50th St. Gallen Symposium "Freedom Revisited": 7–8 May 2020


All play and no work

What comes after the end of work? The optimistic answer to this question is that, if we did not have to work, we would spend our days bettering ourselves and our communities: reading philosophy, learning new skills, and increasing our understanding of the universe. Karl Marx envisaged that, in a non-capitalist system that doesn’t require specialisation of labour, each individual would have the freedom “to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and philosophise after dinner”. Ironically, capitalist-driven technological advancement could offer the best route to turn this dream into reality.

An alternative vision is provided by dystopian science fiction writers. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley presents us with a society in which, while people still work, they spend their free time absorbed by frivolous entertainment. Technological advances today seem to be leading us in this direction. Improvements in virtual reality hold the possibility of creating entertainment experiences (it seems anachronistic to call them ‘video games’) which are more immersive, novel and enjoyable than we can now imagine.

We are left, then, with a question: What, if anything, is wrong with a life filled with distraction and hugely enjoyable simulations, compared to a life of learning and real world opportunities for growth? This is explored in a famous philosophical thought experiment, called the Experience Machine: Would you plug into a machine that gave you all the subjective experience of living a fulfilled, happy life?

What is more valuable about a life of hardship and difficulty spent in the ‘real’ world than one spent in harmless entertainment? This problem forces us to confront perhaps the oldest philosophical question of all time: What is to lead a good life? This is a question we must answer before, not after, the end of work.

What is to lead a good life?


I think one of the problems is that society has been conditioned to divorce work from play, we find jobs to pay bills and cover our butts but never really tap into the dreams within us that we wish to accomplish. I think every human has dreams and visions and goals already placed inside of them, the issue is we have surpressed a lot of them through the way we have developed culture and control, a lot needs to change in order to "enjoy" work again.