cover image Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots

Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots

James Suzman. Penguin Press, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-525-56175-0

Anthropologist Suzman (Affluence Without Abundance) attempts to untangle “the fundamental relationship between life, energy, order and entropy” in this thought-provoking yet uneven history. Drawing on the fields of economics, physics, evolutionary biology, and zoology to examine humanity’s different approaches to work across time and cultures, Suzman is at his strongest in the early chapters, offering an intriguing look at how the Ju/’hoansi tribesmen of southern Africa and other foraging societies were shaped by their focus on the present, as opposed to farming societies, which focused on the future. Suzman also details how the new skills and professions humans developed when they began to form cities 8,000 years ago created hierarchies of wealth, status, and power, and contends that the scarcity of “intimate kinship and social ties” in urban communities (as opposed to rural communities) led people to “bind their social identity ever more tightly to the work they did.” In modern economies, Suzman argues, automation threatens to exacerbate inequality. Though Suzman’s writing is full of lively digressions and fine-grained details, the book loses focus and persuasiveness the further it moves from his areas of expertise. This ambitious account asks bigger questions than it can answer. (Jan.)