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“Why elites” don’t care if you “fear the robot.”

Are fears of robots being peddled to the delight of the “elite?” No. They are not. Okay, maybe. But let me rephrase this: “elites” trying to make people “fear the robot” does not mean that the robot is those people’s friend.

A few days ago I remarked with amusement about an interview in which Paul Krugman expressed some concerns regarding automation and economic inequality. I wrote that Krugman’s worries were interesting, but were nothing new, and pondered if this signified an uptick in concern with the matter of automation. After all, there does seem to have been quite the spate of articles on the matter in the last while. (Actually, Krugman recently wrote another piece on this topic: read it here)

On Monday (2/4/13) a piece was posted on AlterNet by Lynn Stuart Parramore titled “Obsolete Humans? Why Elites Want You to Fear the Robot,” the article had the explanatory subtitle “Dystopian technology fantasies are flooding the media, to the delight of the 1 percent.” Everything that was to come in the article was neatly foretold in the first sentence “Machines have been relieving humans from drudgery and delighting us with their marvelous feats for thousands of years.” There you have it, not only do machines relieve us of hard work, they’re also delightful. Huzzah! Technically you could have stopped reading the article there, but I read on, hence this post.

Parramore presents a passable argument for her title, which can be boiled down simply: those with economic power use the threat of automation to keep workers in line. It’s a fine argument, and one that has a great deal of truth to it. And Parramore is not incorrect in explaining that the current economic ditch that we find ourselves in was not caused (entirely) by people’s jobs being taken over by machines. I also largely agree with Parramore’s characterization of much of the problem being related to those who accrue all of the profits and benefits from automation. After all, automation isn’t resulting in shorter hours and more money for the workers, just more money for those who already have the money, and Parramore is right to make that point.

I will also give credit to Parramore for pointing out that sudden hysteria about automation may be used to extract concessions from workers, but that does not mean that automation is good for workers either. And woe be upon the Alternet reader who views Parramore’s article and decides that a robotic co-worker is what they really need. Automation may free a person from “drudgery,” but that “drudgery” may have been how they were earning an income.

Interestingly, Parramore acknowledges (perhaps accidentally) some of the problems in the article’s larger argument. Writing at one point “this time, they warn, it’s not just factory workers or agricultural hands who will find their job snatched by a robot.” But “warn” is a threat, unless it can be acted upon. Perhaps lawyers (and people who write for websites) will not be replaced by a robot, but it’s hard to deny that many factory workers and agricultural workers have found themselves automated out of jobs, automated out of jobs by the very economic groups who are now threatening other workers. Why does this scare tactic work? Well…because it’s been followed through on before.

Again, we have not yet seen the new robotic workers that will totally replace “white collar” workers, but that does not mean that automation has not been used historically to replace other workers, and it does not mean that automation will not encroach upon areas that had once seemed “safe” from automation.

While Parrarmore’s reading of the current economic landscape regarding automation seems only half sketched, the larger problem occurs in the article’s reading of the history of automation. Parramore looks at David Ricardo and Friedrich Engels and their responses to the first industrial revolution. I shall quote at length from Parramore’s passage about Engels, the comments relate to Engels portrayal of workers as written in his piece “Condition of the Working Class in 1844”:

“The problems faced by the workers Engels saw were not a permanent set of conditions, but partly the result of a cyclical downturn. Technology wasn’t really the issue. Many weavers were forced to move from their homes, where they had traditionally labored, into factories, where conditions were difficult and where women, who had traditionally worked as weavers, were excluded.”

And now the problem.: how did things get that way in 1844? Why were the weavers forced to move into the factories? Alas, contrary to Parramore’s claim, technology did have a very large role in that matter. And who were these early sods, the forbearers of those laboring in the factories that Engels saw? Those who fought in vain against technological encroachment ? That would be the Luddites, who waged their war against the machines between 1811 and 1812. The Luddites were skilled workers (including many weavers) who saw the coming of machines as a threat to their way of life. They were not wrong.

I will not now (maybe in the future) give a detailed history of the Luddite uprising, but here it is in brief: English laborers (in some areas) feared that technology would wreck their lives, the laborers fought back, the laborers had some success in their fight, the rabble rousers were put down by the government and privately hired militias, the English laborers who feared that technology would wreck their lives were proved right as they were subsequently forced into the factories (that Engels described). I know that is an oversimplification, for those wanting a brief yet solid overview I recommend Peter Linebaugh’s excellent work “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab.”

My point is this: the conditions that Engels wrote about did not suddenly “happen.” They were the result of economic and technological trends. Parramore’s article – and argument – suffers greatly for failing to recognize these, as if the situation in 1844 just spontaneously arose. This is especially problematic as Parramore openly states “Technology wasn’t really the issue.” Which is at best a serious mistake, and at worst comical negligence.

Parramore does not wholly dismiss of the threat of automation, noting “It’s undeniable that mechanization can sometimes leave workers behind, like makers of Swiss watches, or, to use a more recent example, compositors who have been replaced by digital printing.” These examples almost seem quaint, so here is a less quaint example: the American automotive industry.

Automation also need not lead to jobs vanishing without replacing them, Parramore writes that we should “just look at a company like Apple, which automates rigorously and yet provides new possibilities for jobs. It produces software that does things humans used to do, for example, but it employs engineers, designers, and people who package, market, and sell new products.” This argument is absurd. Those who previously had jobs assembling Apple products in factories are really not the same “engineers, designers, and people who package, market, and sell new products.” Getting automated out of a job at FoxConn does not mean that worker gets hired to work in design in California, or even to smile behind a kiosk in an Apple store.  Which is to say nothing of the armies of unpaid “engineers and designers” creating apps for use on Apple products out of the hope that they shall some day recoup these expenses (interesting article on this topic: here).

[As a quick aside I feel that it is worth noting that Parramore comes across as quite the technophile. A writer who in the opening writes of machines “delighting us with their marvelous feats,” and praises Apple for providing new job possibilities (without listing any of them) and then praises the “wondrous gadgets” available  (again, Apple products). Is it a surprise that somebody so delighted with technology thinks that there is no reason to be concerned about more of it?]

As I wrote at the outset, I largely agree with Parramore’s conclusion that the problem has much to do with the economic decisions being made by those who introduce automation; however, I disagree with most of how Parramore got to that conclusion. It is true that employers at times use the threat of automation to scare workers, but as the historian David F. Noble writes in his book “Progress Without People,” that does not means workers have nothing to fear: “More and more workers have already seen what happens when they patiently allow the new equipments into the shop, responsibly sacrificing jobs today for competitive survival tomorrow: the company thrives and then leaves anyway, or contracts out their work to cheaper labour halfway around the globe.” An employer making a threat about automation, is a scare tactic, but that doesn’t mean that workers should go hug the robots.

Ultimately the elite don’t care if you’re afraid of robots, but they’re far happier if you welcome automation with a smile. The elite just want to make sure that people continue finding technology “delightful” and keep lining up to buy “wondrous gadgets” made by poorly paid workers who are threatened with replacement by machines.

And in that category Parramore’s article does a great job: the “elite” stir up fear, and Parramore says “don’t worry, and continue shopping.” Yes, the distribution of economic power is the problem.  But so is your “wondrous” Apple product.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on ““Why elites” don’t care if you “fear the robot.”

  1. Pingback: Do Robots Play Solitaire When the Boss Isn’t Looking? | LibrarianShipwreck

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