By Trevor Busch
With the exponential growth of technology and mechanization in the early 21st century, warning bells are beginning to sound in many quarters about how the machine, in lock step with the microchip, has the potential to eliminate up to half of the jobs in North America before the end of the century.
Most of these losses are expected to be due to automation and will be heavily concentrated in low-wage industries, according to a recent report from Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research.
The economic, social and political implications of this kind of development are frankly endless, and not all are destined to be positive. And while the horror story narrative for labour and jobs is probably inevitable, most societies and humanity in general have always proven themselves responsive and adaptable to wholesale change at many turning points in our history. There is no reason to believe that won’t also be the case in the 21st century — and some historical precedent suggests that we will adapt to the advent of mass or total mechanization.
Luddites, the 19th century English textile workers that destroyed machinery as a form of protest against mechanization and automation, are the classic example of a group of radicalized workers attempting to turn back the clock on their own craft.
Great fears abounded at the time that mechanization would bring about the obsolescence of the human labourer. Lack of suffrage together with oppressive laws from Parliament culminated in a region-wide rebellion that lasted from 1811 to 1816. Mill and factory owners took to shooting protesters and eventually the movement was suppressed through legal and military force.
However, the Luddites’ more far-reaching fears about automation would prove mostly unfounded. Economies improved, people retrained or transitioned into other industries, and the movement was all but forgotten.
Similarly, the American Civil War was fought by the South to preserve a slave-based system of economics. Southerners refused to believe the elimination of this system would not result in the outright collapse of the southern economy and the end of their way of life. While defeat in the war would bring upheaval, both social and economic, the South would survive and prosper, not descend into armageddon. The further spread of new technologies, in fact — such as the cotton gin — would help to transition the region from labour-intensive operation to those more open to the benefits of mechanization.
Those who make lofty predictions about the future based on the trends and evidence of the present, not unlike Ball State University’s report, are usually subject to one fatal flaw: they tend to discount the fact that things are always changing, and changing rapidly. It is impossible to say that our society will end up one way tomorrow based on the idea that the future — even decades ahead — will remain as static and unchanging as the present. How can we possibly predict if the same evolution of innovation and technology we see today might not resolve many of the problems of tomorrow before the doom-sayers’ predictions reach fruition?
It is troubling, however, to see where most of that gloom may end up falling. According to the university’s report, the quintile of workers in jobs most at risk of automation make an average of $38,000 a year. Data entry keyers, telemarketers and hand sewers are all in the top 10 of most automatable, and each have average annual wages under $30,000.
Those types of professions — and their average salaries — are hardly what one might describe as a cross-section of upwardly mobile affluence. If indeed the labour and economic changes coming with automation will unduly fall on society’s most vulnerable — the lower classes — this will be a tragedy. But it will be a tragedy, unfortunately, that is not without precedent. How many times has history shown us that those most unable to cope or adapt become the first victims? And how many times must we learn this truth before we choose to accept a degree of collective responsibility? To believe that the rich as a class bear no culpability for the practices, policies and ethics of the society that accelerated them to that position is an incredibly charitable position for the less-affluent majority. Instead we’re drilled on how this is the natural progression of things, that capitalist economic theory is a pessimistic but inevitable reaction to human nature.
So thousands of lower-class employees lose their jobs and their livelihoods, as long as I’m safe and secure bedding down on my pile of greenbacks up on Snob Hill while the robots continue to make escalating and uncomplaining millions for me down on the factory floor. Sounds like a pretty good deal for me, right?
Wrong. Take it from the 19th century industrialists, who knew better than most about the implications of mass unemployment in urban environments, environments that were created by the advent of their own industries. The unemployed can be desperate, frustrated, prostrated people. They hover on the very margins of society, mere steps in some cases from starvation. They feel rejected, cheated, are permeated by low self-worth and endless insecurities about lives, families, futures. But perhaps most frightening to those privileged classes that wish to preserve the status quo? Unemployed people can be ripe for radicalization, prone to political violence, and motivated by the knowledge that they have little else to lose. And unlike the upper echelons they face, they are usually in the majority.
Class warfare at its best, Lenin might have quipped. He might also have pointed out that in order for the “system” to work effectively, people need to actually have an income to consume the products and services that an economy is producing. Fire half of North America’s current work force and put them all on the dole — we’re talking 289.5 million people at last count in 2016 — and just imagine the social and economic chaos that would ensue.
There is only one historical period that could even compare with this frightening prospect, but even then it was on a much less pronounced scale: The Great Depression of the 1930s. While this period would lead to much upheaval and violence in North America, it would also be the wellspring of a great change in social and economic policy that was embodied in Roosevelt’s New Deal.
What was won there has largely been swept away by a thousand tiny cuts in the decades that followed, and the pendulum is even beginning to swing in the opposite direction. Will there be another great reckoning of these forces in the 21st century? If there is, it should be considered a sad epitaph that we dismissed the lessons we learned then only to have our children repeat them.
At the same time, it is hard to see if some technologies will ever actually prove safe and effective for everyday use, or that people will trust them. While the cellphone-toting, social media-infected, digitized youth of today will probably think nothing of hopping into a driverless car, plane, or ship and tooling down life’s freeways, it will probably always give older generations pause. For us, there will probably always be something inherently disturbing the first time we witness a driverless tractor-trailer unit roll through an intersection like some latter-day embodiment of Ichabod Crane.
And will a machine change a tire, pump gas, change oil, or dig itself out of a ditch in a snowstorm? And what about the first unit that melts down its hard drive and takes out a busload of kids? Who is to be held accountable in that situation, the Google programmer? The Chinese factory manager? The questions are endless.
But there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Much of humanity — certainly many of those engaged in manual labour — might collectively come to welcome changes that remove them from being beasts of burden in an ultra modern world, transitioning into positions that might direct or manage the technologies that replaced their occupations. If there can be transition and hybridization in the labour market rather than wholesale elimination of jobs, this might result in positive benefits for our species. Post-secondary education in a whole variety of new technology-related professions and applications could be made free and easily accessible to all to allow people to move beyond a perception of their own two hands as the only key to advancement. If we can progress beyond the status quo and transition to a world where we manage and use technologies rather than fear them taking our jobs, then the boogeyman of automation might just be wrestled back into the bottle.