The oncoming automation apocalypse
Just after the turn of the 20th century in Illinois, Mr Zero has spent 25 years dutifully working as a loyal and committed accountant for his employer. Every day crunching the numbers, every day pencil marking the maths. Until the 25th anniversary of his employment, expecting his much overdue promotion — set to elevate him to the lofty heights of the front-office — his boss instead reveals that he is to be replaced by an adding machine. Zero takes the only course of action appropriate in such circumstances and bludgeons his boss to death with a sharp metal rod. The receipts it once held now dyed crimson red. At least that’s the premise for Elmer Rice’s 1923 satire on the nature of work turning people into wages slaves.
While in some ways 1920s America couldn’t feel further from modern day, in many other ways there are an increasing number of parallels between the plight of Mr Zero that have never felt more pronounced than today.
Experts predict that, over the coming decades, traditional jobs will cease to exist. Some citing a decrease of up to 50% of the current workforce in just a handful of years. Modern technological change is significantly different from the technological change that went before. This change is more rapid, more far reaching and potentially, without serious consideration, more societally damaging. In the past, automation meant that mostly repetitive, single-function jobs were replaced on a local level (think Fordism production line automation). Modern automation is much more significant. Entire processes, structures and industries can and are becoming automated and the knowledge and iterative improvement of those automations spreads globally in an instant. Add to that a sprinkling of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and it’s the perfect storm for the biggest revolution we’ve ever faced.
Automation is already happening and we’re seeing its effects across the world. Every nation has an increasing number of Mr Zeros. Traditionally we’ve called them the Working Class or the Proletariat but this new kind of automation doesn’t discriminate quite so neatly. It’s creating more precariousness for more people. Pierre Bourdieu calls this new class the ‘precariat’, and recently economists like Guy Standing have started using this term to describe the fastest growing socioeconomic group in the world who face precarious opportunities for work, starting in the most obvious places like deeply industrialised jobs, with automation of production lines and logistical operations, but quickly spreading everywhere else. It’s only a matter of time before your job can be done faster, cheaper and better by a robot.
Signs of those already assigned to a fate of globalised automation are undeniably visible all across the world right now. These signs manifest themselves in politics and division. Has the world ever felt more poltically volatile or divide than it does right now? The Mr Zeros are angry, and rightfully so. Our society is constructed around the concept of exchanging our time for money through the process of work. In return we not only get the financial benefits of working but participate in a system set up to reinforce those values culturally and socially. We elevate the hard working and demonise those without work. We’ve even engineered our education structures around the concept. So many important human emotions stem for our perverse definitions of productivity: from pride, to accomplishment and everything in-between. Sometimes it feels that the lines between who we are and what we do can become so blurred that it can be easy to forget the distinction. The question is, how large must the precariat class grow and how many of us must become disenfranchised Mr Zeros before something is done?
What can be done?
As I see it, there are two ways to protect against the coming automation apocalypse, depending mostly on your outlook. One way is to legislate and unionise. Collectively we can introduce laws that demand the creation and protection of jobs in an effort to slow the haemorrhaging, yet inevitable, change. Another is to embrace the technology and restructure the way we think about economics — particularly the way people get paid. We need an intervention on the way we think about work. Sooner or later we will be forced to choose the latter, else risk deeper political volatility and worsening social divides. Those might sound like small things, but history teaches us how dangerous it is to give power to extremism and demonise groups of people. We need to start thinking about that now. After all, shouldn’t technology that replaces work be championed? Imagine the creative potential of the human race technology could unlock with the creation of unprecedented levels of free time. The future is ours to create, and I’m afraid there simply aren’t enough sharp metal rods to go around.