How Machines Will Conquer The Economy

From Zeynep Tufecki over at the New York Times:

But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis.

Machines aren’t used because they perform some tasks that much better than humans, but because, in many cases, they do a “good enough” job while also being cheaper, more predictable and easier to control than quirky, pesky humans. Technology in the workplace is as much about power and control as it is about productivity and efficiency.

This is the way technology is being used in many workplaces: to reduce the power of humans, and employers’ dependency on them, whether by replacing, displacing or surveilling them. Many technological developments contribute to this shift in power: advanced diagnostic systems that can do medical or legal analysis; the ability to outsource labor to the lowest-paid workers, measure employee tasks to the minute and “optimize” worker schedules in a way that devastates ordinary lives. Indeed, regardless of whether unemployment has gone up or down, real wages have been stagnant or declining in the United States for decades. Most people no longer have the leverage to bargain.

I can think of no better a justification for implementing a guaranteed basic income than this trend. How much longer until we run out of sustainable employment to support our population? Already, in the United States and elsewhere, most fast-growing sectors are low paying service jobs like fast-food and retail; even the professions that should ostensibly pay well, such as those requiring degrees or experience, increasingly do not.

Most people are already running out of alternatives for liveable, meaningful work — and now mechanization and automation threaten to undermine what comparatively little remains. I think this says a lot more about the social, economic, and moral failings of our society than it does about technology.

Why should everything be hyper-efficient at the expense of workers — who are also consumers and thus drivers of the economy? Why should we have a business culture, or indeed an economic and social structure, whereby those at the top must ruthlessly undercut the leverage and well-being of everyone else, whom they nonetheless depend on? If we want to optimize production and cost-effectiveness, which are of course not bad aims, then why not do so while providing some alternative means of survival for those who get displaced?

How we respond to this trend will speak volumes about our values, priorities, and moral grounding.

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