Work

I just got a new book called Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World Without Work by John Danaher. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. From what I can tell, he tries to present the argument that automation should be seen as a good thing. A world where people no longer have to work will lead to human flourishing. I’m rooting for him. I hope he makes the argument successfully.

I used to be reflexively anti-automation. My view was basically that people need jobs, so if machines replace people, it is a bad thing. But, I never really believed that replacing people was possible. Sure, technology changes jobs. The horseless carriage hurt the job prospects of horseshoers, for example, but it simultaneously opened opportunities for factory workers and road crews and gas station employees.

Modern technology is different. To oversimplify, it used to be that if we created a machine that could do a job, we still needed a person to run the machine. That’s not the case anymore. The machines can run themselves. True automation is possible now. That really does make people replaceable.

Like most people, I first noticed this difference with ATMs and gas pumps, but it didn’t really hit me until self-checkout registers. Stores could replace all their cashiers with machines. Yes, they may need one employee to help confused customers, but if they used to have five cashiers, that’s four jobs gone. I’m not a luddite by any stretch, but this didn’t strike me as progress.

I used to make myself feel better by thinking that the jobs being lost weren’t “good” jobs. There were plenty of other jobs the former cashiers could transition into. But I never really convinced myself. I’ve been a cashier, and a dishwasher, and various other “low-skill” low-paying jobs. I needed those jobs. And it’s really hard to transition into a new job, even being a cis-gendered, straight, white male with an education.

At this point you may be thinking, “I thought you said you used to be against automation, but you still seem pretty against it.” You’re not wrong, exactly, but I want to explain how my thinking has changed. My current job could be automated away. I work as a Slotter in a wholesale grocery warehouse. There are two basic parts of my job. One is to look at all of the products we carry and decide where they should live in the warehouse so that orders can be filled as efficiently as possible. The other is I physically move the products around when I decide where they should be. So, for everything coming in, I weigh a bunch of criteria including size, shape, weight, fragility, likely sales volume, active promos, upcoming holidays, etc. and I use all of that to make my decision. If something is heavy, like broth, I want to put it early in the pick path, so that it winds up at the bottom of the pallet. If something is fragile, like chips, I want them towards the end of the pick path so they don’t get crushed on the pallet. I am well aware that a computer could make these decisions, probably better than I can. And I’m aware that robots could move the products around the warehouse. The thing keeping me employed is the large up-front cost of programming the computer and buying the robot. As soon as the company decides it’s cost-effective, I’ll be looking for work again. (I don’t want that to happen, I’m just being realistic.)

Not only do I have principled reasons to be against automation (unemployment is a social ill), I have selfish reasons to be against it (I need my job). But, I’ve realized that no job is safe anymore. Even “good” jobs can be automated away. Everything from financial advisors to bus drivers are vulnerable right now. And everything else (even doctors and engineers and teachers), it’s a question of when the technology gets there. There will probably always be room for human scholars and explorers and athletes and artists, but all of the jobs necessary for society to function will be automated away.

I was disturbed by this realization when it first occurred. But, I had a second realization. Automation is not good or bad in itself. An automated society will only be bad if we make it bad. Given our track-record, it might be easy to be pessimistic. However, I’m choosing optimism. We need to start talking about and making decisions about this future now. We need to make sure it’s fair and doesn’t leave anyone behind. There are plenty of ways it could go wrong. But, with a little imagination, I can see a world where my kid, or grandkids maybe, won’t be dependent on a job. That sounds nice to me.

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