A recent article from The Economist just caught my eye (and ire), raising a lot of questions about work and technology. As artificial intelligence matures quickly, it’s going to put entirely new fields of employment at risk, as machines can no longer just do things, but are learning to think as well. This threatens white collar jobs the way robots and assembly lines threatened blue-collar employment, and truthfulfully, many people probably have a lot to worry about. Some have theorized around 50 million jobs at risk, and that’s nothing to scoff at.

What bugs me so much about The Economist’s article is how little economics are present in it. There’s lots of references to bestselling authors, but few actual numbers or theories besides what you’d find in an update on the unemployment rate. A perfect example of this ignorance shown by the Economist article would be the constant misuse of the term “Luddite”, as well as their laughable history of the movement. “Ned Ludd” (if he ever existed) and his associates began smashing the new weaving frames not only because they were losing their jobs, but because the new technology was destroying their art. Though more textiles could be produced, they were of lower quality and these new frames were threatening to flood the market with cheap, crappy fabrics. This wasn’t just a simplistic revolt against technology and progress – it was a rebellion against early industrialism. At its height, the British government had to pull troops back from the European mainland, as it had more soldiers battling the Luddites at home than Napoleons’s armies abroad. The only “Luddite Fallacy” here is the author’s unwillingness to look up a word they use so many times in a piece (including the title).

Does “technology” (on the whole) destroy “jobs” (on the whole)? Of course not. Ask any anthropologist – the amount of work, on average, in a society, tends to increase with the level of technological development, not decrease. We work significantly more than medieval peasants (where roughly half the days of the year were holidays or festivals), who worked more than our “cave man” ancestors. The average hunter gatherer today “works” a little over two hours a day, and since said societies only now exist on the fringes of habitable lands. Even more recently, productivity has more than doubled over the past half century, and yet we don’t work any less.

Why does this happen? Because technologies require work to produce them. We may have dishwashers, dryers and fax machines, but we have to work to buy them. Some studies have shown that when time at work is taken into account, drivers aren’t moving any faster, on average, than pedestrians. Moreover, because these technologies and jobs all function under capitalism, we must work many hours for each hour spent actually making cars, dryers or fax machines (and of course, the companies which produce them).

The issue of capital is very crucial here. They touch on it when they ask “what happens when capital becomes labour?”, but don’t go any further. This has, of course, been happening since the dawn of the industrial age and it’s hard to see how The Economist could miss that. Just as the fallacy of labour-saving technologies is absolutely standard for any first-year anthropology class, the use of technology by capital against labour makes up a very large chunk of any first year labour studies course. Technology, especially in manufacturing, destroyed millions of jobs over the last century and that’s hard to miss. What’s harder to miss is what kinds of jobs were destroyed, what kinds of jobs they were replaced by, and how this transformed the relationship between labour and capital. The use of technology by industrialists to break the associations of skilled workers is legendary. The term used most often is literally “de-skilling”, as a means of simplifying tasks to the point where almost anybody could do it, thus making all workers replaceable. This didn’t neccessarily mean there was less demand for labour, but it did lead to a clear decline in living standards for a lot of people and trades. This has never just been about “technology” or “jobs”, but certain technologies and certain jobs

So how can technology eliminate so many jobs and yet not put us all out of work? Because it creates new jobs, too.

All of this can be described very simply by supply and demand – when an increase in capital makes labour more productive, it puts a “downward pressure” on wages. This happens because labour becomes effectively less scarce, and therefore less valuable. An apple that used to take three minutes to pick now takes three seconds, and therefore there’s sixty times less work for apple-pickers at current levels of apple demand. You could assume that we’d all buy more, cheaper apples, but that assumes a very “elastic” demand for apples (that we’d all eat as many as we could afford, no matter what), as well as trusting in the owners of the orchard to pass the savings onto customers (instead of keeping it as profit, or spending it on robot apple-pickers). This would be a disaster for apple-pickers as well as many others, but it wouldn’t necessarily lead to less work. Why? Because of supply and demand. Work, in general, would become cheaper as other industries were flooded by unemployed apple-pickers, and other workers could no longer threaten their bosses that, “if you don’t pay me well I’ll leave and become an apple picker”. This cheapening of labour would make workers more attractive to employers, who could now afford to pay them to do things which never would have been practical before (like peeling apples or making sauce).

In the same way that cheap labour generates jobs, cheap products generate consumption. As far as technologies go, this creates something called the “Jeavons Paradox”. Initially created to describe the introduction of new coal and steam power technologies into early industries, it’s now often used to describe why more fuel-efficient cars don’t save gas. Sound paradoxical? It isn’t – the lower cost of driving, per kilometre, generally means that people drive more. The same thing happened with steam engines and nearly every technology like them since. They may be able to save us work in theory, but in practice, they generally create much more.

In short, even if robots replaced every single one of us tomorrow, we probably wouldn’t ever have to worry about running out of work. The resulting boom in unemployment would make nearly everything cheap enough to hire somebody for. This has already happened to a large degree, which is why so many of our primary industries (farming, forestry, mining etc) have been replaced by service-sector work (telemarketers, cashiers and Wal-Mart greeters). Even with minimum wage laws, there’s never much of a shortage, as America’s vast working population of illegal immigrants proves… just because there’s no “good jobs” doesn’t mean you can’t be put to work.

The question is, do we really need more “work”? Or is “work” more of a proxy demand for food, housing and other consumption? If so, do we need more work if it isn’t providing those things? And on the other side of it, do we really need more “things” if each of those things is doing less to meet these needs (food with less nutrition, goods which need to be replaced more often etc.)? Does this raise our standard of living at all, or make our lives any easier? Of course not. It is, however, very profitable. If we’ll work more for less, or spend more for less, the result in simple mathematical terms is “profit”, and that’s why it happens.

There’s a disconnection between work and production which seldom gets mentioned. Workers are not the economy, and neither are consumers. The banks, corporations and institutions which control the economy have their owm accounts – when we work, we support their survival, not our own. The food, housing and other goods we get from them are at their discretion, and they have no obligation to give us more just because more is being produced. We’re their clients, and at their mercy. As The Economist notes, it takes less than 2% of our population to grow food – given some of the technologies available to us today, we could all easily work as little or less than our ancestors – in theory. But that would require far more humble lifestyles and much less humble paycheques. Sadly, while we have the technology, we certainly don’t have the economy.

The personal computer revolution really began to take hold thirty years ago. It’s lead to an explosion of productivity, and whole host of new jobs, industries and nifty consumer products. You can throw globalization, the introduction of women en masse to the workforce (and youth, and elders), and an incredible amount of global corporate consolidation into that timeline, too. What hasn’t it done? Led to us working any less or making any more per hour, at least for the vast majority of the population. It hasn’t led to us using less of any natural resources. According to conventional economic wisdom, this should make us all unfathomably rich. It didn’t. The point of all of this was to make money, not share it, and that’s exactly what happened. A few got very rich, and everyone else stagnated or sank even deeper into debt.

The missing element isn’t just the technology, it’s who owns it. As long as we don’t, improvements in the technology will only diminish our own significance. If, on the other hand, we own and control them, then we can receive the benefits when they multiply our own productive abilities. This would give us far more control over which technologies were used, and the ability to reject those which are just too expensive. A revolution in the technologies we use could go a long way toward achieving this transformation, whether it takes a “high-tech” or “low-tech” route. On the other hand, a technological transformation can’t do it alone. Whether we’re buying iPads or trendy handmade knick-knacks, as long as we’re still just buying them. Technologies are never separate from the society using them, and technology alone can never set us free.

Advertisements