John Henry, Automation, and the Future of Human Usefulness

By Shane Trotter

Most are versed in the tale of John Henry, a post-Civil War freed black man, who worked as a steel-driver for the Ohio and Chesapeake railroad. No one could keep pace with this giant of a man. Despite Henry’s efforts, railroad construction slowed as it approached the Big Bend Mountain, a behemoth that claimed thousands of lives before the rail was finished. One day a salesman showed up promoting a steam-powered drill that was sure to outwork human muscle. Henry objected to this notion and incited a competition between man and drill. John Henry pulled out two 20 pound hammers and went to work racing the steam drill. At the end of 35 minutes, he’d outpaced the new machinery and shown that man could beat machine. The men cheered and the salesman looked on in disgust. And then… John Henry fell over dead.  

History’s Arc Toward Human Uselessness

While Henry is a folk hero, the implications of this legend speak to the arc of human history and the challenge that will define our lives more than any other. Henry represents the absolute epitome of what a human could accomplish in steel driving. Humanity put its very best against a machine, and, in order to beat the machine, our best died. What’s more, most cannot work at John Henry’s pace and machines are cheaper and more effective than hired humans in the long run. They don’t tire, require lunch, or ask for raises. Consequently, the majority of men who worked alongside Henry were about to find themselves searching for other means of employment. This is the tale of automation and its tendency to relegate humans towards feelings of uselessness.


The pace of technological progress and life has only accelerated since the late 19th century. Inevitably, we will see many more drastic changes which pull our world in directions we could not have predicted. This lack of certainty can be very unsettling and has resulted in terrifying fictions such as Huxley’s Brave New World, Egger’s The Circle, and Pixar’s Wall-E. Yes, Wall-E’s image of a world where all work is done by robots and their perfectly designed algorithms is the most terrifying. We are ushered through life constantly consuming, as every human want is satisfied. Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Homo Deus, predicts that a world could emerge where even our choices are relegated to technology. Body monitors tracking physical reactions and lifetime patterns may be better than our own minds for deciding marital partners and every other conceivable choice. Harari notes that the common robo-future dystopia of machines becoming self-aware and deciding to eradicate humanity is the far less likely and less scary option. More likely, the technology will work perfectly, freeing us from any inconvenience such as living life.

Is this so bad? Jobs are eliminated, but technology grows powerful enough that we hardly need to work. People spend hundreds and thousands on lottery tickets each year chasing this dream. We all know how every lottery winner lives happily ever after….


To eliminate struggle, challenge, and decision is to eliminate what gives life color. We need purpose, projects, great work, and connection. We need values that create passion and action, not convenience that breeds complacency and entitlement. It is not consumption that creates a great, full life, but production towards a purpose. Consumerism sells an image of opulence creating happiness, but that is rarely the case. As living standards skyrocket, the World Health Organization reports a 60% increase in suicides over the last 50 years. They predict that by 2020, global depression will be the second most prevalent health condition in the world, behind heart disease. Clearly, there is more to fulfillment than convenience and consumption.

 There is no going back, however. Demonizing all technological advancement serves no purpose.  We need dialogue about how to best adapt to automation and more intelligently consume inevitable new technologies. Let’s learn from our failures. The evidence is in and we were completely unprepared for smart phones and ubiquitous social media. The wise and productive are insulating and setting rules so that they can appreciate the positives of these devices without being controlled by their power to perpetually distract and induce mindlessness. Still, the majority have seen their productivity, impact, and humanity decrease from smart phone dependence. They spend their days killing time and wasting life, one step closer to the world of Wall-E.

I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent- no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” –Seneca

Humans are not fulfilled by gifts and creature comforts. These enhance life’s immense richness, but few lessons are better documented than the terrible angst and dissatisfaction that follows hedonistic orgies of consumption. Rather, humans need a sense of competency and connection to thrive. People need to feel authentic and a part of something greater than themselves where they offer essential contribution. As Sebastian Junger notes in, Tribe, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

More than anything, people want to be self-actualized, to reach their immense potential, and to feel that their lives matter- that they are an integral part of something bigger. How do we reconcile these needs with technology’s capacity to make fewer and fewer human’s necessary? How do we combat what Harari calls the “creation of the useless class?”

People are becoming useless; but they can’t, really. We need to explore what necessary and useful could come to mean. Purpose and self-worth are vital needs that humans can and must help fill. We need to need each other! This understanding should guide education and all development. As more people feel useless, more people have an unmet need to be useful, authentic, and connected. These are real needs- real opportunities for humans to come in and create deeply meaningful connections and new purpose.

The Nature of Useful Work

Most of human history was dedicated to acquiring food and protecting the tribe. As civilization advanced and the majority of food production was done by others, humans still had use. Today we are useful, not only in survival occupations, but as plumbers, teachers, theme park managers, forest rangers, and surf instructors. All fill needs and improve lives. The vocations of teacher and personal trainer stand out to me more than any other. Both simply could not exist without food surplus and the free time characteristic of modernity. It is because of these developments that both are essential- perhaps the most essential occupations. They push what is avoided, yet most essential, with the complacency of abundance, - physical and mental training.


In an environment that offers the opportunity and inclination for devastating mental and physical degradation, these fields offer the antidote. The economy of human fulfillment is the way of the future. This is where the future of work lies and there is ample room for everyone to contribute greatly! Fields and social institutions should spring up dedicated to the art of connection and the needs of the human spirit. Automation could strip our humanity as we delve deeper into impulses for instant gratification, or offer us more time to study and feed our needs. We can allow it to fracture and dissolve common values, or we can intentionally re-clarify our vision and create an economy based on passionate human development. We could worship comfort, or respect the human bodies need for variety, community, competency, and nature in daily physical challenge.

Imagine if we created community wide games and competitions that re-create communal challenges for which humanity thrives and connects best. Imagine the potential to create exciting scenarios for adults as well as children that feature the carries, climbs, chasing, fleeing, throwing, and the cooperation that human biology expected and thrives upon. Technology has always promised more free time, yet not followed suit. What if it did? What if we collectively fought the trend towards busyness so that we could all be empowered to learn and fill our schedules with skill acquisition and community activity?

Mindlessly Manipulated, or Intentionally Awesome

Intentionality is the key. Right now the only sources of intentional value development and morality are  the marketing wizards of our consumerist society. All we hear is “you deserve,” “indulge,” and “treat yourself.” Moral relativism disrupts communal bonds in favor of the religion of consumerism. Cultural trends have embraced rights, while abhorring responsibilities. The cult of victimhood was born, creating mass outrage as we all clamor about what we are entitled, ignorant to our own biases, scarcity, or what it means to truly earn. We must intentionally drive the path of future technology and teach intelligent consumption and boundaries in our schools. Education, more than any other source, has to take the lead on interpreting the future of work and pushing us towards our best future.

The path to an intentional future will depend upon far more capacity for dialogue and competition of thought. We must empower our schools to create a culture of dialogue, emotional development and constant striving for human fulfillment, or they will remain obsessed with comfort and the illusion of self-esteem. Automation offers leisure, but leisure can either be used for great ends or atrophy. Education must obsess with best occupations and best use of leisure. As Aristotle said, “Education aims at being occupied in the correct manner and at being at leisure in a noble fashion.” A “noble fashion” of leisure that seeks skill acquisition and growth is far more active and gratifying to the human spirit.

Education has the most power to create culture and thus, lead us from destructive impulse manipulation and towards the more challenging and discipline-oriented, but far more fulfilling ways of living. While we love the idea of more free time, there is truly nothing more crushing to the human spirit than lack of purpose and competency.

Automation can offer free time to feed our better nature, or mindless distraction to enslave us to a need for evermore mindless consumption. Technology can work with us to empower what is beautiful about humanity, or cause us to lose it all together. Culture is our power. Art is our power. Humanity is more than any mechanization. Adversity and problems are what give life meaning. We are not at a loss for major problems- we’re at a loss for the inclination to act.

Creating purpose, connection, usefulness, and respect for these human needs should be the top priority of culture. Schools must promote movement, challenge, dialogue, truth, and education as the foremost inclination for good living. Their impact can shape a culture of businesses that know they must honor humanity. Tristan Harris, a former Google programmer, speaks against the tech industry’s deliberate intent to keep us distracted. A more educated and intentional population would demand technology’s were created in the “ethical” manner he proposes.

Guidelines to Flourish in the Age of Automation

We can create a culture of learners, well equipped to grow, explore, and thrive with technology. Still, there are technological dilemmas that we must intentionally direct. To flourish as society moves forward with automation, I posit a few guidelines for consideration:

  1. Respect what is uniquely human and make it a value not to push machines past a threshold of humanity. Why would a machine need to look human? Take that away and automation is much less scary. We’ve been building smarter machines forever. From the printing press, to the PC. Let the machines become smarter and more capable of working with humanity to make us capable of more. Do not make them in the image of humanity.

  2. Reorient society towards a dogged pursuit of truth. This is the only path away from the inauthenticity and superficial thought patterns proliferating today. Clarify the needs of the human spirit, enunciate them as values, and promote occupations that provide value in these capacities. The consumerist lie is built on hedonistic moral relativism. It is built on people being able to justify any want or desire. Community and connection are built upon common values. These values are built on common drives for truth. We need non-dogmatic dialogue that promotes individuality while endearing a sense of connection to common truths. Communities must be bonded by more than proximity and legal codes. Let us reaffirm what makes us human, unite the truths we strive towards, and recommit to passionate, purposeful living.

  3. Cap the drift towards human leisure with values. If security and convenience are allowed to remain in their deified place, nothing will stop us from the Wall-A dystopia. We must create a dominant ethos that insists upon the physical world as the only one of real value- where there is strong social pressure to create real meaning with real action. Embrace the beauty of risk, struggle, adventure, and all that has spurred the best and most beautiful in humanity. There are threats worse than death and pain. Most don’t conceive the good life as being perpetually drugged and high. It is important to remember that technological distraction can create a “drugged” population of distraction addicts. I know high-school boys who would play video games all day if they could. They desperately want to stay inside their comfort zones, even to their own peril. How much worse could this get, particularly if driven by the humanity sapping urge to prioritize extremes of immediate safety? Courage, joy, connection, full living all require vulnerability, not security!

  4. Heroism has many forms. It is the greatest manifestation of humanity. While I do not want pointless calls for more “charges of the light brigade,” I do want to preserve heroic virtue and inclination. The foremost drive of a great people living great lives will be to create a nation of heroes.

Former Greek Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis believes there are two opposite, yet possible future outcomes that should guide our vision. We could become metaphorically enslaved to the machines. Or, there is a positive extreme embodied by Star Trek, whereby all imminent survival needs are met so that no one needs to earn wages. Humanity can mentally evolve past a need for endless accumulation and resolve to grow physically, mentally, spiritually, and morally. Humankind can unite over great purposes and continue to do great work. There is a lot of room between these extremes. Our influence over which direction we move depends on our abilities for dialogue, intentionality, and improved education.