In many ways most people end up defined by their job or role, both from an internal and external perspective. One reason is simply because of the time involved. A person who works at a regular job may only put in eight hours a day on paper. But we must also consider that many jobs require occasional overtime, that commuting to and from a job takes even more time in the day, and that certain amounts of time both before and after the job are consumed by waking up, eating, and other chores. This leaves many people with very little free time to “be themselves”, and so naturally their image of themselves, and others image of them, tends to become dominated by what they do most, their job. The time people do have left tends to be eaten up with other things such as religion or parenting. And so many (but not all) people lead lives that can be mostly described with only a few words of description.
This is not to say that these people lack individuality. Everyone is still different in small ways. But unless we take a very close look at them it is hard to tell people apart who share the same basic role. And society as a whole is structured to basically treat people with the same role as interchangeable, with excellence in a role rewarded only haphazardly. This strikes me as somewhat unhealthy. When people are defined by their roles like this we have to wonder whether society is really serving the people that compose it, like it should, or whether the whole thing has gotten out of hand and people are being made to serve society.
Obviously society isn’t actually a being with a will, and so it can’t “make” us do anything. But societies have a great deal of structural momentum, so to speak. Currently society is directed at becoming more and more productive. Naturally when this trend started it was in the best interests of everyone; most societies could not produce enough to provide a high standard of living for everyone, and so more productivity tended to make life noticeably better for everyone. And as time went on structures such as capitalism emerged in order to better maximize the productivity of society. But maybe we don’t need to worry about productivity so much any more, maybe we should concern ourselves more with innovation instead (at least that is one possibility). However we no longer have control over the overall structure of society, and so we seem stuck treating people as components of a larger machine for the sake of greater productivity, despite the fact that this greater productivity no longer seems to be much of a benefit to most people.
Of course that is a very loose analysis, and maybe its looseness makes it somewhat unconvincing. So let’s consider what happens to society after we invent computers that have most of the intellectual ability of people. I’ll be generous and grant the AI skeptics that these computers will never be able to equal the creative ability of the best people. However, even computers unable to reach those heights could replace most of the population, and completely eliminate many “roles”. Not even philosophers would be safe. Computers that have the intellectual power of the smartest humans, and lack only their creativity, could easily do 90% of the job of most modern philosophers. The computers would do all of the analysis, comparison, interpretation, and criticism, with the best human philosophers left simply to create completely new ideas to feed them into the computers. Now normally when machines replace people in a certain role the people put out of work in this way can simply find new jobs. Because the machines are cheaper then the people they replaced the products sell for less, which results in consumers being able to buy more goods of other kinds, which expands the economy in other areas, which results in new jobs for the people replaced by machines. But the introduction of AI will not have a similar effect on the economy. The problem is that not everyone is going to be better than one of these machines. Some people might be, but they will be a small percentage of the population. The rest of us are out of luck, because there simply won’t be any roles for us to fill that a computer can’t fill better.
Obviously such a change will thus necessitate an economic overhaul, and possibly a move away from consumption driving the economy. However the economic implications are not really what interests me. What this situation also illustrates is that a society in which people are defined basically by their roles may run into situations in which larger numbers of people simply aren’t needed, their existence doesn’t serve any purpose from the perspective of society as a whole. Then what? There are a few possibilities. One is for the number of people to shrink, so that only the people who have a valuable role to play remain. But this possibility is probably off the table, because there are few acceptable ways of shrinking the population. We might also decide that the purpose of people is simply to have pleasurable lives, and so the excess population is simply left to their own devices. For most this will mean simply being passive consumers of entertainment (probably encouraged, because it reduces the resources required to support them). This also seems like a dead end, for reasons I won’t get into. And finally we have the option of rejecting role altogether as defining people. Instead of encouraging people to perform some function we can encourage them to be the best people possible (in less vague terms, to put their human potential to the best possible use). This results in a society of real individuals, which is something so unlike any society that has ever existed that I cannot even fully imagine what it would be like. Of course one day there might be computers better at being human than humans, but if such machines are ever invented we might as well replace ourselves with them and be done with it.