Automation: This Time, It Will Be Different

Automation is coming, to a factory near you - that really is the news. One may wrap the story with the fancy stuff - Robots or self-driving cars - but automation of less glamorous type is already everywhere: Lines of code, bits of equipment fabricated to labour, all the electronic stuff that sits inside our cars and modern homes to reduce manual work. The humble self-directed Vacuum Cleaner whirring away has taken off a few hours from the immigrant worker's weekly engagement; the Train Guards have been replaced by Cameras all over the train. 

The point being, automation is an approach. And it is already here.

If that makes one queasy about jobs and people, the consolation is that automation brings new jobs with it. This is not wishful talk, the evangelists point out, there is empirical evidence from what happened last time, the so-called Industrial Revolution. In the Industrial Revolution, the machines were introduced to replace workers - there were protests and revolutions and near-revolutions - but eventually, levels of education rose through universal schooling, and workers were able to participate in the new automated factory floors. The higher productivity meant higher wages, and better lifestyle for workers. Everyone lived happily ever after.

Part of this is fiction, certainly. First, that narrative hides slow, painful transition of over a century: Those protests and the better wages and working conditions had several generations inbetween. Second, while this paints the whole process as an economic one, most of it was political: The working conditions improved as a result of agitation, strikes, advent of unionised labour, and finally, and crucially, as working people started getting the vote. It was bloody and violent, including two World Wars, which needed the working classes to be mobilised and fully engaged, and without concessions, they wouldn't have done so. Third, this process of adjustment and expansion omits the existence of the colonies, which supplied the ever-expanding frontiers, regenerating the economy with fresh demands and more resources, and new jobs for middle classes. 

Right now, such new frontiers are rather few. Instead of American West, Scramble for Africa and British India, we now have environmental constraints and increasing debt burdens, which will put a limit to what new jobs could really be created. I noticed that the replacement of Conductors in trains, and resulting industrial unrests and technical difficulties, meant the trains from my station are often late: The announcers seem to be perennially apologising, and this may have created one or two new positions of 'apologisers'. Apart from this, there is excited talk about the 'gig economy': The Uber and Didi drivers, AirBnB Hosts, Handy's legion of handymen, self-employed, a bit precarious but perhaps trading security for freedom. 

This time, it may also be different as to how the workers can shape priorities. Large factories brought people together, on factory floors but also in industrial towns, making shared experiences - and therefore, unionised action - possible. The 'gig economy' does the opposite: For the self-employed worker looking out for next piece of work, another self-employed worker is competition; as much of this work is carried out alone, there is no shared experience in the sharing economy. So, despite the YouTube outrages and Facebook groups, the nirvanna of the new jobs have to be achieved without protests this time. One could, with justification, point out that now the workers have votes, and they can use that - instead of protests - to bring about populist revolts, Trump, Brexit and suchlike: However, at least so far, such politics was based on identity rather than economic change, as the new politicians pandered nationalist sentiments alongside tax-cutting policies, firing up the process of automation even further.

And, finally, the education system may work differently too. The informal networks of learning and skills development, the Coffee-House, as well as Community and group ties, the Trade Union, have since been subsumed into more formal systems of state funded colleges and universities, which have attempted to be everything for everyone. The formal learning has trivialised, and cancelled out, informal learning, and, Degrees (and diplomas and certificates that come with it) have become common - and the only - currency of learning. The same proud claim about 'graduate premiums' that universities now make indicates the great challenge we are going to face as technologies change rapidly: The fast-changing technologies and work practises would show up in workplaces before seeking approvals in curriculum committees, and yet, no new worker would want to engage with them if there are no recognition for such learning.

So, automation is already here, and this time, it will be different. The new jobs and new workers wouldn't just appear by themselves. No one is going to give up any quarters, and rather, the populist politicians would fire up passions and slip in policies that skew the playing field for Capital more than Work. Work is still considered a virtue - not working is a shame - but soon, one would sing the praises of idleness ever more boldly than before. Perhaps the universities would live on, but they would stop making claims of producing competent workers, and with the time, start making claims of preparing complete idlers. The new frontiers of demand would perhaps be found in inventing such demands - imagine a future of Robots gambling in bitcoins with ethereum (or, if you like, the other way around) and hiring out a ride to Moon for themselves - and I am sure we can continue growing the economy at a faster clip than before. That it wouldn't be human does not matter: There will still be people making money - or, will that be Robots too?


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