Automation and the Human Future

14 March 2013

Thursday


Pulp-O-Mizer job stealing robots

During the early years of the industrial revolution, people (including young children) worked the kind of hours in factories that they have been accustomed to working on farms during agrarian civilization. That meant a lot of 14 and 16 hour days. After the initial misery of the “factory system,” things got sorted out and the hours of the work day fell precipitously. Eventually, the work week fell to a standard 40 hours, though in the most productive economies in the world today many if not most people routinely put in overtime hours.

Futurists, however, instead of seeing this declining workweek in historical context as a one-time transition from one kind of social organization to another, forecast that the work week would go on shrinking, from 40 hours to 30 hours, from 30 hours to 20 hours, and eventually automation would make human labor unnecessary. Given this forecast, one of the great social problems that industrial civilization would have to face would be that of what everyone would do in a society of maximized abundance and scarce employment.

It was widely thought by “progressive” thinkers that Europe was on the cutting edge of this revolution in labor and employment, as many European countries statutorily limited the work week to a certain number of hours. In far more recent predictions it was suggested that the vast common market created by the European Union would come to dominate the world economy. (Up until the recent financial crisis, Parag Khanna was predicting ascendancy of Europe as a global force.) Yet European economies proved stagnant, and not a vibrant source of innovation and growth, whether economic or technological.

The optimistic futurism of the 1970s is especially easy to ridicule (though it is often no more wide of the mark than more recent futurist predictions), and I think that this is due to the fact that the early Space Age of the 1960s significantly raised hopes and expectations, when these hopes and expectations were not swiftly gratified with jetpacks, flying cars, and vacations to the moon, the whole enterprise of technological futurism fell into disrepute.

Many supposedly “failed” predictions of futurism — supposedly falsified by history like the political triumph of a given economic system and secularization — may yet come true but on a time scale that lies beyond the brief attention spans of the mass media. Given the fact that big ideas move very slowly through history, like the passage of large prey through the gut of a snake, and given the tendency of the mass media to build up the idea of the moment into a kind of hysteria, only to see interest in that idea collapse soon after, it is nearly inevitable that the same ideas will come up time and again as they continue their passage through contemporary history, going through periods of being considered prescient alternating with periods of being believed to have been “disproved” by history.

Recently the once-discredited futurist idea of widespread automation leading to maximized material abundance issuing in sharply increased and persistent unemployment has been making a significant comeback in the popular press. Let’s make a quick review of how the idea appeared in mid-twentieth century futurism.

In a book intended to be a non-hyped, non-flashy exercise in futurism, Stuart Chase made the case for automation and posed the problem of persistent unemployment for a mass society:

“Computers and automatic mechanism have already taken over a great deal of routine work, such as bank bookkeeping, and they are expected to take over a great deal more. Not only large plants and offices will be computerized, but also small organizations, as the hardware becomes less costly. What then will happen to people? …If people have no jobs, how can they buy the products made by the workers who remain? If, on the other hand, it is possible to subsidize the jobless as consumers, what happens to their nervous systems, self-confidence, and character? Most of us would rather be occupied than not… but in what form?”

Stuart Chase, The Most Probable World, 1968, Chapter 10, “Is man a working animal?,” p. 136

The idea of automation even plays a central role in Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto, where the benefits of automation are accepted uncritically:

“There is no human reason for money or for anyone to work more than two or three hours a week at the very most. All non-creative jobs (practically all jobs now being done) could have been automated long ago, and in a moneyless society everyone can have as much of the best of everything as she wants. But there are non-human, male reasons for wanting to maintain the money system…”

Others saw further and thought more critically. Only a year after Stuart Chase’s book, Victor C. Ferkiss had a much more grounded understanding of what technology would mean in the workplace, and his account gives a sense of technological dystopia à la Metropolis, in contradistinction to the wide-eyed technological utopianism that mostly prevailed when he wrote the following:

“Automation has seemingly done little to reduce the drudgery of work. Where the assembly line exists, it is still irksome… Where the old centralized rigid processes have been automated with machines taking over routine tasks, working conditions, especially psychological one, have not improved. Such evidence as exists indicates that the watchers of dials — the checkers and maintainers — are likely to be lonely, bored, and alienated, often feeling less the machine’s master than its servant. Dealing with computers can be as frustrating for the worker as for the client-consumer, with data on a print-out even more difficult to check and rectify than that in human accounts or reports.”

Victor C. Ferkiss, Technological Man: The Myth and the Reality, 1969 (Signet Mentor 1970), Chapter 6, “Technological Change and Economic Inertia,” pp. 122-123

Such quotes and observations could be multiplied at will; I took my quotes from books that I happened to have on hand, but, as I wrote above, it was a prominent feature in mid-twentieth century futurism to ask what would become of the working masses once automation deprived them of labor, and therefore — presumably for the privileged few writing about the problem — the content and meaning of working class lives.

Now the problem of job loss due to automation is being posed again, and almost in precisely the same terms, notwithstanding the computing and telecommunications revolution that has occurred in the meantime. I cannot help but speculate that these elite worries over restive, unemployed masses are almost entirely due to the stagnant if not depressed condition of the global economy since the financial crisis that started unrolling with the sub-prime mortgage debacle in the US, and subsequently moved on to other unemployment-inducing crises around the world.

An article in The Economist, Real robot talk (from 01 March 2013), revisits the theme of technologically-induced (we might even say technogenic) unemployment from automation and robotics. The article finishes with these wise observations:

“Technological progress sufficient to cause these kinds of dislocations should also generate overall economic gains large enough to make everyone better off. But just because everyone could be made better off by progress doesn’t mean that everyone will be made better off. There must be an institutional framework in place to ensure that the gains from growth are shared.”

However, the rest of the article is not nearly so enlightening. The Economist article offers three possible responses to technogenic unemployment:

1. more education for less skilled workers

2. protecting less skilled jobs through regulation

3. direct wealth transfers

I am struck by the utter lack of imagination in these three proposals. If this is all than an elite publication like The Economist has to offer, clearly we are in serious trouble. The whole idea of trying to educate everyone to the level that the elites believe themselves to have attained begs so many questions that it is difficult to know where to start. Therefore I will limit myself only to the comment that many if not most entrepreneurs are drop outs, and the highly educated work for the entrepreneurs who create companies, and so create jobs and opportunities and increase productivity. As for protecting low skilled jobs, this is perhaps the worst possible suggestion, since it would directly impact the increase in productivity that could potentially free those in wage-slave drudgery from their mechanizable tasks. And direct wealth transfers have been tried, almost always with disastrous results.

A similar recent article that is a sign of the times is The Rise of the Robots by Robert Skidelsky. (I won’t quote Skidelsky, since his website says, “Reprinting material from this Web site without written consent from Project Syndicate is a violation of international copyright law.”) A Manichean contrast between optimists and pessimists runs through Skidelsky’s piece, as though the parties to the argument had nothing on their side except temperamental inclinations.

This isn’t about optimists or pessimists, except in so far as present-day commentators are pessimistic because their banker and journalist friends are feeling the pinch, too. That’s what happens when a persistent recession takes a chunk out of contemporary economic history. When the present downturn has passed — it hasn’t passed yet, and by the time it’s over I suspect many will come to speak of a global “lost decade” — I predict that talk of technogenic unemployment will also pass until the next crisis.

In the longer term of industrial-technological civilization, abundance may yet become a problem, and meaningful work a privilege, but we are a very long way from this being the case. The industrial revolution is only now transforming Asia, and it has yet to transform Africa. The problem of global technogenic unemployment cannot be a persistent economic blight until the global economy entire has been technologically transformed by industrialization — incidentally, the same conditions that must obtain for the experimentum crucis of Marxism (another supposedly disconfirmed idea from history).

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5 Responses to “Automation and the Human Future”

  1. T. Greer said

    I found Ashwin Parameswaran’s essay, “Technological Employment in an Age of Stagnation” to a very good (if heavy) reading on this topic: http://alittledisorder.com/resilience-across-domains/economics/technological-unemployment-amidst-stagnation/

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for the reference! I’ve read and commented on other pieces by Parameswaran, so I will be very interested to read this item.

      Sincerely,

      Nick

  2. Alex Hagan said

    Nice post. It seems that humans are bound to “see” patterns and forecast trends where there are none — Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” is another great reference on this one. I particularly like the picture accompanying the post!

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Hagen,

      Thanks for your comment!

      There is a large and growing literature about cognitive biases that push us toward (or away from) patterns. Percival Lowell’s canals of Mars is a classic example of seeing patterns where there are none in fact.

      But this situation is complicated because there are some patterns that we need to see but we don’t, and, as I implied above, our blindness to real patterns is as much of a problem as seeing patterns that aren’t there.

      The picture was generated with Pulp-O-Mizer:

      http://thrilling-tales.webomator.com/derange-o-lab/pulp-o-mizer/pulp-o-mizer.html

      Best wishes,

      Nick

      • Alex Hagan said

        Hi Nick,

        Yes indeed – false positives and false negatives both provide their own challenges and costs.

        Appreciate your thoughts.
        Alex

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