ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Is a Robot after Your Job?
“Robots Are Coming for Your Jobs” reads the headline, with a cute little dancing robot that is over-the-moon happy because just this morning it turned itself on and realized that today is the day it’s coming to take your job.
And why? Because robots are smarter and more productive and efficient than human beings. They are faster and make fewer mistakes and never get tired or bored or injured or file workers’ compensation claims or have sick kids or aging parents to care for or anything else that might interfere with work.
The concern behind the story, of course, is whether this is a good thing—destroying jobs, for example, or making people dumber or dependent or even obsolete. These are fine things to worry about, but also a distraction from what’s really going on.
The tip-off comes from how words are used to confer on those happy robots the ability not only to be happy, but to want and choose and act like any sentient being. Machines can decide to come and go, displace and replace, create, eliminate, and destroy, migrate, master, and teach, invade, take over, and dominate, extend their reach and consolidate their gains.
In other words, technology is portrayed as both able and motivated to happen on its own, which can make the pace and direction of technological change seem inevitable and unstoppable, unless, of course, for reasons of its own, technology decides to slow down or go do something else.
What concerns me here is not what a robot can or cannot do. What bothers me is how we are encouraged to think about technology without being aware of the human beings who are the true subjects of all those verbs that so profoundly affect people’s lives.
The only reason that most robots exist is that corporate managers and CEOs make it worthwhile for engineers to invent them as a way to increase profit by putting people out of work.
There is nothing about technology that requires this to happen. There is nothing about a machine or a piece of software that wills itself to exist or to improve or apply for a job. Technology has no agency, no agenda, does not aspire to anything.
In other words, the fact that a robot can do a job is not the reason that it does.
Technology is not taking over our lives or controlling our destiny. It is a tool being created, built, and used by those who make no secret of their ambition to amass as much power and wealth as they possibly can, which, in a capitalist economy, is regarded not only as a virtue, but the point.
The rest of us, however, are not supposed to be thinking about that, much less resist, which is why we’re told that jobs are being lost to machines and not to the self-interest of those who profit from them. The truth is made obscure because if the problem were seen as powerful people destroying people’s jobs, then there would be someone to hold to account. But, if it’s just technology, well, go ahead and knock yourself out blaming a machine.
Not that there isn’t precedent, going all the way back to the early Industrial Revolution when Dutch mill workers were known to throw their wooden shoes—sabots—into the gears of machines they saw as threatening their livelihoods, giving rise to ‘saboteur’ and ‘sabotage.’ When English workers tried a version of this, the establishment retaliated by passing a law that made industrial sabotage an offense punishable by death.
The standard defense of replacing workers with machines is that it’s a necessary consequence of capitalist competition and the drive to maximize profit, which is certainly true. It is how the system is designed to work, which has never had the well-being of people or society or the planet as its goal.
In fact, if capitalists could replace all of their workers with machines, they would, in a heartbeat, were it not for a fatal contradiction on which capitalism is based.
When people lose their jobs, they’re unable to buy goods and services that capitalists must sell in order to make a profit and stay in business. Which then causes a further slump in demand and still more lost jobs. To counter this and get people buying again, banks and businesses have resorted to giving credit—mortgages, credit cards, car and college loans—which works until the whole thing collapses beneath the weight of unpayable debt, as happened in 2008. And we know who pays for that.
But, the argument goes, workers who lose their jobs should go out and acquire skills for occupations that cannot be done by machines. A good idea, of course, but only until capitalists feel compelled to invent robots who can do those as well. Just look around. It’s already happening or the writing is on the wall for everything from composers and journalists to accountants, bookkeepers, carpenters, pharmacists, paralegals, clerks, babysitters, travel agents, telephone operators, bank tellers, secretaries, machinists, librarians, teachers, cashiers, salespeople, fast-food workers, insurance agents, and a whole lot more.
The ‘logic’ of capitalism’s escalating use of technology is a fraud, compelled by a system based on unbridled competition, exploitation, and greed to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. It is cut from the same fantasy that would have us believe that perpetual growth is both possible and desirable on a finite planet that is lurching toward ecological collapse.
So, the next time we read about technology doing this or that, it would be good to identify who is really coming to change our lives. And why.
And then, who knows, human beings might decide to make use of an ability that you can bet will never be programmed into machines—to come together and reflect on our common condition and then organize to demand something better.
NPR recently reported estimates of various occupations’ chances of being replaced by a machines. Read the article here.