Summary: Slowly people see the robot revolution coming, when automation does to jobs in services what it did to farming and manufacturing. We’re in the first phase, delusional confidence about the effects — so we see not need to prepare. So we idly dream away the time available to prepare. Here we review two new reports with proposals — what we can do manage these inevitable changes.
(1) Some rare good sense about automation
“The Rise of the Machines“, Gavin Mueller, Jacobin, #10 — “Automation isn’t freeing us from work; it’s keeping us under capitalist control.” Excerpt:
I applied to America’s employer of last resort: McDonald’s. I was hired within the week. I’d worked kitchens before, so I figured this would be pretty easy stuff. It was and it wasn’t, and it wasn’t because it was.
… McDonald’s was different from other restaurants, where I had had to learn at least a few cooking basics. At McDonald’s, each station was highly mechanized to minimize the need for employees to know anything. That included counting: the cash register automatically spat out the correct change for me with every transaction. The food prep areas had huge specialized machines to standardize the cooking process. I didn’t even have to pay attention when filling up soft drinks — just hit the button for the appropriate size. Practically every machine was connected to some kind of timer. During busy times, the kitchen became a buzzing, beeping confusion, adding a layer of sonic chaos to an already hectic job.
This is the automated kitchen. At McDonald’s, food preparation is designed to require absolutely no thought or technique at all, deskilled as completely as possible by half a century of industrial management. This standardizes the food, so your McNuggets are the same no matter which McDonald’s fries them. More importantly, it entails minimal training for employees, a good idea since turnover is high (I did a bit over two months before quitting). A deskilled workforce is a precarious workforce.
As it was a generation ago, automation has become a political issue; one Peter Frase, my colleague at Jacobin, has been discussing for some time. Frase has developed a “post-work” argument for understanding the politics of automation. In the short term, the new machines benefit capitalists, who can lay off their expensive, unnecessary workers to fend for themselves in the labor market. But, in the longer view, automation also raises the specter of a world without work, or one with a lot less of it, where there isn’t much for human workers to do. If we didn’t have capitalists sucking up surplus value as profit, we could use that surplus on social welfare to meet people’s needs. Meanwhile, whatever work remains could be split up, so we’d have shorter working days and more time for the things that really matter to us.
One of Frase’s clearest statements on the politics of the post-work future comes from his summary of the deal the International Longshoremen’s Association worked out with employers, in which dockworkers accepted automation as long as productivity gains could be shared among workers who were no longer needed. This, he argues, is a model for the future, though he admits that longshoremen have extra leverage because they occupy a vulnerable point in capitalism’s supply chains. Frase argues that we should model our own political work along these lines, accepting automation while agitating — at the political level, rather than in the workplace — for a universal basic income. Then we have a future where the machines do our dirty work for us, and we can live a life of unalienated labor — or leisure, as we choose.
I love this vision of a future — a “postwork imaginary,” in the words of Kathi Weeks. Weeks argues that the Left needs these kinds of utopian visions of a future sans capitalism — one where I can put in a few hours at the office before spending the rest of my day hunting, fishing, rearing cattle, and, of course, writing criticism.
But I’m just not sure how we get there, beyond a nebulous gesture to “after the revolution, comrades.” Maybe I’m just impatient, but from where I’m standing, in full-bore capitalism preparing some supersized austerity cuts for everyone, it looks like automation is actually a huge problem, a very real threat to workers, who, with the help of machines, are being casualized, laid off, and made obsolete.
(2) Contrast that with the illusion of better education
The 22 million Millennials (age 18 – 31) living at home (a fifty-year record high) might be skeptical about the wonderfullness of education in a modern job market. But there are still believers.
“Dancing with Robots“, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, The Third Way, 2013 — “Human Skills for Computerize.” Nice analysis, good recommendations. But the authors ignore the primary fact about automation: that it’s likely to reduce the number of service jobs, and there is no reasonable likelihood of new jobs created in equivalent numbers to replace them.
We cannot predict with accuracy the occupations that will grow fastest in the future or the precise tasks that humans will perform. Nonetheless, it is a safe bet that the human labor market will center on three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying out non-routine manual tasks. The rest will be done by computers and low wage workers abroad. It is also a safe bet that most Americans will need to acquire new knowledge and skills over their work lives in order to earn a good living in a changing work world. In this context, the nation’s challenge is to sharply increase the fraction of American children with the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.
Meeting the challenge would address multiple problems. Through much of the 20th century, successive generations of Americans had substantially higher educational attainments, and rapidly rising education levels were an important contributor to national economic growth. Since the mid-1970s, and despite the high rate of return to schooling, the educational attainments of successive generations have grown much more slowly. A serious commitment to dramatically increasing the percentage of American youth who master today’s foundational skills would begin to address this problem. It would also increase the potential for upward economic mobility among children growing up in low-income families.
Finally, we noted earlier that occupational projections show rapid growth in high end jobs, but they also show rapid growth in low paying jobs carrying out non-routine manual tasks — for example, healthcare support occupations that require little formal education.
(3) For More Information about the robot revolution
(a) Dynamics of the robot revolution
- The coming big increase in structural unemployment, August 2010
- The coming Robotic Nation, 28 August 2010
- The coming of the robots, reshaping our society in ways difficult to foresee,
22 September 2010
- Economists grapple with the first stage of the robot revolution, September 2012
- The coming big inequality. Was Marx just early?, 27 November 2012
(b) First signs of the robot revolution appear
- The Robot Revolution arrives & the world changes, Apr 2012
- In Friday’s job report you’ll see early signs of the robot revolution!, 5 December 2012
- Krugman discovers the Robot Revolution!, 9 December 2012
- How do we respond to the Robot Revolution?, 11 December 2012
- 2012: the year people began to realize the robots are coming, 3 January 2013
- Journalists reporting the end of journalism as a profession, 19 March 2013
- The next step of computer evolution: becoming bloggers, 20 March 2013
(4) A moment in our distant future?