I picked up this book because despite it being from 2012—ancient in technology terms, and fairly old in terms of economics and politics—the title was too intriguing to pass up. Readers were promised the whole narrative arc: doom and salvation, all in one nonfiction book. And I’m a seeker after happiness, eager to read new insights into this age-old human goal.
The first two-thirds of the book delivers on its promise of doom. Some frightening and disheartening trends are charted by this young author, whose expertise in technology and general intelligence seem to be his only credentials. This is a self-published book, using Amazon’s CreateSpace, but this decision seems to go along with Pistono’s support of open source software and open access to free online education, unfiltered through traditional gate-keeping and money-making organizations.
One of the trends Pistono covers in depth is the exponential growth of computing, with computer power doubling every year. He shows how these technological advances lead to automation and a reduction in jobs for people. Some jobs are, obviously, easier to replace with machines than others, and though we often think of automation in factories taking the jobs of working class people, Pistono points out that “it is harder to automate a housemaid than it is to replace a radiologist.” Again, though this book is now six years old, that statement is still true.
More interesting to me is the discussion of employment. With charts and statistics, Pistono points out the problem of the concentration of wealth at the top, the tendency of newer companies to have fewer and fewer employees, and the overall drop in employment when you take into consideration those adults of working age who are not actively seeking employment. The chapters on economics and work are well worth reading, and the book promises a new way of seeing these issues when it says, “It is time for a paradigm shift, one that will radically revolutionise our social system.” Unfortunately for me, I focused on this sentence and not the next few, which predict what turns out to be my big problem with the book. Pistono goes on to say, “In this universe, change is the only constant. Learn to love it, embrace it, and you will succeed. Fail to predict it, resist it, and you will be swept away by the torrent of change that is about to crush our civilization as we now [sic] it.” (I did point out that the book is self-published, and unfortunately it has several editing errors, which is common in self-published books.)
The middle chapters, on work and happiness, are perhaps the most interesting. Facts about the lack of socio-economical mobility (the poor will stay poor, the rich stay rich), criticism of a “strong work ethic” as a universal moral good, and the fatal flaws of consumerism (the “growth economy”), are interesting points here. Particularly fascinating is a discussion of those people who work in the finance industry: at least one study has shown that among “wealth advisors,” the outcomes of their investments are essentially based on luck, not skill. A person could roll dice and be equally likely to make a good or bad financial call, and the huge bonuses to the “successful” are merely rewarding the lucky. And in a discussion of business executives who make obscene amounts of money, studies showed those executives have much in common with criminal psychopaths: “great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people, egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, and a readiness to exploit others” as well as “lack of empathy and conscience.” While these conclusions seem like common knowledge, it’s instructive to see that some studies back them up.
Going along, we get some really great stuff about work, money, and happiness. The book quotes Robert F. Kennedy from a March 18, 1968 speech, in which Kennedy points out that the GNP measures “everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Economic growth alone does not mean happier people—for that we need government regulation of profit, so that regular people have access to things like education and healthcare. Among other inspiring things, the book says: “Becoming aware truly of this scam [marketing and the myth of consumption=happiness] can helps us escape the trap, and shift the direction of our lives, towards a more positive, genuine, and real state of well being—one that is based on empathy, collaboration, the thrill of discovery, and the drive to do something meaningful.”
Great! This quote is inspiring and hopeful, even radical. But—then the book gets to its actual “solutions.” The “how to survive and be happy” part. And in this final third, it is profoundly disappointing.
What I expected: we need governments to step in and mandate certain things, such as a shorter work week; universal healthcare; universal basic income; fair taxes to help redistribute wealth; better education; free college education; better public transportation.
What I got: you should need/spend less money; become your own boss and work 21 hours per week (oddly specific number); educate yourself by watching free lectures on the internet; grow your own food; eat less meat; use less energy; get rid of your car; practice mindfulness/gratitude; exercise.
The problem with these suggestions are not that they’re bad. They’re fine suggestions, and go along with many generally accepted ways to be happier. The problem with the way they’re presented is that ALL the responsibility for an individual’s happiness becomes the individual’s. Despite the detailed ways in which we now know the economic, technological, and social systems are stacked against us, we’re supposed to just accept this and find ways to be happy anyway.
Specifically, the author suggests that if you make $40,000 but live on $30,000, you’ll feel rich because you’ll have extra money. However, he also says earlier in the book that money is associated with happiness, at least up to $75,000; over that, and happiness does not go up with wealth. Common sense dictates that this number is not random; it’s a number associated with enough money that, if you get sick or break your leg, you’ll have decent enough health insurance that you won’t go bankrupt with the cost. It’s a number associated with a place to live that feels safe, has some beauty, and has access to green space. For sure the person with this salary is not working a minimum wage job, probably has a budget for work clothes, and has all kinds of other advantages that are associated with quality of life.
As for being your own boss and thereby being able to work less—the “gig economy” is very big right now, with many people cobbling together part-time jobs, working as “consultants,” or starting businesses on top of their full-time jobs. But this is associated with working morehours, not less, in part because when you give up a traditional job (or can’t get one), you are giving up benefits (health insurance, retirement benefits, paid vacation).
And as a former college professor and current independent educator, it’s dangerous to get me started on the advice to “watch free online lectures to learn.” People learn in all kinds of ways, and being lectured to is just one small part. Class discussion and teacher feedback are other essential components. In addition, the author suggests that watching free online videos is how everyone who loses a job should retool themselves, so they’re able to get jobs at places like Google. This reinforces the idea that education is merely a job-finding tool, completely discounting the value of the humanities and the arts, not to mention the whole range of science and engineering.
But I’ve already gone on too long. Suffice it to say that the book is an interesting and fairly quick read, but I found the “solutions” part to be infuriating. Of course I believe in finding meaning in life besides consumerism. Of course I believe in mindfulness—I’ve written two books on it! I can’t say anything against growing your own food, getting rid of a car (at least in areas where there’s sufficient public transportation), or getting exercise. But the naiveté of these suggestions when taken apart from the systems oppressing everyone but the ultra-rich is staggering.
Maybe I’m just prone to fury because I live in America during the age of Trump. The policies enacted by this administration have me heartbroken or enraged or both on a daily basis. It is difficult to feel hope while in the midst of this absolute mess, and I was looking for some hope.
Don’t worry. I’ll keep looking.