The Automation Grift: From Flying Cars to Ordering Cat Food on the Internet – Part 2

Can extravagant claims about technology be backed up?

Can extravagant claims about technology be backed up? (illustration by Heske van Doornen)

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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The Automation Grift: The Robots Are Hiding From The Data But Not From The Pundits, Part 1

Robots are going to take your job; or are they?

Robots are going to take your job; or are they? (illustration by Heske van Doornen)

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. But the data that should support these predictions do not. Part 1 of this article contrasts this extreme rhetoric and the data that should support the inevitable robot apocalypse, and finds 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.

The Rhetoric

Few things are more breathlessly written about than automation and how it will affect society. In the mainstream discourse, technology writers, policy wonks, public relations hacks, self-stylized “futurists,” and others peddle their predictions and policy prescriptions, as if they are letting the rest of us in on a secret rather than following in a long history of over-enthusiastic predictions and misplaced priorities. Others view automation as a panacea for social problems. Either way, mass unemployment is usually at the center of this narrative and how workers, especially poorer workers, will become outmoded in the age of robots. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the White House joined the frenzy, publishing a report warning about the dangers automation posed to workers as well as the benefits of technology.

This report cited (and further legitimized) a 2013 report that boldly claimed that 47 percent of occupations were at risk from automation in the next two decades. Since its release, this study has been cited close to 900 times. Other predictions are just as bold. One is that the entire trucking industry will be automated in the next ten or so years. “Visionaries” like Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk use their stardom to add to the fears of these claims — and push for policies that don’t make much sense, like taxing robot workers or creating a basic income that is an excuse to eviscerate our other social programs and do other bad things. Still others blame automation for causing past problems, like the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., when they are easily explained by political decisions, not economic realities.

Continue reading in The Minskys.