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“A self-determined life means being able to use technology appropriately”

German philosopher and journalist Richard David Precht believes that in the society of the future, work will be less about earning money and more a question of what people really want to do. He has made a career of what he most loves to do – which makes him feel he is living a self-determined life.

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Mr Precht, what does leading a self-determined life in a future digital society mean to you?
It means learning how to use technology appropriately. And hopefully we will also live in countries where everything that now represents politics, morals and democracy is not replaced by social engineering. Because this would mean that a self-determined life is no longer possible.

In your utopia for a digital society, you say that we should be pleased about digital progress because it means people will no longer have to perform tedious and alienating work. But it also means most paying work would disappear. How will people earn a living?

There have been societies in history where paid work was not the centre of the political culture. The focus on paid work is a phenomenon that has only developed over the past 200 years, and it is a concept that is gradually fading. There will be another form of society, which may have a structure similar to Ancient Greece. Free Greek men were free because they didn’t work. The people who performed work were women, slaves and foreigners. In many areas, robots and computers will be the women, slaves and foreigners of the future.

Surveys have shown that people believe that personal finances are the factor that will most limit their ability to lead a self-determined life. You are a proponent of an unconditional basic income. Why?

Initially, I didn’t think an unconditional basic income was a great idea. But what do we do in a society in which millions of people are no longer able to perform regular paid work because of digital advances? I believe that a basic income will be introduced in most European countries. The only questions are when, how much the basic income will be and how it will be financed. There is still a lot of political flexibility, but there is no question that it will have to be done and for a very simple reason: if the number of workers paying social insurance contributions becomes much smaller and the number of people who receive transfer payments becomes much larger, the social system as we know it will collapse. 

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To what extent will people’s need for security and financial confidence change if the scenarios you envision come about?
Financial security will rise substantially as a result of a basic income. In Germany, for example, a basic income of EUR 1500 would be significantly better than the EUR 1000 in payments offered through the Hartz programme. People, especially those who don’t have great qualifications, would have more opportunity to think about what they really want to do. And that would contribute to both their security and their satisfaction with life.

Finally, a personal question: do you believe you are living a self-determined life?
I believe I am living a self-determined life because I’ve been able to make a career of doing what I love most. This career has provided me with a high degree of independence, including financial independence.  But that wasn’t always the case. Following the end of my time as an assistant at university, I lived on DEM 950 in unemployment assistance, so I can easily imagine how good it would feel to receive a regular basic income instead of unemployment benefits. I would have done just as well, but I would have slept better.

Interview: Michael Preisig, Swiss Life Group Communications

About Richard David Precht

Richard David Precht is a German philosopher, bestselling author and honorary professor, and one of the most renowned intellectuals in the German-speaking world. His most recent book is Jäger, Hirten, Kritiker: Eine Utopie für die digitale Gesellschaft (“Hunters, shepherds, critics: a utopia for the digital society”).

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