-learning agency, i.e. “a system that displays intelligent behaviour by analysing its environment and taking actions, with some degree of autonomy, to achieve specific goals” (def. by Atomium European Institute 2018, p. 1), the aspects that emerge as the most relevant across the European documents for a “good AI society” (Floridi et al. 2018, p. 2) are: (i) human autonomy (ii) velocity and efficiency (we can do better, faster) (iii) multiplying possibilities of action, while (i) human control over machines and (ii) self-determination have to be guaranteed and protected. But, within a paradigm oriented to autonomy, risk assessments are based more on procedural questions (where quantity and speed of action are the values to be guaranteed and implemented) than on one of meaning. Even ethical recommendations end up mainly being a balanced calculation of risk. As a consequence, the evaluation criteria of human work and activity can only be negative: we know which disasters we want to avoid but we don’t know which worlds we want to build, we give up with the very anthropological challenge of finding or generating meanings through daily facts and contingencies. The central point becomes merely to protect human autonomous choice and, as a corollary, to contain the risk of delegating too much to machines, to “retain the power to decide which decisions to take” (Floridi et al. 2018, p. 10, emphasis in the original).

Such ethical issues are contaminated by a bias which I see as an important heir of the mechanistic positivism described in the previous section. The ‘means-end’ relationship dominates the ethical paradigm centered on autonomy, an essential scheme of what is ‘technical’. Wherever this scheme enters into action, the mind attunes itself to that activity aimed at what we have called the transformation of the world into a ‘thing’ (see Litt and Negri quoted above). In fact, the ‘means-end’ relationship is simply the ‘cause-effect’ relationship transported onto a different level: for it is merely the regulating principle of a world totally transformed into a thing.[2] Best practices are, therefore, the only and sometimes obsessive ‘positive and desirable’ ethical outcome and tools.

Such understanding of human work and spontaneous human activity in terms of automated and autonomous processes, easily justifies why Han denounces the obesity of current industrial and economic systems (Han 2017, pp. 14, 18). Following Baudrillard’s analysis, he sees excesses as justifying the revolt of the singular against the global, the genealogy of hostility, in a paradoxical society in which everyone identifies himself functionally with his specific field of work. Interestingly, the metaphor used to describe these dynamics is that of cancer (ibidem, p. 17) for its association with proliferation and excess. However, if we consider cancer – as it is more and more properly considered – from a procedural, dynamic and relational perspective (Bertolaso 2016), it can be seen less as a problem of cell proliferation than as the overall tissue’s inability to manage differences and to orient functional integration. In the next section I will thus adopt this perspective to account for how the social and cultural dynamics described above can be understood differently. Instead of seeing the problem as one of excess and hyper-activity, such responses of the social community can be, in fact, understood as a process of homogenization caused by the rigidity that increases the fragility of the individual and the system (see also Bertolaso 2016 and 2019). The fundamental problem is not so much hostility but indifference justified by a presumed autonomy.

4. Living Places: from a make-ability to a realize-ability model

What is most radically lost in this whole process is what some authors, in a modern language, call the narrative dimension of human labor (see also Arendt and Han on this point). For various reasons that I have already discussed elsewhere (Bertolaso 2016, Bertolaso 2019, Bertolaso and Rocchi 2019), I prefer to call this dimension ‘historic’, for it is closely linked to intergenerational relations and the human capacity to fit into traditions and rhythms of nature, managing and modifying them to the advantage of humans when this is necessary, for their survival and for an integral human development. The rhythms and interactions I refer to are relations that bear meaning and change humans by their own building of an environment that becomes part of their identity and history. Some contemporary authors have referred to similar dynamics by stressing the importance of human dwellings in the building of worlds (see “Approaching Human Geography” of Heidegger, cited and discussed in Marcos and Bertolaso 2018; see also Bergson 2004). This concept of dwelling is relevant to our discussion, where it implies that the environment is not indifferent with respect to actions and that it is not possible to proceed thinking that everything can be eventually ‘re-spooled’, replaced, etc. if we so desire. True relationships, in fact, involve reciprocity with asymmetry in the sense that we approach each other in a way that is always reciprocal in its existential dimension, but which is always also spatially and temporally asymmetrical, shaping the directionality of our own and others’ biographies. This also means that through human action and work and relationships new real information and possibilities are opened in the real world. Think of how gardening, teaching and caring activities actually structure new stories, models of behaving. Science itself is another interesting example. We discover laws and meaning and regularities in nature and when we have formalized them in laws and models the very use of such models and laws give us access to further understanding and discoveries. This implies that there is more information in the results and outcome of human work and action than in its premises, and such ‘excess’ belongs to the main actors of such enterprises but to others as well. This is why humans recognize themselves in cultures, and can truly live their own historicity through freedom. Historical narratives are not given passively to them – like a more or less rapid transformation from one event to another. Being aware of living history and making it through their own decisions restores their identity – often through specific social or cultural roles.

Harari would say that these dynamics are only attributable to psychology and that the reality of their changing is only a matter of time and evolution. However, beyond the individual forms that these relationships require, and the work required to build them and make them grow, there remains the fact that only the reciprocity with asymmetry that characterizes living and human action is the ground where experienced human history and freedom consciously find their space for true realization. Experienced joy and happiness rely on such awareness and not on the (mechanic) security of an outcome that was already present in the premises.

Some consequences of the dynamics of such asymmetrical reciprocity for our daily life imply, for example, that every time I give I must be open to the possibility of that gift not being accepted, understood, or even to its being refused. It implies that I am not sure of the result of my work and its impact. It further implies accepting the uncertainty of the many contingent factors that characterize our human life and defining that space more appropriately as one of gratuitousness.

This is a logic that is absent in machines, which instead seek to reduce the space of contingency or manage it in terms of tolerable error. In humans there is no real understanding (one that changes us) without the creation of a conscious asymmetry, with its intrinsic openness, in our relations with the world and others. In human relationships this reciprocity with asymmetry also prevents the flattening and manipulation of relationships to the point of extortion (not infrequently, moral extortion) regarding the freedom and responsibility of others. In this sense, we are always alone in our decisions, but this ‘solitude’ safeguards our own space of freedom and that of others to always be able to start again, to align ourselves or not on extended objectives. Once again, this ‘space’ is something that machines do not know.

I thus call such spaces generated by reciprocity with asymmetry dynamics ‘living places’. These places are what we must create with our work, in its relational dimension that is historical, physical, contingent, and cognitive (i.e. that creates knowledge, understanding and awareness) at the same time. The question of the dignity of work thus requires, in my opinion, a reflection not only on the contents of the specific action but on the assets it generates and invests in. In Catholic literature and in certain sociology texts, these assets take the name of common good (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church) or relational goods (Zamagni 2015, Donati 2013). For the purposes of our analysis it is sufficient to call them goods that contribute to creating such ‘living places’. Work serves to create such worlds in which space and time bear the signature of the meaning humans have always been able to give to their work, the signature of their culture (by which I mean here, their civilization) and of their values that precede the form of recognition of humans in work, the value of which is proportionate to its ability to reflect humans themselves. Thus, humans built their first houses, started activities like breeding and agriculture, built cities and cathedrals, started economic and social enterprises. Art has its own high recognition too, as does technology. Activities such as education and health care find their higher and paradigmatic position, in this framework, as activities directly aimed at human growth and the implementation of human possibilities and differences to create once more new worlds, living places (Bertolaso and Rocchi 2019). Moving in the same direction, authors like Florenskij have defined culture “as a resistance to the process of leveling the universe, as the growth of potential diversity in every field that becomes a condition of life, and as the opposition to homologation, synonymous with death” (Tagliagambe et al. 2019, p. 56).

But what is the most fundamental characteristic of these living places? It is the perspective they create, mediated by interruptions. As Han and Harari both observe, the contemporary world, within the mechanistic paradigm mentioned above, fundamentally conceives actions as without interruptions. “Pure activity only prolongs what already exists”, while “truly addressing the Other presupposes the negativity of interruption” (Han 2017, p. 49), “Activity that follows the stupidity of mechanics is poor in interruptions. Machines cannot turn themselves off. Despite its enormous computing power, the computer is stupid in that it lacks the ability to linger (ibid., pp. 49-50). Moreover, Harari states that “machines do not see a plurality of opportunities, because this can happen only if there is an interruption of the process”. This lack of perspective corresponds to the reduction of the demand on the relation to one of movement, which on the ethical level justifies the reduction of the demand for ethical responsibility to control of the coefficients of risk and safety.

From a more theoretical and philosophical point of view, the thesis I defend is that the difficulties that arise from the positions that move from a mechanistic and functional perspective of human labor is linked, first of all, to the reduction of the relational to the relative that is typically absolutized and does not allow real emergencies to happen in the world (ontological level) or to account for an explanatory relevance of, for example, inter-level dynamics that conceptually combine local and global dynamics (epistemic level). Causal inferences for living-world dynamics clearly suffer this bias nowadays. The fundamental difference is that the relative admits ‘rewind’ and ‘equivalence of terms’, whereas the relational does not. The relative admits or assumes the naturalization of empirical data and an ontologization of scientific methodology whereby the differences and similarities among things are fundamentally a logical or epistemic question. The relational recognizes a richness of reality, and even more so of humanity, which exceeds our capacity to represent it. Given this essential perspective, it does not even make sense to claim to have an exhaustive, certain, exact knowledge of humans and cultures or societies with its consequent possession or control.

For this reason it is, instead, possible to have a true pluralism without relativism in the above described living places, that is, a constant openness to innovation which has a unique status in the world and which can therefore generate new richness. Only by understanding the dynamic stability and unity of these places, that are able to combine the local and the global, differences and contingencies in a unified meaningful view, is it possible to respect the individuality and uniqueness of the living – and especially of the human being – as a source of conceptual wealth and explanatory plurality, and to have a deep understanding of the world around us and of ourselves.

The denial of all this leads instead to the above-mentioned tiredness that divides. It is a tiredness that renders us incapable of looking and therefore of orientating ourselves. It induces mutism and indifference and destroys all commonality, proximity, and even language. In contemporary society there are clear examples of this. The lack of interruptions and rhythms, of rituals and traditions impoverishes humans to the point that they no longer know how to use their working time and often even less their rest time. Equally, in many contemporary communities places become ‘iconic’: they no longer attract nor do they change the people who pass by them. They become mere depositories of the collective imagination instead of being distributors and transmitters of culture and identity.

In the “myth of progress”, typical of the modern mentality in general and of scientific-positivism in particular, progress happens by accumulation and is destined to become true progressively. The relationship between continuity and discontinuity generated in those space-times we call living places, instead, implies that not everything is the same, that one thing is not another, that there is no possibility of passing from the least to the most, and vice versa without loosing richness, information or freedom in the process. It is not possible to rewind life, as it is not possible to stop it. This is so because of the particular reciprocity with asymmetry relationship that characterizes history and is mediated by the narratives about the intrinsic continuity-discontinuity in space and time of the living places. Meanings transmitted through stories and pictures follow this logic: they bear more information than is stored in the formal structure we use for them.[3]

What follows from this discourse is a double feature of the dignity of human work. On the one hand, the fundamental characteristic and privilege (its dignity) of human work is concreteness.[4] To the extent that humans have as a horizon of meaning a concrete place and concrete relationships, they err less in relation to reality, however large or small their capacity for observation, abstraction, realization. Today we live in the “management of time absolutes” or “of time absolutization” (see for example the expectations regarding biological eternity), while suffering a generalized difficulty in managing daily life and contingent factors. Stress and depression are often linked to this form of rigidity and expectations. On the other hand, all this also means in my opinion that a fundamental part of the dignity of work passes through the ‘restitution’ to workers of the fruits of their work. It becomes fundamental both to personalize work – not so much in the various senses of the autonomy described above, but by allowing people as individuals and as a community to enjoy and take care of the worlds they build with their work. In this way societies and communities become ‘their own and shared’ places, the living places ‘of all of us’ (cfr. Benedict XVI 2009) that embody those goods that we define as ‘common’ not because of their common availability but because of the common values they embody and bear. In this sense, values act as boundaries (Florenskij uses the interesting expression of “contact barriers”), as identities that create relationships and bridges. They do not block action but orient it to couple with others and different perspectives. Such values act somehow passively, not imposing or controlling but offering back and opening up to action a multiplicity of solutions that can be explored precisely for their respect for specificities and identities.[5]

As represented in Figure 1, in its epistemic, ethical and axiological dimension, the understanding of human work and its dignity eventually requires a paradigm shift: from make-ability to realize-ability. The first is dominated and evaluated using mechanistic, functionalist and static parameters, the second through concreteness, perspective, reciprocity with asymmetry – using relational and historical criteria able to acknowledge the unity in multiplicity of differences.

5. Good and bad solitude

Let us now look at a different understanding and meaning of solitude for human beings from the living places viewpoint. Even if we are all ‘alone’ in various ways in this world, we can distinguish a good solitude from a bad one. The term ‘solitude’ contains the concept of being separated from others. The etymology of ‘separate’ (‘se’, from the Latin sine, meaning ‘without’, indicating division, + ‘parate’ from the Latin parare, meaning ‘to give birth’) refers to the separation of the child from the mother, at that moment of birth which brings with it the loss of the previous state. The term ‘solitude’, conceived as a form of ‘separateness’, thus bears this meaning with its loss of the previous state.

Moreover, some languages, like English, have two words to express this separateness with different connotations, one ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’: ‘solitude’ (being alone) and ‘loneliness’ (feeling alone, in isolation from others). The solitude mentioned in section 2 is the ‘bad’ solitude, isolation and loneliness intended as denial of the desire of the other. It therefore rejects the possibility of opening up towards the other. ‘Good’ solitude, on the other hand, has more to do with silence and the capacity for wonder. ‘To be silent’ [silence] implies that we have the potential to say something. Being alone [solitude] similarly presupposes the possibility of not being so, of being open to the world (Grima 2019, p. 18).

For humans to move from isolation (loneliness) to ‘good’ solitude (a moment of ‘silence’, removed from peopled spaces) they must accept being different from others, that a distance is always real and needed for generative human relationships. This can happen when we accept the disproportion between the commitment made in a job and its result or actual contribution to the community. The true experience of solitude and therefore of silence has to do with these renunciations, which precisely because they are human often lead to a new life through dynamics that are fundamentally of freedom given and voluntarily shared, that is, of love. This implies that solitude starts from valuing the relationship with the other and from the desire to relate to the other, while the sense of isolation starts from need. As well known, need emphasizes the utilitarian aspect of the object (important to me) while value captures the truth of the object (important for itself).

As Grima notes (Grima 2019), even more relevant for contemporary society is discernment not only between good and evil, the good and the bad, but also between the apparent good and the real good and between good things that are, nonetheless, good in different ways with respect to shared values. Therefore and in light of the analysis carried out in Section 2, it is clear that the next socio-cultural transition faces a great challenge, concerning “subjects of autonomy”, with their concomitant loneliness and explosion of need and abstract expectations, and “subjects of relationships” with their solitudes and their generative power of meaning, values and new life.

Returning to the proposal in the previous section about human dignity and the concreteness of human work, we can say that everyone’s most human personal task becomes that of choosing the places where they engage themselves. If, on the one hand, humans need to work ‘for their own home’, the highest form of alienation is the work of those who do not know for whom they are working or of those who work only for ‘the benefit of others’. This excludes the possibility of triggering dynamics of gifting and gratuitousness (see also Benedict XVI 2009 and Francis 2015). As discussed above, this also puts humans in processes of automation where the only possible action is to perpetuate what was already there. Instead, humans need to build. The progress of “our world” is a vocation for humans. In our social and daily life, if we do not have a project, we become sensitive to everything and too much so. We react too soon and too intensely to everything. In a frenzy, we also unlearn the anger that becomes simply sterile irritation, reducing relationships to compromises between “autonomies”.

6. Conclusions

In the contemporary world and society, the autonomy of automatic processes is seen as the major goal and condition for maximization processes. In this sense, machines perform better than humans as their performances are measured in terms of ‘things’ or data production and management. Within this framework, human work is also seen as a potentially autonomous process. However, the lack of focus on or interest in the overall goals and aims of the production processes that have always been the fundamental drivers of men’s capability to change and better the world in which he lives, has been forcing human beings into isolation and loneliness. Consistently, as we have seen, various authors have begun talking about our post-modern society as a society of tiredness and solitude (cfr. Han 2017, Harari 2018, Spaemann 2016, Tagliagambe et al. 2019).

The working hypothesis I have adopted in this study is that difficulties in dealing with this problem relate to an inherited distorted notion of human work that also affects our relationship with technology. As Negri also highlighted (Negri 1981, p. 84), one of the reasons why technology is so misunderstood is that humans have forgotten what their daily work should consist of. I have thus discussed how workplaces should be mediated by perspective and reciprocity, by relationships whose value must be recognized in the narratives. Only when such perspectives are mediated by interruptions, a notion of human work – that epistemologically and ontologically relates to a philosophy of the particular-concrete – can be more fully recovered for a fruitful process of inclusion. As mentioned in the original document of this conference, the current process of techno-social inclusion requires the rethinking of the still prevailing social order, which should contribute to sustainable solutions (instead of reinforcing the “throw-away culture”). The suggestion I derive from my analysis is that such rethinking should also endorse human work as an empowering presence of others and society as a whole in the logic of the living places.

Moreover, the discussion about autonomies and spontaneity, about solitude and relationships may also offer a solution to the reported contemporary risk that “the de facto interdependence of human beings and peoples does not correspond to the ethical interaction of consciences and intelligences” (Benedict XVI 2009, p. 9) from which a truly human development can emerge as a result. If we do not recognize the importance of human beings participating in the effects of their own work, it is easy to fall into an empirical and skeptical view of life, incapable of elevating itself above praxis, because it is not interested in grasping the values – even the meanings – with which to judge and orient it.

Finally and with respect to technological innovations, eventually all this also sheds light on why what is most important is the question of our everyday life and behaviours, of the style we adopt in the use of technology. The possibility of doing damage does not lie fundamentally in the technological components as such, but in the myriad ways in which people interact with objects, a choice that is in fact typical of human work.


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[1] An interesting contemporary consequence of all this is the paradoxic indifference to the value of data: what matters is its 'factuality' that leads us to expect that 'all data' will produce new and more useful knowledge. Such a phenomenon reveals the most serious intrinsic limit of our scientific-technological society. Following Negri’s analysis on similar aspects of current social evolutions (Negri 1981, p. 106), what is ignored, mocked, rejected is the right to undermine a theoretical world, a scientific universe that, for that very reason, reveals a tendency toward tyranny exercised at the epistemological level. Deprived of a discussion of data and facts, the transitions of history are fundamentally understood as a series of transformation processes and not as changes mediated also by human freedom and responsibility, that provide a continuity in the discontinuity of facts and events. The result is the loss of points of references needed to judge the goodness and fruitfulness, or the lack thereof, of a transformation that is considered good simply because it happened.
[2] Categories of scientific thought have gone beyond that domain and now dominate even in our language and everyday thinking and they carry with them the expectation of absolute certainty and success only because in them the relationship between ‘means’ and ‘end’ has achieved a methodologically perfect form. The almost uncontested domination that this scheme reflects is the conviction that we can achieve everything we want only if we study seriously the ‘necessary’ means and apply them without hesitation, while any spontaneous human action can be eventually understood in terms of what an automated machine would do or expected human beings to do (see Negri 1981, p. 420).
[3] The reductio ad unum (in explanatory or conceptual terms) is accomplished through the fundamental epistemic operation in these processes of meaning generating through work and the creation of living places. It does not cancel out differences, nor does it proceed in a straight line that absorbs differences into one direction. Instead, it proceeds according to a discontinuous progression that re-reads these differences in the unity of development of a higher order. Discontinuity is therefore also what allows the maintenance of opposites (Tagliagambe et al. 2019, p. 107) and allows us to manage paradoxes. Florenskij would say that there is a close correlation between the idea of continuous development and that of lack of form (ibidem, p. 106) which is instead the particular way of existing of humans and the fruits of their work. Thus, in the real world discontinuity reigns with regard to correlations, and discreetness with respect to reality (ibidem).
[4] More generally and philosophically understood as a worldview of the particular-concrete able to mediate between the local and the global (see also Bertolaso 2014 and 2019).
[5] This point can shed light on the dynamic dimension of the constitution of living places, whose development requires a different and further study. The space inside a dwelling can be traversed in various directions and those directions are definable and repeatable because of the dwelling's coherent and integrated architecture. Ultimately, it is movement that builds the house, the town, the city. It is the roads that have always determined their geometries.




Dignity and the Future of Work

International  Symposium on Dignity and the Future of Work In the age of the 4th... Read more

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