Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us

Link - The term for what happens when human workers are replaced by machines was coined by John Maynard Keynes in 1930 in the essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” He called it “technological unemployment.” At the time, Keynes considered technical unemployment a transitory condition" [..It turned out m]achine efficiency was becoming so great that President Roosevelt, in 1935, told the nation that the economy might never be able to reabsorb all the workers who were being displaced. The more sanguine New York Times editorial board then accused the president of falling prey to the “calamity prophets.” [..]

This was a pattern that would reassert itself throughout the twentieth century: the economy would tank, automation would be identified as one of the main culprits, commentators would suggest that jobs were not coming back, and then the economy would rebound and with it employment, and all that nervous chatter about machines taking over would fade away [..].

To be clear, there are [many physical robots] and the machines that assemble our cars, and there are virtual robots, which are the algorithms that undergird the computers that perform countless daily tasks, from driving those cars, to Google searches, to online banking. Both are avatars of automation, and both are altering the nature of work, taking on not only repetitive physical jobs, but intellectual and heretofore exclusively human ones as well. And while both are defining features of what has been called “the second machine age,” what really distinguishes this moment is the speed at which technology is changing and changing society with it. If the “calamity prophets” are finally right, and this time the machines really will win out, this is why. It’s not just that computers seem to be infiltrating every aspect of our lives, it’s that they have infiltrated them and are infiltrating them with breathless rapidity. It’s not just that life seems to have sped up, it’s that it has. And that speed, and that infiltration, appear to have a life of their own [..]

Since replacing human labor with machine labor is not simply the collateral damage of automation but, rather, the point of it, whenever the workforce is subject to automation, technological unemployment, whether short- or long-lived, must follow. The MIT economists Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who are champions of automation, state this unambiguously when they write: "Even the most beneficial developments have unpleasant consequences that must be managed…. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead"

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We cannot rely on new tech to "create" a job for everyone because the nature of tech demands precisely the opposite. "But I'll sell my old shoes on eBay and make money that way" argument might fly to make some extra money on the side, but this won't constitute an income, and cannot form the basis of any economy / society. The pace of change, of life is just to great to rely on such superfluous arrangements. Eric Bryjdfjkghsjdhson and Andrew McAffee are right - while tech advances are astounding, they might not benefit everyone equally.

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