Productivity has been an integral part of the human time experience since long before recorded history. It facilitates the movement of objects and ideas by organizing collaboration to solve problems. Our methods of being productive have progressed rapidly over the past 25,000 years, leaping from nomadic foraging networks to virtual assets in the blink of a universal eye. As our time experience progressed, what we valued and how we valued it evolved, but the central idea of productivity remains the same. We focus our efforts on creation and exchange; we give to get. A social contract developed during a time experience of limited resources and significant disparities in individual access and agency. Now we’re progressing toward an era of accessible abundance, but historical ideas about individual contribution still dominate the ethos of the moment. The crisis of productivity and participation is a misalignment of the traditional understandings of labor and contribution to the evolving consciousness of humanity as a result of our technological ascendency. We are more than our circumstances allow us to be but remain shackled to these processes for lack of a better alternative.
Participation is one of the primary sources of human meaning. We connect with others to share information in an experience of mutual expansion of the self. The way we define participation has always been a matter of circumstance. Rules of societies past and present form frameworks for how we think, act, and imagine alongside others. Over the past twenty years, our technological progress has broken barriers that have separated our global population for millennia, networking us together to form new layers of intelligence we have yet to fully understand. Deeper connection and meaning are growing within us but struggle to take form under the weight of present systems. Self-actualization in the age of crisis is a process of reimagining our relationships and responsibilities regarding productivity and participation. There is no limit to the forms it may take. The individual should possess the power to ensure that the direction of their productivity and participation is both meaningful and at their discretion.
Work and technology intertwine. They always have and they always will. The human time experience ensures that our productive activity as individuals and organizations is forever bound to the resources at our disposal within a given moment. Every new innovation opens new directions to express our creativity. Each empowers us to develop entirely new experiences for ourselves and others. If we consider this within the context of our oneness with the relational universe, we observe how our technological progress is merely another direction of self-replicating information. In many ways, we are the directors; in many others, the full scope of the consequences of said progress is out of our control and beyond our realm of comprehension.
The economic verticals that direct our productivity and participation today are organized so that the majority of the benefits go to the few while the losses are spread amongst the many. This extreme imbalance continues to increase. Our political leaders laud free markets as the pinnacle of human freedom while simultaneously propping up the failing industries of their corporate sponsors. We have long been propagandized to form emotional connections for or against specific forms of economic arrangement. Why? Because it maintains the existing concentrated power of the few. Right now, we are choosing to limit ourselves. Single market maximalism also encourages a permanent underclass, and its preachers are always those who benefit the most by resisting change. We must stop worshiping our creations. To naturalize them is to ensure that many remain unable to transcend a time experience of permanent struggle. This is easier said than done given the persistent propaganda the majority are exposed to, but aligning ourselves with the single truth and the relational universe requires a more experimentalist approach toward the organization of markets.
The crisis of productivity and participation recognizes the distinct divisions of labor of the present. Some groups lack the ability to meaningfully contribute toward bettering society and themselves. A lack of ability in itself does not designate a crisis, but when combined with a lack of vital protections and opportunities for the individual to redefine and redirect their journey, many find themselves trapped in cycles of inescapable poverty. It’s easy to observe displaced individuals from the outside and comment about their lack of grit or foresight but doing so is extremely shortsighted. Technological progress will continue to eliminate traditionally secure employment; machines will replace routine tasks of all levels of expertise. The crisis of participation highlights how an ever-increasing number of people are denied access to the necessary resources to develop themselves to meet the needs of our moment, further contributing to the expansion of our existing citizen underclasses and the ills that come with it.
An unavoidable aspect of our expanding advancement is a change in the fundamental nature of work and productivity, the primary drivers of our abilities to interact and exchange. Over the past thirty years, the nature of work has undergone a dramatic shift. In the past, industrial mass production models where workers performed specialized and repetitive tasks used to be the most accessible forms of employment. It was a moment where the average individual was viewed as an extension of the machine. Individuals were expected to specifically perform routine tasks without room for deviation or experimentation. If you could work in one assembly line, you could work in any of them, giving rise to mobile workforces. The ideal worker during this time experience was someone smart enough to operate the machines but lacking the skills necessary to become more. Mass production assembly lines are a form of labor demanding obedience above all else.
When countries adopt this type of work, they actively spread the cultural ethos through education systems and information channels. Eventually, corporations purchase the political sway necessary to outsource these manufacturing jobs overseas to labor markets paying lower wages, claiming less taxes, and often employing measures that would be otherwise illegal, such as child labor. Globalization dismantled all aspects of career security within professions, requiring the performance of machine-like tasks, placing many into time experiences of radical insecurity that they have yet to overcome. Now we can observe the inherent problem with developing our productive capacities around repetitive specialization. It is a form of productivity that leaves individuals perpetually vulnerable to disruption and offers few alternatives to apply the skill set elsewhere.
Contrast that to our immediate present. Today's most valuable employees combine deep technological knowledge, analytical capabilities, and cooperative problem-solving to automate and create. As a result, these occupations offer the individual the most opportunity for creative fulfillment and financial reward. What separates these two forms of work is the inherent power of the worker. In the past, the individual was a disposable extension of the machine; now they are the vital imagination, powering its direction.
This experience of industry erasure takes many forms. Technology advancements such as scientific precision agriculture and policies favoring large corporations have crushed the small family farmer, many of whom are struggling to pay down large debts—let alone generate profits. In the past, small farms provided about half of the food Americans ate; now they are responsible for a steadily decreasing third.52 Advancements in renewable energy technologies ensure that solar and wind produce more energy for less, having already rendered coal and an entire industry of miners obsolete.53 Oil and natural gas are next on the list, industries verging on obsolescence that remain propped up by political puppetry. If we were exploring the crisis ten years in the future, we would be highlighting professions such as bookkeepers, lawyers, accountants, data entry, and many more as examples of how technology transforms repetitive tasks.
Our crisis is one of opportunity, or our impending lack thereof. Technology continues to split work and people into two major categories. The first consists of many who have already lost access to productive opportunities and living wages and others joining them shortly, as more complex repetitive occupations become updated and automated. The second category consists of those who have a form of work that takes time, effort, and the capacity to continuously learn new things. Individuals bring unique knowledge to every encounter, compounding experiences earned by solving complex problems collaboratively. The most in-demand individuals within the immediate present are sought after as much for their ability to quickly learn new things as they are for their existing knowledge. Everyone is capable of this type of work, but many lack access to the educational and training systems necessary. The crisis of productivity and participation is rooted in the fact that political leadership refuses to address the issue, preferring to pretend that it simply does not exist. This problem isn’t purely across generation lines; many young adults suffer the same fate. If we don’t make significant changes to the types of education and training infrastructures we offer for the collective, this trend of vastly disparate skills and opportunities will continue. When we consider the challenge through the lens of the single truth and the relational universe, the crisis of productivity and participation results in a significant squandering of our individual and collective potential, diminishing our divinity in the process.
The most advanced form of work in the immediate present is within what is commonly referred to as the information or knowledge economy. A knowledge economy is an economic system where work requires highly skilled labor that is easily transferable between organizations. Like our previous example of the assembly worker, the skills people working in the knowledge economy develop are not organization-dependent. Unlike the assembly worker, participants persistently learn, experiment, and create in a cooperative problem-solving environment. The most obvious example is expert software developers who command high salaries but are free to pursue productive activity in a wide variety of verticals.
Central to the knowledge economy is the ability of organizations to highly customize the inputs and outputs of productive activity without requiring standardization. The future of work demands individuals capable of doing specific tasks without needing to conform to a set way of doing them. A blend of innovative experimentation and productivity creates a form of employment drawing from humanity’s most powerful resource, our imagination. Historically scientific advancements helped drive progress in productive activity and often occurred outside of corporations. Today we can observe how, within the knowledge economy, production becomes a vehicle for scientific progress. An example would be new products and services that utilize machine learning. Each innovation builds upon advances in information technology while simultaneously pushing the envelope for what is possible with every new iteration.
Another example would be the increasing efficiency of 3-D printing, which allows people to go from ideation directly to creation, saving significant time and resources for prototyping and developing material goods through third parties. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we are bearing witness to the infancy of replicator technologies that will be able to arrange matter on a molecular level. Both scenarios describe processes where the work of production and scientific discovery become intertwined, fundamentally redefining the nature of the labor involved. In the past, the only opportunity for companies to make leaps of progress was on the backs of technological or scientific breakthroughs outside of the organization. Today, many of these breakthroughs are created from within, developing a self-perpetuating process of innovation that eliminates the concept of diminishing returns. The interweaving of productivity and imagination, a way of organizing ourselves and our society, will profoundly impact our material and immaterial progress.
Adding new technology to an organization that views human labor as cheap, repetitive work and follows traditional organizational hierarchies doesn’t create a knowledge economy company. We could use any big-box retail conglomerate as an example. They have the capital to invest heavily in new practices and procedures, but no amount of technological innovation can act as a substitute for a business model that views human beings as cheap, disposable widgets. If an organization lacks the internal process to maximize the creative potential of the majority of its staff and chooses instead to rely on low-cost labor and external innovation, then they are not a knowledge economy company.
When we apply our understanding of the changing nature of time, we might imagine that the knowledge economy is the natural trajectory of our technological advancement, a form of individual and systemic organization that occurs in parallel with our progress and will continue to spread through global economies, ushering in a new era of productivity and participation. Unfortunately, we know that’s not true. Knowledge economy companies exist in many economic verticals already but are isolated at the top of their respective industries. The market arrangements of our time have warped the impacts of this economic transformation into an aggressive power consolidation empowered by the continuous leveraging of network effects.* Consider how major platform companies presently operate. They provide free services in order to track, catalog, and manipulate the user base through algorithmic advertising. Social platform companies rely on outdated intellectual property laws that do not classify a user’s data as their personal property. They sell information that they do not pay for and should not have ownership of. This challenge is compounded by a geriatric leadership class that does not understand the language and concepts of the rapidly evolving information technology space. The most popular material goods platforms exert monopolistic control over many market verticals, and small- and medium-sized competitors with higher fixed costs cannot compete. When routine work is required and a machine is unavailable, the labor is often outsourced to countries where individuals labor for fractions of their worth. Many of our most powerful knowledge economy organizations have become rent extractors. Their main value proposition is that many smaller companies cannot afford to avoid using their platform. This intersection of inadequate laws governing access to the knowledge economy and a political class whose primary objective is to enrich themselves amplifies our crisis by preventing the actions necessary to spread this new form of work throughout the world. It is a failure to take advantage of what is already here, powered by the few who benefit the most from the existing arrangements.
Automation and the changing nature of work isn’t a new idea, so we might ask ourselves if it’s worthy of being labeled a crisis. After all, history tells us that the most advanced forms of work have changed on several occasions and societies have found ways to adapt. The widespread expansion of progress disrupts common ideas about economies, wealth, and work. Where our present moment differs from history is our lack of available shortcuts to transition. In our past, pathways existed to rapidly shift workers’ focus and energy from one specific task to another. Sailboat operators learned to operate steamboats, small-scale farmers became factory workers, and scribes learned how to type.
Technological advancement didn’t require huge leaps in capacity, only slight redirections in instruction and obedience. Today we face a much more significant challenge. The nature of work has shifted in such a way that this time, there are no shortcuts. The analytical creativity necessary to thrive in the new, most advanced forms of work requires years of training, a commitment to perceptual learning and discovery, and the interpersonal skills necessary to cooperate with others in solving large, complex problems. Much of the educational structures throughout the world have yet to transition into forms of learning to prepare people for these types of productive experiences. Instead, these structures remain focused on learning methods centering around memorization and regurgitation that are inadequate for addressing present-day needs. This results in an ever-increasing divide in our labor force between those who can participate in the most advanced forms of work and those who cannot.
Our evaluation of our economic divergence wouldn’t be complete without considering the small business owner. As of 2017, 47.1 percent of the private workforce of the United States was employed by a small business, which comprise 99.9 percent of all US businesses.54 Presently. the small business environment is in a state of flux, with the pandemic permanently altering the landscape. Nevertheless, our desires to forge our own paths will continue; therefore, we need to consider how the crisis impacts entrepreneurs.
Self-employment spans a wide range of technical and creative entrepreneurship, including people with “gig” economy jobs like ride-sharing or delivery services. Self-employment can be an enriching experience, ideal for a self-actualizing society. Unfortunately, for many today, starting a small business is a significantly worse option than taking on a job for wages because of the price of failure and our legal organization surrounding the gig economy. The price of failure for any small business owner is serious financial struggle, a real risk when providing to a family. This barrier to participation is due to America’s weak system of social safety nets. The US prides itself on being the land of opportunity, but it is clear that the narrative only refers to those who can afford to take risks. Without expanding our rights to systemic protections, we will always limit our abilities to solve problems and imagine innovations. In doing so, we deny many the opportunities for creation. Systemic actualization is a process that will greatly empower small business owners.
In times of increasing uncertainty, gig economy work continues to attract participants who have no alternatives. This type of labor is a form of entrepreneurship facilitated by large platform companies where the worker is given a considerable degree of flexibility at the cost of traditional employment benefits and protections. It is promoted as a path to personal and financial freedom, framing the agreements in ways that seem beneficial to the contractor. The allure of controlling one’s work hours conveniently glosses over how these arrangements are forms of self-employment where the worker bears all the risks and none of the benefits of entrepreneurship. Attempting to resist these grossly unequal labor arrangements is always met with well-funded resistance by the benefiting organizations. Gig platforms supporting contract work will always support economic and legal structures that disproportionately favor existing capital holders at the expense of the people doing the actual work.
Although these trends are disturbing, they will become much more extreme soon. The pandemic is speeding up the implementation of automation technologies in response to the risks and restrictions surrounding crowded workspaces. Under the right legal frameworks, the automation of routine tasks can be one of the best things that have ever happened to our society. The alternative option of confining all productivity to a single set of existing laws of property and contract supporting the expansion of crisis ensures that only a tiny fraction of our population will own the machines, determine their uses, and reap the benefits of our collective progress. Participating in transaction economies requires two or more parties with adequate resources to exchange. As we continue to automate production and service worldwide, we will face an oversupply crisis. Machines will not be purchasing any of the goods they create and will not order any of the food they serve. American economics, as we understand them today, has always been about workers being able to participate in the market directly with the wages they earn. If our modes of production do not offer people the resources necessary to exchange, there can be no functioning system of economic participation.
We stand at a unique crossroads in our history. In the past, we had to apply technology to a purpose; at this moment, we’re rapidly developing technologies that can apply themselves. These problem-solving machines multiply our capacity to transform beyond anything we ever imagined possible. The future of humanity is one of persistent automation, one that embraces the attitude that no individual should be forced to do the work a machine can do. We are freeing the individual to focus on developing mastery in the direction of their choice.
The crisis of productivity and participation is, at its core, a lack of alignment with the reality of our circumstances. In the United States and around the world, people are ill-equipped for the future of work. The systems necessary to teach and train them do not exist. Technology continues to advance, increasing the gap between people who can contribute meaningfully to society and those who cannot. There are several negative systemic and interpersonal consequences to our current trajectory, ensuring that those unable to contribute to these new forms of labor will find themselves in destitution. Circumstances will only further radicalize populations and sow distrust in establishing a global cooperative society. It is the crisis most central to our present understanding of being, reshaping how we connect and help each other. It is a battle between those supporting the dominion rule of wealthy elites over the general public established 244 years ago and those who reject its grasp on our fates. The technological ascendency we are experiencing gives us the power to create a decentralized society of abundance, but only if we can create the systems necessary to support it. If not, humanity's individual and collective power will remain bound to a time experience where it cannot be expressed.