In the first “Learning from the past” blog post we examined the arguments of those opposed to automation and technology throughout human history, and explored the notion that what is perceived to be a step forward for technology may be in reality a step back for society. While it is important for us to remain vigilant, and to question the real value of a change in technology, it is equally important that we do not not understate the significance of those changes that have added unquestionable value. We must recognise when technological advancement should be welcomed with open arms, as oftentimes a step forward in technology is a leap forward for society. As such the second post in this history series takes on another perspective and examines the argument for automation and technological change.
It is easy to identify the fundamental advantages of automation. Machines are consistently productive in manufacturing higher quality goods, and neither the productivity, quality or robustness afforded by these machines can be matched by their human counterparts. Moreover, the bottom line for businesses is that adopting automation reduces human labour costs and expenses – due to the benefits just mentioned machines effectively make processes and jobs redundant. In my last post this was at the heart of the argument against automation, but conversely I would also argue that this is at the heart of the argument for automation. Automation does invariably remove the need for various jobs to exist, devaluing skills and creating unemployment, but automation also creates the need for new skills, and for new jobs that did not exist prior to automation. While they do remove the need for labour intensive occupations they allow us as a society to advance and refocus our efforts in doing so.
In development economics the Luddite belief that technology results only in workers jobs being lost is referred to as the “Luddite fallacy” – economists believe that technological advancement will always create more jobs than it destroys.
“There is, say they, a certain quantity of labour to be performed… The principle itself is false. There is not a precise limited quantity of labour, beyond which there is no demand.” (Rasbotham, 1780)
While it is undeniable that the increased adoption of automation has indeed led to jobs lost and devalued skillsets, as we have previously examined, it is important to note that employment is not the factor that changes in the long run, it is simply what we perceive as constituting work that changes. Technology causes jobs to become redundant but requires new jobs to take their place. In a sense it frees us as a society to chase other pursuits, explore different avenues and build society onward and upward safe in the knowledge that our needs are being dealt with for us, without the need for us.
Take the case of the croppers of West Riding, mentioned in the previous blogpost. During the industrial revolution automation made the croppers work redundant, and these workers soon found themselves working in the new factory model these same technological changes gave life to. Today these factory workers are again falling prey to technological change. Like a cycle, advances in technology and knowledge demand the need for new jobs to arise, until eventually we reach a point that technology can perform these jobs for us. Our knowledge continues to grow and new jobs replace the old ones – at least until the next technological advancement makes them redundant. Farm machinery replaced the need for farmers. Factory machinery replaced the factory worker. Clerical machines replaced the need for clerks. But machines can never replace the human desire for more choices and better products. Sometimes these insatiable desires are seen as an affliction of the western world – that we are never satisfied with what we have, we always want more, but this is simply human nature and as long as there are people there will always be a need for other people to innovate.
Bearing this in mind I ask you to once again examine the case of the smart home. The benefits to us are obvious – once time consuming tasks can be dealt with by our home itself, leaving us free to devote more time to our work and to ourselves. Does the adoption of automation then warrant contention and worry? Consider the information on smart homes provided in this blog, consider the advantages stated here, but consider also the disadvantages mentioned in “Learning from the past”, then come to your own conclusion. But do not blindly accept change without weighing up the pros and cons.
N.V. , 2011, Difference Engine: Luddite legacy http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2011/11/artificial-intelligence
Rasbotham, Dorning, 1780, Thoughts on the use of machines, in the cotton manufacture: addressed to the working people in that manufacture, and to the poor in general. Manchester: J.Harrop