This post appeared in The Minskys.
It’s conventional wisdom among pundits that automation will cause mass unemployment in the near future, fundamentally changing work and the social relations that underpin it. Part 1 of this series contrasted this extreme rhetoric with the data that should support the inevitable robot apocalypse, and found that these predictions are likely motivated by politics or outlandish assessments of technology, not data. Part 2 assesses the technology behind these predictions, and follows a thread from the mid-20th century onwards. Subsequent parts will examine the political economy of automation in both general and specific ways, and will also discuss what the future should look like — with or without the robots.
Part 1 of this article made a case that macroeconomic data does not suggest that there is rapid automation occurring broadly in the economy nor in large industries or sectors. Other indicators, like slack in the labor market, support that assertion. It pointed to periods of rapid automation in the past as well, and found these were times with generally low unemployment and healthy job growth.
Regardless of the data past or present, there are still claims that society is on a precipice, facing mass unemployment due to wide-scale automation. Many say that the technology in the near future is different than developments that occurred in the past, and that instead of slow or moderate change that the economy can adapt to, the rate of change will be so profound that suddenly millions will be out-of-work.
There are good reasons to be suspicious of this narrative. First, it is very difficult to predict how technology will develop and affect the world, and if it will be viable or even necessary in the first place. Second, adopting new technology — for example, automating a process and replacing workers — and more importantly, the threat of adopting new technology, gives power to employers and capital instead of workers. This weaponization of technology needs to be credible in order to be taken seriously; hence, it relies on the broader narrative that rapid automation is happening. The first point will be considered now; the second, in Part 3.
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