why the dirty secret of false automation threatens our future
At this point, we’re used to talking about robots taking human jobs and obliterating what were once steppingstones to careers. If you’ve followed my work for a while, you know I talk about it all the time both in writing and on the radio. But sometimes, when we think work traditionally done by humans has been now relegated to machines, it really hasn’t, and behind a brand-new touch screen or clean, polished website is a whole swarm of underpaid, overworked people doing the actual work, their efforts hidden from your view so the company can imply massive leaps in technological progress and sweep their investment in wages under the rug in lengthy and convoluted financial disclosure statements.
Now, you’re probably thinking of warehouse workers and the nightmare stories of machines tracking customer orders forcing them to skip bathroom breaks and automatically firing them if they can’t keep up with their quotas. But while all this is certainly true and problematic in its own ways, false promises of automation run a lot deeper than that. Even artificial intelligence as we know and use it today relies on an army of contractors with mediocre pay and obstacles to career progression past preparing training data sets for AI. And this state of affairs presents us with a major problem. It hides the labor of making the modern world work as first promised and then expected out of sight and out of mind.
the plight of the hidden workforce
It’s awfully hard to care about the rights, pay, and careers of people you don’t know exist and whose work is deliberately kept out of your view. If you order your lunch from a touchscreen and the end result appears neatly packaged in a cubby with your name or order number on it, how much thought do you give about how it got there? Do you ask how many line cooks are toiling behind a wall in a kitchen? Or how many chefs are thinking of recipes and the logistics of reproducing them on an industrial scale? Or how many workers it takes to wash the pots and pans, and keep the kitchen sanitary for commercial prep and production? Or do you just take your stuff and leave? Don’t feel bad if you grab and go. That’s by design.
But this approach to modern labor causes huge problems in the long term because when we outsource to cut costs and eventually undercut the workers whose efforts we’ve been pretty much ignoring until there’s a problem or a scandal with technology, entire countries can lose traction in trying to develop their economies. Almost no one stands up for these workers and asks what the transition plan or alternative for them is because almost no one knows they exist or are only abstractly aware of their existence when they try to deduce how something is done. The result is a one-two sucker punch of unstable gig employment with variable pay behind the scenes, followed by automation and layoffs with no one aware they exist and need help.
Just imagine what happens when robots have enough dexterity to make clothes and we stop outsourcing light manufacturing to countries where jobs we consider to be toiling in a dingy sweatshop in the developed world are so highly prized, it’s common for kids to lie their way in, and monitors not verify their ages because they could get fired for not getting enough bodies in the door or beat up by families who need another stream of income to prevent starvation. A robot who can make shirts and jeans in our own borders would be far cheaper and yes, more humane in the long run and should be pursued. But what happens to the millions who counted on sewing those shirts and jeans for their livelihood? What can we offer them?
how leaving workers behind creates political turmoil
Ultimately, we need to pay attention to those who get left behind by automation, either on purpose or because they were a stopgap measure until the tasks they performed could be fully handed off to robots and computers. Otherwise, we’re going to have to keep scratching our heads as to why there are so many angry populists in the streets voting for chaos candidates and destabilizing the global order. Eventually, we will adjust to deal with this problem. We won’t have a choice. But we could make it easier on ourselves by taking a holistic view of how automation as a process is affecting the entire workforce, or settle into a working equilibrium through recessions, depressions, and political upheaval until we just can’t take it anymore.
Simply put, people are going to want their jobs back and that’s not limited to the groups we keep talking about like oil and gas techs, coal miners, and farmers. Warehouse workers, line cooks hidden in out of sight kitchens, contractors doing moderation for social networks and standardizing and categorizing elements in training sets for artificial intelligence will be in the same exact boat. And they’re going to vote for whatever candidate promises to bring their jobs back if they don’t see a viable transition plan from other politicians, which is disconcerting because many such populist promises simply cannot be kept, so we’ll end up with a rotating parade of far-right and far-left demagogues demanding the impossible as the world burns.
If we can create new blueprints for development, transition workers enabling automation in the shadows to new, gainful, long term jobs, and find new ways to train and use those who were replaced by machines and code, we can turn the whole post-industrial transition into an economic boom. If we just let the chips fall where they may, we’ll be navigating new iterations of the Great Recession for the next few decades, along with the fallout from increasingly erratic and problematic politicians unable to deal with these problems turning on their own people or historical adversaries in the search for scapegoats. And if we have a choice in the matter, why not use it for a smooth landing instead of letting random populist blowhards take the wheel?