Prospects for Proletarians in an Age of Automation

Any complaints about the social consequences of technization draw the predictable smear of “Luddite”. Naturally this accusation ignores the awful conditions of the lower classes during the industrial revolution (pre-teens stricken with emphysema from long hours in the coal mine come to mind…) along with the fact that the actual Luddites were skilled artisans, weavers, controlling a seller’s market who are hardly comparable to the groups doomed by automation. That much is expected, sad, but expected.

However, the comparison is teleologically wrong: Previous technological displacements of workers from existing industries were paralleled, indeed precipitated, by novel advances in the sciences which unlocked entirely new niches or at least new environments for the displaced. The petrochemical industry, for instance, evolved from the mining of fossil fuels to keep the new machines fed. As the people of Europe became superfluous in their original occupations they expanded in a wave of colonization prospecting for new sources of raw materials for the industries of the Old World, whilst enlarging the market for their new products. It is a dangerous assumption to see the accumulated comforts currently enjoyed by the majority of Westerners as anything other than a meta-stable situation, an uphill slope that ends in a precipice.

The robotic basis of automation is fundamentally different to the prior industrial and technological revolutions, insofar as it represents a refinement of existing mechatronics and cybernetics, not a new field of science in it’s own right. As such, new niches are not being generated en masse for the increasingly redundant working class. Nor are there any new lands to colonize. There is, however a burgeoning population explosion in Europe’s former colonies driving migration in the reverse direction, a development which is ironically better for the capitalists than the socialists who agitate for open borders. These third-worlders are valuable patrons if you’re some “philanthropist” property developer such as Harry Triguboff building hive-like apartment blocks to accommodate them all (and the natives as well). While for the “equal opportunist” magnate like Gina Rinehart they represent a useful way to raise the percentage of unemployed and thus force the replaceable locals to fight for scraps (of course the robots are even better for this purpose…).

burning tower

Get used to incidents like this.

Another problem is the degree to which the average person is blinded to the scale of the threat of automation by illusory superiority, studies suggest that 80-90% of Americans (though other Westerners aren’t much better) consider themselves above average in most areas, whilst up to a quarter might consider themselves to be in the top 1% of ability. Don’t believe me? Just think of how many people you’ve heard claim to have an IQ of 135 (which is higher than 99% of the population) or thereabouts, and IQ is only one of many aspects of commonly overestimated human potential. Thus the majority will not be perturbed by any forecast of job losses… unless and until they lose their job, descend into poverty and their opinion (as a disenfranchised loser) ceases to matter.

Widespread retraining and tertiary education for more skilled forms of work, even for those smart enough to flourish in such, will not solve the problem either as it will result in the devaluation of qualifications (most every millennial seems to have a bachelor’s degree, which are now practically useless regardless of the major) as well as a glut of candidates for those occupations (how many more doctors and lawyers do we need after all?) and suppression of the wages of what were formerly highly paid jobs.

Proposals for basic income often enter the discussion at this point, but it is a vain hope, if corporations were to be taxed so heavily as to provide their former workers with a decent standard of living then the motivation to automate would essentially be lost. There’s no reason to believe the wealthy cannot continue to erode our living conditions as they already have, through economic globalization. Some optimistically predict that it will be in the interest of corporations to keep the average person sufficiently munerated to still be a profitable consumer of their products, that’s one possibility, another is that conspicuous consumption by the wealthy will increase in compensation for the deteriorating customer base of the proletariat.

So, if you’re at risk of replacement by a robot and don’t want to end up living in a shanty town subsisting on a diet of surplus grain and mice what’s to be done to improve your prospects? Engineers and research scientists will still be needed, but you’d better be at the top of your class considering how many STEM graduates are currently unemployed (or working in menial jobs which will soon vanish). Fortunately there remain at least three ancient, irreplaceable jobs for the impoverished:

  • Soldiers: Will obviously be needed to fight in the coming wars over the last of the oil reserves and when they’re exhausted, probably again for the uranium. Infantry won’t be replaced by autonomous robots. Consider the difficulty in programming a robot to merely navigate through a constraining, heterogeneous environment and over rough terrain, something any healthy person can do automatically; there is no proof to date that true AI capable of human like decision making is actually possible (I’m talking about not strategic but basic decision making, like how to implement orders and identify threats). Even if a remotely controlled, unjammable, unhackable battle robot with an obscene price tag was fielded, wouldn’t it suck when some wastrel with an IED or RPG blows it up? Lower class humans are inherently more efficient, have a limited capacity for self-repair when damaged and are cheaper to replace when damaged beyond repair.
  • Prostitutes: Including various demeaning variants on this profession such as nude housekeeping. Sex robots will never out compete them as only rather weird people will prefer a robot, no matter how lifelike, for erotic purposes. For the vast majority of human beings sexuality is intrinsically bound to either loving, or possessing, another person.
  • Specimens: Yes, this role is ancient (i.e. Sumerian) and human medical experimentation is still going strong: A guilty conscience gives one such a motivation to seek anti-aging treatments and stave off death. Paid clinical trials are a growth industry, and since it requires no skills I imagine it won’t be long before you can sign your kids up too!

Oh wait, they already use kids, particularly poor ones, in medical experiments. It’s called vaccination. I should write about that next.