Robots and jobs

Tomorrow I’ll post something longer since I think I’ll finally feel recovered enough (and maybe my hand-chapping will be better). For now, I was going through stories in the DuckDuckGo app and saw a somewhat fatalistic column in Vice about robots and jobs. It had the usual language assigning so much agency to robots and abstract forces like “automation,” rather than, of course, the people making the decisions leading to these outcomes.

“As more and more automated machinery are brought in to generate efficiency gains for companies, more and more jobs will be displaced, and more and more income will accumulate higher up the corporate ladder. The inequality gulf will widen as jobs grow permanently scarce—there are only so many service sector jobs to replace manufacturing ones as it is—and the latest wave of automation will hijack not just factory workers but accountants, telemarketers, and real estate agents.”

All of this is possible (likely, even), but if one had only read this column, then she might believe that it was inevitable and not a matter of political choices. Slate fortunately ran a piece just yesterday on the analogous subject of income inequality, in which the author chronicled the history of labor unions that won incredible concessions from the corporations and robber barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries – as uphill a struggle as imaginable, but one showing what’s possible with dedication and focus.

The current state of affairs, with rising inequality yet apparent public indifference (no protests, etc.), is, according to historian Steve Fraser, attributable to “public admiration for workaholic entrepreneurs whose self-serving definition of freedom legitimizes their reign.” That seems like a fungible, highly reversible mindset rather than something decreed for eternity.

In his most recent “Common Sense” podcast, Dan Carlin did a good job of explaining how everyone seems to be resigned to the Vice writer’s outlook, though. Basically, he argued, the free market, whatever its merits, has basically been off-limits for serious philosophical debate since the end of the Cold War. It’s not hard to imagine, though, that many workers in America and elsewhere at least subconsciously belief in hard work more than they do the free market, though politicians, especially on the right in the U.S., have long tried to conflate the two. Imagine if he we had one of the serious debates on the topic that Carlin imagines.

I’m not sure what it will take for people to finally prioritize their own interests over the acquiescence shown to abstract concepts like “innovation” and “progress” that have a spotty moral track record. It seems like real action is far away for now given how much the technology media is committed to the narrative of robots, “disruption.” and job cycles. Knowing what it was like to search for jobs for months with seemingly no hope about 5 years ago, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, no matter what robotics-driven benefits accrued to the upper strata of society.

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